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Every time I descend into the depths to see what my fellow unpublished authors are up to, I facepalm.

Stuff to remember if you're unpublished:

1. Agents represent manuscripts, not people. They're not going to sign you on until you have something for them to sell. That means a completed manuscript. A complete, polished, absolutely finished full-length manuscript.

2. No, they won't make an exception for you. No, not even if you're awesome. Yes, they've been asked that before. They've been asked that many many many times before. Every noob's first instinct is to ask an agent to make an exception and sign them on the basis of their totally awesome, totally incomplete manuscript. If you ask them, you will not stand out in their minds as someone iconoclastic enough to break the rules and stand up for your Art. You will be That Noob.

Don't be That Noob.

3. The stuff that you think is coolest about your book--the worldbuilding, backstory, deep philosophical message--is not, in fact, the coolest thing about your book. The coolest thing about your book is this girl/guy who wants this thing and does stuff to get it. If this girl/guy etc. is NOT the coolest thing in your book, you are doing it wrong.

4. Write your query letter as though the coolest thing in your book is this girl/guy who wants this thing and does stuff to get it. If it's not actually the coolest thing, fake it.

5. Getting an agent costs you postage. That's it. You don't need to go to New York, or attend fancy parties, or go to classes, or attend a convention, or pay submission fees. You don't even need to buy a book. Any method of getting an agent that involves spending money is a scam.

Yes, even that thing that you really want to do because it sounds awesome and you'll meet real agents and everything. It might be fun. But I guarantee you, it's a scam.

Major agents are going to be there? Splendid! It's a scam.

The only exceptions are good writing programs like Clarion, which aren't ways to get agents per se, but which can help your writing career immensely. Just make sure you're going to a writing program that's respected and effective, and not one that's, well, a scam.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 29th, 2010 10:11 pm (UTC)
What she said. The purpose of a writing program is to help you get to that complete polished work. Period. It's not an easy fast track to anything, just an opportunity to hone your skills, and perhaps a chance to have someone else tell you how you might further polish your work.
Jan. 3rd, 2011 01:12 am (UTC)
*nodnod* The right workshops also put you in touch with people who can help your career. It's not guaranteed and it's not necessary, but it can help. It's not a shortcut, though, because you still have to be able to write like a motherfucker; and frankly, it's way harder to write well than to make friends with people who have careers in the writing-well industry.
Dec. 30th, 2010 02:07 am (UTC)
though note that 1 and 2, while true for fiction writers, are incorrect for non-fiction. I have 3 friends who have sold non-fiction (one food book, 2 autobiographies). Agents who rep those books don't want finished books; they want outlines, they want the framework, and they don't actually want you to do the writing until the book is sold. They want to have say 2500 words outlining 15 chapters. So perhaps you want to clarify that this has to do with one type of book and agent, not all of them.

The best suggestion I got on a workshopped story was from Robert Sawyer, who suggested that I take a section of the book, rewrite it as a short story, and then sell that first, so that when I got it over to an agent, it could be promoted/sold as an expansion of a story with proven life in it.
Jan. 3rd, 2011 01:01 am (UTC)
Interesting! I assumed fiction writers as my target audience because I've never met a loopy unpublished nonfiction writer outside of a) biography and local history, the genres of choice for elderly would-be authors and b) the clinically bewildered, who attempt to publish by sending their manuscripts to deans at Harvard. It's exceedingly interesting that nonfiction agents want unfinished mss. What do they need as proof that you can finish the book?

Cool way into the field! There's an ongoing debate about whether or not to start with short stories, and the answer seems to be, "Don't bother unless you love writing short stories, and then it's awesome." Glad you found a method that worked for you.
Dec. 30th, 2010 04:24 pm (UTC)
Oh no!! Did you facepalm when I went to that stupid conference last year? It was foolish, I know. Or should I say, now I know?

Eh, live and learn.
Jan. 3rd, 2011 01:03 am (UTC)
A bit, yeah, but that's one of the relatively sophisticated methods of parting writers from their money, and it does occasionally help a little. Sorry you wound up with someone so utterly useless. Have you decided what you're going to do next?
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Jan. 3rd, 2011 12:56 am (UTC)

Yes, an agent is definitely worth it. Last I checked, most large publishers had already closed their doors to unagented manuscripts--an effective way of offloading the slush pile. So you simply can't get into most houses without an agent to begin with. And then there's the legalese to deal with--lots of horror stories there, because it's very easy to write a contract with two or three scattered clauses that separately are innocuous and perfectly legal, and together are deadly to your career... and perfectly legal.* So yessss, get a pro on your side.

* "We have the right of first rejection on your next book" + "We don't have to look at your next manuscript until after your last book hits the stores" = "We can hold up your writing career in any field, including genres we don't publish, until so much time has passed that your professional momentum is dead."
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Dec. 30th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)
One nitpick on #1: Agents do represent people -- but they're people with manuscripts.

Yes, you ABSOLUTELY MUST HAVE A FINISHED MANUSCRIPT if you want an agent to represent your fiction, no argument whatsoever on that, but it's even better if you can describe plans for lots more manuscripts, and not be someone whose one novel is his entire life's work, this is it, there won't be any more, but isn't it brilliant? An agent would rather represent a nice prolific author with a long career than a one-shot wonder.

Jan. 3rd, 2011 12:41 am (UTC)
True. I worded it that way because of the common misperception that literary agents are like talent agents, and will represent you on the basis of your sheer fabulousness. The talent agent can work with that. The literary agent needs you to spoot out an actual manuscript she can shop around.

Good point about having plans for future novels. Published authors keep saying that the word "trilogy" is like catnip--their agents wanted them to produce proof, any proof, even ragged outline proof, that their submitted novel was a trilogy, because then editors would purr and chew lovingly at the corners of the submission package. This is probably true only for F&SF, but whoa, is it true for F&SF. Fortunately, we're in a genre where "I killed off my main character on the second-to-last page" doesn't mean the series has to end. It doesn't even need a new main character.
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Jan. 4th, 2011 04:57 pm (UTC)
In mysteries, publishers want series even more than in SF -- not trilogies, but long series. One mystery writer told me that most series don't really make any money until the third or fourth volume, so you need to plan for more than that.
Jan. 4th, 2011 05:11 pm (UTC)
Jeepers. Now that I think about it, all the mysteries I can name as a casual reader are part of long series. That would suggest a radically different career structure than in F&SF, where you seem to have only two or three books to prove yourself before your publisher drops you.
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )

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