How Can I Get Published? by Cheryl St.John

Yesterday I received my Harlequin Worldbeat Author Newsletter. Each addition includes kudos for milestones. Here are a few impressive stats:

95th Book

110th Book

160th Book

205th Book


Impressed much?


That got me to thinking about how many of us are not living up to our potential.

As authors, one of the questions we hear most frequently is, “How can I get published?” You know those mega writers hear it all the time. The answer is as simple or as complex as the author has time to share. Basically, write the best possible book you can and submit it to the perfect editor. Is it as easy as it sounds? Definitely not. Writing a book is hard work and getting it published traditionally is no guarantee.


If you’re inexperienced and thinking you can write better than the author who wrote the last book you read—so you’re going to be published tomorrow, think again. If you’ve never written a book before, I’m pretty sure you don’t write as well as the author whose book you just finished. I wrote several books over several years before I learned how to write to sell and finally sold one.


Some people think their book deserves to get published because they had such a wonderful idea or because their mother loves the story. They spent a whole two months working on the manuscript. I’ve actually had people say to me, “I’ve always wanted to write a book, so I’m going to do it when I get a few free weekends.” That’s like saying, “I’ve always wanted to play pro football, so I’m going to scrimmage with Darren McFadden on my next summer vacation.”


Writing is an art. Art takes training, sacrifice and dedication. Of course writing involves talent, but much of writing is learnable, and the learnable parts require study and self-evaluation. To write well enough to sell in today’s tough market, you must learn the craft and come up with a product an editor won’t be able to refuse.


There are a million books out there to help you learn to write, so how do you choose? The books that writers find valuable are as varied as the writers themselves, but start with the basics: Characterization, conflict, plot, grammar, self-editing. If writing is going to be more than a hobby, you’ll need to learn the business. If you want your work published and readers to come back for more, you must commit to both the craft and to learning about publishing.


How To Books:

* Techniques of The Selling Writer, Dwight V. Swain

University of Oklahoma Press: Norman  ISBN # 0-8061-1191-7

* Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass, Writer’s Digest, ISBN # 0-89879-995-3

* The Complete Writer’s Guide to heroes & Heroines, Tami Cowden, ISBN #1-58065-024-4

* Building Believable Characters, Marc McCutcheon, Writer’s Digest ISBN # 0-89879-683-0

* Creating Characters, How To Build Story People, Dwight V. Swain, Writer’s Digest

ISBN #0-89879-417-X

* Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell ISBN #1-58297-294-X




* Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary

* Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged edition

* Roget’s International Thesaurus




* Writing on Both Sides of the Brain, Henriette Anne Klauser, ISBN # 0-06-254490-X

* On Writing, Stephen King


First you need to figure out which genre you’re writing in. Genre is a marketing tool used to distinguish types of stories. Go to a bookstore and compare which books are the most like yours to figure out where your books will be shelved. There’s so much to learn. How do you get help deciphering all this stuff?

Find a national support organization for your genre. Browse their websites. There are national groups such as Science Fiction Writers of America, Mystery Writers of America, Western Writers of America, Romance Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, America Christian Fiction Writers. You might find a local statewide writers’ organization.


You are not looking for a writing group. You are looking for an organization designed for advocacy and information. Most have membership fees on national or local levels, and you must consider this an investment in your career. Dues are tax deductible. Membership provides you with market updates, editor and agent information, submission guidelines, online mailing lists, conference information, writers groups and critique groups, just to name a few benefits.


Here are reasons to join a local chapter:


Market updates


Local writing retreats

Monthly support meetings

Critique groups

Online support and brainstorming

Teaching programs by professional writers

Research help and tips

Yearly goal setting program

Conference information

Editor and agent tips

Submission guidelines

Recognition for writing achievements


Others have as many characters in their heads as you & therefore don’t consider you a lunatic


Be a learner. If you ever think you know it all, there’s a problem. Be willing to take instruction. If you’re saving or printing how-to articles and pouring over them, you’re on the right track. Take every class available. In social situations with authors, be a good listener. You will often learn as much at lunch as you will in a workshop.


Be willing to write badly.  Be willing to make mistakes.  Even the NYT best sellers started at the same point you’re at. Get the words on the page and then fix them–or do it better the next time.


Be a friend and an encouragement to others. I’m a firm believer that what goes around comes around. Choose your friends and critique partners wisely. Surround yourself with positive, encouraging people who lift you up.


Set goals and mark them out in your datebook. Share them and ask a friend to hold you accountable.


Believe in yourself. People might tell you your goal is impossible to achieve. Others might criticize your genre or your dogged determination. Someone along the way will likely hurt your feelings. So believe in yourself, even if you’re the only one who does.


How many of you have a book inside, but have never taken the first steps?


How many are just learning the ropes?


Anyone have sound advice to add?


+ posts

31 thoughts on “How Can I Get Published? by Cheryl St.John”

  1. Hi Cheryl,

    Thanks for the great post. I needed a little kick today and looking at those author’s numbers…Wow, I need to get busy.

    The best advice I received was “writers, write” even when you receive rejections, your muse has taken the day off, or you’re having a bad day a writer will cowboy up and write. That’s when I started looking at this like a career (I can’t tell my boss I can’t attend that meeting because I’m tired and it’s been a long day). Writing is the career of my heart, but one that’s going to take just as much grit, spit, and determination as any other.


  2. Wow! What a jam-packed, inspirational and truth-filled post.

    I concur with what you’ve said. Especially about learning. You can never know too much. But then comes the practice and skill of giving the reader just the right amount. Sometimes that’s pretty darn difficult.

    My words of advice have long been, and will probably always be…

    Never give up. Never surrender!

  3. Great post! I agree with what Kirsten said: Writers Write. You can’t get published without a finished book. And once you get published, your editor will want the next book, and the next, and the next. So you might as well learn some good habits now.

    *lizzie says: If you don’t take your writing seriously, no one else will.

  4. Cheryl, I like to say…there are two basic skills to being a writer
    1) is the craft and that’s huge. That’s everything we learn about creating characters, keeping the action rolling, correct point of view, making your hero heroic.
    This is a giant part of being a writer, but it is all stuff that can be learned. Most anyone can learn it if they’re willing to work hard, stick with it through rejections, study and learn and never give up.

    2) is the ability to sit still, alone, for long stretches of time makin’ stuff up.

    Though this seems like the smaller part of the two skills, the trouble is, I don’t think you can learn this. It’s not particularly NORMAL behavior and you’re either born with it or you’re not. And there is NOTHING WRONG with not being a loner who has conversations going on inside her head. In fact, it’s probably desirable to NOT have that. But if you DO have that….you can learn the craft. Hard but do-able.

  5. Great advice from one who knows how to put words on the page, my dear. Lots of them. Consistently.

    You are my idol. I’d be proud if only I had half as many publishable manuscripts on my hard drive as you did when you’d finally had enough arm twisting and submitted.

    You mean other people don’t carry on conversations in their head? I’m shocked.


  6. This is almost a class in itself. Thank you for addressing what an author needs to do, what they need to join, how they need to keep there bum in the seat and write. Each book is different good or bad, you learn from every novel, short story, or blog you write.
    Thank you.


  7. You always give such good advice! Thank you, Cheryl. My current struggle is wanting everything to be perfect right away. Someone needs to tell my inner critic to be quiet! I bought “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain” because I heard you mention that book on several occasions. It is full of helpful information on how to tame my internal editor and release my muse. Love it!

  8. Hi Nan! Thank you! You are so right about each book being different–even in terms of how it’s written. A method that’s proven itself previously may not work on a particular book or ever again. We must be willing to honestly evaluate ourselves and our writing and switch gears to whatever works.

  9. Anita, I’m so glad you’ve liked Writing on Both Sides of the Brain. I always recommend it in my classes. It’s so important to remember we don’t write like anyone else and our way is the right way–as long as it’s working.


  10. Great post, Cheryl! My own mantra is this: Inspiration is a gift. Discipline is a choice. Technique can be learned.

    I’ve got a book for your list: “The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes” by Jack Bickham. It was the first craft book I read and it’s still a favorite.

  11. I really enjoyed your post. I found it extremely informative. Thank you for sharing the info we need. I have written five books but have had little input to how I am doing. I have entered a couple of contests and am learning more each day. I appreciate your encouragement. Thank you again.
    Glenda Parker

  12. I know Rebecca Winters, Cheryl. She taught school for most of the years she was writing those 110 books. The fact that they were smaller books takes nothing away from her accomplishment.

    Great, great advice. You’ve inspired me today.

  13. Cheryl, all very good advice. My number one rule is to never, ever give up. You have to keep on trying no matter what. Perseverance was the absolute key to me getting published. Another good piece of advice is to look for every opportunity you can to get your work in front of an editor. Contests in which the final judges are editors are excellent. That’s exactly how I got published so I’m pretty big on contests. But, of course, a writer has to have good polished work to win a contest. The work has to come first.

  14. Spot on, Linda. The work comes first. Contests are good, but not if you are submitting three chapters and never finishing books.

    Since I missed the RITA entries this year, I entered the Gotcha contest just for fun. Wish me luck!

  15. Cheryl,

    What a very inspirational post…I have always learned from you…I took some of your online workshops and they are worth it….I am sorry I have not been around much I promise to pick up some of your workshops soon. I unexpectedly lost my wonderful husband on Oct 4 and it has been very hard


  16. Wow! I most likely won’t ever write a book, but
    I am going to print out this column! You have given so much good information for any and all persons
    interested in writing. Thanks!

    To Melinda: I read just earlier this week of your
    loss and it touched my heart. God bless you and
    keep you close !

    Pat Cochran

  17. I think the best advice I can give, my self anyway, is to let you and all my other favoritesd continue to write and I will read!

  18. Cheryl,
    I had to laugh when I read the part about writing a book on “spare weekends.” I teach classes here in the OKC metro area, and have had at least 10 people over the years, when introducing themselves, make the comment that they had just retired and thought now they might have some “spare time” to write a book; also love the ones who come in and say that someone told them they needed to write a book and so they thought they’d try to write it (fill in the blank here–over the summer, during Christmas holidays, on the weekends, etc.) I want to say, Well, if you aren’t the one who thinks you want to write the book, you will never make it. It’s lots of hard work to try just because someone else told you you “ought to.” Your post is just wonderful–touches on so many things and is inspiring, as well. My piece of advice to add would be to try some smaller projects first, before you set out on the great American novel. Selling short stories helps you learn to be concise while also building your portfolio of credits. And there are still some paying markets out there! It gives you a self-confidence boost and lets agents and editors see that you have some things published. I love Stephen King’s ON WRITING. And my favorite advice for writers? “APPLY BUTT TO CHAIR. WRITE.”
    Great post, as always, Cher!
    Cheryl P.

  19. Hi Cheryl,
    I’ve been away from any computer for so long, I have to get back in the groove. The one at home got fried from so much down loading of ‘stuff’. I have to go uptown to the Espresso Parlor to use the computer. I have taken three courses in writing and have one story at an Agency. I have to hand write all my ideas right now. It is easier for me with my ‘new’eyes> I have read Stephen King’s ON WRITING. That’s the only one of his books I have ever read. I have tons of ideas, I just have to keep writing. and writing, and writing…

  20. My internet has been acting up all day. This is the third time I have tried to comment.
    Excellent post and advice for the aspiring writer. Wish I had thought about doing it sooner. I did write in high school, but my family found the 5 or so chapters I had done and spent one supper time reading it, laughing, and telling me how stupid it was for me to think about writing. It was the work of a 14 year old, what did they expect. Needless to say I didn’t try that again. A rather effective way to squash anyones ambitions.

    Anyway, your suggestion to join the national support organization for your genre is excellent. A support system is very important both a professional one and a more personal one in the form of a good critique group. Wish I were younger, I’d give it a shot. Unfortunately, at this point by the time I got published, I would be writing geriatric stories. Don’t think there is too much of a market there.

    Again, thank you for all the excellent advice for those who seriously want to be successful writers. You could be helping someone who will become one of my favorite authors.

  21. Patricia,
    I saw your comment and just had to say,I wish families understood what they say and do can affect a person for the rest of their lives. I always wanted to be a nurse when I was growing up, but my mother made comments to me about how I should want “better” for myself. Couple that with not being the best math student in the world, and my self confidence just plummeted. But I know from your comments here at P&P that you would be a good writer, and sure hope you will give it another try. You know, self publishing is popular now, too, and if you have a story you want to tell, why not? I think Cheryl’s advice rings true for everyone, no matter what age they are. In her post she asks, “Do you have a book inside but have never taken the first steps?” Well…maybe it’s time for you to think about it and get cracking! I hope you will!
    Cheryl Pierson

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