After reading a bunch of agent blogs, submission guidelines, and tweets on the subject of our #queryfails, it occurred to me that most of the complaints can be boiled down to one major offense: querying too early.
It’s not only about holding off until you can give that book an extra polish: writers need to educate themselves about the publishing industry before they try to join it.
Unprofessional gun-jumpers waste agents’ time, frustrate themselves, overstuff the slushpile—or publish inferior and/or under-promoted books, “ending careers practically before they start” according to agent Dorian Karchmar of Writers House.
I know about that ending-a-career-practically-before-it-starts thing. When I was chomping at the bit to publish my first book, I didn’t have a clue that if you publish a book or two but don’t have the sales numbers—something that can be completely out of your control—finding another publisher is close to impossible. I’ve got the calluses on my soul to prove it.
So don’t chomp. Take your time. You may not get a do-over.
Ms. Karchmar says: “Don’t give in to internal and external pressures to try to find an agent before you’ve matured as a writer. The book business is very difficult and not getting any easier; most books that are published don’t sell well.” Her advice? “Write a book that only you could write, and rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.”
Agent Janet Reid goes further. She suggests writing and polishing at least two books before you start the query process: “After you've written your first novel; you wait, write a second, revise, then query.”
And we also need to pay attention to all those agents whose websites post variations on what agent Andrea Hurst says, “publishing is a business. It bears repeating: publishing is a business! And we are professionals.” New writers have to learn to be professionals too.
But Ms. Karchmar is right about those pressures.
You’ve got the EXTERNAL PRESSURE:
• From your mom, who thinks the fact you’ve written 80,000 words of anything is so noteworthy she’s already composed the press releases.
• From your significant other, who wants to know when exactly his/her years of sharing you with that damned manuscript are going to start paying a few bills.
• From your friends, who are getting kind of embarrassed for you, when you keep telling them you’re a writer but have nothing to show for it. How long can it take to write a book anyway? They can type 55 words a minute!
• From your critique group, who are so tired of helping you revise that WIP …AGAIN, they’re screaming “Send it! Away! Immediately!”
And the INTERNAL PRESSURE:
• From your battered self-esteem: How many more years can you take those eye-rolls you get every time you tell somebody at a party you’re “pre-published,” and you’re only delivering pizzas until you make it as a writer?
• From artistic insecurity: You won’t REALLY know you have talent unless you’re validated by the industry, right?
• From financial insecurity: It’s tough to pay off the loans for the MFA when the only paying writing gig you’ve had since you got the degree is updating the menu for your brother-in-law’s fish and chips place.
• From your muse, who says: “This is some f*&%ing amazing s#%t, man! The world totally needs this book!” (What? A muse can’t be a stoner dude?)
We’ve heard them all. But the trick is learning to IGNORE THEM. We have to learn to listen instead for that small inner voice when it finally says:
• “I’ve got a couple of polished, print-ready books that will stand up to the snarkiest reviewer.”
• “My ego is enough under control that I’m willing to rewrite again for my agent (even though he’s dead wrong.) Then again for my editor (even though she looks maybe twelve years old and the last book she read probably had pop-ups in it.) And I will not threaten anyone with homicide when they put Fabio on the cover of my prequel to The Great Gatsby.”
• “I’m a professional. I know all about how the publishing industry works and I’m ready to turn out at least a book a year, promote it, and live my life on deadline.”
I can’t say for sure that I’d have a career now if I hadn’t been so eager to send my books out there so soon. I write quirky stuff, and maybe I’d still be sitting here in slushpile hell whether or not I’d jumped at the first publisher who accepted a manuscript.
But I know I’d have had an easier time if I’d held off with those queries and learned more about the business before I dove into it, soul-first.