"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." (Boswell's Life of Johnson)
The professional writer occupies an equivocal place in modern civilization. If you're a welder, or a particle physicist, or a neurosurgeon, you rarely (if ever) run into people who tell you, "You know, I always thought I'd like to try electron beam welding," or, "I have an idea about neutrino mass that I'd like to publish," or, "I think I'll start doing spinal cord repair when I retire." But if you're a writer, you hear that sort of thing all the time. In this (mostly) literate society, we're all writers. We're also all editors: the human instinct to edit someone else's writing is as powerful as that which makes us salivate in the presence of savory aromas, or makes us yawn in the presence of other yawners. We can't help ourselves.
That is why, when you send your written work out to be critiqued by friends, family, and professionals, you must be prepared for every eventuality, even the possibility that you may receive valid, useful, helpful suggestions and observations.
In the previous edition of Confessions of a Blockhead, we examined the idea that Daily Kos is itself a simulacrum of the publishing industry. One big difference is that there are no agents, and no editors, at least, none before the fact. I also imagine that very few DK diarists run their work by family or friends before sending it out into the great orange world. The only previewer is you, the author, and how many times have you caught stupid mistakes –of spelling, of grammar, of fact – immediately after clicking "Publish Now"? Don't worry, your fellow Kossacks will find every error and make sure you, and everyone else, is made aware of them.
In less immediate venues, you can take advantage of several opportunities to have your work read, critiqued, and hopefully, improved. In the case of my gardening memoir, I started with my daughter, who is a professional writer and editor for PBS online. She had two suggestions, both very good, and both very difficult for me to follow: write the book as fiction instead of a memoir, thereby permitting me to punch up the plot and characters, and put the competed manuscript aside for a year, returning to it with fresh eyes and additional experience. I'll talk about memoir, truth, and fiction in a future Confession. The advice about putting the manuscript aside to gain perspective is fairly common in the writing world. At my age, it's an intimidating thought. But the idea that good writing is really rewriting, and that we need to view our beloved creation from as many perspectives as possible, is indisputable.
Next on the list were other family members: my sister, who is a landscape designer and has her own collection of anecdotes about gardening for the eccentric, and my wife, who lived through every incident related in my book. My sister wanted more context and continuity – fair enough, because I just sent her an isolated chapter. My wife was so close to the material that she actually found it difficult to read. She insisted that this difficulty had nothing to do with my writing. She just couldn't put enough emotional distance between herself and the retold stories to be able to evaluate them - fair enough, because it can be a shock to see the world through someone else's eyes, even someone you think you know.
For friends who agreed to review the book (or portions thereof as it was written), the opportunity to see events through eyes familiar, but not their own, was much more intriguing. They had heard some of the stories. They knew me and my wife. They felt that they were somehow connected to what was happening on the page, and this made the book more exciting and interesting. In fact, it may have made the book more exciting and interesting than it actually was, which is a potential pitfall of this type of review.
On the other hand, the fact that your friends are interested doesn't preclude the possibility that you've written a good book. I read a memoir a few years ago by a close friend's sister, about her family and the difficulties her WWII veteran father had in readjusting to civilian life (My Father's War). I knew most of the players, had experienced first-hand some of the incidents and situations, and found the book utterly fascinating. It was also a well-reviewed book that many readers unfamiliar with the author's personal circumstances still found compelling and insightful.
One final note on family: your mother will like your book, unless it's about her. By all means let your mother read it, if you like, but don't pay too much attention to her praise or criticism. I don't know about your father.
Next on the list: prospective agents. A great deal has been written on how to research and approach literary agents, and I don't have much to add. I can validate some of the advice that you will receive, mainly because when I ignored that advice, things did not go well.
Why look for agents, rather than go directly to publishers? In my case, it's because I'm a lazy realist. The publishing industry is undergoing great changes, and most publishers and editors are going to be conservative in their attitude towards new authors. It takes a lot of time and effort to query anyone successfully, and editors are looking for the easiest possible way to eliminate as many queries as possible. This is not because they're mean (although perhaps one or two really are), but because they receive literally hundreds of manuscripts each week. Even if every one of these manuscripts were a potential best-seller (and believe me, most of them aren't), editors would still need some sort of winnowing process to preemptively reject the vast majority of this material. After all, they can only publish so many books a year, and that number is a lot lower than you might think.
One way to accomplish this winnowing is to only consider material submitted by an agent, the presumption being that the agent has already made some informed decisions about the quality of the material and its suitability for that particular publisher. For me, querying agents was a way of eliminating useless effort and getting some sense of whether my manuscript was viable. If I were very lucky, I might even find an agent who would be willing and competent to make suggestions about how the manuscript might be improved. As everyone will tell you, though, your book should be as good as you can make it before you go looking for agents or publishers. Remember: they need to reject almost everything they see, and you don't want to give them an excuse.
My first step was to get the latest copy of the Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents from the local library, and begin cross-referencing agents who handle both gardening and memoir. It was a short list: perhaps a dozen or so. Where they had websites, I examined them thoroughly, especially their areas of interest and their submission guidelines. I also read everything I could find about queries: the one page letter on which your entire future relationship with an agent depends (unless you're referred by a existing client).
Right off the bat, I found an agent who seemed ideal for me. Her entry in the Guide mentioned both gardening and memoir, her website was nicely done and very literate, and her submission guidelines seemed reasonable. I composed a query letter that I thought really hit the nail on the head, followed the instructions as to how much of the book I should include (not much, by the way), and hit "Send."
Remember that bit earlier about clicking "Publish Now" and then discovering all the errors in your diary? Once I had taken the irrevocable step of querying my dream agent, I did even more research on the query letter as an art form, and discovered that I had done almost everything wrong. I had told, rather than shown, how good the book was. I had led with a description of my circumstances that made me sound like a panhandler rather than a confident author. I was flip where I should have been professional. I forgot to include my contact information. In short, I completely messed up, and I guarantee you that I will never hear from this agent, and I will not be able to query her again for years.
I tore up (well, deleted) my first query attempt. I did more research, and rewrote, and rewrote some more. Eventually, I sent out two more queries, and prepared myself to wait several weeks for a response (no response to an email query means, "We're not interested.")
The next day – I am not kidding – I received an OK from both agents to send them more material, in the one case the complete manuscript, and in the other a book proposal. I'll discuss book proposals at another time. The agent who received the manuscript decided it wasn't right for their agency. But still: fewer than 4% of cold queries to agents result in a request for more material. I feel pretty good about that. On the other hand, I still don't have an agent, and I am still many steps away from getting published. In the next Confession of a Blockhead, I'll talk more about queries, proposals, and researching the competitive market. Now I'll go check my email.