This posting is based on the column "7 Things I've Learned So Far," from the Guide to Literary Agents blog by Chuck Sambuchino, which is crammed with all kinds of extremely useful information. It got me thinking about just how much I've learned since I wrote my first novel seven years ago. Of course, I still have a whole lot to learn, but I wish I'd known even a couple of these things when I was starting out:
1) Learn absolutely everything you can about publishing before you start querying:
When I wrote my first book, I didn't have the first clue about literary agents or query letters or any of the things you need to know before you can publish a novel. I thought writing a book would be the hard part; turns out, it was the easy part. A little research led me to Barnes and Noble and a book about literary agents. When we left Kingsville for San Diego, I signed up for a writers conference and headed blithely into the lion's den. I literally sent out one query letter (which I confess was awful) before realizing I needed to learn a few things if I was ever going to become a writer. So I took an internship at a literary agency. And I learned a lot.
2)Write what you love, not what you think will sell:
After I moved on from my first novel, I quickly wrote a second novel that I never even sent out to agents. I still think the book had promise, but it dealt with a topic I was uncomfortable writing about, and until I can get past that, the book will never be what it could be. At any rate, by the time I started my third book, I thought I knew a thing or two about publishing, and more specifically, about what sells. I'd only read two or three chick lit novels in my life, but it seemed like a promising genre in terms of marketability. Which isn't to say I didn't love the idea for my third novel, but I worried too much about making it fit into a certain genre instead of worrying about the story itself. And guess what? While I'd been typing away on my laptop, someone somewhere had decided chick lit was officially dead. When a bestselling author sent my novel to her literary agent in New York, the agent kindly told me that while she thought I was a great writer, I'd never break into the genre as a first-time novelist. She told me to put the book in a drawer and write something else. So I did.
3) Edit, edit, and re-edit:
With my first two books, I thought I could just crank them out and be done with them. I was so sick of looking at them by the time I was finished with them that the idea of editing literally turned my stomach. So I gave up. With my third novel, I actually let people read it (including two book clubs - thanks ladies!) despite the fact that I was terrified of their reaction. The novel went through at least another ten drafts before I sent it out. In fact, by the time it was finished, it hardly resembled the original novel at all. And that's a GOOD thing. I still think it's a good idea to take a break from your novel before you go back and edit it. Time and distance give you back your perspective, which gets lost when you've spent months immersed in the world of your novel. The first few times, you'll wonder what the hell you were thinking. By the end, you'll step back, read your novel one more time and think, "Hey, this is pretty darn good."
4) This is a numbers game:
After the New York agent told me to shelve my third novel, she gave me the names of a few more agents who might be interested in chick lit. I queried those agents and no one else, for a total of seven queries. That seemed like a giant, reeking pile of rejection at the time. Now it seems like nothing! I wish I hadn't given up so quickly on the last book, but I am hopeful that if this novel ever sells, #3 might get a second chance. In the meantime, I have learned that it doesn't do any good to send out three queries and then sit around waiting for responses before sending out three more. Agents take MONTHS to respond to queries sometimes. I sent out a query last July, got a request for a partial in August, followed by a request for a full in September, only to get a rejection in February. If I'd waited for a response before sending out more letters, I'd have lost 7 months of querying time. I've also noticed that in most cases, if an agent is interested in your query, they respond within a week or two. I have had an agent request materials after two months, but that's been the exception, not the rule. I try to remind myself that some of the most successful books of the last five years were rejected many times before being picked up (Water for Elephants and The Help being just two of them). So once your book and query letter are as good as you can make them, query away (and query widely).
5) Rejection does get easier:
Of course when you send out dozens of queries, you're probably going to get dozens of rejections. At the beginning, I cried after each and every rejection (even on the straight-up query letters). It still stings to get a rejection, of course, and it really smarts when you get a rejection on requested materials, but every time it gets a little less painful. I actually got a rejection as I was typing this! My stomach fell, I let myself mourn for a moment, and then I started writing again. What else can you do? Send out two more query letters, that's what! I did that earlier this week, and lo and behold, within two minutes I had a request for a full.
6) Hold on to the positive and let go of the negative:
A few people (one in particular) have said some really nasty things about my novel. I'm not talking about constructive criticism - I'm talking just flat out mean. It's really hard to let go of that, because it's impossible not to take it personally (even after having given birth, I still think of my novel as my baby; it took almost as long to gestate, and they don't hand out epidurals to wannabe novelists). Fortunately, the vast majority of people have been very kind, even when critiquing my novel or rejecting it outright. Some of the feedback I've gotten from friends and family has improved my novel significantly, and I am so grateful for all of that help. I've also gotten some very generous praise from a couple of agents, and that is what I turn to when I'm really down on myself. Of course I doubt myself (All. The. Time.) but knowing that just one or two people in the industry don't think I'm completely insane for pursuing this dream gives me enough hope to keep on truckin'.
7) Never, never, never give up:
This is something that really doesn't even need to be said, because if writing is what you really love, you couldn't give it up even if you wanted to. In my most self-pitying of moments (which Sarah and John will tell you are more than a few), I have moaned that I simply cannot go on. "That's it!" I decry. "I can't possibly go through one more rejection! I give up!" Then a new idea comes along, or I get a request for a partial, and I realize that now that I've opened up the floodgates, I'll never be able to stop writing. Onward and upward!