Let me tell you about the experience of writing my first book, Chasing Sisyphus. It’s a suspenseful sci-fi romance and, well, there was nothing romantic about how its story starts. The romance—the creativity—came later. But in the beginning, it was all about one thing: getting a book published.

Sometimes it’s our dreams themselves that prevent us from achieving them. I woke up one day and realised the approach I’d been using wasn’t working. If I wanted to achieve this seemingly impossible task of getting a book published, I’d have to try something different. This is the path I took.

This is a companion post to last month’s guide sheet on finding your own way.

Getting over myself

As a hobbyist writer, I had the luxury of writing “whenever I was inspired”. It’s not all it’s cracked up to be because you can’t really control what inspires you. Getting a book published first means finishing a book, which means committing to writing on the busy days, the uninspired days, and especially when you hit a difficult point in your story that would otherwise turn you away.

Note, this doesn’t mean becoming a workaholic (that’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish). It means engaging your Rider just a bit more, rather than waiting for your Elephant to stumble upon the path. In my case, my Elephant was scared of imperfection, so my Rider had to deliberately and consciously push through the urge to procrastinate and give up. I had to develop mental discipline over when, how and what to write.

Who are you writing for?

To the writer who worries about artistic integrity: you’re not a sellout for “writing to market”. In fact, just a little more market awareness can sometimes make your writing a lot better. A good story is both satisfying for you to tell and satisfying for your readers to read. And to be able to produce work in that “goldilocks zone”, you need to know who your readers are.

The good news is you don’t even have to be super clear about this when you’re starting out. Even a vague notion of your audience can be enough to get you started. My vague notion that got me started? Romance readers and romance publishers.

I wasn’t even thinking about my story at this point. As a very inexperienced writer (and chronic over-thinker), I didn’t even know what kind of story I wanted to tell yet. But defining my audience—even though the definition was vague—gave me a solid footing. I actually had a goal now, not just a dream.

What do they want to read?

Initially, I only looked up major publishers and names I recognised. This was a fail. I found very little information about how I could query a major publisher successfully without adding more hoops to jump through.

So I started aiming for smaller publishers who were more approachable and who could publish books faster than the bigger players. It amazed me to discover that beyond the “big 5” publishers, there is a huge publishing market, especially in romance. Some publishers prefer certain subgenres, some only publish in certain subgenres, and some have firm guidelines for the types of stories they’re willing to consider.

So, here’s what my publisher criteria looked like in the end:

  • Must accept direct submissions (ie. not through an agent)
  • Must present a friendly and upfront manner on their website
  • Must be open to sexy stories of a medium-to-high steam rating
  • Must be clear about what they want (lack of clarity is the worst when you’re trying to learn)

Out of all the publishers that made my shortlist, only two had guidelines about story. And of those, only one of them got specific about things like sexual content, frequency and couplings. Their guidelines were the ones I used to help me plan my story.

Developing a viable story

I’m not ashamed to admit I wrote to a criteria and to a formula at this point. Many inexperienced writers (like I was) presume that such prescriptions leave less room for creativity. But in reality, they simply locked down certain parameters so I could focus on the really interesting stuff like worldbuilding and depth of character.

When it came to story planning, I kept things super simple with a chapter-by-chapter outline in a Google Doc. Then I divided those chapters into 3 acts, added a handful of genre-specific events (ie. when the characters meet, when they hook up, when the big climax happens), then finally, connected those dots with a story.

Then, I began to write.

Querying to the letter

When I finally had a submittable manuscript (thanks to feedback from generous beta readers), I began the querying process. For each publisher I submitted to, I followed their query guidelines to the letter.

Yes, it’s a lot of work to do this, and rightly so! Acquiring editors, like agents, are busy af. So at the very least, following their instructions shows we respect the people we’re asking to take a look at our work.

You’ll see this advice everywhere, but let me repeat it here: follow the publisher’s instructions. It could mean the difference between your email going to a human being or going into the bin.

The debut novel

Within two weeks of submission, the top publisher on my shortlist (the one whose content guidelines I based my story on) got back to me with an offer. From there, I followed their process, worked to their deadlines, and made extra effort to look up stuff I didn’t understand so I wouldn’t have to keep bugging them. Within a few short months, my book was released.

Once upon a time, I believed being an author and getting a book published would be a big scary ordeal. And, you know, it still can be. Writing a good story is hard enough when we don’t get in our own way. At least the process can be straightforward if we let it.