7 Tips for Writers Looking for Lucky Breaks

03/30/2015 11:47 am ET | Updated May 30, 2015

I was walking with my kids on the beach when my father-in-law leaned over the balcony to shout, "Your agent's on the phone! He has a book deal!"

Was that my lucky break as a novelist? Not exactly. Remember Hillary Clinton's concession speech after losing her presidential bid? She said that, although she hadn't broken through the glass ceiling, "it's got about 18 million cracks in it." Crossing the threshold from unpublished to published author was a similar journey for me: I had to keep pounding on that door until, one crack at a time, it gave way. There was no one lucky break. It was more like a hundred of them.

You, too, can publish your work, if you're willing to make your own lucky breaks as a writer:

1. Write. Rewrite. Repeat. Whether you're intent on traditional or indie publishing, that manuscript had better be polished until it gleams.

2. Use contests to keep you writing -- and on deadline. My first lucky break was a local area arts festival that was running a writing contest. I had just read an essay by Joyce Maynard in Redbook magazine, something about dating after divorce, and I was inspired to write an essay about my own divorce called "My Two Husbands," revealing how important it was to me that my first husband was still part of my life even after I'd remarried. I entered the essay in that local literary contest and, when it won Honorable Mention, I had the nerve to send it to Ladies' Home Journal magazine. They bought it, and my career as a magazine writer was launched. My experience as a nonfiction writer allowed me to develop discipline, hone my writing skills and begin building a platform as a writer. And guess what? By the time my first novel was published, my editor at Ladies' Home Journal had become the books editor. She reviewed the novel in their pages as a "great summer read" and helped boost my book sales -- which helped me land a contract for my next novel.

3. Network with Professionals. You can hardly throw a stick these days without hitting a writers' conference in progress. Take advantage of the ones in your area. Before publishing my first book, I attended The Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Vermont, and it was like a crash course on craft. There were classes and lectures on everything from how to find an agent to how to plot a novel, and there were opportunities to meet agents and editors on site. An added perk was that I also met the faculty, made up of writers whose books I'd read and admired. When I sold my first novel, one of those big-name writers was kind enough to read the book and give me a stunning blurb.

4. Find Critique Partners Who are Honest, Not Brutal. I wouldn't be the writer I am today without my critique partners. I was in a workshop for many years with three other women who helped me shape my drafts. Even now I swap manuscripts with savvy writer friends who offer me comments on everything from overall story structure to deepening my characters and fine-tuning my sentences.

5. Choose an Agent Who Believes in Your Work as Much as You Do. Probably the best way to find an agent is through networking with other writers. I found my previous agent, as well as my current agent, by asking friends for referrals. While there are many agents out there, all of their personalities and ways of working with writers are unique. Don't just go with a big name. Your agent will be a business partner, but he or she should still be a partner you can talk to openly, and whose sensibilities match your own. This isn't about hooking up. This relationship is meant to last for years.

6. If You Get Feedback, Use It. One of the lucky breaks I missed in my publishing career came early on: two different editors gave solid feedback on my very first novel, suggesting strategies for rewriting it. If I did revise the novel, they said they'd be happy to take another look at it. By that time, I had already received so many rejections on that first manuscript that I was sick of it and had moved on to a new novel. In retrospect, I should have taken the advice of those editors and rewritten the book -- I might have published much sooner if I'd done so.

7. Be Nice to Everyone. Writing may be a solitary pursuit, but publishing definitely is not, whether you're self-publishing or going the traditional route. Mind your manners and be gracious to everyone you meet. I can't tell you how many editorial assistants I've worked with who have gone on to become full-fledged senior editors, and believe me, they will remember you if you're nice -- or if you're not. That's called Writing Karma, and it's powerful stuff.