Monday, November 19, 2007

What advice would you have wanted at the start of your career?

Anne Mini recently asked her readers what advice they would have liked to have been given before they started the whole submission process -- and how they would have needed to be told in order to believe the information. At any rate, the myriad of things I wished I knew before I started querying is quite long.

I finished my very first novel back in 2001, when the market was a bit different and there was a LOT less information available on the Internet for aspiring writers. I subscribed to Writer's Digest, but even that didn't help much at the time, for whatever reason. At any rate, I decided that I didn't want to be paying somebody else 15% of my income for the rest of my life, so I tried sending my novel directly to publishers -- one at a time, since they didn't accept simultaneous submissions. At any rate, I didn't hear back from the first one for fourteen months, so I sent out the next submission to a second publisher. I never heard back from them, either, and I assumed that was just it.

I wish that I had known to submit to agents, back then! I also wish I had realized all the many services provided by agents. I think that a lot of truly-green aspiring authors just don't get that agents are actually a valuable asset to their career, rather than the imagined money drain that some seem to think they are (or even just an extra step -- why go through two steps when I can just approach the publisher?).

I finished my second book in 2006 (I took four years off after my first silent failure, largely because I was going through school, starting my day-job career, getting married, etc, at the time). This time there was loads more information on the Internet, but I still jumped the gun on my first query. I found a big-name agent who represented a crazy number of authors I love, and I decided to send him, and only him, a query to start. Worst of all, his agency had a policy of not responding to queries (e-queries only there) if not interested.

So after a month I had nothing back from him, and that was a bit demoralizing. Fortunately I had spent that time doing more research, and I built up a better list to query. I also learned just how bad that first query letter was -- I included something like four or five flags that said I was a newbie. I've blogged at length about the whole process I went through before, so I won't repeat all that here, but suffice it to say there is a lot to learn, and it's hard to learn who to believe on the Internet without a LOT of reading. And even those sources that are reputable give seemingly conflicting advice at times -- sometimes it's not clear when they are speaking for themselves, or "the industry as a whole" (which is hard to do).

I wish that somebody had told me about all that complexity, so that I would have had the proper expectation of doing the research necessary to make myself comfortable with the whole process -- and so that I wouldn't have shot myself in the foot quite so many times. Plus, I wish I had known more of the expectations of pacing, etc, for a modern debut -- something I learned a whole lot about from Anne's blog, actually. Though several agents remarked on the ingenuity of my premise for my second book, those that did respond in a personal manner felt the pacing was too slow. I presume that all those that sent back form letters, or didn't respond at all, probably agreed.

Because, you see, I was sending sample pages (30 at first, and later 10 once I wised up) with every query. That meant that I never got a single request for partial, not that I'm certain I would have otherwise. Not having sent so many pages with each query also would have meant I might have saved $100+ in postage, incidentally.

I wish I had known how to format a manuscript properly (just double-spaced isn't enough), and that I had known how to do a proper title page. It would have been such a big help if I had been a lot better at writing query letters, since so much is riding on that. Writing effectively in a condensed format was not a skill I had at all until fairly recently (this speaks to the source of the overwriting in my second book).

All of this, plus the various issues of novelcraft that I learned or still am learning, is all what I would have liked to have known. If you read writing books from the early or mid 90's, the authors tend to make light of the whole process, and that makes the modern commonality of bland rejection hurt that much more. I think that, previously, new authors started with a smaller audience and worked their way up (or petered out). It seems like most now-famous writers of a certain longevity in the industry have a number of obscure titles under their belt from the start of their career. Not so much anymore, eh? Now it's sink or swim from the get-go, and all the "on the job" training that writers used to receive is now self-study homework that must be learned from trade magazines, conferences, and (reliable) Internet sources.

None of that ever would have occurred to me when I was just starting out. There's no way to tell everything to someone with no concept of the industry in just one sitting, so the best thing would be just to get the general idea of what the issues are, and how much work is involved. Back when I was starting, my ego was overlarge and had not yet been trampled down to a respectable size by the process, so I probably wouldn't have believed someone who told me.

What's the solution? I'm not really sure. But this industry sure is a lot more Darwinian than ever before, I notice. That's kind of demoralizing in some senses, but in another sense I'll be that much more proud when I DO make it -- because it's never been harder.

1 comment:

Karen Mahoney said...

What a great post - thank you for putting your thoughts down about this. I agree 100% with the notion that there's a real pressure on aspiring authors to 'start with a bang' - to have that Big Sale, the Amazing Hook, etc. Publishers seem to be looking for the Next Big Thing, rather than a slower burning talent that needs to be nurtured.

It *does* seem harder out there, in a lot of ways. But then all of the information and support available does make it easier, too.