Writer in Residence

How To Cook a Book

Submitted by Helen Walsh

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This failsafe recipe will transform your bottom drawer of manuscript pages into a tasty treat for readers everywhere. Meatier than paleo, the steps below will spice up your journey from secret writer to successful author. Think of it as your breakfast of champions. A power lunch. Your new favourite weeknight dinner. . .obsession.

Prep Time: 7-9 years

Cook Time: 18-24 months

Yield: Did you sign with an indie or Penguin Random House?

Rating: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ (your friends on Amazon). ⭐️ (stranger on Goodreads just so passionate about protecting readers.)

Ingredients

1 juicy idea

3 parts hard work

3 parts luck

1 part chutzpah

1-2 mentors 

6-8 feedback readers

40 agent submissions

10 publisher submissions

48 rejections

40 ounces sheer bloody mindedness mixed with 1 tbsp hot sauce

1 wealthy family or decent job. (Bonus: work/freelance in publishing or journalism to gain an outsized portion of marketing attention.)

6 arts council grants

1 supportive community

Regular portions of motivating jealousy (pro tip: read prize nominations and/or bestseller lists)

Shake of humility

Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

Step 1

Preheat your burner to high, then decrease to a steady simmer you can maintain for years. Pour glass of wine. (Substitution: any substance or stress-relieving activity of choice).

Step 2

Let go the idea you’ll support yourself solely by writing.

Step 3

Commit to at least an hour of day (every day) of thinking/writing/editing time. Stir steadily; do not overheat the pot then let cool prematurely.

Step 4

Feed the creative muscle as religiously as a sourdough starter. Read books and magazines, watch film and good TV, visit galleries and museums, or whatever your choice of inspiration.

Step 5

Assemble the ingredients for community. Attend author readings, book launches and festivals. Join a writing group. Review books on social or traditional media. Show up, act generously, reciprocate. Repeat continually. 

Step 6

No, those book review pages are unlikely to re-take the world so if possible, cook yourself up a presence on social. TikTok if you write romance or horror or YA, are under 25 and/or enjoy dancing pet videos. Facebook for the over 40s. Twitter if you’re a glutton for punishment. Mastodon if you belong to Mensa. Goodreads if you have an iron stomach.

Step 7

Remember to stir the writing pot. You can’t sell what you don’t create. There is never enough time for all these other steps, and it’s easy to allow them to crowd out your creative time. 

Step 8

Seek mentorship. Join or form a writing group. Look for free or affordable writing programs like Diaspora Dialogues. Explore writer-in-residences at community centres, public libraries, etc. Check out book festival programs for writing workshops. Make private arrangements with a writer for one-on-one mentorship if you have either the financial means or a service to trade.

Many writers benefit from an MFA program but make sure it’s a good fit for you. They’re expensive and not critical unless you also want to teach, in which having an MFA + a published book is the route.

Remember: only you can develop your unique writing voice. Seek feedback but sift it carefully. Ten mentors will offer you ten different directions so invest in a solid few, measure and weigh all advice against your own inner ear. Many IBPOC writers I know speak of the challenges of their work being white-washed during editing. A function of the larger issue of systemic inequities but also a lesson for everyone in trusting your own voice and protecting it.

Step 9

Submit shortform work for publication, if possible. Short stories or poems. Creative non-fiction pieces, freelance articles, blogs, book reviews, contests. So helpful to have publishing credits when it comes time to submit your cooked book. Pro-tip: do not pay for submissions. You’ve got to support yourself over the long haul; you shouldn’t also have to participate in crowd-funding these outlets.

Step 10

Stir the writing pot.

Step 11

It’s time! You’ve prepped for years; statistically in Canada, that’s 7-9 for your debut novel. Give yourself a pat on the back and gird your loins. It’s submission time, kids.

Step 12

Decide your preferred course: agent or publisher. It’s not critical to have an agent to submit in Canada, not even to the multinational houses (Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, Harper Collins) although the Canadian-owned houses are more attentive to their slush piles. 

Do your research first and create a prioritized submission plate and timetable. The Writers' Union of Canada website has info on agents and publishers. Look at agency and/or publisher websites along with industry sources such as Quill & Quire or Publishers’ Marketplace to see who is getting published by whom. Submissions that don’t fit specific criteria are a waste of everyone’s time.

Prepare your pitches carefully; Google will tell you how. Be courteous; everyone in the industry is overwhelmed with work and still dealing with pandemic burnout. Simultaneous submissions are fine but notify everyone if an offer comes in. And remember – a read by any agent or publisher is truly subjective. Chin up, keep going. You’ve got this.

Step 13

Always be cooking the next project. Time only gets more precious and squeezed after acceptance of your manuscript. Keep the creative simmering away, pour yourself a glass of something tasty and enjoy.

Cooked? 

Related: The Marketing Salsa (coming November 12)How to Cook a Look (coming November 14).

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Helen Walsh is the founder and president of Diaspora Dialogues, Canada’s premier literary mentoring organization. Formerly the publisher of the Literary Review of Canada and a founding director of Spur, a national festival of politics, arts, and ideas, Walsh spent five years working as a film/digital media producer in L.A. and New York. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.

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