How a Writer Gets Published, Part 1

I’ve been studying the relentlessly ridiculous publishing business for a decade.  I wrote a book about it called The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (product placement). I’ve come to the conclusion that there are four basic principles involved in getting successfully published: 1) Research, 2) Network, 3) Writing, 4) Perseverance.

In the last 10 years I’ve also written 12 books that have been published; everyone from corporate giants like HarperCollins, Random House and Penguin, to incredible independents like Soft Skull, Canongate and Workman.  I’ve been on bestseller lists.  My books have been translated into a dozen languages.  So lots of talented amateur writers I work with just assume that anything I write will automatically get published.  But because the publishing business has contracted, and I’ve written books in so many different categories, and I don’t have one agent or publisher I work with time after time, and some of the books I write aren’t for a mainstream audience, I still have to apply all the principles listed above to get my books published.

I have six manuscripts that are burning a hole in the pocket of my computer.  A ghost story (The Valley of Love and Delight: A Ghost Story); an experimental novel (Mort Morte); an anthology filled with writing from a severely underrepresented and beat down demographic (Johns, Marx, Tricks and Chickenhawks: Professionals Writing About Their Clients); a young adult novel about asthma (Breathless in Flat Rock); a kid’s picture book (The Boy Who Cried Wolf); a collection of poetry by some of the greatest poets in the world, specifically designed for kids to say out loud (The 100 Greatest Poems for Kids to Say Out Loud);  and a collection of shorts.  Since I have already applied principle #3, these books have been written.  It never ceases to amaze me how many people tell me they want to be writers, but they haven’t actually finished writing a book.  There’s a very good chance that several if not all of my manuscripts will have to be rewritten a grotesque number of times.  In fact one of them is with an editor even as we speak; someone I’m paying to tell me why my book sucks.  I’m going to put my money where my mouth is, and hope my foot doesn’t end up there.

I’m going to get these books published, or have an aneurysm trying.  Every week or so, I’m going to introduce one of my manuscripts, and explain the daily steps I’ve taken to accomplish my goal.

The Valley of Love and Delight: A Ghost Story.  I’ve been working on this novel for almost four years.  I’ve done 42 drafts so far.  A dozen of my writer friends have already read the book and told me why they thought it sucked.  I’ve already paid two editors to tell me what parts they thought sucked.  Once again illustrating the often-neglected notion that you have to keep rewriting and rewriting and rewriting until you get it right.  I see so many manuscripts by talented amateurs that are just so obviously not as good as they could be.  It’s like inviting someone over to your house for a piece of cake, and serving them something that’s half-baked.  All gloopy and goopy and melty and horrible.

#1: Writing.  About a month ago an agent I queried expressed interest in representing the book.  I got to her because I relentlessly pursued a famous writer she represents, trying to get him to do a Twitter interview with me.  After five tweets, he finally consented.  When I approached his agent, she was very receptive because I had interviewed her client.

#2: Networking.  She and her fabulous assistant had some ideas about how I might make it more suck-free.  So I spent a month feverishly rewriting the book.  Then I got a 15-year-old reader to read it.  It was shocking and slightly horrifying how many times she was able to pinpoint exact moments where the book had a gigantic amount of suckage.  A smart teenage reader is worth his/her weight in plutonium.

#4: Persistence. I just got the manuscript back from an amazing editor who the agent recommended.  She’s the one I’m currently paying to tell me why my book sucks.  Today I got back her notes.  They were edifying, horrifying, brilliant and maddening.  Even though she said lots of nice things about the book, it’s clear there is much much work yet to be done.  I have serious psychological problem because I want everything to be finished NOW.  It’s a severe difficulty to overcome when you’re writing a novel.  I also suffer from post dramatic stress disorder, so I immediately plunged into the darkest blackness.  All I could see in the editor’s notes were everything that was wrong, everything that sucked, all my failings and shortcomings.  But I am stepping back from my emotions, using the techniques I’ve developed over these decades to avoid plummeting down into a shame spiral.  I’m using this to learn how to be more patient artist.  And now I will go back to the grindstone and put my nose to it with some elbow grease.  And remind myself how much I love working on this book.  Here’s the pitch, which I’ve also been working on for four years:

The Valley of Love & Delight: A Ghost Story

Finn is being haunted by two ghosts.  Only one of them is in his head..

Finn Hart is 16.  He comes home from a party and finds his mother dead in his bed with a 94 page suicide note by her head.  Since his father disappeared almost before conception, Finn is now an orphan.  He’s shipped off to boarding school housed in buildings made by the Shakers, a religious sect in the 1800’s.  The Shakers are famous for two things. 1) They made exquisite furniture. 2) They didn’t believe in sex.  There are no more Shakers.  Finn’s first night at school, after everyone’s asleep, he hears a baby whimpering and crying.  The crying turns into wailing, and it’s so unbearable Finn feel like he wants to die.  But no matter how hard he looks he can’t find a baby.  When he wakes up his aristobrat roommate, the baby’s wailing stops.  When Finn finally falls asleep, he dreams he’s an orphan being adopted by the Shakers in the same buildings.  Only it’s 1850 and the buildings are brand-new.

Finn lives two sleep-deprived lives.  One at boarding school where a cool new headmistress creates a culture of abstinence, and he tries to overcome the death of his mother, who haunts him daily.  In his dreams Finn tries to live a simple hard-working Shaker life, where sex is the road to burning for eternity in hell with Satan.  In both worlds Finn falls madly in love.  And gets both girls pregnant.

Finn’s mind deteriorates until he can’t tell the difference between dream and reality, natural and supernatural, now and then.  The only things he knows for sure are that he’s madly in love with two girls, neither of whom he’s allowed to so much as kiss.  And that it’s somehow up to him to help the baby who wails in his room at night, and trying to kill him in the woods during the day.  When Finn gets expelled by the suddenly-not-so-cool Headmisstress, he has to fight for his life in court, with the horrors of Juvenile Detention breathing hot down his neck.  And somehow liberate the ghost of the Shaker baby.

This fantasy Young Adult novel centers around the hot button topic of sexual repression and teenage pregnancy combined with a supernatural horror element revolving around one of the most bizarre religious cults in history, the Shakers.

David Henry Sterry is the author of 12 books, the latest of which was featured on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.  “Eye-opening, astonishing, brutally honest and frequently funny… unpretentious and riveting — but also graphic, politically incorrect… and that rare ability to tell the truth.”  This is his debut novel.

“Imagine Stephen King writing Catcher in the Rye.  It’s that rare beast, a truly literary page turner.”-Tamim Ansary, best-selling author of East of New York, West of Kabul

At 16 I was exiled to a boarding school in the Berkshire Mountains that was housed in buildings built by the Shakers.  When I was at boarding school, they remodeled one of the old Shaker buildings.  Buried inside the wall they found the skeleton of a baby.  A chill froze my soul cold.  This is the book I wrote in honor of the Shaker Baby. – David Henry Sterry