I did everything I had read about to get my book onto an agent’s desk. I started with queries. I queried specific agents and editors I’d targeted based on their publishing history. I’d spend hours researching, trying to find the perfect fit between my book and an agent. Finally I’d submit my query and each time the response I’d get back is “We’re sorry. We are not accepting new authors at this time.” That’s a Catch-22, isn’t it?
Then I starting going to conferences where I could pitch the book. I had five to ten minutes to state the basic plot outline to an agent who would later admit on a panel that she’d never found a book worth publishing at a conference. That doesn’t inspire confidence. Eventually I attended a few conferences where the agent would actually read ten to twenty pages of my book ahead of time, before speaking to me. Each time the feedback I’d get was, “You’re an excellent writer, but the beginning didn’t grab me.” I rewrote the beginning, but my novel doesn’t feature calamity, action, or trauma. It’s a story about people and emotion.
The last time I pitched to an agent, she had read thirty pages of my novel before seeing me, a relatively generous amount of time and effort. She was a very nice young woman, probably in her mid-twenties, dressed completely in black, and drinking what was probably not her first cup of coffee. She’d come north from Manhattan to find a novel worth publishing. “Your writing is excellent,” she said. “But people want to read about vampires.” Now, I’m not disagreeing. I know a lot of people like to read about vampires. Some don’t. And even the ones that do, might not mind taking a break in between vampire books to read something else. But it occurred to me at that moment that agents, editors and publishers only want the next big book. That doesn’t mean no one wants to read my novel, it just means that my market isn’t blockbuster big. But I don’t only read blockbusters, so there is a market out there for me. How do I find it? Obviously not through traditional publishing. Thus began my adventure into self-publishing.
I cannot overestimate how important my writing group has been to me. Over the last several years we’ve listened to and critiqued each other’s work, and our meetings have been an impetus to keep writing. I have no doubt that without my writing group I would not have finished two books, nor would I have had the motivation to self-publish. Check out our group blog, Every Other Minute, and you’ll see that although we’re a diverse group of writers, we all have one thing in common: we love to write.
How do you find a writing group? I was fortunate enough to have been asked to join one. I’d taken a local creative writing course and our last class was a public reading at the library. Two members of my writing group attended and afterwards approached me and asked if I’d like to join them. I knew them vaguely from around town, but if they’d been complete strangers my answer would have been the same: Yes!
You’re probably thinking, Great, I have to wait for someone to ask me? Of course not. You can be the one doing the asking. Start with your area libraries or adult education centers to see if there are existing writing groups. If not, start one. The important thing to remember about writing groups is that you don’t want a collection of friends who are willing to listen to your writing, you want a collection of writers who are willing to critique and be critiqued. There is a learning curve to critiquing. You have to be able to simultaneously listen, make notes, and keep track of the many facets of a good story – plot, character, pacing, etc. But it’s extremely worthwhile joining or creating such a group, because you’ll keep each other motivated and focused on your goals: putting your stories out there for others to read and enjoy.
It’s very easy to decide to write a book. I’ve started many novels. It’s a little more difficult to come up with an entire plot, and that fact has derailed many of my ideas. Sometimes your idea will only warrant a short story. But let’s say you’ve got an idea, and you’ve managed to sketch out a basic plot. You think it’s good. You’re excited. You sit down and start writing, and an hour later you’ve produced two pages. (For me that would be a lot, but I tend to edit as I write.) Now in the back of your mind, you’re doing the math. How many hours is it going to take you to write this book? And how much fun is it going to be? Creating character, scene, and plot is like daydreaming or brainstorming: fun. (If you don’t think it’s fun, you probably shouldn’t be writing fiction.) But writing a novel is simply work. Sometimes you’ll be working on the craft, selecting the ideal word or constructing a beautiful paragraph, but most of the time you’ll just be slogging away at it. You need to be very motivated. As one of my writer friends put it, “All I need to finish my memoir is Superglue. So I can glue myself to my chair.” Novels do not write themselves, and that’s why many people say, “I want to write a novel,” but most people do not say, “I wrote a novel.” If you’ve written one, that is amazing. You’ve done something many people cannot or will not do. Congratulations!