Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Time for Patience

A young writer on one of the loops I belong to posted a question this week. She said that an agent had requested her proposal and had now had it for "almost two weeks." She was asking if she should email or call to follow up.

I posted a reply, telling her to cool her jets.

This is an issue with which all newbie writers have to contend: learning patience.

Writing is such a lonely profession. You spend hours alone in front of a computer or at a table with a pen and pad. Then, after your manuscript is complete, you send out query letters.

Of course, you're anxious. After long months of work, you want some validation. The urge to pick up the phone or to email and ask, "Have you read my manuscript or proposal yet?" is enormous.

DO NOT DO IT. Exercise, talk to your critique partners, begin writing your next book, work on your website, do ANYTHING but call and irritate the agent.

Why? I'll explain.

When an agent receives a query, the evaluation process begins. Is it well written? What's the market for this genre? Do I know an editor who might like this plot? How much experience does the writer have? What will it be like to work with this writer?

The sheer numbers are staggering. Agent Kirsten Nelson reported the following statistics for her agency in 2006 back on December 14th here:

  • 20,800 (Estimated number of queries read and responded to in 2006)

  • 54 (Number of full manuscripts requested and read)

  • 8 (Number of new clients taken on this year)

As I reported on December 28, 2006, this means that Kirsten reads 400 query letters and slightly more than one full manuscript each and every week of the year. AND she does all this with the knowledge that she will reject 99.9% of all the queries she reads. Those numbers almost define a thankless task.

Any writer who advances beyond the query stage should be celebrating. He's achieved something 99.9% of his peers have not. This is so not the point in life at which a writer should shoot himself in the foot.

Reading Miss Snark's blog taught me that it's not just the writing that matters. While great writing trumps all, agents still need to evaluate how the writer is likely to behave as a client. Needy, impatient clients can be a royal pain. Agents seek mature clients who are reasonable in their expectations.

If I had to read 400 letters a week (that's 57 letters each and every day, including weekends, by the way) and do so with the knowledge that I would have to read an average of 385 letters before finding a possibility from whom I would request a full, I'd be cranky.

Wait! Who am I kidding? I'd be downright grouchy. Because I would know that, despite my reading a manuscript each and every week, I would only find eight clients for all my efforts over a year.

And this is one one small (not high priority) part of an agent's job. The really important parts are querying editors and finding homes for the clients' books. That involves lots of phone calls, lots of notes, lots of juggling. The last thing an agent wants is to find a newbie on the other end of a call saying, "I sent you my proposal ten days ago. Have you read it yet?"

I NEVER contacted an agent beyond my query letters. Not once. If I didn't hear back, I assumed a rejection. If I did hear back, I was grateful--even when it was a rejection.

Patience related to queries is just the start. Even when you have an agent, you'll need patience. Then, you'll have to stop yourself from calling to ask, "Have you heard back from that editor yet?"

When you have an agent and a book contract, you'll need patience to stop yourself from calling to ask, "Have you received our first advance yet?"

Learn to accept the delays and the long waits with grace. Put the time to good use. WRITE.

"Patience is the companion of wisdom." (Saint Augustine)


B.E. Sanderson said...

I NEVER contacted an agent beyond my query letters. Not once. If I didn't hear back, I assumed a rejection. If I did hear back, I was grateful--even when it was a rejection.

That pretty much sums it up for me. I can't imagine just calling an agent at the query stage. They'll tell me if they love it, and if I don't hear from them, they didn't love it.

David Roth said...

I don't know who the young writer about whom you write, but I know this about young writers - actually, young people in general, and please make not of that last phrase - in general. I'm making a fairly generalized, almost stereotypical statement now.

Our young have been trained to believe that (1) it is all about them, (2) they demand and deserve instant gratification, and, (3) in the case of the arts, only a fool of an agent wouldn't realize that they, the young person, are the next big thing - they know this because their mommy and other friends tell them so.

Their idea of an objective critique is "That's the best thing I've ever read - you should get it published"

If someone writes a critique of their work suggesting that it really needs some polishing, they're not interested in hearing it because they already know that they're the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown. They don't need to know the rules, they don't need to learn grammar, punctuation, spelling or form and style.

Am I saying every young writer is like this? No, but a lot of them are, and it's our (us old farts) fault - we brought them up this way. Naturally, it is now our duty to whine about how they turned out exactly the way we raised them.

Oh, and that often applies to young in the sense of time, too. Writers who have just discovered Word but are 60 years old sometimes need to be reminded that the world isn't lining up to read them - at least not yet.

Patience, friends - heed the Lady Maya's words.

Sherrill Quinn said...

When I first sent out my query letters to agents, I knew going into it that there would be probably a few months before I'd hear back. the agent I finally ended up going with had my partial for 8 months before requesting the full. I figured, Wow. 8 months to read 3 chapters, it'll take a year for her to go through the whole book. Better pour myself another glass of iced tea and sit down and wait. She got back to me in 30 days (saying she loved it, of course). LOL

And of course there's no "of course" about it. Even having said how much she liked it, she's still asked me to make some major (one of my critique partners keeps telling me they're minor) changes that will involve a rewrite of probably half the book. So anyone who thinks their book will stay as is when an agent or editor says "I love it!" is in for a rude awakening.

And can someone tell me, too, when writers started thinking that they don't need to know the basic rules of grammar and punctuation because "that's what the editor is there for"? Dang. I thought part of my job as the writer was to make my editor's job easier, because then she'll (or he'll) like me even more and I'll get farther in this world because I show her consistently that I'm a professional...

Stephen Parrish said...

Great post, as usual. Back in the 1970s an editor at a big house (I think Doubleday) said he accepted about one in every hundred manuscripts that crossed his desk. (And back then most submissions were still unsolicited.) Kristin Nelson says she signs one in two thousand. The numbers are anecdotal, but they suggest it's twenty times harder to get an agent today than it was to get a publisher thirty years ago.

A lot more people are writing books.