Wednesday is Bad Advice Day: this week, The Secret of Getting Published (and your letters answered)

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Would you take advice from this man?

I get emails often with a few vague words of praise for my work and then the big question: I’m writing this article, this story, this poem, this essay, this screenplay, this book, and I’d like to know how to go about getting an agent.  Agent, usually, because the correspondent has  already done some investigating and has heard that you need one.  I have sympathy, because I’ve been through it myself, the feeling that there’s some secret to getting published and that no one’s telling what it is.  Well, that’s all changed.  Because I now know the secret to getting published, and I’m ready to spill it.  The same secret works for getting an agent:

Write something good.

Okay, now you’re in on it.

Write something good.

Not even great, though that can work, too.  (Caution: If it gets too great, you’ll have to wait till you die for it to be recognized, and where’s the fun in that?)

Just write something good.

To do so, you’ll have to write something bad.  Maybe quite of bit of something bad.  Years of work, no doubt, very likely an apprentice book or two, and a few dozen short pieces, all sorts of false starts, but that won’t matter.  If you’re focused on the writing, every day you write anything at all will be a success, steps on the road to something good.

How will you know when you’ve written something good?  Well, you’ll show it to people who know writing and they will read it and say, “Hey, that’s good.”

But isn’t taste involved?

Yes, it is.  And many potential readers don’t have any.  So you’ll have to find good readers, too.  Collect them like the treasures they are.  People who read carefully, who prove they understand what you’re up to with smart observations and queries, who have a grasp of your story or meanings or ideas, who can say where they’re excited and why as well as where they’re confused and why.  For your own growth, you’ll want to have a number of readers at your disposal, perhaps fellow writers with whom you exchange work.  When they respond to your pages, don’t talk back.  Only listen.  They might be right, they might be wrong, but listen.  One of the great lessons is that it’s possible to improve your work by pushing against bad advice, making the writing itself explain what it is up to, so that you don’t have to, even to a dope.  Because when it comes to art, most advice is bad advice.  Then again, it can’t hurt to know good advice when you see it.

Write something good!

What if this were a blog about piano playing?  What would my advice be to a new piano player who came to me and said, “I want to play piano in front of a large audience, preferably at Lincoln Center, though I guess I’d play in Chicago, or even at a college, at least at first.  I’ve been working at it hard for months and months!  How do I find an impresario?”

The answer would be, Dude, practice.  Even a prodigy has to study!  No point in wangling an audition even at the local brew pub if you’re not ready….

Write something good.  That’s all anyone wants from you.  Make that, rather than publishing, your goal for now.

For those of you who have already written something good, congratulations.  That’s the real success.  We can talk about what to do with it some other Wednesday, while you get to work on the next project.


Our first BAD ADVICE WEDNESDAY letter:

Dear Bill,

Your reverse psychology obviously works on me.

I have a Big Idea that could work as a series of magazine articles,
but could also work as a book. The target audience are inexperienced
home improvement specialists, aka just about anyone who owns a home
and attempts do-it-yourself projects. Here’s the problem: much of the
advice falls under what could best be called legal grey areas, so I’m
not sure the DIY mags would go for it. Should I just go all out and
shoot for the book instead?

A closet fan. (but you can call me Paul)

PS – I’m not published yet.

Dear Paul: This is a great idea for a book.  That show, “This Old House”?  I’m always like, yeah, great, let’s just jack up this 1800 cape and replace the basement with granite slabs and redo the entire substructure and do the kitchen in platinum and truffles, like 70 million dollars, when all you’re trying to do is fix the fucking leak, you know?  The legal grey areas you refer to would be things like building codes and certificates of occupancy and that secret methamphetamine cooking room, I get it.  I think your instinct to go for the book is brilliant and correct.  My sense is that the DIY (Do it Yourself) magazines DPVM (Don’t Pay Very Much) in any case, though some publications in that arena could lend a little authority to your sales pitch.  But the truth is, street cred will be more important here.  And that’s your pitch–this is a book for real people with real building and repair issues, not millionaire hobbyists who care about, like, insulation.

I would write a lot of the book before I’d try to sell it.  Get a persona going, get some chapters written, get a clear idea of where you’re going with it, find a way to tell a story with this material, put together an annotated table of contents.  Because this is the kind of nonfiction you might actually be able to sell on a proposal, which more about one Wednesday soon.

(Narcissist’s Corner: Did you know that my first book was called “Tips and Tricks for Home Repair?”  I wrote it at the rate of $10 a page, 1980, for a publisher called I. Waldman and Sons that published coloring books, mostly.  I’d send them 25 pages, they’d send me $250.  It was like home repair porn, illustrated with line drawings.  I did it as a work for hire with no byline and never saw the finished product.)

PS–at Cocktail Hour, we love you whether you’re published or not!


Next week, Dave’s turn!  Send your questions and requests (for now) to, and I’ll see that he gets them.

  1. Bill writes:

    (On facebook, someone I don’t know reacted to my photo like this:) Great blogs, but I can imagine him saying, “The sasquatch ran straight through here and disappeared behind that tree.”

  2. monica wood writes:

    The best advice I ever read was from, I’m not kidding, Nora Roberts: “I can fix a bad page, but I can’t fix a blank page.”

    Re the home-improvement guy, you should have told him to pick a different subject, since 100,000 DIY home-improvement books already exist.I still have my old Reader’s Digest book–a big yellow taxi of a book that I still love.

    Instead, advise him to write a DIY on something obscure but zeitgeisty. DIY navy seal? DIY push-polling? DIY bestseller-writing? I am not kidding.

    Looking good, Boo-man, but good lord get that hair out of your eyes. xoxo

    • Bill writes:

      Nice, Nora… I had a master class in grad school with Elizabeth Hardwick, who invited submissions to discuss in conference. When I got there she said she couldn’t find my story, pretended to look all over for it, then spotted it in the wastebasket. “And that’s just where it belongs.” You know what I like about Paul’s proposal is the idea that it’s DYI for people who don’t plan to play by the rules, exactly. That might make it just different enough. I mean, maybe? Do you still think a pink shirt will help?

  3. Paul Davidson writes:


    This is not just bad; it’s absolutely terrible advice. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to actually write the damned thing, but then you go and say it’s a good idea and that I should “write a lot of the book before I’d try to sell it.” Of course, all of this had to follow your advice about writing something good. Shit.

    Actually, I’m thrilled, ecstatic, and existentially frightened. And I’m looking forward to joining the ranks of writing masochists (who could probably learn a lot from plumbers, by the way).

    Here we go…

    Thanks, I think.

    PS – Richard, you are so right about the writing community when you say, “All writers have to learn the same things, and they teach them over and over to each other.” I’ve experienced this over and over again. And I am always thankful.

    • Bill writes:

      Paul thanks for the opportunity… I really think you’ve got something here… A kind of samizdat DYI…

  4. Richard Gilbert writes:

    Amen, bro. I was in a writing group not long ago with a gal who was a member of the early Facebook team. She was young and rich and retired and living in London and Spain. What she wrote was pretty good, a nice start, but what she kept asking everyone was HOW DO I GET AN AGENT? She was way far from that, if only in the sense that she’d barely begun her book. And while Facebook is hot, she’s still an unknown, not Mark, and wants to tell her own story.

    The other thing about this whole subject that fascinates me, and which runs as a latent but salient truth through your post, is that writers write for serious readers but a real special subset of that class: other writers: teachers who write, students who write, agents who write or who wrote and who now read, editors at publishing houses ditto. All writers have to learn the same things, and they teach them over and over to each other. The community of artists, artisans, and craftspeople is still very strong in the writing game, and the stray civilians who happen to read a book are nice but, well, icing. Supposedly we do it for them, but we really do it for each other. A writer’s first hurdle is coming up through the ranks, getting boxed in the ears in this world, internalizing literature and craft. I don’t think there’s a shortcut to an agent through that apprenticeship, not for a real writer.

    • Bill writes:

      And yet there are these books that just seem to fly out of certain people…

      • Richard Gilbert writes:

        Yes, a successful, full-time young adult novelist I know had ONE do that. “I’m so glad it wasn’t the first,” she told me. “It would have ruined me as a writer.” That’s what happened to a screenwriter I know: as a recent MFA grad, his first play was a smash. He said he almost could not build a career, because after that the writing and everything else was harder.

        OTOH, I think of Updike and Oates. From what I can tell, and from what he said, Updike wrote easily. Put a novel through three drafts, published it, and then wrote another. Oates always has one novel ripening in her dresser for a year while she writes another.

        But that’s no reason for those of us who struggle not to do it, I think, as long as we enjoy it.

  5. Dave writes:

    Your hair is coming in nicely.

  6. Maria Padian writes:

    As always: wonderful. Thank you.
    And BTW, your essay on apprenticeship remains one of my all-time favorite “writings on writing.”

  7. Frank feedback from trusted sensitive readers helps to replace the voice from my pessimistic inner critic. The positive support helps me ask questions about what I’ve glossed over, taken for granted. Couldn’t do without this! I might not take the advice, but at least it makes me think hard about what I’ve written and see it in a new light. I have to find a valid way to justify what I’ve written, or I have to make changes.

    I have to go write something bad now… so I can improve it later. 🙂

    As always, great advice, Bill!

    • Bill writes:

      I know, these voices in our heads–I think mine inner critic has finally figured out that I’m okay…. At least some of the time…. Hey, that was kind of critical of the critic…. Yeah, well, you can dish it out but you can’t take it! Did you write today? Or were you just sitting there staring as usual? Staring? I was having big ideas? I heard these so-called big ideas…