10 things not to do to get a book deal – and beyond
So, this started life as a post for another blog. I was supposed to write about the mistakes I’d made along the way toward getting a book deal. Simple right! But when I actually sat down to write it, and started to realise just how many mistakes I had made, it grew and grew. And grew! Safe to say, I made a lot of mistakes. And I’m still making them! So this long list of things not to do ended up here.
First off, let me start by saying there’s no such thing as ‘the right’ way of getting a book deal. Or anything, for that matter. Anyone who tells you there is should be regarded with a healthy dose of suspicion and perhaps have stuff thrown at them. There is no magic recipe. No secret formula. If there were, and if I knew it, I’d have retired to Belize by now and you wouldn’t be reading this. You’d be reading about how I’d just taken my yacht out to go diving with manatee. But I don’t and so you’re not. Every single writer I know has taken a different path and each one of them has achieved success on their terms.
That said, while there is no right way, there are wrong ways. Easy mistakes that can be avoided. Pitfalls that are so very easy to fall into. And, believe me, I know. I made EVERY ONE of these mistakes. While I laugh at them now, I also cringe and hit myself. But then, hindsight is 20/20 and all that.
So, here are the 10 things I think you shouldn’t do if you want to get a book deal.
1) Don’t submit to an agent when you’ve only finished your first three chapters
I know, it’s tempting. You know that all an agent asks for is the first three chapters. You also know that their response times are three months. Well, you can finish the rest of your book in three months, right? So why wait? Do a quick proof of your opening chapters and send them off!
Wrong. And I’ll tell you for why. First off, even if the best thing in the world happens and the agent loves your first three chapters, they may well get back to you in a couple of days – if not hours – after you submit. And then where will you be? Hoping to write 60,000 words over a weekend? No, you’ll have to reply to the nice agent and say the rest of the book isn’t ready yet. Which makes you look like you don’t know what you’re doing. Because you don’t know what you’re doing! They may be kind and say send the rest when you’re done. But most likely, you’ll be sent to the ‘time-waster’ pile.
The other thing about sending your opening chapters before you’re finished is that they will very likely change a huge amount by the time you’ve got to the end of your first draft. Characters you didn’t know you would write about will come into existence. Plots will change. You may even switch the narrative style half way through. One of my characters changed sex by chapter six. Publishing is a slow-moving business. And you only get one shot to get it right. So take your time. Make sure it’s the best book it can be. And then, and only then. send it off.
2) Don’t fear the edit
Once you’ve finished your first draft celebrate. Have champagne. Eat cake. Go dancing. Take a yak out for a spin. Whatever floats your boat. You have accomplished something remarkable. You really have. And you deserve to give yourself a big old pat on the back.
Only, don’t think you’ve finished.
Writing is rewriting. And once you’ve finished your first draft, there is more hard work ahead. But don’t be afraid of it. I’ve come to love the editing stage. It’s when the book truly starts to take shape.
Most writers over write, so for them, the edit means cutting out flab: unnecessary descriptions, dialogue where the character repeats what they’ve just said two chapters ago, whole characters who are really not needed. Ditch them and feel lighter and freer for it.
Me, I underwrite. Enormously. My first drafts are about 20k shy of what the final word count will be. So edits are a chance for me to start adding depth, descriptions, more dialogue, to tease out the themes and plots I now have clear in my mind because I have a final structure to work towards.
Edit and keep editing until you know it’s the best book it can be. Only then are you ready to submit.
3) Don’t spend more of your query letter talking about you, than your book
Yep, I did just this. It’s embarrassing, but I am going to share my very first query letter with you. (Attached to the only three chapters I had written at that point. Like I said, I made EVERY ONE of these mistakes!)
I am approaching you as from the Writers and Artists Yearbook I can see you represent the kind of book I have written.
But before I tell you about my book, let me tell you a bit about myself. I was born in Ireland and moved to England when I was seven, bringing with me a love of stories…
OK, I’ll stop right there as I’m cringing to write any more. It went on. And on. And got worse. I may have even mentioned my dog. I’ve blocked most of it out. What the hell was I thinking!
Unless you’re a minor royal or a football star, no agent really wants to know about your life. Especially when it has absolutely zero bearing on what you have written. They do want to know about your book. In as quick and as enticing a way as possible.
They also want to know why you have chosen to write to them, beyond plucking their name out of the W&A Yearbook. Do your research. Find out about the kind of books they represent, and the kind of books they are looking for. So many agents are now on Twitter and other Social Media that there’s really no excuse for not knowing at least a little about them.
That said, don’t be creepy. I have an agent friend who received a submission that began, ‘I saw from twitter that your favourite perfume is XXX. So I have sprayed this on my MS in the hope it will make you think favourably of me.” Yeah, don’t do that. That sucks and you’ll end up straight in the bin. If not in prison.
In contrast to my first, here is the query letter I sent when I had a little more of a clue what I was doing:
I understand you’re looking for gripping stories, driven by strong characters (I had read this in a recent article they had written). Which is exactly what I hope you’ll find in my novel, The Border Lord.
The Border Lord is an urban fantasy for young adults – in the tradition of Alan Garner but with the modern edge of writers like Anthony Horowitz. It tells the story of a tough, city girl called Megan Fletcher, who’s never walked away from a fight in her life. But when she finds herself mixed up in a world of ancient myths, elemental creatures and magic swords, she quickly learns she’ll have to rely on more than her fists to survive.
I’ve been an advertising copywriter for over a decade working on videogames and teen brands, which has given me a deep understanding of the teen market.
The manuscript is complete at 65,000 words and it is the first in a planned series. I have enclosed my first three chapters and synopsis for your consideration. Thank you in advance for your time. I look forward to hearing from you.
OK, so even this is hugely flawed although it did get me 20 requests for fulls. Some agents hate it when you compare your book to other writers. Other agents insist on it.
You can’t always get it 100% right. But you can avoid getting it 100% wrong!
4) Don’t hit refresh every 5 seconds
OK, this is a tough one. As we all do it. Especially now that the majority of agents are accepting submissions by email. Time was, you only had to wait for the post every morning to discover your fate. And when the postman had gone, you could get on with the rest of your day.
Today, The Answer could come any second. Yes, it’s 1am and you checked your email 5 seconds ago. But they might just have sent it. Better hit refresh again.
Stop it! This way madness lies. And Vitamin D deficiency. Again, I know, because I did it. And then had to take heavy-duty Vitamin D supplements as a result.
Here’s the thing. Agents are like kettles. A watched one never boils. Or replies or whatever. With my first book, The Border Lord, I sat and waited. And waited. I hate to think of the hours I spent just watching my inbox. In contrast, with Shift, the book I wrote that actually got me the publishing deal, I sent it from a beach in Mexico and then went and had a mojito, fully convinced I wouldn’t hear back for months. When I did hear back a few days later, I was lazing in a hammock in Belize. A far better use of my time!
5) Don’t waste time waiting. Get writing!
This follows on from the previous point. Once you’ve written a book, and made it the best book it can be, send it off and forget about it. Seriously. Hard to do, but really, really important for your mental health. Get on with writing something new. If you’ve done the last book justice in editing it and editing it, you’ll be sick of it anyway. So getting stuck into something fresh is good for your mind. It will also be a great way to avoid obsessing about your email inbox.
So here’s what you do:
Write. Revise. Submit. Write something else.
The same is true of short stories, articles. Even if you come back to the previous project, you will have grown as a writer, and so if you re-work it after you hear back from agents / editors it will become a better book, with a better chance of getting a deal this time.
I know plenty of writers who have spent 6 years writing the same book over and over and it has, in the end, got them a deal. But for me, the best thing is to move on and try something new. I spent over 2 years working on The Border Lord and waiting for replies. But it just wasn’t meant to be. When I finally put it aside and wrote something new, that something was Shift. It was picked up by the first agent who read it and it got me the deal.
And you know what? I’m just about ready to return to The Border Lord as now I can see really clearly what was wrong with it. And if I do re-work it, it will be a far superior book than it was as I’ve grown so much as a writer.
6) Don’t sign with the first agent who offers
OK, this isn’t an absolute no no. I did sign with the first agent who offered and I’m very happy with him. But I wouldn’t recommend it. Do as I say, not as I did!
The reason is this, there are different agents and different writers and you need to make sure you find the right one for you. That’s so hard, especially if you’ve been struggling to get an agent and you feel you’re lucky to have had even one offer. But if you get one offer, I fully believe, you’ll get another.
Agents are like boyfriend/girlfriends in a weird kind of way. You’re going to enter into a relationship together that will, with hope, last a really long time. So get to know them before you say yes. Meet them if you can. Call them if you can’t. Chat with them on Twitter and try and work out if they’re the kind of agent that you’re after.
Some agents will be very editorial, others will hand-hold you through the whole process, others are there to kick down doors and bust balls and get you killer deals. Work out what kind of agent you want and measure the prospective agent against your list.
So what do you do if an agent offers and you want to hold them off for a bit? Don’t worry, agents are used to this. They hate it. But they’re used to it. Some may put pressure on you to sign with them then and there. Others will advise you go away and think about it. Either way – go away and think about it!
Give them a timeframe in which you will come back with an answer, whether that’s a couple of days or a couple of weeks. Then contact the other agents you queried and let them know the situation. They will either step out there and then, or they’ll quickly read your MS to make sure they’re not missing anything. Either way, you’ll have your answer.
Then you can decide which is the perfect agent for you. They will be the one who loves your book like you do, whose suggestions resonate with you, and who has a clear vision for your future as a writer. There will be heartache ahead, so you want to make sure you have the right person on your side.
7) Don’t think that getting an agent is the hard bit over with
Again, guilty as charged. I thought that once you signed with an agent everything would be plain sailing. That getting a deal was a sure thing. But that’s not always the case.
I know plenty of writers who couldn’t sell their first book (some of whom were then dumped by their agent – because they probably weren’t the right one for them in the first place.) Much like the fact that it’s not always your first book that gets you your agent, it’s not always the first book you go out with that gets you your deal.
The way to survive when you’re out on submission with publishers? The very same as when you’re querying agents. Keep writing. If it does happen that the publishers all turn you down, then you will be neck deep in a new book, which very well could be The One. It will also help keep the momentum going between you and your agent if you have new ideas to discuss with them. And they may even be able to pitch your new book at the near-miss editors.
Above all, keep the faith. It’s hard work and a crazy emotional rollercoaster of a ride. But if you keep buckled in and keep writing you will get there.
8) Don’t follow all of the editors you’re subbing to on Twitter
Again, I did this. And it nearly broke me. Here’s why.
I knew that Shift was going to an acquisitions meeting at Strange Chemistry on Thursday. I knew because my agent had told me, but also because I was following the editor on twitter and she tweeted, ‘Off to my first acquisitions meeting.’ I waited and watched her feed for hours, waiting for the next update. And you know what it was?
“I hate crushing people’s dreams.”
Of course I KNEW this was about me. It was MY dream she was crushing. MY hope that was shattered. It had to be a no. I was at work at the time and I had to grip the side of my desk so hard to stop myself from just turning into a sobbing mess I nearly broke the table. This was my dream publisher. And if they said no, there was no hope.
An hour later, I get a call from my agent. I got the deal.
Of course that tweet wasn’t about me. But of course I thought it was. And you will too. You’ll read into everything they tweet. Every time they talk about a good MS, you’ll think it could be you. Every time they joke about some crap they’ve been sent? Same thing. You’ll also see them chatting with other authors and get angry that they didn’t reply to your brilliantly witty tweet, replying to their brilliantly witty tweet about their lunch. This applies to agents as well.
In fact, the best thing is to stay off Twitter all together when you’re out on sub. Yet again, if only I had taken my own advice!
9) Don’t read your reviews
When you get the deal – and I do believe that with the right combination of talent and tenacity it will be when, rather than if – your book baby will go out there into the real world where people will read it and discuss it and above all review it. And not all of those reviews will be good.
No book gets all good reviews. If you don’t believe it, go to Goodreads.com and search for your absolute favourite book of all time and read the one-star reviews. They’ll be there. And while you might take comfort from this fact, when it comes to your own reviews, the bad ones will make you into a crazy person.
OK, maybe not. Maybe you have the hide of a rhino and the self-esteem of a super model. But if you’re like most writers you’ll be a bundle of anxieties wrapped in a blanket, drinking tea. And one semi-bad review can be enough to send you into a spiral of self doubt that will make you want to give up writing.
My solution. Don’t read them. Just DON’T. It will take will power. Especially at 2am after a few glasses of wine, but just like texting exs – don’t do it.
The truth is the good reviews will find you. Your editor or agent will send them your way. Your friends will. The reviewer will tweet you with a link telling you how much they enjoyed it. Either way, they come your way. And as for the bad ones, forget about them.
I know lots of reviewers find this idea annoying. As if writers somehow think we’re too good to read their reviews. And that’s not it at all. I love reviewers. Good or bad, they bring attention to books that would otherwise go missed. But reviews are for readers, not for writers. Writers know the flaws in their books, believe me. They just don’t need them brutally pointed out by someone who ‘doesn’t normally read these kinds of thing.’
10) Don’t do it alone
A lot of people think writing is a solitary job. And for a large part, it can be. The writing aspect anyway. But if you do spend too much time alone, locked in your writing palace, not only will you go mad, you’ll also lose touch with the reasons you’re writing.
No one can make a perfect book by themselves. It takes other readers. And that’s why I think beta readers are so important.
Beta reader is just a fancy term for getting other people to read your work when it’s still in draft – beta – stage. They can be invaluable, as all writers get too close to their work and need input from others. But be careful who you choose to beta for you.
As much as a good reader can transform a book from something rough into something beautiful, a bad reader can crush it. Be wary of having other writers beta, in case they try and make you write like them. Be equally wary of friends who will only say “this is awesome!” Lovely to hear, but ultimately, useless.
Find a balance with people who know what they’re talking about and are unafraid to tell you.
It’s not just the right team of betas you need. It’s the right team of friends. It’s a tough, tough business. Which is why it’s crucial that you surround yourself with positive people, who want the best for you, as well as other writers who can guide you through the ups and downs and share in the insanities along the way.
If your friends and family aren’t supportive of your writing, don’t talk to them about it, and find people who will be. Get out there and go to conventions and writers’ circles and meetups and make friends with other writers. Even if you just reach out to people on Twitter. Twitter is 90% writers, judging by my Twitter feed, all tweeting about how they should be writing!
So that’s it. The many mistakes I made along the way. And sure, it worked out in the end. Like I said in a post about the things I would change in my life, some mistakes have to be made. But I’d have saved myself a hell of a lot of heartache if I’d only followed my own advice. But what fun would that be?
Now, I’m off to check my email and see if my agent has replied to my latest book. I mean, he’s had it three hours already!