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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Weary of queries, then: "Hey you: Send pages." Who, me, Mr. Godot?

By Hugh Gilmore
Me? Send pages? To you, Mr. Godot?

 June 3 issue, 2009. A month has passed since I last reported on my quest "to write a novel in a year," a month that had been crushingly discouraging up to this week. I'll share my small triumph with you in a moment, after I tell you what it's been like.
            The original quest, you may recall, was to follow the guidelines set out by Walter Mosley in his helpful little writers' guide This Year You Will Write Your Novel. Write every day for at least an hour and a half. No holidays. Then rewrite. Read it to yourself out loud and take notes. Tape record it and listen to it. Take notes. Rewrite. Within a year, you'll have a short novel.
            So, beginning January 1, 2008, I wrote every day for a few hours and in three months had a 90,000-word typescript. Then I re-plotted and revised and rewrote and re-tortured myself for the rest of the year until I finished. In February of this year, I gave copies of the book to four smart people and they poked their fingers in the soft spots. Through the rest of February and March I rewrote until I was "done."
            Fifteen months of hard work and I finally had a novel in hand.  But as they say in Victorian novels: "Little did I know the trials that lay ahead."
            With only rare exceptions, the way to get a book published is to convince an editor to read your book, get excited about it, and tell his publishing house to buy it. Sounds simple enough, except that editors will not read unsolicited manuscripts. And you can't call them — they won't take your call. You can't send flowers and a note, or a box of candy or their favorite chocolate cake with a Word file inside. They don't want to hear from you.
            And why is that? you may ask. Well, good question, here's the simple answer: There Are Too Many Gosh-darned People Out There Writing Novels. As wonderful as I thought my achievement was, spending fifteen months writing over 100,000 words, 300 pages, I was deluded if I thought what I'd done was rare. The hills are alive with novels and novelists. They've sprouted up everywhere like toadstools after a spring shower. To the publishing world, we are the cast from Night of the Living Dead, staggering forward, manuscripts in hand, chanting "Read. Read. Read" in our mind-numbing voices.
            Only...get this...the publishers know that somewhere out there in the great flood of words, there is a gem of a story, terrifically told by a gifted writer. From this person's talents, say a Stephanie Meyer, or an H.K. Rowling, the industry can make enough money to stay alive. And  subsidize all the other writers, whether literary or mainstream, that make up the rest of the industry.
            To find these writers, the publishing houses turn to talent scouts, aka literary agents. Agents find the good writers and sell their manuscripts for them, charging a percentage of whatever income follows.
            An unconnected writer (i.e. someone who does not know someone, or is not a M.F.A. candidate in a university-based writing program) must seek an agent. With a little resourcefulness, finding agents' names and business addresses is not hard to do, especially given the Internet.
            But agents have the same problem the rest of the industry has: a heck of a lot of people want to be writers — probably as many as who want to be rock stars. No one can screen every book that is for sale out there in the cosmos.
            So, a protocol has emerged. Unknowns can only get the attention of an agent through the equivalent of "speed dating," or an "elevator pitch." They must write a "query letter." Some agencies accept only e-mail inquiries, some only snail mail, some both. Some none, as they post: "We do not accept unsolicited queries."
            The query letter is one page, but they do let you single-space it. It usually is formatted thusly:
            1. Greeting: Hi, I chose you because you agented the book "X Meets Y," and you are the best person in the world for my book, "Y Meets X," a clever spin on the original. Edgy-like, you know.
            2. Synopsis: "When X, the loneliest letter in the Alpha-Bits box, first tumbled out of the safety of the only home he'd ever known, down into a cold ceramic bowl, and felt the chilly milk pouring over his neck, he never expected to meet Y, the Vanna White-like letter-turner of his dreams (and heir to the Post cereal fortune). But how will they get out of the bowl together while a giant spoon keeps descending and randomly tearing their world apart? Perhaps by telepathically making the phone ring in another room X can buy time for himself and his beloved Y to escape. Will it work?"

            3. Bio. What makes me qualified to write about soggy cereal with a professional's eye?
            4.  Marketing Plan: Describe what I'll say if I go on Oprah or am forced to get deep and thoughtful with Maury Povich.
            Just kidding, folks, but after you do a number of these query letters you start to go a little batty.           
            From April 6 of this year, up to and including this morning, my first piece of business every day has been to send off at least one query letter to an agent. Occasionally I'll get an e-mail response that my letter has been received "and will be carefully considered within 6 to 8 weeks."
On three occasions I received e-mails saying, "Just doesn't seem right for our list," or "We are not buying fiction at this time."
            Most agencies, however, take a "Waiting for Godot" approach: If they like you, they'll get in touch...soon...maybe. If they don't, you'll never hear a word from them. Not even "no."
            I have never felt so discouraged in my life — throwing stones in the canyon and not even getting to hear them hit bottom. I seriously wanted to just stick the manuscript in the drawer, give up, and enjoy the rest of my life without this daily angst. But I felt a commitment to the four people who took the time to read my book. And a commitment to the readers of this column. I kept plugging.
            And then, this week, something wonderful happened: for the first time, an e-mail response came back, within hours, saying: "Thanks for the query. Please email the first fifty pages as a Word attachment; include the query, bio, and synopsis at the start of the document."
            This is called  "being asked for pages." I sent them, of course, quietly thrilled to at least be acknowledged. Many a novel dies right there. Most, in fact. But, if this agent likes what he reads, he'll ask for the whole book. And if he likes the book, he'll try to sell it. And if an editor likes his pitch and they do a deal...well, the world will be my oyster —maybe sometime late in 2010.
Probably nothing will come of it and I'll have to keep plugging along. But at least I got a small response and that's enough to let me know there is, indeed, a world out there I might escape to if "Y" and I can only get over the rim of the bowl.


1 comment:

  1. Congratulations! The whole process is slow and horrible, but it's great to get encouragement along the way to keep you moving forward toward the final goal. Good luck with this agent!