Reader Questions: pre-publication experience

Victoria asked:

I was curious about your writing BEFORE you published your books. Did you submit stories to magazines, anthologies, contests, etc and have anything else published before your books? Did you take a bunch of writing classes or get a degree? I read the author section of books I get all the time and most of them have some kind of degree for writing/English and since I don’t sometimes it can be…discouraging for someone like me when I rarely see authors that don’t have the degree.

These are great questions! Getting published is a different journey for everyone and there is no one true path. Decades ago — and in more literary circles today — the standard advice was to submit short stories for publication in magazines and anthologies, and try to attract the attention of an agent or novel editor. I actually do know people who’ve done that fairly recently, but the market has changed a lot, and while you can take that path, it certainly isn’t the only path available.

So, my path: With the exception of a few articles in my small-town newspaper when I was in high school, I didn’t have anything published before INCARNATE.

In 2003, I quit college, moved to Virginia, and got married — and I started writing full time. I joined the Online Writing Workshop, made writing friends, and began developing my critiquing skills along with my writing. I wrote for several years before an agent wanted to represent my work, but we ended up parting ways without selling anything. Then, I worked as a slush reader for an agent, which was like a crash course in identifying strong premises and writing. I learned a ton.

It wasn’t until Fall 2009 that I wrote my seventeenth completed manuscript — INCARNATE — and March 2010 that I got a new agent. We accepted an offer from HarperCollins in July 2010.

But along the way, I gathered quite the pile of rejections and, more importantly, experience.

See, I know people who’ve gone to school for writing, and it was the right thing. I know people who’ve gone to school for other things and switched to writing, and it worked out. I know others who’ve gone to school for other things and are still in school for those things while they’re writing, and it’s just fine, too. And I know others who, like me, decided to jump right in.

There is no single right way, except writing. Whatever you do, if you want to be a writer, you must write. You must read. The other stuff just depends on you and what you want to do.

In a way, what I went through was a little like school. I learned from the books I was reading, and from the other writers around me. I sent hundreds of queries, which one might think of as agents grading my paper. When I began to show improvement in my writing, their rejections began to change as well. At first, I got form notes. Eventually, I started getting more personalized ones. And then the kind that come with compliments and “please try me with the next project.” The whole time, there were agents (and writer friends!) watching my progress and waiting, wanting me to succeed.

I’m still learning. Getting published definitely made me feel as though I’d leveled up, but I’ve had even more tests since I signed that contract with my agent. The tests seem to be getting more difficult, too, which is another reason I’m grateful for my long — at least long to me — path to publication. It helped prepare me for the next part in my publication journey: staying published.

So, back to your question! Don’t worry about what others have done or say you should do. You’ll make your own path.