I’ve finished the first draft of the sequel to the next part of my memoir, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales From Brooklyn” (Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com). Now the work begins. In the “why should I suffer alone?” category, I thought I’d share the answer to the question posed in the title. It also explains something Neil Simon (yes that Neil Simon) that I wrote well but that I should not be a writer. He said, “And if you take my advice (about not being a writer), then you shouldn’t be one.” It’s a lot more to unpack that it seems. A hint. He wrote his first play, “Come Blow Your Horn” 14 times! That rip it up, throw it away, and start it again 14 times.
The reality is that while writing, especially the re-writing, editing, and re-writing (and I could repeat that five, ten, 20 times) is hard, what it takes a) to get a book published and b) have more people than 10 buy it is really hard. Here’s an example.
One can find on google an impossible number of self-help articles on this subject. I’ve decided the best source is something called the author’s bible. It’s a big, heavy 800+ page book called, “The Writers Market.” In it are self-help articles/tutorials from the best in the business and then sections on reputable, certified professionals in the business. For instance, agents, publishers, consumer magazines, trade journals, etc. In each category, listed alphabetically are folks who theoretically want to help you. I’ve just finished working through the 173 pages of agents. Next comes publishers.
Each listing, in type size designed to produce prodigious eye-strain, tells the who, what, why, and when you need to contact an agent, understanding that an agency can have two agents or twenty-two. Each one needs to be read about to see if the keywords that fit your book–mine would be humor and memoir–pop up. Having done this, I now have a list of 64 agencies, well over 100 agents (but the hard and fast rule is never, even NEVER, contact more than one agent in an agency at a time), and 10 agencies I’ve “?-marked.” These seemed like “almosts.” I will go back to them after I’ve finished the “definites.”
So begins the fun. For each one I have to go on-line to find out if their definitions of my keywords match what I’ve written about. Everyone knows not everyone thinks the same things are funny. Hundreds of people in an audience would hear Henny Youngman say, “Take my wife…please” and fall off their chairs laughing. Others, with puzzled look, would wonder, “Why?” There is also a wide divergence in wanting to review memoirs. Does the agent want say an historical memoir, a coming out memoir, one from an scientific inventor like Rube Goldberg, and so on? The list now shortens because you’ve read the “I want to sees…” of every agent that is interested in humor/memoir. Now, as Werner Wolf used to say we “got to the tape.”
The book has helped us narrow the field and focus in on what is still an mind-altering number of people who it turns out don’t all want the same information from you even though they all do the same thing from you. What’s next is the computer. Each and every agency that has checked off names has to be researched. The author needs to know about the history of the agency, whatever specialties/quirks it has, if it calls itself a full-service agency or is a “boutique agency (smaller with fewer agents and fewer interests). From the information might come a word, phrase or sentence that will be used in my quesry letter to show the agent that I’ve done some research. One agency wants to plumb the depths of the “non-gender” authors. It’s founder, a woman, married, with children and dogs, describes herself as she/they/them and through out her screed are scattered these pronouns. I’m not querying “it.” ‘can’t deal with how to write the letter.
Now on to the agents themselves. We learn which individuals definitionally match up with one’s work. We also want to dig a little into whatever personal information they provide. Maybe there’s a connection that can be thrown in–lived in their neighborhood, love dogs, have the same breed–that you think will not take away much space, but might stop the agent’s eyes in a better way than say a typo…
Contacting agents and publishers, of which there are three or four times the numbers of agents, takes thicker skin and more patience than applying to college. You could shoot yourself facing them.
At least half apologize. They tell you if you haven’t heard in three weeks from some, three months for others, you’re not going to hear. Ever. ‘no time. Nor, as I’ve learned, don’t set your clock or circle your calendar to remind you when you were told they would respond. They lie. It’s isn’t intentional. Some days one reads faster than others, some days are just total personal disasters, some days “the thrill of it all” just isn’t as thrilling. Two weeks after “Itchy Balls…”was published, I got a response from an agent who was interested in seeing the manuscript. It was about 18 months after I first queried her.
With our now shorter list we have to have prepared, in advance by the way, a query letter, a proposal, and the first twenty-five pages of one’s work. Know, however that different agents have different wants, as do publishers. Some just want the letter and that’s it. Based on it, they’ll decide if they want to see more. Some want pieces or all of the rest, and all at the same time. But twenty-five pages could be the ask for one agent, ten or five for another. The norm in the industry for a query letter is one page–not one and a quarter or one and a half. One agent, in detailing what she wants in her query letter says she recognizes it is an impossible ask to put to a writer. But that’s what she wants.
There are shelves of books that tell how to write the perfect query letter. One can go nuts trying. Eventually it boils down to certain information snippets about the author, the book, the potential audience. Some want it in a certain order, some don’t care, but the author needs to know that to show that (s)he has read up on the agent. And this letter, even though the beginning of the process, is the final exam. Pardon the pun, but it must be letter perfect. I, as a writer and my work, will be judged completely on that one page–and they tell you that. As one agent said, “when you’ve got every thing together, let it cook (put it aside) for a few days, then look at it again before hitting send.” I can’t imagine going through this process before computers with cut and paste options. But when one cuts and pastes, one can’t forget that type faces and type sizes have to match. And for heaven’s sake, I can’t fall into the trip of thinking that I’ll get an “A” for creativity if I use letters with blood dripping off them (see below), a weird type, or write the letter bolded and all caps. I do and I lose.
Mind you, the above reserach has taken almost a week and an average of 3 hours per day. Nor have I yet sent out the first of whatever to whomever claims they want. My plan is to take next week and get out all the letters and whatevers to the agents. Then I’m going to start the research on publishers but not send anything out until about the time I should begin hearing from the agents. In doing all this, I will know that at the end if I have two, probably one taker, I’ve beaten all the odds.
In a few weeks, I’ll regale you about the publishers. By that time I hope I will have convinced most of you to just write what you want for whomever you want, leave a note in your will who it is intended for, and stick it in a draw. It’s a lot less work. It should also help you understand why I don’t don’t answer all your emails or return your calls, or stay long on the phone when I do–at least from my perspective.
Bill Gralnick, the novice author, is here obsessively every week his fingers at work. Be forewarned, next week’s won’t be so light-hearted. The world’s doings, including in our our political backyard, are getting to him. Yet he still says, “Read! It’s good for both us.”
And while you’re reading, a link to all his musings and ramblings can be found on his web-site williamgralnickauthor.com Nor should you forget, “The War of the Itchy Balls and Other Tales From Brooklyn” at Amazon.com. And if you have nothing else to think about, think about his sequel, “George Washington Didn’t Sleep Here.” Unlike most the sequels, it will be as good or better than the original. He promises.