My first book, Chasing Sisyphus, came out in 2017. It’s a suspenseful sci-fi romance and, well, there was nothing romantic about getting that book written. For years, I’d tried and failed to finish a decent story, let alone getting one published. If I wanted to achieve my goal of being a published author, I’d need to put the romance on hold until I sorted out the rest of my shit.
This post is a guide, based on the path I took, which will hopefully help new writers get their first book into the wild. You can read my full story here:
You don’t have to read it to understand this guide, but for context, it’s better if you do. So, grab a drink, pen and paper (or word processor and keyboard) and follow the prompts.
Let’s look at the ideas, habits and obstacles that might be standing in your way…
What are some of your ideas about what it means to “be a published author”? Do you have any high expectations that could possibly be unrealistic? Do you have any prejudices that prevent you from acting on good opportunities? Given the resources available to you today, which of those ideas, expectations or prejudices could you tweak in order to get closer to your goal of getting published?
Which of your writing habits might be stopping you from finishing your manuscript? Are you a perfectionist? Are you time-poor? Do you despise research? Are you dealing with chronic illness, injury, mental health issues, children, unsupportive friends…? You don’t have to feel bad about any of this, but you do have to be honest. None of this is your fault. Your habits are the way they are because they served you in the past, but you’re looking to the future now.
Finally, how willing are you to change your mindset to get your book published? And why do you feel this way? It’s OK if you’re not willing. The world is full of possibility and people just like you may be achieving that goal you want without having to change. But if you are willing, then great! Here’s what to do next:
- List 5 things you can do/change/address/learn this week to make your goal more achievable.
- Of those 5 things, pick 1 to start doing today.
All right, now let’s look at who’s gonna be reading your work…
What does “writing for yourself” mean to you? What do you love about writing? What factors matter most to you when it comes to telling stories? What kinds of stories are satisfying for you to tell? What feeling of reward will you personally get from telling this particular story?
Who do you want your book to appeal to? You don’t have to be clear about this yet—just “(insert genre) readers” and “(insert genre) publishers” will do—but you do have to pick a target audience that’s more specific than “everyone”. Reason being that when it comes to writing and publicising your book, you’ll burn yourself out trying to please everyone. Do yourself a favour and establish some boundaries at the start. You can always change this later if you want to.
What does your target audience (yay, you have one now!) want to read? What are the norms, expectations and tropes in the genre you’re aiming for (eg. epic space battles, happily ever after, graphic sex, particular prose styles)? Do the things you enjoy writing fit this framework, or do you need to pick a different framework? Or do you need to learn to enjoy writing in the framework you’ve chosen? What story elements do audiences appreciate today? What story elements are no longer enjoyable to read?
- With all this in mind, make your list of things about your target audience and genre that you can go research.
- From that list, pick 5 items that are most immediately relevant to you.
- And now pick 2 that you can start researching today.
This section can come before or after the next section—it’s up to you and where your head’s at in terms of story and market awareness.
Here’s what to consider if, like me, you prefer to take the non-agented “direct submission” route.
- Who are the publishers (or imprints) that play in your space (genre, audience, etc.)?
- What sorts of content do they publish?
- Do they have any specific requirements for story content?
- How comfortable do you feel adhering to their submission guidelines?
- What can you learn about them from their website and social media profiles?
- What are people saying about them? (check online forums and social media)
- How do they compensate their authors?
- What would be expected of you if you become a signed author?
- How do you feel about the other authors contracted to them?
Note that some considerations are worth caring a lot about (ie. don’t waste energy on a publisher who doesn’t do your genre), while others will be open to negotiation (eg. you don’t like a particular author signed to that publisher, but you might still be open to having your name next to theirs). This is totally up to you and will likely determine who makes it onto your shortlist.
Drafting your story
This is a huge rabbit hole, but this guide aims to get your idea out of your head and onto the page, in a format you can query with. So, with that in mind…
If you’re a pantser… Use what you know about storytelling, genre and any recommendations from your shortlisted publishers to determine the critical story elements you just can’t do without. List them in the order you’d like to see them happen and commit to writing your story down. Tell your Inner Editor and Inner Critic to take a recess while you sprint your way to The End. Promise them their time to shine during your revision process.
If you’re a plotter/planner… Choose the simplest and quickest planning system you can find. While the likes of Snowflake Method and StoryGrid will help you come up with an amazing piece of work, if you don’t already know how to use them, you can really get lost in the nuts and bolts of figuring them out. For your first draft of your first book, go quick and simple. You can always refer back to whatever system you adore once your first draft is done.
My very basic chapter-by-chapter outline template is available via Google Drive if you’d like to pinch it ☺️
This one’s straightforward—or at least, it should be.
For each publisher you submit to:
- Review their submission guidelines
- Check that your story content aligns with any requirements
- Check that your manuscript is formatted (fonts, margins, spacings, etc.) to their specifications
- Prepare your synopsis according to any requirements
- Write your query letter, addressing it to the acquisitions editor (if applicable)
Tl;dr: follow the publisher’s instructions.
- Committing to your writing doesn’t mean you have to become a workaholic. It means engaging your Rider just a bit more, rather than waiting for your Elephant to stumble upon the path.
- A good story is both satisfying for you to tell and satisfying for your readers to read. You’re not a sellout for writing what an audience wants to read.
- Respect the people you’re querying, whether they’re agents, publishers, other writers, readers or critics.
- You don’t need to be perfect on your first go. You just need to have a go.
- You don’t have to be an amazing writer on your first go, but you must be willing to learn.
- If you discover along the way you’re not enjoying this, it’s perfectly OK to stop ❤️