From unpublished to published: the journey
What does it take for a first-time novelist to find a publisher? There must as many paths as there are writers. My advice here is based on own experience. Follow it or not, at your pleasure.
First have fun writing Enjoy every moment of it, the exhilaration, the bursts of creativity, the times of crushing self-doubt, of discouragement, the passion. Watch what happens to your characters. They are like kids: they grow up before your eyes, they become independent, they take off, they live their own lives. You think about them while driving to work, in your bath, at night during your moments of insomnia.
This is what I experienced with the character of Villers in my story. At first I conceived him as a pampered aristocrat, what we would call nowadays a womanizer, a brilliant, vital but shallow man. I wondered how on earth I would be able to make him interesting. In fact, he was the character who surprised me most. He gained in complexity, in bitterness, in violence as I wrote on. Now I realize that my readers like him far better than I do.
Of course, when your characters take an unexpected turn, so does your plot. New twists appear. The whole atmosphere of the book may become different. In my case, Mistress of the Revolution was to be both the individual journey of a woman, and an epic about the French Revolution. I believe it is still those things, but I never set out to write a love story. Yet I did.
Be your own toughest critic. Write your best, then let it sit, then take another look, then rewrite. Many times. Weigh each word. It the sentence holds without it, delete it.
Pay particular attention to your opening words, your first paragraph, your first chapter. This is where you hook the reader, or lose her. No agent is going to ask for pages 100 through 150. So get the great stuff upfront. If your intro is so-so, bury it inside the book, or get rid of it.
In my case, I edited relentlessly, in particular the beginning. Entire chapters were cut. And the book became better for it.
Drive family and friends crazy
They love you, don't they? What better sounding board can you find? I have read that writing is a "lonely hobby."Au contraire! Now you are not alone carrying your characters: they come to life in the eyes of others, they acquire depth. Some of your friends will like a certain character, some will hate him. It will make you reconsider your own vision of that fictional person. In fact, is he fictional any more? Bounce ideas around, discuss the plot, listen to suggestions, the good ones, the dreadful ones. All will help you.
And by the way, writing is not a hobby either. It is a need, a drive, an addiction.
See how people look at you differently
I remember some patronizing smiles. They were easy to read: "Yet another pathetic loser who imagines she's going to be published." Fine. Smile back and move on.
I once knew a man who, whenever I spoke of my novel, felt the need to tell me that "once in a while he thought of writing an outline". My book was not yet completed then, but it already made him feel inadequate, uncomfortable. Here is what I told him. First, don't think about writing. Do it. Second, if you write, don't write an outline. Writers don't write outlines, they write books .
But those were isolated instances of unpleasantness. I discovered something: most people love writers, whether published or unpublished. Why? I guess every human being wants to be told a good story. Even people who don't read much will look at you with more respect, more curiosity, more friendliness too. Strangers will ask you amazingly insightful questions.
So now in the eyes of others, not only in your own, you are a writer, a storyteller. What if your book is not finished, if you are still looking for an agent, for a publisher? You took the time to gather your ideas, you found the courage to stare at a blank computer screen, to express your thoughts, your feelings, to wrestle with words. You have guts, and gutsy people wield power, in some way or other.
Do you need an editor?
Some call editors "book doctors." What a phrase! Your book is not sick. On the contrary, you now have a good, solid, healthy, completed manuscript. Is it ready for submission to an agent? Maybe. In my case, I was prepared to query, but a friend recommended that I contact Pam Sheppard first. So I called her and emailed her my first fifty pages. We immediately connected. I realized that my book could become better. Pam helped me reach its full potential. And I acquired a new friend in the process.
What did Pam do for me? The same thing as the long-suffering loved ones I mentioned earlier: she read, she listened, she imparted her opinion. The difference was that, this time, it was the opinion of someone who had spent her professional life dealing with books. She was harsh in her judgment. Often she pointed out flaws of which I had been aware all along, but to which I had deliberately blinded myself. Wouldn't it be nice, by the way, if there were the equivalent of book editors for life in general? But I digress. More than once I disagreed with Pam, but the discussion itself was helpful and prompted me to rewrite passages of the book, sometimes in the opposite direction of what she had recommended.
Conferences, workshops and seminars
I did not attend any, though I would have loved to. I understand that they often offer helpful insights, and are a great way to network with agents, editors at publishing houses, and other writers. Yet in my case, it was simply a matter of availability. I could not take the time off my law practice. My budget was not unlimited either, and I chose to pay for the services of an editor instead.
Every writer is different, and you may benefit more from a seminar than from an editor's help. Then by all means go for it.
Write a great query
Then have a good night sleep. Then take a second look at your query the next morning. Awful, isn't it? Trash it and rewrite it. Repeat the process a dozen times. Tax your loved ones' patience again. Enlist the help of your editor, if you have one.
How important is the query? It is the first piece of your writing your agent will ever see. And you have so little space to make your pitch. Spare the words, share the passion.
You can find my own query here, as it went to Stephanie Cabot, of The Gernert Company, the lady who became my agent. It was mailed on July 19, 2006, and exactly seven days later I received an email from Stephanie's assistant requesting a full. Factor in the time it took for the query to travel from Los Angeles to New York on the wings of the United States Post Office. So, no, agents don't always take forever to respond.
Go to Agent Query
If you visit one site on the net, this should be it. Heed the advice on formatting your manuscript and query. It is the most current I found. Use Times New Roman, not Courier.
And use AQ's search feature to pull a list of the agents who handle your kind of work. For free. Then buy yourself a roll of stamps and query.
Each agent has different requirements for submissions. Some want only equerries, some accept them more or less reluctantly, others won't even look at them. Follow the instructions to the letter, if only as a sign of respect for busy people who don't know you and will review, free of charge, at least one page of your writing. Don't send fulls or partials to agents (like Stephanie) who only want a snail mail query and SASE. Agents are not shy. If they wish to see the entire manuscript, they'll tell you.
Rejection time has come. This phase is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. You will need all of your bravery, your inner strength, your self-esteem as you go to your mailbox every day. Your heart will skip a beat when you see your SASEs coming back.
Rejections, and this is the only fun fact about them, come in all shapes. Sometimes I received my own query back, with a variation on the theme "thanks, but no thanks" scribbled or stamped on the top.
Other agencies use little cards, or form letters, some of which look like they have been faxed back and forth a dozen times before going through a vintage copy machine. I should also mention the personalized rejection letter. "Personalized" does not always meant that it is more pleasant to receive. Someone went through the trouble of informing me that my novel was "unpublishable." I was astonished by that degree of arrogance. That agent could have said that he hated the concept, that my query was the worst he had ever seen, but unpublishable ? A book he had not even read? How could he know? Well, it turns out that he was wrong.
But some rejection letters were kind, thoughtful, encouraging. When one agent wrote "good concept, nicely written" instead of simply "not for us," I knew that she meant it. It was welcome news, even though she did not wish to represent me. It kept me from getting bitter or discouraged.
At the same time, requests for fulls and partials trickled in. Once I had several of those, I stopped querying. For a while the rejections kept coming back in their SASEs, though.
How do you choose your agent?
I was fortunate enough to receive two offers of representation within days of each other. I had found both agents thanks to Agent Query. Now the time had come to make a choice. That was the most difficult decision in the entire process. I discussed my dilemma with Pam, my editor, and she recommended that I go to AR&E, Agent Research & Evaluation.
I ordered reports on both agents willing to represent me from AR&E. Those "dead reckoning" reports start at $25.00 per agent, so the investment was well worth the money. I knew, or guessed, what a difference a great agent could make in the fate of a book.
AR&E also offers a "customized fingerprint", a search for the agents who are supposed to be the right ones for your book, before you start querying. It is far more expensive, and might limit you to a few targeted agents. Would I have found either of the two agents who were willing to represent me that way? I am not sure. Neither of them makes a specialty of historical fiction, though they handle it on occasion. I find it better and cheaper to pay for the stamps, and query widely using Agent Query's database.
Both agents willing to represent me are what AR&E calls "major players". Both have excellent reputations, and both sounded friendly, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic about the book. I think that what made me choose Stephanie was that she was more critical, she had more changes to suggest. She had spotted what I already knew were the weaker spots of the book, and I agreed to edit it.
How do you choose your publisher?
Once I was done with that new round of editing, Stephanie sent out the manuscript, warning me not to expect things to go very fast. In fact they did. Within days she had three major publishers in competition, something I would never have imagined. It did not boil down to a mere question of money, and I made my choice based on many factors, including my gut feeling and my personal connection with the editor.
Stephanie had pointed out to me how important the relationship between the editor and the writer is: eighteen months, time for two pregnancies, to go from computer file to ink-and-paper volume sitting on - or flying off - the shelves of a bookstore near you.
I picked Dutton after a long telephone conversation with the editor there, Julie Doughty. I could tell that she had taken the time to read the book carefully, and that she was listening to me while offering valuable advice. And Dutton offered a two-book deal, a great opportunity for a first-time novelist.
Wait, don't quit your day job yet
So, great, you are now a published writer. You beat the odds. Your agent takes you to lunch. You have a wonderful celebration with your family and friends, the same patient, loving people of whom I already spoke more than once, and who deserve more thanks than you can ever write in your acknowledgments. They know that they too were part of your success.
But there is a difference between feeling like a million bucks and having that amount of money in the bank. You won't see any royalties from the actual sales of your book for another two years. So even if you wrote a bestseller, the only money you will receive in the meantime is your advance, in installments of 25% at that, upon signing, approval of the manuscript, hardcover release and finally paperback release. An article on Powells.com gives a good idea of the going rates. Unless you are a former President, or say, a disgraced football star with a couple of murders to your credit, don't expect any offers in the seven figures.
So take 25% of your advance, then deduct your agent's 15% hard-earned commission. This is what you will receive upon signing your contract with your publisher. It can be a welcome complement to your income, but unless you are prepared to dine on bean soup for a few years, or maybe the rest of your life, you won't support yourself and your family on your earnings as a writer. I read recently in a French newspaper that, sadly, writers are the only people in the publishing business who can't make a living off their books. True, but they write.