Fourteen months passed from the moment I decided my manuscript was ready to go out on query to when I signed with my agent and accepted an offer of publication (on a different manuscript). I don’t even want to speculate on how often I checked my email during that time, but it was a lot. Common wisdom suggests writing the next book while you wait, and I did. In fact, I completed a full-length novel, a novella, and a short story. (Not to mention all the other projects I outlined, plus two failed revisions.) But there’s more you can do.
If you’re seeking a traditional publishing path and lit agent representation, it can sometimes feel like everything is out of your control. You’re sending queries out into the void, hoping they’ll boomerang back with an offer attached. And in the meantime…you wait. But while you wait, there are a few things you can do to prep for representation and publication, and make yourself stand out as an ideal client.
1. Learn to write to deadline.
It’s invaluable to know how you write before you publish. Know what works for you and what doesn’t. Know how much you can comfortably write in a day, a week, a month. This will help you know which deadlines are feasible and which aren’t. (For example, before I signed, I said I didn’t want crazy deadlines. But then I took on some tight deadlines because the release date payoff would lead to great promo, and because I knew how quickly I could write a full first draft.) Know your output stats, and learn to write to a deadline. I offer some tips for writing fast and writing a lot in my previous post.
2. Learn to take feedback and critique.
Writing a book is creative work, and creative work comes from within us. It can be hard to hear negative feedback about something so personal. But publishing is a business. It isn’t personal. Practice getting feedback from critique partners and beta readers, so you’ll be prepared when it’s coming from agents and editors. Chapter contests are also a great way to get anonymous, unbiased feedback via scoresheets.
3. Practice writing blurbs, queries, and synopses.
Everyone hates this part, but it’s a grim fact of life for us writers. You want to sell your book? Then sell your book. You do this through writing a killer query letter, which turns into a killer submission letter, which turns into a killer blurb. Your agent and acquiring editor will use the language from your query as sales material, so take the time to practice writing them. (I find it helpful to write my query letter or blurb first, before I write the book or even the outline. It’s good practice for when you start selling on proposal!) You know how a good blurb will make you one-click so fast you break a nail? That’s the power of this skill. Get better at it.
4. Learn to revise.
Once you learn to take feedback and start working with an editor, you’re going to have to take the notes they give you and somehow apply them to your manuscript to make it all pretty and polished. For me, this was where I was stuck for years. There are lots of different approaches to revision, so try different techniques and find what works for you. I use Rachel Aaron’s method, from 2k to 10k.
5. IMPROVE YOUR CRAFT.
Being a creative means you never stop learning and never stop honing your craft. I like to choose one or two areas to work on with every project. Most recently, I’ve focused on deep POV and emotional arc.
6. Cultivate a social media presence.
Now, if you’re just starting out, no one expects you to have a bajillion Twitter followers. But if you’re querying or submitting, you should have some kind of social media presence somewhere, because they will look. Whether you use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, whatever, your social media channels are your easily-updated way of showing, “Yes, I am a real person who is serious about writing and who will make a great client. You definitely want to sign me.” In a less flippant explanation, this is an easy way to get your voice out there and build connections with people who will be interested in your work. Just be a real person, and be engaged.
7. Build an author website.
Yes, do this before you’re published. Again, agents and editors will definitely check it out, and you want a landing pad for people looking for more information about you as you’re building your reach. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just effective. Here are five things to include on an author website if you’re not yet published.
8. Start collecting emails for your newsletter.
This one I really wish I had done earlier. (I just got my newsletter signup working this week.) There’s lots of information out there about why this is so important. My CP Robin Lovett and I wrote a couple posts about it over at RWchat: “Do I have to have a newsletter?” and “Okay, I need a newsletter. Now what?” The fact of the matter is, your newsletter is the most direct way to reach readers who have signed up to specifically hear from you. Why do it before you’re published? Again, it’s about getting your voice out there, but eventually you’re going to have a book coming out, and maybe a pre-order link, and wouldn’t you like a way to send that to people? That’s why you want to start collecting early. Besides, if something ever happens to one of your social media accounts or platforms, you’ll still have your email list.
9. Get out there and build connections.
Between in-person events and social media, it’s easier than ever to build genuine connections with agents, editors, bloggers, reviewers, readers, and other writers. Even if you’re too shy to jump into someone’s Twitter mentions like the Kool-Aid Man, or strike up a convo at a conference, you can still follow them online or attend their panels, and see if they’re someone you’d want to work with someday.
10. Stay abreast of industry knowledge.
Stay on top of industry news and trends, as well as the conversations going on within the romance community. Publishers Marketplace is a great resource for this, and honestly, so is Twitter.
11. Seek out other opportunities.
Query letters aren’t the only way to get your work in front of an agent or editor. You can sign up for a pitch session at a conference, which gives you 5-10 minutes one-on-one. You can also check out Twitter pitch events, like #PitMad or #DVpit. These events can be general or specific in the genres involved or industry people looking at them. Check out the #MSWL hashtag and website, where agents and editors tweet out their current manuscript wishlists. (Sometimes this is also an opportunity to submit to agents who are closed to queries, if your book fits something on their MSWL. Just keep in mind this is not a pitch party, and only editors and agents should be tweeting on the hashtag.) Contests like Pitch Wars and Query Kombat pair you with mentors. Other contests, like the ones through Writers Digest or local RWA chapters, often have agents and editors as final round judges, which can lead to full requests. Do your research, and know why you’re entering that particular contest or event.
Okay, I know it sounds like a lot of work. And…yeah, it kinda is. Being an author is a job. A writing career is essentially like being a small business owner or a solopreneur. To keep from feeling overwhelmed, be clear on your goals, and be realistic about how much time and energy you have to put toward them. I don’t say this to be discouraging, but as a gentle reminder. If you take into account your own schedule, lifestyle, and resources, you’ll be able to create a plan that works for you. Better to be prepared for it now, so when you do sign with your dream agent and ink that book deal, or decide to take the plunge into indie publishing, you have the skills and knowledge you need to hit the ground running.