My new novel The Object has been submitted to literary agents, and in fact has already received its first two rejections. Once I reached two hundred, I stopped counting how many rejections piled up over the last fifteen years. With a failure rate above 99.5%, one could argue that I might be in the wrong business.
But I am miserable unless I’m writing a big story. Only I can write them, and they must to be told. Without a backup plan, there is nothing to do but keep casting the net, over and over again. Preparing the submissions is tedious, but waiting to hear back is the real agony.
I included fifteen agents in this first batch of submissions. The first email rejections will come almost immediately, while self-addressed stamped envelopes start trickling back in a couple weeks. These submissions failed to get past the very first reader. In some cases, the agent may not be accepting any new submissions at all. My hope is to get out of this first round with less than five instant-bounceback rejections.
Some of the background information on submissions which follows will be old news to published writers on this site. Nonetheless, Redroom pays me by the word, so here it is.
What did I submit? The heart of a fiction submission is the query letter. The point of a query is to sell the concept of my novel as well as my qualifications as an author. What the hell, here’s the basic query for The Object:
The Object is one woman’s life story, told from fifty points-of-view. Some perspectives are as intimate as a lover or rival; others are as unexpected as a houseplant or her own immune system. These narratives assemble a portrait in mosaic, a quilt of overlapping contradictions and omissions. She is approached anew each time: by a blind man in a park, a cleaning lady, or a former best friend. This novel asks, what is our true life story?
The Object is my seventh novel. My sixth, To The Last Drop (Bäuu Press, 2008), is about a modern-day water war between Texas and New Mexico. Favorably reviewed (e.g. High Times Magazine, April 2009), my book’s small publisher wasn’t able to secure wide distribution. In trying to circumvent this, I did internet, print, radio and television interviews. These are preserved on the website I created, AndrewWice.com, which has over 30,000 hits. My book cover logo sold out as stickers and t-shirts, and has been picked up by a local t-shirt/design store and is one of the briskest sellers.
I would be honored if you would read my manuscript.
I then tailored the query to each particular agent. Not only does this make the letter more personal, if I am unable to determine why an agent will be a good fit, I shouldn’t query them. At least not this early on in the process.
In addition to the query, most agents request the first chapter as a writing sample. If they like my novel’s concept, the sample will give them an indication that I can pull it off. Some agents want a biographic sketch as well. If an agent is intrigued by my submission, they will request a full manuscript.
Who are the agents? A collection of longshot all-stars, up-and-coming agents at big agencies, and agents who have recently founded their own agency. There are many resources for finding agents, but they are not equal in the depth or accuracy of their information. For the first time I am trying a free electronic submission service called Agentinbox, in addition to paper queries based on uncovering the agents of contemporary authors whose work offers challenges similar to The Object.
At this point, agents are an essential part of the publishing industry. Successful agents have personal relationships with editors at different houses. Their opinions are trusted by those editors who have been singled out for the pitch. Without an agent, access to large and medium-sized publishers (of which there are fewer every day) is impossible for a fiction writer. If I were a celebrity with a cookbook, I would enter the industry from a different point of ingress.
Beyond access, I need an agent to guide my career. I know that what talent I possess does not spill far beyond the lines of being a writer. An experienced guide in the industry, responsible for the business-side, would allow me to devote my time to pure writing.
The difficulty in landing an agent is that, the old maxim goes, you can’t get published without an agent but no agent wants an unpublished writer. Five years ago I broke through this paradox when a small house published my unagented debut novel. I hope that the experience I gained in marketing To The Last Drop makes me an attractive client. In the end, they’ll make their decision based on whether or not they think they can sell the book.
The agent’s assistant is the first to encounter the query, and their job is to say no to everything that arrives. Only the queries which can’t be ignored get passed up to the agent. Thusfar, I have not been able to craft queries that can’t be ignored.
Waiting is difficult. After years of this struggle, I no longer entertain happy fantasies about agents leaping up from their desks in joy and thanks. Mine is the outlook of wary recalcitrance. Without this shell, those form letter rejections do sting.
In this waiting time, I wrote an article for New Mexico Magazine about musician Joe West. Hopefully they’ll like it, and I’ll get more opportunities to write about music in northern New Mexico. I’ve also started shoving around ideas for the screenplay adaptation of the Object.
Thinking about a film version of a novel which doesn’t even have an agent might seem like putting the cart before the horse, but I need to work on something or I go crazy. The crazy is already settling in, so I need to strap myself into my writing chair. It’s also interesting to take the novel apart and put it back together again.
Film and novels have very different strengths. Adaptations fail when they simply try to redraft the book into a screenplay. To make a good film, the entire story needs to be built from the ground up all over again. Only in this way can it reach its potential. And so, that is where I will now bury my attention.
I am looking forward to seeing the adaptation of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, one of the best books from my favorite living writer. The fact that someone even attempted to film such a sprawling, yet structurally refined, big novel give me encouragement, down here alone in the mines.