It’s a good question. Mostly because I never thought I’d get this far. A completed manuscript is sitting on my hard drive (and compulsively backed up in three different places) so this is the big one: what’s next? Most first-time authors in my position have a couple options.
#1. Lock it up in a trunk
We writers affectionately refer to manuscripts that will never see the light of day as “trunk novels.” Write them, read them, then stuff them away. Safe from prying eyes. I have plenty of these. All you have to do is read the marble composition books under my bed. They're hilariously, embarrassingly bad. One day I'm going to type them up, grammatical errors and all, and present them to the world. Today is not that day. Regardless, I wrote my current manuscript for an audience. I will not be trunking it.
This option has become increasingly popular as the traditional publishing industry grows more and more competitive. Some authors don’t want to go through the wringer, and I can't blame them. Self-publishing is a great option if you want complete control. The author has final say on the editing, layout, cover art, marketing, and price. It’s a fast(er) process compared to the glacial pace of traditional publishing.
#3. Start querying
In general, the only other option is to start looking for an agent. This process begins with a query letter: a one-page business letter that, essentially, convinces a literary agent to read your manuscript. If you’re talented and extremely lucky, a query letter will lead to a manuscript request which will, in turn, lead to an offer of representation. Congratulations! But you’re not done yet. In fact, you’re just beginning. Once you find representation, your agent shops the manuscript around on your behalf (referred to as being “on sub”) to publishers. If an editor bites, you go through even more revisions on your manuscript. If you don’t like rewriting your own work, don’t become a professional author. That’s what most of the process is!
I personally will be pursuing traditional publishing. I don’t have much interest in self-publishing at this time, and I’ve worked way too hard on the book to trunk it. In preparation for querying, I’ve been reading every blog and online query letter I can find. I have to give a shout out to Janet Reid’s blog Query Shark (her personal blog can be found here). It's the single best place to go if you need a no-frills crash course in how to write a query letter. Prospective authors send in their queries. Janet critiques them, line by line. She pulls exactly zero punches, too. Her clear and concise feedback to others has taught me so much. Do yourself a favor and read through her archives. You’ll learn everything you need to know to get started.
In addition to reading blogs from industry professionals, I’ve also joined a couple writing forums to critique other authors’ query letters. Writing is usually such a lonely hobby, so it’s refreshing to find a community and contribute. It’s a win-win. I’m helping other writers while also improving my own skills! I can recommend, off the top of my head, the forum for Query Tracker (a fantastic tool in its own right) and the AbsoluteWrite forums. But really, all you have to do is find a community of any size and start reading. We need to stick together and help each other out.
After reading hundreds of query letters, I now have something workable that’s ready for outside feedback. I’m taking my letter to an agent’s round table in Manhattan next month, and then I’ll be ready to start querying in earnest. This is all new territory for me and I couldn’t be more excited. All I can think about is 12-year-old me, the weird chubby kid who used to doodle my book’s cover art in fogged mirrors and the margins of my geometry homework. I don’t have sky-high expectations of wild success. This is all a learning experience for the next book and the next book and the one after that. I’m in this for the long haul. I want it more than anything else in the entire world. I’m committed. I'm all in.
Here’s a quick recap for those keeping score at home. My manuscript is finished, leaving me with a couple options. I am going to try and get traditionally published. It’s a long shot, but so is everything else in every creative field for everyone involved. Don’t talk odds to somebody who has stories to tell, stories clawing at their insides every waking minute. Currently, I’m working on my query letter. Then, I will send my query letter to a meticulously researched list of literary agents. Most of them will pass. Some might want to read my manuscript. If any of them like it AND think it can sell, they will offer to represent me. From there, well, that process merits another handful of blog posts at least.
Thanks for taking this journey with me!