(This post is the first in an ongoing series about my quest to secure a literary agent)
Over the last winter I wrote a young adult novel that is to be part of a trilogy I am calling The Ghost Children. The first draft of the novel took me a little over six months to complete, and I then spent the next four months working on revising it. The first fifty pages were revised nearly ten times, and the first chapter is very different (and I hope much improved) than the first draft I completed at my in-laws house in Deposit, New York on December 28, 2010.
Writing the novel took an enormous amount of self-discipline and sacrifice. I wrote it almost entirely at night once my children were in bed, thus sacrificing time away from my wife. I have always wanted to write fiction, and never really thought of myself as a writer engaged in scholarly writing only. In fact, I have always thought of my scholarship as a means to an end—a fictional end. I have always intended to move toward more fictional models, and the novel is the model that I feel most at home with. I really just want to write good stories that people can enjoy and that will hopefully strike a chord. I confess to wanting a mass audience in addition to the very small audience that accompanies scholarly writing.
As difficult and time consuming as the novel was to write, it was nothing compared to the amount of work I am putting into finding a literary agent. I’ve spent hours and hours doing research on agents and the writing of query letters (an art in itself), and reading tons of young adult novels and blogs on children’s literature. All of this has been very informative, and I feel as if I now have a much better understanding of the business side of the industry. Having said that, the whole business of finding an agent (to say nothing of a publisher!) is incredibly frustrating. So much of this process is subjective and it seems to be more about who you know and not (necessarily) how well one writes. I guess it’s not really a shock to realize that networking is the most essential part of success. Nevertheless, one does write to be read, and I am just one of perhaps thousands of American writers who are looking for a way into the very insular publishing industry. I hope I am moving away from thinking of myself as entitled to be one of the published just because I have labored away at something very long and hard. No one is entitled in this world, and hard work will only get one so far. All of this may sound cynical, but I also think it’s realistic.
The query letter has turned out to be more difficult to write than the novel itself. My first query, which went completely unanswered, was far too long. I have since spent nearly two months revising the letter and the one paragraph synopsis of the novel. I believe that I now have the letter just about “right,” but I feel like I am still wondering around like some lost soul in the desert. The synopsis of the novel is as follows:
In a small village in New England a brother and sister become ensnared in the sinister world of secrets and lies, ghosts and revenge. Stefano and Lucia Pericolanti spend most of their time working at the bakery their immigrant parents own, desperate to escape their boring lives. Everything changes when they are asked to make a delivery to Ms. Colmann, the school librarian. While there, Lucia discovers that something sinister is haunting the librarian’s house, and now it has its sights on her. As Lucia tries to convince her brother that something is after her, they draw the attention of old man Conklin, the village watchdog and the most feared man in the neighborhood. The siblings soon discover that there is more to old man Conklin than meets the eye, and that he may turn out to be their strongest ally.
Although the above synopsis does not tell the whole story, it does get at the basic premise. The second part of the query letter is more personal and direct. I have now sent out a query letter to four publishers and so far two have replied with polite rejection. I would like to say I am still optimistic, but the truth is that the odds are against new writers without a strong network. Questions of self-publishing do come up, but then to do that I would have to feel more than a little hopeless.
I am writing all of this not to gain sympathy, but because I actually find the entire process interesting, if frustrating. There are so many bad books that make it onto bookshelves in bookstores that one wonders how in the hell some of these people came to secure an agent and a publishing contract. Well, I do take solace in the fact that one of my heroes, John Gardner, could not get any of his early work published until he had written his third or fourth novel. In fact, the story is an old one, and I am perhaps more depressed that I seem to be on my way to becoming that cliché—an unpublished author working desperately to find a way into print. Actually, I don’t feel too desperate yet, but ask me again tomorrow and I may have a different answer.