By Patricia Averbach
Writing the novel was tough. It took over two years of concerted effort despite the conflicting demands of family, work and travel. My mother died and my daughter got engaged. I planned a funeral and a wedding, but I kept on writing. Despite all the distractions I never gave up on the book. It grew and took shape and went through multiple revisions. I’ve just typed THE END on page 324 and lifted my fingers from the keyboard. Now is the time to relax, pat myself on the back and enjoy the afterglow of a job well done, right?
Wrong. Now is the time to confront the nail biting, stomach clenching, teeth gnashing job of finding an agent. The word on the street is that finding an agent is tougher than finding a publisher. Actually, I can attest to that, since I was able to place my first novel, Painting Bridges, with a small independent publisher, Bottom Dog Press, before I’d heard back from a single one of the New York agents I’d solicited.
I will be forever grateful to that small publisher for getting my first book into print. However, I’ve always wondered what might have happened if I’d waited to hear back from those agents. Could I have made it into the big leagues? Would my manuscript have been considered by Random House, Macmillan or Simon and Schuster? Would one of them have actually bought it? I’ll never know because literary etiquette requires that authors withdraw manuscripts from consideration by competing publishers and agents as soon as a contract is signed.
Sending out all those query letters was a hideous job, yet I’m about to go a second round. And this time I’m determined to keep at it long enough to know whether or not my work’s ready for prime time. Not all writers are as ambitious as I am and no one wants to bare their soul to strangers knowing the odds are a hundred to one they’ll get hit with a barrage of rejection slips that arrive like so many blows to the gut. There are other more reliable and less traumatic paths to publication and I may ultimately take one of them. But for now, I want to send my work out into the world to see how it holds up against the toughest competition there is, and that means finding an agent.
I remember what an agonizing and time consuming job it was to contact agents the first time around. Each one had to be researched separately. What sorts of books and authors did they represent? Were they currently accepting new clients? Did they want to see the first ten pages, the first chapter or three pages and a synopsis? Did they want to see my pages as an attachment, within the body of an e-mail, or printed out and delivered by post? Did they only accept manuscripts written in 12 point Times New Roman or 14 point Calibri? Any misstep and a manuscript wouldn’t receive so much as a cursory glance.
Of course, researching and complying with each agent’s arbitrary formatting requirements were only the first and least demanding obstacles to finding representation. The more daunting hurdles were composing a one page synopsis and a dynamite query letter. Those two pages determine whether or not the other 300 plus pages ever get read. They are the most important and demanding words an author will type.
How will I condense a full length novel down to 400 words that encapsulate the story while conveying the flavor and dynamic of the writing? There’s no way to recount my protagonist’s dilemma, her motivation, her back story and all the events that bring her to a new place in life on a single page, so there’s going to be a lot of selective omission. If I succeed, I will have distilled the book to its essence. There won’t be a wasted word or a single sentence that allows an agent’s attention to waver for a moment. It’s a tall order and I’m intimidated. Can I deliver? Time will tell, but I’m going to give it my best shot.
Once I’ve targeted a number of promising agents, learned all their quirks and written a dynamite synopsis, there will still be one more task ahead, the query letter. This bit of creative writing must be even shorter than the synopsis. It follows a typical three paragraph format: 1. the hook 2. the summary and 3. the author’s bio.
I actually have a hook that might get the attention of three possible agents. I took a workshop with a well known author and she gave me permission to use her name when contacting her own agent and two others she recommended. Needless to say, those three will be at the top of my wish list. If I don’t get a favorable response from any of them, my “hook” will simply be the fact that I’ve already published a novel that was favorably reviewed by a big city paper. If I had no personal connections or prior publications, I would indicate that I’ve read several of the authors she represents and tell her why my book would be a good fit. I’ll try to keep my tone personal but professional, friendly but not desperate. If that sounds like trying to attract someone on a dating website, maybe it is.
The next paragraph, the one paragraph summary, is probably the most important part of the query. The agent will either be intrigued and read on or toss out my letter, my one page synopsis and my sample pages and move on. She’s a busy lady and a gazillion of these things show up in her e-mail every day. The summary is not a synopsis. It won’t tell the story, but it will present the protagonist’s dilemma and the choices that she’ll face in a way that makes it stand out from all the other proposals that come across the agent’s desk. If she sighs and thinks, “been there, done that,” I’m finished. It has to be fresh, original and appealing because the agent is only interested in whether or not she can sell the book to a publisher and the publisher is only interested in whether or not she can sell the book to potential readers. Writing the book was all about art, attracting an agent is all about sales and all about money.
The last paragraph, the author bio, needs to be short and sweet. I don’t have an MFA , but I can list prior publications. Experiences and credentials that make me an authority on my subject could also be included. My previous book, Painting Bridges, involved historic issues in deaf education, so my bio mentioned that I trained as a speech pathologist and worked in a deaf nursery back in the 70s. The new novel reflects on how easily a successful, middle class woman can slip into homelessness. Happily, I have no personal experience with the subject, but I may allude to my friendship with an educated woman from a well to do family who was homeless for many years.
So, that’s the job ahead of me. I’m frightened and a bit overwhelmed, but determined to see the project through. I know I can do it because I’m getting this blog post in on time, two days before my daughter’s wedding. A writer who can do that can do anything. Wish me luck.