books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, July 11, 2010

THE NUMBER ONE MISTAKE NEW WRITERS MAKE...and why we make it

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.

22 comments:

  1. That is so true. Most writers submit after one draft, get rejected and can't figure out why. Janet's advice is great as well. By the time you've finished the second manuscript, you go back and rewrite the first because you've learned so much more by then.

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  2. This is great advice, Anne. I will be sure to keep it in mind. First novel's almost done, so I guess it's about time to start on the second. :)

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  3. Anne, It's really great that you share these very important tidbits! The way you say them, too, is wonderful! I love your humor!! :)

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  4. This is a wonderful post I wish I'd read/embraced years ago when I started this process. It is wisdom I'm well advised to heed now. The following gave me pause though:

    "Don’t give in to internal and external pressures to try to find an agent before you’ve matured as a writer."

    Yes, of course, but how do I determine when I'm mature? Though I sometimes shudder now at stuff I sent out earlier, at the time I thought it was, well, if not perfect, then publishable. Since there may be no answer to this question, I just have to keep working on getting better, right?

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  5. Great post, Anne.

    It's true that many writers can't get out of the slush pile, because of other inferior writers taking the agent's time and whatnot.

    I have yet to even write a query letter, all I've been doing is writing and writing, one novel after the other. I know I'm not ready to publish just yet, that my writing still has time to improve, and that I'm still very young. (18 years old, fyi.)

    So, write on and fight on!

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  6. Let me just say that I queried my first project before it was even written. Yes, before it was written! This was due to some very bad advice I received from someone who said that "A serious author should never write for free. Don't write an entire manuscript until you've sold the proposal."

    Now, I have since learned that this only applies to non-fiction. But the person was speaking to a mixed fiction and non-fiction audience and should have known better.

    Or, perhaps not, because he tried repeatedly to sell nonfiction proposals and was asked to write a fiction series instead, so he may never have actually queried fiction. He didn't want to write fiction but actually had a whole series of historical novels published.

    The advice did prove good in one sense: I wrote a chapter outline, synopsis, and the first eight chapters to submit to a particular publisher who wanted the outline, synopsis and first three chapters with each query. They rejected it. It was designed specifically for them, so I dropped the project. I'm glad I didn't waste time on the entire manuscript.

    But in general, that's not the way to get a novel published.

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  7. (to clarify, I only submitted the first three chapters to the publisher (per their guidelines) but had gotten as far as chapter eight before I stopped writing)

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  8. Hey, Anne:
    I've written five novels and two books of short stories. I've re-written and re-written until I can't remember what the original stories were like (mostly). I'm in three good and helpful (mostly) critique groups. "Everyone" (mostly) likes my stuff (mostly). Am I ready yet to take the plunge and send something(s) out? How does one know?
    Someone told me the answer to that question is: You twist the rubber band propeller real tight, aim it at the horizon, and let it go. Anything else I should do?
    Geez, a guy can get depressed about this publishing stuff. Gotta go find a truffle.

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  9. I wrote my first book without any prior knowledge on how the industry worked. Curiosity drove me to research and find whatever information I could. Then I wrote another book and I'm now on my third. The difference from my first book and my current WIP is astounding. This time around I'm more confident and can readily see where the improvements are needed.

    Janet Reid's advice is right on the money. I can attest to that from experience. (Hugs)Indigo

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  10. I enjoyed this post. I came to the conclusion early this year that I am not ready to continue to query my previous piece. In fact I've sent it into my own slush pile (maybe never to be heard from again). I'm learning. I think what I'm working on now could definitely have That Star Potential. After I finish it, and revise and then revise again.

    Excellent advice for new and old writers alike!

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  11. Excellent advice, as usual. My first novel was pretty decent after several rewrites but I could never compose a good query letter. Hum. My second novel was…not stellar. But, I wrote a great query and had several requests to read. But, of course, no takers. My third and present novel is by far my best, most polished and I have a query that is shaping up. Maybe this is the “one” !..?..!..? Ah, who the hell knows?

    Years ago an agent told me that 95% of the queries she got were so unprofessional that she didn’t get past the first two paragraphs—of the query, not the manuscript—before she threw it in the reject pile. So, just learn the basics and you’ll be in the top 5%. And make an agents day!

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  12. I think in my case, this whole querying too soon process was a learning experience. I had to try the shark pool to see what exactly it entailed. Now that I have the experience, I'm hoping next time around it won't be so bad.

    And in my case, the first book did garner some partial requests so I know I'm on the right track. Perhaps not for publication with this particular book, but maybe in the future.

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  13. Excellent post. My experience has primarily been in painting/art gallery director, etc. but the Process is the same. No painter would be foolish enough to graduate from Art School, paint one Really Swell Picture, then troop down to a gallery and ask for a One Man Show. Get laughed out of the room. Yet that's what writers do. I interviewed a lot of artists and a pattern emerged: Newbies in need of about five years of solid work to be ready enough for a group show; Newbies with 10 years worth of work ready for a first one man show: Pros with several one man shows under their belt who were Pros both in terms of maturity of work, amount of high quality work (gotta have enough to sell),and an understanding of "The Business" end of it all. Those artists were joys to work with, but even the Newbies who were serious about their development were wonderful. What was teeth-grindingly grim were the Newbies who painted one picture, fell in love with their wonderfulness, then pitched a fit because they didn't get a one man show.

    The Art Biz, like the Writing Biz, is a grim, unforgiving business, a kind of Bataan Death March wherein only the good and the lucky survive, maybe. On the other hand, nobody put a gun to an artist/writer's head and said, "The World demands that you must paint/write." That difficult task is self-chosen so if you want to keep your sanity, you'd better enjoy the process of creation more than you hate the grim reality of production.

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  14. Thanks, all, for sharing your experiences.

    Christine H, I really hear you about the conflicting "information" new writers get. Nonfiction rules are 100% different from fiction, and yet a lot of "experts" speak as if they're identical.(Especially in terms of "platform.") Also, "experts" in sales can bully you into doing incredibly stupid things like "make your query stand out" by putting it in a chartreuse font with glitter inside the envelope.

    Churadogs, I hope everybody reads your comment. The analogy with artists selling to galleries is very insightful. And you sure are right about the Bataan Death March aspect of trying to break in.

    Mr. Wurst, I think the rules may be different for talking pigs. LOL

    Christine A--Thanks for the positive note: Anybody reading writing blogs like this is already in the top 5%!

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  15. I agree with everything here. Unfortunately you don't often realize that you've queried too soon until you query too soon. I think there's comes a point where you've got to jump in and see what happens. That may just be part of it all, too. Kind of like the first time you fall in love...and then get your heart broken. A sad but necessary part of life, I guess.

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  16. KLM, you make an interesting point. It may indeed be a sad but necessary step. We always THINK we're ready.

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  17. Ah, wonderful advice Anne. I think it's all-too easy to give in to impatience and start submitting. But I do find writing/submitting short stories helps fill the void while you're working on the novels ...

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  18. Simon, your advice is excellent. Get the positive feedback you need from writing short fiction, which will hone your skills better than endlessly rewriting that query letter. Plus you'll build some industry cred. I'm impressed with the number of pieces you've published.

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  19. Of course, there is the other side of the human nature coin : procrastinating, no matter how revised your novel is. If you never query, you will never get rejected.

    Write the best you can. Revise. Let it sit for a bit. Revise again. Then, get out there and dance.

    Simon is right about the short fiction, Roland

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  20. I loved this post, to be honest you made my internal alarm clock a little less loud and I am happy to spend some more time honing my talent and working out what sort of writer I am.

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  21. Roland, that's great advice for the true procrastinators out there. Nicely put.

    Wave, glad I could help silence that alarm for a while. We get a lot of pressure to "just do it" that doesn't apply to the publishing business.

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  22. Great post! I know I queried too soon. But of course I didn't realize this until after I got some good rejections back -- good as in they were more than just a no, they told me what wasn't working. Fortunately I only sent out a few queries at a time so that I could go back and revise before querying some more. I think some of this stuff you only learn by doing, though. Because if I had read this post three months ago I would never have believed that I was querying too soon!

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