Writing: How It Works (Or At Least What I Know) Part II

So this is Part Two in a series of posts detailing what I’ve learned about writing and publishing over the past three -ish years on my road to finishing my novel and working with an agent and eventually trying to get published.  For Part One, go here, and make sure to read about how I’m totally not an expert and check out all the helpful links that can educate FAR more than I can.

With that out of the way, I’m going to tell you my story, for my novel and what my experience has been.  That doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s experience, or that you should expect it to go similarly for you, but it might at least be helpful in reading about how the process has been working for me.  This installment is primarily about AGENTS.

I finished the first totally complete draft of my novel in January of 2007.  I had been working on it (among other projects) off and on (and while working full time – and picking up my life and moving from Los Angeles to New York) since sometime in late 2004.  Many people can do it faster than that.  I hope my next one will come faster but that’s how long it took me to get my first novel to “the end”.  And to top everything off this draft was short to boot.  Clocking in at only 55k words, a length that is “technically” too short for most fiction, even YA (young adult), but there it was.  Complete.

So I started the process of having a few people read it.  As this was my first time finishing a novel I didn’t have any beta readers.  A beta reader can be defined I suppose as someone that doesn’t have a personal investment in you (like your boyfriend, best friend, parents, siblings, etc.) and it’s usually somebody that is also either a writer or an editor, or at a minimum a voracious reader.  Though I find you’re better off with the former as their notes tend to be more focused and the critique more intensive.  So though I didn’t have beta readers technically, I did have some amazing people in my life that were writers and artists that I hoped would be able to separate their affection for me from their ability to constructively critique the manuscript.  This sort of worked and after getting feedback from three or four friends I embarked on revisions.

I finished the revisions in April of 2007 and sat on the new manuscript for nearly four months.

Why you ask?  Well, at the time I thought it was because I was afraid of the next step.  Because querying (more on that later) is hard and scary and bathed in almost no rewards, but in hindsight I think it’s likely that I knew the book wasn’t ready…that it wasn’t the best I could do.  But I’d now been working on it for nearly three years and found I was getting sick of the project and was ready to be done.  I suspect a lot of writers (particularly if they’re like me and don’t or are not able to write very quickly, hit the same wall).

After a lot of research, I finally picked one agent that I thought might be a good fit for me, and queried him.  A query is a simple one page letter that basically pitches your book (and to a lesser degree you) to an agent.  There are examples of query letters all over the web and in many books if you need help figuring out how to write a great query letter. These days you can usually email them, though some agents still only accept snail mail.  In August 2007 I put my query letter in the mail, and assumed I’d get a form rejection.  A form rejection is essentially a rejection letter that is a basic template sent to many different people.  You can tell if you receive a form rejection because it will not have any details specific to your work.

Now, picking the right agent is critical, because they all have different tastes and types of books they represent and even styles of representation.  For example, do you want a small house with perhaps a higher chance of more personal attention?  Or do you want a larger house with potentially more power to get your project seen first by editors? In my case, since I’m also a graphic novelist and was working on a graphic novel at the time, I did a hard target search for agents that represented both my novel’s genre/type AND graphic novels.  The good thing about this was that it gave me a much smaller pool of agents (eventually that’s a bad thing, but when you’re first trying to tackle this enormous thing, it helped me to think small and individual).  I picked this agent because I read a few interviews with him online and really liked what he had to say.  He also represented two graphic novelists/cartoonists that I really respected, and in a funny twist, I was very good friends with someone that was very good friend with one of his clients.  I knew I couldn’t use this really to my advantage, but I did take the opportunity to make a funny joke about almost knowing his client.  The joke paid off, because despite my query having major problems in hindsight, he requested a partial from me within about two weeks of me sending the query out.

If agents are intrigued about your manuscript based on a query letter they often request materials – generally a partial (which can be a partial of the manuscript in whatever form they choose – first 50 pages, first three chapters, etc.) or they can request a full (i.e. the complete manuscript).

Occasionally agents will ask for an exclusive, which means they want to be the only one to look at it for a certain amount of time (usually between two and eight weeks or so).  It’s up to writers whether they want to grant exclusives or not.  Many writers think it’s a bad idea, as it makes it impossible for you to query or send out to other agents while that agent may be sitting on it, doing nothing for weeks.  A few writers think it’s a reasonable request and indicates a more serious interest in your manuscript.  Regardless it’s up to the writer to decide whether to grant an exclusive or not (many times you can’t even if you’d like to because someone else already has it).  Of note is the fact that I’ve never heard a single story of an agent refusing to look at the material after they’ve been told for whatever reason that the exclusive cannot be granted.  In that respect I tend to think that not granting exclusives is the way to go.

Six weeks after sending my partial I emailed the agent to check in and see how it was going.  You really shouldn’t do this, even if you are as professional and polite as I was.  In my case I don’t think it affected my chances (he was already going to reject it), but it could have.  You have to remember that agents are looking not only for a manuscript but for an author, and if you act like a crazy person, they’re not going to want to work with you.  You should also keep in mind that agents are very busy and time moves differently in the publishing world – I like to think a week for publishing is more like a month the rest of the world.  I emailed because he had told me he would get back to me in a couple weeks.  But if I was doing it again now, I would not have emailed until it had been somewhere between two and three months.  As it was, he was rejecting the material.  I was heartbroken.  He gave me good notes about what wasn’t working, but heartbroken I couldn’t see what he meant at the time.

I sat on my manuscript for another three months.

I read something somewhere on the vast interwebs that December is actually a surprisingly good time to send queries as it’s a somewhat slow time for publishing and thus agents use it as a good time to catch up on other things – like reading queries and requesting materials.

Resolved, I picked two new agents (one that represented Graphic Novels and one that did not) and fired off new queries.  I never heard anything.  These are the worst kind of the rejections.  The no answer rejections.  It feels unfinished.  In the case of one of the agents I wasn’t surprised because they said in their guidelines that they only respond to queries they are interested in.  The other agent said they always respond, regardless.  That sent my mind reeling.  Did they never get it?  Should I assume rejection?  Should I try again? OMG WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?!  At the end of the day, I called it a rejection and tried my best to move on.

In early 2008 (now a year after the novel was first completed), January being another supposedly good time to submit queries I pulled together five new queries for five new agencies.  Of those I got two rejections, one no response, one request for a full, and one request for a partial.  I was ecstatic.  I sent the partial (first five chapters) and full off immediately, and sat back for the long wait.

In May I heard back from the agency with the partial.  It was a rejection with some helpful notes.  Notes that sounded a lot like the first notes I’d gotten from my first agent rejection.  Considering the similarity of the agent notes and the fact that I’d received feedback from two other far more brutal friends by now, and the fact that I’d joined a writing group in January 2008 and I was feeling a little differently about my writing since then, I realized that the novel needed a major overhaul.

The overhaul was so major that it would actually be in effect combining three books into one.  Because though I had written my first book as a standalone (meaning that it can in effect stand alone – and that all the loose ends are officially tied up by ‘the end’) I had always intended it to be part one in a trilogy.  I realized now that I should be combining all of the trilogy into one massive work.  It would essentially mean rewriting the entire thing.  Sure there were parts I could save, but it was going to double, perhaps triple in size, and I doubted there would be much of the original left standing.

I didn’t hear anything about the full that was still out there and in June of 2008 I started to follow up on the manuscript, in an effort to make sure that they had at least received it.  I emailed occasionally trying to figure out what had happened but heard nothing for months.

I began the rewrite in June of 2008.

In October of 2008 I received an email out of the blue from the agency that had never gotten back to me about my full, saying that they had not been able to find the manuscript and would I mind re-sending it.  I explained that I was in the middle of a massive re-write and they agreed to have me send it whenever I finished.  This was great!  A built in agent guaranteed to look at it when I finished!

Except it took me six more months to finish.

After nearly a year of re-writing the book’s size had ballooned from a once much too short 55k to a potentially too long 120,000 words.  Regardless of the size however, in April of 2009 I sent the new book to the agency that was waiting for it and I sent a new query to the first agent who had rejected me in 2007, asking him if he was interested in seeing a drastically revised version of my manuscript.  He responded almost immediately that he was and I sent off a full to him.

My writing group tore the book apart (but in a good way) at one of our sessions in early May, and after three weeks making a additional revisions, I decided to take a risk and see if a friend that had some connections in publishing might be interested in helping me out.  He was, and it suddenly things happened really fast.  Within 24 hours of giving him the book he forwarded it to an agent that would have been on my top 3 wishlist had I ever bothered to make one.  By June 1st, I’d had a phone call (my first ever phone call with an agent!) about the book.

While waiting for him to get back to me, surprise of surprises, I got an email from the agency that had lost the old draft in 2008.  They were loving the new draft I’d sent.  I was in heaven.  Two agencies were loving my book!  They were not finished and were hoping to get back to me in a few weeks, but when I told them that another agent had it and had expressed interest, they changed this to “we’ll get back to you Monday”.

In the end, after a crazy two weeks, both agents offered to work with me exclusively on the book and I had to make an incredibly difficult decision and pick just one.  Though both agents requested revisions (as expected) one agent was willing to offer a contract immediately, while the other preferred to wait until we finished the revisions (not uncommon). In the end I went with the agent not offering the contract for a variety of reasons too personal/confidential to discuss here.  The reality is that though a contract is a wonderful thing, especially in that it allows a writer to shout from the rooftops “I have an agent!” it doesn’t actually do much until there is money involved.  Even if you sign a contract with an agent, at any time either you or the agent can essentially walk away, so realizing that the contract at this stage didn’t mean much (except for a fun blog post saying I officially had an agent) I decided to eliminate that factor from my decision making process.  It was an amazing position to be in, one I’ll always be grateful for, but it was definitely one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make.

So, depending on how you look at it, it either took me six weeks to find an agent, or it took me two years and 6 months to find an agent.  Personally I prefer the former 😉 .  But I actually think it’s a great lesson in a way, because although there are many many writers with great books that ARE ready but have struggled for years to find an agent (for a variety of reasons) and there are also many not good books that quickly get picked up and published, I think there are a lot more writers in my position than they realize – i.e. the book they’ve written has real potential but just isn’t ready.  It seemed like the end of the world to me at the time to re-write the book…especially because I knew it was likely to take a year and I was already feeling behind, but in retrospect, if I hadn’t rewritten the book I doubt I ever would have found an agent, and so I still would have spent two years (or more) looking for an agent with no real results.  So though it was a tough road, at least headway was made and I’m in a much better place for it.

So where is the book now, since it is December and I’ve been working with an agent since June?  Well, I received notes from the agent I’m working with in early August and they were much larger in scope (and more difficult) than I had expected and so it took me nearly three months to implement them.  It included numerous changes and 130 new pages of material, along with 60 pages of original material being cut.  But I have been very happy with the results.

I recently heard from the agent and he likes the new direction as well, but we’re going to need another revision (hopefully smaller).  I hope to get his notes in the next week, at which time I will dive back in, trying to perfect this work and get it to the finish line.

Stay tuned for a hopeful PART FOUR to this series, which will be about the submission and publication process…assuming I get to that finish line.

In the meantime, I’ll be doing a PART THREE about Short Fiction submissions in the next couple weeks.

1 comment

  1. Lue Lyron’s avatar

    I see how I need to figure out the discipline to get that draft finished, because if you’re like me there are several cool ideas and you want to work on all of them, and only by working them can you find what you are most ready to do. For example, after Dad died, I took a step back from the novel which had given me lots of distracting, joyous research, worked on some comics, then came back this year spinning short stories out of the concept.

    I’m digressing! (But they are at integr8dfix.blogspot.com if you feel lucky; I drew for them, too).

    I love your posts so far and I’m rooting for you. I’d love to hear the pitch, though you may have mentioned it an earlier posting.

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