I’ve been thinking a lot lately about why it’s so hard to get your first novel published, and I think it mostly comes down to inexperience. It takes time to learn how to write a publishable novel, as well as how to present it to agents and publishers. Obviously there are writers who succeed on the first try, but here’s why I think it’s hard to do.
I’m now querying my third novel, although I’d qualify that by saying it’s really the second novel I took seriously. But here’s the thing. At the time, I thought I was taking the first one seriously. I revised it carefully and even had a freelance editor go through the first 30 pages. I thought it was ready, and I sent off about 20 queries. I received all form rejections.
Did you notice what I didn’t do? I skipped the critique partner/beta reader step. I didn’t know I needed to have other writers read my work. And frankly, the idea of letting someone else read it terrified me. Kind of a problem if I wanted to get published, right?
I took a break from writing and then had an idea for a second novel. I went part-time at work so I could really dig into it. By this time, I’d become active on Twitter for my job and found a number of publishing people to follow as well–agents, editors and other writers. I can’t convey how much I’ve learned from the publishing community on Twitter.
This new novel was something entirely different than I’d ever written before. It was middle grade, and I needed a whole new set of writing skills to pull it off. I studied kidlit blogs, interacted with other writers, joined SCBWI and the St. Louis Writers Guild, attended some conferences, and eventually found two critique partners–one through a blog and another through the St. Louis Writers Guild. This time, I thought, I was doing things the right way. I finished up a chapter-by-chapter critique process with each of my CPs and had my query letter critiqued on an online forum until I was sure it was ready. I sent out my first round of queries and got a request for a full the first week. This meant I was on the right track!
Well, sort of. Looking back, I think it was luck or possibly the fact I mentioned the agent’s favorite movie in my query. Anyway, I’d read somewhere that you should send your queries in batches. I sent out batches of seven every two weeks, regardless of whether I’d heard back from any of the agents. After all, I’d gotten a request in my first batch, so it must be ready, right? But I didn’t get a single request in the next five rounds, and I’d burned through a lot of the agents on my list.
I started reading more middle grade and also entered a couple of secret agent contests. Based on the critiques on my first page and query letter, it became clear neither was working the way it should. I rewrote the first chapter and sent it back to my original critique partners, one of whom said it was “a bazillion times better.” But I’d learned to be cautious, so I searched out a beta reader, someone who could go through the whole thing and give me thoughts on where I had holes. She gave me some great feedback that helped me reshape parts of the novel, and I started querying again–cautiously–with a shiny new query letter as well. My request rate went up exponentially (not hard when it was just one before that).
I practiced patience. I sent out a round of queries, sent off the requests, and waited for responses, hoping they’d give me some feedback as to what didn’t work. Although I never got anything specific enough to know what to change, I did receive some encouraging rejections that told me to send my next project when ready.
I haven’t completely given up on that novel–I still have two fulls out–but I know I could have done things better. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I should do. I’d read about how to know your novel is ready to query and how to go about it. I just hadn’t experienced it yet, and unfortunately it was one of those things I had to learn through experience. So no matter what happens with it–if someday it goes somewhere or it remains a document on my computer–I learned from the process and have applied it this time around. I’ve had quite a different experience so far with the novel I’m currently querying, but I’ll save that for another blog post.
What have you learned during the writing and querying process? What could you have done differently? Any tips for other querying writers?