February 12, 2012

Correspondence With an Emerging Writer

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:47 pm

One of the most amazing things about this writing life is the connections it builds between authors, writers, and readers everywhere. My world feels like one of those maps with pushpins sprouting up all over. It’s heart-warming, enriching, and exciting–something I’m grateful for every day.

Recently, an emerging writer has shared some questions and ideas as he seeks a home for his novel of hope, loss, and inspiration. It’s been interesting for me to correspond with someone who is entering the biz at a time when multiple paths are available for getting your work out there. No more is it a given that you will query and query and query, until your fingers bleed, or you give up, or you finally break through.

This increased complexity is both liberating and confusing, and I hope that the Q&A between Derek and myself may clarify things and/or trigger a dialog of the sort Suspense Your Disbelief readers are so great at having. So with no further ado, Derek, please take it away.

Derek McFadden: Recently, I was directed to a website where an agent was giving advice. I’ve been querying for a while with no luck, and have been considering self-publishing as an alternative. Perhaps I could gain some insight from this agent. I that said that I think my novel is outside of a particular genre. Genre bending, if you will. Her response was: “Perhaps the fact that you’re not sure which genre your book is in turns some agents off. Whenever I read a question like yours, I think, Does the author understand the market they’re writing for?”

As a writer, should I find a genre and write to that market? Or should my focus be to write the best book I can? Shouldn’t an agent want fresh and new [material]? Even if this involves changing his or her expectations a bit?

Why do writers become writers in the first place? Because they love to write and create. Place constantly shifting market trends as the path for an author to get his or her foot in the door, and you might drive a writer crazy.

Jenny Milchman: Sometimes agents will say something like, “This is too hard to market” because it seems better than saying, “Hey, I just didn’t like this.” (And keep in mind that this take is always subjective, the opinion of just one person, unless you keep hearing the same thing over and over again). I think this contributes to a resentment on the part of writers much as you’re expressing:

Why would they want *another* stale vampire love story? The answer is: They don’t. It’s just a shorthand of sorts.

Another thing to consider is that agents need to sell books and editors need to buy books that will sell. That doesn’t mean writing to trends–and any real agent or editor is far too wise to believe you should do this. By the time a manuscript is written, edited, and published, any trend bubble will likely have popped a long time ago. But it does mean they’re looking for books that fit into established, albeit broad, parameters.  Romance readers read voraciously and they have certain expectations. Same for mystery readers and the other genres. Literary fiction can be a catch-all category, but even here conventions apply. For instance, the writing and characters are given the most attention.

Now does this mean some gems will be missed? Definitely. That’s why every so often there’s a sleeper that was turned down everywhere and surprises everyone. But as a rough strategy the above works.

Once you venture into self-publishing, things change. There is less money to be spent up front and thus much less risk. Put something totally different up and see if it has the potential to take off, or simply attract the few, loyal readers such an unusual animal can’t help but draw when the playing field encompasses millions. When there’s not a lot of money at stake, the so-called long tail can come into play. Agents and editors can’t hang out in the long tail because their model depends on large numbers. That’s one of the liberating things about self-publishing.
DMF: Here’s the funny thing about me. If an agent doesn’t like my book, I wish they’d just flat-out say that, and maybe take a sentence or two to tell me why. Instead of, “I didn’t connect with this story,” say, “I didn’t like this because…” Why not?

JM: The reason agents don’t explain why is because doing so requires specific analysis. Agents, as we all know, are overwhelmingly busy. They don’t have the time to think why they didn’t like something, much less put it in terms that will be helpful and comprehensible to the (rightfully) invested author. The other reason I’ve heard agents give for not doing this is because offering feedback, however minimal, often invites rebuttal or argument from the author, whereas a generic reply (i.e., a form) doesn’t.
DMF: I’m leaning away from self-publishing because I just don’t think I alone can generate a large number of readers. Really, when you get down to it, what are the chances of hitting it big?
JM: I’m going to go out on a limb here and say your (or anyone’s) chances of making it big in traditional or self-publishing are almost exactly the same.  To put a number on that–basically zero. Historically—and consistently—about 200 authors made a living off their fiction. E publishing has already made that number rise. Midlist authors are able to pay the light bill, the mortgage, and discretionary expenses with income from formerly out of print books or from new works they’ve decided to e-publish. But make it big? Stephen King kind of big? Very few get that lucky. Even with talent, there’s a lot of luck involved. But the Big 6 aren’t going to find that many Stephens, James or Janets, either. More than on the indie field? Possibly—that remains to be seen. But there just aren’t that many people who write what a huge number of people love—and there never have been.

DMF: As an author, I am experienced. As a query-er, I am not. I freely admit this, because I think the query may be the wall that’s up in front of me right now.

JM:  Getting the query right is definitely crucial—you’re smart to separate out the two writing challenges. The template for a query that I used myself went like this:

  1. An introductory sentence explaining why I was querying this particular agent. I began querying in the bad old days before email. When you’re sending snail mail letters—or worse, FedEx, as I was green and stupid enough to do, as if anything in this business ever moves fast—you make sure you’re targeting agents intelligently, or try to. I recommend against email blasts. Find agents who rep authors you love or who are actively looking for work similar to yours (which brings us back to the start of this discussion).
  2. A pitch paragraph, set off from the rest of the letter/query, and in bold font. The pitch should read like the flap copy of novels like yours. Pick up books you admire and read their flaps (or Amazon product descriptions) aloud. Writing the pitch can be harder than writing the whole novel, I think. If you are struggling with it, a bare bones approach is to boil your novel down to five sentences: one for the beginning, 1/3 turning point, middle, 2/3 turning point, end. These sentences will be the skeleton of your pitch. Add a little flesh to turn it into flap copy and you’re good to go. (This is also an excellent exercise to gain a rough sense of how the structure of your novel is working).
  3. Any credentials you have that are relevant to your being an author. These could include your professional background if you’re a lawyer and you wrote a legal thriller; or it could be publication credits you’ve amassed. Just make sure anything you include isn’t “small potatoes.” It’s better in this industry to be new and undiscovered than around the block several times. A query’s purpose is to paint your book—and you—in the best possible colors.
  4. A pleasant sign off whereby you offer a partial or full manuscript upon request.


Thanks so much for sharing your process so far, D. Whether you continue to pursue traditional publishing, or swim off into uncharted waters, I know you’ve written a meaningful book that will draw readers. I wish you the best of everything with it—I know you’ll be sharing your Made It Moment here one day.


  1. Great stuff, guys. I think it’s not just self vs traditional, but self vs traditional large presses vs traditional small presses vs risky/edgy small presses. It’s tough for any “unknown” author to sell more than a few hundred copies of their book, IMO. But, you could also sell to a small press and have the same results. And the only way to GET to the BIG SIX is through an agent, and they’re just as hard to land as the aforementioned presses. It’s like playing darts and being asked to not only throw a bulls eye, but to hit that tiny spot, and then do it again. And then again. It can be done, but it’s hard.

    I think what you ultimately do is up to you. Are you 20, 40 or 60 years old? Have you published nothing, a little or a lot? What is you end goal – to be rich or famous, or to write great work and get it out there?

    Personally, I’ve gone the small press route, and am trying to inch my way up that ladder. I self published ONE eStory at Amazon, “Victimized” because Murky Depths published the 5000 word story and I wanted the 7000 word story to get out there, and to see how sales went, how I could do (sold maybe 120 copies to date at .99 each). BUT, I’m also shopping my current novel to agents, while it also sits at 12-15 small presses. And I’m also publishing a lot of short stories, about 15-20 a year. Basically, it’s the most passionate, targeted shotgun approach I can manage. We’ll see what happens.

    What YOU choose to do, is up to you. But aim high, and wide and far. And best of luck.

    Comment by Richard Thomas — February 12, 2012 @ 11:07 pm

  2. Would love to chat Derek up on publishing…

    Comment by JD — February 12, 2012 @ 11:08 pm

  3. These are excellent elaborations, Richard, thanks. Derek–there’s a fount (font?) of information here. What I think is amazing now is how many different ways there are to try and skin this particular cat. Many of the limits are just gone.

    Comment by jenny — February 12, 2012 @ 11:18 pm

  4. Jenny:
    You’re right about the limits no longer applying, and that’s such a good thing!

    In answer to your question, Richard, I have written many stories, but I am most proud of a book of poetry I wrote for my grandfather when he was fighting lung cancer. I went the self-publishing route, in that case, because, had I gone any other route, he would never have seen it. It turned out to be the last book he ever read. That was 2003. The book is called “Prose From A Grandson To A Senior Fellow” and is available in many, many places including amazon, B&N, etc.

    JD, thanks for being willing to talk publishing with me! Sounds like a great idea!

    Comment by D — February 12, 2012 @ 11:37 pm

  5. Great common sense advice, Jenny, on questions many writers are asking these days. The way things are, those who write with expectations of fame and fortune will give up and quit. Those who write because they love writing will continue and some of them will get lucky.

    Comment by Earl Staggs — February 13, 2012 @ 7:23 am

  6. Great questions and advice from Jenny, Richard and D and all.

    A couple of things come to thought about publishing. First (esp if you self-pub)is having the manuscript edited professionally. Second, think about who you are, what you hope for as a published author, and how adept you will be with various types of promotion. Boiled down, that’s “Know thyself.”

    Life circumstances matter, too, as has been pointed out. In our writers’ critique group we had a member who was in his 80’s and battling cancer. He self-pubbed and (a big plus), had enough discretionary income to do it well–paying for editing, cover art, professional printing, hiring a publicist, doing advertising, etc.

    I have always been with “smaller,” independent publishers, and love that niche. It suits me well, and I’ve been fortunate to connect with those who do editing, give excellent promotion support, and more.

    Comment by Radine Trees Nehring — February 13, 2012 @ 10:55 am

  7. RTN:
    First, let me say my eyes are not great, and I don’t want to seem disrespectful, so that’s the reason for the initials in addressing you.
    Having gone the self-publishing route enough, I would say, I am interested in what your experience at a smaller, independent press was like. Did you feel like the best interests of your book were considered? My guess, if you’ve been there a while, is yes. If you don’t mind my asking, what genre would your books fall under, and what was the submission process like?


    I completely agree with you. I don’t write for money or fame. Having enough of the former would be nice, but too much could present a burden. Fame is not something I’ve ever really been interested in.
    Glad you enjoyed the blog.

    Comment by D — February 13, 2012 @ 11:09 am

  8. I think Derek is not alone in being confused by agent shorthand and feeling overwhelmed by the changes in the market. The two things that I tell myself over and over are:

    1. We’re in a business of rejection.

    2. Change is good.

    The other thing I remind myself (when I’m tempted to whine) is there are lots of other things I could be doing with my life but this is the path I chose.

    Thanks Jenny and Derk for sharing this correspondance.

    Comment by Johanna — February 13, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

  9. Jenny, you’re pretty spot on with your assessment of why agent rejections are handled the way they are, namely in a brief and non-explanatory note. I was a literary manager (for screenplays and auxiliary rights for books) for a number of years and, of course, had to reject the vast majority of what I read. Often, I’d recognize in the first pages that a project was not going anywhere and I’d put it down because of poor writing skills or weak storytelling. This is not something you tell the writer who’d sent it. One has no idea how much emotional investment that writer has in their project (picture weeping and pulling of hair), or how sensitive the writer is to criticism (I’d hate to be responsible for suicide), or if the writer has a violent streak and would stalke me. There occasionally were situations where I liked a story, but honestly knew of no one I could sell it to, so I’d respond honestly informing the writer of that fact.

    I guess because of my experiences on that side of the fence, I do not take rejection personally for my own writing. Everything is subjective and colored by the market in which the agent must sell. I eventually quit agenting because of the way producing decisions were being made — that is, it eventually changed from an accepting market for speculatively written screenplays to a rejecting, inaccessible market where the studios decided to only produce films based on known products (graphic novels, video games, TV shows, sequels/prequels), known words or phrases (Dodgeball, anyone?), and ideas thought up by some producer with studio access while s/he was taking a crap.

    I remember what another, far more experience Hollywood agent told me, “Hollywood is set up to NOT make movies, but every once in a while one slips through the cracks.” There are whole layers of bureaucracy set up to find fault in a story before anyone spends any money on it. So it’s rare anything new gets through, like the genre-bending you spoke of, Derek. I may be wrong, but it doesn’t seem to me that trad publishers work that way… at least not yet… and I hope they never do.

    Comment by Ed Schneider — February 13, 2012 @ 7:17 pm

  10. Thanks for all your great comments–as always.

    Love the perspective, Earl. That’s the angle from which to approach it.

    And Radine’s separation of small/independent press from large/major house is well taken. The experience can be a whole other animal.

    Johanna, the support is much appreciated, I’m sure!

    JD, may I give Derek your contact info? Should this be done through the FIBP FB page?

    Ed, I really appreciate hearing the insider’s perspective. What you say reminds me of Richard Walter on Hollywood–he described the movie tie-ins based on products–a really funny anecdote about a writer sighing and saying, OK, OK, I’ll do the Barbie screenplay [for Mattel]. And hearing, Uh, Barbie’s taken, and going down the rungs of toys till he reached some unknown stuffed animal and writing a screenplay about that. Ack! I agree that I have not seen this kind of relentless high concept/bottom line focus from the Big 6, where love of a great book does seem to be alive and well–albeit within certain constraints.

    Comment by jenny — February 13, 2012 @ 7:38 pm

  11. Jenny, I love the Barbie story. Hate that mentality, but love the story.

    Let’s hope the Big 6 keep their motives purer than Hwood.

    Comment by Ed Schneider — February 13, 2012 @ 8:26 pm

  12. Ed:
    What a great way to put it in perspective, as Jenny said. I understand the bottom line in all of this is money. When is money not the bottom line?
    Thankfully for me, I also know that, in the case of my novel, the writing’s pretty good. I’ve worked exceptionally hard with some exceptional people, Jenny included, to make it so.

    It feels so nice to know I’m not alone here. That other people feel the same way I do. I’ve been banging my head against the wall, if you will, with this book for years, and I was beginning to wonder if I was just plain out of touch. Maybe there was something about publishing, and getting rejected, that everyone else knew and I didn’t, I told myself.
    No, it’s the same for everybody. Unless you’re a deeply established writer, like Stephen King or J.M. Rowling.
    It’s stories like Rowling’s that keep us all going, isn’t it? She was a divorced single mother living on “the dole”, as they call it, I’m pretty sure, and here she comes along with this idea that catches fire. Catches fire doesn’t quite get it. That thing went ablaze.Now she has more money than the queen.
    Like I said, for me the important thing is to get my story read. Enough money to be happy would be great. But being read matters above all. And, I won’t lie, being a part of the commentary on a DVD if a movie version of my book ever got made would be one of the cooler experiences in my life! *Grin.*

    Comment by D — February 14, 2012 @ 1:22 am

  13. J.K, obviously. (Thank you, two-finger typing method that sometimes fails me.) LOL

    Comment by D — February 14, 2012 @ 1:37 am

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