This month we’re discussing the secret life of authors or the secrets of writing. I don’t have any burning secrets to share, so instead we’ll call this post
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Writing a Book
But Were Afraid to Ask
Here we go:
Question: I just finished my first book. So now I’ll send it to Random House, they’ll send me a huge check, Jennifer Lawrence will play my heroine in the movie version, and Reese Witherspoon will take me out to dinner and invite me to join her book club.
Answer: Well no, not really.
First of all, you can’t send your book to Random House. Most large publishing houses only read manuscripts sent to them by agents.
Question: Okay, fine. So how do I get an agent?
Answer: You send out many query letters, explaining how your book is just like other books that sold a billion copies, except that your book is also different in a new, original, and high concept way. Like, “It’s The Walking Dead meets Little House on the Prairie,” or “It’s The Mandalorian meets Pride and Prejudice with an adorable Baby Darcy character.”
This is called a “comp.” You’ll also include a brief but scintillating summary and a few pages from the book itself. You’ll spell check and proofread this query a thousand times. You’ll re-write it over and over again. You’ll have your friends read it and give you advice. When it’s perfect, you finally send it to a bunch of agents.
And then…nothing happens. Silence. Electronic crickets. Now, it isn’t that agents are mean and terrible people who enjoy torturing writers. I can honestly say that every agent I’ve met at a conference or a pitch session was kind-hearted, compassionate and funny.
But they receive hundreds and hundreds of queries every year. They may send you a rejection letter. Or you may hear nothing.
However, if you are really lucky and there’s a full moon and Mars is in retrograde and you say four Hail Mary’s and click your heels together nine times while wearing your lucky hair scrunchie when you press send, they will read your query and your pages and love your book. They will offer you representation, meaning, they’ll call you up and tell you they’d like to be your agent.
Being offered representation is like being told you’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize, the lottery, a Pulitzer, and an Oscar while simultaneously being asked to get married and go to the prom ALL IN ONE PHONE CONVERSATION. It’s fantastic, especially when the right person asks you. For the record, I adore my agent and she would also be a ton of fun at the prom.
So, you’ve now been rejected twenty or fifty or a hundred times, but you have an agent. Yippy! You are on your way. Many people give up before getting an agent. You are clearly stubborn and have a high tolerance for personal rejection. As you will learn, this is more important that being a talented writer.
Your agent will now try to sell your book to a publisher. Because remember, many publishers only consider books sent to them by agents. This is known as “going on submission.”
Only the strong survive.
Before you go on submission, identify your vices and eliminate access to each one.
For example, if you binge on Utz Cheese Curls and Lindt Dark Chocolate Sea Salt Truffles when under stress, ask your local grocery store to stop carrying them. If retail therapy is your vice, cut up your credit cards. Being on submission will drive even a normal, well balanced person to madness. And if you’re a writer there’s a good chance you aren’t normal or well balanced.
On submission, your inbox becomes a poisonous snake. You open G-mail with one eye closed, gingerly holding the computer away from your body because you just don’t know what’s lurking inside.
It could be an email from your agent telling you that because so many publishers desperately want to buy your book there will now be an auction where your book will be sold to the highest bidder. Ching Ching.
The earth could also be attacked by aliens. Theoretically, this could happen. But an alien invasion and your book going to auction are unfortunately equally improbable events.
There could also be NO email from your agent. And you’re waiting, day after week after month in literary limbo, in publishing purgatory, for some word from someone about the fate of your book.
Or, and this has happened to almost every writer I know, you go on submission for the first time with this beautiful book that you loved and labored over, and guess what?
No one wants to publish it.
Your agent gently tells you that everyone has “passed.” This is what editors say. Like agents, editors are kind people who really do love books and the people who write them. They never say, “I really hated this book and no one in their right mind would ever buy it.” Instead they say things like, “I really loved this, but unfortunately, I have to pass.”
You crumple up in a little ball and listen to the crackling noises inside your chest. That’s the sound of your heart breaking.
Then your agent says, “So…what else are you working on?”
And you dry your eyes and put down the cheese curls. You wipe the chocolate from the corners of your mouth and stuff the shopping bags filled with utterly unnecessary new shoes back into the closet.
Because during all of this you’ve been writing something new. Because writing is the only thing that keeps the crazy away when you’re on submission, the only thing that brings any relief.
And this new book? This is the one. The one that will sell. You just know it.
So you repeat the process, over and over again until you either give up, go crazy, or get an offer. And that is how you get a book published with a traditional publisher. Are there any questions?
Question: Yes. What’s wrong with you? Why would anyone put themselves through all this?
Answer: That’s the question you should have been afraid to ask.
Christine Gunderson is a former television anchor/reporter and former House and Senate aide who lives outside of Washington, D.C. with her husband, children and Star, the Wonder Dog. When not writing, she’s sailing, playing Star Wars trivia, re-reading Persuasion, or unloading the dishwasher.