Saturday, March 26, 2011

Worth the Trip: My Road to Publication

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

I’ve often joked that had my MG fantasy, The Shifter, been the first book I ever wrote, I’d think this whole publishing business was easy. The writing went smoothly, the agent search was a breeze, and it sold fairly quickly. But I know better. I have a drawer full of unsold manuscripts and a stack of rejections, same as most writers out there.

So what made The Shifter different?
I could go the easy route and say I finally wrote something publishable, but that’s not going to help anyone. But maybe sharing some of the steps I took to get from un-publishable to published will.

I got objective about my work
I had a nagging suspicion for a long time that the novels I was trying to sell weren’t bad, were maybe even good, but not great. To make it past the hundreds of other good, sometimes great, novels in the slush pile, I had to be really great. I needed that spark, like a literary flare, that said “this novel is worth buying.”

Problem was, I had no clue how to do that. I needed someone or some way to shed light on why no one would read my work. I got lucky and a friend recommended going to the Surrey International Writers Conference. I didn’t have any critiques of my work or anything, but the sessions there – especially the how to pitch your novel session – really opened my eyes and made me realize what those flaws in my novel were:

No strong protagonist with a conflict capable of driving a whole novel.

Weak stakes.

Unoriginal concept.

What really drove this home was when I was unable to write a decent pitch for the book. (This is why I always write a query before I start a novel. To test the idea) Without a strong protag, solid conflict, and high stakes, it’s almost impossible to write a good query. It’s also almost impossible to write a good book without those pieces.

I studied what made books work
One of the things I took away from the conference was that I needed a fresh idea. Originality was key to getting attention. I found that fresh idea in an old idea file of mine, dusted it off, and tried to figure out how I could turn this idea into a story worth publishing.

I looked at some of my favorite books. What openings hooked me? What first lines drew me in? What plots kept me reading? And most importantly – why? Before long I started to see patterns. Humor in the opening line really worked on me. External plot problems held my attention. Unpredictability kept me reading. These were all things I tried to incorporate into my developing idea. It wasn’t about what I liked about my story, but what writing mechanics worked to keep me interested in a story.

I focused on the fundamentals

I tend to think up plots and situations first, then create characters to put into them. I knew I needed a strong conflict that could carry an entire novel. And that conflict had to matter, with high stakes. The core conflict of this new novel had to have enough inherent conflict in both the world and the characters to connect it to a lot of different subplots and problems that I could build off of and help increase the story’s tension. It had to be a conflict with layers, not just a one-punch situation.

Once I had a good idea of the core conflict, I focused on a protagonist to put into that conflict. I went back to the basics: who would be hurt by this situation? Who had the most to lose? Who was willing to risk the most for the most gain? I kept reminding myself that stories are about interesting people solving interesting problems in interesting ways. I needed to find that person, that problem, and that solution.

I got personal
My manuscript problems in the past had always been because my novels were premise novels, stories about ideas, not a person with a problem. For The Shifter, I kept it personal. It was Nya’s problem to solve, not a cool idea for me to explore. The problems mattered to her, and she had personal stakes if she failed. That helped me keep the goals strong, the stakes high and the story moving.

Once the book was written, the rest was about the same as any other novel I’d done. Write the query (which was FAR easier because I had all those solid pieces to work with), synopsis, and send out the pages. I did my research the same, checked out potential agents, read the blogs, made my lists. But the thing that was different this time was the book I was submitting.

I did learn a few new writing tricks between the book that didn’t sell and the one that did, but nothing that would have made that big a difference during submission. It wasn’t like something suddenly changed about my writing ability. I was the same writer while writing book three as I was when writing book four (The Shifter). But the book, and how I approached it, was different. It was written with a lot more attention to what made a successful book, not just what kind of cool story I could tell.

I think that made all the difference. Great idea + Great writing + Great story = Sellable book. Drop one piece and you can only get so far. Develop all three, and you can go all the way. Sure, it takes work, but it’s also something that can be achieved with hard work. It might not be the easiest path to take, but it’s one worth taking.

Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour at Elle Strauss.


  1. This is an excellent point!

    A lot of us aspiring writers want to know what else we can do to help our chances at publication aside from improving our writing skills and writing great books. Your common sense idea of analyzing what makes books work versus what was missing from your work is an awesome idea. It's very empowering to realize there are specific steps I can take to increase my chances.

    My question is while writing The Shifter, did you "feel" the difference? Was there a sensation of "now I'm cooking with fire" or did it feel the same as writing your other novels? Mostly just curious, but I've read other authors say about writing the book they sold "It felt different writing this one. The story was stronger and I could feel that even in the first draft."

    Thanks again for the great advice!

  2. I definitely agree. People have always told me I had an natural gift of writing. What they meant, probably, was that I had a natural gift to tell stories, I could come up with some great ideas, but developing that into an interesting novel to sell? WELL-- talk about a piece of humble pie. I've grown so much as a storyteller and a writer, and it's definitely because of how I approach each book now versus 15 or even 5 years ago.

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  4. Elizabeth: That happened to me, too. I knew early on The Shifter was different. It was so much easier to write, the story came together so well. I knew I had something. At that time I didn't know how far it might get me, but I knew it was the best thing I'd ever written.