Thursday, January 20, 2011

From concept to completion.

As I was printing out a new round of query letters today, I started thinking about the long trail from want to write to becoming an author. In a lot of ways, it really resembles a long climb up a mountain.

Now, for the contexts of this entry, when I use the phrase ‘becoming an author’, I don’t mean the pansy definition I give my pupils when I’m trying to encourage them, I means books-on-store-shelves, your-name-known-by-strangers author. That’s the peek we’re all striving to reach, one step at a time.

It begins with simply wanting to write. Anyone who’s read a few books has probably had an idea for a novel. This is the base of the mountain, you’re at the bottom, looking up, and the first stage of the ascent is the hardest of all: a blank page.

The vast majority of individuals out there never get past that. They sit there, looking at the blank page, unsure of how to begin, and so they simply don’t, and remain merely a reader. Maybe they go out and buy a shelf full of “how to write” books, but they haven’t got the patience to read them. Maybe they waist a small fortune on an antique typewriter, which is nine kinds of stupid any way you slice it. Or, maybe the dream just sits in the back of their mind forever.

But some people make it up the next few steps. They kludge out an opening paragraph, maybe a few pages. But without proper planning, that first attempt at a novel is pretty effectively doomed. It will take several tries and possibly many years to go from concept to completion. As I’m fond of mentioning: Author of the Gust took 5 years to write.

The determined few will reach that next step, and finish a rough draft. If you’ve made it that far, congratulations, you’ve done far more than most. You are no longer one of the dreamers, you are one of the doers. The few, the proud, the people with rough drafts sitting on their hard drives.

It’s a plateau, nowhere near the top. You’ve made it up there, but you’ve still got a long way to go. Editing is a lengthy process, and in many ways, harder than writing. If you don’t love your own novel, you won’t be able to read it many, many times. Again, personal experience: Author of the Gust took 10 edits. Many people haven’t even read 10 books, I’ve read one book 10 times and I wrote it!

So if few people reach the rough draft stage, even fewer are going to get to the polished novel stage. But that’s basically the other end of the plateau, a long walk but not overly challenging. The next stage of the ascent is the hardest.

Going from polished manuscript to published novel is another multi-step process in and of itself. If writing a novel is like climbing a mountain, imagine getting to the top, and finding an entire other mountain that you still have to climb. In short, it kinda sucks.

The first step is the query letter. For me, this was the hardest. I mean literally harder than writing the freaking novel. I am currently querying for The Next Progression, a few snippets of which I have posted on here before. While I definitely wouldn’t say writing the letter took longer, it was much more difficult. I spent exhaustive hours doing research, reading samples, asking questions, discovering both that a QueryShark exists and that it is retarded, and listening to the narcissistic ramblings of people who have never even read, let alone written, a complete book.

For all of my time and effort, I produced a one-page query letter that will probably not get read. That was the next stage of the ascent; now that I had something to send to agents, I needed some agents to send it to.

I use a site called Writer’s Market, which charges a small fee for access to a searchable database of literary agents, publishers, etc. I looked for a list of agents who cover fantasy novels, since mine is definitely that, and got back 41 results. Combing through that list, I used my own criteria to cull it down to 18 who looked promising.

Now came the next difficult stage of the climb. Each agent wants something different; about half just want a query letter and a self addressed, stamped envelope(SASE). For the layman, that’s an envelope with your name and a stamp, that you fold up and stuff inside the envelope with all of your hopes and dreams, and also your query letter. Other agents want the first three chapters of the novel or some variation. I’ve seen 3 chapters, 2 chapters, 10 pages, 50 pages, 40 pages, and some places want the entire manuscript. You will not be getting any of these materials back, just so ya know. Some also want a synopsis, an author biography, or even an outline. All of this can potentially be as difficult as the query letter, because you have to realize that you are being evaluated and judged with every line.

When you’ve got all that finished, you have the privilege of shipping off a stack of query letters at your own expense. Expect to spend a lot on stamps. Most agents and publishers will tell you if you should expect a response, and how long you will have to wait. It’ll be anywhere from 2 weeks to six months. Personally, I don’t typically query places that say they only respond if interested, just because I don’t feel like checking the mail every day for half a year with no way of knowing whether or not I’ll ever hear from them.

This is the stage I’m at with The Next Progression. The letters are in the mail. But I already know what happens next, thanks to my experiences with Author of the Gust.

In all, I queried more than 30 agents and publishers for that novel. I probably got turned down on the basis that I had self-published the silly thing, but it was still a good metric for rejections. About half your SASEs will come back stuffed with a form letter. If you’re very, very luck, some of them might have actually been signed by a real human being! The other half are going to come back with your query letter, and a hastily—put politely—worded form of “no”. The form letters are also exceedingly polite, and typically contain something to the extent of “ours is not the right agency”. Or sometimes its “we are not accepting new clients at this time.” They will pretty much never say your work isn’t good enough, and don’t expect any kind of constructive feedback. They might have any number of reasons, so don’t waist time questioning it: just accept that no means no.

I still haven’t made it past the form letter myself, but I’m going to keep on climbing. Once you land an agent, it’s smooth sailing. I’ll keep trying, and you should too.

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