5 Things Writers Do For Free LONG Before They Get Published

The publishing industry seems pretty magical to most people, I think. Stay-at-home moms become overnight billionaires. Their books get made into movies with crazy-famous actors. Little kids want their autographs and action figures of their characters.



More often than not, though, the publishing industry is pretty damned unmagical. Here are some of the unmagical things most writers do FOR FREE long before they get published.

1. Write

This one seems obvious to me, but I think people somehow imagine that manuscripts write themselves. For every writer, the process is different. HOWEVER, the unmagicalness of sitting in front of a computer screen for hours on a daily basis CANNOT be avoided. People who want to be writers. must. write. ALL THE TIME.

2. Read

This one seems pretty obvious too, but I think people again think that books get magically read. Writers do not get to become Good Will Hunting when they sit down to read their genres. They have to sit for hours. reading. Some of it is crazy fun, but a lot of it is studying trends in the genre, studying the market (what’s selling NOW – which means that the reading has to happen pretty quickly after books are released), and studying agent and editor preferences. If there’s an agent I’m after, I have to know her. If you look at the acknowledgements page at the back of most books, there’s often a line where the author thanks his/her agent. This is really cool, because it gives me an opportunity to learn what kinds of books/manuscripts the agent likes and will work for.

3. Study

Writers spend a lot of time studying any number of things. They study writing i.e. they read books and blogs about writing, talk about writing, attend writing events, etc… They study the industry (more on this later). They study their book’s content. For example, my second failed manuscript heavily featured an antique revolver. Therefore, I spent hours researching so I could pick out the perfect one. I don’t give a darn about guns. If I were to ever buy one, I’d probably try to find a cute pink one that’d fit in my purse. Still, I had to know guns to write about them (I’ve already forgotten everything I knew about them, so don’t ask… I’ll fail any quiz you give me). I’ve also studied word-counts (you don’t want to write a book that’s way too long for your audience). I studied methods of prewriting and revising. Writers carry little notebooks with them everywhere and take notes on random things. We study how people talk, walk, dress, smile, eat, etc… Writers have to study.

4. Learn the Industry

Unfortunately, the publishing industry is confusing. Here’s how I envision my book getting published:

Writer prewrites a manuscript. She drafts the manuscript. She revises the crap out of it. She finds beta readers/critique partners and has them revise the crap out of it. She revises some more. Then she makes a list of 50 or so agents who represent her kind of writing. She revises some more. She checks all of the agents on her list on sites like WriterBeware and others. She stalks those agents that pass as honorable to find out what their favorite colors are (Nathan Bransford’s is orange… if only he was agenting still) and she writes query letters to each agent including some ridiculous bit of individualization (see why she needs to know the agent’s favorite color? Sports teams are good too) and sends out a few queries each week. She starts a new manuscript. She receives some form rejections. She finishes the new manuscript. She receives more rejections and one request to see the full manuscript. She jumps up and down and sends the full. She revises the crap out of the second manuscript. She receives a nice letter of rejection from the agent who read the full. She goes back and revises the 1st manuscript again, taking the agent’s feedback into consideration. She rewrites her query letter and individualizes it for 50 new agents & sends it out. She goes back to the second manuscript and sends it to her beta readers. She receives some more rejections and a few more requests for fulls. She sends the fulls. She revises the crap out of the second manuscript. An agent offers to work with her on the manuscript if she’s willing to do some revisions. This is a chance to try out the partnership BEFORE signing with the agent. The agent sends some feedback with revisions. The writer cries because it hurts to have someone criticizing her baby. She revises. The agent finally decides to sign the writer. The agent makes lists of publishers and whatnot and tries to sell the book to an editor. If an editor likes it, he takes it back to the publishing house where he convinces other people that the book is awesome. The publisher buys the rights to the book. The editor sends the writer a bunch more revisions. She revises and sends it back. This happens a few more times. Everybody does a bunch of work and the thing finally gets published. Then the writer has to market the book on his/her blog, local bookstores, and anywhere else she has connections. She gets people to review the book. Everyone loves it and 6 years after she started writing the damn thing, they sell the movie rights and several years after that, she makes it big and can quit her day-job.

Now, that’s a basic run-down, but there’s all sorts of stuff in that chunk of text up there that require research. For example, and writer must know the proper query format, where to find agents, each agency’s query guidelines, what each agent represents and what he/she doesn’t, where to find good beta-readers, how to write a book proposal, the way advances work, etc…

5. Writers Network

Writers blog and Tweet. They do a million other things, most of which, I’m not doing yet, because I’m fully committed to blogging and nothing else. Writers read other peoples’ blogs and comment on them. They go to ComiCon and introduce themselves to Aprilynne Pike. They write emails to agents asking questions they already know the answers to… just to get noticed. They attend writer’s conferences. They talk to other writers who know how hard it is.They enter contests on other writers’ blogs and on agents’ blogs in the hopes of winning manuscript critiques. They email with their beta readers and have real relationships with them.

And just one reminder about this post… a writer won’t get paid until a publisher buys the rights to her book. Prior to that, she is working really hard for free, as is her agent. That’s why I’m so committed to my scheduled writing time. Because this is a job. I’m just not getting paid yet.


10 thoughts on “5 Things Writers Do For Free LONG Before They Get Published

  1. As a “sometimes paid” writer, I can say you’re right on with this post, Katie! Never had to study up on guns but I know more about how slaughterhouses work than any girl probably needs to know. Good luck with the writing! kt

  2. Kathryn, this post was very insightful. There are some similarities and differences between this process and that of the poets I know. The similarities include studying other writers, working on craft, attending writing workshops and conferences to network. Another similarity is revision. I love it when I get the eyes of someone I admire as a writer or a core group of other writers on my work and their insights on how to make the poem stronger.

    Unlike prose writers (fiction and nonfiction), most poets I know get their manuscripts published through literary contest or from publishing in journals (sometimes a literary journal will have a press and, after reading a writer whose regularly published in that journal, might request more work from the writer). Few of my poet friends have agents.

    I have a collection of poems coming out soon (Drift on Willow Books, January 2012). My process involved me submitting and getting my work published in more than a hundred journals (a small number compared to writers who’ve been publishing in journals a lot longer than I have). I found my publisher when, after submitting some poems to a journal, they requested to see more of my work, then agreed to publish the manuscript.

    Again, the process, as I know it, is different between the genres. But this post was helpful in giving me some idea of what fiction and nonfiction prose authors go through. Thanks again.


  3. Well said! It took a long time for me to consider my writing a job, but that’s how I see it–and that’s how I justify writing when there’s laundry to do! It’d be nice if it paid, but in the meantime, I’m focused on the five things on your very perceptive list.

    • It’s so difficult to truly consider writing a job – especially with friends and family members misunderstanding/being completely offended by it. Although, I have enjoyed the justification for avoiding laundry just like you have. Only I avoid laundry, dishes, exercising, sleeping, eating, and just about everything else that’s normal in the world. 🙂

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