On Being an Aspiring Writer

In light of the recent YAMafia posts (nice summary here and here), I started thinking about the various things I’ve picked up over the last four years, six unsuccessful manuscripts, and one successful manuscript, with regards to the business of publishing. Time to share.

Most aspiring writers are pretty well-acquainted with these tidbits of wisdom, but they bear repeating.

(For reference, I picked up most of this wisdom at
The Verla Kay Boards ,
The AbsoluteWrite Water Cooler,
Agent Rachelle Gardner’s blog,
Kristin Nelson’s PubRants,
My old crit partner Stina Lindenblatt
and just plain old Twitter.)

1) On Discretion

A) I don’t believe the YAMafia thing, mostly because I can’t see a writer actually dictating to a publisher who they can and cannot publish (unless it’s JK Rowling or Stephenie Meyer holding their next books hostage). Having said that, I think it’s important to always keep in mind that anything you post on the internet stays on the internet.

Many agents have stated that they Google authors before taking them on. Editors do so as well. I remember when INSIGNIA began garnering interest, someone asked, ‘What do we know about this author?’ It’s only natural for them to want to know more before committing with a contract, given that it probably looks bad for a company’s PR if they start promoting an author who, say, turns out to be a psychopath writing from a prison cell after committing many Ku Klux Klan-related murders while doing drugs and molesting children… You get the idea.

Odds are, you aren’t going to meet an agent or an editor face-to-face before entering this business with them, so the scraps of you on the internet are the only real first impression they get. IMO that’s always something to keep in mind long before you’re at the stage where you have to worry about it.

B) That said: consider the wisdom of posting rejections online. On one hand, during my agent search, I truly appreciated it when people posted on boards that they’d queried on date X, and received a rejection on date Y, because it helped me figure out an agent’s typical response time so I knew when to follow-up. I even posted such things very early on before I thought the better of it. But the way I see it now is this: if you heard a guy asked all your friends out, and got turned down by all of them, isn’t there a slight possiblity that would bias you against saying ‘yes’ to the guy? (That is, unless you’re a very selfless and noble soul?) Wouldn’t you wonder: what fatal flaw do your friends see that you don’t? Wouldn’t you scrutinize him more for that terrible quality that’s a turn-off to those whose judgment you respect? Wouldn’t that make you more predisposed to see that problem? And even if it didn’t have that effect, wouldn’t you feel a bit miffed you were the last one to get asked out by him?

I’d love a society where everyone said everything they desired at any time without any issues ensuing in the future. However, in the society we have, I think it’s wise to avoid most anything that could count as a point against you, especially when working for something already so tricky as getting a book contract.

C) The YAMafia debate has centered around reviews. In a perfect world, we could all imitate the Candor Faction of Verona Roth’s DIVERGENT, say what we mean at all times, and people would accept it in a spirit of rational neutrality, but this isn’t a perfect world. My suggestion for aspiring writers is to consider using a different pseudonym for reviews than the one you plan to use as an author. That way, you may honestly assess the faults of the novels you read, and at the same time shield your identity to, at the very least, put your mind at ease about problems down the road. Sound cowardly and disingenuous? Perhaps. But it’s a suggestion some might consider.

2) On the agent search:

A) Just because an agent has a huge web presence, and a great blog, does not mean they are a fantastic agent, nor does it mean they are better than AgentX whom you have never heard about before. Not all agents use PublishersMarketplace to post their deals, but it’s a great help to have a subscription to see the ones who do.

I knew virtually nothing about my current agent before pitching him– all I knew was that he was with a legit agency, and he had a great deal of experience, and a good number of deals on PublishersMarketplace. There were no interviews, no agent blogs, nothing public but a few mentions here and there by his authors. When we began communicating, I knew he was the right agent, and time has borne that out. Again, this was an agent who had virtually no web presence online, and he’s been a fantastic agent.

B) That said, MAKE SURE an agent is legit. Do not waste your time on someone with no connections, no experience, no means of selling your book, no communication skills to do so, and no means of securing you the best possible deal for your novel.

C) Some claim an excellent query letter will always net you interest. I’ve heard someone market a book on query-writing by claiming his 50% success rate with his queries.

Great. So what’s his premise? Is it a high-concept one that hits exactly the right market at the right time? If so, of course he has a high success rate.

I strongly disagree with the idea a compelling query letter can always net you interest, regardless of premise. I’ve become convinced agents read so many queries, it’s not your brilliant prose but rather the premise of your story that will get you looked at, especially in the case of agents who only want to see the query. If you’re getting rejection after rejection of your query, and you’ve refined it again and again, it’s probably just because you’ve hit upon a premise that is not widely sought after. Do not write off your story because you don’t have that fabled 30-50% success rate. Just target a different batch of agents. Find the one who wants a premise like yours. Failing that, target agents who want a sample of your writing included with the query, and go for broke with them instead.

If you don’t have a hot market premise, then avoid the ones who just want queries. Prove you’re a good writer to the ones who want samples, and they might give you a closer look. Most any premise can be executed well by a great writer, and the ones who want to look at writing samples will be likelier to give you a chance to prove you are that writer.

D) Research agents. Here are links:
Absolutewrite, Agentquery, Querytracker, MissSnark, and the Guide to Literary Agents are great resources for this. Miss Snark’s First Victim holds secret agent contests that are very helpful as well.

3) On Social Networking

A) Unless you’re Snooki or a C-list celebrity or higher, you can’t social network your way into a book deal. You’ve got to write a decent book first. So work on your writing first and foremost.

B) BUT it does help to social network, if only to pick up on opportunities as they happen. Years ago, I won a contest at Miss Snark’s First Victim that led to me making the acquaintance of an agent. She critted my first chapter, which was very helpful– and I ended up signing with another agent for another story (that novel was actually pretty terrible!) Others have won contests at that site that actually connected them with the agents who later sold their books. That’s the power of social networking: you can find out about a contest through online acquaintances, then enter it, and then get an agent.

My minimal web presence before my book deal helped me make my initial contact with my current editor. We connected because Molly O’Neill at HarperCollins posted on Twitter: “Dear Universe: Please send me a fantastic-not mediocre or derivative, but truly creative/brilliant-dystopian YA soon. Yrs faithfully, Molly.” Since I was pretty sure at the time I had a not mediocre or derivative, but truly creative/brilliant dystopian YA in manuscript number six, I asked my agent to send it to her.

Alas! Though we did go through revisions together, it did not pan out– and she did find a very creative/brilliant, not mediocre or derivative dystopian YA to publish instead. But she remembered me, and I remembered her, and here we are today, working together on number seven.

So, moral of the story: social networking does help, but writing helps more.

4) On Rejection and Waiting

A) You wait to hear from agents. Then you wait to hear from publishers. If any of these steps involve revision, you wait for that. It is a slow, tedious process, and the only thing you can do is be patient. IMO this is why it’s fantastic to have a day job or be in school full time, or even spend most of your time chasing around kids, if that’s your daily occupation. Most of the time as an aspiring writer with a completed manuscript, you’re just going to be waiting for the next step to happen. You could also write another manuscript while waiting – that’s how I got to seven – but it’s pretty helpful to have a world outside of writing. It gives you more fodder to write about in the future.

B) Rejection is an inherent part of pursuing publication. Sometimes you will hear stories like Stephenie Meyer’s where the author was rejected only 10-20 times by agents (a very low number!), they then got an agent, got a book deal, and life was just grand. This is rare. If you’re pursuing writing, odds are, you’re going to get rejected a lot more than that. Even once you weather the hell of agents rejecting you, you’ve got the upcoming ordeal of facing publishers rejecting you, a much more final form of rejection. If I’d taken my rejections personally, well, let’s just say I wouldn’t have managed to stick around this long. I always consoled myself with this thought: Raking up the rejections makes the book deal you finally get MUCH sweeter.

C) With regards to rejections, I want to emphasize: do not take them personally. Bad, bad idea to take anything personally. It’s bad for your career, and it’s bad for you emotionally. Hence, the picture of Marat above. Did he die because he was stabbed by Charlotte Corday? Or was he just rejected too many times as a writer? (Okay, it was Charlotte Corday, but let’s pretend for an instance so that painting can be relevant to this blog).

D) BUT if you take rejections personally, DO NOT take it personally IN PUBLIC. In public, in this case, means ‘on the internet’. This all goes back to point one. Once it’s on the web, it’s there forever.

Anyway, that’s all I have the energy for. Hope it helped someone!

  1. Excellent post.

    My suggestion for aspiring writers is to consider using a different pseudonym for reviews than the one you plan to use as an author. That way, you may honestly assess the faults of the novels you read, and at the same time shield your identity to, at the very least, put your mind at ease about problems down the road. Sound cowardly and disingenuous? Perhaps. But it’s a suggestion some might consider.

    I actually intended to do this when I started reviewing for Dear Author. But then my two critique partners (I now have a third, but back then it was only two, one of them being your sister) both got published, and on the same day, no less!

    This presented me with an ethical dilemma, because I knew that their books would come up on the blog, and even though I wasn’t going to review them, I might have to comment about them in a thread (for example, if they were recommended to me). I felt that withholding the fact that I was also a writer and their critique partner might be ethically dicey, so I ended up writing a piece for the blog about reviewing as a writer, in which I mentioned that Sherry Thomas and Meredith Duran were my crit partners.

    It hasn’t always been easy to be open about being a reviewer as well as an aspiring author, but I don’t regret the path I took. There are times when I second-guess myself, but it has worked in my favor in some ways. A couple of editors have told me they enjoy my reviews and for all I know there might be others as well.

    I also believe that an atmosphere in which reviews are welcomed even when they aren’t glowing is good for the health of a genre. A conversation about what makes books weak or strong is very helpful to writers, and especially to ones who are learning their craft.

    So while I completely understand why many writer/reviewers or author/reviewers feel that it’s in their self-interest to review under a different name, I also feel that I am doing something positive for the writing and reading community by being more open about it. I probably wouldn’t have had the courage to review myself if it hadn’t been for a few authors who reviewed publicly at that time, so I really appreciate the braver writers and authors who make that choice.

  2. Well-said, Janine! Definitely a great argument for taking the braver stance and putting your name out there. It sounds like it’s worked out well for you, anyway!

  3. This is a marvelous post, S.J. Usually I would have just scanned a post like this for nuggets, but with this one I read every word. Great advice! I’m just inching into querying book #3, so these were great points to keep in mind, especially concerning rejections and targeting certain agents.


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