Inside a Writer's Mind

Inside a Writer's Mind
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” -- Oscar Wilde

Monday, 15 October 2012

A Letter To A Writing Friend

This post is basically an email I sent to a writing friend in response to his request for the names of literary agents he might approach with his debut novel. I thought it might be useful for other aspiring authors.

* * *
Dear John,

Congratulations, first of all, for getting to the stage you are at with your novel. I know it is not easy and takes much perseverance and self belief.

I would be happy to suggest some literary agents to query, but first I would like to ask you a few questions, and, if you don't mind, make a few suggestions.

As far as the questions go, these are questions concerned with novel writing I have come across again and again. I think my writing journey would have been a bit smoother had I known to ask them of myself in the first place. Some of these things a prospective agent will want to know as well. I've tried to put them in the order I think will be most helpful.

Here goes:

What is the genre of your novel? (It's very important to be able to be clear about this, particularly for a first time author. Be sure to only contact agents who represent the genre you've written in. One of the problems I had with my novel was that it didn't seem to fit neatly into one genre.)

What is the word count? (Should be at least seventy to eighty thousand words, unless it's a young adult novel in which case fifty or sixty seems to be ok, according to what I've read at least.)

Have you put your manuscript away, after finishing it, for at least a couple months before you started rewriting it? (I think this is essential for the development of your novel. It will give you some distance from it and make easier for you to be objective when you go back to it. That is, it will help you to read it as "a reader", rather than as the author. What I'm trying to say here is that I wouldn't send your first draft to an agent. No matter how good it is now, it will be better after several rewrites. One British writer I read about
-- it could have been Emily Dickinson -- used to lock her manuscripts in a cupboard and give the key to her friend, along with instructions not to give the key back, no matter how many times she asked for it, for six months.)

Have you had your rewritten manuscript read and sought feedback from other writers/readers and then rewritten your manuscript several times more based on this feedback? (Having several people read your work and give you feedback is important -- although scary as hell -- and it helps you to be more objective about it. Getting it read by a manuscript appraiser might be something else you want to consider. If you decide you want to go there, I would recommend author/manuscript assessor, Sally Odgers, for a start -- she was cheap (about $150) and gave me a lot of useful feedback. I wouldn't recommend (redacted) as
he was expensive and less helpful, though very complimentary, which I guess was helpful in another sense. I'm not suggesting you toss out your vision for your novel in favour of trying to please or appease others, but trust me, you will be surprised at the things other readers pick up on that you've not seen or thought of. And ultimately your novel will benefit. A writing group or online community might also help with this -- more on this later.)

Have you had your MS professionally edited? (Based on what I've read, and been told, I think this is important to consider if you want your novel taken seriously. It will probably cost between one and two grand to get your novel line edited -- line editing is where the MS is edited line by line for consistency of punctuation, syntax and grammar, this is cheaper than developmental editing, where the MS is edited with a view to improving the overall story in terms of how engaging it and the characters are, how it flows, and how well it builds to a climax. If you get enough reader feedback though you are hopefully getting information you can use to do your own developmental editing. I would definitely consider getting it line edited once you've rewritten it several times and are convinced it's as good as you can make it. I used a US editor recommended on 'Predators and Editors' by the name of Michael Garrett. He was pretty good, but probably only worth it if you're going to submit to US agents or self publish online with Amazon Kindle or Smashwords. I don't know of any Australian or British editors that I can recommend.)

You could get the 'The Australian Writer's Marketplace' for information on Australian agents, editors, and publishers, or, 'The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook' for info relevant to the UK, for the USA there are a few, I have 'Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents'. I used the ‘Book Depository’ sites to order most of my books as they were cheap and quick -- be aware there are two, one ends with '.uk' and the other with '.org' I think, I mention this because their prices differ from book to book, so worth checking both.)

Are the opening paragraphs and pages of your novel the very best in the whole book? Do they set the tone? Intrigue the reader? Start mid action? Introduce the key characters and conflict? Are they absolutely perfect in terms of spelling, punctuation, and grammar? Do they make it impossible for a reader to put down your book without wanting to know what happens next? Do they sing like a baritone with the lungs and balls of a bull elephant on speed? (Sorry, got a bit carried away there... But seriously, they need to -- much to my frustration -- as these are all most agents want to see before they decide to request your MS or reject it. Usually the first five to ten pages of your novel, along with a synopsis and a query letter is all an agent wants to see. I can't stress enough how important the opening is. I read Hemingway rewrote the opening of one
of his novels over one hundred times -- maybe that's where the reference to the elephant came from.)

Do you have any other publishing credits? (Anything at all you've had published I would mention in your query letter.)

Is there a similar novel to yours in print and how is it selling? (If it's not selling well I wouldn't bother mentioning it. If it is, this is obviously a selling point. 'Fifty Shades of Grey' is fan fiction based on the Twilight series, and, I think, it derived a lot of its interest and sales momentum from that connection. It's a good idea to follow what's happening in publishing by doing some reading on sites like 'Publishers Marketplace'. It's also a good idea to check out debut novels that are selling well on Amazon, or that feature on other bestsellers lists, and to read them. These are your -- our --competition, and we can learn from them, not only in terms of how they wrote their novels, but also what is attracting particular agents' and publishers' attention. You can then find out who represented them and, hopefully, get an idea of who might be interested in the sort of thing you've written.)

Do you have a platform? (The US agents in particular seem obsessed with this. It basically means do you have a media platform; either social media, as in Facebook, Twitter, a blog or website with a significant following i.e. a ready made readership, or are you a celebrity, or an expert in your field if you've written non fiction? If you have a significant platform -- like the author of 'Fifty Shades of Grey' did -- some of the other things I've mentioned aren't as important because an agent/publisher knows you've already got a readership i.e. people who will shell out money to buy your book.)

Which agents should you query? (The books I mentioned earlier are a good place to start, as is the site 'Predators and Editors' and there are lots of other online resources to help you decide this also like 'Writer Beware' and 'Query Tracker'. See my blog for posts (the earlier ones) and links (on the right) that might help: . But ultimately this depends on what you've written as it has to be a "good fit" -- you'll read this term a lot -- for the agent to take it on. Basically, it needs to be something they've had success selling in the past. It's also a good idea to join an online writing community, or at least read their forums, to gather up to date information on agents, such as: . These communities can also be good places to get writing tips, get feedback on your work, as well as
querying information.)

Have you studied examples of, and practised repeatedly writing, a query letter and a synopsis before you sent either anywhere near an agent? (I didn't and I cringe when I look back at some of the stuff I sent out earlier on. Again, see my blog for links and posts that can help with this, in particular, 'Query Shark' and 'Nathan Bransford' -- heaps of great stuff on this ex-agent turned author's site that I suspect will be useful to you. I will forward you some of my query letters and synopses as well. But I can't stress enough the importance of the query letter, it is key to getting your foot in the door. Sending off a poorly written one is akin to farting in a job interview. The synopsis is also important and I found writing one extremely tricky. It’s easiest if you can summarise your novel in a sentence – in simplest terms: A wants B but must overcome C to get it -- which you then extend to a paragraph, and finally to a page or two. This is best done, I now realise, before actually writing the novel, rather than trying to do so afterwards.)

Why are you querying this agent? (I know the obvious answer is because you want them to represent you and your work. But I would find ways of personalising your query letter so the agent knows you haven't picked them randomly, perhaps by mentioning something you read on their blog or Twitter feed -- see below.)

Have you read the agent's submission guidelines? (Very important to do so, and to follow them. I would also suggest reading agents' blogs and following them on Twitter to get further insights into how they operate and to find out who is looking to read the sort of thing you've written. See below for websites and books to help with this also.)

And now to your original question about recommending agents. I’m attaching a spreadsheet of agents I’ve contacted or planned to contact.

I started off querying agents in the USA, for a few reasons. Firstly, there are so many of them -- thousands -- that I thought my chances may be better over there (I had one request to read the MS and she subsequently rejected it). Secondly, there are only ten or so literary agents in Australia and I didn't want to get rejected by all of them, before I had some idea of what I was doing. Thirdly, I figured by the time I exhausted my options in the US, my manuscript would be much better and I'd have a clearer idea as to how
the whole querying process worked, and therefore a better chance of getting 'picked up' when I started querying back here.

I recently started querying in Australia. Both Australian agents I queried requested the MS. I’ve not tried many of the British agencies, there are some on the spreadsheet though. And many more worth trying.

What I have learned about writing and seeking publication is that nothing good happens quickly. If you are determined to learn about the publication process and to keep writing, success, in some shape or form, is unavoidable. The key is to keep learning and never give up.

I hope this goes some way to answering your questions. I'm sorry this is so long.

We are all well and settling into our new life here. At the moment I'm juggling teaching and working on my second novel.

Hope the universe is treating you all kindly.


J. C.

* * *

P.S. If you have anything to say in response to any of the above, I would be keen to hear it. Please put it in a comment and post it. Thanks. (-: