Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Moon Shot to Publication

by Matt Sinclair

In my mind, today should be a national holiday, but I'm a bit of a lunatic. You see, on this day back in 1969 Neil Armstrong took the first human steps on the moon. From that moment, ordinary people of all walks of life had a perfect example of how the seemingly impossible was achievable.

I suspect my idea of National Moon Day could be taken the wrong way. (Note: no image will be linked to that name; I'll leave that to your imagination.) But we writers and artists and dreamers don't need to be reminded how difficult getting a manuscript published can be. It still seems like a moon shot, and perhaps that is the best way of looking at it.

Because, whether you're one of the wackos who thinks the moon landing was faked on some sound stage somewhere or you're a lunaphile like me who is disappointed we don't have colonies up there yet, you'll have to admit that getting to the moon—and staying—takes a lot of hard work. Indeed, it may even seem downright impossible. That's how becoming a published author can feel, too. It is possible, but you need to make sure you've put in all the work needed.

So, this is Mission Control: I need a Go-No Go for launch:

  • Writer: Are you ready for this? You may say you are, but do you know what you're setting yourself up for? I don't mean just the rejection. For some folks, rejection is easy to deal with. But you need to be ready for questions about you. Control, I need to get back to you in a bit...
  • Manuscript: Is it ready, has it been reviewed multiple times—not just for typos and errant grammatical mistakes but for errors that could cause the entire manuscript to blow up in your face. And who are these experts you've selected to review it? Do they know the subject from experience or is it your brother who kinda knows what he's talking about and always seems to have a good thing to say? Go-No Go?
  • Voice: Do you know what it is? Do you have it? Is it in your manuscript? Each page? Yes, that one too... If your manuscript doesn't have voice, that's a mission abort. Go-No Go?
  • Query: Have you written it. Does it sound like you? Does it sound like your manuscript? Does it say what it needs to say? Does it have a hook? Does it show a conflict? Have you run it by a bunch of experts who are at least of the same caliber as those who read and re-read your manuscript? Go-No Go?
  • Agents: Have you reviewed who the agents are who represent your genre? Have you checked out their Websites? Do you know who's who? Do you know who's new? Do you know if he's sold anything lately? Is she a good blogger but a mediocre agent? Who do they rep? Do you know which agents are closed to new queries? Do you know which of your target agents are not accepting queries over the summer? Are you certain that you're aiming in the right direction? Go-No Go?
  • Synopsis: Is it written? How long is it? Who's looked at it other than you? Is it compelling even in its simplest form? We don't want to be flying on a wing and a prayer, here, people. Go-No Go?
  • Writer: I ask again, are you ready for this? Do you know what you're looking for in an agent and an agency? Are you willing to be a small fish in a big pond? Do you expect hand-holding and gentle kicks in the back pockets of your jeans? Do you know why you're doing this? Go-No Go?
Ok, perhaps I'm taking this metaphor too far. But I don't think it's asking too much for writers to ask serious questions about themselves. Whether we're launching a fiction manuscript, a nonfiction book proposal, an anthology of short stories that have never been published anywhere else before, you need to be certain that your product is ready to go. You're part of that product. I don't know about you, but it's comforting to me that Frank Borman—who commanded the Apollo VIII mission, which was the first to orbit the moon—vomited along the way. Even the best of the best can feel weak at their moments of greatness.

Writing is not rocket science. You don't need to be an expert in fluid dynamics to know how a story flows or understand how laser toner gets zapped onto a page. You can even be relatively oblivious to how the ideas flow out of your mind and onto the paper.

But there was a reason why Neil Armstrong was chosen to lead the Apollo XI mission that was the first on the moon. He'd proven that he could handle himself in all sorts of challenging situations. He'd demonstrated that he could be decisive and steadfast even when a roomful of smart people were telling him he was wrong. He'd even hit the ejector button when he needed to rather than try to fix something that couldn't be fixed. He'd shown he was not only able and willing but ready.

You don't have to be like Neil Armstrong to become a published writer. But when you're shooting yourself above the stratosphere, it seems like a darn good idea to be ready for the entire trip. Ad astra, fellow writers. And shoot the moon!


Richard said...

Good analogy.

I guess I agree with most of what you say. The one about voice is a little iffy. But it's all a part of being professional, working on your story until it is absolutely finished (within reason, because we could get caught up in being 'perfect' and never finish it).

But the publishing game, as you know, is changing. The old game (query letters, synopsis, agents) is possibly facing extinction.

So, it falls on your shoulders to do most of the work, or pay someone to help you do it. We're facing new challenges as writers: self-editing, choosing cover images, up-loading our books, marketing them, and probably some others I haven't mentioned.

So, your list may look quite a bit different in the future.

Matt Sinclair said...

That's a very good point, Richard. I may have been thinking too much Apollo era with a little bit of shuttle-era and not addressing enough the post-shuttle era that we're moving into. I still think a writer's readiness is important, and maybe more important now that writers can send themselves into the publisphere.

Christopher Hudson said...

Last time I shot the moon, I was almost arrested!

RSMellette said...

I don't know if the business is changing that much. Gatekeepers are now and always will be necessary - though, it's true that the old days of a mission control sized team of people getting a book to the market are gone.

J. Lea Lopez said...

Love this analogy, Matt. It's good to have this sort of checklist dialogue with yourself and your internal "mission control" before you take the plunge - whether it's diving into the query pool, or launching yourself into self-publishing.

Matt Sinclair said...

RS, you may be right about the size of the team. I kinda doubt it's ever that large -- or ever was for most writers.

Jenn, that's exactly how I look at it: an internal checklist.

Thanks for the comments so far, everyone!

Jemi Fraser said...

This is a GREAT analogy, Matt! I knew next to nothing when I first stumbled onto Agent Query a couple of years ago. I've learned so much and there's always more to learn and prepare.

I'm also with you on the moon colonies - we really should be farther ahead in that department! :)

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks, Jemi. Hey, after we sell our novels and earn hundreds of millions of dollars, why don't we see if we can hitch a ride on a spaceship and hang out on the space station! I dream big.