|A Moment of Jen|
posted by Jen at 4/26/2012 07:28:00 PM
So you want to be a novelist?
Well, there's no one path to take. Novelists come in all shapes and sizes. They're men and women, wunderkinds and retirees. Some of them are very attractive. The rest of us resent them horribly. And if there was a single magic bullet, or a list of steps to follow that would guarantee publication, believe me, someone would have published it by now. What follows is just my take on the question - a completely idiosyncratic, opinionated, flawed and somewhat sassy take on some of the steps you can take to get published. Important caveat: I have only written two books, and I'm thirty-two, which, as my mother would hasten to point out, means I am probably not qualified to give advice to anyone about anything. (Update: Add ten years, eight books, one book-to-film adaptation, and one short-lived television series that I co-wrote and co-ran). If you're looking for lessons from the life masters - people who've made long careers in the world of fiction - then run, do not walk, to your local bookshop and buy Stephen King's On Writing and Anne Lamott's indispensable Bird by Bird, and Eudora Welty's One Writer's Beginnings and Ursula LeGuin's Steering the Craft. If you want my advice, read on (and if you've already written your book and just want to figure out how to get it published, skip ahead to Step 8).
1. The Unhappy Childhood
The big joke in the publishing community is that smart editors shouldn't waste their time at lunches or conferences, but should instead proceed directly to the local elementary schools. There, they will carefully note the boys picked last in gym class, the girls sitting alone in the cafeteria - all of the outcasts, misfits, geeks, dweebs and weirdos - and give them some kind of small identifying tag (much like wildlife services will tag animals to follow their progress through the years). Twenty years later, the editors should track down the kids they've tagged, now hopefully grown to more successful adulthood, and say, "Okay, where's the novel?"
Why do unhappy kids grow up to be writers? I think because being an outsider - a geek, a dweeb, a weirdo, a smart, mouthy girl or boy who just doesn't fit in - means that you're naturally equipped for observing life carefully. You're not on the inside, you're on the outside - and nobody's a more careful, dedicated observer of life than a kid or teenager who's trying to figure out how to finally fit in with the in-crowd.
Also (and this is totally my own take on things, unproven by any kind of study or research), but I think that kids whose parents are divorced, separated, single, or otherwise un-Cleaver-ish might have a slight edge over those who grew up in happily-married homes. For kids, divorce is a mystery, a puzzle that begs to be put back together - what went wrong? Was it my fault? Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? All of these questions reinforce the powers of observation, the questioning spirit, the impulse to try to make sense of life that can lead to becoming a writer. Or a mass murderer, I guess, but hopefully a writer instead. So if you're a would-be writer whose parents are divorced, be happy. If you're married, and a parent, and trying to turn your kid into a writer, please don't break up just because I said so. Because by the time our theoretical young writer has figured out that fitting in with the in-crowd isn't a consummation devoutly to be wished, and has given up trying to make sense of Why Daddy Doesn't Live Here Anymore, it will be time to…..
2. Have a Miserable Love Life
Again, a crucial ingredient for the formation of a novelist - romantic humiliation and heartbreak. The unhappy childhood gives you the tools of observation. Unrequited crushes, romantic despair, a few memorable break-ups, will give you something to write about, an understanding of grief. No prospect of heartbreak in sight? I can provide phone numbers upon request. (Updated: I now know no single people. At all.)
Now that our would-be novelist has survived high school, heartbreak, and perhaps her parents' divorce, it's time to talk higher education. My advice?
3. Major in Liberal Arts (but not necessarily creative writing)
My Mom is a great proponent of the liberal arts education. Why? Because a liberal arts education, whether you're studying history or anthropology or political science or English, teaches how to read, how to write, and how to reason. Everything else, says Mom, is just commentary. Once you've got the foundation of a liberal arts education - once you've slogged through the required reading, written the papers, attended the lectures and seminars - you know how to think...and in order to write, you have to be able to make sense of the landscape of the world. In order to be any kind of artistic innovator, you have to understand everything that came before you. And a liberal arts education gives you a framework in which to place your own experiences, a context you can use to look at everything else, a framework that any writer needs.
So why not major in creative writing? Here's a line that bears repeating (and one you’re going to be hearing a lot in these next few pages): a writer writes. If you're going to be a writer, nothing, not even a difficult major, can stop you. You'll write poems, you'll write stories, you'll begin a novel about suicide or bisexuality or a suicidal bisexual that will forever languish in a shoebox beneath your bed, but you will write. You'll do it in your spare minutes, you'll snatch time before work or eschew prime-time TV after. You'll think of stories while you're walking the dog or driving to work. You'll do it because it's your passion and your calling, because doing it makes you happier than almost anything else, because, really, you don't have any choice.
What college can give you is the luxury of immersing yourself in a subject that you'll never have the unbroken blocks of time to study again, an unbroken stretch of time to devote to reading great literature, or American history, or politics. I say, take advantage of everything college has to offer. Learn something new, knowing that writing will always be available to you as both hobby and vocation.
Now that you've got that shiny liberal arts degree tucked under your arm, it's time for you to….
4. Get a Job (not an MFA)
Again, let me say that this is just my opinion, and certainly there have been a lot of very good, and very successful writers, to come out of MFA programs. But I think you’re going to be better served in the long term by going out and getting a job instead of a degree in creative writing.
When I was finishing up with college, lo these many years ago, I had an English degree, which meant that I was qualified to do precisely nothing, except compose lovely paragraphs, and speak knowledgably about French feminist literary theory (don't laugh. I'm going to kick ass on Jeopardy! Someday. Maybe). I was lucky enough to have John McPhee as a professor, and he was generous enough to give me the best piece of advice ever - go into journalism. "You'll see a different part of the world. You'll meet all kinds of people. You'll be writing every day, on deadline" - which, of course, turned out to be invaluable when it came time to write fiction. Best of all, you'll be getting paid to write, instead of paying someone to tell you that you can.
So off I went to Central Pennsylvania, where I spent two and a half extremely instructive, occasionally frustrating, desperately underpaid years at a small newspaper called The Centre Daily Times in Happy Valley, where I covered five local school districts, plus the occasional car crash, fire, zoning board meeting, and wild-bear-on-the-loose story. (Update: No, I did not cover the Jerry Sandusky raping-little-boys scandal. Hadn’t broken yet. But – worth noting! – a young reporter in Harrisburg won the Pulitzer for her work on that story).
Looking back, I think I was a fair-to-middling news reporter. The stories didn’t always interest me, the numbers in the budget stories confounded me, and I always wanted to be way more descriptive than the space, or my editors, would permit. But I got to be a decent features writer…and, in my years at the paper, I learned how things looked, how people talked, how people interacted with each other, how they looked when they lied (cover politics, even in the micro level, and you'll get to see plenty of that).
I'm now a convert. I think that journalism is just about the perfect career for aspiring young writers. It's not especially remunerative, nor, in spite of what you see on TV, is it particularly glamorous. But it's great training. Like John McPhee said, you write every day, and you write on deadline, and you write to fit the space available, which means you don't grow up into one of those writers who gets sentimental over her sentences or overly attached to her adverbial clauses. And writer's block? Heh. Try telling an underpaid, pissed-off assistant city editor that your story on the school board meeting isn't done yet because your Muse hasn't spoken, and you will quickly, perhaps painfully, come to the understanding that writer's block is a luxury no working journalist can afford - which will help you avoid it when you're a working novelist. Journalism, particularly at the lowest levels, will knock the F. Scott Fitzgerald right out of you…which is something many recent college graduates - myself included - desperately need. It also means that when you finally write your novel, your New York City editors will adore you, because years of journalism will have taught you the fine art of being edited - of how an impartial reader can suggest changes, cuts, additions and amplifications that will make what you've written even stronger. Plus, you will not whine about your deadlines - you'll meet them. You will not be offended if someone suggests that your second chapter's dragging and your title's ill-conceived - you'll fix them. This willingness to be edited, and ability to meet deadlines, will make you different, and easier to work with, than a great many novelists. Trust me, your editor will adore you!
Updated: So, yeah…those jobs that I recommended back in 2002? They don’t really exist any more. Newspapers have fallen on hard times. Internet users are used to getting their content for free, and have, thus far, demonstrated an unwillingness to pay for stories – even though it takes time, and expertise, and training and experience to report and write the kinds of stories that expose corruption and abuse of power, comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. If I were advising a recent college graduate today, I’d tell her to try getting a job writing at a newspaper – a small, local one; the internship program at a big one, wherever she can get a toe-hold, but that she’d probably have better luck on the Internet, where it’s my understanding that newbies write and report and shoot video and post links and churn out six stories a day and are generally paid, and treated, like crap. Which…isn’t so different from how life was at a small paper, minus the video and the links part (being treated and paid like crap is, I think, the nature of all first jobs).
Bottom line: try to find some job where you get paid for writing, even if it’s press releases for that new ED drug, or a trade newsletter…and if you can’t get paid, you can blog! And tweet, and Facebook! Social media is another wonderful new development since the days when I was a baby writer. Back then, “getting published” meant submitting pieces to papers or magazines, then crossing your fingers and praying and hoping and waiting. These days, anyone with a laptop and a basic understanding of the platforms can be published and launch a blog right now, and share her work with the world. Even if your day job has you clearing dishes, or washing dogs, or asking if people want you to leave room for cream in their coffee, if you’ve got a blog, you can be a writer, and hone your skills, and build your audience.
I also highly recommend travel, if you’ve got the time and the means to do it. Get yourself on the road and out of your comfort zone. Meet new people, and listen to how they talk, and notice what they wear, and how they sit. Be a waitress at the snootiest boite in town, and pay attention to how your customers look, how they talk, how they tip. Lead bike trips through Italy, making careful note of the countryside, and how the air smells more sweeter and the pizza tastes better than anyplace else. Be a camp counselor, be a cook, be a nanny, lead Outward Bound trips and become an expert in teenage slang. Push yourself out into the world, away from people just like you, and pay attention once you’re there. Look for challenges, new faces and new places, and enough money to support yourself, if not in style, than at least with a roof over your head (one of my weird quirks: I’m a big advocate of supporting yourself once you’re out of school, of paying your loans on time, and not asking Mom or Dad to be patrons of the arts while you become the voice of your generation.) Leave your childhood bedroom, and town, behind. Besides, if you've followed Part Two of this plan, you're most likely single, and will want to get out of town anyhow.
"But if I got an MFA, I'd get to spend two years just concentrating on my writing!" True. Also true: that MFA will give you connections, and feedback. You’ll meet other writers, published ones who will teach you and unpublished ones who will struggle and strive alongside you. I’m not downplaying the upside of that degree, or the way it can smooth the path to publication. For example, instead of going hunting for an agent, chances are, those agents might come hunting for you.
But remember: a writer writes, whether or not she's in school for writing. I think that in the end, staying out of writing school gives you more to write about. Saves you money, too.
5. Write the Story Only You can Write
So now you're in your twenties. You've got your liberal arts degree. You've got a job that's put you smack in the center of the wild, bustling world. You're writing - of course you're writing - because a writer writes. And perhaps you've started to think that it's time to attempt a novel. Perhaps you're looking around with awed and slightly covetous eyes at the stacks of books about Young Women with Romantic Woes and Weight Problems. Or the neighboring piles of dystopian YA, or vampires, or werewolves, or teens making love connections in the post-nuclear winter, or at their cancer support group. There's a market for this stuff, you think, and you set down at night and try. Don't do it. By the time you finish, the window will have closed, and nobody will want those stories any more, because publishing will have moved on to the next trend.
Tell the story that's been growing in your heart, the characters you can't keep out of your head, the tale that speaks to you, that pops into your head during your daily commute, that wakes you up in the morning. Don't write something just because you think it will sell, or fit into the pigeonhole du jour. It won’t feel sincere, and readers can sniff out insincerity faster than a dog can smell raw chicken guts in the trashcan. Don’t think about the marketplace when you’re writing. There will be plenty of time to think about it once you’ve written. Tell the story you want to tell, and worry about how to sell it later (more advice on that to come). And also….
6. Get a Dog
Okay, you're thinking, what does getting a dog have to do with becoming a writer? More than you'd think. Writing is about talent and creativity, but it's also about discipline - about the ability to sit yourself down in that seat, day after day, often after eight hours of work, and make yourself do it, day after day, even if you're not getting published yet, even if you're not getting paid, even if ABC is hosting an all-star reunion of your favorite cast members from The Bachelor and The Amazing Race. It's a form of training that's as much physical as mental in nature - you sit down and you do the writing, no matter what distractions are out there, no matter that you're tired or bored or uninspired.
Being a dog owner requires a similar form of discipline. You wake up every morning. You walk the dog. You do this whether you're tired, depressed, broke, hung over, or have been recently dumped. You do it. And while you're walking, you're thinking about plot, or characters, or that tricky bit of dialogue that's had you stumped for days. You're out in the fresh air. Your legs are moving. Your dog is sniffing the butts of other dogs. It gives you a routine, a physical rhythm, a loyal companion, and a way to meet new people when you're in a new place. It gets your body used to doing the same thing at the same time - and if you're walking the dog for half an hour at the same time of every day, it's an easy step to go sit in front of the computer and create for half an hour at the same time every day. So go to your local pound or rescue organization, and get a dog. Trust me. You'll be glad you did.
Update: When I wrote this, I was kid-free. I am now the mother of two, and you know that old chestnut about how if you want something done, ask the busiest person to do it? I think, if you want to get your writing done, have a baby, or a toddler, or a pre-schooler, and hire a sitter for two or three hours a day, and you will get your writing done…because (for me, at least), that will be the easiest part of your day.
When you’re with your kids, you’re totally with them, available for stories and tub-time and snuggles on the couch while you watch “The Muppet Movie” again and cries of “Mom! Wipe my tush!” When you’re free – when the kids are napping, or in nursery school, when the sitter arrives or your spouse says, “Go take an hour,” you are all about the work. At least, that’s how it felt to me. Every parent who writes finds his or her own balance, and his or her own method of handling kids and a job. My initial plan after Lucy, my big girl was born, was to take a year off and do nothing but be a full-time, stay-at-home mom. That plan lasted about three months, at which point I realized that I was not cut out to be at home all day with a newborn, that I needed to spend at least part of my day in (relatively) clean clothes, having grownup conversations with other similarly-garbed adults, and writing. I needed to be writing. So I found a sitter, and we started at ten hours a week, which eventually moved up to twenty, and then Lu started preschool, and I flipped my scheduled so I was writing in the mornings, while she was in school, instead of afternoons, when she was napping and with her nanny. hen I had another baby and I knew not to even try to do the full-time-at-home thing. I have nothing but respect for women who can manage it, but it wasn’t for me, and I was lucky to realize relatively quickly that it was better for everyone if I hired someone great to care for my kids and spent part of each day writing.
I’m lucky. I know exactly how lucky I am, to be able to afford great help, to have found great people, to have them working for me consistently for years. Just like I’ve had the same agent, editor and publisher for my whole career, I’ve had the same assistant and nanny for years…and a whole rolling crew that includes grandmothers and aunts and my summer babysitter, who adore my daughters and let me write, and go on book tour, without worrying for a second that my girls are not happy and well cared for.
My advice for new moms who want to write? Build your village. If you can’t afford a nanny or a sitter, work out a swap with a fellow mom who wants some free time, even if it’s just a few hours a week. Recruit your relatives, your in-laws, your sister, the responsible-looking fourteen-year-old down the street. See if there’s a local church or synagogue offering moms’ mornings out. When people ask, “how can I help?” tell them (this was something I figured out with Baby Two). Say, “Would you mind emptying the dishwasher so I can run on the treadmill (and think about my work in progress) for thirty minutes?” Or, “Can you watch my kids for an hour so I can write?” Don’t be a hero. Don’t be a martyr. Ask for what you need. People want to help, and if you tell them how they can, they will.
7. Get Published
If a tree falls in the forest and nobody hears, has it really fallen? If a writer writes poems and short stories and novels, but nobody ever reads them, is she really a writer? Nope. If you want to be a writer, you've got to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (not to mention evil reader reviews on amazon.com). You've got to put your stuff out there for the world to see, and fall in love with, or revile. In short, you've got to get published.
"But I don't have an agent!" you say. Here's the exciting news: when you're just starting out, you don't need one. If you're trying to sell a novel, yes, you need an agent, and if you bear with me, I'll tell you how to get one. But if you're trying to sell a short story - and this is where I'd recommend you start - you can just be Joe or Jane Schmoe, with a great short story and a killer cover letter, and you can get published.
I sold my first story to Seventeen magazine - one of the shrinking number of mass-market magazines that still publishes fiction – in 1991, the year I graduated from college. No agent. I just printed up my story, wrote a cover letter saying who I was and what I'd done, and mailed it off, and was thrilled and delighted a few months later when I got a phone call….and, eventually, a check.
Now, granted, I went to Fancypants U.. I’d written the story in a workshop with a very well-known writer, and I was able to do some name-dropping in my cover letter. Did that help? Sure, probably it did. Is it necessary? I don't think so. I think if I'd submitted the same short story (it was called "Tour of Duty," and published in the spring of 1992, and reprinted in my short-story collection THE GUY NOT TAKEN), with a letter that left out all the stuff about Princeton, and just said I was a recent college graduate working as a reporter, the story would have met with the same happy response. No matter where, or whether, you went to college, good writing finds a home.
Once you've gotten that first story published - whether in a magazine, an alternative newsweekly, a literary quarterly that will pay you in free copies, or your campus literary magazine - then you've got a foot in the door. You've got a calling card. Your next cover letter can boast that you're the author of "Your Short Story Here," published in the Anonymous Quarterly. And then you're on your way, and you're getting your stuff out there, which is one of the most important things any writer can do.
So you write short stories. You publish short stories. You get rejected a lot, eventually moving from pre-printed rejection postcards to typed or handwritten personal notes of rejection (I have a shoebox full of thanks-but-no-thanks missives from Harper's, The Atlantic, and yes, of course, The New Yorker. Update: These days, I think they send rejection emails, so as not to waste money on stamps on the likes of you).
Updated: Can’t get published in a magazine? Can’t even find a magazine that publishes fiction any more? Again, blog. Or contribute to someone else’s blog. Write a guest post, or a short story. Write a funny tweet. Put your stuff out there, anywhere you can. Eventually, you’ll get started on the story you want to tell - your novel. You finish said novel. Finally, it's time to….
8. Find an Agent
This is, by far, the question I'm most often asked at readings - how did you find your agent? Judging from the way people ask, it seems that there's a certain level of mystery that's grown up around the process. You have to live in New York City, the logic goes. You have to have blood relatives who work for ICM. You have to know someone who knows someone who knows the secret handshake, and the code word to get you into the after-hours club where all the agents hang out, and once you're in you have to order just the right brand of vodka for your martini, or else the assembled agents will know you are a fake and a poser, and will all pretend that they've forgotten how to speak English.
I'm here to tell you that it's just not so.
Truth: agents want to find you just as badly as you want to find them.
Think about it it. How do agents get paid? By selling stuff to publishers. How to they find the things to sell that are going to make them money? By referrals, by word of mouth, and, in many cases, including the case of my agent, from people they've never heard of before who basically just wandered in off the street. They're looking for the next John Grisham, the next Susan Isaacs, the next Lee Childs, because if they find that person, they're going to get paid. It's as simple as that.
So here is the true story of how I found my agent.
I began my search in the winter of 1999/2000, after I'd finished GOOD IN BED. That piece of information stops about 95 percent of would-be writers in their tracks. You have to finish the book first? they ask, in tones of mingled dismay and disbelief. Yes, you have to finish the book first. I'm not saying it's not possible to obtain an agent on the basis of 100 pages and an outline, or even just a really good idea. I am saying that if you want to maximize your chances, finish your book before you even think about obtaining representation. If you're coming to agents with a complete manuscript, you've got a much, much better shot.)
Step one: I spent a day in the bookstore, and a night going through my own shelves, picking out the books that in some way resembled GOOD IN BED, making careful note of the names of agents (and agents are almost always thanked in the acknowledgements, so it's not like it's some big secret). Update: these days, finding out an author's agent is usually as easy as going to that author's website. When I was young...oh, never mind.
Step two: I availed myself of one of the many fine guides to literary agencies available, that lists contact names, addresses, websites and phone numbers and whether the agencies will even consider unsolicited material (most will, some won't). The Literary Marketplace publishes a yearly guide to agents. You can also find, and follow, agents on Twitter and Facebook, and start getting a sense of who they are and which one might be right for your project. Update: Don’t even bother spending money on those guides. They’re out of date ten minutes after purchase, and everything you need to know’s online now, you lucky so-and-so's.
Step three: I put together a list of about thirty agencies, places that represented writers sort of like me who were willing to consider unsolicited manuscripts.
Now, I don't live in New York (update: Brooklyn), I had no MFA, but I had some connections. There were other people at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked, who'd published novels. There were professors I could have talked to for referrals. But I really wanted the process to be - for lack of a better word - pure. I didn't want an agent asking to see my manuscript because So-and-So is my uncle, or my colleague, or went to the same college. I wanted agents asking to see my manuscript because they were impressed with the letter I'd written, the resume I'd assembled, and the places I'd already been published. Calling in favors might have simplified the agent-finding process, but as you'll see, I wound up with the absolute perfect agent for me, so I think my method worked just fine.
Step four: I wrote a kick-ass cover letter. It began with a paragraph from the opening pages from GOOD IN BED, ending with the line where Cannie reads the phrase "Loving a Larger Woman" and realizes, with a sinking heart and M&M shell stuck to her teeth, that the larger woman is her. It went on to say who I was, and what I'd done - that I'd published short stories in Seventeen and Redbook and written non-fiction pieces for Mademoiselle and Salon.com. It said that I was currently a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer, that I'd finished my novel, and was seeking representation. I sent off about two dozen of these cover letters, sat back, and waited.
Step five: I got rejected. I got postcards from agents saying they weren't taking new clients, or weren't taking on more fiction, or generally weren't interested in buying what I was selling. Out of the original field of twenty-four letters, I got a grand total of three requests to see the manuscript. Agent One, the woman I'd long since picked as my dream agent, the woman who represented half a dozen of my favorite authors and who would, I was certain, become my soul mate, best friend and surrogate mother, wrote back in three weeks to say that while I was "definitely a writer" she was "failing to connect with the characters in (my) book." "Perhaps," she added thoughtfully, "this is simply a factor of where I find myself in my life at the present." Which I took to mean menopause. Which resulted in many bitter jokes about Agent One's journey through the unwelcoming terrain of hot flashes and hormone replacement therapy (not very nice, but I was heartbroken).
Agent Two, a total high-powered, big-shot, you'd-know-her-name-if-I-told-it-to-you woman who's been sitting on top of the publishing world since my own college days, eventually got back to me with a thanks-but-no-thanks form letter. Unfortunately, the letter arrived six months after the book had been sold. Yikes! Attention, Agent Two! Do you even read Publishers Weekly! Helllooooo!
And Agent Three said yes. Unfortunately, Agent Three said a lot of other things, including "nobody wants to see a movie about a lonely fat girl" (this comment came in the midst of a misguided attempt to have a simultaneous book and film deal), and "why don't you change the title to BIG GIRL?" (No, I still can't explain where that one came from. I figured that if we were going to call it BIG GIRL we should just go all the way and call it DON'T BUY THIS BOOK, YOU BIG FAT FREAK). I was very upset, and in much despair. After all, I was nobody. I didn't live in New York. I didn't know any secret handshakes. And here was this big, powerful agent telling me that nobody wanted to hear about a lonely fat girl, telling me to change the title. Didn't she know better than I did? Shouldn't I trust her?
I wasn't sure. I'm not one to get on my high horse about artistic integrity or the absolute rightness of my vision, but I believed in the character I'd created, and I believed in the book I'd written, and I was sensing quite strongly that Agent 3 did not share my belief.
I agonized for a weekend, wrung my hands and ran the pros and cons past a series of vodka martinis, then Fed-ex'd the manuscript out to one of the agents who’d asked to see the book while I was working with Agent Three. On Monday morning, I picked up my phone and heard a by-now-familiar tiny little voice. "I loved your book!" the voice was saying. "It spoke to me!" In all honesty, I was thinking, "how?" But I knew I'd found what I was looking for - an agent who was in love with what I'd written, who got it on every level, who was going to do her damndest to find my book a happy home. And that, bless her adorable little size-two heart, is exactly what Joanna Pulcini did.
Important note (and please read this before you email me asking for my agent's contact info) -- Joanna is, unfortunately, not taking new clients right now. She left her big agency, went out on her own, and is committed to keeping her list of authors very small. And I'm sorry, but I'm not in a position to suggest who another good agent might be -- there are guidebooks aplenty that will do so. Believe that the good agents are out there, and with enough hard work and self-addressed stamped envelopes, you will find the one who's right for you.
Which leads to an important point….
9. Be a Smart Consumer
I know how it feels. Believe me. I know. You've slaved for years, you've prayed for months, you've sent out dozens of query letters and manuscripts, and gotten nothing, nothing, nothing. Your inclination is to fling yourself bodily toward the first person who so much as hints that she might just possibly be willing to consider representing you, and cling to her with a lover's helpless ardor even if you have the nagging suspicion that beneath her sharp suits and fast talk she might be, oh, I don't know, SATAN. (If her every movement is accompanied by the faint but recognizable reek of brimstone, that's a bad sign).
It's hard, but try to hold off, keep a cool head, and ask the right questions - questions like, "Can I see the list of writers you work with?" and "Which publishing houses have you made deals with lately? Which editors do you think would be the right fit for this book?" and, "If you were to represent me, how would you pitch this book? Who would you send it to? What's your plan?" Ask her how she operates – emails? Phone calls? Is she a check-in-every-week – or every morning -- kind of person, or someone you won’t hear from between publications? Does she call, or text, or email, or write letters on lovely engraved notecards? Does her style fit yours? Is this someone with whom you could see yourself working with – happily – for years?
A good agent should be willing to share her list, to tell you the names of her other authors, to give you some phone numbers so you can check her references. A good agent will readily discuss who she's worked with, at which houses, and what percentage of your earnings you can expect to share with her. Most importantly, a good agent should have a plan - a vision not just for your book, but for your career -- that sounds and feels right to you, the author. Finally, a good agent will never ever ever ask for money up front, or charge you any kind of fee – she won’t get paid until/if she sells your book.
Don't worry if the agent who winds up meeting these criteria isn't at the top of her company's masthead. A bigger name isn't always better, provided your agent has connections, and a plan (and young agents have often been networking with young editors since they were all underpaid assistants and associates, which means she's now got valuable connections, in spite of her relative pip-squeakiness). If I'd stayed with Agent Three, I'd be one in a stable of hundred-plus writers. Would I be her top priority? Probably not. I wound up going with a young agent in a big agency who was just putting together her roster of clients. And yes, it felt like a big leap of faith, to put my trust in her rather than in one of the gigantic, important, bold-faced ladies who've been making the big money deals since Joyce Carol Oates' output was still in the single digits. But I heard the passion in her voice, and the excitement as she talked about parts of the book she loved, and the editors she knew who'd love it, too, and how excited she was about a chance to bring my book into the world, and I just knew that she was The One. You'll know, too. Plus, I got in at the ground floor, at the moment when my agent was preparing to set up shop on her own, and assembling the very small list of clients whose careers she wanted to build. Now I'm lucky enough to be one of them. It all worked out really, really, well.
Update: I’m thrilled that, in the course of my career, I’ve had the same agent, the same editor and the same publisher. We were a great team for GOOD IN BED, and I think we’ve only gotten better…and we’re a part of each others’ lives now. We’ve danced at each others’ weddings, attended baby showers and fortieth birthday parties, had an unbelievable dinner at Per Se when BEST FRIENDS FOREVER hit number one on the New York Times list…as much as I miss working in a newsroom, when I was a reporter, and in the writers’ room, during the months “State of Georgia” was on the air, I wouldn’t trade those friendships for the world.
Joanna, and I spent a few months revising GOOD IN BED. Lots of trimming, lots of shading, refining the characters, sharpening the dialogue. All the while, she was having a series of lunch meetings with editors in New York. It was a running joke - every time I'd call her office, her assistant would say that she was at lunch. Even if it was, like, 10 in the morning, or 4 in the afternoon. I knew that no one person could possibly be eating that much lunch. What it turned out Joanna was doing was taking editors out to lunch. She'd sit them down, lean across the table, and say, "I have three words for you: Good! In! Bed!" And that would be all she'd say. By the time we were ready to actually sell the book, there was a tremendous amount of carefully orchestrated buzz. Who is GOOD IN BED? the editors wondered. What is GOOD IN BED? Can I get GOOD IN BED? The book sold very quickly, as part of a two-book deal, and so far we’ve all lived happily ever after.
10. What if I can’t find an agent, or my agent can’t find a publisher? Should I self-publish my book?
Updated: Again, self-publishing was something that didn’t even exist when I wrote GOOD IN BED. Or, rather, it existed, as what was then known as a vanity press: i.e., you shelled out money for a company to turn your manuscript into what looked like a book, and you’d sell it out of the trunk of your car, or give it to your relatives, but you knew that it was never going to be for sale in stores, or online (because there was no online. In another note, God am I old).
These days, of course, anyone who can’t get an agent or a traditional publishing deal has the option of self-publishing – of designing (or paying someone to design) a cover, editing (or paying someone to edit) the book, picking a price point (which can be as low as ninety-nine cents), and putting his or her book up for sale on Amazon, B&N.com, the iTunes book store, and any place e-books are sold. Again, the understanding is that the book won’t be sold in stores…but these days, with so many people reading books on electronic devices (Nooks, Kindles, iPads, phones), that matters less and less…and the financials of self-publishing are definitely in your favor. If you’re with one of the Big Six publishing houses, you get to keep something like 25 percent of the royalties of every e-book sold. For the indie-published, a whopping 70 percent of the money is theirs to keep, unless they’re selling at 99 cents, in which case it’s 35 percent.
So why even bother going through the wringer of rejection, trying to get an agent and a publisher, knocking on doors and having them slammed in your face, when could just do it all yourself?
Here’s why: when you self-publish, every piece of the work of getting a book into the world falls to you. You are responsible for designing the cover, and the book’s interior. You’re responsible for the typos, the logic errors, the boyfriend’s name changing halfway through the book.
It’s your job to get the word out because, unlike a big publishing house, you don’t have a marketing or publicity department. You have to solicit reviews, get people talking about your book, Tweet and Facebook your little heart out, and hope it catches on.
The truth is, most self-published books – like most traditionally-published books – never catch on. They sell modestly, to the author’s friends and family, and…that’s about it. For every Amanda Hocking or Darcie Chan or John Locke, whose books sell a dozen copies, then a hundred, then a thousand, then a hundred thousand, and become word-of-mouth million-selling success stories, there’s a thousand John and Jane Does you’ve never heard of, who published their books with high hopes and great expectations, only to see them go nowhere. There are so many books out there, that only the creamiest of the creamy rise to the top, and get noticed, and purchased, and read…and what do those self-published authors do once they’ve hit the big time? Some of them choose to keep self-publishing, reasoning that they’ve made it this far, and made enough money, so why do they need the Simon & Schuster or Random Houses of the world do to what they’ve done already? But most of them end up going the traditional route, getting an agent, picking a publisher, and getting in bookstores old-school style.
In addition, every once in a while you’ll read about a writer who’s been burned by a Big Six publishing house and decided to go rogue and self-publish. Barry Eisler is the most famous example – after years of dissatisfaction with his covers, and the way his books were published, he walked away from a six-figure deal from St. Martin’s and decided, with great fanfare, to self-publish his new book…which ended up doing quite well, possibly, in part, because of the publicity surrounding his decision.
The more common scenario is for a self-published success to get noticed, and get a traditional publishing deal…because, as the wise-beyond-her-years Hocking put it, they want to spend their time writing. Not marketing. Not promoting. Not designing and approving covers, or fonts or nit-picky copy edits or negotiating placement on Amazon or the terms of an interview with Barnes & Noble, or fretting over price points, or organizing a book tour, or doing Twitter tours and guest-blogs and all the work that goes into promoting a piece of fiction. They want to write, and let the people whose job it is to edit and market and promote do the editing and marketing and promoting…and, maybe, they want their books available in bookstores, not just online (as self-published books tend to be). They want the affirmation of walking into a bookstore, pointing at their book and saying, “I wrote this.”
If you’re thinking about self-publishing, I urge you to look at Joe Konrath’s website. Konrath wrote mysteries, was published by St. Martin’s, worked like a dog to get his books out into the world, and was dropped by his publisher in spite of it all. He decided to self-publish, has enjoyed great success, which he spells out in very specific detail on his website. Konrath has become a bit of a zealot on the death of Big Publishing, the way, the way New York City agents and editors mistreat and abuse writers, and what the future of publishing will look like (short answer: Amazon will rule the world). He is one of self-publishing’s success stories – and remember, self-publishing successes are every bit as rare as traditional publishing success stories – so I’d take what he says with a grain of salt, but I’d read it.
There’s no doubt, for anyone who’s paying attention, that the world is changing, and the increased availability and popularity of e-books are driving that change. Will publishing end up looking like the music industry, where there are no more albums, no more CDs, no more great album art, just iTunes downloads where music exists in an electronic cloud, not on vinyl or on a disc? Will hardcovers become collectors’ items, pricy, gorgeously-designed items with hand-crafted illustrations and hand-tooled leather bindings, with most actual reading taking place on e-readers?
I don’t know what the future holds for publishing…but, if I was giving advice to a new writer, I would say this: write the book that only you can write. Write the best book you can. Get it to the point where it’s just as good as a book you’d pull off your local store’s shelf. Polish, re-read, edit, pay for an outside reader, then edit and polish again.
Once your book is perfect – or as close to perfect as it’s getting -- set a time period during which you’ll do your darndest to find an agent and get a publishing deal. Polish your manuscript to until it shines, write the best query letter you can, figure out all the ways that your book is different and special and fills a void in the bookshelves.
Then, if it doesn’t happen, I would put it up for sale on the Internet. I’d pay for a great cover. I’d write a great description. I’d devote what time and money my real life allowed to getting the book reviewed, read, noticed. I think that a lot of the stigma that used to be attached to self-publishing is gone, and now it’s just one more way to get your work into readers’ hands – and, maybe, if it’s what you want, into the hands of agents and editors and publishers, too. I’d do it with the understanding that some stigma still exists. Your self-published work is not going to get reviewed anywhere (but how much do those newspaper and magazine reviews matter, if they ever did?) Your local chain or independent bookstore probably won’t give you shelf space, because that shelf space is paid for by New York City publishers (but, again, with so many people buying their books online for devices, does shelf display even matter?)
I’d put my book out there, learn whatever I could from the experience, from the reviews, from what people said about the content, the cover, the packaging and the description…and I would keep writing, because – say it with me – a writer writes.
I’d move on, and start writing my next book, spending most of my time on that, knowing that it’s great writing that ultimately finds a home, and when it was done I’d start looking for agents again.
Maybe Book One, which you’ve worked your tail off to make great, will be one of the lucky ones, finding an audience, selling a hundred thousand copies and eventually landing you an agent and a publisher. Maybe you’ll decide, a la Konrath and Eisler, that you don’t need a traditional publisher, that you’d rather quit your day job and take on (or outsource) all the aspects of publishing a book well, because nobody’s ever going to care more about your book and its success than you. Maybe – and I’m being realistic, because you should know, going in, that this is your most likely scenario – you’ll sell thirty copies, and it’ll be the digital version of what most pre-e-book writers have, namely, the Book Under the Bed, the one that you wrote, with high hopes and great expectations, that didn’t get published, that maybe landed an agent, that served no purpose other than to prove that yes, you could write something novel-length…which is, itself, an achievement.
11. Use Social Media (if it feel right)
Updated: I remember, in 2002, telling my publisher that I wanted to start a blog. “Great!” they said. “Wonderful!” they told me. Then they asked, “What’s a blog?”
I explained that a blog was like an online diary, and mine would be about writing, and getting published, and book tours, and being a mom, and that one time someone was mean to me, and that I’d publish funny stories and excerpts of my work in progress and talk about “Survivor” and “American Idol” and my kids and my dog…and I did. Until I started feeling overwhelmed and overexposed (being held up as an example in a piece the New York Times ran in 2005 about so-called “Mommy-bloggers,” describing us as a pack of navel-gazing narcissists who neglect our kids in favor of our websites, didn’t help).
Then came MySpace (anyone remember that?) You could post pictures, and excerpts, and connect with your readers. Then came Facebook….and Facebook fan pages…and, finally, Twitter, which I think might be my favorite medium of all. Writers can send short 140-character blasts about everything from “The Bachelor” to the books they love to why Brooklyn lady-writers feel the need to keep throwing their non-Brooklyn-writing peers under the bus. You can send silly tweets, angsty tweets, tweets about “The Bachelor” which I love, and why the New York Times reviewed Jon-Jon Goulian two reviews and a profile, while ignoring Jesmyn Ward, who won the National Book Award. I adore Twitter for its immediacy, for the way it keeps me informed and entertained, for my ability to do it while I’m waiting to pick up my kid from preschool, or I’m in line at the grocery store. It’s a water-cooler for people who work alone all day, a rolling, rollicking, gossipy, informative and sometimes not-nice cocktail party with a hundred conversations happening at the same time. I think it’s made me a better writer, forcing me to be sharp and concise, to state my case clearly, to hone my remarks, to make sure they’re as funny or poignant or meaningful or helpful as they can be. Really, I can’t say enough about how much I love it.
But I know that there are writers who don’t share my enthusiasm, and who regard social media, and the notion of talking to readers in any non-book forum, as akin to torture. They just don’t want to do it…and, in my opinion, they shouldn’t have to.
Look: readers are savvy. They are smart. They can tell when someone who’s on Twitter just flat-out doesn’t want to be there,. They tend to be the ones whose only tweets are promotional – exhortations to buy his or her book/short story/paperback release, links to reviews, nothing that offers to much as a glimpse into the writer’s life, who she is, what she loves.
Being online is unavoidable. Your publisher will expect it, and readers have gotten used to having a level of access to writers that they never enjoyed before.
At the absolute bare minimum, you need a website – ideally FirstnameLastname.com (your website should not be Booktitle.com, because what happens when you write Book Two?). It should have a picture of your book, a link to an excerpt to its first chapter, links to where people can buy it – Amazon, B&N and DO NOT FORGET your independent bookstores. You can link to Powell’s, to your local favorite bookstore (mine is Head House Books here in Philly), to Indiebound, which will help readers locate a store. You’ll want your author photo, your bio, maybe some links to other writers you like…or an essay about the book the changed your life….or the story of how you got published…or the book you love reading to your kids, or a list of your favorite books. It doesn’t need bells and whistles, or fancy graphics, but the idea is, you want to give the reader something as a reward for having made the trip to your site – a little treat, a funny story, a cute biography, a picture of you with bad hair in high school. Whatever. Poke around the Internet, find the authors you love, look at their websites, and see what feels right.
If you choose to tweet – and again, I cannot emphasize enough that it should be your choice – start off by finding your voice. Twitter’s like a conversation, and it’s important that you sound like yourself.
Next, find your topic. Obviously, you’re going to talk about your books, and when you’ve got a new one out, or a reading to announce, you’re going to let people know…but please, please, be very sparing with the self-promotion. People go on Twitter to be entertained, provoked, amused, affirmed, and even outraged. They do not go there to be sold things. Don’t be the writer whose only tweets are naked attempts to get people to buy your book. I’ll unfollow you. So will everyone else.
So if you’re not just doing post like “Yay! Kirkus loved my latest!” or “Reading tonight at the Free Library of Philadelphia,” what are you writing about? Start by looking at other writers’ feeds, and see what they’re doing. @mindykaling, writer and star of “The Office” and one of the best Tweeters out there, writes hilarious tweets about the long, involved, fantasies she had while running (okay, I know you’re not Mindy Kaling, and I’m not either, but it’s inspiring!) @laurazigman posts links to funny Xtranormal videos she makes. @harlancoben is just real and funny about being a dad and a writer; @garyshteyngart posts cute pictures of his dachsund.
Do you love to garden, or cook, or build little ships in glass bottles? Do your kids say funny things? Are you addicted to RuPaul’s Drag Race? (Don’t laugh – there are plenty of writers, including some very literary ones, who live-tweet trashy reality TV).
Be yourself. And connect. Don’t just talk; talk back to readers who tweet at you, even if it’s just a quick “hi,” or “thank you for reading.” Talk about what you’re reading – not only is it good karma, but, in my experience, people love to hear what authors have on their nightstands. Which leads nicely into my final piece of advice for anyone embarking on the writing life….
Read everything. Read fiction and non-fiction, read hot best sellers and the classics you never got around to in college. Read men, read women, read travel guides and Harlequins and epic poetry and cookbooks and cereal boxes, if you're desperate. Get the rhythm of good writing in your ears. Cram your head with characters and stories. Abuse your library privileges. Never stop looking at the world, and never stop reading to find out what sense other people have made of it. If people give you a hard time and tell you to get your nose out of a book, tell them you're working. Tell them it's research. Tell them to pipe down and leave you alone.
So that's all I've got in the way of advice. As always, feel free to email me with follow-up questions.
Take care, and happy writing!
Jennifer Weiner, May, 2002
Updated April, 2012