This heartfelt article describes what many of us know is involved in querying literary agents.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, yet to jump through an agent’s submission hoop, then what Glen Cadigan describes will give you a good idea of what to expect when you’ve completed your precious story.
I just received my 40th ‘No’ from 88 queries made in February, which brings my total of rejections up to 677 since 2013. I’m not upset by this, forging ahead with my plans to return to self-publishing, which, at the moment means adding posts to my Paul Pens blog in anticipation of it going live. To me, rejections are like flies splattering themselves on my windscreen as I drive onwards.
I found Glen Cadigan’s article via a link on the excellent Writers’ Services newsletter, which is worth subscribing to, that also featured an article from Jane Friedman who does a question and answer session with two literary agents, comparing and contrasting what they say with the reality that Glen Cadigan describes.
Before I started reading it, I predicted that both agents would stress the importance of good quality writing, which is what they always say, and that I’ve described here in an old post as the biggest fallacy about publishing.
The idea that your manuscript will rise to the top of the slush pile, glowing like an irresistible gold ingot because it’s well-written is nonsense. It certainly helps, for writing has to be coherent, at the very least, but from seeing what does get published to become best-selling, I reckon that it’s the concept of a story, something unusual, intriguing and exciting that can be marketed, which motivates agents and publishers to get behind a book.
I recently received my 40th rejection from the batch of 88 queries I made this February—yet again, it was from someone, presumably an assistant, whose name doesn’t appear on the literary agency website.
I’m bulletproof, so it didn’t bother me, but all the same I was heartened to read advice from a couple of publishing industry professionals in these two articles:
I smile wryly when I think back to my naive optimism in uploading a dozen short stories and novellas to Smashwords, hoping to make a little money in time for Christmas, 2013.
Whatever the worth of my stories, it wasn’t financial, and they disappeared like snowflakes in a blizzard of other writers doing the same thing.
I quickly learned, that half of the battle to get anywhere as a writer was gaining attention through self-promotion. Nobody knows who I am, so why should they want to read my work? Writers are part of a branding process these days. Reclusive authors are virtually extinct. It sometimes feels to me, that reading novels is a form of nosiness for some people. They want to find out more about the author through their work.
In this way, the book world has become more like the music industry and Hollywood.
2) Writing a book is actually the easiest part of the whole process. I love the planning, background research, specific fact checking and seeing a new story take shape.
For me, editing is quite the most tedious task I’ve ever done, confirming what Garcia Gabriel Marquez observed:
I had no idea how time-consuming and soul-destroying it would be.
Querying is like crawling on broken glass to the tradesman’s entrance of a fortified castle full of carousing gatekeepers, the literary agents who know what’s what…and they sure as hell don’t want to know me!
That leaves selling the book, the self-promotion, the flogging of my precious story as a commercial product—see point 1).
Learning that publishing, more than anything, is a BUSINESSwas tough. It’s not an arena for gently showing off how clever I am as an author, it’s more becoming the manufacturer of a commercial product. My book may as well be a new flavour of baked beans.
3) What sells best isn’t necessarily the finest writing by the most talented authors. We’re advised by writing gurus to labour carefully to produce a brilliant manuscript, an intriguing story that’s correctly punctuated and free of flab. I take a lot of care in creating my novels, devoting thousands of hours to each title.
It’s galling to realise that someone who’s already got a public persona (and piles of cash) can throw a story together and instantly get a publishing contract. Invisible ghostwriters will knock things straight. Had some nitwit celebrity submitted my novel it would have been published to acclaim.
Readers buy books by people they already know. They also buy stories that are so basically worded, that the language wouldn’t trouble a 10-year-old child. Bestsellers are often not highfalutin literature. Instead, simple yarns sell in their millions.
It makes me question why I’m trying to produce high-quality crime novels, when, if I want to make money, I should simply scribble off a piece of crudity that appeals to mouth-breathing, knuckle-draggers who move their lips while reading to themselves.
Dumbing down has won. That’s something that I didn’t fully comprehend before entering a new era as a writer.
4) Competition writing is an art. Another thing that I wish I’d known, in my early stages of creative writing, is a greater awareness of the rules of writing competitions.
In a burst of enthusiasm and naïvety, I uploaded 44 titles to Smashwords and Amazon in a short period of time. This was the best of my work, including short stories and poetry. Self-publishing in this way, making an ebook available for sale, means that it disqualifies the work from eligibility for most writing competitions.
A few competitions allow entry by stories that have previously appeared online, but not many.
In retrospect, I wish that I’d held onto them, and tried my luck by submitting to competitions. Even if I hadn’t won, being short or long-listed is a better way of raising a writer’s profile, not just to readers but literary agents who keep an eye open for potential talent.
Wise words from the first writer to become a billionaire from her work:
In being writers, we’ve chosen a form of loneliness that’s exquisite, self-torturing and sometimes boring. Few activities are so likely to cause as many insecurities as writing a story, which you have no idea if anyone will like…what presumption!
It’s as well to learn to like your own company, for you’ll be sharing space with yourself for a long time. As Bruce Springsteen sang in his song Better Days: It’s a sad man my friend who’s living in his own skin and can’t stand the company.
I’m normally wary of pop psychology tests, but I came across one in the Curiosity Daily newsletter that’s disarmingly simple and which has been validated by checks on data from seven United Nations generation and gender surveys. The De Jong Gierveld loneliness scale tackles social and emotional loneliness.
In answering the questions, I laughed at number 3 which asks one’s response to the statement ‘I often feel rejected‘You bet I do…I’m querying literary agents!
Although I’ve been blessed with several long-term relationships, I am by nature a loner. Aware of this, I deliberately moved areas ten years ago, losing contact with a few friends and scores of acquaintances (from managing a community centre), with the intention of devoting myself to writing. I’ve been weirdly focused, for me, avoiding socialising. My three best friends are email correspondents—the longest of 16 years standing—longer than I’ve known anyone.
Instead of howling at the moon, I’ve used my solitude to write. I have no family or regular employment, so don’t have those distractions. Of course, I have the frustrations and doubt that afflict any creative soul, but for the most part, I’m content with my lot.
I scored a lowly 2 in the test, meaning I don’t feel lonely.
( some great stories on writing beneath this article, and do read the comments section )
One of the first pieces of advice that I’d give to anyone considering writing a book, is to develop a hide as thick as a rhinoceros. Everyone thinks that they’ve got a book inside them, but nobody considers what will happen when the book is released into the wild!
Being an author is setting yourself up as a target for criticism and rejection. These brickbats will come from friends, family, readers, publishers, book-sellers and critics. That’s if they say anything at all, for being completely ignored is the usual fate of a freshly published book. This is why writers welcome adverse criticism, for at least it means that someone has noticed you.