I recently received this email from an aspiring Alaska writer (his words in italics), looking for some publishing advice. I’ve obscured any identifying characteristics and am answering his questions here, with his permission, in order to fulfill my blogging and email duties simultaneously. Perhaps it will be of interest to others.

I have started to send out query letters to various literary agencies, and have
been summarily rejected (eight times so far – hooray me!). Since you are
essentially the only local author I can identify that has recently (and
successfully) published a novel outside of the Alaskana section of our local
gift shops, I was curious whether I could pick your brain for advice.

Yes, hooray you indeed. Eight agent rejections are not a sure sign that you won’t succeed. It can be just as hard to get an agent as it is to get a publishing contract. Keep going.

By the way, I’m not the only Alaska novelist writing non-Alaskana. David Marusek of Fairbanks and Stuart Cohen of Juneau are two other novelists who come to mind — I’ll be interviewing them soon, I promise — and there are others as well.

#1 Could I send you a copy of my query letter?
#2 Could I send you the first chapter of my novel?

Er, sorry. No. First, I’m not an agent or marketing expert. Second, I have a backlog of other Alaska writers’ work (published and unpublished) that has been sent to me, which I haven’t read yet. Third, I have my own work to do or the lights and heat go out around March 1. If the lights go out and stay out a while, perhaps I’ll offer a class on queries/proposals, as I’ve done in the past to pay the bills, and we can work together then.

Essentially, I believe I am working against a few things here.
#1 It is set in Alaska. Yes, I know it is a cliché to write about your
hometown. Yes, I know you purposefully avoided it.

No, this doesn’t work against you at all, and I don’t believe it’s a cliche to write what you know. In fact, it’s often the best idea. I didn’t avoid writing about Alaska on purpose, I followed the story that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. We’re not facing an overabundance of Alaska narratives — in fact, there is much more to say and describe. Follow your passion and write from your experience OR your interest, I say.

#2) It is 150,000 words, which doesn’t seem that long to me, but is perhaps beyond the upper limit of what first time authors are allowed.

Well, 70,000 words might be closer to the norm, but don’t tell J.K. Rowling or Stephenie Meyer that. My own first novel was 180,000 words. The effectiveness of the story matters more than the length, I’d think. An agent might tell you differently.

#3) It is a horror novel. No way of getting around it. (The author of the letter goes on to explain his difficulty fitting into conventional genre distinctions.)

This is a bad thing? (See Stephenie Meyer comment above.) I’m not a horror reader, but I live with several horror readers. A popular — and more literary — series in my house is the Nightwatch series by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko. (Great movie, by the way.) It seems to me we’re living in genre-busting times, with conventional notions of horror, fantasy, literary fiction all mixing, while the boundaries between youth and adult fiction also fall away. I wouldn’t worry yet about where you fit in the bookstore. I’d just write the book that is in your heart and let agents and editors decide how to sell it. Trying to fit a mold or anticipate the trends is a recipe for mediocrity more than success.

That’s the end of the writer’s letter, but let me point him — and anyone else — toward several posts where I discussed in detail how to get an agent, with tips on books and websites of interest and how to use conferences to your advantage. (Note that they appear in reverse post order.) I’ve also added a link to this series of posts on the righthand side of the blog, in a list of helpful past posts (including author interviews).

4 thoughts on “”

  1. It’s good to see writers taking the New Year to heart and moving forward with their projects by seeking expert advice. I’ve been averaging one “please help me get published” email a week over the past few weeks. I think I speak for most if not all published writers by saying I want to give back, mentoring as I was mentored before my first novel was accepted. But there are so many writers and there’s so little of me to go around.

    I was just queuing up to a new post answering questions about how to get started with a children’s book, so look for advice along those lines in a week or two.

    Classes, workshops, and conferences are really the best forum for all aspiring writers to get published authors (and eventually agents and editors) to take a look at your work. That’s where I met and developed relationships that led to my first book. Like Andromeda, my first priority is writing, but I’ll be inclined to offer workshops again as the bills start to pile up. The economy being what it is, maybe you’ll see some 49 writer workshops down the road.

    I hear the groans. How can I talk about paying for workshops in the same breath as the horrific economy? In the end writing is like everything else – you will probably have to invest not only time but also a few bucks to propel yourself in the right direction.

  2. Andromeda…thank you for using my photo for your banner. You may contact me at sdeger1@fairview(dot)org.

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Thanks Amanda — great link to an entire page of links! I clicked on one of the first links, “How to Write a Query” (lots of good specifics here) and found a good list of “hooks” (the most concentrated part of the query letter) for famous books.

    For example: House of Sand and Fog
    When Massoud Amir Behrani, a former colonel in the Iranian military, sinks his remaining funds into a house he buys at auction, he unwittingly puts himself and his family on a trajectory to disaster; the house once belonged to Kathy Nicolo, a self-destructive alcoholic, who engages in legal, then personal confrontation to get it back.

    Thanks for helping, Amanda.

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