We are always—by our friends, our teachers, parents, the media—encouraged to “think big.” Frankly, I worry that there’s so much big thinking going on that we forget to think small. I mean small in a number of ways:
Rather than focusing on who will publish your manuscript and which agent you should sign with and how much you should expect in an advance and how to market yourself online (you can work yourself into a lather about all of these things later—and forever), think about every single sentence and word of your novel or book or proposal and how it fits together. Make sure it’s constructed like a well-made chair. (You wouldn’t want the carpenter to focus on the rich people who will buy the chair and how much they’ll pay; you want him to be thinking about whether the chair can actually support weight.)
Think about essays and short stories for journals, magazines, and online sites. There is so much to be gained from shorter publications: experience working with an editor, exposure, completion of a project, and possibly, an agent’s notice. Again here, don’t forget about all of the amazing literary journals publishing great work. Working on these pieces will not only get your mind off of whether you have a book contract, but it will also deepen your understanding of the editor-author relationship, which should be a collaborative one.
Submit your work for contests and award competitions, like those listed in the Grants & Awards section of Poets & Writers Magazine. All these sorts of smaller things give you concrete deadlines and force you to revise ahead of those deadlines. And you could win!
And of course since I’m at a smaller house, I can’t help but encourage writers to consider small houses seriously when they do get offers. This is a hard one, but the biggest advance does not necessarily mean that a book will get the best launch; it only means that that house has more money to distribute. Successes and bestsellers come out of houses of all sizes, so put your focus instead on the editor you’re talking to: do they see what you’re trying to do? Can they talk about your book in a way that feels as if they know it? Do you like their ideas for revision? Do you feel like they’re listening? In other words, do you connect with them? A lot of money up front is no doubt irresistible, but it in no way guarantees a positive outcome for your book. So think about the very specific person you’re talking to, and remember that small can often be better than big.
—Kathy Pories, executive editor, Algonquin Books