Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Long Distance Run

By Kathleen B. Jones
I have just finished what must be the fiftieth revision on the complete manuscript of my new book, What Hannah Would Say, and sent it off to an agent who had expressed interest in seeing it. Although, as my colleague-writer Sharon Vanderlip wrote on these pages last week, there never seems to be enough time for the writing itself, there is always more than enough time for the waiting part of the writing game.

What I am referring to, of course, is the abundance of time we writers all seem to have to spend in anxious anticipation of the reception to our work by the myriad personnel involved in the actual production of it. If writing takes a lot of time and there is never enough of it, getting published can take an even longer time; sometimes so long it feels like an eternity. In my case, with this new book, it’s been several years since I completed the first full draft during which I have been trying to locate the right agent and publisher. And this isn’t my first book.

If you write a manuscript that you’d like to take into the world by what we might call traditional methods—into printed book form under the imprint of a commercial publishing house—you need to brace yourself, more often that not, for a long distance run. If it’s a non-fiction book, there are various ways that long haul can begin.

I’ve Got an Idea! (A True Story). Let’s say you’ve got a great idea for a book on the history of the Rockettes, those synchronized dancers who have been kicking up a storm in Radio City Music Hall since 1932. Having the inspiration is enough to get your writing going, so you pull out a new journal (or a new blank document in your computer) and start making notes. As you get more deeply into researching the topic, you discover that it doesn’t seem that anyone else has written a book on the subject. That’s both a relief and a worry—a relief, because it makes your subject unique, and a worry, because there may be reasons why there’s nothing written that could make the story difficult to tell…or sell. Still, at this point, that’s only a glimmer of a worry, because you’re so excited about the subject, the writing starts flowing.

Taking Your Inspiration for a Spin: The Book Proposal. Some months (maybe many, depending on the writing time you have in the flow of your life) have passed and by now you’ve researched and written enough to confirm the wonder of the idea to yourself.  The next question to ask yourself is this: Will the story matter to anyone else? And quickly following that, ask this one: Why? Although it’s true that we writers live to write, most of us want to see our words enter a more public space than our living rooms or even coffee house reading rooms. Whether that means that we can quit our day jobs and write to live is an entirely separate matter (and one that you shouldn’t worry about or you’ll freeze the creative process). But the question of whether the story matters to anyone besides yourself and your immediate circle of family and friends is absolutely crucial to answer positively and strongly if you want to take your inspiration that next step forward to becoming a published reality. Because the next step will be to write a book proposal.

I won’t go into too much detail about what to put into the proposal. There are plenty of good sources on the internet, often written by agents and editors in the publishing business, to which you can turn for more specific guidance. Here's one from a very reliable source. The main point to make is that you have to have a convincing proposal to be able to sell your book. And if you are a novice writer, you also should have at least two to three chapters in solid draft before you send that proposal, which often will have to include sample pages, to any agent whom you’d like to consider representing the sale of your book.

The Needle in the Haystack Search: Finding an Agent. There are literally thousands of agents in the world, of varying types and degrees of success. The first step to finding the right one for you is to research agents who have represented books that are “like” yours. Now, even if yours is the one and only book yet to appear on the subject, there are still books like yours out there, in terms of writing style and general substance. See who represents those books’ authors, and research those agents. After you’ve done that, check out some good published sources or internet guides to agents. Your goal is not to find one, but about 25-50 who might serve a clientele in which you think you would fit. This stage will take concerted effort and significant time, if you are going to be thorough. You might also consider attending some area writing conferences. Often these are great occasions not only to meet other writers in your genre, but to connect with agents and editors, especially if you have a great idea to pitch, a solid proposal and decent query letter (more about the query letter in a moment). If you are in the southern California region, the upcoming San Diego State University Writers’ Conference is an excellent opportunity to test your ideas. If the whole process is overwhelming or, if like me, you've been through it several times and would like to have someone else help hanlde this business, you can hire the services of others to help. A poet friend recommended Writers' Relief to me, which is a pricey, but helpful source of support. I've had a positive experience with them so far.

Dear Agent: Writing the Query Letter. This one-page letter is what may be the only chance you’ll get to capture the attention of the agent you really want to represent you. Yes, it’s really that important. The first paragraph has to explain what your book is about and why it is so spectacular. It has to “hook” the reader, make her or him want to read more. This is NOT at all the same as telling the prospective agent that your book will be the next best seller on the New York Times list. Instead, it is what your book is about in a sentence or two and why your book matters. You’ll also need a paragraph expanding into a brief synopsis of the book and a closing paragraph about you (as a writer) and your “platform” (how you can generate an audience for your work: for instance, you are a former Rockette, you were once a dance critic, you taught dance for many years, you’ve written many other books on the performing arts, etc.) Again, there are many great internet sources with examples to follow for crafting this kind of letter. Consult them; this is not the kind of writing they ever taught us in school. And then get a second and third opinion from someone who has done this before.

Sending Many Letters and Not Getting Mail: The Search in Earnest. It can happen that your idea is so spectacular that the first agent, your dream agent, responds immediately to your “query letter” with a request to see not only your proposal but all the chapters or as much of the book as you have. This is why you want to be prepared before you start approaching agents, especially if you are new to this game. If you get that kind of response, wonderful! Know then that you are living under a blessed star. Because the reality is you may have to send out even a hundred letters before you get anyone to give you more than a form rejection. And this is where time really feels as if it is stretching into eternity. Most agents will tell you they read and respond within four to six weeks. Some never reply. So the process can stretch across months, even into years. During all this time you need to keep writing. Perseverance and patience, qualities that, to be honest, I often have to work hard to sustain, must be your constant companions.

Taking the Book to Sale. Once you’ve gotten an agent, she or he will take on the process of selling the book. Be sure you’ve checked, as much as possible, that your agent is the sort who stays in touch with you about what is happening. Communication is key.

Getting into Shape: The Editing Process. If the book is lucky enough to be sold, you’ll now be in the hands of an editor, who will have her or his own take on what you need to do to get it into shape. Here again, patience and perseverance accompany you, joined by a certain humility to allow some of “your little darlings”—those sentences you were so in love with—to find themselves on the cutting floor (please excuse the mixing of metaphors from writing and film editing). But remember, this is your book and you want to feel comfortable with how it is taking shape. There will be several months of fine-tuning the work according to fairly strict deadlines, readying the book for publication in its final form. Once it’s readied, it will be another ten months or so before the book goes….

Into the World: Marketing and Beyond. I’ll leave some of these details for another post, because there is a lot to say about marketing you should learn before you’re in the hands of a publisher.

There are many steps along this process that may make you want to give up. Please don’t! Persist, persist. But if this traditional route is daunting, there are also other ways into print, such as POD (print-on-demand) publishing that may be worth investigating.

I haven’t reached that stage myself yet. I’m waiting, as patiently as I can, for a positive response from the agent who, at this very moment, is reading my work.

The bottom line is that, during this long distance run, you have to keep writing, keep your spirits up and, given the season in the U.S. we are now in, be grateful for every moment you get to spend writing your passion onto the page.

An award-winning scholar, with several books in feminist theory and politics, Kathy is the author of Living Between Danger and Love,  and has published essays and short fiction in Briar Cliff Review, Fiction International, Mr. Beller's Neighborhood. Her new book, What Hannah Would Say, is waiting in the wings. Read more about Kathy's work on her web site and about her work on the philosopher Hannah Arendt on this web site.


Laurel Corona said...

Kathy--what a great run-through of all the things we agonize about!

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