Thirteen Steps to fun and profit ™

Yeah, the awful, soul-crushing agent search. You gently pick up your manuscript, nurtured with all your love from a tiny seed, and send it out into the world. There’s not a single word wasted, not a single paragraph that doesn’t sing. It’s perfect. You love it. Surely, everyone else will too.
And then you watch it get eviscerated, curbstomped, or worst of all, just plain ignored, months and months on end, until you look at this thing you once marveled at  and question whether there’s any redeeming features to it at all.
That pretty much sums up what it was like for me. Barely two weeks before my first offer of representation came in, I was feeling out a freelance editor, getting quotes on having her look over my ms to spot the glaring shortfalls I was apparently oblivious to. Brief periods of giddy excitement. Disappointment. Intense self-doubt. Feigned apathy. Resentment. Months on end. Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to representation. And nothing that anybody says will really make it easier. You can have your beta readers and your friends tell you that your MS is the next Harry Potter, you can set the absolute, perfect truth “It only takes one yes” as your desktop background and read it until your eyes bleed, but ultimately, you’re still getting rejected. Over and over. And rejection is less fun than being this kid.
The thing that made it easier for me was having a system and mechanizing the process. Routine and ritual. The interwebz are full of people who are much more learned about this topic than me, there are entire online libraries devoted to it, and I don’t claim to be any kind of expert. But I share my thirteen steps here, partly to have something to blog about, but mostly in the hope it might help somebody else out on that long hard road.
Step 1 – Write a book. Make it awesome. Make it unlike anything you’ve read before. This is kinda the easy part, and I’m not kidding when I say that. By no means is it easy. But it’s easier than what comes after.
Step 2 – Finish the book. I mean, really finish it. Don’t just finish off your third edit and say “done!”. Scour that bastard until it bleeds. Chapter three and chapter four could both be cut in half and stitched together. That subplot with the Polish butcher and the angry transvestite? Cut it. Your opening paragraph could be better. Everything can always be better.
No truer words were ever spoken to me than this – “Your first chapter had better be skull-fuckingly awesome. Because that’s all most agents are ever gonna read.”
Step 3 – Stop finishing the book. Seriously. You’re just fucking it up now. There comes a time when you need to say “Enough, this thing is ready to go out”. This should happen sometime after you’ve scoured it down to the bone, but before it stops breathing.
Some people spend years polishing, and never get around to actually, you know, querying the thing. That’s fear. Fear is the mindkiller. Say it with me and Muad’dib and send that shit out.
Step 4 – Do your homework – Go to Querytracker. Go to Agentquery. Make a list of every agent that reps your genre. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace and monitor their recent sales. Visit the agent websites, read interviews, visit Casey McCormicks’ blog (she is 100% awesome). Sub to their Twitter feeds. Google the living bejezus out of these people. Learn everything you can about them. There are apparently a lot of dishonest people in the agent game, and a lot of aspiring writers get taken advantage of because they didn’t do some simple research.
Go to the Absolute Write forums (great group of people, and thousands of years of combined experience over there to take advantage of). Check out Preditors and Editors. Pay no money to an agent upfront, EVER. They pay you, not the other way around. Don’t let your desire to get published blind you to the realities of the situation. Do not get burned. Do not let all your hard work go to waste at the hands of a hustler. Do not be a sucker.
Do. Your. Homework.
Note – there’s a fine line between doing research and stalking. If you find yourself rifling through an agent’s trash or standing outside their apartment in the rain, you are doing it wrong.
Step 5 – Prioritize your list. Who is your dream agent? Do you put them top of list or midlist? Do you acknowledge that your query is going to suck at first (because it will), or do you think that your query is as awesome as it’s ever going to be (it isn’t) and blow your shots at your dream agents by using them as guinea pigs?
Note – I was an idiot. I thought my query was shit-hot. I put my dream agents on top of my list (including the one I actually landed) and sent it out. I got shit-canned. Repeatedly. The only reason I landed one of my dream picks? Because the damn e-mail got swallowed by the interwebz and I re-queried with a different (read: decent) letter via snail mail two months later. Lady Luck, sometimes she’s a bitch, sometimes she’s a saint.
Step 6 – Forge a prescription for some quality painkillers, then write your query letter. There are entire websites devoted to this. (writing the query, I mean, not forging a prescription). I won’t elaborate on it, because there are much smarter folks than I devoting much more time to it. But there are faaaaaaaabulous resources online, darling, and you should take advantage of all of them.
You can find my query on this blog if you’re interested. (under “query” in the navigation bar up the top of the page). The version you’ll be reading was my third iteration. The first one blew more goat than wow I don’t even want to finish that thought…
Step 7 – Read the submission guidelines. This can’t be stressed enough. The brownie points I’m racking up from every agent’s assistant by just mentioning this fact will be enough to get me repped in my next seventeen lives.
Every agent is different. Some like you to send your query solo (which is why your letter needs to sing like Amanda Palmer). Some like a synopsis. Some like a chapter sample. Some like watching episodes of House wearing only an old “Spice Girls” T-shirt and bunny slippers, but you don’t know that because you’re not standing outside her apartment in the rain watching her, are you?
Are you?
Seriously, do your research. Triple check the submission guidelines. Make sure you spell their name right. Make sure you don’t refer to female agents as “Mr” or  “Sugarpants”. Make sure you don’t accidently attach that Harry Potter/Dobby slashfic that you wrote for Topless Robot FFF.
…You guys do that too, right?
Step 8 – Send it. Cross your fingers. Pray to whatever flavor of Flying Spaghetti Monster you prefer. Sacrifice a cat to the blood god. Seriously, cats are vermin, the less we have of them, the better.
I started with half a dozen queries, but as my letter improved, I had around 15 queries in the air at any given moment. As soon as a rejection came in, I’d send out another. Some folks will tell you this is too many queries to run at the one time. Some will say it’s not enough. None of them are right. There are no absolutes beyond this point. You are stepping beyond the rim.
Step 9 – Wait.
Then wait some more.
You can choose to spend your waiting time however you wish. Writing your next book is a good way to go. Blog about it. Mosey over to the Absolute Write forums, make some friends, and find out all the stuff you should have done before you sent out your query. But whatever you do, it had best be an activity you enjoy, because you’re going to doing a hell of a lot of it.
STORMDANCER is a bit of a rulebreaker – in the grand scheme of things, it really only took three months for me to land an agent on it, which is nothing. To put it in perspective, I waited three months just to get replies on some queries for my first ms. I spent five months waiting to hear back on a full (which incidentally, was a rejection).
So yeah, writing your next book while you wait? Probably a good idea.
Step 10 – Wait.
I realize I mentioned this one already, but it’s worth mentioning twice. Seriously, you’ll be a fucking zen master by the time this is over. That, or complete basketcase.
Step 11 – Learn from your rejections. Because you will be rejected. A lot. The A-Bomb used to say to me “Stephanie Meyer got rejected nine times before Twilight got bought. J.K Rowling got canned a dozen times too”. I will say this now – those ladies had it easy. I took twenty two kicks to the balls on STORMDANCER (not counting the “no-replies”). I took seventy on COLD. I had it easy. I know writers who got rejected over three hundred times before their ms got repped. Imagine the stones it takes to keep sending out queries after being shit-canned three hundred times. Then grab a little piece of that, break it off and hold on tight, because chances are, you’ll need it.
Think I’m kidding? Another rejction arrived in the inbox of my gmail account as I was writing this blog entry. I’m repped and I’m still getting rejected.
Most of your rejections will be forms. An automated, boiler-plate “thanks but no thanks”. And this will infuriate you. It offers no feedback, no advice on how to improve. Ninety nine percent of your rejections will look like this. If you’re lucky enough to have received advice or feedback from an agent with your rejection, treat this like a nugget of gold. It’s a true rarity, and that agent is taking time out of an unimaginably busy schedule to offer it to you. Say “thank you, madam” and be on your way.
When you get rejected, don’t ask why. You’ll be sorely tempted to. Especially after rejection on a partial or full. But sadly, it’s not the agent’s job to tell you what’s wrong with your ms. A real hard fact of life, but as inescapable as the hangover you’ll be sporting after drowning your rejection woes in a bottle of JD (which, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be doing your fair share of)
Step 12 – Revise.
When I first started querying STORMDANCER, I made an excel spreadsheet (seen in minature to the right). It had the agent’s name and agency to the left, the date I queried them and a column for their response. I’d color the field red if I got rejected. I’d color it green if I got a partial or full request. Looking back on that spreadsheet now, it tells an interesting story (well, it’s a boring story, but I’ll swear a little to spice it up, and maybe slip in some dancing girls).
The top third is mostly red. There are a couple of hopeful little green rectangles in that sea of rejection, closely followed by rejections in the next column along (meaning my partial got shit-canned). But as you scan further down the names, the red grows fewer and farther between, and green starts to dominate. By the end of the list, there’s a big chunk of green rectangles all in a row. Throughout the query process, I was revising both my letter and my MS. The first 50 pages changed quite radically <Dancing girls!>from the time I started querying and the time I signed at SJGA. Sick of watching me trying to plant my lips on my own pogo stick? Yes, so am I.
The point is, my letter and ms got better as I went along (hence you should consider the order in which you query your “dream picks” very seriously). If you’re getting lots of rejections, something is wrong, and you need to get to work. Of course, trying to fix it when you’re getting nothing but boiler-plate is harder than a graduate from the University of Soccer Hooliganism who majored in “Glassing old ladies in the face”. But again, this is the status-quo. It’s frustrating and maddening, but you just need to suck it up and get writing.
The best advice anyone can give when it comes to making your writing better is “trust your instincts”. If you’re meant to be doing this, you’ll do it.
Step 13 – Believe
I’ll depart from my wise-cracking, tall dark and scary routine long enough to give a little group hug now. Everyone needs a hug once in a while, especially querying writers. Here it is:
The only belief that matters in this equation is your own. It’s nice to have the support of betas or trusted friends, but it’s not necessary (the only person who had more than the vaguest idea that I was writing a book until I got repped was my wife). The only person who needs to believe you can do this is you. Everything else is window dressing.
The people who reject you? The people who tell you that you can’t do it? The people who don’t respond to your queries? The critics on your forums who offer vicious or empty feedback? The people who say “meh”? The people who give you a funny little look when you mention your book? The people who are waiting for you to fail?
Fuck them.
Say those words. Sing them. Take a deep breath and scream them.
It doesn’t matter what they think, or what they say. It doesn’t matter what they believe. It only matters what you think, what you believe. Because if you believe you can do it, and you’re meant to be doing it, then you will. You can. And that’s all there is to it. No more, no less than that.
Believe in yourself. Keep the faith. At the end of the day, it’s all any of us have.
.gniog peeK .tuo laripS

7 Responses to “Thirteen Steps to fun and profit ™”

  1. Leah says:

    Jay, can I just give you a resounding A-FUCKING-MEN?
    Found your blog via the AW thread on successful queries. Love your voice, attitude, and tenacity. If STORMDANCER is one-eighth as kickass as this blog post, I’ll buy it, and I don’t even read YA.
    Thank you times a jillion for this post. Just what I needed to hear while beginning my rep journey.
    As for the slashfic slippage (slippage, ha): no comment.

  2. Hey Leah, thanks for visiting!
    Turns out STORMDANCER isn’t YA at all (I thought having a teenage protag automatically made you YA, but apparently my ms is a bit too “complex”). So hopefully it’ll be an easier read for you when (yes, I’m being positive) it hits the shelves. Not to bounce on my own pogo-stick, but I like to think it’s pretty kickass 🙂
    Good luck on the road to representation. It’s long and rough as hell, but if it came easily, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun getting to the end of it. Remember Step 13!

  3. […] To all the grunts still slogging in the trenches, remember Rule 13. […]

  4. RB says:

    No wonder you got an agent. You are so effing funny and cool I would volunteer to shakedown agents FOR you if they hadn’t already offered you rep. I found you on AW while checking out query letters that worked. I have to say…I was in a complete funk (a wrenching of garments and gnashing of teeth funk) over R’s from my mss. Now? Feeling a bit sunnier because you made me smile. Thanks for that, stranger. I shall be subscribing to this blog to read your future posts. Gosh, I wish we were friends. I’d take you out for a drink right now.
    Thanks again!

    • Hi RB, thanks for visiting!
      I know what you mean about the rejection thing. It’s just killer, and nothing anyone says will really make it better. My best advice is to try to channel the negativity into the positive (I know I sound like some hippy, self-help jerkoff when I say that). But emotion is fuel. It’s energy, and you can use that energy (even the negative kind) to create something awesome. All the anger and resentment I felt while getting rejected on my first ms got used to fuel the creation of my second. And six months later I had an agent, and a month after that, I’ve got offers on the table.
      Believe. If you’re meant to be doing it, you’ll do it.
      Thanks for dropping in, stay tuned for more incoherent rambling in 2011 🙂

  5. […] Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. Read my blog. That’s a shameless plug, but my “13 steps to fun and profit(tm)” post is quite relevant. The query letter that scored me representation is also posted […]

  6. […] this post on getting published is very good and well worth a look, as is much of the rest of his diary of […]

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