“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
And no one knows for sure who said that—could have been Somerset Maugham, Oscar Wilde, Bret Hart, Mark Twain, or that prolific writer, Anonymous. Whoever it was, most days I agree with him. Getting published is another story. There are definitely some rules about that, and they have to do with polishing your manuscript and securing a literary agent. (Yes, even in these days of self-publishing, you’re still better off with an agent.) I was successful in not only getting an agent but also in having my manuscript acquired by HarperCollins. Here’s how it happened:
In May of 2009, my last assignment in grad school was to write a short story. I turned in The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow; it was thirteen pages long. I graduated and got on with my life. I also got on with the story. New characters came along and brought new situations, and when I had about eighty-five pages I thought I was on my way to Noveldom. When I thought I had actually produced a real live book, I set to work on a query letter—a letter in which you have a single page to convince an agent to read your manuscript. I knew I would only get one chance at an agency actually reading my query, so I spent a lot of time on it. In February of 2010, I began to submit to literary agencies and didn’t stop until I’d sent out seventy-one.
Responses began to arrive—some rejections, some wanting to see more. I’d heard that an author will receive seventy-five rejections before the first acceptance, so I saw each one as bringing me closer to my goal. I’m lucky anyone wanted to look at my submission, since in the query letter I had proudly stated: “Complete at 47,000 words…” Little did I know there’s a rule of thumb in publishing that a novel should be at least 65,000 words to merit attention. Luckily, some of those agencies I’d submitted to read the included excerpt anyway. Six of them asked to see the entire manuscript.
During the first week in May, I got a phone call from a literary agent. She asked for an exclusive for one week, which means an agent wants time to review the manuscript before the author submits it to other agents. At the end of that week, I signed with her agency. My agent’s first words: it needs to be longer. So over the next several months we workshopped the manuscript through phone calls and emails. By November, it was about 68,000 words and ready to be shopped around to publishers. There was enthusiasm for it but no takers. The consensus was that it lacked a good dramatic through-line. Back to the drawing board. I secured the services of a well-respected professional editor to perform a conceptual edit, and she gave me wonderful advice. Onward.
I came up with that dramatic through-line, but then I had to weave it through the story from beginning to end—painstaking, to say the least. My agent started to shop the book again after the Christmas holidays.
In March of 2011 (ten months after signing with the literary agency), an editor at HarperCollins contacted my agent, who set up a phone call. When we spoke, the editor said she would "get with her team” and that she looked forward to working with me. At Harper (and perhaps at all publishing houses), a book must be approved unanimously for acceptance by a team. There were three people on my potential team who had doubts. They insisted that I address such things as characterization, plot points, plot resolutions, and how I would strengthen that dramatic through-line. They wanted more suspense. I put my nose to the grindstone and gave them what they asked for. It was finally accepted. On April 11, 2011 (four weeks after that initial call from the interested editor), Harper officially acquired my work for release in 2013. Imagine my dismay at the thought of such a long wait. Little did I know that the real work was about to begin. I got through another conceptual edit and several revisions, always improving the work. It took months.
By November of 2012, the book had grown to over 97,000 words and was nearly in its final state. But the editing continued: another conceptual edit; grammar, punctuation and usage edits; concision and cohesion edits; a copy edit; an edit by a person well-versed in all things southern (the story takes place in and around New Orleans); as well as a proofread and another edit, this one conducted by someone well-versed in Catholicism (a key element in the story). My work got the fine-tooth-comb treatment. Here’s an example: In the story, I have a character referencing a Bible quote. I’m Catholic and used my own Bible to obtain the quote, which ended in “said the Lord.” The editor wrote in the margin: “Author—the character referencing this quote is a Southern Evangelical and would have used a King James Bible. The quote should end in ‘saith the Lord.’” Yes, ma’am.
The revising continued. After the final proofread, I was told there would be what's known as a P.S. Section added to the book, which required me to provide acknowledgments, a piece about how I, a northerner, came to write a story that takes place in the South, and recommendations for further reading. I was also asked to supply an author photo.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow was released on February 26, 2013, nearly two years after it had been acquired by HarperCollins. Can I get an Amen?
If you ever decide you need your own agent, here are the steps you need to take:
1. Identify your genre.
2. Write a concise synopsis of your novel—something appropriate for the book jacket. If it's literary fiction, you should point out its theme or message. Find a plot point in your own work and describe it. Here’s an example:
Atticus Finch's appointment to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white girl, was a mere formality; the verdict had been reached before the trial even began. However, Atticus chose to give his client the best defense he could—an act of courage in 1930s Alabama.
3. The query letter may be the most important document you’ll ever write, so make it your best effort. (I’m happy to share mine with anyone who is interested.)
4. Agents accept submissions electronically. The next step is to consult a publication that lists them. Subscribe to www.writersmarket.com (there's a fee but it's very reasonable). It's the on-line version of what used to be a hard copy book. There are definite advantages to it: the site is constantly updated (the book was obsolete before you left the store with it), you can sort through the site to get to agencies that represent your genre, and you can easily track your submissions. The site is very user friendly. First, you give the parameters of your search; then, clicking on a name will take you to an agency's entry. After that, it's a matter of going to their individual websites (a link is provided in the entry) and finding out exactly how to submit to them. Some of them ask for the query and a synopsis, some for the query + 10 pages, some for the query + a chapter, etc. DO NOT SEND THEM MORE THAN THEY ASK FOR. I always tailored my query to address specifics the agency gave in its listing. I sent out multiple submissions without waiting to hear back from one agency before sending to another. That would take forever. In my opinion, if an agency refuses to be part of multiple submissions, skip it.