Picture an actual playing board with plastic pieces and a spinner in the middle. The spinner is important because it will remind you how much is left to chance. The best writer with the best novel still has to submit to the luck of random numbers.
You obviously begin at Square One. For a realistic effect, place you playing piece (your manuscript) with several hundred thousand others. That’s a rough estimate of how many aspiring authors are playing the game alongside of you.
The game board, which is circular and therefore never ending, has three kinds of squares for you to land on. The majority are blank. That means you sit and continue to wait like you were before. Most of the game involves this activity. That’s why it’s a good idea also to have a life while playing.
Another kind of square has a question mark on it. That stands for Dumb Luck, those things that you have no control over but influence your fate. Pick a card from the Dumb Luck stack. Looking back at some of my previous draws (agent rejection letters), you might read something like: “This is very much the sort of novel that I enjoy and ordinarily I’d have been eager to read the rest but the end of summer turned out to be particularly busy and with a new child on the way in early November now is not the best time for me to be taking on new commitments, as promising as they seem.”
Return the card to the bottom of the stack and continue playing.
The third kind of square has an exclamation mark. That stands for Preparation, the things you can do to increase your odds of landing an agent. The stack of cards is as thick as the Dumb Luck pile. That’s a good thing. I suggest cheating and reading them all before the game begins:
+ Buy an agent book list. Read it carefully noting which agents represent books in your category, share interests related to your book, charge no reading fees, and are open to unpublished authors.
+ Noticing that your 2001-2002 agent book list was published in 2000, you go online to tap more up-to-date resources. Begin at the Association of Authors’ Representatives at . Fewer of your queries return with expired forwarding addresses and incorrect contact information.
+ When an “agent” you have queried invites you to mail him your complete manuscrip, you first check his name at http://www.agentresearch.com to make sure he’s legitimate (a free service), thus saving yourself time, money and emotional energy.
+ Noticing that anyone who fills out a questionnaire can have himself listed in an agent book, you purchase a “crook list” from http://www.agentresearch.com and cross out those entries.
+ You know better than to ever accept a contract from an “agent” who charges any fees up front (phone calls, photocopying, etc. are billed to you later).
+ You look at the acknowledgment pages of books like yours (usually first novels) and find the names of the authors’ agents. When you query these agents, you mention these authors and books by name.
+ When you find titles of books that agents have placed with publishers, you go to Amazon.com and find out which ones are like yours and then mention them in your query.
+ Your query letter has a succinct, exciting pitch.
+ Your query is individually tailored to each agent you send it to.
+ Your query’s one-paragraph description of your novel highlights its most compelling elements in language that demonstrates your writing skill.
+ You sell yourself in your query by emphasizing your expertise in your subject matter.
+ You buy or borrow from libraries books and magazines that instruct you about writing and getting published. You find more articles online.
+ You go to writing conferences and learn from panelists. Afterwards, you query the agents whom you met or saw and mention the conference in your first paragraph.
+ You go to writing conferences and pay to have samples of your writing professionally critiqued.
+ You receive a rejection from an agent with specific criticisms about your manuscript. You listen to every single one and then fix them.
+ You are fearless about revising.
+ You read more chapters and articles about crafting excellent query letters, then you rewrite yours again getting feedback from multiple readers.
+ You read extensively in your genre. You read extensively outside of your genre.
+ You expand your “credentials” in your query and make contacts by selling your stories, articles and/or other short pieces to magazines, newspapers and/or websites.
+ You are a member of a writing group, and you know the paradoxical fact that critiquing others’ writing actually hones your skills more than theirs.
+ You write to published authors whom you admire. The majority send a form letter back. Some, probably those not on the best-seller list, offer you help or advice.
+ You enroll in a writing program or take individual writing classes which improve your skills and expand your contacts.
+ Your manuscript has been meticulously proofread more than once by someone other than yourself.
Most of the other Preparation cards are blank. In time, you will be able to fill them in yourself and draw them at will. If you keep playing, through a combination of Dumb Luck and Preparation, you will advance to the middle of the board when an agent responds positively to one of your queries. The middle of the board consists of multiple tiers, many of which can be skipped. You have already done all that you can do to improve your chances during this level of play. Now just follow instructions.
The agency may request to see the first 50 or 100 pages of your manuscript.
If you pass that round, you get to mail the remaining pages. If not, return your playing piece to Square One.
Depending on the size of the agency you’re dealing with, there may be one or two readers to go through before reaching the head agent. If reader number one doesn’t pass your manuscript up to the next tier, return to Square One. You may advance another level this way before the head agent reviews your work and makes a final yes or no decision. Or he or she may suggest revisions. This does not constitute a yes or a no. No promises are made.
Rewrite and resubmit skipping the previous tiers. If the agent says no to the revision, return to Square One. If the agent says yes, expect to work on at least one more revision, but this time with an agent-author contract in hand.
I reached this point in the game twice, once with each of two manuscripts. While playing the game, this looks like the ultimate end point, the fruition of all your dreams. It’s not. Now you play The Editor Game, which is usually shorter (one way or another) and for the most part played for you by your agent while you wait, another skill you’ve mastered.
After my first time through, I returned to Square One. After my second round, I had a book contract. My novel, a romantic suspense titled Pretend I’m Not Here is being published in July 2002 by HarperCollins.
This isn’t the end point either. Now I’m playing The Promotion Game and The Option Book Game, hopefully to be followed by many more similar games, all equally frustrating and potentially rewarding. The only prerequisite skill needed for any of them is perseverance. You must keep playing to win. Thinking of it as a game will help keep the process in perspective. It can be hard, especially the near misses. There’s only one thing more depressing than getting an agent’s initial attention, teetering on the edge of a contract offer, and then getting turned down: that’s getting no attention at all.
Enjoy the ups and downs, and know that every time you return to Square One, you’re smarter and more experienced. You get an unlimited number of spins. Use them.
Chris Gavaler is the author of Pretend I’m Not Here, a romantic suspense published by HarperCollins. For more information, writing advice, FREE chapters, or correspondence, visit: