Until the book is finished, and that includes revisions, it is a writer’s entire focus and rightfully so. Once complete, however, a new task rears its head for most of us: publication. The skills required for this part of journey are very different from those required to write the book, no less critical, and not at all intuitive. In fact, mishandled, they can insure your well-crafted manuscript never sees the light of day.
Since the vast majority of major publishing houses will not accept unagented submissions, Tor being the most notable exception, the next and most critical step is finding an agent. That step requires that you learn to write a well-crafted query letter and synopsis.
After years and many attempts, I believe for the most part I have mastered the former, though I have yet to write a synopsis that captures any of the excitement of the work it purports to relate.
Consequently, in addition to practicing my craft, following the dictum of Guy de Maupassant, “Get black on white,” in addition to reading other authors’ novels to study what about their books works and what, in the case of many successful authors, no longer does, I spend a portion of each day learning the business of writing. This, while often unexciting, remains essential if I intend to write for an audience greater than myself, my wife and a few “fortunate” friends. Book by book, this portion of my library grows.
The two most common ways to garner an agent’s attention are the query letter and the writers’ conference. Later this summer I hope to blog about the latter. While one can only speak with a handful of agents or editors at such a gathering, the face-to-face such an event offers can yield a surprising number of requests for “the complete,” that being the entire manuscript. Although, if you haven’t mastered the pitch, if your presentation and appearance are less than polished, you may still receive for all your effort and expense, a handshake, a smile and an “I’m sorry. That doesn’t resonate.”
Since most writers never make it to one of these gatherings because of economic and time constraints, and because the skills necessary to succeed at one are so unique, I’ll save discussing the ins and outs of conference protocol for another post. That leaves the “slush pile” as your way to an agent’s heart.
Most novice writers are unaware an agent receives hundreds, if not thousands of solicitations each month and gets around to reading them at the end of a long hard day of attending to the needs of actual clients. As a result, instead of looking for reasons to accept your work, or read even a portion of it, they are looking for reasons to toss your letter and get on to the next rejection. Too much goes into crafting a letter that grabs to detail here, but I commend your attention to Making the Perfect Pitch, by Katherine Sands, an anthology of essays by a broad spectrum of agents on what catches their eye.
If an agent initially wishes to see more of your writing than the letter itself—this varies widely and it is best to study an agency’s Submission Guidelines on their website—more often than not, it will only be the first five pages. If you can’t interest them with these, you have no chance at all. Noah Lukeman’s The First Five Pages, therefore, is an essential read.
The list of Must Reads is extensive and should be a part of your daily learning process. These two, however, should set your feet on the path: two steps in what may be a convoluted journey.