Oh my. Poor…

Oh my. Poor Columbine. He's just finished writing his second novel and now he's not sure how to go about selling it. Judging from the tone of his recent entries and e-mail, I'm supposed to feel sorry for all his current confusion and angst, but given that I haven't managed to write more than 200 pages of *one* novel, and that one is currently buried deep in a drawer, I'm having a little trouble feeling the requisite sympathy...

Seriously, I do have an inkling of how he's feeling. I remember how panicked I was when I first started trying to sell short stories, and novels are even more confusing. I was thinking about this, and thinking about how confusing the field seems to outsiders/newcomers, and I thought it might help to answer some of his current questions here, in case there are other people reading this who might want to write/sell a novel someday. Do keep in mind that my answers are based mostly on passed-down folk wisdom, rather than experience. I haven't finished or sold a novel yet myself.

"Getting an agent ... let's see ... what do I fear and loathe? Let me count the ways."

"Okay, first you have to write query letters. Query letters, like cover letters on submissions, are the most useless things on earth. You have to say nothing and you have to say it politely. All a query letter ever really says is, "Hi, I've got a book, would you be interested in selling it for me?" So how come you can't say that? How come, when we have so many formal placeholder phrases that are basically meaningless, we can't just say "INSERT QUERY HERE"?"

Well, first of all, they're not entirely useless. They serve various functions:

  • They serve as useful filing information, helping the editor, sub-editors, agents keep track of the piece. They have the title, author, address and bio information all in one place.
  • You *can* put useful information in there, such as mentioning that along with this sf novel, you were an astronaut for three years, or that along with this sanitation-focused-Siberian novel, you dug ditches in Siberia a decade ago.
  • Listing other sales here may help convince an editor that you're worth looking at.
  • If you have a personal relationship with this person (you met at a con and had dinner and talked about robots and they said your Martian robot sex novel sounded really interesting), this is the place to remind them of that.
Now, if none of the last three happen to apply, well, then you take five minutes to type up a form query that you'll use as a template, and at the very least, it'll mean that when you save the darn thing, you'll have a copy of their address ready for the next time you send them something. It's really not that hard.

"Query letters have to be printed because this is a field where electronic communications are considered below the salt. This ill-suits me. The only documents I want on paper are contracts or other things requiring my signature. And the book itself, of course - heh. But oh, how much simpler to query the agent electronically! Pity that won't happen."

I don't think that's fair or true. What's really happening is that people are still learning how to use electronic mail. More and more magazines are accepting electronic submissions (Clean Sheets *only* take e-subs), and many of them will answer electronic queries. People who still aren't used to e-mail aren't very good at filtering yet, and get quickly overwhelmed by the number of pieces that come in. Add to that the fact that you're sending these mostly to places that *already* get more queries than they can process quickly (and they can't afford to hire more readers, since they work on a thin margin), and you can see why they would be reluctant to switch to something that brought in even more material. Over time, I think people will get efficient enough with e-mail (and filters) that electronic queries will become the standard -- but you'll have to be patient a while longer.

"Next there's the MS itself. Writer's Market notes that only about 25% of literary agents look at full manuscripts. This means that - even though the MS is complete - I will probably have to write an outline or a summary of the work."

"I loathe summaries. First off, I don't write work that summarizes well, because I don't write action-packed, bang-bang-bang plot point books..."

I certainly sympathize. When Beth and Tappan critiqued my summary at Clarion, they were very harsh -- they hated it, really. They would never have read the novel based on that. And when they later read the first chapters of my book-in-progress, they were much more impressed (though they still didn't think I should finish it (and they were probably right)). Summaries are a weirdo form; all I can tell you is what they told me -- treat it as an advertising/marketing/selling document. Feel free to use mild gimmicks to attract the editors' attention. 'Summary' is really a misleading term -- they don't want a point-by-point summary. They want a teaser that will convince them that you can write, and make them want to read the whole manuscript. Your best 'summary' might be an excerpt from the middle of the book, or a series of questions, or little fake bios of your characters.

"I am trusting this agent with my manuscript. How do I know if the agent's any good? How do I know if she's even honest? How do I know she's not going to take my manuscript to Tahiti or usurp my money or something? Yes, I'm paranoid, but goodness, right now I have nothing. No security at all, except a copyright notice which is barely worth the electrons it's printed on (since I can't afford to sue someone for violating it)."

"The only real way to find out if an agent's worthwhile is to talk to other people the agent's represented. Unfortunately, says Writer's Market, that is information that agents are often loath to give out. Why, oh, why, am I not surprised?"

Hmm...well, actually, what I'd be much more likely to do is go to a place like the newsgroups misc.writing or rec.arts.sf.written or some of the web writing forums, and ask there. You can either ask about specific agents, or tell them about your book and ask for advice. People are very friendly and helpful in general in these places (if you ask politely), and they're *very* good at keeping track of who the bogus agents are. One quick rule-of-thumb -- you NEVER pay an agent. They get their cut when they sell your novel. If they're asking you for a big reading fee, then they're something dubious there. Unless you're paying them for editing services, (and check on them first, if so!) you shouldn't be paying them a penny.

Finally, do keep in mind that you may end up finding the editor first, and then the agent. Someone convinces an editor to look at your book; they like it, they want to buy it. That's when you say, "I'll have my agent call you to negotiate the contract." You won't have *any* trouble finding an agent at that point, and you'll want one, to get the best deal possible on the contract.

Any more questions? (Boy, I'm sure in teaching mode these days...) Corrections?


> On the personal front, I am utterly torn about apartments. I'm not sure if the following are still available, but if they are, I'm having a very hard time deciding between:

  • Option 1: Upstairs half of house, beautiful sunroom, really nice finishing and woodwork, plenty of space, nice kitchen, no garden but can probably grow something in the sunroom, conveniently between campus and Kevin's, nice neighborhood, most expensive. I love this place, but the price is just barely in my budget.
  • Option 2: Half of a house, ground floor, probably some garden space, feels very homey, good kitchen, plenty of space, nothing really exciting about it, but solid, close to campus and somewhat far from Kevin's. Middle of my price range.
  • Option 3: Large one-bedroom, neat exposed brick walls, half a block from Kevin's (which is moderately far from campus, more than walking distance for me), definitely more of an apartment than a homey feel, decent kitchen, lots of sun, windowsills for growing things. Near the bottom of my price range.
I'm looking at a few more places, but for right now, these are the main contenders, and I'm having a really hard time making up my mind. Maybe when I call back, one of them will be taken already. That would at least simplify matters...

Advice?

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