My drug of choice is writing––writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Mailbox: Traditional Publishing Questions

Must a writer have an agent? How do you write a good query letter?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox. And I will take a shot at questions about traditional publishing, but there are obviously better people to ask.]  

Steven asks:

I was wondering, to finalize a story to be sent out to a publisher, what things must I consider (rewrites, research, etc.) Please reply soon. Also, MUST a writer HAVE an agent? I heard agents are somewhat good to have but then they're demanding, needing a piece of work within a period of time.

My reply:

Both of today's questions came through my Facebook page from Steven.

First of all, I'm not the best person to ask about traditional publishing. There are lots of writers who haven't just declared (in their best Cartman voice): "Screw you guys in Traditional Publishing; I'm going home."

But I'll tell you what I know.

Any manuscript you submit (solicited or not) should be the best you can possibly make it. I don't mean "I checked it twice! I even found a missing comma." I mean the best fucking shit you are capable of producing.

For real real (not for play play).

You should have completely rewritten it at least once and revised it multiple times. These revisions may be major. They may involve cutting out whole scenes or entire characters you realize are doing the same thing. They may involve changing up the point of view. They may require completely reworking the entire story. You have to trust this part of the process.

I know what you're thinking.

Not MY manuscript.

Yes YOUR fucking manuscript! One of the biggest mistakes most young writers make is thinking that THEY will be the exception to this and that THEIR manuscript is ready after only one draft, a quick revision, and some grammar polishing.

You have to rewrite that puppy. Then revise. A lot. And you have to be ready to make some major changes. You can't fall in love with that first draft. You must kill your darlings. That doesn't always just mean those characters you are in love with. It also means the paragraphs you thought were so clever or that whole brilliant secondary plot that really just isn't working. Take a machete to that bastage. Then get your ass some peer review. Yes you need it.

Not my–

Yes YOUR fucking book. It needs peer review.

When you're finally ready for editing it (which should happen only after several revisions and peer review), you should go through it with a fine tooth comb for every grammar mistake you can, and if you're not good at proofreading your own work (and I mean REALLY, REALLY good), consider hiring a good copy editor after your regular editing.



THEN you submit.

Don't worry about grammar, young writer.
You will be assigned an editor because you are
Me? A myth? Pfffffft.
The myth that the publisher will edit your book is delicious, but it is a myth.

They will assign a copy editor to go through your galley proofs with an eagle eye, but you will never ever ever ever ever ever EVER get to that point if you submit something with a lot of mistakes.  I've worked on the other end of this transaction. You might think your brilliance will get your grammar errors forgiven, but what actually happens is that the first person to encounter your manuscript will probably be the type of person who will notice you used the wrong they're/their/there long before they notice your subtle chiasmus of needs vs. want between your protagonist and foil.  Most have some rule like "Error on the first page?  ROUND FILE!" "More than one error a page? ROUND FILE!" "Stupid junior high error that shows me you didn't give this the professional courtesy of someone expecting the professional accolades that you are hoping I will give you? ROUND FILE!"

The round file is the trash, in case you were wondering.

As for agents....get one.

A writer doesn't HAVE to have an agent, Steven, but...if you're going to go the route of traditional publishing, I can't stress this enough: get an agent. I could go into the pros and cons of having an agent in the traditional publishing world, but everything I have ever read, every writer I've ever worked with, and every publisher I've ever talked to says get one. Those who publish unsolicited say they should have had one. Those who are famous writers still have one. Those who get one say it was the best thing they did. So even though agents are elusive motherfuckers who spend more of their time trying to build defensive structures and laser targeting auto-cannons that will keep writers at bay, you still need one.

Only a handful of publishers will take unsolicited material, and it usually goes into a slush pile.

Let me tell you a little about the slush pile.

Bottom section.
Left column.
Eight from the bottom.
That one's mine.
I'm sure they'll read it any day now.
It is this HUUUUUUUUUUUUGE pile of manuscripts that they give either to interns or to very bored publishers to go through at a pace that makes snails look like fucking Speed Racer, and most of them are NaNoWriMo and/or first drafts. You don't want to be in there. Sometimes it can take eighteen months (or longer) before some bleary eyed intern, who just read 20 first drafts in a row that were obvious rip offs of Dresden, Star Wars, or Willow, finally hits your story.

An agent will represent you; they will sling out your work and talk you up like an expert wingman in a singles bar one drink before last call; they will sell you; they will get you in front of the eyeballs that matter; they know what venues are most likely to find an interest in your work. And they will almost always get you more money. Not just more money than if you had negotiated alone, but more money than you would have gotten without them INCLUDING what you pay for them. They are trained negotiators and your gain is their gain. They know what a good deal and a shitty deal look like, and--unlike you--they won't be wetting themselves just at the prospect of publication and take a shitty deal without thinking it through.

Plus they can help you with your manuscript in a way that a publisher will not. If your book is close, but not quite ready for publication yet, or needs a few tweaks to be commercially viable, they can help you get it to that point. They are a bit like editors but with an eye for what sells.

Steven, your idea of agents being demanding comes later. Usually it is the PUBLISHER setting things like chapter deadlines when an author has something called an "advance" on a book. In today's market, you're not likely to get an advance until you've published a few books. If an agent is harping on a writer, it's probably because the writer has asked them to do so (because they need a little external motivation) and that is a part of their professional relationship. But the agent works for the writer and they've obviously negotiated that ahead of time. The writer can call off the agent at any time.

"You're fired" is remarkably effective as a safe word.

What advice do you have regarding query letters and is there an electronic version of the writer's market book on the net? One where you can fill in a search and it'll bring up a list of potential publishers?

My reply:

Again, there are probably better people to ask about traditional publishing than me, but here is what I know.

A query letter should be formal, concise, and impeccably professional. It should never be informal or familiar in tone ("Hi there! Lemmie tell you about your next blockbuster" ROUND FILE!), and it should never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever EVER be more than one page. (Please fucking trust me on this one. I have known agents who go through their stack of query letters and throw out everything with a staple. ROUND FILE!) Agents get dozens, sometimes hundreds of query letters every week. If you can't even follow the most basic directions, they're not going to want a professional relationship with you.

Before I talk about the query letter, I want to make one thing absolutely, crystal clear. Like mountain lake after a spring thaw crystal clear where there are fucking snow capped mountains in the distance, your face is about to freeze off, and the light sparkling off of everything is a razor blade across your pupil.


Just don't.

In non-fiction there is something called a proposal which you can write before you're done if you query with a table of contents and sample chapters, but in fiction, you need to be sitting on a final project. Not a few chapters. Not a first draft. Not "still needs some cleaning up." Done. An agent who asks to see more and finds out you're not done will ROUND FILE your query and probably put your name in the "Do Not Reply" section of their rolodex for the future.

Paragraph one is the hook to your story. Describe your book like you would someone you met on a subway who was about to get off at the next stop. Or better yet someone who was about to do their first unassisted parachute jump. This isn't the place for plot points beyond the basic description. In storytelling terms, use one clause to describe "the mundane world" and one clause to describe the inciting event.  ("Chris couldn't hook up a groupie threesome to save his life until one day he met a pair of gothic lingerie models who loved blogs about writing.") Be careful of making it as formulaic as I have here, but that is the basic idea. This is also the place to mention setting, or any stylistic decisions you've made that you think are very unique. (They won't be–unique that is–which is why I used "very" in front of it, but if you think they are, include that.)

Paragraph two is a brief synopsis. Let me say this again with the proper emphasis. Paragraph two is a MOTHER-FUCKING BRIEF synopsis. Brief. Hear me on this. Brief. If your whole query letter is over a page (which will get it ROUND FILED) it will probably be because you are trying to introduce too much detail into your synopsis. You don't need to tell the agent the whole story, just get them interested. This may actually be some of the most difficult writing you've ever done, because this is what the agent is going to focus on.

Tell the picture finding intern that she can't just Google the big word in the paragraph and pick any picture!
She has to actually read it and know what it's about.

Paragraph three is about you as a writer. Degrees you hold. Places you've published. If you don't have a lot of that, increase the length of your synopsis (paragraph two) but don't bullshit your way through this. You're dealing with professional bullshit sniffers who have epic reading skills. Don't even bother. An agent doesn't care about your job (unless you're writing a story about that job). An agent doesn't care about your education (beyond the fact that you have a degree). If you have a lot of writing accolades, keep it to a few that you're most proud of, and keep it short. Journalism publications, awards or contests you've won, or literary publications.

Lastly, don't forget to thank them for their time and attention and to tell them the full manuscript is available on request. (And make sure that is true.)

As for the Writer's Market, I'm afraid it's not available online--but just about everything in it is. It's one of those books that is valuable because it takes a gillion bits of information that anyone could find out without any trouble and puts them all in the same place. Nothing in The Writer's Market isn't researchable, but when it's all in one place it's damned convenient. If you're looking for particular venues to submit I suggest Googling "Publishing Venues for XXXXXX" where XXXXX is the genre you are writing in.


  1. Excellent advice.

    My current WIP was 128,000 words long, and my first beta reader was enthusiastic about it. He insisted I place it on Amazon right away because it was just that good. I opted not to, and I'm glad I did because as it turns out, my first draft SUCKED. I had no concept of story structure, of balancing characters, of any of the most basic elements of story creation. I was doing everything by instinct, trusting to all the works I've read over the course of my life to teach me how to write. And that was a bad idea. It's like learning how to paint by looking at paintings in a museum.

    That same beta reader read for several other people who did rush their work into indie publishing on Amazon. It's painful to see what happened. Their first books got around 50 reviews. Their second books got about 20. Their third books--those that made it that far--all got less than 6. That's not good. Best-selling authors get hundreds of book reviews for every book they publish. Some break into the thousands. So I narrowly avoided destroying my writing career before it even started, and I did that by trusting my instincts, waiting, and rewriting.

    Along the way, to keep myself from becoming too bummed out by the length of time it's taking me to produce anything good, I started researching how long it took big name authors to publish their first books. It seems the average is about 10 years from start of serious writing to publication. I am in my fourth year. I'm much better than I was in my first year (with the beta reader) but I still struggle with character and plot. Writing is slow work and your apprenticeship will take forever, but if you take the time, you'll have a much more solid and long-lasting career.

    Critique partners/beta readers are important. I have seven critique partners, which is three less than I want. I read their stuff and they read mine. I write fantasy with horror elements. They write fantasy, epic fantasy, "women's lit," YA SF, paranormal mystery, family saga, erotic horror, horror, and mystery. They are my peers. I fall about in the middle of the group in regards to writing expertise (some are published). I critique their works and they critique mine. This is similar to what Chris was describing when he said "beta readers" but is a lot more involved. My ability to write well skyrocketed when I started exchanging critiques.

    Crits are important. If no one is looking at your work, you have no idea how good it is. You'll either think that you're writing some incredibly wonderful stuff or utter crap, and all that will depend on your daily mood. Writers are plagued with self-doubt. But when seven people tell you "this doesn't work," they're probably right. When seven people tell you that you've nailed it, you can usually trust them. Find a crit group, make sure your writing is somewhere in the middle of their ability, and run your whole WIP through them. It might take a year (in my group we do 3000 words once a week) but it will do wonders to your WIP.

    As for agents ... I'm a fan of Patricia Briggs. She was a mid-list author with something like 4-5 books under her belt. Then one day her agent gave her a concept that she said was certain to sell. Briggs developed it, wrote the shit out of it, and 15 books later is a full-time, NYT bestselling author who makes enough money to have her own horse ranch. Not that I want a horse ranch, but paying for a home with royalties? That would be nice.

    Agents should be your business partners. They want you to succeed because they make more money and have more prestige if you succeed, but often they're also friends. Absolutely every writer should have a good agent. An excellent agent can make your career.

    1. You said the average was 10 years. What was the spread and how many writers ?

  2. What, exactly, do you mean by unassisted parachute jump ?

    1. Your first parachute jump without someone strapped to your back who does the actual cord pulling.