By Jeanne C. Stein
We’ve now covered the nuts and bolts of writing genre fiction. In the last two lessons, we’ll move on to the world of publishing. The first lesson is on ways a writer can sabotage her own career. We’ll divide this into three categories:
Common Mistakes in Writing
Common Mistakes in Submitting to an Editor or Agent
Common Mistakes in Dealing with an Editor or Agent
Mistakes in Writing—some we’ve already discussed:
1. Starting projects and not finishing them. Especially bad if you find yourself hop scotching from one project to another. Remember Heinlen’s rules…you MUST finish what you start.
2. Using passive instead of active verbs.
3. Relying on narration instead of exposition—show don’t tell.
4. Using five words (or sentences or paragraphs) when one will do. Write tight.
5. Losing viewpoint or forgetting the goal of your scene.
6. Interrupting the action with backstory.
7. Ending a chapter on a low note instead of with a hook.
Mistakes in Submitting to an Editor or Agent
1. Not sending out projects when you’ve completed them. Not querying agents and/or editors the minute your story is ready.
2. Not going on to the next project the minute the first is finished. When you make a sale, the first thing the editor or agent is going to want to know is what else you have completed or near completion.
3. Not knowing the market you’re aiming to enter. Read your competition.
4. Not following submission guidelines—seems so obvious, doesn’t it? You’d be surprised how many editors and agents talk about the manuscripts they’ve received on pink or purple paper in an archaic font because the writer thought it would “stand out.” It does, but not in the way intended. It screams amateur. All publishers have websites in which they set out submission guidelines in careful detail. Follow them.
5. Not being professional—see above. Also refers to dog-eared manuscripts that have obviously been seen by more than one editor. ALWAYS send a fresh copy, though in this time of e-submissions, this is no longer always a consideration. Some editors still like the old ways, though, so again, follow submission guidelines. Also, make sure the submission contains NO typos or grammatical errors. If you’re not sure, hire a professional copy editor to go over it with a fine-tooth comb.
Mistakes in Dealing with an Editor or Agent
1. Missing a deadline. Better have a damned good reason. Publication schedules are set up a year or more in advance. If you know you’re not going to make a deadline, let the agent and editor know as soon as possible. If it’s going to be a LONG delay, you may lose your place in the queue which will push back your publication date. Something not to be taken lightly.
2. Calling your editor or agent too often. If it’s your agent, the time he’s wasting talking to you he could be using to talk to an editor about you. Which would you prefer? If it’s your editor, you are not her only writer. You do not want to aggravate her. She’s your champion in the publishing house. If you have a legitimate reason to call, by all means do it. If it’s to see “how things are going”, call your mother instead.
3. Accepting the worse case scenario. One of the hardest things—if your agent calls and says he’s sent your stuff to five or six or ten houses and no one is buying, accept it. Don’t burn your bridges by screaming he didn’t do his job and everyone in the publishing business is an idiot. You can think it. Just don’t say it. Besides, you have that next project waiting, right? Pitch that.
4. Changing agents. Tricky. In fact, I’m going to go into finding an agent later and what the relationship should be.
5. Getting stuck on one idea. Submitting the same basic story four or five different ways. If it hasn’t sold, don’t waste your agent’s time. Move on.
Okay—we’ve got our manuscript completed. We’ve checked it and it’s a perfectly formatted, pristine copy. Now what?
There are two ways to go—agented or unagented. It you choose to submit your book on your own, deciding on a publishing venue will be discussed next chapter. For the rest of this lesson, we’ll look at agents—finding the right fit.
One of the most important questions to ask yourself is what kind of relationship you want to have with your agent. I know plenty of writers who’ve developed a close friendship with their agents. They call to chat. They discuss every bit of business, however minute, with them. They use the agent as a critique partner, letting them read the manuscript before it’s submitted to the editor and rewriting according to the suggestions offered.
The second is strictly a business relationship. Contact is limited to projects to be pitched and deals to be made. If the writer asks for an opinion on a manuscript, the agent will respond. But the agent’s role is to build the writer’s career via contract negotiations.
How can you tell which type of agent you’re querying? Get their client list and ask.
How do you find an agent with a client list? Part of the reward of doing your homework and reading your genre is that at the beginning and end of almost every book, there will be an acknowledgment page. More often than not, a writer’s agent is recognized there. If you read a book that you found similar to yours in tone and content, querying that agent would be a good place to start. Google the agent’s name. With the Internet, you can quickly find out what company he’s with. Checking out the company will provide you with names, addresses, submission guidelines. It will also tell you whether or not an agent is accepting new clients. Sometimes they aren’t. Don’t waste your time querying that agent. Move on to the next.
There is a website: www.agentquery.com that lists acquiring agents and spells out what genres they’re interested in representing. This is a good tool. Use it.
You have your “A” list of agents. You’re ready to start querying. What about the query letter? It should be short, no more than one page, arranged as follows:
First paragraph—introduce your book, the genre, a one or two line “TV Guide” description.
Second paragraph--go into a little more detail about the book. The protagonist, the story question, what makes it unique.
Third paragraph—introduce yourself, list writing credits, any background that makes you marketable. Offer to send a synopsis and the first three chapters at the agent’s request.
Thank the agent for his/her time. Sign off.
Do not send the full manuscript unless the agent asks for it. If you’re sending a snail-mail letter, always include a self-addressed, stamped return envelope. Many agents are accepting email queries now. Cuts response time immensely.
But remember—at this point, patience is called for. You may have to wait two weeks to get a reply from an email query, six or eight from a snail-mail query. That’s why it’s to your advantage to send out a half dozen at once. If you get a response requesting an “exclusive” read of your material, you can stop sending out queries. But even then, you should ask for a reasonable response time—say six weeks. After that, if you haven’t heard, start the process again.
If you hire an agent, you may or may not be required to sign a contract. The going commission rate for an agent is 15%. NEVER sign on with an agent if he requests a “reading” fee. On top of commission, however, he may charge you for manuscript copying, postage fees, long distance phone bills etc. It depends on the company and is something you should inquire about before signing.
As your career progresses, other considerations arise. You may at some point want to change agents. This can be traumatic. If you have a valid reason for doing so, by all means make the move. The agent, after all, works for you. But ask yourself first if the problems you’re having are your agent’s doing or your own. Are you producing new material? Are you following his or advice? Are you demanding too much? Are you doing everything you can to further your own career?
It is YOUR career.
I’ve thrown a lot at you in this lesson. If you’ve decided to go it alone, our last lesson will be choosing a publisher…big press, small press, self-pub. I’ll explain the good, the bad and the ugly of each.
This is just one in a series of successful queries by top notch agents. Here is the complete line-up:
Many of you may already be familiar with Writer’s Digest, the book club and website. If you haven’t signed up for their free newsletter, you should. Here is a sample article you can peruse. Some are free, some are by subscription, but all are well done.