Grab a cuppa and settle in. Today, multi-published women’s fiction author, Cathy Lamb, shares her personal publishing story as well as some unconventional advice for aspiring authors.
Cathy Lamb is the author of nine novels. NINE! (And she’s working on number ten! Yay!) She has been one of my favorite authors since the day a friend handed me Henry’s Sisters. I was hooked. I’ve read all of Cathy’s books and recently finished What I Remember Most, a heartwarming and heartbreaking story of resilience, friendship, and love. I adore Cathy’s characters, they—even with their many flaws and sometimes gut-wrenching backstories—are people I wish I knew. I want to step inside the story and be part of it.
One of the best perks of being an author is making author friends. Cathy and I have become friends through various writer groups. I’m thrilled to say she recently read The Glass Wives. Can you imagine? Her work has inspired me and she has read MY book. You can poke around on Facebook and see more about that here.
But first, read the post, and welcome Cathy Lamb to Women’s Fiction Writers.
And if you haven’t read any of Cathy’s books, why not start today? I recommend her first book, mentioned below, Julia’s Chocolates. I was hooked with the first line: “I left my wedding dress hanging in a tree somewhere in North Dakota.” Aren’t you?
Share your rocky road to publishing in the comments! Or ask a question!
The Rocky Road To Publishing
by Cathy Lamb
I am asked all the time how one should go about getting traditionally published.
I will assume that you want to know how to do this without losing your mind.
Here is my answer.
You need to write something good. Really good. You need to write something that a publishing house believes will sell.
So work, work, work on that story of yours.
Write when you’re crying. Write when you’re daydreaming. Write when you’re hopeless. Write when you’re exhausted and miss your hippie days. Write when grief is overwhelming you, write after you kick your husband out, write after a weekend with your sisters where you laughed so hard you wet your pants.
Write when all is well, write when all seems black.
Study writing. Go to writing classes. Study your favorite books and ask yourself why you like them. If you read a dull book, ask yourself, “Why did this not work for me?” Make sure you don’t replicate those problems.
Read fiction, non fiction, memoirs, thrillers, biographies, etc. Read all over.
Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. On Writing by Stephen King. Writing Out The Storm by Jessica Morrell. And read Julia Cameron and Natalie Goldberg’s books on writing for advice and inspiration.
Study more. Write more. Read more. Begin again. Edit, edit, edit. Use that delete button.
When you’re ready to submit your work, you need to get yourself an agent. (Remember, this article is not addressing self publishing or publishing with Amazon. That is a whole other massive and mind numbing article with conflicting opinions.)
Should you finish writing your book before you try to get an agent?
Probably anyone else, in any magazine article or speech about “how – to – publish,” here or on Jupiter, will tell you to write a full manuscript before sending the first chapter off to an agent for her review with the hopes that she’ll love it and ask for the full manuscript.
This is enormously good advice in many ways. Writing a full book before sending it to an agent makes you nail down those characters. It forces you into the writing process.
You learn about pacing, character arcs, character development, word choice, descriptions, dialogue, narration, setting, voice, and a hundred other things, including whether or not you are capable of sitting your butt down and finishing a book. All excellent points.
I, however, will not tell you to write a full manuscript before sending the first chapter off to an agent to review.
Why? Because of my own personal and miserable publishing history which involves piles of rejection slips from rejected, full manuscripts.
Let me share my literary misery.
(Skip this part if you can’t stand to listen to people whine. I’ll understand, I will.)
After years spending time writing full manuscripts, as a certain category romance publishing house kept asking for more, they would be rejected. Repeatedly.
I wanted to bash my head through a wall. All those months of work…trashed. For nothing.
Looking back, the writing was bad. The idea was bad. The characters were bad. The organization and dialogue and narration were bad. Bad, bad, bad. I’m surprised I got as far as I did.
On my LAST attempt at writing a book, when I completely changed genres to women’s fiction from romance, I wrote the first 40 -ish pages of my book, Julia’s Chocolates, no more. I sent it to four agents and a famous editor. The famous editor never responded. All the agents, based on those first forty pages, requested the full manuscript.
I waited until my favorite agent – the one I have now – asked for the full manuscript. I lied and told him I needed to do “a little editing,” and worked my butt off for about four months, writing from ten o’clock at night until two in the morning, while taking care of three young kids, a house, and working a freelance writing job for our state’s newspaper.
I used to edit Julia’s Chocolates while my kids were playing at Chuck E Cheese and McDonalds. I lost a lot of that fake money to the games.
Anyhow, I sent the full manuscript to my favorite agent, blurry eyed and exhausted. He loved it and I signed with him in a couple of weeks. A few weeks after that he sold Julia’s Chocolates as part of a two – book deal to the publishing house I’m with now. I was ecstatic and I still love both my agent and my editor.
So my advice is to write a bang up 20 pages. Yes, I did say twenty.
But why write only 20 pages? Because then you won’t waste your time. If the subject matter/characters of your book are not appealing, if it is not going to sell, you have not wasted a year, or many endless years, of your life writing a book that no publishing house wants. With twenty pages you have limited your loss of time and effort and, unfortunately, tears.
The brutal truth is – and here I will say something that will be offensive so put on your tough alligator skin – what you’re writing may not be anything anyone wants. It could be the topic. Could be the market. Could be the wildly insane competition out there.
It could well be the writing. It’s just not good/intriguing/gripping/fun enough.
So write twenty pages.
When the twenty pages are perfect and wildly wonderful, write a short cover letter to the agents describing the plot in the first two paragraphs, the ending paragraph should be about you, your writing history, etc.
Your packet out to agents, online or by snail mail, looks like this: Cover letter, one page. Twenty pages of your story. Synopsis, one page.
Send this packet out to ten agents at a time. Yes, I did say ten.
Everything you hear or read, here or on Jupiter, will tell you to send your partial manuscript to one agent at a time. Don’t follow that rule either. As you can see, I don’t really like rules. Too confining, too dull.
Why submit to multiple agents at the same time? Many agents will never, ever respond to you or your pages. Other agents will take months to read it. With others, the rejection slips will come back so fast, you will think the agent didn’t even read your book. And, he may not have. He may not be taking on clients.
Want more mean truths? An agent will read the first paragraph of your work, MAYBE the first page, of your book, before he tosses it if his attention is not grabbed. If he likes the first paragraph, he reads the first page, then the second page, then the third.
He knows QUICKLY if your book is something he can sell to a publishing house. They’re experienced, they’re smart, they’re efficient. Never forget: They are BURIED in manuscripts.
You will probably be surprised at how fast the rejections come back. It is disheartening, I know it. I lived it. Bang my brain against the keyboard, this part is not fun, and I so feel for you.
But buck up on the rejections or get out of writing. Rejections are a part of being a writer. Even multi published, successful authors still get rejections. Cry. Throw a fit. Take thirty minutes then get over yourself and your pride and your belief that your book should be Number One on the NY Times bestseller list by Tuesday.
If your book keeps getting rejected, analyze it without emotion and figure out what’s wrong with it. You must put your ego aside. Do not give it to your mother or wife to analyze it, they are too close to you and probably won’t be honest.
Hire a reputable editor. (Like Amy) An editor does not like or love you, which is how it should be. You are paying her to be honest and to help you improve. Do not hire an editor if you are afraid your feelings will be hurt. Listen to what she tells you, be open to the criticisms and suggestions.
(Side note: Do not hire an editor if you want her to flatter you and tell you that your book is perfect. A good editor is blunt and honest and knows her stuff. Most of the time she is polite, but not always. Only hire her if you want to hear the truth, you won’t get defensive, you want her criticisms, you’re okay with her shredding your prose, and you are mature enough and smart enough to turn around and use the criticisms to write a better book.)
You may have to eventually change genres, like I did, from romance to women’s fiction, which worked splendidly, and I am now writing my tenth novel. I wish I had changed genres years before I did. I would have saved myself a lot of frustration and heartache. I would encourage you to do the same after repeated rejections in one genre.
But, lickety split, let’s go back to agent talk.
If an agent likes those twenty pages, he will ask you for the full manuscript. This is where you write your heart out, like I did, above. Make it the best writing of your life. Give up sleep. Get up early, go to bed late, write during the weekend.
You may have to edit that sucker four or ten times. I edit all my books eight times before I send it the first time to my agent and editor, and I have been writing for years. Address the stuff I mentioned above about compelling characters and believable character arcs, word choice, description, setting and PACING. Pacing is key. Too slow and you’ll put people to sleep.
Many people will say that this approach, where only 20 – ish pages are actually done when you first send it to an agent, will result in a rushed, poor manuscript if it’s requested by an agent.
Here’s the key: Don’t send in a rushed, poor manuscript. Duh. Send in an excellent manuscript. The very best you can do.
Yes, your manuscript arrives later than the agent wanted but, trust me on this one: If it’s a heckuva manuscript, he won’t give a rip. He’ll lean back in his chair, throw up his arms, look to the ceiling as if in “Hallelujah,” and try to sell your manuscript for as much as he can get.
If you get ONE reputable agent who is interested in your work, you should click your heels together in joy. I have heard unpublished authors fret, hands wringing, all uptight, “What would I do if I send my manuscript to more than one agent at a time and they all want it?”
This happens so rarely, stop your worrying.
If you are very fortunate and two agents or more ask for the full manuscript, send it to your favorite agent first, wait a month, send an email to see if they’re interested, and if they don’t respond in a timely manner, send the full to the second agent. Or, send it to both agents at the same time, (this is what I would do) and let them know another agent is looking at it, too.
If the agent likes your manuscript and thinks he can sell it, he will call or email you. It is unlikely that he will send a smoke signal.
If you still like that agent after that conversation, you will sign a contract with that agent. This means he will represent your book to the publishing houses, which basically means he will contact the editors he knows, either at lunch or a cocktail party or a meeting or a bar, and talk your book up. He will contact editors in houses who sell your type of genre.
Hopefully an editor is interested. If he is, the agent will send the editor your manuscript. If the editor believes his house can sell it and make loads of money off it, he will then buy the book. This involves more contracts. All the contracts are in legalese and are quite long and detailed. They will bore you silly. Get an attorney to review it.
The contracts from the editor/publishing house will go through your agent. You will sign the contracts if you agree to the upfront money the publishing house is offering, and the royalties they offer after the book sells and your upfront money is paid off.
Please people. The number of writers who get upfront six figures – plus is tiny. Miniscule. Do not expect anywhere near this, especially for your first book. I know writers who get all the money they can upfront, because they know they will earn no royalties. Be aware that the vast majority of people who call themselves writers (probably 97%) cannot make a living writing, that’s why they keep their day jobs.
Remember, you will also give a portion of your earnings to your agent (15%) once you are under contract with a publishing house. All monies go from the publishing house, to the agent, then to you. Royalties are paid twice a year.
Once the contract is signed, you’ve sold your book. It is now time to skip and cheer so the aliens on Jupiter can hear you.
There is a WHOLE TON of stuff that you need to do at that time, social media, etc. but that is another article and I do not want to make you cry.
Hopefully there will be more contracts to come and you’ll be on your merry, lovely way. I wish that for you, I truly do.
In the meantime, always remember….
You must keep writing all the time if you want to publish.
You must keep reading excellent books, and learning from them, if you want to publish. I am still learning. Still studying. Still critically analyzing my work and doing the same to other authors’ work whose skills I admire.
Don’t you dare ever read crappy books. It will affect your writing.
Understand that this is an incredibly competitive industry. There are so many freakishly talented authors out there it is head spinning. You are competing against them. Never forget it. Bring your best to the table.
You must live a full life if you want to publish. Love. Laugh. Be with family and friends. Dance. Sing. Go have adventures. For heaven’s sakes, travel. Listen to people. Think new thoughts. Open your brain up to new ideas. Read the newspaper. Take an art class. Try photography. Go to the mountains. Play in the waves. Make new friends. Be interested in others. Be interesting yourself. Be compassionate and kind. All this will fuel the writer in you.
Good luck. I mean that.
***** A little more on agents, even though you are probably sick of this topic…
Do you need an agent? Unless you are writing category romance, like Silhouette or Harlequin, or you’re self – publishing, you need an agent. An agent acts as a screener. If you cannot get an agent to represent you, the general rule is that the publishing house won’t look at your work. In other words, if an agent didn’t like it, they won’t either.
How do you contact an agent in the first place? If you’re in writers’ groups, agents’ names will start floating around. Pay attention to those names. You might also meet agents at writing conferences or workshops. Your best friend’s brother’s half sister may be an agent.
Or, pick up this book, 2015 Writer’s Market and find an agent in there under your genre. If you’re writing romance, look for romance book agents, writing thrillers, go for agents representing thriller writers
Make sure you are sending your work to good, honest agents. Go to this website http://pred-ed.com/ to check. Reputable agents NEVER ask for upfront money or reader’s fees. If yours does, drop him and move on.
31 thoughts on “Guest Post: Multi-Published Author Cathy Lamb’s Publishing Advice for Aspiring Authors”
I loved this post so much. Thank you Amy and Cathy!
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You are quite welcome. I’ll say that for me and Amy, our fearless writing leader
Wonderful post – warm, witty, passionate, and full of wisdom for writers. I have not read any of Cathy’s books, but after reading this, I rushed right to Amazon on gobbled up a couple of them.
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Well, thank you, majam47! I hope you liked my books. My books are best read with chocolate. I do hope you ate chocolate while reading. I should make it a requirement
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You should read my books while eating chocolate. They will taste better then. Just a thought.
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Sound advice, Cathy! Always a pleasure, Amy — I read on my email and do not make it by here much, but I enjoy your posts
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Thank you, katmagendie. And thank you, Amy Sue Nathan, for letting me hang out here. You’re my kind of gal!
Cathy, if there were a place to click “love” instead of “like” for this post, I would have done it! You offer sound, hard-hitting advice without being pessimistic about traditional publishing–a rare thing in this business! Amy, thank you for introducing me to Cathy. It’s time I got started reading her books. Can’t wait! She sounds like my kind of author.
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Aw, thanks, Holly. Glad my bluntness didn’t offend. I feel it’s best to be honest, but I do attempt not to come off with sharp teeth and a loud bark. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Thank you. Glad you loved it. I don’t think there’s a need to be pessimistic about being published. It’s hard. The competition is tough. But here’s the thing: I’m not that smart. I have a wild imagination. I like telling stories. I work my ass off and I have made serious efforts to become a writer since I was 17. I lived off 6 hours of sleep for decades. I study books. But if I can do it, you can do it. Truly.
Thanks so much for this yummy post, Cathy. I have a question: there is a mid-way point between self-publishing and getting an agent so you can publish your work traditionally. It’s the “small press” option, the advantage of which is that you can submit directly. What do you think of this? Thanks.
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Your question about what I think of a “small press” is complicated. It IS in the center, sort of, between publishing traditionally and self publishing. There is also hybrid publishing, which means a press is printing your book, there is little if any advance, but you’re doing much of the marketing, PR, etc. (And that’s a whole other complicated answer, too)
So, I think there are really great small presses out there. This is not to be confused with my saying it is “easy” to be with a small press. It isn’t. The competition there is very tough, too. If money is an issue to you, often the small presses don’t pay much, if any, up front, same with royalties.
The publishing world is changing and it’s tricky. I know a number of authors who are making six figures self publishing, much more than they did with traditional publishers. (Many romance authors in particular) This is not going to be true with MOST self publishers, but the opportunity is absolutely there.
So, ask yourself what YOU want to do. What’s the goal? Follow the goal, follow your head, follow your gut. And write an excellent book.
You are quite welcome. I hope it was helpful
This is the second time I’ve answered your question, the first answer disappeared….so, yes, the small press is an option, of course. The competition is stiff there, too. There will be little up front money, if any, and the royalties are (generally) smaller, as they don’t sell as many books because they have a smaller audience/marketing power, etc. HOWEVER, small presses will sometimes have big hits, and that would be outstanding news for you.
Absolutely loved this post! Best summary a first-time author could have. Thanks for sharing!
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Glad you liked it! It was rather long but that is because I talk so much….
Wow, Cathy, thanks for sharing your heart and soul and your brain. I read every word and I get it. I’m at the point where I think all the agents are emailing each other–did you get that proposal from Havey–stand clear!! But maybe not. I know to keep writing, editing, reworking. I’m doing that. And BELIEVING. I believe in my book and in myself and I hope that takes me somewhere. Again, thanks. Beth
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No, the agents are not emailing each other about proposals. They are absolutely buried in manuscripts, authors, editors, things to do and they do not have the time. I know my agent isn’t even taking any more clients.
Just keep writing and READING. Read only excellent books, and don’t just read in your genre. I read all over the place – fiction, non fiction, memoir, the New York Times (always), etc. Watch great shows on television and study the characters, dialogue and settings.
And, you’re right. Believe in yourself. Believe it will happen. Envision it happening. Daydream about your success. Be OPEN to criticism – from yourself. Analyze your work. Go with your gut. One of the biggest problems I see with people who are not yet published is that they are over confident. They think their book is terrific. That’s a killer right there. You need to take it apart, with an open mind, and figure out what is not working, why is it getting rejected.
And the hard questions, after many rejections, Do you need to start with a new book or change genres?
Try to love the process, even when it’s so frustrating and heart breaking. Throw a teeny tiny fit if your manuscript gets rejected, send it out again, work on it again, read more, start writing something new, and keep living a fulfilled and interesting and full life.
But don’t quit. You can take a break, but don’t quit. Good luck to you, I truly mean that.
So wonderful to see my fellow Tall Poppy Writers supporting each other this way! Cathy makes a lot of good points about publishing–especially about creating a book of quality. It’s a tough industry, but there’s always a lot to learn. I lived on Query Tracker (www.querytracker.net) when I was agent hunting, and recommend it highly.
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I lived on Agent Query. (www.agentquery.com)
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Hi, Cathy. It’s wonderful to see a fellow Kensingtonian at Amy’s place. I found myself nodding in agreement with your wonderful post. Although this is a tough, competitive business, I’ve found fellow authors nothing but supportive. Can’t wait to read What I Remember Most.
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And greetings to a fellow Kensington author. Nice to see you here. Hope you like the book. I shall download one of your directly!
This is the most down to earth, freeing message I’ve heard on the biz ever. And makes the most sense. I’m living it. I know what you’re saying is true.
My question is: WILL that agent still be waiting for that full ms after four months? I fret if I don’t submit it in a few days’ time.
Thanks for your common sense advice and your inspiration.
Thank you for your questions. Will an agent still want to see your manuscript after four or five months, after they’ve expressed an interest in your first twenty pages?
Will they remember asking for it? I don’t know.
But if they liked it the first time, when they read 20 pages, they’ll like it again.
They are looking for a hit. They are looking for a book that will sell. If you hand in the book four months after they asked for it, they’ll read it. Just write in your cover letter, (and keep it a bit vague). “Thank you for asking to see my full manuscript MONSTERS AND CUPCAKES. The manuscript is enclosed. I will look forward to hearing from you. Sincerely, Mrs. Monster.”
And there ya go. Just make sure that final manuscript is the absolute best you can do. Trim it up. The delete button is your first. Dialogue. Move that sucker right along. Be descriptive, use excellent words. Write characters that your audience can root for. If you have a “bad guy” make him human with one thing – he loves.dogs. He cares for grandma’s sister. He has a brother who struggles with drugs he keeps paying for rehab for. Something.
Don’t forget setting and making it interesting. Use the weather to increase tension and for a fun back drop.
I could go on and on but it would be boring. Good luck.
This is one of the most cohesive, thoughtful, and comprehensively helpful articles I’ve read in a long time! I’ve forwarded it to my writers group. Thank you for this!
Regina, I hope you and your writers group found it helpful. If you, or they, have questions, they can just email me through my website CathyLamb.org. Have a happy day.
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Wow. That’s great for you to find your perfect agent and snag ’em with 20 pages 😉
It actually took 40 pages for me to snag my agent, Lia. But who’s counting, right? I recommend writing 20 pages.
I appreciate all of your advice to writers. I’m not a writer but, an enthusiastic reader. I liked that you admonish people to never read ‘crappy books’, ever. The last CRAPPY series I read was “50 Shades”. I should be too embarrassed to type that sentence; but, it was dreadful! I don’t mean to open that whole can of worms regarding the abusive relationship(s) in the plot; but the author was a writer for television?!?
I felt slightly less bad about reading the series because I borrowed the books from an acquaintance…
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