Hey, Pamie: “How Do I Get a Literary Agent?” and more letters of writer frustration.
We’re on Day Gross of me sitting in my pajamas as I plow through this to-do list of work. Most of the projects I have sitting in front of me I’m not allowed to talk about yet.
Whenever I say something like that I feel like I’m working on exposing some shady corporation or I’m waiting to announce that I’m having Justin Timberlake’s baby (I promise to tell you AS SOON AS THIS HAPPENS). The truth is more about how long it takes to make things like contracts and working for big companies who make sure they have things written into those contracts that state what I can and cannot write about on this site.
So instead I’m going to write about what I can write about, which is about writing.
Dear Pam (Pamie? Pamela? P-to the-amela? Gaaah the pressure!)
You don’t know me, but since you’ve replied to a couple of my tweets in the past, I’m going to pretend like we’re BFFs.
I have a question, which I’m sure you are asked eleventy-billion times a day. I’ve written something, and I’d like to look into getting it published. Obviously, I am under no illusions that it will happen, nor do I think that I am so bad-ass that my first time out someone will actually publish the drivel I’ve written. But, I figure, the least they can do is tell me no. In which case I’ll probably curl up in the fetal position in a corner somewhere, sucking my thumb and weeping silently. Google makes me feel stabby since there are so many hits you get when you type in “how to get a book published”.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I need a literary agent. Is this true? It sounds like publishers won’t even read my email if I’m not represented. So, I’ve started making a list of agents that represent chick lit authors. I guess I just start slamming out emails to all of them, correct? Is it in bad form to send emails out to a ton of agents all at once? Will they get jealous like I’m cheating on them? Will it turn into a Bloods vs Crips kind of thing? Any help you can give me would be greatly appreciated.
Tara (Not Terra, Tare-uh or Tair-uh. Tar-uh. Think Tarzan, minus the zan add an uh.)
First of all, don’t call your work drivel. Secondly: it can’t happen if you don’t really want it to, so make sure you want it. Because it’s a lot of work to do it, and even more work once you get it done. And look, I don’t want you guys to think that I’m all You Can Do Anything!, because I am not that kind of ego-booster. I’m assuming if you wrote to me with a question about writing it’s because you’re taking this seriously. So I’m going to take you seriously. But I don’t actually believe that anybody can do anything just because they were raised to think that’s how life works. Otherwise I’d be playing Roxie Hart right now.
Since it’s been a while since I’ve had to find a literary agent, I assumed the process has gone through some changes. I must admit I found my (amazing) agents the tried-and-true, old-fashioned way: my friend recommended me. But for your letter I reached out to someone in the know and asked, “What’s an aspiring, un-represented author to do?” She replied:
She needs to send an email query to a number of different agents (NY Guide to Literary Agents is a good source) but send them individually and NOT on one mass-email. If I see I’m on a list of agents I automatically delete.
And she would be best advised to do some research, know some of their clients, write a very strong and passionate letter with credentials, go to as many agents (1 per agency) as she likes, and keep fingers crossed.
A query letter is one page in length (NO MORE) and describes both you and your book. You’re asking the agent out on a date, really. “Hi, I’ve got something I think you can sell and I’m going to convince you right here that I am not a crazy person and in fact capable of telling a story.”
You want your letter to start with your story’s hook, then go a little further into what the book is, and then close with who you are. I guess, unless, you’re pitching a memoir, and the more fascinating part of the book is YOU, and then why your book will tell your story.
PLEASE PAY ATTENTION TO THIS PART: You are not including the actual manuscript here. Don’t think to yourself, “It’s just an email attachment!” I am not a literary agent, and I’ve still received unsolicited manuscripts in email attachments and let me tell you exactly when I learned some stranger had sent me an enormous Word doc: as I was downloading my email to my iPhone. That’s not fun.
Do you have a hook? A concise way of describing your gigantasaur manuscript? You need one.
Why Girls Are Weird: A woman suffering her quarter-life crisis becomes a web celebrity when she fakes her identity online. When she finds herself in a serious relationship with one of her fans she must decide: does he love her, or who she’s pretending to be?
Why Moms Are Weird: When an auto accident has a woman flying across the country to help take care of her mother and sister, she is forced to confront their bigger issues head-on: hoarding, co-dependence, and her mother’s thriving sex life…which might have just resulted in something rashy.
Going in Circles: A heartbroken newlywed finds salvation through roller derby.
Now you’re going to go slightly more in depth with your story, touching on the themes, why this book would find an audience, what kind of tone/genre/comparison you’re going for. Think of the back cover you read when you browse books in a bookstore. (Sorry, kids. I’ll explain. A bookstore is a place where people sell books that aren’t shelved in a cloud.) You want it to sound intriguing. You want someone to say, “I would like to read all of this.”
Finish off by elevator-pitching yourself. Why are you so special? OH MY GOD, PLEASE DON’T WRITE THESE QUERY LETTERS THE WAY SOME OF YOU WRITE TO ME. And by that I mean, don’t be all, “I don’t really have any other reason to be published other than I figure the least you can do is tell me no, so what the hell, I’m just saying, if you want to say no, now’s the time.” Channel your inner Tracy Flick and talk about yourself as if you are a writer. Because you have written a book, and therefore you are someone who writes, which makes you — ta da! — a writer.
Be passionate. This is the agent’s first chance to get a taste of your writing. So, you know, spell check. Don’t go for cool, coy or mysterious unless that’s the kind of agent/agency you’re approaching. Don’t go for crazy unless you are hoping they say no.
Offer to send sample chapters or the entire manuscript if the agent is interested(You are finished with this book you’re trying to sell, right?), but don’t include them in your query letter. The more succinct and interesting your query letter is, the better chance you have of getting a response. A yes takes just as long as a no if the agent doesn’t have to delicately decide how best to respond to your weirdly wordy letter.
I didn’t just “get” my agent because someone recommended me. I was allowed to submit a proposal to my agent because someone recommended me. I sent a query letter (wherein I mentioned her client who had recommended me and reminded her that she’d emailed me asking for this packet I was sending), and included the outline and sample chapters she’d requested.
And then I waited. In the meantime, I did shop around to other agencies. You don’t have to have just one choice. Regarding your concern that you’ll be upsetting the Crips and the Bloods– know that it’s not your gang war. You’re just looking to get jumped in.
When the agent called me back she said, “Listen. I’ve got to tell you, I was about to say no because that outline is a mess, it barely makes any sense and it was so hard to get through. And then I read your sample chapters. I love them. So I can work with this, if you’re interested.”
I was lucky that she kept reading past the part I’d done so horribly wrong. I’d never written a manuscript proposal before and if I remember correctly it was something like twenty-five pages. When you are asking a stranger to read something that is a proposal to read something longer, try to keep that to around five pages or so. Gosh, if you can do it in one or two, people will be so grateful.
Be neat, be considerate, be honest and be interesting, and people will respond to your query. But before you write those query letters: MAKE SURE YOUR BOOK IS READY. Is it a non-fiction proposal? Make sure that’s ready. Is it a screenplay, a tv pilot, a packet for a late-night show, a children’s book? MAKE SURE IT IS READY. Do not look for interest before you write the material. Do not chase down the door before you have the keys you need to open it. (That girl never escapes the guy chasing her with a knife, does she?)
Lastly, don’t stop writing just because you’re waiting to hear if someone’s interested in what you wrote. They’re going to want you to have written more than just one thing. If you want to keep working, you have to keep writing.
Question: how does one go about pursuing several kinds of writing at once? Article writing, comedy fluff pieces, screenwriting, novels, poetry…
Also: what the hell kind of day job does a writer take when she’s still not making money?
All I can do is tell you what I do, which I wrote about more extensively in Making It Work While You’re Mostly Working For Free. You juggle the things and you take them as the work comes and you’re strict with your daily workload. You’re honest about what you can and cannot take on and you don’t let yourself slack off just because there isn’t a bosslady walking past your desk every hour.
As for the day job, I suppose you want to take one that doesn’t wipe you out once it’s over, because you’ll be writing when you aren’t there. Or you can take one that has a lot of down time, so you can write while you are there. That’s how I got started. I worked a cubicle job in tech support, and I fit in writing between waiting on calls. Or I wrote on my lunch breaks. I wrote on weekends. When I was first starting out, I would work a nine-hour shift, update my website often during lunch, have a rehearsal at night, then recap for TWoP until one in the morning or so. But that’s what I wanted to do; I was happy doing that. But I had a desk job. If I’d been waiting tables all day or running after kids, I can’t imagine I would’ve still had the energy to write thousands of words every night. Also: I smoked a lot of cigarettes back then, and I do think that helped. I’m not encouraging it. I’m just saying smoking got me through a lot of times when I probably should’ve been sleeping.
[I don't understand how people can smoke pot and be productive. How do they do it? How do they make their fingers work? How are they not like, "You guys! Fingers are just hand sticks! FINGERS ARE JUST HAND STICKS. Did you ever notice how they move even when you aren't looking at them? I'M SERIOUSLY FREAKED OUT RIGHT NOW, YOU GUYS."]
I’ve got this great story about my parents inside me that is trying to get out but can’t find the right vessel. I’m trying to figure out if it is best told as nonfiction and, if so, as my memoir (which makes me think, “Ugh! Who wants to hear that?”) or a joint biography (by a not-so-unbiased observer)? Or, because the characters are colorful and my parents’ respective circumstances rather unusual, would this work better as fiction? I have a blog on which I used to write humorous anecdotes, and I felt very comfortable with my voice there. (It’s still around but I password-protected it. In any event, I haven’t written there in a long time, as life has been getting in the way.) The fact that I know my nonfiction, anecdotal voice suggests to me that I should go the nonfiction route, but … I just don’t know! Any tips on how I can figure this out so I can move forward?
Omigosh, just start it. Just write it. Pretend you are going to tell me what that story is about your parents and write it. Tell that story. When you are done you will see: did it come out like you barely scratched the surface, and you’ll need to write two hundred more pages until it’s technically a memoir? Or does it sound like an outline for a screenplay? Is it a short story? Or maybe… is there a tv show in there? A tight dramatic play you could write and produce locally using the talented actors in your city?
Colorful characters and unusual circumstances usually mean you’ve got something there. And you’re lucky enough to at least recognize you have a voice and you’re comfortable with it, so start. START NOW. Get it out on the page and then worry about what you have. Right now you have an idea. You have a mental story. You have a concept. Write it out and then worry about what you want to do with it.
Novels don’t start as novels. Films don’t start as screenplays. In that picture of my work piles, you’ll see that green notebook. Its pages are scribbled with what became my last screenplay, my last manuscript, my last two pitches, my last two pilot scripts, an unfinished screenplay, my next screenplay, a book proposal, another book proposal, a screenplay outline and about thirty phone meetings where I took notes. Without that green notebook of thoughts, direction, stories and plot points, I wouldn’t have that earlier sentence listing the work I did over the past year.
You don’t have to worry about your finished product right now. You have to worry about getting your story out. Start there, and good luck.
Okay, that last one I got kind of yelly. These letters are giving me anxiety, you guys. Why do you guys keep apologizing for wanting to do this? Does John August get so many apologies? I feel like he doesn’t!
If you have a question about writing or television or novels or screenplays or any of these places where I write words and other people read them, send an email to pamie at pamie dot com with the subject line: YOUR WEEKLY PROCRASTINATION.