Lisa Unger is a New York Times, USA Today and international bestselling author of literary thrillers. Her novels have been published in over 26 countries around the world.
She was born in Hartford, Connecticut (1970) but grew up in the Netherlands, England and New Jersey. A graduate of the New School for Social Research, Lisa spent many years living and working in New York City. She then left a career in publicity to pursue her dream of becoming a full-time author. She now lives in Florida with her husband and daughter.
Her writing has been hailed as "masterful" (St. Petersburg Times), "sensational" (Publishers Weekly) and "sophisticated" (New York Daily News) with "gripping narrative and evocative, muscular prose" (Associated Press).
I used to give this talk with some regularity when I was just starting out as an author. I chose this topic because my journey is somewhat unique, because I have a great deal of experience in the publishing industry, and because initially people weren’t that interested in hearing from an unknown author who managed to get herself published. Sad but true!
I don’t give this talk as often any more; my appearances are generally more focused on the book I’m hawking at any given moment. But themes from this talk come up again and again. And I hear from enough aspiring writers with the same thoughts and questions that I believe this might be of some help.
A word of warning: This is NOT a nuts and bolts guide to getting published, because, frankly, there is no such thing. Many books pretend to be that – and you might find some good ones out there that tell you how to seek an agent, write a good query letter, etc. But the truth is, there’s no one way toward this elusive goal. When asked, I always say: Getting published takes a little bit of ability, a little bit of luck, and just sheer, never-say-die tenacity.
However, the following piece does contain some practical advice, some philosophical advice, and a few of the things that I learned along the way. I hope my thoughts and experiences help you get closer to your dream.
Enjoy and good luck!
I guess what I want to talk about is dreams—dreams that become reality. I’m willing to bet that all of you reading this have pretty big dreams, otherwise maybe you’d be watching television rather than searching the internet about how to get published.
The author Julia Cameron, who wrote a tremendous book called The Artist’s Way, wrote in another tremendous book entitled The Right to Write that, “we treat unpublished writers as if they have an embarrassing case of unrequited love.” But I’ll ask you to consider for a moment that there is not a published author today who has not at one time been an aspiring writer. At one time or another every bestseller on the New York Times list, every critically acclaimed author you can name, had what you have right now, the dream of becoming a published author.
For me, the dream began when I was just a kid. I have always most naturally expressed myself through writing. I have always created stories to entertain myself and others. I’ve always dwelled in the land of my imagination more comfortably than in the real world. Being a published, full-time writer is the only dream I ever had for my life. And looking back, I can see clearly that every choice I made, whether I knew it or not at the time, has led me here.
It may be like that for you. Perhaps you’ve always been a writer. Or perhaps, you’ve decided just recently that you have a story to tell. Whatever your experience is, for whatever reason you’ve come to the craft, the first step in making your dream come true is very simple: Believe that it actually can come true.
For a long time, I didn’t really believe that it was possible to make a living as a writer. Mainly, because that’s what people always told me. So, I made it a hobby. All through high school, I won awards and, eventually, a partial scholarship for my writing. In college, I was advised by teachers to pursue my talent, to get an agent, to really go for it. But there was a little voice that told me quietly that it wasn’t really possible (Actually it was my father’s voice saying, “Kid, you’re off the payroll. Get a real job!). I didn’t see it as a viable career option as I graduated from Eugene Lang College—the undergraduate division of the New School for Social Research—and started my first job in publishing.
A real job delivers a regular paycheck, right? So I entered a profession that brought me as close to my dream as possible (without actually risking anything) … and paid, if not well, then at least every two weeks. But this is the second step toward making your dreams come true: Realize that it’s not about the money.
If you’ve come to the craft because you think it’s a way to get rich, put your pen away. Some people do get rich … there are a few celebrity authors that we all can name. And I’m not saying you can’t or won’t get there yourself. But I am saying that if that’s your motivation, then you are not a writer. A writer writes because he or she can’t be anything else. Not that we’re unable to do anything else, only that it’s a drive that exists whether there’s a paycheck behind it or not. I would be writing even I weren’t getting paid (and did for most of my life). I will still be writing if I never publish another word. If this is true for you, then you are a writer whether or not you’re published, whether or not you are getting paid. One must write for the sake of writing, for no other reason.
In my publishing career, I started as a publicity assistant and, eventually, over the next seven years, climbed up the ranks to an associate director of publicity at Penguin Putnam, one of the largest publishing companies in the world. I booked author tours, media interviews. I traveled the country with authors. I worked every day with some of the most successful writers in the industry, was intimately connected with every aspect of book publishing and had never been further away from my dream. I wasn’t writing a word; months would go by—nothing.
My job was very demanding and draining—fifty, sixty hours a week, late nights at book signings and events, traveling to conferences, author tours. And all the while, I was stealing time to write my first novel, Angel Fire. It took me nearly five years to get serious about it. That’s the next step toward making a dream come true, COMMITMENT.
You have a million other commitments, of course. There’s your family, your job, your life. But at some point, you have to make a commitment to pursue the dream. Maybe that means you get up an hour earlier, or stay up two hours later to write. Maybe that means you eat a sandwich at your desk and use your lunch hour to get some pages down or claim some time for yourself on the weekends.
There is no other way to be a published writer than to write, no matter what. Maybe it’s a paragraph, maybe it’s a page, maybe it’s ten pages when you can do it. But there is simply no other way to be a writer than to write. There are no short cuts, like anything worth doing. You have to dedicate at least part of your energy to accomplishing that goal.
Personally, I had an epiphany. I took a really long hard look at my life. It was pretty good. I was young, had a great job, a fabulous apartment, fantastic friends, and I was newly liberated from a terrible relationship. But I realized that I was devoting all my creative energy to a job that I didn’t love. And that if I took 10 percent of my energy and devoted it to my goal of being a published, working writer that I KNEW I could make it happen. And more than that, I realized that if I DIDN’T focus fully on my goal that ten years from now, I’d have to look back and say to myself, “You know what? You never even tried.” I couldn’t live with that.
From that point, it took me about another year to finish Angel Fire (my first novel published by St. Martin’s Minotaur under my maiden name Lisa Miscione). When it was done, I sent it to five agents and was fortunate enough to get signed on by one of the best in the industry (she’s still my agent today). Three months later she had brokered a two-book deal for me with St. Martin’s Press. This is the abridged version of my story, visit me at www.lisaunger.com for more details—it’s a pretty interesting story, if I do say so myself.
Here, I’m going to move past the more philosophical ideas about making this particular dream come true and move into the nuts and bolts aspects of getting published.
Unfortunately, there’s no formula. And, of course, my story is not typical. There are not many people who sell the first book they’ve ever written. Many successful authors wrote five books or more before they were ever published. So that brings me to the other element in making dreams come true. TENACITY. Believe in yourself and never give up. In my experience the following five steps are the best way to go … and they can be repeated over and over again if necessary.
1) Finish your novel.
You may hear about people selling their idea, or their outline for a book they want to write. And this happens sometimes in the case of non-fiction. An established author might sell by synopsis. But for a first-time novelist, you really need to submit a completed manuscript. There’s more to the writing of a novel than a good idea and the ability to string a few coherent sentences together. An agent (and we’ll talk about why you need an agent), needs to see that you can create and resolve a story arc, that you know about pacing, how to create a strong narrative voice, develop characters, etc. To know that, they’ll want to see your finished book.
2) Find an agent
Congratulations! You’ve finished your book. Now, your next step is to find yourself an agent. There are about a million agents out there (well, not really, but you get my point) all with varying degrees of credibility. The Literary Market Place (LMP) lists all agents and publishing houses, offering detailed accounts of what they represent or publish. Go to the library or visit www.literarymarketplace.com to peruse this industry bible. Some agents like military fiction or legal thrillers, some are more literary, some more commercial. The LMP will help you to compile a list of agents that might be right for you.
Another way to find an agent to query is to figure out which authors your work is most like. Is it a romance novel in the tradition of Nora Roberts? Then you might call that publisher and find out who represents Nora Roberts.
An agent is crucial for many reasons, and I suppose that could be a whole other blog. But the simple truth is that most large publishers don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts and there’s no other way in the door except to find reputable representation. So get yourself a good one. Easier said then done, of course. But the Literary Market Place is the best place I can think of to start.
3) Draft a compelling, professional agent query letter
Once you’ve decided which agents you’d like to approach, send your query letter (DO proofread carefully, correct typos, etc. … have someone else look at it, too) to one or two agents at a time. Some people will tell you that you can only query one agent at a time but this is not necessary. If more than one agent requests your full manuscript and leaps to sign you on, you can make a choice based on who else he or she represents, what they’ve sold recently, success track record, fee, etc. (BTW – Standard agent fee is 15 percent of earnings and no reputable agent will charge you anything until your book is sold.)
All you need is a simple business query letter. State briefly what your book is about, what your credentials are (education, publications, etc.), a personal statement about why you’ve chosen to query that particular agent, and a polite request for representation. (You might also include the first chapter of your novel, though some books will advise against this. To my mind, that’s what will sell your book or not. But like I said, this is not a nuts-and-bolts guide, so do what feels best.)
While poor grammar, bad spelling, and typos are all the hallmarks of carelessness and a lack of professionalism and need to be very carefully attended to, don’t get bogged down with anything else. Sending your work in colored envelopes to catch attention, fancy binding, and/ or stationery are all totally unnecessary steps. It may catch someone’s attention but probably not in a good way. Simple, professional, and focused, that’s the way to go. The writing is the thing. Your query letter is an introduction and must walk the line between professionalism and enthusiasm. It must be “selling” but also measured. Crazy lines like, “I’m so much better than John Grisham” or “You’re looking at your new bestseller” will really hurt you to the point that people might just throw your stuff in the trash. Seriously.
4) Prepare for rejection
Look, there’s simply no way around. It hurts, every time. You’ll feel that crush of disappointment on your heart, every time. But you’ll need to get over it and FAST if your dream is going to survive. It’s possible that the first agent who reads your book, loves it, that the first editor who sees it, loves it and buys it. But more than likely, you’ll query a couple agents at least before you get signed on. Even when you’ve found an agent, there may be rejection from publishers until you find one who thinks you’re brilliant. Even when you’ve found a publisher, there might be reviewers who reject your book, or readers who don’t like it for whatever reason. Get tough. Your dream has to be made out of cast iron because the publishing industry is one hot kitchen. Imagine where we’d be if great dreamers let their ideas get quashed by other people’s opinions. It would be a dark, cold world.
5) Keep writing
Just because your manuscript is out there, doesn’t mean you should stop writing. Keep at it. Come up with another idea, and get to work on it. Remember, it’s not about the selling. It’s about the craft. It’s about being the best writer you can be, every day, without fail. And you can’t do that without writing every day without fail.
It really is the question I get most often: How do I go about getting published? Everything above is the long answer. The short answer is: Write everyday. Get better every day. Keep getting your work out there in the most professional way possible. And never, ever give up.
It’s really that simple … and that hard.
Keep writing and good luck!
P.S. These are some of the best books I’ve read on the craft. You’ll understand more about the business and yourself if you take the time to read them.
The Forest For the Trees by Betsy Lerner
On Writing by Steven King
The Right to Write and The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron