Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Slings and Arrows of Getting Published: Insider Tips for Would-be Writers

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By Stacey Madden

Everyone’s got at least one book in them, right?

Problem is, it’s not always easy to crack, chip or wriggle your way into the world of publishing. Having a compelling story to tell — well, that’s the easy part. Actually writing that story is another matter. Then there’s the matter of knowing which publishers to send your manuscript to. Writing a cover or query letter that doesn’t signal you as an amateur. Is there a market for your book? How will it fit amongst the literary trends of the day? To have an agent, or not have an agent? That is the question — one that depends on many factors — and it is further complicated by the fact that it is extremely difficult, especially here in Canada, for an unpublished writer to get an agent. Ay, there’s the rub.

But would-be writers, don’t despair. Turning your stack of Word pages into an actual published book might be difficult, but with talent, perseverance and a little bit of schmoozing acumen, it’s not impossible.

I recently caught up with two young Canadian writers who were kind enough to share some tips and opinions on getting that elusive first book deal. They each took two very different paths to get where they are today — and needless to say, both paths worked. It all comes down to doing what’s right for you and for the book you have inside you.

Grace O'Connell

Grace O’Connell, a graduate of the Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Guelph and a former employee of Type Books, recently sold her manuscript to Knopf Canada, which is an imprint of Random House and a pretty big deal for a young writer. Her book is slated for a spring 2012 release (yes folks, it can take that long!) as part of the New Face of Fiction series. She began writing early drafts of her novel in 2006, and finally sold the completed manuscript in the fall of 2010. I asked her how she knew it was ready for submission to publishers.

Before submitting, I wrote about three or four drafts. It’s hard to quantify because drafts are amorphous and overlapping. I’ll write a final draft for my editor in the coming months and then I’ll have to let it go. And whether I think it is finished will probably change every single time I look at it for the rest of my life. I’ll forever be picking at it. That being said, I feel good about the book; it’s complete and healthy and can walk without leaning on me. We went through some rough times, but it was around the third-ish draft where I suddenly locked eyes with my manuscript and fell in love all over again.

Another thing any writer needs is a few good readers. People who are willing to read your manuscript in its various stages of evolution and offer you thoughtful feedback. For Grace, one of these generous people was her agent, Martha Magor Webb of Anne McDermid and Associates. “By the time we sent the manuscript out,” Grace said, “a lot of bright people had read it and given me feedback. I wasn’t afraid of the submission process. I like to think I’m pretty tough. But it was actually agonizing. It’s not rejection that is the worst part. It’s the waiting. The waiting is gruesome.”

As for whether or not to try to find an agent, Grace acknowledges that although it certainly helps, it’s not a necessity.

Agents know editors and their tastes; writers tend to submit to houses generally, but an agent will submit to particular editors, helping to guide the right book to the right person. That’s one of the reasons working with an agent is beneficial when approaching a house with a large editorial staff. Matching book to editor is the whole alchemy of a publishing deal. The most important thing is to find the house, the editor, and the publicist who love your book.

Matt Lennox, on the other hand, sold his first book, Men of Salt, Men of Earth, to Oberon Press in 2009 without an agent. Oberon had included a short story of his in their Best Canadian Stories Anthology in 2006, so naturally the press was a good fit, since they’d already shown interest in his writing. Matt completed the twelve stories from Men of Salt, Men of Earth while serving with the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan. I asked him how he knew the stories were ready to go.

I don't really know that I knew it was done per se, but I'd gotten to the point where I didn't know what else to do with the stories I'd written. I sent them to Oberon Press in Ottawa, which was really the only publisher I had any kind of a relationship with. I got in touch with them and asked if they'd like to take a look at some stories I'd written. They said yes, I sent them the collection, and six weeks later they replied to me, saying they were interested in publishing the collection. Not all of the stories I sent them, but most of them. Enough for a book.

Matt Lennox

After securing that first book deal, Matt now has an agent. He talked about his reasons for getting one, and how he plans to move forward with his next book.

Right now I have a novel draft that I hope will see the light of day. Writing it has taken about two years — a year or so to get the first cut and then a year of editing. I’m hoping that having an agent will be a means to getting a publishing deal with one of the bigger houses. I don’t know whether having an agent is necessary, but I do know that I don’t have great business acumen, so having someone in that category should be of great assistance to me.

Another good way to get the inside scoop on how to publish your book is to attend a workshop run by an expert. Cynthia Good, formerly of Penguin Canada and current director of the Creative Book Publishing Program at Humber College, offers a number of workshops each year designed to help aspiring writers learn about the inner-dealings of the Canadian publishing industry and the literary landscape at large. The Insider’s Guide to Getting Published will be offered twice in 2011, with one workshop held in March and the other in July. Cynthia Good will also be conducting a self-marketing workshop in early February for the Writers Circle of Durham. Check for other workshops offered by Humber on their Continuing Education webpage.

Most importantly, though: don’t be a hesitant Hamlet — GET WRITING.

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Stacey Madden lives and writes in Toronto. He works at Book City, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and is currently at work on a novel.

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