What About The Words? The Real First Step To Getting Published
By Kate Gould
A while ago, I went to an evening of talks about Getting Published, given by women with various jobs in the publishing industry. The women were entertaining, the talks interesting, and the atmosphere comradely. Chatting to the organiser in the bar afterwards, I mentioned that I noticed, though they had a great deal to say about making your work sound as appealing as possible to an agent or publisher, no one mentioned writing. “I know,” she said. “I did say something about how important the writing is on our first night, but decided that was too negative so haven’t mentioned it on any of the other dates.” A strange statement to make, you’d think, given that the seminar was apparently designed to help writers get their work out there, that being the purpose of the publishing industry and all.
Though not mentioning writing to a roomful of writers does seem like a strange sort of way to give advice, it’s remarkably common. I’ve attended numerous Getting Published webinars, seminars, and talks, read numerous interviews and articles, all of which were enthusiastic and bountiful in their ideas about selling your work to a publisher or agent, writing a letter of inquiry, and drafting a synopsis. This, every single one said, was the first step to getting published.
But it isn’t. The first step to getting published is learning how to write. It doesn’t matter how sparkling your letter of enquiry – it could be the most masterful piece of prose ever written – if you haven’t taken the time and trouble to learn how to write, all you will get in return for your efforts are rejection letters.
Writers are, in the main, highly intelligent people. Some egos may be fragile – no one likes rejection of any kind and no one really likes criticism – but they deserve better than to be patronised and fobbed off with an unreality. Yes, in a market – perhaps a world – where the ability to sell oneself is important, tips on how to do so are helpful and you will need them, but they’re not where you should begin.Writing is a skill, a craft, an art, and a profession. Learning how to do it is an often gruelling task. It shouldn’t drive writers to suicidal depths (though it does have a long history of doing so, it’s fairly likely such tendencies already existed within the individuals), but it is hard work. Just because you speak a language, doesn’t mean that you can write in it. To write, you have to relearn language; you have to find that perfect word, that perfect syllable; you have to read, study, and learn. That isn’t intended to put you off: it’s hard, but it’s also exciting work. It’s an adventure and the courage of those who embark upon it should be rewarded with the recognition they deserve. Not with nothing more than ‘It’s not for us, but thank you for sending it’.
I realise you could say that, running an editorial consultancy, I have a vested interest in pointing this out, but I’m not making the point for commercial gain. It’s a point that’s certainly unlikely to increase my popularity, particularly when there’s a multimillion dollar marketing industry selling a quickie alternative. I’m making it because I believe writers should be told the truth, even if it is an uncomfortable one.
Every day I work with writers, all hopeful of writing that next bestseller, and every day I remind them that they need to learn their craft, to focus on the writing and stop being distracted by marketing ‘experts’ who say that all they need is that killer letter of enquiry and there they’ll be, up on the shelves, selling millions.
Crafting great work must be learnt. Does anyone really think that the only reason Michelangelo was commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel was because he dazzled the Pope with his letter of enquiry? No. He got the job because he had spent his life learning how to paint, from his first uneasy – and, most likely, infuriating – sketchings. Beethoven didn’t go storming off to his piano and write the Moonlight Sonata having previously had nary a thought of music. Emily Dickinson didn’t simply pick up her pen and there on the page was her verse, at once mellifluous and strident. Admittedly, they’re all dead so, unable to ask them, it’s quite possible I’m wrong and they knew nothing of their craft before they created their masterpieces, but I don’t think so.
If you really want to get published, to get your work out there, your first concern should not be ‘how am I going to market this’. It should be ‘What about the words?’
About the author:
Kate Gould has worked as an editor, book critic, columnist, slush pile reader, writing competition judge, hotel critic, magazine editor, English teacher, and research assistant. She is now Chief Editorial Consultant at The Fine Line and author of The Pocketbook of Prompts: 52 Ideas for a Story and The Perfect Word: The Fine Line Writing Course. Her book on flashers, Exposing Phallacy, is to be published by Zero Books.
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