The fabulous Nikki Knepper of Moms Who Drink and Swear wrote a great post yesterday about how to find a literary agent. She is dead on right in everything she says. You must prepare yourself for rejection. You must write the damn book already. You must do your research.
I'm assuming Nikki and I had very different experiences in finding our agents (just since she mentioned in her post that she didn't land her agent the way it's "usually done," also her Facebook fan page rivals the population of India). I, however, was not a Big Deal Beyonce. I was a Slush Pile Solange. I was just a girl, sending emails to a bunch of agents, asking them to love her.
I look back on the querying process fondly and with little post-traumatic stress. Maybe it's like childbirth -- you forget how bad it was almost immediately after it's over. Anyway, here are 10 things I learned during my time in slush pile limbo.
1. Write the damn book...and then write another one. I'm sure that you're the second coming of Stephen King and perfect prose and plot points simply fly out of your butt seven days a week during the hours between breakfast and dinner, but most of us are not like that. Writing a novel (I write fiction, so I'm going to focus on that) is, guess what, not that easy. Ideas are easy. Ideas fly in your face all day long like those dang maple tree helicopters. But sitting down and turning that one idea into 70,000 sense-making words? Not easy. Really stinking hard. There are ups and downs and fits and starts. But the good news is, the more you do it, the better you'll get at it. So write that first book, and then get to work on the second right away. Trust me. Writing your second novel will make you see your first in a totally different light.
2. Don't put all your eggs in one basket, i.e. don't make querying this novel the #1 priority in your life. As Nikki pointed out, the whole process of querying is a tough one. It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of both acceptance and rejection. Querying is a lot like dating in that way. You will spend too much time refreshing your email and stalking agents on Twitter, trying to decipher whether or not your dream agent just subtweeted you. So make like you're trying to impress that hottie you met at the bar on Friday night and don't just act hard to get, BE hard to get. Keep living your life. This would be the very best time to start that second novel you were supposed to be working on right after finishing the first draft of Book 1.
3. Speaking of Book 1, you may think you're ready to send it to agents, but you're probably not. I started querying my first novel back in January of 2012. By that point I had been working on the book for almost two-and-a-half years (and I started thinking about writing the novel five years before that). The book was so not ready, but I REALLY WANTED IT TO BE READY. I tried querying again a year later. Still not ready. During my final round of querying last fall, the book was vastly improved and agents responded quite positively to both the query letter and my novel. Finally, the stars aligned. It only took two years, on top of two-and-a-half years (and five years before that).
4. Have patience, grasshopper. I think the previous entry pretty much sums that up.
5. Stop obsessing over who's getting what publishing deal or signing with which agent. First of all, chasing trends is futile. Sure, mummies may be so hot right now, but by the time you finish writing that epic love story about an Egyptian mummy and the archeologist who unearthed her, mummy stories will be so 1987. Also, as far as the jealousy stuff goes, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Keep your head down. Do your work. Be the best you that you can be. Guaranteed the author you're jealous of is feeling all kinds of inadequate herself.
6. The lulls are the worst. This, once again, goes along with having patience. There is a lot of adrenaline that comes with sending out that first batch of query letters. Some agents are super fast, and you will get responses the day you send out the queries. I think my quickest one came within the hour. It was a full request! Yay! That ended in a rejection. Boo. But once the speed demons send out their replies, there will be a lull. You may go for days or weeks without hearing from anyone. You may send an agent your full manuscript and then never hear from her again. When these lulls hit, that's when things get frustrating. You're just waiting by the computer, hoping for something, ANYTHING, to happen. So you send out another batch of query letters just to get some agent response. You stalk Twitter. You start to believe that all of the agents in the world have collectively decided to shut you out of the publishing business. This, my friend, would be a great time to work on that second novel. I'm a big proponent of second novels.
7. It's not you, it's business. When you're rejected or when you get no response, don't get angry. Don't get despondent. Get up, dust off, and move on. When you started querying, you probably (hopefully) made a list of approximately 9,132 well-researched agents who would be the perfect fit for your book. You probably (hopefully) didn't send out all 9,132 queries at once. You probably (hopefully) sent out a handful, waited to see responses on that first batch. After those rejections would be the time to tweak and revise either your novel or your query letter, depending on the responses you've gotten. Then send out that next group of emails.
8. Rejections of the full (or partial) manuscript are way worse than query rejections. If an agent rejects your query, they're mostly just rejecting the premise of the book. Maybe it's not for them. Maybe they're already representing something like it. But when an agent rejects a partial or a full, that's tougher. Obviously the agent saw enough good in your premise and sample pages to read more, but the end result just wasn't good enough. And that sucks, because requests get your hopes up, and a rejection feels more personal. However, by the end of my querying journey, I had learned to relish in any and all constructive feedback. That stuff is gold. If an agent takes the time to write specific notes about your book, that's huge. She didn't need to do that. She took time out of her day to offer some insight. Eat it up. Save it. When you need to go back and revise the novel again (because you WILL), use it.
9. All that said, form rejections RULE. When I first started querying, I took form rejections as an affront. How dare that agent not take the time to respond to me personally! But as time went on, I grew to love those impersonal little brush offs. Form rejections are low impact. They're not telling you your novel sucked. They're merely stating it wasn't right for those particular agents. You don't know why. You don't need to know why. You can just mark this one on your agent query spreadsheet as a rejection and move on. A form rejection is INFINITELY better than a non response.
10. Keep writing. Keep working. Don't give up. It took me two years, several rounds of edits, and something like 100 queries sent before my book connected with an agent. And in the end, I found someone (awesome agent Beth Phelan, of The Bent Agency) who is passionate about the book and my writing, who sees where it can improve and offers great insight on how to make those improvements happen, who has been willing to go through several rounds of revisions to get the novel where it needs to be. It's tough process, but also fun and inspiring and challenging in a way that gets your brain pumping like it just did the Full Murph at CrossFit. And if you get to the point where you feel like it might be time to move on and shove this book into a drawer, no worries. You've been working on the second novel THIS WHOLE TIME.
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