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the secret to getting published
just one step from novice to novelist!
by jael mchenry (@JaelMcHenry)

There is a secret to getting published. That’s what you’ve suspected all along, right? When you’ve been tip-tapping away at your keyboard, wishing for success, hoping to one day see those words of yours on a real honest-to-goodness page between honest-to-goodness covers, that’s what you thought, right?

There’s a secret. There’s a trick. There’s something you don’t know, that if you knew it, would change everything.

Well, here I am, an author with a book deal for my debut novel, to tell you: you were right.

There is a secret. It’s simple. It’s two words. One, two, that’s it.

Those words are: don’t stop.

First of all, don’t stop when the University of Iowa’s MFA program rejects you. Wouldn’t that be dumb? To stop just because one set of readers in one place didn’t rank your talents above those of a huge number of applicants for a tiny number of spaces?

Don’t stop.

Don’t stop when one of the instructors in the MFA program you do attend tells you that “if this is the kind of fiction that interests you, you don’t belong in an MFA program.” (Though if you later get a chuckle when that instructor’s novel gets utterly bashed in the Washington Post, it would be understandable. To wit: heh.)

After two years unsuccessfully searching for an agent, don’t stop.

After you do find an agent and he doesn’t sell your first novel, don’t stop.

After you find a new agent with a new book and that agent quits the business entirely just when you thought you were finally getting close, don’t stop.

When you take a summer class at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the teacher loves your concept and your writing so he offers to read your book and pass it to his agent if he likes it, but then when he reads it he doesn’t actually like it, don’t stop.

Write another book. Write a better book. Go forward, not back. Don’t be afraid to fail. Because you probably will. The failures will outnumber the successes, for most of us, at least for a while. Maybe you’re writing a book that’s hard to explain, or one that turns out to be too much like someone else’s, or one that's a little too slow or has five lousy pages that happen to come right at the beginning or one that is perfect in every way... except one. Failure is only permanent if you let it be.

When you are daunted, when you are rejected, when you are dejected, don't stop.

Keep writing. Keep looking. Keep growing.

Find an agent. Find the right agent. I know it’s hard, but it’s possible. That’s what this whole business is. Difficult but possible, if you know the secret.

Hard work is no guarantee that you’ll succeed, but if you stop, that’s a guarantee right there. Not the kind you want, of course.

So keep going. Don't stop.

When you find a fabulous agent -- when you have the incredible, unimaginable luxury of actually choosing from multiple offers of representation -- and she asks you to look at the book one more time to make it stronger, don’t stop. Wouldn’t it be foolish to stop then? Right before you’re about to succeed?

When she sends out the book to publishers and nobody buys it, don’t stop.

Write better. Write more. Find the book’s problems and fix them. When that creates different problems, fix those.

Don’t stop.

And here’s the key, the real key: don’t stop even when you’ve gotten what you wanted. Never say, “Okay, I’m all done now.” Because there’s always more you can do. Join more groups. Meet more people. Go to conferences. Find critique partners. Take one more step toward getting published, because you never know which step it is that will actually take you over the line.

There are all sorts of arguments online about whether luck or talent plays a greater role in whether or not you get published. The truth is, as the truth so often is, somewhere in the middle.

I worked hard. There were a lot of setbacks. I’m not saying it’s easy. Your first book, or your second, may not be the one that gets published. It can be a long road. It was for me. But I didn’t stop, and I got there.

Except that I’m not there, not really. I have one book deal, for one book. I have moved to a new stage, but I’m not done. Wouldn’t it be silly to stop now? When I could go from having one book published to having a writing career?

So even though the book is sold, me, I’m not stopping.

I’m writing the next one. I’m only 1700 words in, but I’m writing.

Don’t stop. That’s really, in my mind, the only secret.

In the immortal words of noted publishing expert The Man in Black, "Anyone who says differently is trying to sell you something."


Jael is tired of being stereotyped as just another novelist/poet/former English teacher/tour guide/"Jeopardy!" semifinalist/bellydancing editor-in-chief with an MFA who was once an overachieving oboe-playing alto newspaper editor valedictorian from Iowa. She was also captain of the football cheerleading squad. Follow me on Twitter: @jaelmchenry

more about jael mchenry


writing without writing
10 ways to be a better writer... with a twist
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 1.5.09

the five minute column
consciousness it streams
by jael mchenry
topic: writing
published: 6.4.07


candy green gustavson
11.4.09 @ 4:16a

Great words of wisdom and encouragement. We are all--even if we don't know you personally--so happy for you! Hearty congratulations and thanks for thinking of us in the midst of your own joy.

alex b
11.4.09 @ 7:33a

Awesome! So proud of you and congratulations again!

tracey kelley
11.4.09 @ 1:01p

Whew, sweetie. When you lay it all out like this, it's rather daunting, yes?

By the way, circulate this. :D

jael mchenry
11.4.09 @ 4:16p

I suppose it can be read as either daunting or inspiring -- I expect a lot of people will read and say, "Geez, that does not sound AT ALL worth it." Is it? I don't know. Totally depends on the person. I know some great writers who've given up. Talent isn't enough, and neither is hard work, so I tried to put forward the only thing I know for sure after 10-plus years of trying to get where I just now got.

Also, thanks, all! I appreciate the congrats. Intrepid is love.

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