Tips on becoming a published author.
Just to be clear, I didn’t sign on to blog about my writing process today. I did do all kinds of things before I wrote my first book: I read books on writing by John Gardner, Stephen King, and Anne Lamott. I researched a lot of material, I had beta readers, I re-read and edited my material, and so on. But that’s not what I want to blog about. I want to write about already having a book and trying to get it published.
The reason I want to do this is that not too long ago, I had just finished writing a book called Once Upon a Time Bomb. That wasn’t my novel’s first name – I originally wanted to call my first book Vampires Only Sparkle When They Burn. Once Upon a Time Bomb also wasn’t my book’s last name; it was eventually published by Orbit under the name of Charming. But Once Upon A Time Bomb is the title I used the most while trying to get the book published, and it was a very frustrating process.
I tried to do some research, but it soon became obvious to me that there was an entire industry devoted to helping people get published – or at least getting their money while they tried – and that it wasn’t really very helpful for me. There were all sorts of expensive seminars and retreats where I could get my manuscript looked at by professional editors, and there were books by literary agents or former editors’ assistants promising to provide industry secrets and all that, but honestly, I’m a high school teacher with all of the time and financial constraints that this implies. So please don’t get me wrong – I’m sure that many of these seminars are very helpful and a lot of these books are legit and there may well be a lot of people involved who sincerely love the written word and like being a positive influence in people’s lives. I never found out because I am cheap.
Some of the free web sites were encouraging and helpful, especially the ones about preparing a pitch or synopsis, but a lot of the advice was repeated from site to site. So now that my third book (Fearless) is coming out in August 2015 and I’ve been contracted to write two more, I thought I would try to write a few specific things that I wish someone had told me, or just told me earlier. I am not writing this because I’m an experienced writer with lots of hard won wisdom to bestow. I am writing this because I am a relatively new writer, and if you want to become a new writer…see where I’m going with this? Anyhow, here is my advice, and I take no legal or moral responsibility for how badly it might mess up your life. It is free, and I do honestly hope that it’s helpful in some small way.
TIP ONE: IF YOU WANT TO BE PUBLISHED BY ONE OF THE BIG SIX PUBLISHING COMPANIES, YOU REALLY SHOULD PURSUE A LITERARY AGENT FIRST.
Please note the “If” in the above tip. There are certainly other ways to get published; for example, some of my favorite books got published after becoming an internet phenomenon, like the wonderful Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh or John Dies at the End by John Wong or Daemon by Daniel Suarez. I am currently reading The Martian which I believe was independently published, at least at first. I just didn’t go that route and can’t speak to it. I also don’t know anything about small press publishing.
But IF you want to get published by one of the Big Six (Simon and Schuster, Random House, Hachette, the Penguin Group, Harper and Collins, Macmillan) unsolicited manuscripts from unpublished authors have about roughly the same chance of landing on one of their editors’ desks as a meteor. The big publishing houses depend on literary agents to act as their first line of defense against an avalanche of manuscripts. There are true stories of those one in a million manuscripts that get rescued from a slush pile by a diligent intern and become best sellers, but counting on that is like buying a lottery ticket and calling it your retirement plan.
TIP TWO: IF YOU WANT TO GET A LITERARY AGENT, USE QUERY TRACKER
Query Tracker is a free database with tons of information about literary agents and editors. It will do most of your research for you. Query tracker will list what agents are interested in what genres, which ones are actively looking for manuscripts, and provide links to their agency sites. I wanted to focus on agents who accepted emails, for example, because I expected getting published to be a long haul and didn’t want to spend God knows how much money mailing multiple hard copies of my submission. I also wanted agents who wanted to see actual writing samples, and the site provided that info too. This tip is probably the most non-subjective helpful advice I can offer you, and it was passed on to me by a librarian friend to whom I owe a great deal. By the way, I am not getting any kickbacks from Query Tracker, nor does anyone I know work for them. I’m just a fan.
TIP THREE: EXPECT THE UNREJECTED.
I expected to get a lot of rejections from literary agents. I’d heard the horror stories. What I didn’t expect was that the majority of them don’t even bother to send out rejection letters anymore, not even form letters. Expect this and don’t get discouraged by it. Even some of the agents who did respond to my submission took a year and a half to do so. I was literally still getting rejection letters from agents explaining that they were sorry but didn’t think my book was publishable months after my book had already been published by Hachette.
TIP FOUR: DON’T SEND OUT ONE BLANKET SUBMISSION – DO A LITTLE RESEARCH.
It is tempting to take advantage of the internet and copy and paste functions and just email hundreds of submissions in one go, hoping you’ll get a hit or a nibble. Personally, I advise against this. For one thing, it eliminates the learning curve. You only get one shot with each agent or editor, and if you realize that there’s something you want to change after you’ve already sent your submission out to every agent you could find, you’re screwed.
Another factor is that agents are individuals, and you should treat them as such. Especially if you want them to extend you the same courtesy. If you look at their web sites, most agents will tell you what they’re looking for, and even if you think their entries are vague or obviously full of it, you should be able to glean something from the authors in the agent’s client list and the tone of their writing. If nothing else, a little research might let you know when there’s no chance in hell that an agent will be interested in your particular manuscript and save everyone a little hassle. You should tailor your submission to appeal to specific agents – emphasizing the action or romance or humor or mystery aspect of your novel, assuming it has different aspects. Dear God, I hope it has different aspects. This is not about deceiving agents – it’s like changing the table cloths or the lighting to get someone to try the dish you’ve made because you hope they’ll like it.
TIP FIVE: LISTEN TO OTIS REDDING WHILE YOU WRITE SUBMISSIONS
I have no idea why this is helpful. It just is.
TIP SIX: THIS ISN’T REALLY A TIP, IT’S AN EXAMPLE OF A SYNOPSIS
I can’t say this is the definitive submission, because, again, I changed my submissions slightly to appeal to different agents. This is an example of the one I still have on file.
Name of agent
Name of agency
Dear Name of agent,
In Virginia, a 16 year old vampire uses her smart phone like a magic mirror to become an evil queen, recruiting sociopaths from vampire fan sites…
A Midwestern werewolf pack weaponizes the components of the spell that created the first lycanthrope, creating a biological weapon capable of starting a werewolf plague …
In Boston, a gang calling itself the Redcaps deals a drug called “Delphi” which gives its users glimpses of the future…
On Wall Street, an undead sorcerer getting stock tips from Hell deposits his soul in a maximum security bank for “safe” keeping…
This is the world of John Charming, last in a long line of dragon slayers and witch finders. Mourning a lover who did not live happily ever after and cursed by one of the monsters he used to hunt, John hides from the ancient order of knights who trained him: the Knights Templar. The Order is bound to protect the Pax Arcana, a magical treaty between mankind and magickind. But the ancient spell that keeps humans from perceiving creatures of myth is breaking down, and John’s world is about to explode …
Once Upon A Time Bomb is a first person urban fantasy told from the viewpoint of the protagonist, John Charming. It is approximately103, 000 words long and resembles Patricia Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson novels in its approach to combining the monsters of fable with modern day menaces.
My name is Elliott James. And here I wrote three lines of personal info that I generally only share when I have to.
Now I did something a little different. I didn’t try to break down the entire plot of my first book in one paragraph. Every time I did that, it either sounded cheesy or couldn’t begin to really give a sense of all the events and conflicts within the novel. So I tried to give a sense of the possibilities that the world I wanted to create offered, dangling that bait in the hopes that the agent would read the writing sample and then get a sense of the writing tone and style. I pitched a series rather than a book because Fantasy and Science fiction publishers insist that you agree to write a three book series if they like your idea anyhow. That might not be true for other genres. I suppose it was risky, but in this case it worked. Eventually.
My best advice: do not settle for jumping through hoops and producing something that you don’t like because you feel like it is expected from you, and then send it out with a “At least I’m done with this BS,” attitude. Vary your synopses and keep torturing yourself until you find a way to write a submission letter without wanting to mutilate anyone or anything. Don’t settle until you have a submission that you would like to read yourself even though the whole submission process was obviously invented by Satan. That does not mean take more than a page to write the submission. That would be like showing up late and unshowered to your first date wearing nothing but a hopeful expression. You won’t even get in the door.
TIP SEVEN: NO ONE IS REALLY AN EXPERT
I was rejected by thirty-two agents before Michelle Johnson wrote me back, and at least ten more after. I don’t know if that number is usual or unusual or high or low. What I do know is that the book forty-two agents thought was unmarketable was accepted by a major publisher five days after I got a literary agent. Another major publisher expressed interest while we were working out the details but backed out when they found out someone else was interested because they weren’t about to get in a bidding war over an unpublished author. And another major publisher expressed interest after I had already signed a contract with Orbit (Hachette’s Sci-fi and Fantasy branch)
This is not to say that I’m great. Just being published is not proof of worth. I know that while I was trying to get published, I read an awful lot of books (and a lot of awful books) that made me scream “Come on!” and wonder how that crap ever got past a desk. I’ve read a lot of best sellers that gave me this reaction, and I’m sure some people have read my books and had the same response.
My point is, writing is subjective. If I had assumed that those forty two agents were much better judges of what could and couldn’t be published than I was because they were professionals, I might have gotten discouraged and not sent out the submission that mattered. It’s like that experiment where a middle school class made stock market predictions and outperformed nearly every major Wall Street firm. There are too many factors to consider in any medium that revolves around consumer interest for anyone to ever really be an expert, and that certainly includes me. All I can speak from is personal experience. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to other people or assume that your writing doesn’t need any work. Just because there is no absolute truth does not mean that there is absolutely no truth, and assuming no one can teach you anything and ignoring all criticism is a pretty good recipe for disaster. But ultimately, as a writer you have to take responsibility for your own choices and development just like any other avenue in life, and that includes choosing who you listen to. If someone is being destructive, not constructive, rinse and don’t repeat.
Hope that helps someone, somewhere, somehow.