Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Long Email

Usually I get emails with very specific questions. Sometimes I get these.

Dear Rejecter,

I have some getting-published questions for you, but I feel like you need to understand where I am in order to answer. Thank you for taking your time to read this. I appreciate any guidance you can give me.

I'm working on my first novel. I have about 35k words and an outline I feel very good about for the remainder; probably 100k to 120k words. I have no agent, nor have I ever had contact with a publisher. My only publications are a handful of heavily edited nonfiction business articles--my name is on them but the results do not represent me writing style any more.

Okay, first thing: The novel's not done yet. Go finish it. I mean, take the time to finish reading this post, but seriously, go finish your novel before you start thinking publication.

I'm having a hard time categorizing this novel. It is somewhere near Animal Farm and Gulliver's Travels. Philosophy, philosophy of religion, romance, comedy, tragedy, etc... Most of the conflict is verbal. The little bits of violence are not described graphically. No eroticism. I think that my target audience is High School English Literature classes.

Man, I wish my book was picked for a high school English class. Not because it was a classic of literature (it's not) but because it would mean an insane amount of people would have to buy it every year. Ka-ching!

As you've just put yourself in every genre but not told me anything about the plot, I'm going to say "general fiction unless there's fantasy or sci-fi, in which case, sci-fi/fantasy."

I have 18 other novels in various stages of planning, from 2 to 30 pages. These stories span many different genres: hard sci-fi, historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, and romance. 5 of these are hard sci-fi in a related series. Some of these contain significant sexuality or violence. After collecting ideas for years I decided to focus and try to finish one, and I picked this one to finish because the plot was the most mature.

Deciding to start one at a time instead of 18 a time is probably the smartest move you've made so far.

Writing progress is slow due to other time commitments. I have to take vacation time from the office and hide at the library in order to write. I desperately want to reach a critical mass with writing (read: reliable income) so I can retire from my day job and focus on writing full time.

I hear this a lot, in query letters and from my writer friends. I also say it a lot. Man, I would love to live off my writing. I would also like to win the lottery. The writing's a safer bet, but that's because I don't actually buy lottery tickets.

All of my novels center around moral dilemmas first. I want to challenge how people look at themselves and their place in the world. I want to inspire people to improve themselves and the people around them.

I said that, too. None of the novels I wrote dealing with that stuff got published. The historical romance did. How low I've sunk.

Having said all of that, I'm starting to think about the process of getting published. I understand that I have to get the first novel "done" before I can take the next step. What should the next step be?

Finishing a publishable manuscript. It will probably not be the first manuscript you write.

Should I search out an agent first? Or should I query publishers directly first?

Agents first, though there's no reason not to hit up the few publishers who take unsolicited manuscripts on the odd chance you'll hear back from one in the next century.

I had considered printing a small run on Lulu and giving them out to friends and family to get critical feedback before I approach an agent or publisher. Would this pollute the book--having been printed in any form? Or should I stick with Kinkos? Besides the possible improvements to the quality of the work, would going through this exercise impress a potential agent or publisher?

If you're doing it to get your friends and relatives to read it (none of whom will likely give you a meaningful opinion on it), it depends on how much money you want to plunk down. You can have them print and bound at Kinko's pretty cheap, but Lulu makes THEM pay instead of you. Depending on if they're willing to pay. So, your call. Also: friends and relatives will not be honest with you, and even if they are, they do not work in publishing and probably have little to say that can help you. Or even then, they still might lie. This is why I stopped asking my friends to read my work when I was in high school. It puts both of us in an awkward position.

When querying an agent, do I focus on just the first novel or do I share my larger plans and ideas with them?

First novel.

When querying a publisher, do I focus on just the first novel or do I share my larger plans and ideas with them?

First novel.

How do I find an agent?


Do people really send query letters to addresses in Writers Market and sign contracts with people they have never met--or spoken to only over the phone? Would a potential agent be alienated if I wanted to fly out to meet them before signing a contract? Can I ask to see their office and meet their staff?

A lot of people have not met their agents. I live in New York, my agent (not my boss, my agent agent) lives in New York, and we only met once. Everything else has been phone/email/snail mail. Also, agents don't generally have staffs, nor do they have particularly spectacular offices if they don't work out of their home, so if you do meet them, it will probably be in a restaurant.

What is the process for checking a potential agent's references?

Is the agent a member of the AAR? Good, you're done. No? Check Preditors and Editors.

Do I need to pick a single genre to describe my first novel while I talk with potential agents and publishers, even if it is not very accurate? Or should I discuss the genre problem openly?

Yes, sort of, but it can be very, very broad like "fiction" or "fantasy." The most important thing is to distinguish between fiction/non-fiction, because some people leave that line blurry and we find that annoying, trying to figure out if the person wrote a memoir or made the story up.

What am I missing in the process?



Pamela Hammonds said...

Wow. You get a gold star for patience. I say he has a lot to learn.

"None of the novels I wrote dealing with that stuff got published. The historical romance did. How low I've sunk." :-)

Anonymous said...

How do you include a SASE when submitting from another country?

The Rejecter said...

If you're in Canada, you can buy a stamp that we can just drop in the box here. If you're outside the US and Canada, there's a stamp coupon you can buy abroad (it's a blue card) that we can cash in for a stamp at the post office, but we generally find this a pain. If you're international, put "I'm outside the US - here's my email" and the agent will most likely understand.

Scattercat said...

Oi. That sounds like me circa tenth grade. (Well, I still would like to be able to write full-time. Wouldn't we all?) So much hope and hopeless naivete.

Well, now I'm depressed. Thanks a bunch. :-P

Anonymous said...

That many novels on the go? This person is under 21, I'm convinced. There aint no way they're getting published. But nice of you not to say that right out.

I've been reading this blog awhile and never commented yet. Nice work!

--Poetry Editor.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Oh, I love this post!

Your answers are simple, direct and very useful to all but the utterly clueless.

As for the SASE, I've employed three options:

1. The International Reply Coupon (IRC). While this will enable someone in another country to post something back to you, they can be a bit of a pain, as it means the poster must visit the post office. And then, there are many Post Offices in the US that haven't a clue as to what they are, much less how to handle them.

2. Foreign postage. You can acquire postage stamps for the foreign country of your choice from stamp-collecting shops, eBay (or other online shops) or from friends who happen to live in that country. Not the simplest things to get your hands on, but always guaranteed to work for SASEs.

3. Throw yourself upon the mercy of the agent and include an email address for your reply. (Generally it's good policy to inquire if this is okay before you sub your ms. Many are happy to help a poor furriner.)

Unknown said...

*Bangs head against the wall* This is the kind of ignorance that makes all writers look bad, especially considering a ten-second internet search could have answered most of these questions. This is the kind of person who, if he finishes the novel, will have written a 500k unpublishable tome and spend the rest of his life blaming the "industry" for not recognizing his genius.

green_knight said...

If you're outside the US, you can go to the United States post office website, and order stamps with your credit card.

Aaah, modern living. Of course, since then the rates have gone up and I've mostly queried agents who take e-mail queries... but it's no longer the hassle it once was.

What always strikes me is that writers seem to be the only people who think that their first ever project is going to be commercial enough to live of. Painters, photographers or furniture makers seem to have an inbuilt understanding that you go and learn your craft, *then* sell the results when they're good enough.

Anonymous said...

This guy sounds like a prime candidate for NaNoWriMo. There's no better way to crank out the quick text of an idea you've been sitting on and may never get to. Pick one of those ideas that you can finish in 50,000 words, and jump in. Then instead of 18 ideas and 25% of a book, you'd have 17 ideas, 25% of a book, and a finished first draft.

(4-time NaNo participant)
(18 finished books, not ideas)

Anonymous said...

Oh, my. Please don't say to an agent that you've got 18 novels in the planning stage. You only get one shot to query someone with your (completed) novel. You've got to focus. Agents are not hand-holders, you've got to know how to query. Reading this and other publishing blogs are a good start. Try out Query Shark, too. Read those queries and the agent comments that follow them. You'll learn really fast what not to do.

Also, and this is very important: Just because you WRITE a novel, doesn't mean you are going to sell it.

I say this in the nicest way possible, because I truly wish you well. Get your head out of the clouds and work on your novel. If you can join a writer's group that might help too. Concentrate on the book right now, not how to get a million dollar book deal. There are people with agents, and five or ten books sold that haven't figured that one out yet.

Anonymous said...


Thank you again for taking your time to answer my questions.


Shakier Anthem said...

Regarding focusing your novel on a message rather than on a story, I agree with Samuel Goldwyn that "messages should be delivered by Western Union." Some people may disagree with me, but nothing turns me off as a reader more than feeling like I'm being preached to.

Anonymous said...

I know I'm still fairly naive about the publishing industry, but I would NEVER send an agent or assistant a letter/email like that. Like someone said earlier, if the writer had done a bit of research on Google, he/she would have found most of those questions answered.

I too would love to live off my writing instead of being a secretary for real estate :gag: But it's very unlikely that will happen :P Still, it doesn't hurt to aim for the moon--but one has to maintain a sense of realism too.

I'll be happy if I ever finish my book and am able to finally start querying.

Elissa M said...


The odds of winning a huge lottery jackpot are about the same whether or not you buy a ticket (according to my husband). You might find a winning ticket in a parking lot or on the sub-way.

Nice of you to answer the long email. I congratulate the writer for having the guts to ask questions rather than simply forge ahead (like so many of the clueless do).

Anonymous said...

I'd also stay to the writer that he/she has a whole life ahead of them to work on those 18 novels. No need to rush!

Anonymous said...

Randy, if you're reading this, I wrote a lengthy reply for you and posted it on my blog.

Rob G said...

I have to say I understand a little about where the writer of the letter is coming from. I'm somewhere between 20-30K words into my first novel (may drop first chapters) and I'm slowly researching publishing so when the book is done, I'll have some information to start with.

That said, most of my researching is finding web sites like Preditors and Editors, finding agent web sites, and reading the Rejecter blog! I'l go after the heavier information when my novel draft is done.