Sometimes people ask me what I did to get published.
If you have a manuscript of your own and you’d like to find a publisher, well, I’m hardly an expert. Everyone’s path to publication is different, apparently, so mine is just one example of one possible path.
Nevertheless, because I know I personally find other authors’ stories about this topic endlessly interesting, here are the steps getting my first book published entailed. I include the rough timescale everything took:
1) I wrote a fantasy trilogy while I was in graduate school. That was ten-plus years ago — I refuse to count and see just how many years ago this must have been, now. I wanted to increase my typing speed, see, and then I was ticked off at a fantasy I’d just read — I don’t remember what it was, but it involved Yet Another Spoiled Princess who refused to do what was best for her kingdom (marry some prince she’d never met, I presume) and instead stormed off to Follow Her Own Star. I think I hit several little twits like that in a row and I was sick of them. I wanted to have a princess in my story who had some basic sense of responsibility.
This trilogy took me a couple of years to write, but you understand, I was hardly working on it full-time. I would take a couple of months off here, another six months off there — I was finishing up my master’s and working on my actual thesis during this time, you know, and I wasn’t really serious about the trilogy anyway until quite near the end.
This trilogy, the ‘Ghost’ trilogy, is now “under my bed,” as the saying goes. I may retool it eventually — I mean, hey! It has perfectly good characters and a plot and everything all worked out! But it is not good enough to be published as it stands. Though I’ve certainly read worse … well, we’ll see.
2) After the fantasy trilogy, I wrote a massive SF story. About 600 pages, I think, and hard to break in two. I really do still like this story. My degree is actually in ethology, and what I was looking at in this book was the interaction between culture and instinct. I honestly don’t think most people really get what instincts are, see, or for that matter how culture grows out of deep-set instincts, and well, that’s a huge topic for some other time, but every time I start to play with a SF story, this topic emerges. Right now I’m concentrating on fantasy, but someday …
I didn’t send this monster anywhere because I knew it was much too big for a first novel. I don’t recall at all how long it took to write. A year or two? Again, with lots of inactive time.
I also started, but didn’t complete, an adult fantasy. In this one, I was trying a trick Dorothy Dunnett uses — that is, I separated the main character from the point-of-view character. Also, I took an involved fantasy plot, condensed it into backstory, and started with my main character kind of recovering from the aftermath of everything that had gone before, if that makes sense. Once I finally admitted to myself how big this book was going to be, however, I set it aside.
3) Having now learned to write, and having concluded that I really needed to write something MUCH SHORTER, I sat down and re-read Beauty and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley, The Shapechanger’s Wife by Sharon Shinn, The Lens of the World by R. A. MacAvoy, and no doubt some others that I now forget. I also re-read absolutely everything by Patricia McKillip. From this list you can probably see that I had a particular type of book in mind. Then I sat down and wrote The City in the Lake. The actual writing took roughly two months, but one of those months fell over my month-long Christmas break and I worked on it basically full-time. Probably more than full time, actually. Anyway, I must have finished the first revision in January 2005.
For me, books are fun but slow to start, as I build the world, develop the characters, and figure out the plot (all of which I do en route). Sometimes they are very slow and difficult in the middle, as I bludgeon the plot into shape. Then they ‘tip over’ when they reach a certain point, and race from that point downhill toward the end. City reached the tipping point early. The last two-thirds of City ‘wrote itself’.
4) I took another two months to research agents, using a current Writer’s Market and Agent Query online. Then I checked agents through the Preditors and Editors website, composed twelve different query letters to twelve different agents’ specifications, and sent them off. This was in 2005.
5) One agent wrote back, suggested revisions, and requested a full manuscript. This was in June 2006. Then she asked for more revisions. Then she offered to represent me and suggested that she send out the manuscript as a YA fantasy (I had not specifically set out to write a YA story, but I knew the book might work that way. In fact, I’d intended to re-target the manuscript toward YA agents if I hadn’t gotten an offer from one of my initial list of agents). I accepted her offer and said basically, “You’re the expert, present it however you think will work.”
6) All this took a long time. In the meantime, I wrote Griffin Summer and send that to my agent. I don’t think I’ve mentioned it elsewhere, but my agent makes very good comments about my manuscripts! I’ve read that some authors get offended at suggested revisions, but those must be either touchy authors or bad suggestions (or both). My personal reaction is usually more along the lines of Of course! (Whaps forehead.) Why didn’t I see that? So then I had revisions for Griffin Summer to keep me busy.
7) In July 2006, my agent got a substantial nibble from Harper Collins and then from Knopf, and of course, Knopf bought City and a second manuscript — not specifically Griffin Summer, but some ms. to be determined in the future. Michelle Frey and Michele Burke, my editor and assistant editor at Knopf, made excellent comments, and City got revised one more time.
8) By July 2007 — note that yet another year had passed! — the copyedited City had come back to me, and the copy editors had done a wonderful job with their brown and blue and red pencils. Not only did they catch things like a word repeated three times in two paragraphs, but things like, “On p. 30 this character said such-and-such. Does this seem consistent with what this other character says on p. 270?” I thought I was good at remembering details and where in the ms. they were, but really, my copy editors were amazing!
I also got a first draft of the cover art, which was lovely and not at all like the final cover. The marketing department at Knopf didn’t like it (everybody else did) — I’m sure they had their reasons, but I made a copy of the first cover draft for my records. I don’t dislike the final cover, in fact it’s kind of grown on me, but I did really love the first draft.
9. In the meantime, I finally completed the larger, much more complicated adult fantasy I’d started back in 2004. No, it was not difficult to come back to a manuscript after several years away. I’m sure it’s different for different writers. By the end, I was working really fast (for me, I mean; I’m sure rate varies tremendously — I finished this manuscript by writing 223 pages in 19 days; for me that is very fast and required a certain degree of obsessiveness.) I couldn’t have maintained that pace except I’d organized things so I could make this effort over another Christmas break (useful things, long breaks). In fact, I was so deeply involved in this story that after I finished it, I also went on to write a novella to show what might happen later with some of the minor characters. See, I couldn’t stop. Took another whole month or so to wind down.
This manuscript had gotten bigger than I expected, or wanted. It wound up being pretty huge. It also had some major structural problems. I was too close to the ms. to figure out how to fix it, but I sorted it out with some massively useful advise from my brother (cut the whole middle section, but maybe you can work it back in using flashbacks?) I couldn’t actually integrate the cut material either as flashbacks or flashforwards, which I took a month or two figuring out. But my brother was right, the whole middle needed to go, even though that meant heavily revising the end. Then I finally send the ms. to my agent. I wound up breaking it in two and revising it yet again according to my agent’s comments. (With this statement, I am condensing months and months of The Neverending Revision From Hell.)
My agent sent it out. Unfortunately, it didn’t find a home. Maybe someday it will. Here’s a direct quote from one of the rejecting editors. I swear this is an exact quote: “Ms. Neumeier is a gifted writer and I enjoyed the read, and so I am sorry to say that it didn’t seem right for us. This is really a very innovative concept, and that’s essentially the difficulty — it’s a little too far on the edge of what’s currently working for us …” So you see it wasn’t being rejected for being bad. I don’t think it’s that innovative, honestly! So maybe someday …
10. And then, of course, City hit the shelves in July 2008.
or, What author / agent / editor sites did I appreciate the most?
I didn’t find all these sites before my ms. was accepted by Knopf, but I wish I had! (In fact, I don’t think Miss Snark had her site up at the time I would have most needed it.) All of them are good, useful, and/or thoroughly enjoyable sites.
SFWA’s Writer’s Beware page.