I have finished a second draft of FRAMED, and, in order to give it some distance before I look at it again, I have begun the daunting task of drafting query letters. In the late nights at Books-A-Million, leafing through WRITERS’ MARKET 2011, my eyes crossing at the tiny newsprint words, scrolling through blogs about what to put in (and what not to put in), reading pages and pages and pages of published writers’ advice on hunting for an agent, I have learned some things.
1. Life’s tough; wear a helmet. You’re going to send out a lot of letters, a lot of first-three-chapters, or first-1000-words, or whatever they ask for, and you’re going to get a lot of rejections. You’re also going to get a lot of silence. Most agencies will note in their listings how long it will probably take for them to get back to you, usually ranging from 6-12 weeks. Some don’t. Some say, hey, we’re not accepting new writers, so move along. Of course, if Stephen King or James Patterson came knocking on the door, I’m sure they’d find someone to make some room for them. The point is, you’re going to hear a lot of no’s, and a lot of them are going to be baseless no’s. If every agent who rejected you gave you even a bullet point list on why they rejected you, it would be easier – even if it’s just, sorry, we’re really busy. But chin up, writers. If you ever get to feeling too bad about yourself, go to your local bookstore and peruse the romance section for a few minutes. Maybe you’ll get some ideas about Scottish vampire angels falling in love with tattooed Navy SEAL werewolf chicks who knit. But more likely, you’ll think what I do: Damn, if this can get published…
2. Your poop does, in fact, stink. Just like everyone else’s. You are not the next James Patterson/Michael Crichton/Isaac Asimov/J.R.R. Tolkien/Bill Bryson/anyone. The potential agent is not impressed. So get your manuscript critiqued. It doesn’t have to be by a published author (though having a famous person blurb you helps!), but it does have to be by someone who can read, and is willing to say more than, “wow, this is really good.” And trust me, those people are harder to find than you might think. Find some folks who give good feedback – if they’re authors as well, that is certainly helpful – and hang onto them. Join a writing group. Participate in NaNoWriMo and make sure you collect email addresses so you don’t lose them on December 1.
3. Please, please, please revise your work. This sounds very obvious. It should be. No one’s first draft is publishable. No one’s first draft is even good (sorry to everyone who read the first draft of FRAMED). It’s the most detailed outline you’ll write – and that’s all it is. It’s where your characters run amok, where they do things that make you stop typing and stare, slack-jawed, at your screen for a few seconds before you roll out a litany of curse words that would make a construction worker blush. It’s the draft where you write 5000 words in a day, and then go back that night and delete 7392 words. Where the color, make, and model of your secondary character’s car changes four times because you can’t remember what you put in Chapter 3 and you can’t be buggered to check.
4. That being said, please also edit your work. There is a difference between who and whom; there is a time and a place for semi-colons; there is such a thing as a “well-placed fragment,” and, likewise, a poorly placed one. I myself on the fence about past-tense and present-tense narrative… and often change my mind two or three times throughout the course of any given piece. I average 95 or 100 words a minute copying (around 80 when I’m creating and I have something to say), and my hands still can’t keep up with my brain – words go missing, get combined with others, or somehow end up in the wrong part of the sentence. These things… they need to be fixed. It’s a professionalism thing, really.
5. Seriously, you put your pants on same as everyone else. I’ve already told you you’re not the next William Faulkner. So don’t put it in your query letter. Snooki published a novel and Ted Danson wrote a book on oceans and Barbara Eden has memoirs and there are a gazillion books in the humor section based on Twitter accounts. Why? Because people know who they are – even Barbara Eden – and that’s called platform. It’s a big deal, because publishing, at the end of the day, is a business. And businesses make money (or they should). And when you can walk in the front door and say, “Hey folks, I’ve got this base of x number of people who will buy this book,” the little dollar signs appear on everyone’s eyes and it almost doesn’t matter what you’ve written. Quality is, of course, important, but I’m going to say it again: Snooki published a novel (see #1).
6. You’re job hunting; this is your cover letter. For the love of all things holy, please be a professional. You’re trying to get someone to sit down and read 100,000 words you’ve vomited into a word processing document – make them want to do it. Approach your query letters as you would any other job-seeking cover letter. You shouldn’t be sending out the same copy/pasted letter to every agent, just changing the name and address at the top – and please, please know to whom you are submitting your work – but it should be tailored to what they are looking for. I’ve written an urban fantasy – but it’s also a murder mystery, detective fiction, arguably women’s fiction (as the narrator is a woman) – and in those handy WRITER’S MARKET listings, a number of agencies will have listed what genres they are looking for, and what genres they are decidedly not looking for. If they’ve got an agent into fantasy, great, that’s what I’ll couch it as; if they’ve got one looking for mystery, then that’s what they’re getting. Because that’s what they want.
7. Don’t panic. You were born to do this. If you do start to panic or get down on yourself, there are plenty of blogs and articles noting how many times famous, classic authors were rejected and, at times outright insulted, before getting published and becoming wildly successful. So if someone tells you that you don’t know how to use the English language, have a glass of wine and give yourself 20 minutes to sulk and angst. Then take a walk, play with your dog, do whatever you need to to clear your head, and sit back down and write.