Therese here. Today’s guest is debut novelist, Eleanor Brown, author of The Weird Sisters, which just released this past week. It’s a book about three sisters, named by their lyrical father after Shakespearean characters, who love each other but don’t like each other very much, who have wounds to lick and secrets to bury when they return home after their mother is taken ill. I stumbled upon the first paragraph of this book online and have to share:
We came home because we were failures. We wouldn’t admit that, of course, not at first, not to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone else. We said we came home because our mother was ill, because we needed a break, a momentary pause before setting off for the Next Big Thing. But the truth was, we had failed, and rather than let anyone else know, we crafted careful excuses and alibis, and wrapped them around ourselves like a cloak to keep out the cold truth. The first stage: denial.
Fantastic voice, no?
The Weird Sisters has just been well reviewed in The New York Times, was chosen by Amazon as their January “best of the month” book, and was picked by Barnes and Noble for their Discover Great New Writers program. Not only that, Eleanor is near and dear to one near and dear to us; she is partner to former WU contributor and author J.C. Hutchins. We’re thrilled she’s with us today to talk about the importance of starting small. Welcome, Eleanor!
When I decided to turn my writing hobby into a writing career, one of the first roadblocks I stumbled across was the dreaded query letter. And, more specifically, the list of previously published work I was supposed to include in said query letter.
“But I’m just starting out!” I cried. “I don’t have any publishing credits!”
“We won’t publish you without any publishing credits!” the cold, cruel publishing industry replied, and then went back to stomping on my dreams and mocking my outfit.
Well, not really. But that’s what it felt like.
It seemed like a vicious circle – in order to get published, I needed to be able to include a list of places where I’d been previously published. But I wouldn’t have a list of places where I’d been previously published unless someone would publish me in the first place.
I do not quote Cathy lightly when I say, “ACK!”
Here’s how I solved that dilemma: I started small. It’s tempting to finish a piece of writing and want to run right out and present it to The New Yorker, Granta, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, My Little Pony Monthly, Nan Talese and Binky Urban – whatever your authorial Holy Grail is. We feel that way because those people give us the writing we love, and we want to return the favor, to be part of that conversation.
I, personally, started on the internet. Without the financial and physical constraints of traditional publishing, site editors can be much more flexible about what (and whom) they publish. This doesn’t mean you want to share your writing with any nutjob with a Blogger account. There are reputable sites in all genres. You’re probably reading some of them (and if you’re not, you need to be – the conversation doesn’t begin and end in the pages of Cat Fancy or whatever you’re aiming for). Choose sites you admire, read them for a month or two to get a feel of what they’re looking for, and start submitting.
Your original query letter, by the way, doesn’t have to point out the fact that you don’t have prior publications. Just leave that paragraph out.
After I had a few online publishing credits, I moved on to print publications, mostly small, local ones. I had a few more pieces published in local newspapers, and my list of credits grew slightly longer.
Simultaneously, I started submitting work to anthologies and journals. Just Google: “call for submissions” +anthology. You may want to add the current year (to make sure you’re not looking at old calls), or a genre or keyword. You will end up writing pieces specifically to submit to these anthologies, but that’s okay. Some of the writing I’m proudest of came from things I wrote specifically to answer a call.
I can hear some of you complaining right now that the markets I’m suggesting are all for short pieces. “I’m a novelist,” you’re howling. “I cannot write in short form!” Not only do I not believe that you sprang, fully-grown, from Zeus’ head writing novels, but trust me – not only will writing shorter work help give your writing focus and clarity, it will give you the list of publication credits you need to effectively query agents to get your magnum opus published.
When I was ready to start looking for an agent for The Weird Sisters, I had enough publication credits that I got to choose what I wanted to include in my query letters, so I could really cherry-pick the ones that were both relevant and impressive. Don’t get me wrong – I still got my fair share of rejections. But I also got a number of requests to see the manuscript, and was able to choose an agent I really trusted to represent me. In turn, she was able to use those credits to sell me to publishers as an experienced and professional writer.
Building my list of publishing credits was a long process. But it had all kinds of side benefits: I got used to rejection. I learned to write for an audience, work with editors, and meet deadlines. My writing improved immeasurably because I was writing constantly in multiple styles and genres. And, of course, I had the kind of writing resume that got my work the attention I wanted. All because I started small.
Thanks for a great post, Eleanor, and best of luck with The Weird Sisters, which is definitely on my to-buy list. Readers, you can learn more about Eleanor and her book on her website, and you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter. Write on!