Becoming a writer has been easy. Seriously, don’t let anyone feed you these long, sad, sob stories about how they tried and strained and sweated and cried for years and years about becoming a writer. Writing is as simple as sitting down… and writing. That’s literally it. No further consideration! Simple! Any moron with a pencil and a blank sheet of paper can do it.
I’m being flip of course. What they really mean is that they want to become a published author, and that is the more difficult proposition. Not only do you have to finish your work, but then you really need to find good critiquers and beta readers to help you hone in on what’s good and what’s bad, you have to go through rounds and rounds of edits, and you have to work at learning how to write better. It’s a skill, not a gift. And then… after all that… you’ve still got work to do.
So you’ve got your novel to where you think it’s ready to be published. You think, “Hey, this isn’t bad. I won’t vomit all over my shoes if my friends read this.” Now what? Well now you decide between self-publishing, through Amazon or one of the other platforms, or perhaps doing Patreon and serializing it. Or maybe you want to go the old-school route and try to get an agent. The last one is more work of course. You need to learn the art of writing query letters, which is in itself a complex thing to master (more on that shortly), find the right people to target, get your name in front of agents at conferences and events, and so on. It’s still a lot more work.
I’ve obviously chosen the later route. I became a writer at the age of eight when I wrote a short story for a school class and realized how much I loved writing stories. I’ve written pretty steadily ever since, though I’m still not published. But I also gave up the dream of being a published author in my early twenties because – at that time at least – I wasn’t able to cope with the rejections. Looking back thirty years later, I know the work I was submitting was utter crap, but at that age I didn’t have the thick skin I have now. Still, all through my twenties and thirties I wrote pieces of stories, poems, jotted down ideas and notes. I’ve been a writer all my life, but not a published author.
Then I discovered folks could make money on Amazon selling tawdry little erotica stories for $2.99 a pop. Boom… I was all in on that for a while, writing under some pen names, honing my skills further. It didn’t matter if they were good or bad, you could make some extra cash on the side for a few hours work each week. And trust me about the good/bad thing. People were making money hand over fist writing absolute CRAP stories. They had learned all the little tricks of marketing successfully on Amazon. How to title the book, which keywords to use, and so on. People didn’t seem to care if the writing was good, although I tried hard to write what I thought were good stories. Some were, some weren’t, life went on.
But I really wanted to write fantasy and science fiction. So I decided to move away from the smut writing and get back to what I loved most. I did NaNoWriMo and wrote 50,000 words of absolute crap fantasy novel. I put in a drawer and tried not to throw up in my mouth when I finished it. Went back to writing smut for a short while, then gave that up again because it simply didn’t appeal to me anymore.
I kept pulling that story out, playing around with it. Finally, after a couple of years of sitting on it, I decided to re-write it. New main character, new story and plot, about 80% new lines. It was much, much better. Good enough to have folks read it and critique it, get some advice. I edited and edited, then began submitting it as I started writing more stuff. I kept feeling my query letter was somehow “off”, missing the magic of the story, and I was shooting off queries to any agent I thought might want it. Meantwhile I worked on short stories, a couple of new novel ideas. I played around with a lot of things while I tried to find an agent for the first novel. Needless to say, it remains unagented and unpublished, but I haven’t given up on it yet. Even now it’s going through another round of revisions when I have time, trying to better capture the “noir” feel I intended.
By the middle of last summer I was ready to get to work on a new novel full time. I had pieces of many, but SUMMER really seemed to ring out with readers of the first 25,000 words that I had produced. So I focused on that. I wrapped up the first draft in November of last year, put it aside for a few weeks, then came back for edits. By February it had been through a couple of rounds of edits. I still loved it. So much I decided to hire an editor to give me developmental thoughts. I’m still waiting on those, but her first comments have been great.
So, time for more queries. I started really digging into how queries are written, what ones agents really like, what they have in common. I’ve re-written it several times now, and I think I have one that is starting to really capture the feel of the book with just enough details of the story to entice an agent. Even now I’m getting advice on how to perfect it, and I’ve realized something: you don’t need to try and tell as much of the story as possible in the query. Try to capture the voice of the narrative, and a few of the most relevant details (Main character; inciting incident; goal) to give someone a solid idea about it. Paint it with as broad a brush as you can.
I also became hyper-targeted about agents this time. I went through long lists of dozens and dozens of them before I selected a few to query. My number one choice I held off on sending a query to until I felt the letter was better. The first few I tried came back rejections, but… I kept feeling this was a query letter thing, that the work itself was good. I made another big change to the query letter and, feeling that it was much improved, took a deep breath and wrote to the agent in question. It was as personal as I could make the query letter, noting their interests, other books they represented that I felt had a similar “feel” to mine, and other authors their agency represented that I loved reading. Then the query itself, which looks something like this (though even now it’s changed again since then as I refine and hone, refine and hone, just like writing a novel):
Hammond’s a game programmer, an if/then warrior, with commitment issues. June’s a woman who enjoys sketching while nude, loves waffles, and who might be a witch. When he meets her at Ernesto’s Memorial Day Moose Bash and Buffet, no one is more surprised than himself that he falls head over heels for her.
June is mysterious, though, and rarely talks about herself. Instead, she helps Hammond learn how to see the Truth of things, the hidden secrets locked away beneath their surfaces. It’s not magic she says, but every moment with her is magical.
When he discovers the Truth of another world that lies beyond his own, his sense of reality is upended. And now June is gone, lost in a place where magic is real, people carry swords, and fortune tellers run the local newspaper. Hammond is willing to make the journey into the world called Summer to find her and bring her back. But each choice they make will change them, pulling them deeper into the tangle of the strange land. And every decision seems to guide them inexorably to the midsummer festival, where the magic of both worlds rests in the balance, and June is the fulcrum point.
Hammond faces a difficult calculation: he must find a way to save June, his friends, and his heart, and do it all without destroying two worlds.
The story is about more than Hammond and June. His work friends, Fran and Mel, play large roles. But introducing them as well as Hammond, who is the real main character, into the query lengthened it, convoluted it, made it harder to write. I’ve realized that you don’t need to try and include all the fiddly bits that make your story hum. Find the tone of voice, hit some of the relevant details, and they’ll learn the rest if/when they read it. I shot off my query letter with the first two chapters as a sample and waited. Normally these waits can take months, so I moved on to other things as always, with no plans to send any additional queries at this time until I’ve got the work back from the developmental editor and can review her suggestions.
For the first time ever, an editor wrote back (to be clear, one of the other members of the staff at her agency wrote on her behalf) and requested additional materials. 50 pages to be precise. And in less than two weeks. Still not a request for the full work, but… holy shit, it’s a request for more! It’s a step up from a form rejection letter, or even a personal rejection letter. This doesn’t remotely guarantee they’ll want to see the whole thing, or that they’ll want to represent me and the work, or that they’ll sell it to a publisher, or that it will ever hit book shelves. There are more layers to work through in the dream of becoming a published author.
But it’s a step in the right direction. It’s another rung up the ladder towards that goal. It’s an acceleration of a dream that began 42 years ago and seems tantalizingly possible today. I will, of course, be saddened if they don’t choose to pursue this further, if their consideration goes no further. But I won’t be less motivated, because each day brings me one day closer to the day I reach the next rung: a request for a full copy. And the next rung: an agent wanting to sign me.
It’s a process, folks. And it is FAR from fucking easy. So focus on the writing, because that’s one thing you can control. Focus on your queries, because you control that, too. Focus on which agents you are submitting to, because that’s all on you.
Everything else is a bit of luck, a pinch of persistence, and a dash of magic… oh, and a fuck ton of hard work.