Two years ago when I finally “finished” my novel, I did a little dance. Then I immediately launched into a series of embarrassing mistakes that still make me want to bury my head in the sand just thinking about them.
I’m going to share those with you now, with the hope that you might avoid them. So if you have a draft so fresh there’s still steam rising off it, put that cinnamon bun away in a drawer somewhere until it’s had time to congeal. And read this. Trust me, you can wait.
Mistake #1: Believing One Revision Was Enough
My thought process, as I held several dead trees’ worth of paper covered in my words, went like this.
I spent, like, two years on the first draft, right? Then I spent a whole year taking it apart and putting it back together. And then I spent a summer making all the pieces fit together. After that I’d even gone to the trouble of editing for grammatical errors.
If I’d spent so much time on this project, that had to mean that it was ready to go, right? There was no way that I could do anything else to it. It was done. My brain hurt just thinking about peeling back any more layers of the manuscript. The thing was finished, and I was ready.
So, I picked my first agent and sent my first query letter. I knew that a lot of very famous writers had faced a lot of rejections, but I had this deep-down belief that what I’d written was special. I am a good writer. I have mad skills. And I’d worked on it for such a long time.
That first rejection letter, as much as I’d expected it, came as a soul-crushing blow. It hurt a whole lot more than I ever thought it would.
The next twelve rejection letters just made me feel worse. And I got not a single request for my manuscript. During this time, I’d been reading up on the query process, and I’d started to realize just how far off course I’d drifted. My manuscript was coming in at 120k words, when it needed to be closer to 90k. It contained heaps of passive voice. Adverbs everywhere.
I stopped querying, and I went back to work. I read a couple of books on how to revise a manuscript, I bought some colorful pens and highlighters, and I revised again. I mercilessly slashed pages. I changed showing to telling. I found better verbs, I carved out better dialogue. And I researched my genre, I listened to agents.
Two years later, I’m sending queries again. I just received a rejection letter last week that made me cry, but this time with joy. The agent complimented me on how much work I’d put into my manuscript. Even though they weren’t the right agent, they still appreciated that extra time I’d taken to make it right.
I can’t take back those query letters I sent for a manuscript that wasn’t ready. But I can learn from the mistake, and present my writing in the way it deserves to be presented. Clean, well-crafted, carefully edited.
So, while your manuscript is cooling off, read some books on revising. Then pull out a red pen, gather your courage and your grit, and get back to work. You’ll be very glad you did.
Mistake #2: Failing to Learn the Blurb
I’d just finished writing a whole novel, not just once, but twice. Obviously, I was a good writer. I could write anything. That query letter would be no problem.
I did some Google searches and found some examples. Within a few hours, I typed up my letter. I didn’t like it a whole lot, but I figured the agents would get the point. The next day, I sent that mess out into the world, confident that the samples from the novel would speak for themselves.
I needed an overbearing mentor to come slap the back of my head, you guys.
Agents are drowning in query letters. Do not hobble your manuscript by sending out a bad one.
I came back from my string of rejections battered and ready to study. While I worked on my revisions, I looked everywhere for resources on query letters. For some reason, nothing that I read seemed to help. I kept re-writing, getting closer one step at a time, but I didn’t have a moment of sudden understanding.
Then I started reading book blurbs. Those little summaries on the back cover, or on the flaps of dust jackets. And that’s when the light bulb went on.
Those lovely little blurbs are designed to quickly set up the conflict, make potential readers ask questions, and leave them wondering what happens next. When you read a good blurb, it makes you want to sit down and start reading. Right now. That’s exactly what a query letter needs to do.
I read the blurbs of books I loved, and the blurbs of books I loathed, and the blurbs of books I’d never read before. When I’d absorbed the language, the style, the little rules, I re-wrote my query letter. I read it aloud. I made some changes.
Now, when I read my query letter, even I start to wonder, “What happens next? How does it all turn out? Do they achieve their goal?” It has energy and zip.
If you’re still writing your manuscript, then I recommend you start making yourself a blurb expert now. If you’re ready to query, then hold back a little until you’re familiar with this art form. It is radically different from the skills needed to write that novel.
Then, make your query letter something that you’re proud to send to agents.
Mistake #3: Not Understanding My Genre
Oh gosh, you guys. This one is tough for me to confess.
All that time I spent writing my science fiction novel, I didn’t read any new science fiction. I read Jane Austen. I read some hilarious fantasy by Terry Pratchett. I read JK Rowling. I read Stephen King. I read a ton of blogs and books about parenting. I read about knitting, gardening, and sewing. I read Hunger Games, and (oh, the shame) I even read Twilight.
But every time I walked into the Science Fiction section at the bookstore, I listlessly picked up a couple of books, put them back, and walked away. I’m blushing right now just thinking about it. What in the name of the space-time continuum made me think I could write and query a science fiction novel without reading in the genre?
“All this stuff is just the same old thing I’ve read before,” I thought.
“What I’m working on is so different,” I thought.
Years later I started investigating the new books, only to find that all these new and exciting things were happening in science fiction. I read Ancillary Justice, and was blown away by its handling of AI, collective intelligence, and gender. I couldn’t believe how much I’d missed.
Catching a few shows on SyFy channel was not enough. I discovered just how much I needed to read in my genre, not just to learn what was going on, but for my own enjoyment.
So, avoid that horrifying moment when you read something that’s almost exactly like the novel you just spent years spilling blood, sweat, and tears on. Read, read, read. Stephen King would back me up on this one. As would every other successful author out there.
Mistake #4: Failing to Research Agents
I get half-credit for this one, at least. I did not address my query letters “Dear Sir/Madam”, or “To Whom it May Concern”. I did check to make sure the agents I queried represented my genre. I did look at what the agents required as part of the query. These are all good steps and things you should definitely do.
In the past two years I’ve spent working on my manuscript, however, I’ve learned that there’s a whole lot more I could have done.
I’ve followed literary agents on social media platforms. I’ve listened to them speak at conferences via Manuscript Academy and on YouTube. Listening to them has radically altered the way I view their work, for the better.
The literary agents I queried were hard-working people, passionate about books, seeking novels that they loved enough to represent. They didn’t send rejection letters because I am a terrible writer, or because they just “didn’t get it”, or because they feast on the crushed dreams of weeping authors. They sent rejection letters because many of them received hundreds, hundreds, of other queries just that week, and as much as they would like to see authors get published, they could only do so much.
Agents are not all-powerful dragons that an author must wrestle into submission before riding it to that gleaming golden castle in the land called Published Author. Agents are more like gentle unicorns, to be coaxed and encouraged, treated with respect, more partner than enemy.
Now I follow agents on social media. I don’t just look at the list of genres they represent on their agencies’ web-pages, I search for articles they might have written about the genre, interviews they’ve done, and books they’ve fought to get on shelves. I read what they have to say about the industry until I come to view them as whole and complete human-beings, who believe in the power of words as much as I do.
A caveat: don’t be creepy. Or a suck-up. Just be nice.
When I send queries now, I remember that I’m writing a letter to a person. Someone who has sacrificed her time and energy sifting through hundreds of queries, passionately promoting clients, and reading every hour of the day for the love of books. Maybe, just maybe, my book.
Mistake #5: Believing This Book is IT
When I started my queries, I believed that my whole self-worth hinged on getting that book published. That the last two years of my life were wasted unless it found an agent and ended up on the shelves.
It turns out that the world kept spinning. I didn’t get an agent, but there are still things I’ve done that I can think of with pride.
One of my regrets, however, is how much of a wreck I was during that query process. I was anxious and moody. I went into an emotional tail-spin every time I got another rejection. I couldn’t see the mistakes I was making through the desperation that I felt.
“If I don’t get this book published now, I’ll never be a writer.”
“I’ve wasted so much time working on this!”
Guess what? If you’ve written a book, you’re a writer. And guess what else? If you enjoy writing and you want to get better at it, no amount of time you spend working on it is wasted.
I probably would have thrown my pen at anyone who suggested this to me at the time, but it’s not the end of the world if this book doesn’t get an agent, or isn’t published. It is possible – and past-self, you should pay attention to this – that in order to crack into the industry, you will have to write another, entirely different book.
Don’t panic. Take a deep breath. This is not as awful as it sounds. This is, in fact, a brilliant opportunity.
All that stuff you’ve learned writing the first book is going to make your second one so much stronger. So, while you’re sending out queries for that first book, go work on the first draft of second book. Fall in love with some new characters and a new story. It will make the time go faster, it will make your writing stronger, and it will give you more options if that first book doesn’t find a home.
Above all, remember that the book you’re querying is not the end of your journey. It is just one part of a wild and surprising trip.
Knowledge Is Power
I have some really valid excuses for why it took me so long to write and revise my books. I have lived in five different states in the last five years, and had two children. I should probably consider it a miracle I finished a novel of any kind, let alone made five rounds of revisions.
There is no excuse, however, for sending an unfinished manuscript to a literary agent. Or a shoddy query letter. There’s no excuse for failing to read, research, revise, and edit.
“But I don’t have time for all that!” cries me-from-the past.
You wouldn’t put some half-raw chicken in front of guests just because it had been in the oven a long time, right? I didn’t think so. Then don’t send agents something that isn’t fully baked. They deserve better. Your manuscript deserves better. And yes, getting it right means more time. But it’s better to spend some time getting it right than to waste a ton of time getting rejection letters because of problems you had the power to fix.
There are things in publishing you can’t control. You can’t make agents like your concept, you can’t conjure up a market for your book out of nothing, you can’t predict the trends. But you absolutely can give your manuscript a fighting chance. You can revise again. You can find time to read. You can give the industry your very best.
Don’t be discouraged by how long it takes. If writing is what you’re passionate about, then it will be worth it. Look at how far you’ve come, what you’ve learned so far, how much work you’ve done. If you made it through all that and you are still telling stories, then you owe it to yourself to represent that manuscript well.
I hope this list is helpful! Also, I’m sure that I’m making more advanced mistakes in my queries even as I write this. If you have any missteps that you’d like to share, let me know!
And finally, here are some resources that I’ve found helpful in this learning process.
The Secret to Writing a Successful Query Letter by literary agent Andrea Somberg.
A great database of literary agents, with information about what kinds of manuscripts they’re looking for, Manuscript Wish List. I could read tweets about what agents want to read all day long.
On Writing: A Memoir of Craft by Stephen King is a great resource for any writer at any phase of the process.
Above all, don’t give up. Keep learning. Keep writing what you love.