INTERVIEW WITH KRIS ASSELIN, aka THE QUERY GODMOTHER

If there’s anything you should have learned from this blog, it’s that the world of publishing is more of a jungle than a fairy tale. If you want your work to get noticed by an agent or a publisher, you’re going to have to craft a crack-a-lackin’ query letter.

But with agents recieving hundreds of query letters every day, how can you ensure that your pumpkin bursts into the carriage that wisks you away to that not-so-distant land of literary success?

Fear not, friends! That’s why we have people like Kris Asselin to aid us.

Kris is considered a “query expert”—that is, she’s had so much experience with this process, she now uses her expertise to help other authors. 

I began querying in 2016, knowing nothing about the process or how to properly form a query letter. After seven months of rejection, research, and utter despair, I stumbled across Kris’s website by chance when reading an article she had written for WriteOnCon. After learning of her frustrations, her triumphs, and her overwhelming desire to help other authors, I hired her for a full review in February, 2017.

After having my query letter, synopsis, and opening pages critiqued, I received one partial request, seven full manuscript requests, and two full offers. I was even awarded “Best Pitch” by agent Melissa Jeglinski at the 2017 Atlanta Writer’s Conference.

Not too shabby, eh? Trust me—this lady knows what she’s talking about. If she didn’t, I wouldn’t feature her on this comopletely unbiased, non-commerical, and utterly ad-free blog.

Recently, I’ve been seeing a lot of internet frustration over query letters: What they are, how to compose them, and how to make them good. I asked Kris for an interview on the subject, and she graciously accepted.

And so (Drumroll, pease!), without further ado, an interview with Kris Asselin: 

KA: Thank you so much for having me, Hannah! I’m so happy for you—and I’m so glad I could help you in some small way on your journey to publication.

Querying is often the most stressful part of this process, and I hope I can shed a bit of light on it today! As people might know from my website, I started querying agents in 2010. After more than 150 query letters, I’m now happily signed with Kathleen Rushall of Andrea Brown Literary Agency. In the fall of 2013, I signed with Bloomsbury Spark for my debut young adult novel, ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT, which came out in April 2015 as a digital only novel. I’ve recently rereleased AWYSI in print with small press Wicked Whale Publishing. 

HK: Believe methe honor is all mine! How do I know when I’m ready to query?

KA: Tough question because as you know, you can keep tinkering ad nauseam. So, at some point, you need to stop yourself. A good rule of thumb is to have a good critique group—when they say you’re ready, trust them. Also, don’t worry if you happen to query too soon—most authors have. If you feel like you need to make some revisions after you’ve sent out a few queries, just don’t send any more. Make your revisions, and then start again.

HK: What components should my query include?

KA: Your query letter should be no more than three or four paragraphs. The first paragraph typically includes the word count, title, and genre of your book, the reason you queried that agent, and a “hook” about your book—a tag line or one-sentence pitch. Second/third paragraph is a short blurb (think back cover) about your book that doesn’t give away the ending, but tells the reader some basic things about the protagonist, his or her journey, and what the stakes are.

HK: Glad you mentioned stakes. I LOVE stakes. They slay vampires and make things interesting. What distinguishes a good query from a bad one?

KA: For me, a good query is specific, but doesn’t give away the ending—my suggestion would be to read a lot of back cover copies. You’ll start to get an idea of what the body of the query should be. The sole purpose of the query is to get the agent to request pages. 

HK: How long should my query be?

KA: No more than one page—three or four paragraphs, or no longer than 250 words.

HK: *jaw drops pathetically* So you’re saying my query should be 250 words? But, Kris, my book is 120,000 words! How am I supposed to summarize my entire book?

KA: This is probably the hardest thing to do in your query. You want to take the main plot and synthesize it down to the most important elements. Leave out backstory. Leave out subplots. Who is your MC, and what is his/her goals/problems?

HK: How much of the story do I need to tell in my summary?

KA: You don’t have to tell the whole story. You don’t have to give backstory or motivation. You should never tell the ending (as opposed to a synopsis, where you always tell the ending).

HK: Should I do something “edgy” to get an agent’s attention?

KA: The most important thing to remember about a query letter is that it is a business letter.[1] It’s your introduction to an agent or editor, so you want to keep all business. Edgy *might* catch someone’s eye, but it might not be for the right reasons.

HK: What catches an agent’s eye?

KA: I can’t stress this enough. Good writing catches an agent’s eye. Good writing. You shouldn’t need gimmicks if the writing is there.

HK: What is a “hook,” and why is it important?

KA: The hook is usually in the first paragraph of your query and gives the agent an idea of what they are about to read. It can also double as a twitter pitch, if it’s short enough. It’s a one-sentence synopsis of the plot. For example, our hook/pitch for ART OF THE SWAP is “Two girls trade places in time to solve a legendary art heist across two centuries!”

HK:  Intriguing! I won’t touch time travel with a ten-foot pole, but that sentence hooked me. So what are comp titles, and how should I use them?

KA: Comp titles show the agent that you’ve done some market research. You might liken yourself to the writing style of another author, or liken your themes to another book recently published. I would suggest staying away from huge best sellers as comp titles. Definitely don’t say, “My book is the next Harry Potter.”[2]

HK: How much information should I include about myself?

KA: Remember, this is a business letter. Include any relevant publications you’ve had, any relevant educational experience, or any awards you’ve won. Include organization affiliations if they are relevant (SCBWI or RWA). Don’t include personal information about kids or grandkids, or other irrelevant information.

HK: What mistake do you see querying authors make the most?

KA: The biggest mistake I see on a regular basis is authors not giving specific enough detail—you need to include the things that make your book unique to you. Also, I see a lot of clichés. Something like: “She had to make a decision that would change both of their lives forever.” There’s nothing there that’s specific about anything.

HK: Yea, that’s pretty ambiguous. Sounds a lot like the trailer for the latest TRANSFORMERS movie. So I’ve been querying for a long time, and I’m getting discouraged. When should I give up?

KA: It sounds harsh, but write the next book. So many authors get signed on their second or third novels, not their first. Write something new and start querying again.

HK: You’ve written queries, battled through the query trenches, and helped countless authors achieve their dreams. If you could give new, querying authors one piece of advice, what would it be?

KA: Don’t give up. Keep writing as long as you love it. Keep practicing your craft.

Go to conferences/workshops if you can. Join a critique group. The old adage that it takes 10,000 hours is true for writing as well—keep at it!

HK: Thank you so much for your time and sagacious insight, Kris! I’m going to go chew on the whole “not including my grandkids” part…

FIN.

Check out Kris’s website and her services at www.querygodmother.com. It worked for me.

kris

[1] HK: HA! Told you so. See “Your Query Letter and You” for a discussion on this topic and some really bad umbrellas.

[2] HK: Again—told you so.

Photo Credit: @aaronburden

YOUR QUERY LETTER AND YOU

OR

THE LOVE-HATE RELATIONSHIP THAT MIGHT DEFINE YOUR WRITING LIFE

Unbeknownst to most readers, there is a world hiding behind each and every book—a world of sales, haggles, and six-figure deals. No matter how wonderful a book is, literary marketing is anything but magical. Those who are in the process of sending out their proposals are often referred to as authors “in the query trench,” a not-so-tactful reference to the mucky bombardments of the First World War.

There is a reason for this. While trying to sell your book may not put you in any physical danger (Of course, I’m assuming you’re not going to such extremes as John Toole.), the frustration, rejections, revisions, and desperate scrambles to gain inches of progress can be overwhelming.

Writing a book is hard, but in my experience, selling a book is much harder.

When you feel that your book child is ready to take the stage, the first thing you need to think about is a query letter.

“And what, precisely, would that be?” you ask.

Good question—the exact same question I asked when I began my journey. I simply Googled “how to sell a book” and was handed the most banal, overarching bullet points I could have hoped for.

“Yippee!” I said to myself. (I am, after all, a bullet point enthusiast.) “This is a simple, step-by-step process! I simply write to an agent, tell her I have a best-selling book, and then wait for the bulldozers to dump piles of money on my front lawn!”

Alas, those were the days of innocence.

To write a book, you must be a dreamer. To sell it, you need to be something of a realist.

When I say that the query letter is a business proposal, I’m not exaggerating: You’re an entrepreneur looking for support, and you pitch your idea to someone who has the resources (agent/publisher) to make your business (your book) a reality. You offer a portion of your proceeds with the understanding that the partnership will be mutually beneficial.

Your query letter should include three things: a summary of the book, a description of the book, and a bit about the author. Let’s break it down.

THE SUMMARY

This is perhaps the most difficult part of your query letter. Yes, your book may be 120,000 words, but you’ve got to summarize it in 250.

You heard me right: 250.

A query letter should be around 300 words, and it should never be more than a page. That includes the book description and an author introduction, so you’re going to have to wrap that summary up tighter than a pair of hippie pants.

Parsimony takes practice. Practice, practice, and more practice. I wrote close to fifty different versions of my query letter before my agent finally said yes. Don’t fret if your query takes more time than your actual manuscript. That’s normal.

When thinking about how you’re going to summarize your plot, you should ask yourself three questions: Who? What? and What?

Who is the protagonist?

What does he want?

What is keeping him from getting what he wants?

Let’s have an example: Chippy the Pony.

Chippy the Pony is a roguish Shetland who lives high in the French Alps.

Chippy wants to win first prize at the May Day Fair.

BUT

Evil Farmer McKnack-Knack, who holds a grudge against Chippy for tromping through his cabbage patch, is the judge of the contest.

Hero. Desire. Obstacle. Batta-bing, batta-boom.

Of course, that’s not all you need to include. A good summary has more than just an outline of the plot—its got stakes. Personally, I don’t care if Chippy finds a way to move Evil Farmer McKnack-Knack past his petty, pony-pejorative grudge. So what if Chippy doesn’t win? No skin off my back.

Let’s add some stakes, shall we?

Chippy is a roguish, fun-loving Shetland who wants to win first prize at the May Day Fair so that he can use the prize money to stop the foreclosure on the orphanage. But there’s just one problem: The judge of the contest is Evil Farmer McKnack-Knack, who still blames Chippy for the destruction of his cabbage patch. Will Chippy be able to play the xylophone, balance a bowling pin on his nose, and warm McKnack-Knack’s cold heart? Or will the orphans be left out to freeze?

We’re playing a game of “if-then.” If this happens, what follows? (Chippy wins the money and saves the orphanage.) If it doesn’t happen, what are the consequences? (All the orphans will die of hypothermia.)

Much more interesting, mais non?

Note that your query summary will differ from your full summary. A full summary is exactly what the name implies: It summarizes the entire thing. In a query summary, you don’t have to (and shouldn’t) give away the ending. The query summary above leaves us wondering if Chippy will prevail. If I were doing a full summary, I would reveal that (most unfortunately) Chippy slips on a lettuce leaf, breaks his neck, and is unable to participate in the May Day Fair.

THE DIRTY DETAILS

If you’re selling a product, you should do your best to lay out a description of that product. When shopping for an acquisition, agents usually like to see word count, genre, and comp titles. A “comp title” is simply a comparative title you include to give the agent a better taste of what you’re about. It is good practice to use recent releases (i.e., don’t go comparing your book to The Canterbury Tales) and to avoid saying things like, “This is the next Harry Potter!” or “This book is gonna end up as successful as The Da Vinci Code!”

When I’m using comp titles, I try not to compare myself to other authors and pick a particular aspect of my book to focus on. For instance, I’ll say that my book has “the madcap humor of Nimona” or “the twisted thrills of The Eighth Day Series.” I’m not saying that I write like Noelle Stevenson or Dianne K. Salerni, but that there are attributes in their works that are comparable to mine. When giving my elevator pitch (30-second summary), I described one of my books as “Artemis Fowl meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

AUTHOR INTRODUCTION 

It doesn’t matter if it is your first or fifth published work. When presenting your book, you also want to present a little bit about yourself. If you have credentials in the literary world (i.e., you’re a librarian, you’ve won awards, you have a degree in Russian Literature), include them. If your book somehow relates to your personal experiences, don’t hesitate to point out how you and only you are qualified to write such a story. Author Katherine Blakeney is an excellent example. Katherine is an archaeologist by day, and her science fiction revolves around extraterrestrial digs. You’d better bet money she included that in her query. Who better to write about excavating aliens than an archaeologist?

Even if your book does not directly relate to your credentials, it’s always nice to include something about yourself. Give the agent an idea of who you are and why you wrote the book. Make it personal.

Agents are not just looking for books—they’re looking for savvy, marketable authors.

When you put all of these things together, you’ll have something that resembles a decent query letter. Your first draft will not be the draft you send. Your tenth, twentieth, or even hundredth may not be ready.

When you think your query is locked and loaded, I suggest that you send it out for critiques. There are numerous critique groups on the internet (Agent Query Connect is one of my personal favs), and by reading other queries, you’re bound to improve.[1]

Another option is to hire an agent to help you. Query critiques can range anywhere from $50-$200, and the money may be well-spent, depending on your situation. I can say with all confidence that the best investment I made was having my query critiqued by Kris Asselin, aka, THE QUERY GODMOTHER. Normally, I’m not one who advertises in the middle of a blog post…

But my agent responses quadrupled after hiring Kris.

Sometimes, you just need a little help.

I will never say that I’m a query expert (That’s Kris’s title, after all.), but I will share with you the query that got me my book deal. Is it the best query ever? Most certainly not. Is it better than what I started with? Oh, yeah.

As you read, make yourself a mental checklist:

  • Who is the hero?
  • What does he want?
  • Who/what is opposing him?
  • What happens if he fails to get what he wants?
  • How long is the book?
  • What genre is the book?
  • What are the comp titles?
  • What do we know about the author?

Dear Agent,

Based off your call for spooky middle grade and a strong female voice, I hope you’ll consider SKIN AND BONES, a 40,000-word horrific retelling of HANSEL AND GRETEL for middle grade readers. In the scrumptious, thrilling style of GOOSEBUMPS, this book merges the chills of Mary Downing Hahn with the twisted, fairy tale terrors of CORALINE.

Meat is murder. At least, that’s what twelve-year-old vegetarian Raine Foxworthy thinks.

But Raine isn’t sure what to think when her neglectful foodie parents drag her along for a family vacation at L’Hotel Sanable, a luxury resort specializing in reuniting estranged families. Raine, accustomed to disappointments and an empty apartment, is enchanted by the hotel’s accommodating (albeit strange) program. While the parents enjoy all the boring, adult features the resort has to offer, the children are taken to “the pasture,” an isolated wonderland of games where nursemaids stand by with mountains of good things to eat. The tight-lipped hotel staff caters to Raine’s every whim, and the charming hotel manager, Madame Ingrid Mastanotti, promises the children anything and everything they want.

The Sanable is a picture of perfection. So why can’t Raine shake the feeling that something’s wrong?

When children from the pasture start going missing, Raine grows suspicious. She doesn’t understand why the staff insists on regular weigh-ins, and no one will tell her where “long pig”—the succulent, renowned mystery meat the hotel claims as a specialty—comes from. Raine escapes the pasture to find out for herself, only to discover that the truth may be more than she can stomach.

Madame Mastanotti has developed a taste for a sweeter type of meat, and she’s brainwashed the parents into an affinity for her cannibalistic culinary creations. Armed with her wits and a few card tricks, Raine must puzzle her way through the horrific hotel labyrinth to find her parents and save her own skin—before she ends up next on the menu.

When I was a child, I walked in on my pet hamster devouring her babies and promptly concluded there was nothing more terrifying than being eaten by one’s own parents. Childhood trauma aside, I am also a professional storyteller in America’s most haunted city.

Thank you so much for your time and consideration.

It’s not bad, but it’s definitely not the best. To get a better idea of what works, I would highly suggest studying both successful and unsuccessful query letters, both of which can be found on Janet Reid’s blog, queryshark.blogspot.com.

Go to Agent Query Connect. Go to Query Shark. Review them closely, and learn from other authors’ triumphs and mistakes.

            The ultimate tragedy is a good book doomed by bad marketing.

If you have ever watched an episode of Shark Tank, you can see how a great idea can flop when presented poorly. You may have the most splendiferous novel in the world, but until you can convince someone to give it a chance, you’re not getting anywhere.

Whatever your book is about, let’s hope that you pitch it better than rentable umbrellas.

Want to know more about querying? Stay tuned to THE NEWBIE AUTHOR for an interview with Kris Asselin—the Query Godmother herself.

[1] For more querying resources, please see the “RESOURCES” tab.

IGNORE THE DISNEY CHANNEL

For being such free thinkers, the Disney Channel, Dove Chocolates, and D.H.T. all seem to have an opinion about how I’m living my life. And, for being such radically free thinkers, they all seem to be saying the same thing: Listen to your heart.

Whether “he’s calling for you,” you really want to eat more chocolates, or you’re a teenage mermaid being called back to the sea (Door prize for anybody who can name the movie in the comments section.), there is a dubious message weaving itself into the threads of our cultural fabric. It’s a message of tolerance, freedom, and the liberty of expression. It’s a message of courage, faith, and self-reliance.

While the “listen to your heart” movement has given us all the warm fuzzy of empowerment, can we go ahead and be honest with ourselves? Do we dare to peel back the veneer?

“Listen to your heart” is a very euphemistic way of saying, “Do what you want.” Do what feels right. If it’s sloggin’ through your noggin, it has obviously bubbled up from that thumping muscle in your chest that (somehow) dictates all notions of morality and nobility.

For an author, this translates very simply: Write what you want to write. Write what makes you feel good. Write what makes you proud.

And I agree. Write the way you want to write. Never let anyone tell you what style works best for you or how you can steamroll your way to success.

However… (How can we have a blog post without a big ol’ “whatever?”) Turn your face from the Disney-esque simulacrum, if only for a moment, and acknowledge that purity of heart does not translate to marketability.

“But Hannah!” you cry. “For shame! You blathering trollop, you’re saying that I should sell out the dream in my heart for something that sells?”

Yes. And no.

This is a touchy subject for authors—a subject I, to be honest, have not yet stomached in its entirety. While it is true that your best writing will be the writing you love—writing that is true to yourself—there is something to be said for “da rules.”

Of course, rules are made to be broken. “Middle grades cannot be more than 70,000 words,” they said. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets comes bursting on the scene at 85,000. “BDSM/blatant domestic abuse is far too egregious to sell mainstream.” Enter, 50 Shades of Gray.

Certainly, being creative and shaking up the game can yield incredible payouts. That’s the concept of gambling, mais non? Big risks for big rewards. Writing a book, regardless of its attributes, is a risk. It’s a risk to query—a risk to sign and sell. But, just like gambling, there are things you can do to load your odds.

Like anything else in life, all “surefire formulas” fall through. Just because you write something avant-garde does not mean that it won’t sell. Just because you follow a “market formula” doesn’t mean that it will. However, biddies and mavericks alike, there is something to be said for knowing your audience.

When I first began writing, I had no concept of genre or marketing. I would never say that my first endeavors were a waste of time, but they certainly did teach me a lot about what I was doing wrong. Needless to say, the book didn’t sell, and I can easily identify two big rookie mistakes.

Firstly, the novel wrapped itself up at 400,000 words. (To put things in perspective, that’s almost twice as long as The Shining.) My audience was young adult readers. Had I done my research, I would have discovered that most young adult novels range anywhere from 85-120,000 words with the 120 on the far side of acceptable. To expect that my audience would sit down to read it, much less heft such a tome off the shelf, was mental.

Secondly, I started marketing it as a “thriller.” I went on Writer’s Digest and researched every single agent that represented the genre, only to be bombarded with a mountain of rejections. Later, after many tears and angry flash dances, I realized that my book was more Suzanne Collins than Dan Brown. I had been querying in the wrong genre the entire time! My book fit better as an “urban fantasy” or a “post-apocalyptic noir,” and had I dug more into agencies that represented those genres, perhaps I would have had better luck.[1]

Lesson learned? You need to look at your book as a product. It has to fill a market need, and it has to do it well—better than the competition. You may want to write a 300-page, time-warping behemoth in twelve different POV’s, [2] but is that going to be something that your audience wants to read? If you’re writing middle grade fiction, can you really expect parents to buy your book for their children if it begins with a racy sex scene?

There’s a lot to be said for marketing your book correctly. If you’re writing about little men with fuzzy feet, you probably shouldn’t pitch it as a memoire. If you’re recounting your sordid history in Amsterdam, you probably shouldn’t query an agent who represents children’s books.

My advice, when thinking about how to write the book you want to write, is to find books of similar taste. Research authors who did well and study them closely. How long are their books? Who is their audience? What is their plot structure, and how did they pace the story? What about dialogue? Violence? Action? Who agents that author, and what publisher picked them up?

To be a good writer, you have to be a great reader.

Consider it training. “Research,” of sorts. By studying someone better than you, you’re bound to get better yourself. Why do you think dancers still insist on exhuming Michael Jackson?

Before I write any middle grade fiction, I study up on my favorites: J.K. Rowling, Cornelia Funke, and Neil Gaiman. By studying “good” authors (Arguably, some of the best.), I hone my craft. Obviously, these writers create products that their audience loves (Ergo, the commercial success.), so they must be doing something right.

Writing is an art, and art is a study just as much as it is a pratice.

Each Newberry is a professor; each title on the Best Seller List is a textbook. Certainly, no one can condone plagiarism, but the only way to get good is by reading good books.

Keep your own style, and speak in your own voice; but also be ready to listen and learn.

In summation, you should always write what you love. I would go as far as to say that you must write what you love. Write the version you want, how you want it, and then soak up all the satisfaction your masterwork warrants. Writing in a voice that is not your own will never be as good as something true.

However, understand that what you love might not be what sells. Certain genres have certain expectations, and you would do well to study up on the literary market. It’s up to you to find the gossamer line—the line between following the rules and breaking free. I’m not quite there yet. When you arrive, let me know.[3]

Listen to your heart, but proceed with caution.

[1] There are many other reasons why this book isn’t ready, but we’ll delve into those later.

[2] POV: “point of view.” Writing from the perspective of a specific character.

[3] I love getting messages on the CONTACT page! Seriously. Just ask me a random question.

Photo credit: Donovan Reeves

 

WHY MY SECOND DRAFT MAKES ME FEEL LIKE AN AXE MURDERER

I’ve just about wrapped up THE SHINING. Whether you’ve read the book, seen the movie, or neither, you know the film’s most infamous scene: disturbed writer/supernatural alcoholic Jack Torrance has been possessed by an evil hotel and is trying to murder his wife and son. His wife, the bathrobe-clad, resourceful heroine, shrieks in terror as her husband hacks through the bathroom door with a hatchet, his eyes smoldering with madness.

“Little pigs, little pigs, let me come in…”

Let’s get a visual, shall we?

here's johnny

I’m sure you get the picture.

As you may or may not know through my various outlets on social media, I have recently been struggling with something that has never plagued me before.

It has puzzled me. Bamboozled me. Beguiled, bewitched, and utterly beleaguered any hint of progress sparked in the past few weeks. I’m young. I’ve lived a pretty exciting life. Every day brings a new trial, whether that’s being attacked by a wild bull, being invited to a French housewife’s BDSM party (Still not sure what to do about that one.), or cutting part of my finger off.

These past few weeks, I’ve been suffering from writer’s block.

In two years, I’ve written five, full-length novels. Needless to say, being unsure of what to write next has never happened to me before. It certainly wasn’t what I expected from my Midlife Crisis, and it certainly did not happen the way it was supposed to.

I didn’t expect to hit the wall during a second draft.

Let’s rewind to Christmas, 2016. It was a rough year—a horrible year—and I was more than happy to bulldoze it straight out the door. My husband and I decided to spend the holiday in Italy, travelling the country with a group of our closest friends.

Perfect, I said to myself. Rome, Florence, Venice… Everything an author needs to be inspired. Driving from city to city will give me ample time to hash out a plot.

And it did. In less than two weeks, I had a full, working outline for my newest novel. The book was fully written in less than six weeks.

As is my customary practice, I waited over two months to revisit the novel. A long break is good practice; it’s an ample time of separation—time to let go, time to stew. Burying your manuscript for eight weeks ensures that when you pick it back up, you’re actually reading the words from the paper and not from your own head.

For those eight weeks, your book sits in rapt excitement. You wait like a child anticipating Christmas, just imagining how good it is going to feel to finally unwrap all of your hard work and put it on display for the whole world to see. Then, when that day finally comes, you rip open the paper and dive straight into the present you’ve gifted yourself, plunging into the story with the fresh eyes of your future readers.

One of two things happens on the event of the reread: You are either blown away by your genius or sickened by your ineptitude. Unfortunately, mine was the latter.

It sucked.

“Come on now, Hannah,” you say to me. “You’re being hypercritical. You need to stop being so hard on yourself.”

While that might be nice of you to think, I can tell you with merited confidence that you are wrong. Dead wrong. When I say that this novel sucked, I mean it. I’m in 98th percentile of postgraduate writers; I have a degree in English and spend countless hours reading, rereading, and assessing literature. I know bad writing when I see it.

Holy halibut, I said to myself. Holy, macrelling halibut. How could I have ever come up with something like this? And (Let’s make things worse.) how could I have ever thought that it was GOOD?

I was heartbroken. Zombified. Distraught. What could have possibly gone wrong?

I was so ashamed, I hesitated to send it to my critique partner for help.

What does one do with a flaming pile of poo?

The first step was to stop. Breathe. Relax. Remind myself that I can write, that genius is there (somewhere), and that an unpublished draft is not the end of a career that hasn’t even started.

The second thing to do was get really, really frustrated. Rant. Rave. Rage against the dying of the light. It’s okay to be angry and frustrated at yourself; it’s okay to throw around plushy objects and take enraged, five-mile walks to vent your furious energy.

The third thing that I did was the wisest thing I could have done.

I reached out.

I called on other authors. I wrote to my critique partner and unloaded my woes in miserable detail. I phoned my husband and tried to puzzle through the grievous aspects of the plot.

The response I received was overwhelming: Support. Encouragement. Brainstorming sessions and incredible ideas bouncing from left to right. Do you have a writing group? A support system? I’m telling you right now, you’d better get one soon.

The most important resource an author can boast is at least one person who will critique her work with brutish love, indefatigable honesty, and boundless encouragement.

Coleridge had Wordsworth. Hemingway had Gertrude Stein. Don’t take it from me—take it from literary masters.

My husband is a researcher by nature, and he found this little nugget of wisdom from George Saunder:

george saunder

Did you get that?

“Be thunderstruck by how very bad it is.”

First drafts are flaming bags of poo. Always. 100%. Now, your flaming bag of poo might not burn as brightly as someone else’s, but do not field the expectation that everything you write is going to be incredible the first time you write it.

That’s your ego talking, my friend. He probably got the idea from my ego. Sure, looking back at a failed draft is a kick in the pants, but it does keep us humble.

Writing a book is hard. Writing, in general, is very hard. Respect the guild.

On Reddit, boing345brooke asked author John Green (The Fault in Our Stars, Looking for Alaska) to describe his greatest difficulty in writing. Here is how Green responded:

“There’s always a point, usually 20,000 to 30,000 words into a new story, where I realize it’s bad. Like, really bad. And often when I get to that point, I have to abandon the story–which is a bummer, because I’ve spent three or six or twenty months on it, and then I feel like, this was all for nothing! I have wasted all this time!

But then sometimes I will get to that point of realizing the story is terrible, and I’ll think, ‘You know, I think I can plow through to an end here. I think I’ve at least got some idea about the characters.’ And then I make it to the end of the draft a few months later. I’ll still have to delete most of that draft in revision, and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite before I have a book, but if I make it past that point where I realize it’s all bad, I can finish.

And then eventually I will understand that none of the time spent was actually wasted, because I had to puzzle through those stories that couldn’t work to get to the one that could.

So for me the hardest part is accepting when something isn’t working, and letting it go, and starting again.”

Letting go and starting again.

That means accepting that things aren’t going the way you want them to, dealing with it, and then having the courage to step back up to the plate. That may be at 30,000 words—it may be at 90,000. My first novel was a whopping 140,000 words (trimmed) before I decided to put it out to pasture.

Consider your revision to be a rite of passage. It’s a necessary evil—the cruel path to a glorious ending. Every author does it. Stephen King writes for four hours a day. Do you think that everything he types up makes its way into print? Hardly.

Let’s get back to our axe murderer.

What is to be done with that poo of a draft? Well, you’re just going to have to hack it to pieces.

Yes, I know it’s odious. I know it’s cruel and degrading to the X hours you’ve put into your manuscript. “But Hannah!” you cry. “I’m in love with this chapter/character/scene/string of dialogue! I can’t possibly do it in!”

Ask yourself this:

If I murder this chapter/character/scene/string of dialogue, does the ending change?

If the answer to that question is no, it’s probably a darling. And, if the darling has no clout in the book’s finale, you’re probably going to need to kill it.

Every time I head for my second draft, I can’t help but feel a bit like Jack Torrance, stalking his victims through a haunted labyrinth while they plead and scream for mercy. They can’t run; they can’t hide. Eventually, I will find them—each and every useless adverb, flat character, and pedantic description—and I will hack them straight out of existence.

I’ll huff, and I’ll puff, and I’ll blow your house in!

Gristly? Yes. A bit melodramatic? Perhaps. But this is the writer’s world, honey child. Welcome to the jungle.

Finally, I am finished with my second working outline. It’s certainly a Frankenstein of the first, but I think (and my betas agree) that it is much more beautiful than its predecessor. Perhaps it will be hacked to pieces, too. I know that whatever comes of the final project (if anything comes of it at all), it will be starkly different from the first, second, or even the third draft.

That’s normal.

As an author, you must constantly be landscaping your manuscript. Sometimes you prune. Sometimes you snip. Sometimes you hack, stab, or even decapitate drafts. As much as it hurts, you must never be afraid to trim away the mediocre in order to make way for the fantastic.

WHY YOU (MAY) NEED AN AGENT

Agents can be the most elusive, profound, elating and heartbreaking part of the publishing process. They’re the gatekeepers (But are they?), Anubis’s scales—the un-very-much-essential part of making your dreams a reality.

But what is an agent? And do you really need one?

An agent (put simply) is a middleman. Good agents have extensive experience in the literary market and know what kinds of books sell to what publishers to go on and become successful. Many publishers only deal directly with literary agents, and so it is obligatory to be picked up by an agent to sell to that publisher. An agent takes your book in its uncouth, ragamuffin state, refines it, and then whisks it away to sell to publishers. A good agent will not only sell you book, but help you groom your work for the market.

The dream is that your agent not only invests herself in your book, but also in your career as an author. We will delve into the marks of a good agent in a later post, but for now, let’s cover the basics.

While agents in the film industry tend to be hired, literary agents seek authors to represent.  That is, you cannot go out and “hire” a literary agent to sell your book.[1] Agents can only take on so many clients at one time, and are usually “open” or “closed” to queries—that is, authors coming to them seeking representation.

On average, a literary agent will be entitled to 15-20% of your profits. Thus, your agent’s success is directly linked to your own. If an agent does not believe that she can sell your book for a profit, she is most likely not going to pick you up. You have to remember that this is nothing personal; we all have to eat.

Just because an agent says no does not mean that your work is bad, you’re a horrible author, or that you’re the scum of the earth. Often, agents specialize in a certain genre, and if you don’t fit into their niche, they might not be able to work for you as well as they could for someone else. A rejection isn’t an insult; it’s just a way of saying that the book isn’t the right fit. An agent only has so much time in his day, and he may have a family (or a corgi) to feed. Every book ends up being an (estimated) $100,000 investment. If an agent isn’t absolutely in love with your book and willing to fight hordes of ravenous zombies to sell it, it’s not worth the time or effort.

Remember this: Agents needs authors as much as authors need agents. One, twenty, or even one hundred “no’s” does not mean that your next response won’t be a “yes.” There are thousands of agents out there, each one looking to pave the way for the next brilliant masterwork.

Why can’t that book be yours?

“Ok, that sounds cool,” you say. “I very much like the idea an expert doing the peddling for me. It’s pretty expensive to fly to New York and start knocking on doors…so how do I find my agent?”

There are several ways to go about this.

Perhaps, you are talented and marvelous and making oodles of money, and an agent comes searching for you. Perhaps, you are talented and marvelous and have a talented and marvelous friend who recommends you to an agent.

But, most likely, you’re talented and marvelous like the rest of us and have to take the hard road. Strap on your helmet, wolf down some Triscuits, and hike up your pants, my friend. You’re headed to the agonizing, soul-shattering tumult known as “the query letter.”

But what is a query letter, you ask? Good question. Think of a query letter as a business proposal. Most often, it takes the form of an email. You explain who you are (an author with XYZ experience), proffer your product (a brief summary of your book), and why you think you would be a boon to that agent’s repertoire.

We will talk more on query letters later. For now, just ride with the gist.

The author sends the query letter to the agent, waits anywhere from two months to seven years for a reply (The timing depends on the agent.), and then receives one of three replies:

  1. A partial manuscript request. That is, the agent is interested and wants to read more.
  2. A full manuscript request. The agent really likes what she sees and wants to read the whole thing.
  3. A rejection. That is to say: Thanks, but no thanks.

You may get some ones and twos. You’re sure to get a lot of threes. J.K. Rowling got threes. Stephen King got threes. I have my own little bone garden of threes sitting in the deepest chasms of my inbox.

Rejection is inevitable.

No matter what the outcome, here are some basic tips for dealing with an agent:

  1. Be polite. ALWAYS BE POLITE. No matter what an agent says or does not say, you’re only hurting yourself by responding with malice or going off on an internet rant. Like most other human beings, agents do have social circles, and they do talk to one another. Don’t establish a bad reputation for yourself before your book is even published.

In this industry, graciousness can go a long way.

  1. Do your research. Many agents testify that they like to see when an author is querying them for a specific reason. That is, the author knows what genres that agent represents, what she he sold before, and has an idea of how this new book will fit into her acquisition list. Agents usually post what genres they represent on their websites, and you can dig into their recent sales on publishersmarket.com.
  2. If the agent says that he is closed to queries, for the love of Odin, don’t query him. That’s the equivalent of leaning on the doorbell of a house with its lights out on Halloween night.

Treat every submission like a job interview. Before you walk into the boss’s office, you had better know the company you are seeking to work for, what they do, what they specialize in, what the agent specializes in, and why you’re a good fit for the team.

Here is Hannah’s Guide to (Unobtrusively) Staking an Agent:

  1. Go to the company website. Don’t just read the agents’ profile—read the whole site.
  2. Check to see if the agent posts on #mswl.[2]
  3. Check out the agent’s Twitter
  4. Search publishersmarketplace.com to see what the agent has been selling or has sold before.
  5. Read the agent’s submission guidelines.
  6. Reread the agent’s submission guidelines.
  7. Re-reread the agent’s submission guidelines.

Points 5, 6, and 7 are especially important. Nothing peeves me more than someone who cannot follow simple directions that are specifically written and posted directly in front of them. I imagine that it is the same for most agents. Carefully note what the agent is asking for on his personal page. Be careful! It may differ from the company’s submission format!

Send exactly what the agent asks for—no more, no less.

Don’t think that if you send the agent your whole book, she will be so awed and wowed that she will tumble right into it and sign you the next day. If anything, you’re just going to annoy her. You want the agent to be intrigued; you want him to write you back asking for more. Many agents receive over 100 submissions a day. Yes, you want to stand out, but not in the way that makes you the subject of a group email.

Chances are, you’re going to be sending out a lot of query letters. A LOT OF QUERY LETTERS. Trust me when I say that it would behoove you to stay organized. You have many options for this. You can do like I did, meticulously researching on Reader’s Digest and typing for hours to compose your own spreadsheet of names, emails, numbers, and descriptions…

Or, you could just get a FREE ACCOUNT at querytracker.com and let the website do all the work for you.[3]

Don’t get me wrong—I love spreadsheets. I love the meticulous organization, the crisp, clean lines of a grid, and categorizing things alphanumerically by color. However, I do not like spending hours upon hours of my time redoing something that someone else has already done.[4]

My advice? Don’t make the spreadsheet.

Now, onto our second question: Do you need an agent?

Yes. And no.

I ran into my publisher randomly, and I did not wait for an agent to sign on. Could I have been more patient? Yes. Could I have sent out more queries? Yes. Was it a lot of work to negotiate the contract myself? Yes. Did I consume significant quantities of wine while trying to determine which publisher to sign with? Yes.

Waiting for an agent could have been the best or worst decision of my career. There are plenty of authors who are successful without them; there are many who achieve success with them. It all depends on that meddlesome little cat, mais non?[5]

Ultimately, I love my publisher, and I was overjoyed at the deal that they offered me. I wanted to sign with a smaller publisher for personal reasons; the price was right.

Will I succeed in my ventures, starry-eyed and sans agent? Will I actually sell a copy of my book? Will PATEL PATTERSON AND THE APOCCALYPSE KEY go on to be an international best seller? Will people actually want to read a book about ninja nuns, magical sushi-go-rounds, and ticklish dragons?

I guess we’re just going to have to wait and see.

This concludes my agent screed. Note, this is not a post about finding an agent. Don’t worry—we’re getting to that.

In the next few posts, we’re going to dive into the query letter—what it is, what it isn’t, and how to write it. I may or may not have gleaned an exclusive interview with “QUERY EXPERT” Kris Asselin (aka, the Query Godmother), so if you’re battling in the query trenches, you may or may not want to stay tuned.

 

[1] If an agency or agent is demanding a submission fee, it’s a whole different ballgame. Frankly, it’s a scam. You should never have to pay to query an agent.

[2] See the “RESOURCES” tab for more on this invaluable weapon.

[3] I want to gently remind you that you can check out the “RESOURCES” page for all of this information.

[4] Ergo, this blog.

[5] Please see my last post on this.

DOCTORS, DIRTY DEALS, AND CATS

OR

THE ONLY WAY TO SUCCESSFULLY PUBLISH YOUR BOOK

My operations officer is a broad, stocky man with a squared chin and a permanently pursed lip. If his eyes didn’t twinkle, I might have been afraid of him. He looks like he should be grumpier than he is. As a mustang lieutenant commander, he has every right to be.

Every day, he comes into my office (Well, technically, it’s The Commodore’s office, but let’s not get too far into semantics.) with the same look on his face: Haggard. Tried. Fumed. A few years ago, he might have been angry, but he’s far past that, now.

“134 days, Kates,” he says.

“Until what, Sir?”

“Until I retire.”

Everything makes sense. He sets his coffee cup on my desk, and I make a mental note because I know he’s going to forget it before he leaves.

“Congratulations, Sir,” I say. And, trust me, I mean it. “What are you going to do when you get out?”

I expect him to say something like, “Retire to a beach in Zanzibar,” or “Teach goat yoga on my Carolinian family farm,” but he turns to me and says, “I’m going to work for my wife.”

“That’s nice,” I say. “What does your wife do?”

A grin splits his face, and it looks a bit like the crag of a canyon. He obviously can’t help it. “My wife is an author.”

Now, it’s me who wears the memorable expression. I lean over my desk, my ears itching, trying not to seem too eager. “Oh, really? Now that’s fascinating! How did she get her agent?”

The senior officer scoffs and looks down on me like the child who says the black jelly beans are her favorite. “Why in the world would she have an agent?” he says. “She self-publishes. Runs the whole enterprise.”

He must see the look on my face, because he seems to take pity. He makes quick, furtive glances—left, and then right—as if sharing a dangerous secret. His eyes are blazing now. He leans in.

“Listen, Kates,” he says. “Self-publishing is the way to go. My wife writes romance novels. After a year of research, she started running her own brand and now has a multinational enterprise…

“She quit her job as a doctor because she makes more money as a self-published author.”

If he would have been holding a mike, that’s where he would have dropped it.

My operations officer then proceeded to tell me the story of how his wife left her job, applied her “doctor’s brain” to her publishing enterprise, and now makes hundreds of thousands of dollars selling books all over the world.

Self-publishing.

This is not a post about self-publishing. This is a post about self-publishing, traditional publishing, and indie publishing. This is a post about skinning cats, and by the end of this spiel, you will know the best method for publishing your book.

I included the anecdote above because it completely rocked my perspective. When I first started querying, I thought that the only way to be successful was to be picked up by Agent X and sold to Random House for a gazillion dollars. I was naive, completely unaware that there are authors all around the world who are capitalizing on technology and globalization to brand themselves in the cutting-edge evolution of the writing industry.[1]

The writing world may seem cut and dry, but it’s beginning to look more like Silicon Valley than a dusky council of gatekeepers. In this post, we’re going to take a deeper dive into the three categories of publishers and host a little discussion about the pros and cons of each method.

Here are some things you need to keep in mind when considering your method of publication:

  • Market: Who is your audience?
  • Advertising: How does your audience decide what to buy?
  • Distribution: How do you get the product into your audience’s hands?
  • Timeline: How patient are you willing to be? (Months? Years?) Is this a long-term enterprise? A joyride, or a career?
  • Effort: Are you willing to put in the time to learn the business? To puzzle your way through a contract to ensure your interests are guarded? Do you trust someone else to do that for you?
  • Money: Do you have a couple grand saved in case you need to front a bit of the bill?
  • Personal satisfaction. What is going to make you happy? To see your book in print? Or to see it on the NYT Best Sellers List?

And, most importantly:

Efficiency: What will this publisher do for you that you cannot do for yourself?

Now, you must also realize that you really don’t have to “decide” on anything. There are many “hybrid” authors who do a bit of this, a bit of that, and make out like bandits publishing through various methods. “Hybrids” are a shrewd lot; they know what to do with each book and carefully consider how it can best be marketed, whether that be through traditional or avant-garde tactics.

Understand, the “pros/cons” lists that follow are GROSS GENERALIZATIONS of oversimplified categories. By putting down these attributes, I’m not trying to say that ALL traditional publishers will brush you off because you’re a new author or that ALL indie publishers will let you put whatever you want on your cover. I’m not even saying that MOST of these houses hold true to the bullets that follow. These are not labels, but lists of pragmatic, real-time attributes for your consideration.

My friends, this is an overview at 37,000 feet. These lists should spark your brain to the questions you should be asking. It is not meant to stereotype, but to start a conversation about what kind of publisher will work best for you.

Caveat covered. Let’s dive in, shall we?

Traditional Publishing[2]

PROS

  • The biggest boon about traditional publishing is that you have the clout of the publisher behind you. You’re walking in the ranks of big-name writers, hand-in-hand with publishing companies that are household names. You know these people know the business because they’ve been doing it forever. What’s more, if you want to go about selling additional books, being able to say that you were published by a major company certainly doesn’t hurt.
  • You will have security and experience in an agent. The agent, who (let’s hope) knows this business like the back of his/her hand, will be able to go to bat for you between multiple houses and ensure that your book ends up in right place, according to your own interests. A good agent will have the connections and the experience necessary to navigate between publishers and represent you on a much higher level than you would be able to represent yourself.
  • Bigger publishers usually have much broader and solidified distribution channels. You see them in bookstores, libraries, book fairs, etc. much more than you will indie publishers.
  • Bigger publishing houses have more money for marketing.
  • You can rest easy that you have the big publisher’s experience behind you. They are the masters of formatting, editing, and getting your book out into the world because they’ve done it for thousands of others.
  • Publishing with a traditional house can be a time-saver. Bigger houses usually handle things like marketing, editing, and formatting so you don’t have to.
  • You can be sure that these houses have connections in the business. If your book takes off into another medium—audio book, movie, foreign edition, etc.—the big publishers will know how to manage its expansion.

CONS

  • Agent security. What happens if you agent leaves their company? Or quits altogether? Or is suddenly hit by a bus? (I hope that doesn’t happen!) Or can’t sell your book?
  • Newer authors run the risk of getting lost in a big house. Unless your name happens to be “Patterson,” “Rowling,” or “King,” don’t expect to be the Top Priority of Random House. These bigger houses are publishing thousands of books every year, and their goal is to break even with their investment in YOU.
  • Just because the house has a lot of money doesn’t mean that they’re going to spend millions advertising your book. Let’s say you don’t think your publisher is doing enough to market you or that you want additional rights to do your own marketing.

Tough Skittles, Leslie.

Publishing is a business, and you are a widget on the assembly line. If you flop, you flop, no matter how much or how little you think the publisher had to do with it.

  • When you sign your rights over to a larger publisher, don’t get ruffled when they start making changes. Ultimately, they have the final say in edits (Books can lose entire chapters or take a complete shift in genre—whatever the publisher thinks will sell.), the cover art, and the marketing strategy.
  • You are going to pay a gracious chunk of your earnings to both the agent and the publisher.
  • Traditional publishing takes a lot of time and a lot of patience. The process is rife with rejection, and you’re going to take a few personal hits along the way.[3]

 

INDIE PUBLISHING

PROS

  • There are indie publishers you can approach without an agent. That not only streamlines the process, but cuts out the middleman.
  • Since indie publishers tend to be smaller, they can usually afford to give more time and attention to marketing new authors.
  • The publisher may be small, but it is a publisher. You still have the security of a brand—just make sure it’s a solid brand.
  • A good indie publisher will have experience in the market and will be able to navigate the publishing process as dexterously as any big name. As an author, you can take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. You have a team of experienced professionals helping you every step of the way.
  • An indie publisher should take care of formatting, editing, and illustrations. Normally, those costs don’t come out of pocket.
  • The publisher should be able to help you transpose into other mediums like ebooks and audio books.
  • The publisher will take the charge in marketing. That is, they will function like a big publisher and help you craft a marketing strategy, set up appearances, coordinate a blog tour, etc.
  • Smaller publishers tend to me more accessible. If you have any concerns or special requests during the publication process, they may be easier to reach and more likely to listen.
  • Even in a small house, you still have a network of authors who work together to aid and encourage one another. Indie houses tend to have more of a “family” feel.

CONS

  • An indie publisher may not have as much clout. Librarians, bookstores, and other distributors are more likely to buy and stock from names they know and trust. Certainly, you can break that stigma, but it takes a bit of effort to advertise a new name.
  • An indie publisher will still take part of your proceeds.
  • Levels of author control vary by contract. Most likely, the publisher will keep the final say on cover designs, edits, publication dates, etc.
  • An indie publisher may not have as much money to advertise your book.
  • The publisher may require the author to do a bit of work on his/her end in the advertising field, whether that is through appearances, blogs, social media platforms, etc.

 

SELF-PUBLISHING

PROS

  • You glean all of the proceeds from book sales.
  • You retain complete control of your work.
  • You can work on your own timeline and work as little or as much as you want.
  • The book’s publication does not depend on anyone else. There are no middlemen or outside parties at play.

CONS

  • You are doing everything by yourself. That’s marketing, editing, formatting illustrations—the whole shebang. This can be time-consuming, and if you’re not familiar with the process, it will take beaucoup effort to learn how to do it correctly.
  • You have nobody looking over your shoulder—no one else invested in your success. If you make major mistakes in the execution, you are the only one who will suffer. The infamous Amazon “One Star Club” is rife with books reviewed poorly because of editing and grammatical errors.
  • You have no one to guide you. You have to do all of your own research, and you’d better do it well.[4]
  • Self-publishing may require a bit of money for editing and graphic design. (And, YES. You MUST hire a professional editor.)
  • To be successful in the self-publishing business, you must have insatiable DRIVE. Marketing experience doesn’t hurt, either.

Daunting, mais non? This is a lot, for any new or veteran author.

Here is my advice:

Whichever way you decide to publish, take on the business like a self-published author.

Stay hungry. Learn the industry. Study the markets. Understand your contracts. Research your genre. And hustle, hustle, hustle. If you truly believe in your book, go out there and show that to the rest of the world.

No matter what name is on the spine of your book, the author’s name is going to be what sells. I have yet to hear anybody say, “Penguin? I only read books published by Penguin.” And yet, you’ll hear: “Neil Gaiman? I own everything that man has ever written!”

There is only one way to skin a cat: Remove its hide.

In parallel, the only way to successfully publish a book is in such a way that distributes your product to clientele at a market price that makes you oodles of money.

Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

That may be through traditional publishing. It may be through indie, or even self-publishing. Every rags-to-riches story runs its own path; every flop has its own tale to tell. If you figure out a surefire formula for megamillions, just go ahead and send it over via the “CONTACT” page.

I’ll be waiting to hear from you.

 

Photo by Freddie Collins on Unsplash

 

[1] I highly suggest you take a gander at the “RESOURCES” tab and make your way over to Mark Dawson’s “Self-Publishing Formula” podcast. It’ll learn ya a thing or two.

[2] If you have no idea what this is, please go back and read my last post. You’re way behind.

[3] See “THE COLD, HARD TRUTH” for more on this.

[4] Thank Sweet Lucy that the internet is BURSTING with resources…like the “RESOURCES” tab.

Publishers: Who’s Who in the Zoo

Notice, I said “publishers”—not publishing. There’s an important distinction. We’re going to get into the throes of finding a publisher (Don’t you fret, now), but we should cover some basics about the publishing world before getting into the nitty-gritty.[1]

I want to begin by explaining my origins.

I come from the Midwest, a cheery, sylvan sort of place where people uses phrases like, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.” It’s an alarming adage—questionable at best and reprehensible at worst. It makes people wonder if we warm ourselves with the pelts of our domestic companions or if there are bunch of naked cats running along the Mississippi. I’ll be the first to tell you that the phrase isn’t true, nor is the image that just spawned in your head.

There is only one way to skin a cat. To take this gruesome adage just that much further…

There is only one way to successfully publish a book. 

Want the skinny? Stick with me. 

When looking at the publishing world, I divide houses into three different categories: traditional, indie/small press, and self. I will go into the pros and cons of each and what you should be looking for when you finally make your decision; but, to begin, let’s settle on some basic definitions.

Traditional. Traditional publishing is exactly what the name implies: It’s how we’ve always done it.  An author writes a book, queries an agent[2], is signed by said agent, and then waits for that agent to sell their book to a publishing house. What’s special and sacred about this process is that this is how one sells to what’s known as “The Big Six” (Or “The Big Five,” if you count the merger.)—the largest and most well-established names in the business. We’re talking Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins—the ones you can name.

It is widely understood that you cannot offer your book to these large publishers without an invitation to do so. For example, I can’t just shoot an email to Penguin entitled, “How you’re going to make oodles of money” and expect them to come clawing to my doorstep, demanding my masterwork. You either have connections, are approached by the publisher themselves, or go through an agent. We will talk about the pros and cons of this later.

Indie. Indie, or “Independent Publishing,” is anyone or anything that stands apart from the monopolizing conglomerates. They are also known as “small presses,” though that comes with its own brand of ambiguity. (For instance, Bloomsbury—the house that originally published Harry Potter—is a small press, but it is very well-established and functions like a traditional press.) Small presses can be as big as global corporations and as small as an operation in somebody’s basement.

When trying to delineate “traditional” from “indie,” I draw the line at how much control the author possesses. “Independent” publishers can be distinguished by their elasticity. Normally, they are smaller, so they take on fewer clients and give their authors more freedom/responsibility in the publishing process in terms of editing, marketing, and development.

Some indies do everything for the author and function like a Big Six. Others do nothing more than stamp a logo on the back cover.

Traditional versus indie? Clear as mud.

There are hundreds, if not thousands of indie publishers, and each one operates by its own rules. Often, you can approach an indie publisher with a polished query, sans agent. Agents never hurt, though… Or do they?[3]

Self-Publishing

I know what you’re thinking. Stop thinking it.

Stop with the preemptive conclusions. Stop with the biased attitude. Don’t you dare say anything about self-published authors until you’ve read my next post.

Self-publishing is pretty much “self” everything, including “self-explanatory.” The author is controlling the entire process: writing, editing, production, printing, marking, etc. The author may hire tasks to separate parties (i.e., editing, illustrations, face-painting), but the overall power, rights, and licensing remain in the author’s control.

It should go without saying that you don’t have to query anybody or hire any middleman to publish your own book. I am begging you to wait for the next post before you turn up your nose to this one. 

In a nutshell, that’s a nutshell.  

Don’t you worry. We’re going to get to that cat.

In my next post, I’m going to spend beaucoup de time weighing the pros and cons of each method. Then I’m going to tell you which one you should choose because—my dear friend, you really must trust me—there is one way to skin that cat.[4]

 

[1]Notice, I said “basics.” I am not a publisher, nor am I a professional. This post is informed at its best and rigmarole at its worst.

[2] We will go into this later. For now, let’s just say that you pitch your book to a middleman who knows some big people in New York, then the middleman sits at a big table and pitches your book to a big publisher.

[3] More about this later! Jeez. Calm down and go mow the lawn or something.

[4] For the record, I do not condone animal abuse.

Photo by Elmira G. on Unsplash

 

THE BEST-WORST METAPHOR YOU’RE EVER GONNA’ GET

Your book is your child.

There. I said it. That’s the metaphor. Pretty sagacious, huh? It took me a long time to think of that one. I’m going to be using this metaphor incessantly throughout this blog, so I need you to bear with me.

You may agree or disagree with me at first glance, but I’m warning you, if you continue to nurture the stupid thing (i.e., watch it grow, carefully choose its adverbs, spend countless hours worrying about the company of characters it keeps, and finally give it a name), you’ll want to keep it. Or, rather, it will want to keep you.

“But that’s not me, Hannah,” you say. “I’m not a writer! I’m a dabbler—a first-rate master of the puttering arts.”

So you say.

Just you wait, Henry Higgins. Give it enough time. The more time you spend with it, the harder it will be to deny the truth. Novels tend to have a way of clinging to you, perplexing and beguiling you and entwining their way into your soul. As Boromir would say, “One does not simply remain casual about a masterwork.”

Your book is your baby, whether you wanted it or not. Books are like real children insomuch as you may hate them as a species, but yours is somehow different. Better. Untouchable. Beyond reproach. Any artist can attest that looking into the face of something you’ve created has a peculiar, deistic feeling about it.

“Mommy, feed me!” it shall cry. “Pay attention to me! Edit me! Read me for the umpteenth time and tell me all about how great I am! I want another fight scene.”

“But you had a fight scene last chapter,” you’ll say.

Stormbreaker got back-to-back fight scenes.”

“Well, if you really feel that way, you can go live with Anthony Horowitz.”

Your story will slink up on you as you dream, spelunking its way into your heart with little paper teeth.

“Fine,” you say. “I confess: I love it. I think it’s the greatest thing ever and I derive immense joy in watching it grow and succeed.”

To that I say: “Good.”

Good. You should have some pride in accomplishing something. My dear friend, you are fashioned in the very image of God—the Creator of the Universe, the Master Author of Time itself. Why wouldn’t you find pleasure in imagining and creating your own stories? If you didn’t care about this or never became attached to your work, I’d tell you to get yourself a new business.

It’s evolutionary simple: Helpless newborns with doting mothers survive their infancy. Those who are abandoned die. Or get eaten—one of the two.

Admit it. You’re in love, and you sure as cuss better be, because things don’t get any easier from here. You can’t just write a novel. You have to develop it.

I have seen countless mothers bawling over their toddling tykes on the first day of school. There’s gurgling and snuffling and the most pitiful, coddling wails. If the poor kid could have started kindergarten with a suit of armor, you bet your britches Mommy Dearest would have bought him one.

I say “poor kid” because that’s exactly what he is. In the throes of mommy’s glitter-studded infinity scarf, I see it in his eyes—he’s anxious. Excited. Longing. Yearning. The kid wants to be free to do something great, to go out and try on the world for the first time. He wants to make friends, stack himself up amongst his peers, and discover—truly, for the first time—what he’s made of.

He’s scared (Of course he’s scared! It’s the jungle.), but he’s as ready as he will ever be. And, most ironically, he will never be truly ready, no matter how long his mother keeps him homebound.

Let’s shimmy on down to the gist, shall we? GET YOUR NOVEL CRITIQUED. Send it out to beta readers. Get other people’s opinions. Join a writing group. For the love of Freyja, mention it casually in a passive conversation.

I know how terrifying it is to let a book child go. I know what it’s like to watch it walk, hand-in-hand, off into the distance with a complete stranger, knowing that the aforementioned stranger is going to prod, critique, dismember, and otherwise demolish the years of self-confidence you’ve instilled into your work.  The stranger will hurt your feelings. She will hurt your child’s feelings. You will take up arms and fight the stranger’s critiques tooth-and-nail, all the while battling the squirmy, sinking feeling in your stomach.

Though you’d never admit it openly, the feeling tells you that the stranger is probably right. Your dear little poopsykins isn’t perfect after all.

Your child will be torn to pieces, and many times, those pieces will be mailed back to you in small plastic baggies for you to puzzle back together. It’s grizzly and it’s eldritch. It’s horrible and it’s heart-wrenching. But, if you surrender the Precious to the critics—give it room to make mistakes, develop stylistically, and mature into its own right…

I promise that you and your book child are going to grow.

In his book, On Writing, Stephen King speaks in length about “killing your darlings”—i.e., learning how to let go of those things you may love about your child, but are ultimately holding it back from becoming the masterpiece it was born to be. It’s not easy, and believe me when I say that it never gets any easier. In many ways, it’s lacking hacking limbs off of a screaming infant.[1]

Some people are better at this than others. Personally, I’ve come a long way from a blubbering, wounded heap, but I’ve learned to adapt. When I have to hack off an arm or a leg, I do so with the most optimistic of outlooks, saving the severed piece in a file called “The Island of Misfit Toys.” If it’s on the Isle, it’s not really “gone,” is it? It’s just waiting. Resting. Taking a breather before its glorious day in the sun.

I return to the Isle frequently, and more than once, I’ve brought something back with me. A certain heartless serial killer metamorphosed into matronly vampire slayer. A discarded intro ended up being rewritten in the perspective of fruit bats and repurposed into the best novel I’ve ever written.

Just because your work needs work does not mean that it’s ready for the trash.

If we behaved that way with our real children, the streets would be plagued with bawling, stinky bins of naughty toddlers.

Just as a child needs love, patience, and guidance, so does your book. Accept it for what it is, and drive it to be better. Work with it. Have patience. Maturity takes time, and your writing is no exception.

Your novel is never going to be perfect. It’s never going to be ready.

If you’re waiting for absolute perfection to bring your book into the world, it will never see the light of day.

[1] For the record, I’ve never hacked a limb off a screaming child. Waltzing with hyperbole, folks.

Photo by Ilya Yakover on Unsplash

PUBLISHING: THE COLD, HARD TRUTH

or

EVERYTHING YOU DON’T WANT TO HEAR

 

 

When I first developed and wrote my literary masterpiece (a post-apocalyptic noir the size of War and Peace), I was ecstatic.

“Horary!” cried ignorant, tender-spring-child Hannah. “Fame and fortune are right around the corner! With a book like this, surely, I should begin to shop locale for my mountainous piles of money.”

Then I started looking into how a book goes from the depths of my laptop to immutable print. The process seemed so complex—so intricate and third party-dependent—I called quits to the researching for the sake of my sanity.

I didn’t want to learn what I didn’t want to hear. 

“No problemo,” said Ignorant Hannah. “I write a few letters, tell them how great I am, and then move on to fame and fortune.”

Then the rejections started coming. Lots of them. I grimaced and sniffled and pulled out chunks of hair, trying to divine how these people had been blinded to the potential of a surefire cash cow.

The sinking feeling in my stomach had been right; it was time for some more research. When I say “some,” I mean, A LOT of research. Only then, after accumulating a sheaf of tear-stained rejection letters, did I discover something very important:

Publishing a book is hard.    

“Hard” isn’t exactly an adequate adjective here. It’s too ambiguous—too loose. “Soul-sucking,” “disheartening,” or “a cruel gauntlet of personal demons” may be more apt.

Notice, I did not say “impossible.” Publishing is anything but! Your dreams of seeing your book on the shelves of B&N are achievable, and fame and fortune is out there. (Somewhere.) What I wish someone would have told me when I began this process was that it takes a lot of time and perseverance for just about everyone. I’m talking years—sometimes even decades.  

Of course, there are exceptions. Becky Albertalli, the author of Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda, pitched her novel at a conference and was agented within weeks. Her agent sold the book within months, and now, mere years later, her book is coming out as a movie.

How many times does that happen? Well, from the stories I’ve heard, once.

A more realistic timeline might be that of author Kate Miller, M.D. Kate is a good friend of mine and her book, Karma Patrol, was published by Curiosity Quills. In her blog, she gives a much more realistic picture of how long it takes to query, edit, and publish a book.

https://katemillermd.com/2016/04/07/the-life-cycle-of-the-great-american-novel/

Keep this in mind: Kate’s publication process was whippity-quick. Mine took (is taking) even longer, and by all intents and standards, I should have waited longer than I did.

This process is what the French would call “dur,” meaning, “hard, harsh, tough, or difficult.” However, JUST BECAUSE YOUR SCINTILLATING SUCCESS DOES NOT HAPPEN OVERNIGHT DOES NOT MEAN YOUR BOOK IS BAD.

Let’s crunch some numbers, shall we?

  • Eoin Colfer, the author of the famed Artemis Fowl series, published his first book, Benny and Omar, in 1999. Heard of it? I sure as cuss haven’t. Two years later, he debuted Artemis Fowl and became an international sensation. Lesson? Your first book is not a silver bullet.
  • Stephen King nailed his rejections to his wall. Lesson learned? CUSSIN’ STEPHEN KING WAS REJECTED!
  • J.K. Rowling was rejected by twelve different publishers (after being agented, mind you), and she is unarguably the most successful author alive. Lesson? Rejection is inevitable—even for the most commercially successful series in human history.
  • John Kennedy Toole’s brilliant masterpiece, A Confederacy of Dunces, was rejected so many times, Toole became depressed and committed suicide. It later won the Pulitzer Prize. The lesson here? Don’t kill yourself.
  • Eragon was originally self-published. It took Christopher Paolini an entire year of travelling the country, self-promoting, before it was discovered and reprinted. (There are other reasons why this one didn’t hit the jackpot right off the bat, but I will not discuss them here.) Lesson? Everyone has a chance.

According to Bowker, over one million books are published every year. Of that million, how many become multi-billion-dollar, box office sensations? How many can you name? You’re playing against loaded odds, my friend, and a saturated market plays by house rules.

I’m sorry for being such a downer. Please believe me when I say that I’m not trying discourage you. (I’m also very hypocritical, and I reserve every right to remain that way.) These are the things that I wish someone had told me when I began my publishing journey. If I had started chewing on these cold, hard facts before they struck me across the face, perhaps they would have landed more like a wet noodle and less like a cement brick.

If you take one thing from this post, let it be this: The only way you will fail is if you give up.

It may take two years. It may take 200 years. (I mean, let’s give poor Edgar Allen Poe some mad props. He died in poverty on the streets of Baltimore.) But ever since the Phoenician Code—ever since Gutenberg’s Press and the ridiculous serialization of Dickens novels—people have always and will always want to read books. If you just keep swimming, do your research, and keep a perked ear to the market, you will find someone who wants to read your book.

 Always dream big. Just make sure that your timeline and expectations are flexible enough to accommodate that dream.

Photo credit: MILKOVI

Why you probably shouldn’t but may want to listen to me.

I wasn’t going to start a blog. I made my mind up about that a long time ago. I have nothing to blog about. “But, Hannah,” the people say. “Your life is interesting. You travel the world and live in the French Alps. You professionally squelch small children’s dreams. What about your life isn’t interesting?”

To answer your question: Nothing. Nothing about my life isn’t interesting. But that doesn’t mean I want to write about it.

I write about a lot of things. (It’s kind of my thing.) But the things I write about tend to be more along the lines of ninja nuns, magical sushi-go-rounds, and twelve-year-old vampire slayers rather than anything that would ever interest you.

Am I right? Or am I right?[1]

But then I got a publishing deal, and before any middle grade readers came clamoring for a peek at my story, I started to receive other sorts of mail: Email. Facebook mail. Snail mail. Chainmail—any sort of mail all saying the same sort of thing:

You’re publishing. Cool! I want to do that, too. How do I get started?

Thus began a small novella of my personal insights. Where to start. Who to bother. What to do.

As I proceeded to copy/paste the same sorts of things into multiple emails and messages, I was stricken with a salacious idea:

            If multiple people want the same thing—advice on how to get into publishing with no prior experience in the business—why don’t you just blanket them all instead of writing individual emails?

Ergo, the blog.

When I first undertook this misadventure, I thought that your novel was just magically published after you wrote it. WRONG, wrong, and WRONG. There’s a lot of stuff that happens in-between—stuff that can take years to sift through for the newbie author. I spent countless hours, wrote hordes of emails, and almost got myself subdued under several restraining orders to get where I am today.

Don’t do what I did. I don’t want you to do what I did. I want you to read this blog, streamline your hubbub of a head, and go forth with a reasonable idea of what the publishing process looks like.

Think about it this way: Publishing a book is like fighting an ogre. A big, ugly, smelly, sock-gobbling ogre. If you’re going head-to-head with the thing, wouldn’t it be prudent to get a good idea of what you’re up against? Its strengths and weaknesses? Whether to hack at it with a pitchfork or unleash the glorious fury of a weedwhacker?

My personal motto is as follows: “I don’t know what I don’t know.” If you have no idea how publishing works, how can you navigate yourself to success?

This isn’t a blog about writing the perfect query. This isn’t the blog that is going to get you an agent, sell a bajillion copies of your book, or ensure that all of your wildest dreams come true. (If you find that blog, I’d be much obliged if you shared.) There are blogs about those things, and I will happily lead you to them.

This is a blog for the rest of us—smart, determined people with a dream in their heart but no idea about where to begin. It’s a map, of sorts. It’s the sort of thing that won’t give you the answers, but will help you ask the right questions.

You need to remember that before this, I was in the Navy. The military was my world. I did math. I wrote strategy. I drove boats and hunted pirates. With that much being said, I’m not agented, not signed with a Big Six, and by no means successful in my published endeavors. Truth be told, I have no credentials at all.

            That’s probably why you should stop reading.

But if you keep reading, I can offer you the lessons that I have learned on my own publishing journey. My debut novel, PATEL PATTERSON AND THE APOCALYPSE KEY, is slated to arrive from Blaze Publishing on October 9th, 2018. It’s been two years since I undertook this endeavor—three before the silly thing is finally in my hands, all bound-up and purty. For all intents and purposes, I’m still at the beginning.

I’m writing this blog because I want to help you. I want you to do things better than I did. Faster. Smarter. With fewer tears and significantly less alcohol. So if you’re a fellow newbie looking for a place to start, hop on board.

It’s one wild ride.

 

 

[1] Hopefully, I’m not right and you’ll go buy my book. I love food and electricity, so I’d be most appreciative.