That is the question that I am frequently asked via the website and at school events.
The answer is ‘with difficulty’!
It really is not easy for most people. There are a lot of would be authors out there and I was once one myself!
All publishers have what they call a ‘slush pile’ - manuscripts they have been sent by writers hoping to see their books in print. So for every book that is published there are hundreds that aren't.
So how do you avoid those slush piles? How do you get noticed and read by an editor?
The answer is ‘Get an agent’!
Unfortunately, that isn’t easy either. Public libraries have a reference book called ‘The Writers and Artists Year Book’. Back in the year 1990, I went into Knott-End Library in Lancashire found he book and looked at the list of literary agents it contained. I wrote to three. Only one wrote back and eventually she became my agent.
When my agent sent my manuscript to publishers there was a difference – it didn’t go into the slush pile – it got read! Of course,I still got rejected. So with that in mind, you need perseverance and have to realise it might take many years to get into print properly.
Not only that you may not be as good a writer as you think. I certainly wasn’t. Long before I got my agent a publisher did read the first full-length novel that I’d written. They sent me back a very polite rejection slip. So I wrote to them asking for more criticism. This time they told me the truth. My characters were ‘two-dimensional; my plots were ‘structurally unsound’! Reading between the times what they were saying to me was ‘You are rubbish!”. Now I realise that editor was right. I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to improve.
How do you improve your writing?
You have to work hard at it. You need to write something every day if possible. You also must read widely from lots of different genres (reading fiction helps you to write fiction). I always liked to read and the best stories inspired me to write. It was discovering the magic of books like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ that made me want to be a writer.
Also keep a notebook. Jot down into it all your ideas before you forget them.
For me it was a long, slow gradual process and took me well over ten years of continual effort. I was rejected over 97 times, I stopped counting after that. From 1990 I wrote a book a year and every time my agent said, "I am sorry Joe, they sent that one back. I’ve now sent it to all those who publish your genre so there is no publisher left to send it to!” I didn’t get too down-hearted. Why? Because I’d been busily writing and I had another manuscript ready for her to send.
If I hadn't believed in myself and developed a thick skin I would have given up after the first few rejections. Remember too that just because your manuscript is returned it doesn't mean it is not any good - it may just not be what the publishers are looking for at the time. A publisher’s list is limited and the number of authors they have may become significantly fewer when economic conditions are bad.
I do most of my writing when I am not holding a pen - when I am watching television, waiting for a train, or just sitting and thinking.
For example, I got the idea for ‘The Spook's Apprentice’ when I moved to the village where I still live and discovered there was a local boggart. I jotted into my notebook the idea for a story about ‘a man who deals with boggarts’ and years later, when I needed to come up with a story idea very quickly, I went back through my notebooks and found it. That eventually became The Spook's Apprentice and the subsequent series.
What about self-publishing?
It has now become much easier because of the internet and e-books. I confess that were I still an unpublished author writing today I would go down that route. But it is not as good as having a real publisher. I am published by Random House and have an editor who prods me, pushes me, gives me helpful criticism and gets me to produce the best book possible. Not only that my publisher organizes publicity for me, markets my books (ensuring that they are stocked by bookshops), designs the eye-catching covers and sells the rights to foreign publishers and film producers. That has resulted in translation sales to 25 countries and a film deal (‘The Seventh Son’ starring Jeff bridges is in cinemas in 2013). There is a lot of support given.
So I wish you all luck in your efforts to get published. If you enjoy writing as I did, the journey is worth it even if you never arrive. I really mean that. Even if I had never got published I would not have regretted all the effort I made. I enjoyed trying.