The Definitive Secret to that Book Deal You Always Wanted

Earlier today, a writer friend shared this article on her Facebook page.

The use of the phrase, “Insider Secrets” was concerning to a lot of us. And the more I think about it, the more it bothers me.

I ran a college writing center for three years. In that time, I worked with many, many students who got very frustrated by the writing process. They disliked or hated writing, but they at least wanted to pass their composition classes, mostly because they needed to in order to graduate. They’d get even more frustrated when, after asking me the “secret” to writing the perfect paper, I’d tell them there really wasn’t one. Even hours of hard work isn’t a guarantee of success when it comes to writing. It’s not like math or science courses. You can follow the instructions and still not quite get it right.

They wanted an absolute. They wanted to be told, “Make sure your paper has X, Y, and Z, and you will get an A.” The fact that writing was so nuanced and personal and that they could write for hours and still not get a passing grade was actually terrifying to many of them. So if you’re trying to write something with the hope that it’ll get published, when there is no rubric, no checklist, no formula? Even those of us who like to write are scared of that.

Many people want to write something good enough to get published. I’m one of them. But our brains want an absolute. That’s why articles like the HuffPost one exist, because aspiring authors are asking, nay demanding to know what they need to do to get published. And the reason articles like the above seem to talk about everything but writing is, I think, because when you tell someone to write, you’re asking them to climb a mountain without any equipment. Telling them they have to write is almost as scary as hearing it, because you know just what you’re asking of them. But if you tell them, “Build your platform and connections,” and all these other concrete things, well, that’s a goal that you can actually see. And things that you can see aren’t as scary. But I think it does a great disservice to writers, particularly fiction writers.

Sometimes it feels like I do nothing but writing. Almost every day I spend about three hours writing, editing, and reading, and the only reason I don’t do it more is because I have a full time day job. I don’t think you need to be writing or reading every day to be a writer, but I know you do need to be writing and reading a lot. How much? Think of an amount of writing or reading that you would consider “a lot,” then double it. Maybe double it again a couple more times. That’s how much. And despite countless hours of work, I still might not find the success I want. I might never sell this book.

That’s scary. I enjoy the work, but even I can admit that it sure would be nice to be told, “Here are seven easy steps to reach your goal” instead of spending years and years hoping that maybe this time I’ve gotten it right.

And that, I think, is why we have articles like this. We search for the “secret” to getting published not because we don’t want to do the work, but because we’re scared of spending so much time on something and still coming up empty.

The article does say you should, “Write, write, write,” but it’s framed in the sheer amount you’ll supposedly have to get published before you get a book deal. And maybe for some genres, that’s true. The opening line certainly suggests that it’s aimed at blog authors who want to turn their websites into books (ala Julie and Julia or Hyperbole and a Half). That’s nonfiction. In nonfiction, platform is important, so yes, you would probably do well to publish a reasonable amount before you go for the book deal.

But the author also briefly glosses over how you can build a platform as a fiction writer, which implies that this article is for anyone who wants to publish any kind of book. And therein lies the problem. A lot of emphasis is placed on researching the industry, networking, and (good lord) hiring a publicist (a $10,000+ investment BEFORE you sell a book?). I worry that aspiring fiction writers are going to read this and see it as proof that the key to success in writing is doing anything but actual writing. It isn’t. There’s no magic bullet, no shortcut. Yes, it helps to know some people. It might help to get your MFA, or write a blog, or any number of things. But at the end of the day, if your writing isn’t stellar, all the connections and blogs in the world aren’t going to help you.

So, come in close, because I’m going to tell you the secret to getting published. Ready?

Write. Write a lot. Know your market. Read as much as you can. Attend conferences. Mingle with people. But above all, just write the damn thing. And if it doesn’t make it, don’t self publish like the article suggests (unless you’re prepared for the work of being a publisher in addition to being a writer). Write something else. Keep writing. Write until your fingers bleed and you can’t see straight. Because you got into this business to write, didn’t you? That’s what writers do. They write. This probably isn’t the first time you’ve been told this, but I promise, no one is trying to trick you. This is what you need to be doing if you want to be published. You need to be a writer. You need to be writing.

Yes, it’s abstract. Yes, it’s daunting. Maybe even terrifying. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t terrified every once in awhile. But if you’ve really got your eye on that book deal, you need to stop reading articles that promise some magic insider secret that will allow you to bypass all the hard work and just. Write.