Breaking by the rules

I’m a regular reader of the various “How I found my agent” stories that pop up all over the Web at a slow simmering rate. Part of it is because I enjoy a good pick me up tale in the midst of all the mass-murder, spree-killing, pandemic-virus, certain-doom narratives that flood the information superhighway every day. But I’ll come to Jesus and add that I’m also looking for patterns, as anecdotal as the occasional agent article is. Is there something successful authors are doing that I should adopt as a practice? Is there any kind of aspect to their attitudes, their community base, their writing environment that I can leverage?

I know it sounds self-focused, and I’m wary at all times of becoming as annoying as a one-man band in a library, but I’m trying to gain interest from others in me, so reading about people’s triumphs seems like one way to get some ideas without sucking up anyone else’s time. It’s not like The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People wasn’t a bestseller for many, many weeks in the 1990s. Many people want to know how to be better.

By any measure, getting published is more effective/successful in the writing world than packing each manuscript into a box and using it as a door stop. So I read through the various success stories, trying to take into account differences in genre, gender of the author and agent, how long ago the story took place (not necessarily when the story was relayed, since that could be years later), and what the outcome was. Most of these stories omitted details like the race of the actors involved, the region where the representation was offered, and whether the book, once sold, had good sales or not. And these details are important to me, but I can’t trace what isn’t communicated.

I have read through the last few years’ worth of stories on Writer’s Digest, but I’ve also picked up stories from individual authors’ blogs, some agent and agency blogs, and out of Publishers Weekly, which has run this kind of feature several times. And again, my conclusions are on based on anecdotes—so if everyone is lying, I have a skewed take on what these patterns of landing agent representation really are. But what I’ve gleaned, and what I’m using as my modus operandi, are the following points of interest:

Use sending to a few agents at a time as a means of refining your query letter—You’ve scoured your synopsis and bio, and you’re finally happy with it, or at least think it’s respectable. If you send it to 20 or even 10 agents, and none of them get back to you, that’s 10-20 agents you can’t query with that project again. So send it out to 5, see if anyone asks for a partial or full manuscript, and if not, revise your query before sending it out to 5 more.

Don’t query the people you think are perfect for your project right out of the gate—I know agents won’t like this bit of advice, but in too many stories I read, writers went through several rejections before they started getting any kind of interest (requests back for partial or full ms, or questions to the writer). There really isn’t any way to hone your query letter and get a feel for what is interesting to agents without contacting actual agents. Yes, you can put it in front of other writers (and I’ve personally done that), but it just isn’t the same as seeing what publishing professionals think. If you get back a lot of “I’m just not the right agent for this project,” that’s one thing, but if you hear any of “I couldn’t envision how I would market this book,” or something else specific about your project, be glad you can revise the query, and then hit up that Agent Right with it. I think query letters take real-world trial and error.

Go to a damn conference—They’re not cheap, I realize, but agents and editors sincerely appreciate the effort writers make to attend these. It shows we’re working on our craft, we’re putting ourselves out there, we care about the business and aren’t too diva-like to get down and dirty in the publishing world’s weeds. Look for conferences that encourage membership and aren’t just for-profit events, conference Web sites that announce ahead of time which agents will be in attendance, conferences that also have literary competitions that you can enter, and conferences that don’t draw 3,000+ people. We’re newbies, so smaller ponds can help us stand out and get us meet and greet time with agents. Many agents will also put queries from writers who attended to the tops of their piles. If that $400 in conference fees nets you an agent, that’s a great investment.

Successful writers broke a rule—Okay, not every time, but a lot of the time, like in more than half of the narratives I’ve read. This doesn’t mean it’s open season to stalk your favorite Steampunk agent. Don’t go being an ass. But if you’re in an elevator the day after an agent said not to your 2-minute pitch, feel free to try again with a different angle. Context is key: if the agent has asked for a partial, feel free to send an updated bio in the email or package. If you haven’t heard in two months and you have developed a new query in the meantime, send that with your friendly reminder. Or send along some new details about your project when telling other agents that someone requested a partial or full ms. It’s opening up the lines of communication, not breaking boundaries.

Be enthusiastic—As these stories go, and from what agents have told me personally, they make decisions to see more in seconds from hearing the start of a pitch. So start with a genuine smile. Start with “I love this project,” and then pitch it. Set them up to like you even if they don’t like the project, because you, as a writer, are more than this one book, right? Which leads me to . . .

Be working on something new as you’re pitching your book—Many of these stories from writers include the fleeting reference to having written at least one other thing. Either they were knee-deep in a new project, or they wrote three books and only tried to pitch the fourth, or they struggled to get representation on some earlier work, only to win representation on a new manuscript. If you write one thing and only one thing, and pitch that from here until August 2015, you’ll look like a writer with very few ideas and little to contribute. Plus I think something should be said for getting your head out of your book so you can see it as a business product—because it is—and not your sweet little baby with the god-ugly face that nobody but you loves. Distance is good for selling.

This stuff takes time—Sitting down going through all of these stories, there is not a single one that details an overnight success. We’re writers, not Daniel Radcliffe getting pegged to play Harry Potter. We are not going to be plucked out of obscurity in any kind of quick time frame. I saw two years, four years, five years, and more. That’s why it’s important to keep writing. All that stuff about having an online presence, writing for a market, finding community, going to conferences, all of it is about remaining engaged with the publishing machine and establishing a reputation as a convivial, professional, creative person. After going to an agent’s workshop earlier this month—an agent who had asked for everything under the sun from me and then rejected the project—she told me that if I got my manuscript down to 80,000 words from 104,000, she’d like to read it again. I had to have the guts to put myself in the same room with her again, but I did it, and that gives me another opportunity to move forward, which is great.

Now then, to get my hands on that $2,500 advance.

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Categories: ponderings


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23 Comments on “Breaking by the rules”

  1. September 29, 2010 at 8:16 am #

    Well done, Everett!

    This kind of analysis is such a vital part of surviving and thriving in your writing-for-publication journey!!!

    You nailed it when you said that a writer must see his or her book(s) as a business product(s)! Yesss!!! You’re sooo right!!! And not just see the books but the entire writing-for-publication process as a business!!!

    Good luck in your journey! And never forget to have fun with and enjoy the many wild rides you’ll take!!!

    Sexy Sassy Smart Fabulous Adventures Wishes — D. D. Scott

    • evmaroon
      September 29, 2010 at 9:01 am #

      I promise I won’t forget how to have fun, D. D.! It’s kind of the mantra of my life. Heh. Thanks for your high praise!

  2. September 29, 2010 at 8:17 am #

    Two things: love the lines “sweet little baby with the god-ugly face” and “establishing a reputation as a convivial, professional, creative person.” Because the first made me snarf my chai tea, and the second is dead-on true.

    I wrote a blog post about treating your work as a business product just this week (“Motivation” if you’re interested).

    And you’re totally right about breaking the rules. They’re even broken when you get to the “how I got published” part. I think a lot of people are looking to follow a formula to get into the industry, but I haven’t heard one “by the book” story yet and I’ve been paying attention.

    To add to your data: I queried about 40 agents before finding one. She did not sell the book that I queried, but she sold another. It’s doing pretty well. And I am constantly working on something new, though only 1 ms at a time, and not 2 or 3 as I’ve seen with some other writers.

    • evmaroon
      September 29, 2010 at 9:00 am #

      Glad you liked the writing, Tracey, thanks. I’ll go check out your blog post today! What kind of writing do you do?

  3. Bob Mayer
    September 29, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    I agree with all the above. Rule Breaking is a tenet of Warrior Writer, but there are three rules to rule breaking:
    1. Know the rule
    2. Have a good reason for breaking the rule
    3. Accept responsibility for breaking the rule
    I got published by breaking a rule. Most authors do.
    Persistence and Grit is more important than talent.

    • evmaroon
      September 29, 2010 at 8:54 am #

      And you’ve been published a lot at this point, Bob — what is it, 40 some-odd books now? I’d love to be a Warrior Writer, but I’m afraid I’m really more of a Klutzy Writer Who Stumbles Forward.

  4. September 29, 2010 at 8:26 am #

    That sounds like a lot of work for a $2500 advance. I make nearly that much (net) at my job. And then after taxes, cost of conferences, supplies, and so forth, what are you really left with?

    I like writing and I’d like someone to like my writing, but all this sell sell sell stuff is for the birds.

    • evmaroon
      September 29, 2010 at 8:52 am #

      Well, I’m kidding a bit about the advance. It’s true that I’ve been hearing that they’ve softened a lot for unknown or emerging writers, but I haven’t heard of an advance yet that is less than $5,000. Still, that’s not a lot of money. I think of it really as seed money for the next project now.
      Unfortunately, we’re stuck with selling on overdrive because you’ve got to have good numbers for your first book or it’s an even tougher uphill battle selling a second book. So okay, I’ll sell away!

  5. September 29, 2010 at 10:20 am #

    I have one novel published as well as six non-fiction books. All for middle grade/YA readers. Two more non-fic out by next Feb.

  6. October 2, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    Excellent article Everett! I love the bit of advice on trimming the amount of queries sent at one time! Much more sensible than flooding field with one project and not being able to submit it again!

  7. October 10, 2010 at 2:46 am #

    Insightful article and of course good ideas there. Thank you for taking so much time and putting this together. All the best for your projects! 🙂


  8. September 1, 2011 at 2:48 pm #

    This was a really fun read in that so much of it could only be learned the hard way in the past — now we can build on others experience – not falling into every sand trap on the course! This was great.

    • evmaroon
      September 2, 2011 at 9:34 am #

      I’m glad you got something out of it! I do like to share my hardest lessons learned, because it’s my way to better karma in the next life, I’m reasonably sure.


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