Monday, June 26, 2006

First Novel Comment Response

If you have never written a novel before, ever, and are querying, should one say that at all? Although I have never recommended that someone attempt to publish the first novel that they have ever written, if someone wanted to, should they just not say anything about previous experience, since it wouldn't apply?

Most writers mention that this is their first novel when they query me. When I read these queries I wonder, first of all, if these writers have done any edits on their work, bothered to revise their novel or whether this is their very first draft. Consequently, if this is your first novel attempt, ever, mention this but also mention that your writing has been thoroughly revised and edited. If you received help from your critique group or if you had your work professionally edited, I would want to know this, and if your work was professionally edited, sharing your editor’s name is also a plus.

To be very honest, experience has shown me that first attempts are usually not commercially viable. The reason for this is that unless writing comes to you naturally, your first attempt as a novelist, as first attempts with just about anything, is not going to be advanced enough to win you a publishing contract. Consequently, most agents, including myself, very seldom consider representing first attempts.

We all learn to write at a very young age. Normally, children who enter first grade know how to write simple sentences. Writing is, after all, a form of communication, so it is assumed that anyone who is literate can write. However, it is a huge leap to assume that anyone who is literate is also a novelist, and I think assuming this is becoming a major problem.

Somewhere in middle school and maybe even before, we write our first composition. Is it natural to think that we could also, at this point, win a publishing contract for a magazine article? I don’t think so. It takes time to hone those skills and learn about the different types of writing out there. It also takes time to hone the skills needed to write a novel.

For a moment I would like to go beyond the question and connect back to the post about including magazine writing in your query for a novel. Keep in mind that composition writing moves one in the direction of magazine articles and creative writing moves one in the direction of short fiction, which can eventually lead to writing longer fiction. As can be seen here, composition and creative writing move on two different tracks. Consequently, since they are not that closely related—more like distant cousins—why put this information in your query letter unless you are querying us on a non-fiction project?

To reiterate the main point of this post, make sure that if you mention you are querying on a first novel that you communicate effectively the steps you have taken to make it the best it can possibly be. Without this information, your query will probably be dismissed. Most agents have seen too many poorly written first novels to believe that yours might be any better, so make sure you give us the information needed to truly understand your writing ability.


DanStrohschein said...

I have heard of authors who write short fiction ( less than 10,000 words ) that has been published adding this to their query bio as well. I have read that short story credits are helpful, and then I have read that they aren't helpful.

Personally I have written since I was eight years old. And an adult, I am working on my fourth publishable novel as we speak - but still, isn't all that information useless to a agent in a query letter? Knowing that I have been writing for a long time doesn't mean anything to an agent unless I have previously published novels, correct? Aren't you more concerned with whether or not the current work is well written and salable than a resume of writing credits?

Anonymous said...

I tend to think of my first novel as the one that gets published. When writing a query, I don't feel right saying, Oh, I've written 8 novels, all crap, but here take a look at this...

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

As the saying goes: Experience is the best teacher and the same is usually true with writing novels. Yes, some agents or editors might think badly of a writer who has 8 previous novels with none published. I, on the other hand, am seeking experienced novelists and, in my opinion, there is only one way to gain that experiece and that's through writing novels.

There is another way to look at it: If number nine is published, probably many of those on the writer's backlist are publishable also--or with experience, are at least fixable.

Anonymous said...

This is a great area to explore. I would like your view on hiring professional editors. I have heard that professional writers must learn to edit all of their own work, therefore, hiring a professional would defeat the purpose. This makes sense to me. However, it would seem that having a professional editor, or perhaps a proofreader could only be a benefit.

I had hired an editor to begin work on February 5th, and cancelled her because of the information above. Also, when I told agents my work would be professionally edited, they asked specifically to see it prior to an editor touching it.

What is the norm for the industry?

Thanks again!

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Thanks for your comments, Melissa!

Please keep in mind that I can't and don't speak for all agents. Although literary agents may agree on some things, we may disagree on others. For many writer questions, there are no right and wrong answers, just opinions, like the one I am going to give in response to your question.

Unfortunately, from what I have observed in the recent past, the professional editor ranks are now more fraught with those who don't know markets well enough to do justice to a novel or book. Many are writers who are trying to work their way in themselves, at least many of those we have seen are. To be candid, I have yet to see a book I've been queried on that was supposedly fixed by a supposed professional editor that was actually fixed. This is very sad to me. We hear tons of warnings about scamming agents, but almost nothing about those who ruin more books than they improve and charge for it on top of that. So as to the question, "Does hiring a professional editor or proof reader make sense?" I would say that if you are sure that they can make the book more marketable, then you should hire them. Just remember, it takes in-depth research to find an experienced professional editor who really has a handle on the markets. My question is, "Is this person an industry insider? If not, how does he/she know if a book is marketable or not?" And if they don't know, then they could do more harm than good. Editing is much more than looking for grammar and spelling errors. It also has to do with checking character development, point of view, understanding how dialogue does or doesn't work, setting scenes, active narrative, knowing what to cut and what to leave, and improving the story in doing so--and this is just the beginning. My feeling is that good editors are born, not created. A skillful editor of film, novel, or book can make a piece of art out of a something that's mediocre. I know a few really good professional editors, and most of them come from or work in publishing, and they are usually booked up well in advance.

The bottom line is that, yes, writers should learn to do their own editing, as you know your story better than anyone else. It's tough and takes time, but it is part of the job.

Mel said...

Thank you for the advice - you have confirmed that saving the $3500 for the editor was a good choice!

I have found from reading your blog and others that the actual (final) editing of the ms material is truly a learned skill. As a writer, we see what we write the first time as necessary (golden maybe!). Then we begin to dwindle it down and we see some as great but not necessary for the story. The tough part, the part that I think can probably only be learned successfully when you are linked to an agent, is seeing which of the parts that are left are the actual story drivers and which are not necessary. I think that understanding, that skill, can really only be learned with direction from, as you said, an insider.

You know, I thought writing the book was going to be the hard part. Actually finishing it, I mean. People said it was the easy part, but as a person who has written all her life but never took it out to the public (other than on a corporate or community level), I didn't believe them. Now, however, I think they're right!! Stories come to me - I live them as I write them. I sweat when the characters do, feel their clothing, and hear their voices. When I was writing the ending of The Knowing, when they found the missing child, my hands shook and I could barely breathe as the main character made her way throug the underground mines. But that is nothing compared to what I need to master in the next five years!

Thank you again for sharing with all of us. I saw some pretty angry blogs from people, and it takes a strong person to post them and respond. I would think it would be easier to simply hit delete! If those people spent as much time writing real literature as they do harassing you, they might not be so angry:)

Have a great weekend!