Querying Literary Agents, or How I Slowly Lost My Mind and My Confidence In My Ability to Tell a Story

This has been a pretty quiet blog for several months. Truth be told, I have had a number of things to focus on, not least of which was finishing up a new book and getting the queries ready. If you’re an author, published or not, you can attest to how grinding the process of querying can be.

If you’re not an author, then I’ll try to give you some understanding of what it’s like.

The book I’m currently querying for is called “Skin Trade”. It’s a hard-boiled crime novel that I started about four and a half years ago. By way of some background, I had been reading a lot of Robert B Parker, among others, when I decided I wanted to write a book like this. Parker’s Spenser series is a lot of fun, and having lived in Massachusetts for nearly twenty years, I felt like I understood it in a way I never could have before I moved north. And I hadn’t yet come across a crime novel set in Worcester, MA, and I felt like it was time to try and change that. In addition to Parker, I had been reading works like the Travis McGee series by John MacDonald, and the Parker series by Richard Stark (a.k.a. Donald Westlake). This isn’t a comprehensive reading list, mind you, and there are still giants of the genre with whom I have only scratched the surface. But it should give you a sense of the type of book I was interested in writing.

I started with a simple premise, a man whose family is the victim of a mob hit gone wrong, and he seeks revenge. Plain enough, no? Well, like all things, the final product ended up being wildly different from the original concept.

Fast forward about three years. Nine revisions later, I had a book I thought was complete. I liked the book, I thought it was solid, and I started querying. Back then it was titled “Fighting Traffic”, a title I absolutely hated, but I couldn’t come up with anything better. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not overly fond of “Skin Trade” either, but it’s the best I’ve come up with to date.) I ran through AgentQuery and compiled a list of agents for crime/mystery in a spreadsheet (of course I did) and started sending them out. I queried forty agent and got thirty-nine rejections. I had one request for the full manuscript, which I got back six months later as a rejection, but with some very helpful notes and an invitation to resubmit upon revision.

Sadly, that revision took me a year and a half. In that time, I worked with two editors, one great, one not. The first one was an author who does side work as an editor. She had a few helpful suggestions, but her communication style was blunt to the point of rude and when I had additional questions, they went unanswered. (Since we hadn’t fully discussed payment, she was never paid for her effort, but it was never a complete effort, so my feeling is that payment was never warranted.) The second editor was amazing (and happens to be the wife of an old friend of mine) and showed me what can happen to a work in progress when the right editor comes along.

There was, however, one interesting tidbit I took away from the first editor. I told her I had forty submissions and thirty-nine rejects. Her response was “If you’ve submitted forty times and gotten thirty-nine rejections, there’s something wrong with your book, your query, or both.”

Fast forward to now. I’ve retitled my book “Skin Trade” and it’s gone through the hands of a professional editor, who also helped with my query. I’m addition, I worked up three different versions of my query and sent them to a number of friends for a bit. The one that grabbed them the most was nearly a unanimous decision. I’ve also moved on from spreadsheets to using QueryTracker, which is a fantastic way of tracking your progress. Yes, it costs money as a subscription service, but it’s been totally worth it.

So how am I doing?

I’ve sent 110 queries, and have received (so far) sixty rejections or “no response”.

So, in a word, lousy.

What does all this mean? I’m not sure. When you’re a writer (or a bookseller) you hear countless stories about the number of rejections famous authors got. You hear that you need to be stubborn, to be patient, and to keep writing. You hear that it just takes your book to resonate with one agent–the right agent–to get an offer of representation.

But the process is an awful one for a writer’s state of mind. You send out five or ten queries a week and just want a response. You figure, how hard is it to read through a three or four paragraph query and give it a yes or no. It should be easy, right? But it’s not that easy, and you have to wait four to eight weeks, sometimes even twelve weeks, before you can go through your list and cross off yet another name that never responded. And with each crossed line, you ask yourself again and again, “Why am I even bothering?” You begin to think about alternatives, which these days really starts and ends with self-publishing on Kindle and Smashwords. You think that you’re own writing is not good enough, or perhaps is t good enough isn’t a strong enough statement. Perhaps your writing downright sucks. Even when you’ve put forth the best effort you possibly can, even with the help of a professional editor who made it even better than you thought it could be, you start to feel that nothing you try will ever be good enough for someone to pick up. As one blogger I read once put it, you eat your head.

That’s where I am right now. No, this is not a plea for pity, all writers who submit end up here. I’m just commenting on state of mind. For now I’m stuck in limbo, waiting. I still have nearly fifty queries outstanding, and the right agent may still come along and say “I’ve been waiting for this book for my whole career.” In the meantime, I continue to try and write, picking away at things that I can’t quite get my head or heart around. But that’s what you do if you want to be a writer. You keep writing.

Keep writing.

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The History of “How It Ends”: Part 5 – The Decision to Self-Publish

HIE_Serial_Omnibus_Cover

In Part 1 of the History of How It EndsI talked about where the idea for the novel came from.

In Part 2 of the History of How It EndsI talked about what drove the writing forward and the genesis of some of the character names.

In Part 3 of the History of How It EndsI talked about the onerous task of editing the beast.

In Part 4 of the History of How It Ends, I talked about how I procrastinated about which direction I should go in trying to get the novel published.

It was a long a difficult decision to self-publish How It Ends on my own.  I found myself so terrified of making a mistake when I published it that I didn’t do anything at all. If I had to describe this, I’d called it “self-publication constipation”. I felt like the quality of the publishing would be a direct reflection on the book, and eventually on me, and if I produced something that was total crap, then I’d never get a second look by anybody.

So I decided to test the waters a bit. I took a short story (like, really short. Like fourteen pages short.) and put it on Amazon. I created a cover in an old version of PhotoShop and packaged the whole thing up. I posted it online. That was when I hit the first reality check. Price point.

For fourteen pages, I wanted to charge a quarter. After all, it’s only fourteen pages, and it’s the kind of material that doesn’t appeal to everyone, sort of a slasher short, so I had planned to charge twenty-five cents. I was a little dismayed to find out that I couldn’t. The best I could to was to charge $.99 for the story. I couldn’t go lower than that. Already, out of the gate, I was running into trouble. But I had to continue with this first effort. I had to get a sense of how it all worked, because I figured once I pulled the trigger, I was stuck.

519FXNQgakLI finally got the short story, The Girl In The Red Hoodie, published. It was a pretty proud moment. I’d finally really put my writing self out there. I was ready to go forth and conquer with How It Ends.

Except I wasn’t.

I spent the next year hemming and hawing. Like my editing, I found excuses not to sit down and go through the process of publishing How It Ends. I couldn’t afford a cover image (you can get two images on stockphoto websites for about $20), I didn’t have a final edited version (all I was doing was moving words around at this point, shuffling between thirteen different ways to say “love”), I wanted an agent (I sent out zero submissions to agents during this time frame). Lots of excuses, none of them good.

I reached back out to Paul, asking him if he’d be willing to print How It Ends, while I retained digital ownership. His answer, rightfully so, was no. Why would he waste money on a print edition when he couldn’t get any decent sales on them without having the digital edition as well? Print had become a loss leader for him, as I expect it will become for many small indie publishers in the near future.

I waited some more.

91qqolPllyL__SL1500_I don’t remember exactly when I made the decision to finally publish it, but I do know it was related to my discovery of Hugh Howey. Hugh Howey, for those who don’t know the name, made a name for himself serializing his now best selling Wool series. The series didn’t start as a series, but rather as a long short story. After having two books published by small presses, he decided to put the first story in the Wool series on Amazon himself. A few months later, there was a clamor for more. He began writing more and suddenly he had a phenomenon on his hands. And that was the point where I said “A-ha! I’ll serialize it!”. I’ve written before about how Hugh Howey is to blame for the reason I serialized How It Ends.

Before jumping forward, I ran the idea past my friend Russell. He’d been my editor for How It Ends and a sounding board for some of my ideas for years. His first question was whether I thought there were logical breaks in the story. I told him I thought there were and explained where each one would be. He considered this and replied that the breaks I had in mind would work pretty well. And, of course, since I was embarking on this self-publishing trek before he was, he was dying to know how it went.

I broke How It Ends into four distinct parts, each where I thought the most logical break would be. I reached out to Paul to let him know what I had decided. He congratulated me on the bold move and praised the decision. Turns out he had started to steer a lot of writers toward self-publishing as well, given that this seemed to be the direction the wind was blowing.

So here I was, self-publishing How It Ends, as a serial, yet again. I revved up the ol’ self-motivation engine, striped part one of How It Ends out of the main work, slapped a cover on that bad boy, and clicked Publish. Scariest damn thing I’d done all year…

Tomorrow: The mechanics of self-publishing.

A New Contest For Self-Published Novels

To anybody who has self-published a novel in the last few years, it should come as no surprise that the world of self-publishing has been getting more and more legitimate as it grows. And if you had any doubts about that trend, then a new contest for self-published novels should help convince you.

The Guardian newspaper has become the first major newspaper to recognize the fact that self-publishing is the new frontier of publishing with a new monthly contest.

This contest is a monthly contest open to works of 40,000 words or more. You have to be 18 to submit, and your book has to have been published by you and not some third party publisher, independent or otherwise. There are a bunch of other rules and terms and legal thingies that go along with the contest. Read them here.

Did I mention this is a monthly contest? So if you miss the deadline for this month (and for April I can tell you that you have indeed missed it), no worries. Submit it next month.

So do you have a DIY novel on Amazon? Then what are you waiting for? Get submittin’!

Places To Send Your Sci-Fi Novel

penguin daw

Did you know that you can actually get into a relationship with one of the big publishers, Penguin, without an agent?

It’s true. I swear.

Know how? DAW. That’s how.

What’s DAW? They’re a book publisher. Started back in the 70s by Donald A. Wollheim (get it? D.A.W.? DAW?) and his wife Elsie, they were devoted exclusively to science fiction and fantasy. And they’ve published some serious science fiction talent. Names like Tad Williams, C. J. Cherryh, and Mercedes Lackey.

They’re still a private company. They’re headquartered at Penguin, and have a distribution partnership with Penguin, but still private. I’m not sure how that all works, but I don’t have to. And neither do you!

DAW has been accepting unagented submissions for years. I first stumbled on this over a decade ago. At the time, I didn’t have anything to submit to them. But I tucked away the knowledge that they didn’t require an agent for when I did have something ready.

So if you have somthing ready to go and you’re banging your head against the wall looking for an agent, why not go right to the source?

Weird Tales Is Opening Its Doors

Ever wanted to appear in a magazine along side names like Peter S Beagle, Brian Lumley, or even possibly Stephen King?

Well now is your chance!

weirdtales

Weird Tales is opening itself up to submissions this Friday (11/22/2013). And it looks like it might stay open for a while.

A new submissions editor has taken the reigns and is looking for your weirdest short stories.

And while they’ll consider any weird short story you’ve got, they have a couple of themes in mind:

  1. Tesla. Yeah, that’s right, the guy who invented the radio. (Okay, maybe not invented the radio, but had a strong part to play in the development of wireless transmission). Stories with him as a central character, or at least a focus.
  2. Ice. If it’s frozen, they want it. Whether it’s a Hoth-like planet or a Hoth-like meat locker.

Check out the link for more info: http://weirdtalesmagazine.com/2013/11/19/opening-to-fiction-sub/

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