The Big Questions

Now that you’re all practising the writerly self-care discussed in my last blog post, we’ll move on to the Big Questions!

The biggest of all, of course, is: How do I get published? Broken down into: Where do I submit my work? How do I find an agent? Do I need an agent? Etc.

Let me say off the top that these questions are a distraction for the developing writer. Think of yourself like an apprentice painter in, say, Leonardo da Vinci’s studio. Your job at this stage is to learn everything you can about your craft—by writing often, reading voraciously (including books about writing), and finding a support community of some kind. A writing course, a workshop, or an online group can provide feedback and help you feel less lonely.

Here’s the truth: The only way to get published is, first, to write a good—a stellar—book. Yes, mediocre work gets published, sometimes because the author is already a brand. But both publishers and agents will tell you that competition is fiercer than ever, especially if you’re starting out, and what they want is only the best, freshest, most original work.

Winnipeg reviewer Charlene Diehl, a writer and poet herself, says this about the books she reviews: “I’m on the lookout for writing that is fresh, authentic, arresting, and for a certain something that marks this book as a creature with its own force field, its own voice. It’s hard to define exactly what that “certain something” is, but it’s obvious to me when it’s there, and almost as obvious when it is missing. It’s not so much about whether the book is to my taste—often the books that call out to me are books I wouldn’t necessarily choose. It’s more about the distinct impression that I’m in the presence of a living thing, and it deserves my respect [emphasis added].”

Okay, so you’ve given it your best shot and you have this “living thing” in your hands. You’ve written and rewritten your novel umpteen times. Your writing group says it’s awesome. Your creative writing teacher says you should send it out. You’ve even hired a professional copy editor to make sure the grammar and punctuation are error-free (always a turnoff when not). What do you do next?

First, you do your research. A very good source for agents currently accepting manuscripts is Chuck Sambuchino’s Literary Agents Blog. Don’t let the term “literary” put you off if you’re writing horror or mystery or speculative fiction—many agents who take these are listed too. But you have to read carefully and make sure they’ll be interested in your genre of novel. Check their websites—don’t just rely on one blog source, as information dates quickly. A good Canadian source for agents (both Canadian and American) is Brian Henry’s blog Quick Brown Fox.

Second, you write your synopsis, which you can do while you’re assembling a list of agents to submit to. Sambuchino’s blog provides samples of synopses that succeeded in landing their author an agent or book deal. A synopsis is a summary of the highlights of your novel—its premise, its characters, its narrative arc—written in present tense. It should be a page to a page-and-a-half in length. Busy agents (or publishers, if you’re submitting there) don’t have time to read more, and will be put off by something overly long.

Writing a good synopsis can be almost as taxing as writing the novel. For a detailed how-to, see Jane Friedman’s excellent website. There’s plenty of other online sources too.

Once you start sending out, keep your submissions to three or four agents (or publishers) at a time. (Some agents and publishers will tell you on their website they don’t accept multiple submissions, but most will assume that writers do it anyway.) If  you get rejected, you can take another stern look at your novel before you send it out again to the next three or four. If you’re very lucky, you might get some feedback, or even a request to re-submit once you’ve revised.

Finally, persevere. I once heard the writer James Lee Burke describe how his agent sent out his fourth novel one hundred and eleven times before a publisher finally accepted it. In an ever more risk-averse era, agents and editors want to be sure that a book will sell, though the fact is that no one ever really knows. The first Harry Potter, for example, got rejected multiple times. (In that case J.K. Rowling had an agent, but was rejected by a number of publishers.)

Finally, accept that despite your best efforts your novel may not get published. Many writers write several novels before finally publishing one. You may have to stick yours in a drawer and go on to the next. It’s all part of that apprenticeship I talked about earlier. Ars longa, vita brevis, as the saying goes: Art is long, but life is short. It will take you a lifetime to learn your craft. You’ll always be learning more.

In fact, start your next novel or short story while you’re submitting. It’s always better to have several irons in the fire. But whether you’re accepted or not, keep a bottle of champagne in your fridge. If you’re accepted, call all your friends and writing colleagues and celebrate. If you’re not, break out the bubbly anyway, and toast your sheer grit, your determination, the fact you actually finished your book and risked its rejection out there in the cold cruel world.

And then… go back to your desk, sit down, and start writing.

If you’d like to submit a manuscript, request a consultation, or suggest a blog topic, please contact me at


Next WIR blog post: March 21

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