Canoeing Through a Hurricane
Good afternoon, gentle viewers!
Monday my 2012 copy of Writer’s Market and the Guide to Literary Agents came in the mail. I found the box stuffed rather conspicuously under my doormat. Why they thought that was a good idea escapes me.
If you’ve never owned a copy of the Writer’s Market, allow me to give you a little paint-by-number word picture. The book itself is about a thousand pages. If you open it up to a random page in the middle, you’ll see columns of “markets” listed with little mysterious icons and headings that contain words like “fees,” “submissions,” and text that might get your attention with something like “kill fee.” If you’re anything like me, that whole thing seems a little bit like paddling a little canoe toward a hurricane.
I recently got an email from a friend I met long ago on the shores of Orkney, amid ancient ruins and delicious scotch. He is now a barrister, and he sent me an email asking me to help advise his friend on the publishing industry.
The publishing industry.
There is…so much about it that I still flat don’t know. I wrote him about a foot of a Facebook reply at first, describing the basics. Don’t get me wrong, I know a decent amount about how it works, about what publishers do and what they’re looking for. However, the entire beast is this massive storm that hovers over New York and gobbles up writing and writers alike.
None of that is to say that it’s a horrible thing, just that when you’re a new and unpublished writer, approaching the publishing hurricane (as charming as Frank Sinatra can make New York sound) is downright scary. If you don’t piddle your pants, you might very well end up looking like this the first time one of the storm’s lightning strikes hits you. (Lightning = rejection.)
So what do you do? You could piddle and poof. Dead. Or you could start studying that storm. Find out if you are making yourself into a super-lightning-attracto rod that draws strikes from all sides of the storm. A lot of the time, I think that’s part of the problem. We as writers start writing, and we look at our work and think, “Ooh, shiny!”
But sometimes shiny things attract lightning.
There is a LOT to know about the publishing world. So many different markets. At first, you think, okay. Fiction or non? That’s easy. Four syllables. But then what? Do you write literary? Children’s? YA? Genre fiction encompasses romance, historical, science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy, horror, mystery, suspense, crime, thrillers…the list goes on and on and on, like that old song on Lamb Chop’s Play Along.
Puppets aside, each genre and umbrella genre has its own quirks and foibles. When I started thinking about searching for an agent, I had no idea what I was doing. And I am so glad I waited. Since then, I’ve read a lot about agents and publishers, a lot of stuff by agents, and I think my chances or writing something that doesn’t garner me a lightning strike (or just a piece of construction paper with the word NO scrawled on it in crayon) are about a giggity-jillion times better.
Here is my little navigation plan for you and your canoe. I know it’s probably oversimplified, and you might facepalm or headdesk going “Oh, EMMIE. I already KNEW THAT!” But consider this my attempt to coat you in lightning-resistant bubble wrap.
Step One: Write Something Great
Notice that I did not say to write something good. That means start something, finish it, and put it aside for a couple months until it grows a nice layer of dust. Then pick it up and read it yourself.
Chances are, you’ll have both types of Extreme Writer Moments where you either go, “Oh, my gawd!!! I wrote that?!” whilst cracking open a bottle of champagne and firing up a Cuban or throwing confetti — or you will say, “Oh. My….gawd. I…..wrote…..that?” whilst burying your red face under a stack of pillows and holding out a hand hoping someone will plunk a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in it. Regardless, a fresh read will show you many things about your story. Many, many things. To share one of mine with you, I had this little spitfire character named Lily who up and disappeared about 100 pages in, never to be seen again. Bewildering. But it happens.
The next part of writing something great is sharing it with others. Whether beta readers, editors, or your mom, find out what other people think of it. Yes, sometimes it’ll hurt like a lightning bolt to the eyeball, but you will learn a lot about the fickle personality of your future audience. And you want to make them happy, right?
Edit. Rewrite. Repeat until your readers pounce on you hoping you have more to give them. When that happens and your manuscript is blissfully free of comma splices, poor usage, and passive voice, then and only then do you move past this first stage, gentle viewers. Why? Because if you move on before you’ve done all that (and a lot of it), you won’t have to take too many steps before the lightning makes you poof.
Step Two: Research
Mua ha ha! I got you! You thought I was going to say start querying, didn’t you? Well…no. Remember that whole thing about the canoe and the hurricane? While having a polished, gleaming, shiny silver lame’ of a manuscript will help secure you to your canoe and possible patch up the hull a wee bit, you’re still sailing into a big ass storm.
Find out about your market. If you write say, urban fantasy, come out from under your rock and read what’s hot right now, even if you think Twilight is dumb — it’s successful. Learn about different authors and their books. Then stalk them until you find out who their agents are. But don’t actually stalk them. That’s illegal. Once you know who their agents are, research their agents and the agencies those agents agent for. (Agent is such a versatile little word.)
Find out who else the agents represent. Read Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents. Hunt down other agents who represent your genre. First, find out if they even accept queries and new clients. Find out if they are male of female (trust me, that’s important — the last thing you want is to start a query letter with a Dear Sir when it’s a Madam you’re addressing). Find out what books they’ve sold and to which publishers. In short, be a super sleuth. Then find out how they like their submissions. Learn about all those little acronyms like “SASE” and ms(s) if you don’t already know those mean Self Addressed Stamped Envelope and manuscript(s), respectively.
Read Michael Larsen’s How to Get a Literary Agent. And do everything he says with a salute. Then write him a thank you card and mail it to California. Yes, I know you haven’t queried anyone yet. Do it anyway. This man will save you at least one wall/full railroad spike of rejections if you listen to him.
Boil your plot into a pitch. Dump it off the ramparts of the castle and see who it sets on fire. Just kidding. This means one sentence that describes your novel. If you can’t do that, go back to Step One. Imagine Merilee Heifetz walked up to you on the street (she represents Laurell Hamilton and a butt-load of other extreme success cases) and asked you what your novel was about. If you ramble for five minutes about the complex machinations of your brilliant plot, her eyes will glaze over, and she will probably tell you she needs a bagel and run away. One sentence. You can do it. Make it pop.
Step Three: Go Hunting
Here we are. If you’ve done all the things above, you should have a list of available agents who would be interested in the stuff you churn out. You should know what they want in a query, because you’ve hunted them down and read their websites and know who they represent. When you query them, follow their instructions to a T.
I think I will save the rest of the query stuff for a later time. Suffice it to say that the first two things there will be enough bubble wrap to spare you from a lot of lightning strikes as you canoe toward that hurricane. Remember always that while you may be a lonely writer in a canoe heading for the storm that is the New York publishing world (Hurricane Pub, if you will? Sounds like somewhere to get some serious drinking done), if you do your part before setting out, you will have your own lightning bolts to wield, and hopefully they’ll strike the right person.