I’m girding my loins for something many of my SCBWI friends already know well: the ordeal of submitting a finished manuscript to childrens’ literary agents. I’ve been here before, including with an early draft of the not-bad-but-could-be-more-sparkly science fiction novel I’m about to do the rounds with again. That experience last autumn was an eye-opener and a heartbreaker. Doesn’t matter how much you’ve heard about submissions: until you’ve put your own work forward to be judged by professional sales agents, you don’t know what words like inadequacy and anxiety really mean.
As one of my SCBWI friends Fiona said, I was one of the lucky ones, because while my early draft didn’t find an agent, I got a handful of “glorious rejections” that gave me hope, pointers on improvement and ample encouragement to send further projects to them for consideration (read: they didn’t want to see that manuscript again, even if revised).
But I have revised it, thanks to the incredible SCBWI network which connected me with a full-manuscript review from a Faber & Faber editor, courtesy of the SCBWI raffle prizes at last year’s Winchester conference. Have I mentioned what a lifesaver this incredible SCBWI organization is? On Christmas Eve, no less, the hard-working editor sent me a full editor’s letter analyzing the strengths and shortcomings of my manuscript, and packed with specific advice on ways to deepen it.
So that’s what I’ve spent the last four months doing: absorbing the Faber feedback and beta readers’ critiques, and using the remarkable resources I was introduced to by BookBound UK (they’re offering an amazing weekend workshop in Edinburgh September, by the way – don’t miss this if you’re a children’s writer in the area).
I realized, as I think I said recently on twitter, that all you really need to get published is an incredible idea, and the skill and discipline to work every day to tell it as dramatically as possible. But there’s something else I’ve realized, which is why I’m writing this post. You need a heart of Kevlar to find the agent who can sell your manuscript, if traditional publishing is the way you want to go (and it is the way I want to go).
Nerves and more nerves
In the last two days since I’ve finished my current revision, I’ve let myself think about what’s ahead: submitting the manuscript again. I’ve had to give myself a stern talking-to because I’m not up for a repeat of how I did it last time: compulsively checking the inbox, watching and wondering if agent tweets are about my manuscript, looking at who I’ve already submitted to and their reactions and trying to calculate – incorrectly – my odds of success.
I’m an ex-journalist and run my own copywriting business, and I regularly have to drum up business for myself and the other copywriters I employ, so I’m telling myself that’s how I’ll approach this agent search thing.
It’s no good – to anyone – if I approach potential agents like a craven supplicant seeking validation of my writing and myself as a person. Because rejections– if they come – aren’t about me, they’re about my product. In business, I contact potential customers who might need what I have to sell: in my case, it’s copywriting skills that can help virtually any company put themselves into words, even if their product is high-tech.
That’s how I’ll approach agents this time. They are, simply, sales agents (and, yes, career partners) who might very well need what I have to sell: a polished manuscript aimed at middle grade readers. The key difference from non-artistic products is that the agent doesn’t just need a well-written manuscript, he or she needs a “taste match” in order to take my manuscript further, and sell it on to influencers deeper within the industry that producers like me don’t have direct access to.
That means fiction writers have to cast their net several times wider, probably, than they might realize, because they’re looking for that elusive taste match: an agent who feels the manuscript chime with them, right down in their gut, because that’s the engine the project needs in order to find a home inside a publisher and a place in bookstores.
You’re a professional, not a supplicant
And – I’m just guessing here – if I were a literary agent, I don’t think I’d be too crazy about starting a professional relationship with a supplicant-style writer who’s approached me with a fabulous manuscript but a heavy dose of needy, demanding continuous contact and affirmation of their skill and worth. I probably can’t afford to devote that attention to any one writer if I’m to focus on my real job, which is closing deals.
But it’s so hard, isn’t it, for writers to trick themselves into maintaining that mental distance from what they’ve written? I reread what I’ve written above, and it all makes sense, but when I do start the submissions process how, truly, can I defuse the inevitable anxiety of it all?
I think the problem is the manuscript itself. A writer has so much grief and love tied up with the product they’ve made, and let go. The manuscript is like a planet: with such weight, such irresistible gravity, the closer you are to it. Only the distance of time and space can help you see it more clearly, and let the turbulent emotions of creation and separation mellow into something else, something like the wonder and admiration that others who had no part in its creation may feel.
So that’s my visualization I’m sharing with you: I’m picturing my manuscript from lunar orbit rather than satellite orbit, far, far away, a complete and finished blue marble that I can admire, but that I can still cover up with my thumb.
And yes, I’ll need to fly in to land at a later point if my book is taken by an agent or sold: there could be seismic changes and re-building on a global scale. But I’ll make the changes, and take off again to leave it behind. It’s my manuscript, but it’s not my home anymore.
I think of other things I’ve written – the small and big pieces of literature that all the writers around me have created – and so many of them drift around like aimless comets. Only a few become finished planets, settled in orbit, fully formed.
But I think they’re all beautiful. Whether it’s a dirty snowball or singing sphere, that star in the sky is the world you made, writer, and you can be proud.
Good luck to us all.
Image by Bill Anders: earthrise from the moon, courtesy NASA