The third post of this series will focus on what to do AFTER you’ve completed a novel manuscript and/or your graduate degree in writing.
In the second Mrs. To MFA post (found HERE) I discussed the difference between being an amateur writer and a professional author. Now that I’ve finished my MFA in Creative Writing, I feel like my writing has achieved a level that makes it worthy of submission and publication. As a professional author, there’s more to the business of writing that just sitting alone in your room and churning out pages.
If you are a Professional!Author, you should not be the only one reading your mss. Find other writers who read or write in your genre and ask them to swap novels. One of the things I learned from workshopping during my graduate experience is that I learn a lot more about my writing by critiquing the writing of others. So even if your mss isn’t perfect, send it out to people you trust and ask for their honest feedback. You might be afraid of their criticism, but trust me when I say that no one else in the publishing industry is going to be as constructive or supportive of your work as that friend or critique partner. So have someone else read the mss all the way through and let you know if there are glaring errors or annoying inconsistencies.
Write the Dreaded Query Letter
A few years ago, I had a workshop leader who gave us an assignment to write a query letter for the book/story we were having critiqued. A very informative exercise with a real world application. The only problem was that at the time I’d only written the first two chapters of my novel (the novel I’m now querying) and I didn’t know how it ended! Query letters are a great tool—not only for helping you pitch your finished mss to an agent or publisher—but also for helping writers focus on what excites them most about the characters or events in their novel. A friend of mine from my writing group had been laboring over a novel for several years and was nearing its conclusion, but struggling with the final chapters. After hearing that I was working on a query letter, she started writing one too. For those of you who don’t know, a query letter essentially has three parts: the logline, the pitch, and the bio. It can be hard to write the pitch portion of a query letter because it is traditionally written in third person pov which can create a detached feeling. My friend wrote the novel pitch in her MC’s voice, then switched it over to third person and VOILA! The pitch felt dynamic and sassy—like the MC! Writing (and rewriting) the novel pitch can help re-energize you as an author, reminding you of why you love your novel and why others (namely agents and publishers) should love it to.
Speaking from personal experience, do not half-ass the query letter. These days, the query letter is the only part of your novel that most agents will bother to look at. It’s the first impression they get of you and your writing, so take the time to do it right. Don’t do anything too weird or quirky to catch an agent’s attention. You want an agent to remember you for the brilliance of your prose and the voice of your character, not your odd query letter.
If you are looking for examples of query letters, you can find hundreds of resources online. I recommend checking out Chuck Sambuchino’s collection of successful query letters on Writer’s Digest, HERE. I found reading examples of successful queries (those that got the writer an agent and a book deal) to be the most helpful models.
All the books and articles I’ve read on the subject of this “business” of writing say pretty much the same thing: you need to have a web presence of platform.
Creating an Author Platform
In this age of Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook and Snapchat, the authors we love/despise are more accessible than ever. One of the first steps I took as a Professional!Author was to create a platform and brand myself across social media. Each of my accounts, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter—even this website—has the same name so that I can be found by those searching to learn more about me or my work. Consistency is key when it comes to branding—think about Coca-cola and the iconic red and white color scheme. Check out this article on “6 Branding Tips for Writers and Authors“. I don’t exactly understand how Tumblr works, but I’m making the effort to study others who use the social media site effectively and “borrow” some of their tricks.
More important than simply having multiple social media accounts is being an active participant. Think of Social Media as a sort of informal publication. Try to contribute useful and engaging content to your audience. For my website, I decided early on that I would post book reviews and the occasional post about what I had learned from writing, for other writers like me.
So, when creating your platform and building your brand, find things that interest you and contribute to the ongoing conversation. Become a curator of information, connecting your followers with news and content that interests them. The more consistent you are, the more your followers will look to you as a source of information and entertainment.
Do Your Research: Agent Edition
I cannot stress enough how important research is the querying process. There are thousands of agents actively seeking new authors to represent, but that doesn’t mean you should treat the querying process like an e-mail blast. Finding an agent is a bit like applying to college: you want them to pick you, but you also need the experience to be a good fit for you. Each agent has their own specialties (genres they feel comfortable they can pitch to publishers) and wish lists. Some agents love YA realistic romance and other hate high fantasy. So maybe querying agents is less like a college search and more like Match.com. You want your novel to be with someone who will love it, brag about it, and hopefully sell it to the highest bidder. One of the biggest mistakes an author can make is carpet bombing a list of agents with their query letter, regardless of what the agent is looking for or even the specific requirements of that agent’s query process. Wouldn’t you be annoyed and put off if your dating profile said you were looking for someone who loves cats, and some ignorant person messaged you and wanted to sell you their how-to book on the art of cat skinning? Gross!
For my querying process, I purchased a one month subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace so I could research the agents who represented some of my favorite authors. There are ways to find out this information without the Marketplace, but it takes more work. I created an excel spreadsheet with the agent names, agencies, contact info, query requirements, and helpful notes. I researched 15 agents who I thought would be a good fit for my YA novel (I know writers who have lists of 50 to 100 agents they plan to query, but that seemed overwhelming to me). As I send my queries out, paying close attention to the formatting each agent requests (no attachments, first chapter, single-spaced, synopsis only) I record the submission date on my spreadsheet. I query 5 at a time, but that’s just me. Then as I hear back about queries, I note the date I heard and the response. Most of the responses are form rejections at this point, but I’ve had a couple of agents ask for partials. After that, I move on to the next name on my list.
For some reason, using the spreadsheet takes some of sting out of rejection. No one likes to be rejected, but knowing that there are 10, 15, 75 more agents to query with my mss, helps put things into perspective. The publishing industry really is a numbers game—the number of books just like yours, the number of potential readers, the number of queries any given agent receives on a daily basis. Just because my mss isn’t right for one agent, doesn’t mean it won’t be perfect for the next. So I forge ahead. And I’ll keep querying until I run out of agents.
Waiting is the Hardest Part
So you thought all those hours of chasing your muse and setting C-4 to your writer’s block were hard. Then you thought revision was worse. Next you had to research all these strangers who were supposed to love your novel the way you do and that was hard, too.
Well, I hate to break it to you but the hardest part about writing is still to come. The waiting. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I am not a patient person. I’m also a bit of a control freak. Once the novel is finished and the queries are submitted, the rest is out of your hands. You have to try and move on with your life, mustering the energy to do dishes or enjoy movies as if nothing has changed, when all the while you are compulsively refreshing your inbox every five minutes and waiting by the phone hoping THAT AGENT is reading your mss and dying to represent you. You have no control over when an agent reads your query letter (if ever) or even the mood they’re in when they do. With odds like that it’s a miracle that anyone ever gets published in the traditional way!
That’s why it is so important to move onto the NEXT THING. I’m still struggling to learn this. You need to get excited about another writing project to remind yourself why you want to pursue this draining/rewarding writing profession. Remind yourself why you love writing. Get invested in a new character, a different story. Try not to dwell on things you can’t control.
And when the good news finally comes in, it will have been worth the wait!