Getting Out of the Labyrinth: Part 6 – Submission

Now we’re getting into the professional stuff. By the time you start submitting, I’d say you’re mostly out of the Labyrinth. But it’s still looming behind you, and in front of you is a whole new wasteland… the marketplace.

The whole game changes when you start submitting your book to agents. It’s super scary and intimidating because this is probably the first time your book is going into the hands of a stranger who will judge it. That stranger isn’t just a potential hater – they hold your fragile writing career in their hands! If your dad doesn’t like your book, well, he’s never had great taste. But when a professional doesn’t like your book… that stings.

Before we get into this, I know what a lot of people are thinking so I’ll address it quickly. Do you need an agent? Honestly? Yes. I’m not even going to go through and explain why, because there are a thousand blogs written out there saying it better than I can. You do need an agent. Get an agent.

Moving on!

1. Never stop editing and/or writing.

Until the very day that your manuscript goes to print, you’re going to be seeing tiny things in it that you want to change. It can take years to score yourself an agent, so in the meantime, keep working on your book! Every time you go through it it’s getting a little bit better and a little bit more likely to sweep an agent off her feet.

If you’re completely satisfied with the manuscript you’re submitting, work on something else! Or better yet, do both! As soon as you stop writing, it’s easy to fall back into the same old habits. That rust comes back so quickly! You can find yourself back in the labyrinth in less time than you could possibly imagine.

I made this mistake myself. I let myself get lazy. I got out of the habit of writing. And when I finally got my first request for the full manuscript, I flipped through it and was hyper-aware of all the problems I suddenly saw with it… and I’d been just sitting on it for months!

You need to keep your wheels oiled and turning. Writing is like exercise – letting yourself take long breaks just ends in you huffing and puffing once you get back in there.

2. Your query is super important so spend a lot of time on it!

The most important thing to remember about your query is that it’s the first thing your prospective agent is going to see! Before they see how well you write dialogue, before they get to know your amazing characters, before they’re blown away by that plot twist your book is constructed around, they’re going to see that letter addressed to them sitting on top of it all.

Caitlin McDonald is the kind of agent I dreamed of my whole life. She’s kind, she’s funny, she’s attentive, she’s deeply invested in my career, she’s as much a friend as she is a business partner, and she makes me feel like I’m the only client she has. I could never have hoped for anyone quite so great… and she almost didn’t request my full manuscript.

The version of the book she got had a very awkward prologue. It was poorly written, badly paced, and much too long. It was the weakest part of my book, and it was the first thing agents were seeing.  Caitlin’s told me that she almost threw my submission right back into the slush pile – but she didn’t. Because my query was good enough to get through that awful, unpublishable prologue.

In my first few submissions, I phoned the query in. I thought that what was essentially just a cover letter couldn’t be that important. My actual work would speak for itself. But I realized after a few rejections that my work couldn’t speak for itself if agents were tuning out after my salutation!

Now, I’m not an expert on writing queries. I’m an author, not an agent, so my exposure to them is pretty low. But I wrote one, and I got signed with it, so these are the two tips I’d give based on what I learned refining my own query:

– Your query should have personality and reflect who you are as a person and a writer.
– Your query should be punchy and exciting, not dry.

Presumably, you know how to write. You know how to spin your words to create mood, set a scene, or draw your reader along. Use those same skills in your query.

A good query can get an agent through a weak start – I’m living proof! And it stands to reason that a bad query can turn around and bite your ass the same way.

3. Get to know the agent you’re pitching your book to.

Agents aren’t nameless, faceless publishing automatons handing down legitimacy from the sky. They’re real people with interests and pet peeves and lives, and it’s easier than ever before to learn about all of those things. These days, agents have twitters, blogs, facebooks, and all sorts of ways you can connect with them and find out who they are. Being informed is just a few clicks away.

It’s such a mistake to just find an agent who reps in your genre, paste their name into the salutation, and submit. Don’t do that! Take some time and learn about who they are, what they like, what they’re looking for in a book. Are they interested in your specific sub-genre? What sort of protagonist are they looking for? What don’t they like? Knowing these things will just help you put together a better query. You can stress the parts of your story that you think they’d like and even talk directly to them, pointing out something that you’re mutually interested in. And if you don’t see any overlap between their interests and yours, that saves you the effort of a query that will go nowhere!

Assuming the agent you’re querying keeps a blog or a twitter, it shouldn’t take very long at all to take their pulse.

4. Don’t just expect rejection — be ready for it.

I’m not going to devote a whole point to reiterating the most basic fact of submission, so I’ll just go over it quickly right now. You are going to get rejected. You are going to get rejected a lot. You’re definitely not going to end up with your first choice of agent. Your first choice might not even ask to see your book. You’re going to have a whole folder full of rejections. You will be able to subsist entirely on rejections for a year.

This gets reiterated so much in publishing because successful authors don’t want to see burgeoning authors be crushed beneath the weight of a thousand rejections. I’m going to take it on good faith that everyone here has been listening to those warnings and knows that rejection is a reality of submission. Instead of just telling you you’re going to get rejected (you are definitely going to get rejected), I thought I’d provide some actual advice for dealing with it.

Prepare your next submission, or series of submissions, before you get rejected from your current ones. Have your agents chosen and researched and your queries written and prepared. If you’re submitting by mail, have your envelope stamped and sitting by the mailbox. If you’re submitting by email, have the finished query waiting in your drafts. And then when you get your rejections, just send off the next batch.

And then start working on the one after that.

Do this no matter what! Even if you got a request for more. Even if you got a request for a full manuscript. I found that so long as I had that next name on the list ready to go, the rejections didn’t hurt nearly as much. I’d been expecting them and I was already in the midst of moving on.

I still have a draft saved for the agent I was intending to query after Caitlin. Thankfully, I’ll never have to send it. But if Caitlin hadn’t signed me and it had just been another rejection, it would have been easy to just click “send” and continue down the list.

5. Literally any feedback is good feedback.

I had a couple requests for more material during my submissions year. All, of course, were ultimately rejections except the last. But in one case, I really thought I had it in the bag. It was with one of the agents that I’d had my eye on from the start, and shortly after submitting my query, I received a request for sample chapters. And after those, a request for the full manuscript. Having come that far, I was sure I was going to get it. But ultimately, it was a pass.

My rejection letter came with a personalized PS from the agent in question. She said that while she loved my story and my ideas, my actual writing was too immature and rough. Once I took some more time to get more practiced in the craft, or workshopped the book thoroughly, I should submit to her again.

Ouch.

At the time, I was pretty shook up about it. A publishing professional just told me that my writing was bad. The one thing in the world that I’d always considered myself really good at. I have to admit, I didn’t send my next submission right away. I needed some time to grieve after that one.

But I realized something while I was feeling sorry for myself. That agent was very high profile, with a lot of clients who are personal idols of mine. Her slush pile probably looks like my hometown.

on second thought, let's not get pizza.
on second thought, let’s not get pizza.

She didn’t need to do anything other than send that form letter and continue. She took time out of her extremely busy schedule to tell me what she did. It wasn’t to make me feel inadequate. It was to come alongside and offer me a hand up.

She was right, by the way. I’d let a lot of weak writing slip by in the first part of the version I was submitting. I still felt too attached to it. I went back in there and hacked it to pieces. Got it shipshape. I was too embarrassed to resubmit to her even though she’d told me to… but I think Caitlin appreciates that I went onwards and upwards, instead.

BONUS: Don’t give up.

Submission sucks. It’s the second worst part of this entire process. It’s emotionally draining. You spend weeks waiting for nothing more than a “no thanks,” and then your reward is getting to do it all over again. You submit, you wait, you get rejected. And after a while it starts to feel like you’d be better off just giving up on this whole thing.

Don’t do it!

You wrote a book. That’s amazing! And someone out there is going to want to sell that book. You just need to keep trying, keep submitting, and never give up. I got down sometimes, too. Weeks would go by where I wouldn’t send my next submissions because I was just burned out on the whole process, sure that I was going nowhere. But I was going somewhere after all, and the place I ended up at is great. The next query you send could be just another rejection… or you could find your Caitlin. So keep going!

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