Jim Butcher is the author of the Dresden Files, the Codex Alera, and a new steampunk series, the Cinder Spires. His resume includes a laundry list of skills which were useful a couple of centuries ago, and he plays guitar quite badly. An avid gamer, he plays tabletop games in varying systems, a variety of video games on PC and console, and LARPs whenever he can make time for it. Jim currently resides mostly inside his own head, but his head can generally be found in the mountains outside Denver, Colorado.
Jim goes by the moniker Longshot in a number of online locales. He came by this name in the early 1990’s when he decided he would become a published author. Usually only 3 in 1000 who make such an attempt actually manage to become published; of those, only 1 in 10 make enough money to call it a living. The sale of a second series was the breakthrough that let him beat the long odds against attaining a career as a novelist.
All the same, he refuses to change his nickname.
How’d Jim Get Published?
Taken straight from Jim’s mouth:
The story of Harry going to print isn’t a terribly complicated one. I wrote my first book when I was 19.
It was horrible. Really bad.
I wrote another. And one after that. And then I took three novels worth of experience, and rewrote the first one!
And they were still terrible.
I wrote my fourth novel (or fifth, depending on how you look at it), breaking away from standard fantasy to write this paranormy X-files like thing.
A real stinker. Big time. But evidently THAT was when I had started putting together enough craft skills to overcome the lack of inborn talent.
I wrote the first Dresden book for a writing class. I wrote the second one for the next semester, then started on the third one. I submitted the manuscript for the first Dresden to several agents and editors and got rejected and/or ignored pretty much unilaterally. The rejections varied from standard form letters to actual letters that were vaguely encouraging as they crushed my hopes and dreams, to one downright insulting rejection.
That took about two years.
Anyway, after that, I started trying to make it out to conventions to actually meet the editors and agents I was trying to get in the door with. I actually had to slink past literal Klingon Convention Security to get into one limited-acess meet-the-editors coffee thing, because their sign-up process for it was totally unfair, so I decided that it was morally acceptable to go around it. I did get to meet a few people that way, and while it didn’t pay off at the time, it is paying off now, as I try to get more things written and more projects going.
Anyway, after some of that, I decided to take the advice of a friend — go out and track down the specific people I wanted to do business with. I decided who it needed to be based on a fairly simple premise. Laurell Hamilton was writing material a lot like mine. Ricia Mainhardt had liked Laurell’s stuff enough to represent her. Maybe she would like my material too.
So I applied to Ricia’s agency and got rejected.
Not to be deterred, I found out which convention she was going to be at, and went there with a fistful of questions from the LKH mailing list, using them to strike up a conversation with Laurell and Ricia. Laurell was really nice to me for no darned reason at all and asked me along when everyone went out for lunch. I met some other writers, a couple of editors and another agent over lunch. By the end of the day, Ricia had offered to represent my work, and another agent (Jennifer Jackson, in fact) had asked to take a look at some of my other work.
I got to have this conversation with Jennifer Jackson (my current agent after parting ways with Ricia) that day at the convention: Hey, why are you interested now? You just rejected me like two months ago?
“Well yeah,” says Jennifer. “But that was before I met you.”
Ricia read the first Dresden manuscript, thought it fine enough to send out, and had it sold to Jennifer Heddle at Roc about six months later. Reportedly, the esteemed Ms. Heddle was wavering until she heard that I had three books already finished, and then she was a lot more interested.
Bottom line, you have to put in a lot of work to get your writing quality up and running. And you have to keep on writing the whole while. Then you have to learn the market, both on the business end of things and on the reader end, so that you can put together a good picture of who you should go after. Building contacts at conventions and so on doesn’t hurt.
But finally, I think, you have to have the attitude of a successful writer. Rejection shouldn’t discourage you. It’s just a part of the day, like a thunderstorm or a car horn. It happens, it isn’t personal, and if you get stopped cold at one door, you might be warmly welcomed at another. Be polite, friendly, and well informed. Do your homework. Read agent and editor guidelines. Figure out who is producing stuff like yours, and go after those people. Tell them that you targeted them specifically, and tell them why. That kind of forethought is professional behavior, and it will impress them.
Breaking into print is an arduous and discouraging process for darn near everyone who makes it in. Sure, there’s always someone out there who writes a novel and has it go ballistic their first time out, but there are people who win the lottery too.
Here’s the secret of how to get published: keep going.
There is an enormous weedout factor for wannabe writers. The good news is that you aren’t competing with every published schmoe out there. You’re only up against the rest of the wannabes, and it’s like the old axiom about being chased by a grizzly bear. You don’t have to run faster than the bear to get away. You just have to run faster than the guy next to you.
Keep trying when the guy next to you quits in disgust. Keep writing when the girl next to you sobs and throws her manuscripts into the fire. Keep conducting yourself like a professional, and you’ll get someone to believe that you are one.
If you’re lucky, maybe even yourself.