Remember middle school? If you’re like me, you’ve done just about everything in your power to forget as much as humanly possible about those awkward middle school years, but no matter how hard you try, there are still these lingering memories in the foggy corners of your brain of every horrific social interaction you’ve ever had between the ages of 11 and 13.
But nothing was as bad as trying to ask out your longtime crush. Scribbled notes on ripped pieces of notebook paper, folded into these weird triangle football thingies (that no one under thirty understands), were a direct line of communication to the chosen one of your affections. And often times, the message contained a single question:
Will you go out with me?
I don’t know if today’s middle schoolers are any cooler, as my own kids are only starting to veer into that awkward-aged realm, but I suspect they still ask the same question even if the mode is more likely to be technologically advanced.
And that’s more or less what it feels like to query an agent as a writer. It’s a thrilling ride of ups and downs, but mostly you just feel like you want to throw up. Mood swings rivaling those of a raging hormonal teenager are common, and my husband can attest to the fact that some days I’ve been so depressed that I cry into my dinner. Thirty minutes later, a perfectly timed email request for a partial or full manuscript read has me giddy by bedtime. In just a few weeks, a pass on the full read (even with encouraging feedback) has me racing downward again. On and on we go. (Have I mentioned that I’ve never ridden an actual rollercoaster because I can’t stand the ups and downs?)
Querying is hard, and it’s not for the emotionally frail, but I will say this. I didn’t fully realize just how stubborn I was until now. I didn’t embrace the emotional fortitude I possessed until I faced rejection after rejection. It’s like asking your middle school crush out…again and again and again.
Someday, I hope to remember this ride fondly. Someday I’ll say that this was perhaps the only rollercoaster I’ve ever enjoyed.
Certainly it’s the only one I’ve ever willingly embarked upon.
I won’t lie. When I first began writing with the intention of finishing and someday publishing a novel (or fifteen), I didn’t have the first clue as to what kinds of water I was dipping my toes into. (Hint: Deep, dark, swift moving, filled with odd creatures who will take a bite out of you, and possibly even waters inhabited at times by the devil himself. I’m not making this up.) And when I speak with my non-writer friends now, it’s clear that they, too, have zero understanding of the publishing process.
It’s kind of funny, really, when non-writers ask me, “Oh, so you wrote a book? When can I read it? When will it be published? I’d love to quit my job and just write a book.” Most of them don’t realize what they’ve just done. They can’t yet grasp that they’ve engaged a madwoman on her most passionate topic. It’s like inviting a Jehovah’s Witness into your house to discuss God. Because I don’t fool around when I start talking about the writing—editing—submission—rejection—revision process.
And so the lesson begins.
Every book starts with an idea. Maybe it’s something that popped up as you’re drifting off to sleep or shampooing your hair in the shower. Or, maybe it was an idea you’ve had since childhood, one you’ve been contemplating writing about for years. Regardless of how an idea reveals itself, for me, it takes time to marinate in my brain before I can begin to write it down.
Award-winning fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson says that there are two kinds of writers—outliners and discovery writers. I most certainly belong to the former camp. Though I’m not the kind of writer who considers an outline the “Holy Grail” of writing, there are some writers who do. Me? I’m more of a write-a-loose-outline-chapter-by-chapter, highlight-the-major-events-that-need-to-take-place, then-bail-on-the-outline-about-a-quarter-of-the-way-through-when-another-great-plot-line-occurs-to-me kind of writer. Either way, the point is, an outline is a tool that helps to keep the story moving forward. Never mind the fact that I’ll write two more outlines before I get anywhere.
After the outline, depending on the topic of the book, there’s a lot of research to be done. Some of that can be beforehand, some of it is done as I go, and the rest of it falls into the category of [BLAH BLAH – FILL IN MORE HERE LATER – DETAILS!]. More professional writers will use [TK], meaning ‘to come,” but I’m just not that distinguished. I prefer sticking with the BLAH BLAH technique.
And don’t forget the mental block, also known as the dreaded writer’s block. That’s fun and always exceptionally unexpected. And once I step away from the keyboard, there’s no guarantee that I’ll be back any time soon… So for me, it’s critical to ignore writer’s block and just keep writing even if I scrap 90% of what I end up adding to the document. The odds are as long as I keep on writing, I’ll eventually write myself out of the block, but if I stop…well, I’m likely to easily lose a few months.
So, supposing all of this produces a finished novel, there’s also the revision process. That means going back, revising, refining, and hacking away until your raw treasure is a highly polished gem that’s acceptable to submit to an agent. But before you even submit to an agent, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got something worth submitting, and that requires beta readers – friends and family, and maybe even an online stranger or two, who will read your work and give you solid, honest feedback (no matter how much it hurts).
And, oh…an agent.
Somewhere around the time of your 5th draft or so (okay, maybe your 3rd if you’re really good), you can begin to query an agent. Since I began following dozens of agents on Twitter, I’ve started to feel really good about my query letter… If you’re unfamiliar with what a query is, there are hundreds of websites that show you how to effectively query an agent.
And there’s great advice from agents on how not to query an agent, too. Like this beauty:
(Really, following Dr. Stender on Twitter has become kind of a recent hobby for me… But don’t give him all your attention. There are lots of other agents with great advice, too! Eric Smith is another good one.)
Query: Dear Mr. Literary Agent-
Me: Please. Mr. Literary Agent was my father. Call me-#PubTip: Take the time to personalize your queries.
The best part (ahem…cough, cough…) about querying is compiling a list of agents who are looking for manuscripts like yours. I make a ridiculously overcomplicated spreadsheet that includes all sorts of info I don’t need, and I color code as I query. Yellow for queries waiting on a reply (including the date and the type of materials submitted), red for queries that have been rejected, and green for queries in which a full or partial manuscript has been requested, and let me just be honest and tell you that there’s a lot of red on my screen. When I open that file these days, it looks as though I’ve just murdered a small mammal. The problem with my green lines, of course, is that so far they haven’t stayed green, which means that I’ve gotten rejections even after a full manuscript read. But I’ve always gotten good feedback and I revise, revise, revise until I’m ready to submit again.
The most difficult part by far is the willingness to put yourself out there, get rejected again and again, and still remain confident in your ability. The key is to remember that agents are highly subjective and just because they turned down your work doesn’t mean they think it sucks. It just means they aren’t looking to represent that particular piece at that point in time. (Maybe they’re already representing a similar work, perhaps the story was too close to something else they know of, or maybe they just signed another author with a story that meets what they were looking for.) I like to give the ‘needle in a haystack’ analogy, only the hay is on fire and you just have to hope you find the needle in time. If you want to know just how tough querying is, check out a great guest blog by Shannon Parker about an insider’s perspective on rejection.
So if you nab an agent, and that’s a big if, it’s time to pop the champagne, right? Well…
Though it might feel a bit like winning an NFL championship, signing with a literary agent is really only the first step in a marathon run. Okay, maybe it’s the first mile marker in a marathon. (The first step was writing the book.) Your agent is probably going to request a revision or two before going on to submit your work to editors at publishing companies. And guess what?
That means now your agent is querying for you. Oh yeah, querying again. So, get ready to be rejected again. And if you get accepted – yay! That means you’re on your way to an actual published book deal…after more edits…and galleys…and edits…
And what then? Promotion, promotion, promotion!
Take those years of soul-crushing disappointment that you put into your first book, and use them as fuel to start a second, a third, and a fifteenth book. Oh, and be prepared to put in what amounts to years and years of work without getting paid a single dime because that’s how writers (and agents) roll.
So, tell me again how you’d like to “quit your job and just write a book.” The fact is, writing isn’t for the faint of heart and it isn’t glamorous. It’s work. Real, tangible, difficult and often unpaid work, but if you’re lucky and you’re persistent, you might just be able to succeed at making a career of it.