Monday, August 31, 2009

The Score 10 Days In

It's only been 10 days since I started querying -- I dumped 18 e-queries into cyberspace on August 21 -- and since that was a Friday evening, effectively it's only been a week. Still, it feels like a 100 years.

Things started well. The very next morning an agent asked for the first 50 pages! Visions of sugar plums started to dance in my head. Maybe this won't be so hard after all, I thought. I'll have to decide between two, three, ten agents! I'd have to lie because so many people would be asking for an exclusive look at my full ms. -- "Sorry, there's three copies of it out there already."

Of course, in the back of my head was a little voice telling me to get real. A little dose of reality came in on Monday with a couple of rejections. A few more followed. Over the weekend I was asked for the first chapter and then turned down because of it. (More on that in a later post.)

So, back to the old stalwarts -- John Grisham was turned away by eight agents! Fourteen agents said no to J.K. Rowling -- and every publisher in London!

Mostly, though, the killer has been the waiting. Is my query working? Will other agents have the same problem with the first chapter? Is my new query, used on the subsequent 12 of my 30 queries overall, better than the first? Should I have waited and re-written the query before I sent out those first 18?

Jesus, one gets consumed by doubt.

And why the fuck is it taking everyone so long to get back to me? Or is their not getting back simply a rejection by non-response, for which so many agents are famous? Haven't they worked through their backlog and gotten to me, yet? Is there any hope at all that I might know if I have any future as a writer by Christmas?

(Yes, I know it's only been a week. No one said I had to be rational about this journey.)

The score as of today: Queries sent - 30. Partials requested - 2. Rejections - 6.

The Query Letter II

Because it's the key to getting in the front door, writers obsess over the query. This is particularly true of those of us new to the world of agents and editors. And there's more than enough advice out there -- just Google "query letter" if you don't believe me.

There are several ways of handling this. You could read through
Jessica Faust's "must-read" posts or subject yourself to Janet Reid's Query Shark. You can go back in time and read the archives of the inimitable and aptly named Miss Snark.

My advice? Skip all that, go to
Nathan Bransford's blog, read everything he has to say about queries, look at the exemplars he has, choose one as your template and copy the format slavishly. That's what I did.

Oh, and don't open with a dependent clause. I'd sent out 18 e-queries before I realized that's exactly what I had done.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Query Letter

We hate it, don't we? For months, years, decades maybe, we struggle with our books, draft after draft, searching our frazzled brains for just the right word here, lyrical turn of phrase there, clever twist of plot over there, rewriting, editing, rewriting, editing until we've got the damn thing all un-typoed and "polished"...

And then we find out the way the publishing industry works the future of our creation, our future, the future of our children's hopes for college, rests on a single page of prose that must be dead-on, fascinating, extraordinary, but not too long or cute or literary, and don't get into too much detail but make sure you can capture the essence of your novel while grabbing the agent's attention and...

WTF? It reminds me of what Mr. Natural said: "Dis is a system?" (For you children out there who don't know who Mr. Natural is, Google "R. Crumb." Google "Jimi Hendrix" while you're at it.)

Alas for us, from the agent's perspective it makes perfect sense. A quick tour of writers' forums will reveal that every housewife with a laptop is churning out a romance, every dork who couldn't get a date in college has his third fantasy underway, every middle-aged woman has a Young Adult novel or a "cozy" in the works, every ex-CIA agent like me... Oops, almost revealed too much there.

So they need to cull the herd. Throw out, right off the bat, the 50% of the hundreds of queries they get each week that are written by semi-literates who can't even reach the very low bar of being able to string together two coherent sentences. Toss the stuff that's been done to death (vampires, anyone?) or won't sell (here's an idea: a cozy mystery set in the wizard land of Gonderel narrated by a vampire!). Try to figure out who they can possibly take a chance on by asking for a partial manuscript.

Still, it makes you wonder if Thomas Pynchon could get published if he were starting out today. Imagine the query for his epic, groundbreaking novel V. :

Benny Profane drinks too much but before you get all involved in that let's take a detour to late 19th century Egypt where there are some Cook's travelers and spies and references to Fashoda but then it's back to New York City and a weird crew and some alligator hunting, then off to turn-of-the-century Florence and some more spy capers and talk about Vheissu, which may or may not have something to do with V., then let's take a trip back to New York, then off to pre-war Sudwest Afrika and some goings-on with the Hereros (the reader will need to consult a dictionary to discover these are not the Bushmen) and then more back-and-forth till we eventually end up in Malta and the 1956 Suez crisis, with lots of jokes thrown in for no good reason along the way, innumerable characters whose names begin with V, which also may or may not be the V in question, in short, an inscrutable novel written in complex, paragraph-length sentences. Thank you for your consideration.

As Janet Reid would say, "Form rejection!"

Why Am I Doing This?

The first time I set out to be a novelist there was no Internet. You got yourself a copy of Writer's Market and looked under literary agents and tried to divine to whom you should send your manuscript. Unless you were clued in to the New York literary scene, you had no idea. It was like throwing darts at a board -- "Uh, I don't know, this guy sounds OK." You had no idea if the "agent" you were sending your book off to was a scam artist, an incompetent, or maybe just someone who only agented children's picture books and not the gritty, realistic sort of epic you'd written.

Now, though, the search for a literary agent has become an exercise in data-mining. You can go the the website of the Association of Authors' Representatives so at least you can be sure your agent-to-be adheres to a canon of ethics. You can check agents out at Preditors & Editors and see if they've actually sold any books lately. You can spend your days -- and nights -- researching agents and relating your experiences at the Absolute Write Bewares and Background Check forum. You can check out agents and track your queries at Query Tracker or use Agent Query or LitMatch or obsess over how quickly agents get back to you at Agent Turn Around Times. You can Google "[agent name] Publishers Marketplace" and see what it says. You can read blogs by literary agents, blogs by editors and blogs by publishers.

It can drive you fucking nuts.

So -- and I'm sure this is not an original idea -- I thought I'd set down my thoughts as I wander through this uniquely crazy process of desperately seeking someone who, in theory, wants to work for me.