I’ve been getting lots of questions on the writing/publishing process the past half a year or so, due to my work on Cadence, so I figured I’d do a condensed overview of what trying to publish a novel is like in a series of Wordy Wednesday posts, for anyone who’s curious, specifically addressing the questions I most frequently get asked. This week I’m going to focus on the process of getting your novel ready to query, and then what querying exactly even is.
I give you–The Publishing Industry for Non-Writers, Part 1: From Idea to Agent
This is me writing. You can’t see the laptop, but just know it’s there.
The first step in publishing a book is, of course, writing one. Sometimes a writer will get an idea flash and start writing Chapter One or a particular scene right away, giving up all semblance of having a life for two weeks, and then they’ll be finished writing practically before they started. More commonly, writers will spend weeks or months brainstorming for a novel before they ever write word one. Some people are “plotters,” which means that they make complex outlines that detail various events, character arcs, etc before they begin a novel, so that they can comfortably know where they’re going before they begin to write. Other people are “pantsers,” which means that they write by the seat of their pants, or more specifically: don’t outline. Instead, they let the plot and characters take them where they take them. They might have a vague idea of where the story’s going, but they never know any specifics.
I’m personally, most definitely more on the pantser side, but I also can’t go into a story completely blind, like some writers do. While I rarely outline on paper, I usually have the basic structure of the story, and a lot of the major scenes, already worked out in my mind–and I normally spend a few months, if not closer to a year, working all of that out. Then, once I get closer to writing the end of the novel, I make notes detailing what needs to go into each of the remaining scenes and chapters, just to make sure that I don’t leave a bunch of subplots unresolved (because I’m like Dory the fish as far as remembering stuff goes), and I follow that rough outline pretty closely (although it’s always subject to change). I usually have a few different endings swimming around in my mind, and I won’t know how the novel’s actually going to end until I’m writing that final scene.
Unlike the super-writers who finish novels in two weeks flat (several of which I’m friends with–hi, guys!), I’m more likely to spend half a year working through a first draft. The shortest time it’s taken me to write a novel was four months; the longest was fourteen. Cadence took about seven. I didn’t know what direction I was going to make that plot go (I set it up with five or so different possible antagonists) until I was already halfway through the climax. I think writing this way is a lot more fun than having a structured plot to follow, although it does make it a bit trickier when revising, because then sometimes things that I’ve written with the idea of Billy Bob Joe being a bad guy don’t make sense when he turns out good in the end.
After finishing a first draft, the rules of the game state that you’re supposed to put it away for a while (at least a month, if not longer), try to stop thinking about it to the best of your abilities, and then pull it out again after that month-or-longer to start revising.
Everyone revises differently, but I tend to do a quick read-through myself, fixing any and all problems that jump out at me (plot, specific sentence structure stuff, whatever is bugging me), then sit back and do another one more slowly, making sure that the writing flows and the plot truly is justified. Then I hand it off to my critique partners, or “CPs,” (other writers who you exchange writing with) and “beta readers” (people who critique your writing without expecting to really get anything in return) in order to, you know, critique. Some people only have a couple of CPs and betas, others have upwards of fifteen or twenty. I have about three who I use regularly, along with another five or so who I exchange writing with more sporadically.
In general, one of my novels will go through a solid five drafts before I ever move past the revision stage, between finding stuff to fix on my own and going through my CP/beta edits. Unfortunately, though, with Cadence I didn’t get the opportunity to do that. I finished writing it in January, set it aside for a month, and then the beginning of March I had to begin hardcore revising it in order to get it ready in time for the Writer’s Digest Conference. I only had the time to exchange it with two of my critiquers, and I had only read the thing myself once before the conference. By now, it’s seen a little more love, but it was a really scary thing going in to talk with literary agents when I had barely read the novel myself.
In order to traditionally publish a novel with a major publisher, you need a literary agent. Contrary to what most people think, a literary agent is not the same as an editor and a literary agent does not work for a publishing house at all. A literary agent, instead, is a not-so-neutral third party who loves your story as much as you do and tries to champion it to editors at the publishing houses in order to sell it, thus getting you a publishing deal. It is next to impossible to land a contract with a major publisher without a good lit agent’s help, and even if you do land a contract without one, chances are you would have gotten a better deal with one. Agents know all the ins and outs of the publishing world; they know how to get you the best deal possible, and get this–they don’t get paid unless you do. Typically, a lit agent will take 15-20% of whatever you make off your book domestically, and a little bit more internationally. And they’re worth every cent.
However, landing a literary agent is almost as difficult as getting published itself. A typical literary agent gets thousands of query letters every year, requesting their services, and of all those letters, they only offer to represent one or two new writers. Luckily, there are a lot of great agents out there, so getting an agent isn’t nearly as impossible as that figure seems–but it’s still really, really hard. Some people spend years pitching one novel after another to agents without an offer of representation in sight, garnering hundreds of rejections. Others–the rare cases–get an agent in their first patch of query letters, off their first novel. Most commonly, a writer will write, revise, and query multiple novels before finally getting The Call. (“The Call” is a phone call from a literary agent, offering representation. It’s a momentous occasion that I hear generally involves lots of holding-back-tears and trying-not-to-pass-out and general-excitement-in-the-form-of-happy-dancing.)
In order to get an agent, there are a few different paths you can take, but the most common one is to query the agent. In order to do that, you have to write and send a query letter, which is almost as bad as revising your novel (I say “almost as bad” because it gets slightly easier with each novel you query, as you figure out the format; revising novels, however, NEVER gets easier). There are all different formats you can use to write a query letter, but no matter what, the definition of the query remains the same:
A query letter is a business letter written to a literary agent (or other publishing entity) requesting their services, comprised of a “hook,” which is something that catches the agent’s attention (a brief quote from the work, etc); a brief description of the work–a “pitch,” which details what the work is about, the work’s title, its word count, and its genre, etc; and a brief biography of the writer’s history within the publishing industry, such as past publishing credits and education.
So yeah, that might have turned into a bit of a complicated run-on sentence, but if you’re interested in what exactly A Good Query Letter Makes, you can follow the following links:
Generally along with sending a query letter, an agent will request that you send sample pages–the first five or so pages of your novel–so they can get a feel for your writing style. If they like what they read, they’ll request for you to send either a “partial” or a “full” manuscript. A partial request usually is for something like fifty pages. A full manuscript request is, of course, for your full manuscript, and getting a full manuscript request is probably the most nerve wracking thing in an aspiring author’s life.
You wanna know why? Once an agent has your full manuscript, that means they’re seriously considering representing you. And they can take anywhere from a day to a year to get back to you about whether (or not) they’d like to.
Getting a full manuscript request is really exciting. I screamed and started racing up and down the hallways of the hotel I was staying in the first time I got one (I’m sure I was popular with the other guests). Getting an offer of representation off an FM is still really rare, though. More likely, the agent will email you back after a couple of months saying that they loved your main character’s snarky voice, or your innovative concept, or your great world-building–but it wasn’t quite right for them.
As hard as it is to get rejected off full manuscript requests, these are the best kind of rejections. They remind you that even though you still don’t have that shiny agent contract in your hands, you’re at least doing something right, for an agent to have even wanted to have read your FM in the first place. The other kind of rejection–the more common one–is the form letter. This is a letter that’s generally only a couple of lines long that is not at all personalized to you that generally looks something like this:
Thank you for thinking of me to represent your work of fiction, but I feel that I did not connect enough with the material at this time to further consider representing it. However, I wish you all the luck in placing your work with an agent who feels differently.
Coolio Agent Person
Like I said before, agents get literally thousands of query letters a year. They don’t have time to respond to each one individually. So although getting form letters can be disappointing, it’s important to remember that each rejection is just one query letter closer to an agent who will say yes–because, after all, all you need is one “yes” in that sea of rejections in order to get published. And: Every. Writer. Gets. Rejections. Even the super rich and famous ones. Even JK Rowling.
… And now that I have completely flooded you with information, I think that’s where I’m going to stop for today. Want to learn more about publishing? Vote for the “writing process” option in this week’s poll. Have any specific questions you want answered? Feel free to ask me–in the comments, through an email, on Facebook, or in person. Whatever floats your boat, I’m always open to talking about writing.
After all, it’s my job and I love it.