By Shelby Hailstone Law
Brandon Mull has undeniably achieved that elusive “success” that every writer dreams of. You know, the success where people recognize your name and know that you write stuff.
It was great to get to sit down at a panel with Brandon and his editor to learn about the best ways to get published. Because I love lists and especially “Top 10” lists, here are 10 of the best bits of advice from both author and editor:
1. There are three steps to writing a book: Write the book, finish the book and show the book to someone for critique (moms are okay as long as they’re willing to give you a fair and tough critique, but generally try to find someone that won’t go easy on you). Specifically, Brandon suggests have someone point out to you any points in your book where they feel bored or confused. Boredom and confusion are a writer’s mortal enemies.
2. Write what you love. It’s very, very possible – even likely – that you won’t make money writing. Not the kind you’d like to, anyway. So if you’re not going to make a fortune, at least spend your writing energy doing something you love! And if you’re very lucky, “your brand of weird” (as Brandon calls it) will find other people that are “your brand of weird,” and that is your book’s new audience!
3. In that same vein, Brandon assures writers everywhere that trying to be your favorite author will only make you a poor copy of the original. His favorite advice on writing he’s ever received? “Give them You until You is what they want.” He also says that, when you’re writing, “your best compass is what you think is cool.” So you think dragon-headed unicorns would be perfect? Then yes, please, write that thing. But do it your way.
4. “A good writer needs to be a good observer.” Take things from your life experiences. You don’t have to take specific people or events, but you can take smaller things and incorporate them into your characters or settings. That small tic your elementary school teacher has? Give it to a side character. Similarly, a good writer reads good writing: “pick a text that you love the fiction of.” Read books you love and figure out why you love them—especially for their action scenes and the way they build.
5. When you’re looking for an agent or publisher, the most important tool in your arsenal is your pitch. In a sentence or two, the potential agent should know exactly what your story is and what they can expect. Practice your pitch on other people, create the “elevator pitch” (the thing you’d tell someone trapped in an elevator with you—captive audiences are great sales practice!) and refine it.
6. Agents are your new best friends. They will give you access, get you better deals, get your book into foreign markets, and so on. But before you sign with an agent, make sure you do your research! Their face becomes the face of your book to potential publishers, so are you comfortable with that? Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When was their last sale? Who did they represent before you? Is their agency refutable? Do your homework and never pay someone to be an agent. The good agents work on commission.
7. If you can’t get an agent, you can submit to publishers who accept unsolicited manuscripts. You can also attend conferences and writing events to build your network and find the contacts to “break into” the publishing arena. Don’t be afraid to reach out to publishers about a manuscript once you’ve submitted. (And yes, as both men said at the panel, it’s a vulnerable feeling to put yourself out there for publishers. Just take Brandon’s advice and “don’t be a jerk, but use your common sense” when you work up the nerve to ask them about your manuscript.)
8. One audience member asked Brandon’s editor what he looks for in a good pitch. The answer comes in parts: the first thing he looks at is the pitch itself, particularly the first four sentences. If he likes that, he wants to know: is this book marketable? Then he’ll read the first few pages. He wants to know if you can write well. Is your dialogue believable? Do you have your head around your characters? Do your teenagers actually sound like teenagers? Does your voice fit the market?
9. “Build your brand now.” Start a blog. Go on Twitter. Post on Facebook. “Think of an amusing sentence every day.” Create a following—get people to like you and they will like what you write.
10. Finally, never stop writing. You will never stop learning. You can always find better ways and new ways to write – and the only way to do that is to practice, practice, practice.
This was an amazing panel to attend, full of practical advice and explanations. If you, like me, are a writer trying to find that elusive “success,” maybe you and I can take these steps together. Don’t worry if it takes a little longer than we’d like—Brandon said it took him five years before he got his first book out there!
And with that, let’s go write.