After yesterday’s post of mostly personal “don’ts,” I thought I’d do a post with more “dos” for aspiring authors. Bear in mind one of the things I said yesterday: I write fiction. I know next to nothing about publication of children’s books and nonfiction. I can tell you that they are different and often require different processes and contacts.
A student recently asked me, if he wrote the first few chapters of his novel, would I send it to my agent? As I said in yesterday’s post, it would be extremely rare, almost unheard of, for a writer to submit something to his or her agent on another person’s behalf. That said, here’s what I told him, and what you need to know: If you’re writing fiction, and this is your first novel, you have to write the whole thing before you submit it to a publisher or agent. If you know an author well and he or she has read some or all of the book, I think it’s OK to ask whether you can use their name when you submit, as in “I’m contacting you because you represent my friend ____________, and she recommended you.” Understand that this is no guarantee of representation. It just means that the agent knows that you already know a bit about her, and that speaks well for you at the outset. Ultimately, who you know matters far less than how well you write.
It is because you must invest the time to write the whole book with no guarantee of publication that you should write because it fulfills you, not merely because you want to be published.
Speaking of how well you write, what about paying an editor? Gone are the days (if ever they existed) when a writer might hope that a brilliant story would persuade an editor to overlook a mechanically atrocious manuscript. I hear would-be writers blow off the need to understand grammar and punctuation because “that’s the editor’s job.” Not so much. An editor fine tunes (even as an English teacher, I make mistakes—just not many). If your manuscript looks like a lot of work just to make it presentable, kiss your dream of publication goodbye. You can pay a professional independent editor. This is an independent contractor. She does not work for a publisher and cannot buy your book. All she can do is clean up your manuscript, generally to the tune of $5/page, give or take (a lot more if you want help with more than basic grammar and punctuation). Got a 300 page manuscript? You do the math. And the fact that a professional editor whipped the thing into mechanical shape is still not remotely to be construed as a guarantee of publication. Occasionally people ask me if I will edit their manuscripts for less. No. I won’t even edit it for more. I edit student papers all the time. It is my second least-favorite part of teaching (next to dealing with overinvolved parents). I have a full time job and a family. I can add editing other people’s books or writing my own to these demands, but I don’t have time for both. Guess which one wins? Finally, I’m sorry, but that’s insulting. I’m a professional English teacher and a published author, and to imply that my time is worth less than an independent editor? Really? If you don’t want to pay an editor, I suggest you buy Strunk and White’s Elements of Style and study.
A manuscript with very few mistakes does not a good book make. There is a craft to writing, and you need to understand it. There are all kinds of ways to do this. One is to read books like a writer. Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose is a good start. It guides you in noticing how novels are crafted. Writers’ conferences and workshops can also be helpful. A Google search with the name of your city and “writers’ groups” or “writers’ workshops” etc. will yield pretty good results. If you write a particular genre, also do a search with “romance writers,” “mystery writers,” etc. added to the initial query. There are also some good national organizations, like Romance Writers of America and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (to name just two). They can help with all kinds of things, from conferences to local chapters to agent searches.
As long as we’re on the topic of agents, and since I’ve already said that it is highly unlikely that an author friend is going to get you all signed up with theirs, you’ll have to do your homework. If your author friend’s agent represents your work, you can certainly query them, but bear in mind that not all agents represent all kinds of literature. A woman recently asked me how to query my agent about her children’s picture book. The answer to that is, don’t. She doesn’t represent those. AgentQuery.com is a good place to start. It lets you put in the genre you write and lists agents who represent it and whether they’re taking clients. If they are, go to their website and find out exactly what they represent and how they prefer queries be made. Do what they tell you. Nothing pisses an agent off like people who don’t do their homework before contacting them. Just read my agent’s blog (which has all kinds of great information about getting started in writing). It is possible in some genres and with some publishers to sell without an agent. If your book has a very limited audience and you’re going with a small press, that’s probably fine, but otherwise, let me tell you, Kristin covers my ass against things I didn’t know it was even exposed to. An agent also gets your book out of the slush pile. They are worth every penny of their commission. If they’re good…
DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT pay an agent upfront to read or represent your book. He should get paid on commission only. An agent who charges a reader’s fee makes his money by charging that fee, not by selling books. Your relationship with your agent is an important one. You should feel comfortable with him, feel like he “gets” you. You should be able to take criticism from him, but stand up for yourself when you feel really strongly about something. If you land a good agent, treat him well. This is why it’s bad form to pressure an author friend to “get you in with his agent.” You’re asking him to strain a really, really important professional relationship.
Kristin’s blog also covers query-writing, so I won’t go over all that here. The fact is that if you want to be a published author, there’s a lot of homework involved. You just have to do it. A published author can’t do it for you, even if she wants to. Hopefully, I at least gave you some ideas on how to start.
Here’s one last important piece of advice: Thicken up your skin. Want some perspective? Go into Barnes and Noble and look around at all those books. How many of those authors have you never heard of? How many are not bestsellers? And for every different title on those shelves, hundreds of other books were rejected by agents and publishers and never made it there. Writing a book doesn’t mean it will sell. Selling it doesn’t mean it will make it onto the New York Times bestselling list. By all means, dream big, but be realistic. Now, look at the bestsellers. How many of them have you no desire to read? How many did you read and hate? One person’s opinion doesn’t make or break a book. If an agent or an editor says, “No, thank you,” that’s one person. It doesn’t mean the agent and editor who will make your dreams come true aren’t out there. If you believe in your book, keep trying. If you exhaust your options but still feel the burning need to write, write another book and send out queries for that. Many, many writers do not sell their first book. I’m one of them. Again, this is why you should write first and foremost because it is fulfilling, and not just to make money (although you need to keep your finger on the pulse of commercially successful fiction if money is super important to you).
That’s all I’ve got this Sunday morning. Best of luck to all you aspiring authors!