How to get published

Girl writing book

Shelley is an extremely experienced book editor, who helps writers realise their dreams and turn their manuscripts into bestsellers. Last year she decided to take the plunge and put her pen where her, er, mouth is and write a novel of her own! Here is her essential guide to writing that blockbuster and getting a publishing deal ¦

Tooling up

“I’m writing a book.”

It’s a phrase that nearly always elicits a “Wow”, (sometimes accompanied by a “Wish I could do that”, or “Yeah, I’ve also got a book in me. I’ll write it one day”. I made that statement a year or so ago. And along with the excitement I felt at finally doing something I’d been wanting to do, planning to do for years, came a rash of responses ” some positive, usually from friends; some frightened, usually from inside me.

I’d better get prepared, I thought. “Piss or get off the pot” is one of my favourite sayings and was, now, never more in focus. This was the fun bit. I called it “tooling up”. Here’s how the adventure runs.

Tooling up 1­“first, buy a writing book.

Stationery is good, though in my case, utterly unnecessary. It would be perfectly OK to grab one of the beautiful notebooks I already own, despite it being destined for the next journal exercise or just happy to sit on my shelf as a beautiful object. Objections overcome, I buy a new writing book. One desire sated; on to the next. 

Tooling up 2 ” decide what story to tell.

This is, perhaps, the most important part of the whole journey. Knowing what to write is not just, as many people ask of authors, coming up with an idea. Part of the reason for writing has to be, that we feel we have something to tell (not, always though, something to say and that’s another story!). But, I admit, having the feeling that I did have a story to tell was, in part, strengthened by friends listening intently as I told tales, or even soliciting that one or the other one¦ There also was, despite my years of working as an editor, a fantastically naive, “How hard can it be?”. That, I now see, is what people mean by “fantasy is really taking off as a literary genre”. How hard can it be? Well, says Olin Miller, it’s the hardest job in the world, next to wrestling alligators.

Tooling up 3 “ write it!

These days, when friends ask me how my book is going I get a panic reaction and know the answer is, “Not too well”. Why? Not enough time, not enough time and not enough time. Writers write. They approach their writing as a job and put huge amounts of time and effort into finding characters and creating sentences and images and descriptions and crafting them into stories that keep readers entertained and, if we’re lucky, moved.

So, what are your choices if you do want to write and how, how do you go about it. You remember this old joke, for one. One person says to the other, ‘So what are you up to these days?”. She replies: “I’m writing a book”. First person, “Ah, yes, I’m also not writing”. Why is this even funny? It rings so true for me and for many people I know; we procrastinate, we seek (and often find) huge diversions (though daytime television may be one of my most uneasy habits. It is, though, only ever a half an hour at a time).

Tooling up 4 “ beating writer’s block.

So what, really, are my blocks? Before I begin writing I have huge expectations about the end point. About having enough power to keep writing; about having enough things to say and pictures to paint. Then, I’m afraid that the pictures in my head won’t look as good on the page (even if it’s really a screen because by now I’ve given up the paper and gone straight to the computer hoping it will be an easier transit.

“A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” said Thomas Mann (Nobel Laureate). That’s seems to capture for me, the real ache that writers have to get the words right. Like many writers I’ve spoken to, I have a big fear of failing. Of writing lukewarm or even boring stories.

When I start writing, all too often, the gap between the idea or picture in my head and the words finally written is a mix, sometimes huge. Sometimes I can live with it and sometimes, even, what’s down on the page is better than I’d hoped for. It is a strange process and sometimes I can’t see what is there, as mine. But it is. So I move on, but inside I’m smiling. Then, a paradox; as well as fear of failing there is, strangely, a fear of success. As if the striving is more important than the achievement. It trips me up and I stop writing.

Tooling up 5 “find people to inspire you.

So, I’ve joined a writers group and it’s terrific to work with other writers and be inspired and comforted and supported by them. We also eat and drink very well. I’ll stop there. But I would like to at least jot my stepping stones for the exquisite journey and I hope they make you want to do some writing. They are:

  • be prepared (this might be supplies, it might be time, or both)
  • have a story to tell (this might be yours, or other characters’)
  • tell it (and retell: it’s the drafting and redrafting that equals crafting)
  • discover what the unnecessary bits are and edit them out
  • polish the gem some more.

The good news is that lots of people get this far. It may take them months or years, but there are many who have put in the effort to knock out those 90 000 words (‘standard’ novel length). I know because I work with them all the time.

But lots of writers have trouble with this one:

  • decide if you want it published and then, get it published. (Somehow … simple.)

Tooling up 6 “ Getting the deal

This is the next (big) phase and another adventure; there are many places to have your work published, but no matter the medium (book, magazine, online, screen) one of the best first things to do is to truly polish and shine, till the manuscript is, well, brilliant! So shining that publishers won’t be able to resist and there’ll be agents clamouring to represent you and a bidding war as publishers vie for the chance to have you on their list! Ah… and I thought I didn’t write fantasy.

Want to know the next steps? Something like this:

  • do some more polishing:  send it to friends, loved ones, a professional (like me!)
  • meet other writers
  • work with other writers (regular writing group meetings make a big difference)
  • research the publishing scene (if you want it published)
  • cultivate patience and persistence
  • learn to cope with critique or, even, rejection (ouch)

Now… to find an ending.

Ah, that’s it. Come back to the beginning. So, I’m writing a book. Why? Because I am a writer. Not because I’m published or award-winning, or have any proof other than pages and pages. But just because it’s what I am. And I’m loving it.

Shelley Kenigsberg is running an Editing Retreat in Bali in October. Find out more at

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2 Responses to “How to get published”

  1. Lisa says:

    Love your work, Shelley!
    You’re a constant inspiration!