Monday, August 16, 2010

Strive Always for Normalness!: My Advice for Super New, Unagented Writers

First of all: this post isn't really for people who have been querying for awhile and have done their research and all that. This is for newbies.

Let us all freely acknowledge that I am no expert, and that in many ways I am not qualified to dispense advice about querying or agents or any of these things. I was not a seasoned query veteran when I got an agent. But I did make a lot of mistakes you don't have to make, and I did do a lot of things well by accident that you can do on purpose, and because I've been getting some "do you have any trying-to-get-published-advice?" e-mails lately, I thought it might be time to write this post.

Okay. So you finished your manuscript. What now?

1. RESEARCH. You must know the answers to the following questions before you do anything with that manuscript:

A. How does the publishing process work?

B. Do I submit my manuscript directly to publishers? (This is, hands down, the number one question I got asked by laymen after the book deal happened: "Did you just send the manuscript to publishers?" I know they don't know any better, because they aren't writers and they don't know how it works, but I get so unnecessarily frustrated when people ask me that.

I think it's because the question makes it sound so easy, like I just printed out my fabulous manuscript and sent it in a fabulous envelope and editors just read it at their leisure in fabulous leather lounge chairs-- which, by the way, completely neglects that middle step in which my agent did crazy work to get my manuscript ready for submission and then pinpointed exactly who it should go to and crafted this pitch and then pitched it to them and then negotiated all of this madness. Seriously, let us give credit where credit is due.)

B. What do literary agents do?
C. Do I need a literary agent? (My answer: "Um...definitely.")
D. How do I get a literary agent?
E. What is a query letter?
F. How do I write a query letter?

...among other questions, which will probably come up as you go. And rather than hunt down some knowledgeable person and demand that they tell you all they know, you can use this newfangled "google" website all the young people talk so much about these days. Or you can do yourself a favor and go to Nathan Bransford's blog, to the left sidebar, and read ALL OF his "before you query" posts. Seriously: all of them. Actually, even if you've been querying for awhile and are no longer a n00b, and you still haven't read those posts, I recommend it. They're very helpful.

2. RESEARCH SOME MORE. Because now that you know How This Works, you need to know How to Query Without Embarrassing the Crap Out Of Yourself. I was lucky enough to stumble upon Elana Johnson's blog, which has several posts about query letter writing. She also has some posts up at the QueryTracker blog, in the "Querying" section. Thanks, Elana, for keeping me from looking like an idiot without even knowing that you were doing it. Monsieur Bransford also has a post about it, but you know that already, right? Because you took my advice and read all of the posts on his sidebar, right?

I have my own advice, though, and it goes like this. When in doubt, be a normal human being.

You would think this would go without saying, but it doesn't. I don't know what it is about querying that turns us from rational people into awkward crazies, but it does, so everything you do while querying, measure it against what you would do in real life. Some examples.

A. Don't brag about your book in the query letter. You know how, in real life, you don't go up to people and introduce yourself and then start talking about how awesome you are? You don't do that because you know that it would make people hate you immediately, right? Yeah. EXACTLY.

B. Don't insult your book in the query letter. This is just common sense. If you want someone to like your book, don't give them a reason to hate it.

C. Make sure you know who you're sending it to and what they want. Do you send other e-mails without making sure that the e-mail is addressed to the right person and that the contents of the e-mail actually apply to its recipient? No, of course not. And this is no different. So find out what each agent is looking for, follow their query guidelines, and for heaven's sake, use the right name in the e-mail. Repeat after me: agents are humans. They have wants and preferences. Respect those humans by finding out those wants and preferences and honoring them.

D. Be patient. Know that the publishing industry moves at the pace of jelly on a slightly-inclined surface. Start to think in terms of months instead of days.

Basically, no matter what you're wondering about, ask yourself this: "If I were having a professional conversation with someone in person, how would I handle this situation?" You would be respectful and as concise as possible. And you would not pester them.

3. GET BETA READERS. This can be tricky, because you might not know if the person ripping your manuscript to shreds knows anything about writing, in which case you might not want to take their advice. I was lucky enough to get some good beta readers on my first manuscript, but I also got some bad ones-- it's just part of the deal. Oh, and I found most of them at the Absolute Write forums, in case you were wondering. Some additional advice about betas:

A. Get more than one. Actually, get at least 3. One opinion is completely subjective. But if 3 people agree that something in your manuscript sucks, they might have a point.

B. Ask them to be brutal. Dangerous, I know. But while some people will hear "be brutal" and give a sadistic cackle and start writing terrible, offensive things on your manuscript (no, I am not kidding), others will feel like they can actually be honest with you, and that's what you want. You can always throw nasty feedback away. But honest and wise feedback, while it may still hurt, is invaluable, and worth the risk.
4. GO TO A WRITER'S CONFERENCE. Okay, so this isn't absolutely necessary. But if you can afford it, or if your school will pay for it (find out if they do that, by the way. Because my school did, but I had to ask about it), I definitely recommend it. You can learn a lot there, especially if you're just starting out. You can also meet fellow writers there, and maybe even some beta readers. And you can often pitch to an agent in person instead of through a query letter, which is a good experience, whether you're freaked out about it or not.

My agent-specific conference advice is, again: be normal. Go ahead and sign up for a pitch session, but restrict your pitch to that session and that session alone. Consider not approaching that agent with Greedy Pitching Eyes at any other point in the conference. Maybe even consider introducing yourself to them and then just talking to them, not about your work. At all. Because if you signed up for a pitch session, talking about your work will be completely non-annoying then. But the bathroom pitch? Or the "standing in line for lunch" pitch? ANNOYING.

Think about it this way. When you approach someone with the sole objective of getting whatever you can from them, you are treating them like crap. I don't know if we always think about it that way, but we should. Agents are people, and you should treat people well, in life as in the publishing world.

5. BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU SAY ON THE INTERNET. Don't insult anyone. Don't publicly keep track of your rejections. Don't present yourself like a bratty little jerk. Don't whine and complain. People can see it. And they won't want to work with you if they think you're a butthead.

6. BE LIKE A SPONGE: ABSORB. This applies especially to criticism. I have this friend who just finished her first manuscript and started querying. She got a rejection on her manuscript with some very detailed feedback, and rather than get pouty about it, she got excited and inspired and revised the crap out of it. I'm so impressed with her, because I don't always react that way to criticism, but I should. Feedback should excite us and spur us on.

If I had some kind of motto for unagented writers, it would be this: work hard. There is no shortcut, no easy solution, no escape. Research is work, query writing is work, querying is work, revising is work, beta reading is work. If you want to get published, writing is no longer your hobby. It has become your job, whether you get paid for it or not. You don't go into any other job thinking "this will be easy! I won't have to do anything!" (okay, maybe you do, depending on what you're doing, but that's beside the point). Sometimes it's hard and sometimes it's boring and a lot of it makes you want to tear your hair out, but it's completely worth it. When you finally get The Call from an agent, when you finally sign your publishing contract, when you finally get your ISBN number, you will be happy you did all that work.

Trust me.

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