As a writer moves through the often-lengthy, always-tormenting process of getting from written word to published novel, how does he or she know when a manuscript is truly ready to market to agents and editors? Every agent's website I've visited cautions writers to send only their best work, yet writing is such a solitary process that it's hard to know when a manuscript has reached its best. Indeed, even best-selling authors admit their work is never really 'finished.' In a Writer’s Digest interview of a few years ago, Sara Gruen of Water for Elephantsfame admitted to jotting potential changes in the margins of her already-published novel while giving a public reading! Need more be said about achieving (or never really achieving) one’s personal best? At this early point in my publishing game, as I slog through the process of getting These Days from semi-finalist in a now-finalized contest to agent-represented manuscript, the answer that comes to mind is this: A manuscript is ready to market when an agent who didn’t ask to see it responds to it favorably. On that note, I’ve decided to keep a weekly blog on the process of getting These Days into the hands of an interested agent. Comments are welcome. I especially look forward to hearing from anyone who's been here before and anyone who finds these words beneficial. Unpublished writers, take heart! You're not alone and this is not a wilderness!
About six months ago I sent a pitch, synopsis and first 50 pages of my manuscript to an agent whose name I'll leave out for now, as I plan to query her again. As so often happens in this highly-competitive world in which agents receive hundreds, even thousands of submissions each week, I got no reply. Many books on writing for publication later, I've taken to heart Susan Page's words of wisdom for unpublished writers: If you're published, by all means say so. If not, say something else. In other words, point out whatever it is about you that makes you stand out. Needless to say, "unpublished" lumps you onto the heap of others whose submissions will likely end up in the virtual slush pile. I therefore decided to replace "I'm as yet unpublished," with "These Days is my first novel," followed by a blurb about my second novel -- also important to agents, all of whom profess an interest in "Managing careers, not individual books."
I also recalled another Writer's Digest article, in which the importance of entering contests as a way of getting one's name 'out there' was emphasized. I heard about the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award on NPR's On the Media, then, in an experience of what Julia Cameron calls "serendipity," I heard about it a second time in an e-mail from Create Space, Amazon's self-publishing partner. It was as if the "Great Creator" had caught me napping and decided to give me another nudge!
At first, I was skeptical. I've little interest in self-publishing. But the contest is open to unpublished, English-language novels of 50,000 - 150,000 words and there's no obligation to self-publish, so I decided to give it a try. Indeed, my name got out there, in a small but not insignificant way. Thirty-year publishing veteran and renowned literary agent Donald Maass was one of the contest panelists; and my second prize finish garnered These Days a highly-favorable review from Publisher's Weekly. It is the latter that I hope will give my pitch letter the boost it needs to get noticed.
My initial thought was to query Don Maass -- Send him 3 mylar balloons anchored by my gift-wrapped 365-page manuscript. He's read it already; the balloons are but a way to help him remember it. Then, while reading his industry help book, "The Breakout Novelist," it occurred to me that he's not interested in manuscripts that need ornamentation to get them remembered. He's interested in damned good writing. And, as he devotes an entire chapter of The Breakout Novelist to selecting an agent, I decided to heed his advice and NOT select the first agent that comes to mind. Mr. Maass, though you scare me with your thousand-and-one ways to deepen my characters, fire-up my plot, add tension to my every written word, I know you know what you're talking about. I'll query you later. In the meantime, I'll utilize your character-deepening, tension-building tools in the writing of my next novel.
So, after tweeking my pitch to include my newly-won accolades, I got to work researching agents. Writer's Digest comes out with a yearly list of agents accepting submissions, many of them categorized by genre and with submission details included. That said, it's best to check an agency's website for their specific guidelines.
Last week, I cold-queried two. First was Peter Rubie of Fine Print Literary Management. Peter is a former professional jazz musician who admits to being a "sucker for outstanding writing." As These Days is jazz-themed, I felt a potential connection there. Need I add that I believe These Days to be outstandingly-written? If I didn't, I'd have ulcers by now! If I didn't, I wouldn't have spent every spare minute of the past 5 years of my 40-hour a week, working-girl life writing and re-writing it!
Second was Doris S. Michaels of the DSM Agency, who represents Sarah McCoy (The Time it Snowed in Puerto Rico). As McCoy is a fairly recent success story with just two novels under her belt, I know Ms. Michaels is a risk-taker with a passion for divining new talent.
Thus far I've received no replies, but its only been a few days. Kudos are in order for the DSM Agency, though. At least they send an auto-reply stating they've received your work. Call me an eternal optimist, but I can't help but feel there's a sign there!