Hello, readers –
Guess what? This is my hundredth posting as the PNWA’s resident writer on writing! Honestly, the landmark snuck up on me. To celebrate, I am going to delay my planned discussion on how to fix a Frankenstein manuscript and devote my post to a good, old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness blog on keeping sane while marketing one’s writing.
I also added a byline today, just to see how it looks – and to reiterate my personal commitment to passing along to you as many hints, shortcuts, and for-heaven’s-sake-don’t-go-theres as I can to help PNWA members and other aspiring writers on their long, hard climb to publication.
One hundred posts — who knew I had so much advice to give? In case you’re interested, that’s 454 pages of writing in standard format, 12-point Times New Roman. (Those of you who have been paying attention for the last month should be able to make the word count calculation easily: 113,500 words, about three times the length of my master’s thesis.) Thanks to all of you whose excellent questions, concerns, and attention have made this space what it is today: bulky, crammed to the gills with information on how to navigate the difficult waters of the current writers’ market — as well as stories designed to help readers appreciate the publishing world’s delightful absurdities.
While you’re trying to break into the business, it is often difficult to see the industry as anything but a Manhattan-sized rejection machine, a cold, heartless behemoth that eats writers’ egos whole. After years of trying to please the people who run it, agents and editors may begin to seem like vengeful spiders, determined to pounce upon any promising market prospect and drag it into their webs. Form rejection letters start to read like personal insults, and those agents you meet at conferences remind you of that snooty popular kid in high school, the one you had a heart-stopping secret crush upon who never asked you to dance.
Come on, admit it: when an agent or an editor at a conference agrees to listen to your three-minute pitch, don’t you get that same little stomach flutter you got when your 7th-grade crush smiled at you in class?
When you show the fruit of your labors and the work of your soul to someone who can whisk it away to publication, naturally it is going to stir up raw, primal emotions – and honestly, I don’t think that most of the experts giving advice to aspiring writers acknowledge that enough. While we’re trying to find an agent and get our first book sold, almost all writers feel like the wallflower at the junior high school dance. We stand there in our dressed-up best, waiting to be noticed, and it seems like everybody else is dancing. We want to ask someone to dance with us, but the fear of rejection can be crippling. So we introduce ourselves unobtrusively and hope for the best.
When I was in junior high school, our dances featured a sadistic phenomenon known as the snowball. In other, less scrupulously venomous environments, I’m told, a snowball is where a single couple begins the dance by dancing together, then each partner picks someone else, forming two couples, then those couples break up and pick new partners, and so on until everyone in the room is dancing. How nice that sounds; how inclusive.
Not so at the Robert Louis Stevenson Intermediate School. (No, I’m not making that up. Stevenson once spent a year guzzling wine in my Napa Valley home town, rendering him an ideal role model, the town elders decided, for impressionable youngsters.) At R.L.S., the snowball placed partnering decisions in the hands of third parties – all you had to do to force two people to dance a slow dance together was write both of their names on a piece of paper and drop it into a box. Anonymously. At snowball time, the pairs were read out, and the selected couples would be herded into the center of the cafeterium (an unappealing architectural attempt to combine the functions of eating room, assembly room, and gym into a single structure) to cling together in public view for the duration of an interminable song.
The kindness of junior high schoolers to one another being legendary, you can probably guess what happened: almost invariably, couples were constructed for purely comic value. Girls who got their growth spurts early were partnered up with boys who hadn’t grown since the second grade; couples who had broken up amid screaming fights three weeks earlier were summarily brought back together; arch rivals for class president were made to hug to music. But every now and again, some well-meaning soul placed in the box the names of two people who honestly had crushes on each other, but were too shy to act upon them.
And that, for those of you who have not yet gone through it, is what the moments leading up to a conference-assigned 10-minute pitch session with an agent or editor you’ve never met before feel like. (Thought I’d just gone off on a tangent of reminiscence there, didn’t you? I really was illustrating a point.) If you have been paired up thoughtfully and well, there is the potential for a real professional romance to blossom in those intense few minutes. But if you find yourself sitting across from someone who does not handle your genre (despite having listed in the conference guide that she is eager to represent all kinds of fiction), you are sort of stuck there for the duration of the dance. Neither of you wants to be in the situation, but politeness dictates that you will both just live through the slow minutes as they tick by.
I know, I know: it makes you feel hopeless, but actually, as I have been trying to show over the course of my hundred blogs, there are things you can do to empower yourself. For instance, you can research the agents and editors who will be at a conference over and above the brief blurb in the conference brochure, to find someone who actually does have a strong track record of representing your kind of writing. You could do research on the web, or in a bookstore, to find out who and what the agents represent, or go to events like the seminar the PNWA is offering at its February 15th meeting, where you can hear about the strengths and preferences of the attending agents, and make your choices accordingly.
Once you get to the conference, you can listen attentively to the agents and editors at the podium, to try to get a sense whether you actually like the person to whom you have been assigned. (Having spent two years with an agent I did not like and who did not like me before I signed with my current agent – who is a doll and a peach and represents me with the fierceness of a tigress defending her cub – I cannot recommend enough signing with someone with whom you feel a sympathetic resonance.) If not – or if the agent announces she’s no longer looking for your kind of book – find out if you can switch appointments. If not formally, then informally – ask other conference attendees whom they are seeing, in case they are willing to trade with you.
The wonderful people who run the agent/editor desk at the PNWA conference will probably not appreciate my asking this, but why on earth should you limit yourself to only your assigned appointments? If there is an agent or an editor you desperately want to see, hang out near the check-in desk in case there are cancellations. Buttonhole your dream agent in the hallway and ask if you can give a pitch – or if he will squeeze in an appointment for you. They’re there to find undiscovered talent; assume that they want to hear about your project, if it’s in their line.
And if you find yourself in a conversation with an agent or editor who you realize would never be a good fit, don’t be afraid to stop the conversation, thank him for his time, and walk away. Trust me, in a conference situation, where pitches fly at agents and editors constantly, they will appreciate your candor. Alternatively, you could use the time to ask, “So, what other agents/editors here at the conference do you think will appreciate my work? What about other people at your agency?”
I have, in the throes of appointments that were a bad idea in the first place, been known to start pitching the work of people in my writing group, if they seem like better fits than I. Why not? The agent and I are both there, we already have the time booked – and honestly, isn’t it’s something you would like your friends to do for you? The agents and editors are always surprised, but invariably gracious, and on a couple of occasions have eventually signed the writers to whom I’ve introduced them. (On one particularly memorable occasion, I dragged a friend of mine up to his dream agent during a conference banquet, introduced them over the pasta bar, and jokingly told them that neither could eat until she let him go through his pitch. They complied. He hadn’t been able to get an appointment with her.)
My point is, you need not be passive in the face of the highly competitive, often intimidating process of trying to get your work published. If you are having trouble getting positive responses to your queries, find out why from someone who has been successful at it; if your manuscript keeps being sent back to you with form rejections, see if there’s anything you can do to improve your presentation. Ask questions of those who’ve been there; writers tend to be awfully nice people, glad to help one another out. And once you have achieved some success, don’t hesitate to pass your knowledge along to others. All of this will genuinely help you keep your chin up throughout the long, hard process of bringing your work to publication.
You can also, as I have been trying to help my readers do over the course of the last six months, learn to appreciate the absurdities of the business, for they are abundant, and in laughter there is power. For instance:
Like many publishing professionals, I read Publishers Lunch, the online daily (or nearly) update about what’s going on in the world of books. Yesterday, I found the world’s best job listing there:
Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate [Full Time]
Llewellyn Worldwide (Woodbury, MN)
Raises a great many perplexing philosophical questions, doesn’t it? Does the company also employ an Outside Metaphysical Sales Associate, who deals only in cold, hard facts? (For those of you who don’t know, Llewellyn is an alternative spirituality publisher; if you’ve ever picked up a book on shamanism, skrying, or channeling, chances are good that they published it.) Is Inside Metaphysical the name of a series of books, or does it refer to a sales methodology? What is it about inside metaphysical selling that makes it impossible to do effectively on a part-time basis? And to what specific locale does inside refer? People’s heads? Their souls? The Llewellyn building?
Not only does having a laugh about the industry render it less intimidating, but it also provides an important reminder that agencies and publishing houses are not monolithic entities: they are staffed by people, and those people have individual preferences and foibles. Whether you are querying an agent, soliciting a publisher, or trying to impress the Inside Metaphysical Sales Associate with your great interior beauty, there is a human being opening that envelope.
Your task when querying is not to wow an entire industry, but to charm a person.
Realizing that can only help you market your work. Aspiring writers seldom seem to think about this, but take some time to wonder: if I had to sell this book to an editor who gets 500 hundred submissions for every one he accepts, or if I had to sell this book to competing departments within a publishing house, each with its own pet project, how would I do it? What would I say about this book, if I could only get two sentences heard at an editorial meeting? How is this book important enough, or fresh enough, or brilliant enough that it is different from everything else on the market?
Now, once you have come up with tentative answers to those questions: are all of these selling points in your query letter? Does your synopsis demonstrate them abundantly?
And so forth. The more you can place yourself in the Manolos of a senior editor at a major publishing house, the better your chances of figuring out, not how to write a book from scratch that will sweep her off those size 10 feet, but how to pitch the work you already feel strongly about to her. And the more you can learn about how the publishing industry works, the better you can picture what will appeal to its denizens.
I’m still learning, myself. But what I know so far, I am happy to keep passing along to you.
Keep up the good work!
– Anne Mini