I’ve had a number of people ask me that question in the last few months. There’s tons of info out here in Cyberia, but not everybody knows how to access it. And along with the good info, there’s plenty of bad—especially from predatory vanity publishers and bogus agents. So here are some basics for the newbies around here.
Your book has been critiqued, edited, and polished to a glittering sheen. What do you do next?
1) Celebrate! Break out the champagne, chocolate, fireworks, old Prince CDs, or whatever puts you in a festive mood. Contact a few people who remember who you are after your time in your writing cave, and toast your accomplishment. 80% of people in the
say they want to write a book. A fraction of a percent actually do. You’re one of them. Woo-hoo!! US
2) Make sure you know your genre. This isn’t always as easy as it sounds, but pick one to three genres as a tool to help agents and publishers know what kind of book they’re dealing with. Make sure you use established categories like “paranormal romantic suspense” not “vampire bunny western.” Creativity doesn’t work in your favor here. But you are allowed change genres according to who you query. Genre boundaries are oddly flexible these days. Both Charlaine Harris’s “True Blood” vampire books and Lisa Lutz’s dysfunctional-family comedies are categorized as mysteries. Women’s fiction is an umbrella that covers everything from Danielle Steel to Anne Tyler. And anything with a protagonist under 19 can be YA (the most sought-after genre these days.)
Two caveats here: 1. don’t call it “literary” unless the writing is to-die-for gorgeous (& an MFA helps.) 2. Never use the term “chick lit.” You’ll still find it listed on most query websites, but it’s the kiss of death.
More on all this in my post “Let’s Play What’s my Genre?”
3) Research and read the latest books in your genre(s) if you haven’t already. It’s important to have an idea of the market. A query letter is more effective if you can offer “comps”—similar titles that are selling (but not blockbusters—that looks like bragging.) Also, the authors of these books may blog or Tweet and you can follow them and get advice. Network. Find out who represents them. Eventually you might even get a recommendation, which is a golden ticket out of the slushpile.
4) Write your synopsis, hook, author bio and a basic query letter template. You can find helpful guides in any number of places. Agent Query provides solid basics. Most agents have similar information on their websites. Nathan Bransford’s “ESSENTIALS” list on his blog provides the info in a fun and friendly way, and Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog is a boot camp for query writers. Public Query Slushpile is a great place to get your query critiqued by other writers. There’s not so much on author bios, but I give the basics here.
5) Start a blog or build a website. An inexpensive Web host and a template design is fine. You want a nice, professional picture and a simple bio, with your contact information and something about your book and other publications. Nothing fancy. No bragging. Nothing is sadder than a pretentious website for an unpublished writer. And please! NO MUSIC!! People visit websites in libraries. And at work. Nothing is more annoying than unexpected music blasting from a website. (And it's not expected unless you're a professional musician selling your wares.)
A professional blog will do as well, but Facebook or other social networking sites that require membership won’t. Be Googlable, reachable and professional.
6) Start researching agents. You can subscribe to WritersMarket.com but up-to-date information is available free at AgentQuery.com where they provide a searchable database. You can put in your genre and immediately find what agents represent your work. Then check QueryTracker for further information on the agents you’ve chosen and get valuable comments from other queriers. (I also recommend subscribing to QueryTracker’s great newsletter for up-to-the-minute agent updates.) Then start Googling: look for interviews and profiles of agents to fine tune your queries. The wonderful Casey McCormick’s blog is a treasure trove of agent profiles and interviews.
7) Send out five queries.
8) Start your next book.
9) Get rejections. Mourn.
10) Send out five more queries.
11) Get more rejections. Mourn. Fine tune your query.
12) Sent out five more queries.
13) Maybe get a request for a partial! (the first few chapters of your book.) But before you send it, go to the agent’s website and double check guidelines for formatting and sending documents. Most formatting is pretty standard, and they will probably ask you to send it as a Word (.doc or .rtf) attachment. But some agents are quirky and will request something like “no italics” or “number your pages on the bottom of the page.” Do whatever they say, no matter how silly.
14) Get the partial rejected. Maybe with a note. This will say something like “I couldn’t connect with these characters,” or “the protagonist wasn’t strong/sympathetic enough,” or “the plot is too complex/simplistic” or even “this is perfect, but I have no idea where to sell it.” DO NOT take these too seriously or start rewriting your book. They’re mostly just polite words to say, “It didn’t give me screaming orgasms.” Mourn.
15) Get a request for the full manuscript!! Remember to check those guidelines. Some agents still want to see a ms. on paper. If so, put a big rubber band around it—do not bind—and mail it in a flat-rate box from the P.O. with a #10 stamped, self-addressed envelope inside for their reply. NEVER send it in an annoying way that requires a receipt.
16) Get another partial rejected. And another. Start building calluses on your soul. But—if the rejections start to sound the same—like everybody says the same thing about your unsympathetic, wimpipotamus hero, this is when you might give your ms. another once-over to see if you can figure out how to tweak things without doing serious damage to the book.
17) Get the full rejected. Mourn. You may get some more detailed feedback on this one. Pay attention, but don’t despair. It may not be your book that needs a rewrite. Maybe you’re targeting the wrong agents or pitching your book wrong. Maybe it turns out you’ve written a domestic drama (women’s fiction) not a romance. Try changing your query and hook before you change your book.
18) Finish book #2.
19) Start all over again with #2, but keep sending out #1 until it collects 100-150 rejections.
If you’re luckier than me, you may…
20) Land an agent somewhere along the way here.
21) If you don’t, you may want to consider a small press, regional press or self-publishing. Self-publishing for Kindle has proved very lucrative, even for new writers, so if you’re good at marketing, this may very well be the way to go. It certainly is the wave of the future. But I’d try the agent route first. They are awfully handy to have on your side.
Just don’t let that book languish in a drawer!