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I wrote a book. Now what?

Because I do Critique Partner matchmaking, I meet a lot of people who are in the beginning or beginning-ish stages of their journey toward publication. That doesn't always mean someone is a 'new' writer; I was this writer after ten years. It just means someone is learning the procedure of creating work that will lead them toward a goal of publication. This means using accepted plot structure, focusing on character arcs, creating a brand for yourself with a genre in mind, etc. etc. etc.

I've compiled a list of advice and resources for people at this stage in their journey. I'm not saying this is the ONLY way to do it; I'm just giving a general overview of some things you can do at this juncture to help you forward your goals of a.) polishing your manuscript and b.) signing with an agent.

So you wrote a book or ten. Maybe you queried agents with disappointing results. Now what? 

  1. Keep the following cradled in your anxiety-filled writer's brain: The success of this one book does not make or break you. Publication is a long, winding road. You have many more stories in you than this. What makes you a writer? The fact that you are here, doing this work. 
  2. During the following steps, do not even glance at your manuscript. 
  3. Stop querying for now. You'll be sad later when you can't send a better draft out because you've already queried the known universe. 
  4. Develop relationships with at least 3 critique partners.  Use my online form as well as the #CPMatch and #pitchwars hashtags to search. Make sure to find people in your genre who are at a similar writing level. You cannot work with an agent without this. Your agent will ask you to have drafts read by CPs quite often. A lack of CPs will hurt your writing process more than almost anything else. A good CP is someone to help with brainstorming as well as revisions, and you have to reciprocate. 
  5. Study the following books: Anatomy of Story and Save the Cat. Don't skip this step! 
    • Disclaimer: Some people hate Save the Cat because they find it overly prescriptive or they hate this particular system of outlining. If you have a different book that focuses on plot structure, characterization, theme, genre, etc., then use that. And let me know! I'm always looking for new books. But something like Stephen King's On Writing is not prescriptive enough IMO for this particular exercise.
  6. Once you have notes from CPs and have read these books, take a look at your MS. You'll notice that the things bothering your CPs go back to things talked about in the books, and you'll know how to fix them! It's a great feeling. 
  7. Draft a new query letter. Use the fresh arterial blood of a virgin under the light of a full moon. (Just kidding, but get it read by your CPs a few times.) Do your research! Read agent blogs about query letters. Learn about agent pet peeves. Read successful queries. Stalk agents' websites. When you query someone, make sure to personalize the letter. I could go on about this all day. DO. YOUR. HOMEWORK. Check out what agents are saying on the #tenqueries and #askagent hashtags. You don't get a second chance to make a good first impression. There are a lot of things agents hate, loathe, and detest in queries. Don't do those things! After all this hard work, it would suck to shoot yourself in the foot. 
  8. Send out new queries to agents looking for projects just like yours. Enter Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, Sun vs Snow, and whatever else. Send your book to small presses. Whatever you want to do, do it now. Give your book a chance to be picked up. 
  9. You've done all you can do with this book. It's time to write a new one. The next one will be better, it will be more organized, and you will love it more than the last one. 
  10. Drink, cry, and send your writing buddies direct messages filled with angst. Repeat this step as needed. 

How I Connected With My Agent

TL;DR version

I've completed seven manuscripts over 15 years. I have received about 500 rejections, 15 full manuscript requests, and 3 extensive R&Rs after which the agent declined to represent. It has been a really long road, but the truth is that my earlier writing was just not ready for publication.

Full version

I've recently been agented, and some of my writing friends have asked me to share the story of how that happened. I honestly have a hard time believing anyone is interested in my journey, but I'm being told that this is a thing people do and that it's helpful for other writers. So, all right, here's what happened.

I wrote my first book when I was 19. It was really, really bad. I tried to publish it and was immediately discouraged by the rejection machine that is the path to publication. I quit writing books for awhile.

I had to pick writing up again in my late 20s. You know how it is. It pesters you. There was this teenage character named Paloma, and she haunted me. She sat on my shoulder until I agreed to write a book about her. I wrote three YA Suspense books about her, actually, each one longer-winded and more chaotically un-plotted than the last. I sent out a bunch of queries. I got a bunch of rejections.

Back to the drawing board. I thought part of my problem may be that the Paloma books were too long and that it would be too hard to sell a trilogy as a debut author. I wrote a new stand-alone Paloma book, and this time it was kind of structured, but I hadn't done any disciplined research or practice in this area.

I got a lot of interest from agents, a few full manuscript requests, and even a few R&Rs (revise and resubmit). I worked with an agent and his assistant for a while on two different drafts. Ultimately, they didn't think they could sell the book, and they ended up passing.

At this point, I had completed four books, plus the one I wrote ten years earlier. So five books, a few hundred rejections, and no agent. 

I launched into a new project, this one an adult Dystopian novel about a woman who searches for the murderer of her infant son; another cheerful piece. Before drafting it, I did a key thing. I took all the feedback I'd gotten from agents and I put it to work. They'd all said the same thing: I had a great voice, but I needed to work on structure. I got some books (Save the Cat is my Bible) and I used a beat sheet for the outline of the novel.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the moment I started having a future as a writer. There’s a decision moment for every artist, where you either keep doing what you’ve been doing or face up to your own shortcomings and work more as a tradesperson than as an artist—that moment changes everything. Being able to accept, analyze, and apply critical feedback is a make you-or-break you skill in writing.

The book came way faster and was much cleaner. Unfortunately, by the time I finished it, the market was flooded with Dystopian. I bathed myself in the waters of rejection.

I'll be honest. I was frustrated and full of despair. Everyone around me kept telling me to self-publish the work I already had completed. That's a good path for a lot of people, but I'm the shittiest marketer ever. I knew my stuff would just get buried in the archives of Amazon. It felt like a waste of my time and energy. And it wasn’t my dream. Publication was my dream.

This next project was the darkest yet. I gave myself full license to pull off the gloves and dive into something "extra murdery" (my agent's term). This book was about a young man who, having spent a few years locked in a psychiatric prison, is released and spends all his time haunting the local theme park.

Now that I’d been through a few rounds of edits on the dystopian using Save the Cat, I had my flow with plotting. I knew where the beats needed to fall. No rabbit trails. I finished the first draft quickly, revised it, and send it off to beta readers. It went through two beta reads and four drafts, and I entered it into Pitch Wars.

I didn't get selected. I began sending out queries. I got a few full requests and a lot of crickets.

Then, one day, I got an email. An agent I really liked (she has a great personality, a strong editorial background and is herself a writer) asked for a phone call. She offered representation for this project and we started on a final round of revisions. [I'm actually supposed to be working on those right now...can she see me? Hi Lauren. I'm working on the last chapter! I promise!]

Signing that contract was one of the most surreal moments of my adult life. I took my daughter to McDonald's before school because I wanted her to remember the moment as a happy one, and I sat there and signed the thing. It's not a book deal and certainly isn't a guarantee, but it is forward motion, which is a wonderful feeling. I am so excited for the future and so happy with my new normal. This Saturday morning, I was stuck on a chapter in this final rewrite and my agent called to brainstorm with me. She's just the best! I feel very lucky and undeserving, and I keep waiting to wake up and find that this is somehow not real. Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!