Friday, September 18, 2015

Mountains and Minefields and Query Letters

Writing a book is easy and fun. Trying to get a book polished and published is like having someone suck your soul out with a vacuum cleaner and put it through the washing machine on the heavy duty cycle with a bunch of thumb tacks.

In retrospect, that sentence seems to be filled with latent guilt about all the chores I haven't been doing this week. Stop it, subconscious, I'm trying to be an artist here.

When I first embarked on this ridiculous venture, I read a blog post by a guy who had written a book but never got it published. It was all about how the odds of actually finding a lit agent to represent you and then them finding a publisher who would buy your book was a lot like winning the lottery. He said, basically, that he never even attempted to get his work published because he knew how slim the chances were and how much work he'd have to put into it.

I was like, "Dude. You are grossly pessimistic and lazy."

It turns out, he'd probably just done his research.

Getting a lit agent is hard. It's hard. Harder than climbing a mountain, actually. Because in order to climb a mountain, all you have to do is find a mountain and climb it. The mountain doesn't have to like you. It doesn't have all these rules about your grammar and your online presence and your formatting (some of which you don't even know about until you break them). The mountain won't say to you, "Hey, climb almost all the way to the top! It's a lot of work and it might not even pay off!" only to fling you off of itself when you're mere steps from the summit.

Mountains are fairly easy-going, that way.

For those of you who know as little about this process as I did two months ago, here's the little bit more that I know now:

First, you write a book. You read what you've written and you fix it. Because it'll need fixing.

Then you get someone else to read your book and tell you if it makes sense and also if it makes them feel anything and also if they noticed a glaring lack of grammatical adeptness. You ask a few other people to read it too and ask them a bunch of questions about it. You take their responses super seriously even if you disagree with them, because you'll have a lot of blind spots.

(Aside: This is why it's good to choose your readers carefully. I chose a few friends whose taste in entertainment I really trust - the kinds of people I normally ask for music and movie and book recommendations. Two of them are librarians. And I said to them, I said, "Be stupid honest with me." Because otherwise, what's the point, exactly?)

Then you basically rewrite your whole entire book again. And then you read it again and you go, Oh, yeah, these people were all right even though I thought they were wrong at first. It makes way more sense now. I like this character better. I hate this character more. I patched up that massive plot hole. That's much better.

This goes on for a while, the fixing. It turns out you can't just sit down and write a book perfectly the first time. Well, I mean, it turns out I can't. Maybe you can. Good for you. Shut up.

Enter the lit agents. They're like real estate agents for books. Most big publishing houses require books to be represented by one, so they're important. But they're unicorns - catching one feels near impossible.

You start by picking an agent that you think might like your book. There are a grizillion different kinds of books, and all of the agents have different tastes because, despite what I said earlier about them being unicorns, they're actually people. And not all people like the same things. So, basically, research. You have to research these people and see what books they like and what books they're already representing and what kinds of books they're looking to add to their lists. It's a lot of work. It's, like, the first day of your climb up this mountain.

So, after you've picked an agent, you have to write them a query letter. And all of the agents have different rules for what they want in a query letter. Some of them want you to tell them about yourself, some of them don't. Some of them want a synopsis, or a word count, or a note about why you're the best person to write this book, some of them don't. Some of them want you to include a sample chapter or three, some of them don't. Some of them have their very precise preferences written out for you on their website (bless them), some of them, gulp, don't, and you have to guess based on what the majority of the other lit agents want. If you get it wrong, they most likely won't even read your letter all the way to the end.

It's crazy.

It's like this mountain is also a minefield. Imagine that. Climbing a mountain minefield. You're so screwed.

And you do all this work, you research this agent and write them a personalized letter and include whatever they want you to include and make sure it's error-free and lemony-fresh...and then you wait. For probably six to eight weeks. And then you get a form rejection that's really polite but very short compared to your initial query that says something like but not necessarily, "Good try! Keep trying! I'm flinging you offa my mountain!" (Lit agents are actually really nice though. They just can't represent every single book or else they'll die.)

So then you pick a different agent and start all over again. You can query more than one at a time, too, so some days you'll get flung from three or four mountains in a row. Those days are tiring.

Perspective? Do you want some perspective? I've heard stories about published authors who sent out more than 100 query letters before finding an agent. I've read countless articles encouraging authors to not even breathe a breath of defeat until they've sent out at least 80.

80 mountains. That's a lot of climbing. That's a lot of almost summits and mountain minefields. Phew. I am a little winded already.

But, if we can stay with the mountain metaphor for just a second longer, this is also the cool thing about searching for a lit agent: all this climbing makes you stronger.

You send out a letter, you get back a reply, you reread your initial letter or the chapters you sent and think, "Ah!" (and a cartoon lightbulb appears above your head) "I bet they rejected this because..." And before you send your next letter, you make some changes, you do a little more research, you ask a few more questions, you make more changes. You like your book more, you get better at writing query letters - it stands to reason that you get better at writing in general. It's good for you if it doesn't wring you out first, if your heart's strong enough for it.

All of this is to say that I'm enjoying this process, mostly. I'm learning a lot. I'm not discouraged yet. I have been catapulted, kicking and screaming but not crying, from nine mountains. I have written the equivalent of nine books, and the ninth one only vaguely resembles the first, but I like it much, much better. I feel like I've been part of an intensive literary bootcamp.

And I have a whole new huge respect for published authors. And lit agents.

I will definitely keep you posted.