Having been an unpublished author seeking an agent, I know how daunting a task this can be. Each agent has different submission guidelines and there are so many RULES. It seems as if you break any of these sacred RULES your query will go right in the physical and metaphorical trash, never to be seen again and you as an author will be laughed out of any possible opportunity to be signed. And when those rejections start rolling in, you question yourself and your writing. What RULE did you break? Then you get angry and frustrated. Why are the RULES so dang important anyway? Isn’t it about the writing? Shouldn’t they see you for the amazing talent you are and brush all that other stuff away? You start reading about authors who have broken the rules and been hugely successful and you lurk on online forums to commiserate with other writers that are feeling as bruised as you are. Pretty soon you are convinced that agents have too much power and that their RULES are just petty ways of making authors jump through silly hoops for their own amusement.
You’ve finished your book. Now what?
It’s the dreaded query letter time.
But how could I possibly cram the multi-layered plot, complex characters, 80-100k worth of words into one tiny paragraph?
Answer: You don’t.
Understandably, authors get hung up on getting all the details of their manuscript in their pitch, and at the same time throwing in vague cliche turns of phrase to make it sound more “exciting.” This usually results in a bloated and confusing blurb that reads more like a badly written synopsis. Try to let go of all that and focus on the sole reason for your pitch: you want to compel someone to read your pages.
How? Well, when you pick a book, or a movie, what is the reason you choose to experience that particular story? Because the blurb/trailer/pitch caught your interest.
As it’s better to teach by example, I’m using Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, because most of you have read/seen it, and those who haven’t, have heard enough about it to have an idea of what it’s about and who the major players are.
Now, think about all the themes of the story. Dystopian world as a result of environmental pollution, oppression of the poor by the rich, unequal caste systems, what is real love, feminism, the dissociation of humanity through reality TV, family, post traumatic stress, morality in the face of survival, body image issues, love triangle, and on and on. List the major characters, Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, Primrose, Rue etc. What are the major plot points; district with Gale, train to capital, presentation of the candidates, Peeta’s in love, Hunger Games begins, and so on.
Okay, with all those details swarming in your head, here’s the blurb on the back cover of the book:
- In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.
How many details made it into the pitch? Notice not even Peeta is mentioned, nor is the fact that Katniss is an amazing hunter. The mockingjay is missing, as is President Snow and Haymitch. Nothing indicates the multi-layered complexity of Collins’ world. It simply offers a taste of the story with the hope that you will order the whole dish.
So learn by example. Find and read twenty-plus back covers of books that fall in the same genre as yours. (Browsing Goodreads or your local bookstore is great for this.) Choose your favorites, the ones that really intrigued you, and mimic their style. Practice.
This will hone your eye. The more you mimic, the more natural pitch-writing will feel. And just as all the other aspects of your story evolved and became better with time, so will your pitching.
For further reading, I highly recommend you read the craft book SAVE THE CAT! WRITES A NOVEL by Jessica Brody. This will help you break down the themes of your novel and focus on the important aspects that should go into your pitch.
An editor in New York recently said to me, “This is one of the last true apprenticeship fields.” Although she meant it as just an interesting aside, the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is both a problem and an unfortunate truth in writing and publishing.
If you’re like me, as many in our field are, you spent your childhood with your nose in a book. Late nights under the covers with a flashlight, sitting on the sidewalk while others did sports, and hours at the local library are the bright, shiny, happy spots in your memory.
Sadly for me, as I got older, reading became less an obsession and more of a hobby. My English class in high school was uninspiring, and few of my peers read like I did. I was from a small rural town and poor, so although I had dabbled in writing here and there, there was no concept of being a writer for a living. I was privileged enough to go to college, but there was no way I would waste that opportunity on an English major. I didn’t know taking a literature class was an option, let alone having a career in books. (This belief prevails. Check out this Slate article: Major Exodus: How do post-recession English departments attract students to a field losing popularity?) Thus I got my Bachelor of Science and reading was further pushed into the “something I only do for fun,” area of my life.
Ironically, it was my career in biology that reunited me with my love of books. As a field biologist I got to witness many of the amazing creatures nature has to offer. That being said, I was also twiddling my thumbs, a lot. You do quite a bit of “observing” in the field, which means waiting and watching for something to happen. That’s when the ideas for a novel started crowding my brain. I spent my nights tapping away at the computer, and it rekindled the love and obsession I had as a child. One year later, ta-da! My first complete novel.
I was going to make a living as a writer! This was what I should have being doing all along! Of course as anyone in the publishing world will tell you, it wasn’t ready. But I didn’t know that. It took 100+ rejections, a MFA in Creative Writing, self-publishing my next novel, and a 2-year unpaid internship at a literary agency for me to understand, six years later, what “ready” meant.
All of that experience was my apprenticeship, and it opened my eyes to the world of publishing as a potential career. If you love books, despite what people tell you, teaching English or starving writer are not the only career options. The book industry world needs managing editors, literary agents, book-marketing gurus, book buyers, bookstores, designers, proofreaders, copy editors, ghost writers, book reviewers, writing conference leaders, distributors, publishers, the list goes on.
I only wish someone had pointed this out to the little girl with her nose in a book. I would have started earlier, done the unpaid internship in college, (an aside, thankfully it’s become increasingly required by law to pay interns, so think twice before accepting anything unpaid!) taken the courses in writing/literature, begun my career path sooner, so that the struggle would have been at the age it should have been. The MFA programs are equally as guilty, many of them focus on writing as art, scorning the “commercial” world, which is where most people in the book business make a living.
Many others who work in the book industry have a similar story to mine. They fell into it later in life, and realized they were in love, but it took some time to get to a moderately successful career and there were many financial sacrifices along the way. And still others don’t make it that far. The path to publishing is littered with the exits of talented and brilliant people, ex-editors who couldn’t survive on such low salaries, ex-literary agents who didn’t have financial support in those first few penniless years, ex-interns who had to get a paying job and more.
Why can’t being an author and working within the book industry be a viable career path for everyone? Why can’t more universities offer programs like Columbia’s Publishing Course? Why are we expected to toil away at un-paid/low-wage apprenticeships just to get our foot in the door? Why is it that there is not a career path for novelists the way there are for so many other jobs? Why is there so little money in such an important field? And why is most of it concentrated in NYC, one of the most expensive cities to live in the world?
It was luck and privilege that I was able to follow my dream career at an older age, which included a partner willing and able to support me and an educated mother who taught me to love to read. People say that publishing/writing is a career for trust-fund kids and retirees. This is not true, but it is definitely an uphill battle if you don’t have those advantages. One of the biggest reasons for this is a lack of information/opportunity available to those with less means. There are not many options for the not-so-privileged, the need-to-work-for-a-living, and the few paths to work in books that are viable for us are buried under negative stereotypes of post-English-major lifestyles.
Books are considered a luxury commodity, even though reading and writing have proven again and again to be a crucial aspect of human nature. See the Guardian’s Reading Fiction “Improves” Empathy Study Finds, or the New York Times’s Writing Your Way to Happiness or NPR’s How Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ Led a Radical Muslim to Moderation.
|Alice and The Caterpillar by Joni Harvey-Brown|
Often the time and energy and money required to produce a book is under-appreciated. The average reader imagines a scene in which the lonely writer sits atop a far-away mountain, banging away at the keyboard. The writer is often blocked by some outside force, until a flash of inspiration occurs and viola, a masterpiece! And thus the reader holds the masterpiece in their hands, quietly devouring the inked pages.
What is rarely discussed in reader circles, and even in writer circles, is the other half of the puzzle. The multitudes of people and teams that also had a hand in the work, and with whom without, that masterpiece of a book would never have reached the readers. The blood, sweat, and tears that have been shed in the process. In this modern climate of self-publishing and DIY attitudes, people often ask: what is the point of a publisher? Or an agent? Or even, an editor?
This questioning haunts me as a literary agent. I see many writers on forums talk about agents as if we are lowly serpents trolling on the talents of writer. They spew venom about the fat-cat editors in New York (whose salary is probably barely above minimum wage). It’s frustrating as no one would ask that in film. No one would ask why a script needs set-designers, or directors, or producers. As a once self-published author I fully support the advent of a new publishing paradigm. But I do believe it is important to acknowledge the amount of work that it takes to produce a beautiful book whichever publishing path one chooses to take.
Believe it or not, most of us are in this industry because we love books.
Everyone in the literary world, from publishers, agents, editors, designers, and writers are all working toward the same goal; to produce a good book. No, to produce a great book. A book that shines on the shelf, calls out to potential readers. A book that captures you with its first sentence, whose story draws you in, and whose plot keeps you up all night reading. A book that makes you excited, anxious, and sad as the amount of pages left gets slimmer and slimmer. A book that makes you sigh with satisfaction with its last sentence. A great book.
The writer spends late nights and early mornings to create a story out of thousands of words. They edit those words for months. Their beta-readers critique it, each comment a stab to the heart, but the writer bravely endures and edits it again, and again, and again. Then months to years later, when they have what they believe to be a finished project, they send it out to the terrifying gatekeepers, the agents.
The agents read hundreds of email queries, tens of writing samples, 2-5 manuscripts a week. They endure angry authors-rejected suitors and demanding writers whom feel they deserve the agent’s time over all else. They read through the slush of manuscripts, the wanna-be bestsellers, the overwritten literary prose, the un-edited sloppy writing to find that gleam, that rough gem that catches their attention. They find out if the gem is available, comb through it and ask for edits. They edit the second draft, and the third, and the fourth. Finally they take the gem, which now sparkles, and send it out to the impossible judges, the editors. Editors with whom they have spent time developing relationships with, learning their likes and dislikes, so that one day when the right ms for the right editor comes along, they know exactly who to send it to.
The editors slough through the agent queries, requesting too many manuscripts. Their desks are piled with submissions, with current manuscripts, and with books they need to read. They read and read and read. They find a book they want to sign, fight over it with other editors, capture it for their own. They deal with demands of their bosses, marketing and sales, overbearing agents, and with stubborn, pretentious, or diva authors. They work under deadline from the publisher, the pressure always on. They edit, and edit, and edit some more. Finally it is ready to go to design production.
The designer keeps an eye on every book that gets released, they keep tabs on design trends, they know if Lucinda Grande has gone out of style and that vertical stripes are serious but horizontal are playful. They read the manuscript and have a brilliant concept for the cover. They create a first proof of the cover. They love the cover. The next time they look at it, they hate it. They redesign the font, change the image, adjust the hues. They tweak something a centimeter to the left, something else a half inch up. That one shape should be circular. And blue. No, cobalt blue. They create something beautiful. The author wants something else, the agent doesn’t like it, the editor thinks it’s okay, the publisher doesn’t care. They tweak it some more. This time it is perfect.
The publisher gathers the items needed to publish the book. The ISBN number, the Library of Congress data, the copyright, the price, the mega data, the whole sale price, the royalties, the contracts, the marketing copy, the distribution, the costs of production, the marketing and promotion. They work with book buyers, librarians, bloggers, reviewers, trade publications, newspapers, and book stores to get the final book in front of eyes, on the digital or physical bookshelf. The final push so the book is out there, a book that shines, a book that calls out to potential readers.
And all of these people take a deep collective breath and hope that they have given the potential buyer something special.
A great book.
Rejection, it’s a word all writers loathe and fear. I myself have been rejected as an author by zines, agents, editors, workshops, and readings. It’s a difficult road, and I feel for the thousands of writers that pass through our slushpile everyday. It’s hard not to take each rejection like an arrow to the heart and I’ve seen writers who have become bitter, angry, sad, and then broadcast it online. They vent their frustration, believing they have been wronged, calling publishers, editors, agents alike nasty names and blaming them personally for the rejections.
One of the most important things I have learned since entering the other side of publishing is that rejection is not personal. Publishing is first and foremost, a business. The people within publishing love books (they have to, for it is rarely a lucrative career), but they are not artists per say, so they are looking at each submission with a practical eye. For example, as beautiful as your prose may be, if the book is hundreds of thousands of words long, an agent knows that a publisher will not probably not pick it up because to publish a book that large costs more money. No one is saying the writer is a bad writer for having a long book, it just means the writer probably doesn’t understand the business side of publishing and is likely inexperienced.
So if you are like the average writer and wish to have a financially successful career, do your research, know the business and understand that it’s similar to any other job. Your first project is your entry-level resume. You’re going to have to submit it to as many places as you can, be rejected or ignored, and even if you do get hired, you won’t be the CEO within the year. But if you keep honing your craft by going to school or workshops or conferences, doing online research, critical reading and practicing writing, just as you would invest in another career, your odds of success become much higher.
And you will see that rejection is just business as usual.
Happy Turkey Day All!
For all of you writers out there participating in NaNoWriMo and sweating your way to the finish line this Sunday, you can do it!
I am majorly impressed with anyone who wins NaNoWriMo as here I am attempting to keep my focus with my official writing hat, and I’m only at 20k. (No I will not pull all nighters trying to get to 50k in 4 days.)
As you can see I’m not getting a lot of writing done. On the plus side, I have managed to respond to many waiting queries, so some benefited from my procrastination.
Cheerleading aside, please remember to edit your NaNoWriMo novels come December. The last thing an agent or editor wants to see is a manuscript that was banged out in a month. Revise, rewrite, reread.
Hello all you wonderful peeps. I will be on faculty at the Whidbey Writer’s Conference this year! Packing my bags as we speak and preparing for a lovely weekend there. On Friday I will be speaking at one of their infamous “Chat House Sessions” with the talented agent Margaret Bail of Inkling Literary. We will attempt to cover what an agent can offer an indie author and what an indie author can anticipate when trying to get an agent. On Saturday I will be listening to author pitches and hopefully finding some gems. As I am not open to unsolicited queries, conferences are a great way for authors to get my attention.
If you are there, say hello!