In my enormously uninformed opinion, the biggest problem people have in getting a book published is mistaking an idea for a story.
I doubt there is a soul on Earth who will not, if you earn their confidence and/or ply them with enough gin, tell you that they have a great idea for a book. Then they will tell it to you. You cannot get them to stop. Oh, before the gin takes effect, they will mutter dark lamentations about keeping this game-changer on the down-low, lest it be stolen by the hoards of thieving writers and their unscrupulous publishers, but at some point they will feel compelled to share. And 9 times out of 10, the idea will be just that; scarcely more than the barest of bare descriptions. “A werewolf is bitten by a vampire!’ they will say, their eyes lighting up
“Cool!” you reply, looking around for the nearest exit, should it come to that. “So what happens?”
In all likelihood, their eyes glaze over, having never really thought about it beyond that point. Count yourself lucky, because the alternative is that they HAVE thought it over. Boy have they. They carry around a thick folder of maps and a 12 volume set of notebooks on the world of their story, so dense and detailed that they make The Silmarillion look like a collection of tweets.
Those people will almost NEVER write that book. If they do, it will be about the thickness of The Stand, which is great if the book is written by Stephen King and not quite as great when written by Sidney Applebaum.
So back to our first example, the idea with no story. You have to convince them that as cool an idea as a vampire biting a werewolf is, it is not a story. It’s a prompt, a tool that may indeed lead to a story. How did this happen? What happens next? And then what? Ask and answer enough “What happens next?’ questions and you end up with a story, which can now be made into a book.
The single best advice I can give
John Hartness, my publisher, does a mess of conventions and participates in a freakish amount of panels at said conventions. Seriously, I was feeling all big and bad with 8 panels at Dragoncon, and then we counted what was on the back of his badge. 19! “Well, not all of them are panels,” he says in a sudden and baseless display of modesty. Which is true; some of them were mentoring sessions, one on ones with aspiring writers which are WAY more effort than sitting on a panel waiting for whoever is yammering away to take a deep breath so you can jump in with a zinger.
You should go to as many of these panels as you can, to the point where John and the other publishers assume you are an aspiring writer and/or a stalker. You will get advice for free that most writers have to pay for.
And it was at one of those panels that John gave probably the single best piece of advice anyone can give, the one thing that instantly puts you in the top 5% of new writers.
Finish the book.
That’s it. That’s it right there. A mediocre finished book is about 12,000 times more likely to get published than the greatest idea ever conceived that sits unfinished while the author keeps on polishing it to a reflective finish. John says that the vast majority of people who come up to him and tell him what their book is about, (descriptions that actually sound exciting and get the coveted invitation to send it to Falstaff for an actual reading) never follow through.
Probably because the book hasn’t been written and never will be.
So finish the book. Take that idea, make a story of it, and then write the book. If it isn’t perfect, there are people who can help you get closer to perfection (editors). Most books that are written do not get published. This is a hard truth.
But no unwritten book gets published. And there are things you can do to greatly improve your odds. I will freely admit that there are vastly better writers than me out there who may wonder how I managed to stumble onto this good fortune and I am going to tell you exactly what I did, because I’d like to read their stuff. I mean, what happened with that whole vampire/werewolf thing?
If you’re wondering why ANYONE should listen to a guy who, as he types this, has exactly NO published book (RAUM is scheduled for later this year,)… Personally, I think that’s exactly who you should listen to, because the gulf between you and me is negligible. I was exactly where you are until I got that letter of acceptance. Sure, you can ask way better writers, like pretty much everyone published by Falstaff, but some of these people have scores of published books. They have solid reputations and earned cache among publishers and readers. I, conversely, am the noobiest of noobs.
You know how Bob Ross made you feel like anyone could paint beautiful scenery? He would dab paint on the brush, swipe it across the canvas and voila! Happy trees! Majestic mountains! Lakes so realistic you’d think they felt wet. Then I try it and all I get is a smear of paint and I remember; Bob Ross is a genius! I, conversely, am the only one of my siblings who missed out on the artistic gene. My sisters can work in unconventional mediums like beeswax and drier lint, while the only time I stumble into something pleasing to the eye is with acrylic pours, where I just mix paints and chemicals and hope that random chaos will produce something decent and utterly unreproducible.
My point, and I had one before I got distracted by the unfairness of it all, is that a lot of the people I’ve talked to in this journey sound like they have some amazing ideas, and I’d like to read them. And I also remember being on a panel at Mysticon some years back, when I mentioned the premise of RAUM and a writer, someone with actual published books, looked at me with a thoughtful expression and said “I’d like to read that.” I wish to heaven I remembered his name, because that man deserves a signed book and my eternal gratitude.
Anyway, finish the book and while you are waiting to hear back from publishers, begin the next one.