So you've written the greatest science fiction novel in the universe. Congratulations! So how do you turn this towering achievement into the fame and fortune your genius deserves? We went to the "Ask A Pro" panel at WisCon to find out.
The "Ask A Pro" panel at WisCon included author Eileen Gunn (Stable Strategies And Others), Tor Books senior editor James Frenkel, agent Shana Cohen, and author Jack McDevitt (The Hercules Text). Here's a digest of their advice and wise counsel to you, the future literary superstar.
Don't hire a freelance editor to polish up your book prior to submitting it to agents and editors. Says Frenkel, "If you can't write well enough, nobody's going to be able to help you." And if those freelance editors were such great writers, they'd be selling novels themselves. If you submit a novel to a publishing house and say it's been professionally edited, it may not help – and it could actually hurt, advises Cohen.
Likewise, don't deal with "marketers" who promise to submit your work to agents. These queries will get rejected instantly, says Cohen — she only deals with authors directly. Also, companies that promise to write your query letter for you will probably just give you a cookie-cutter letter.
Get an agent, even you have a book already sold. You need someone to read over the contracts and deal with the publisher for you — Jack McDevitt told about selling his first book without an agent, and after he signed the contract, the editor asked, "You didn't actually sign that thing, did you?" A good agent should be able to get you way more than 15 percent more money than you would have gotten otherwise, justifying their 15 percent fee, because they can use their other high-powered clients as leverage to get you a good deal. "Treat this author well, or our famous-author client may end up going with another publisher." Also, publishers would rather not have to deal with authors without the buffer of an agent explaining everything and parsing all of the contract issues.
Get some feedback. Join a writers' group, get into a workshop, and get all the feedback you can. If possible, find a good critic of your work and marry him/her, advises McDevitt.
If your first novel doesn't sell, you should keep writing anyway. First novels often are deeply flawed, and you may just want to work on something different. Writing a second novel gives you two things you can possibly sell. Don't work on the sequel to a novel you haven't sold yet, advises Frenkel.
But actually if you have a sequel idea, you should write it up, because it may make your first novel seem more marketable, says Gunn. Wherever your creative energy goes, you should just follow – because a lot of writers enter the field with three novels already finished, and release them one after the other.
So how do you know how long a novel should be? "A narrative should be like a dog's legs: long enough to reach the ground," says McDevitt, quoting a writing guru.
You should always communicate clearly with editors – even if they don't do a good job of communicating with you. Don't submit your work simultaneously to more than one venue, unless the markets allow it and you let them know that's what you're doing. And if you haven't heard back from an editor in forever, you should write and query before withdrawing it. Gunn told the story of her first short-story sale: she had sent a story to Amazing Stories and hadn't heard back in a long time, so she finally wrote to them and said that she was withdrawing the story from consideration. Then she ran into John Varley at a party and he said, "Hey, your story's in Amazing!" If she had just gone ahead and submitted it elsewhere, it might have appeared in two different magazines – causing immense consternation.
Don't look down on small publishing and self-publishing, but bear in mind that only a few people can really make it work. Leslie What's most recent book, Crazy Love, came out from Worldcraft in a limited first edition of only 500 copies, but Booklist named it as one of the ten best science fiction books of 2008, and it's gotten tons of readers and sales. But that's a case of a publisher that knew what it was doing. "It's worked for people," says Gunn, "but a very few people."
Be careful when a small press wants to work with you – make sure you're not dealing with a scammer. You can look them up on sites like Editors and Preditors, and scope them out to see how they've worked with others, advises Frenkel. If a small publisher wants to work with you, look at who else they publish, advised someone in the audience. Try to figure out if that's company you want to be included in.
Write short stories. It's a lot easier to sell a novel if the editors know your work from the short story markets. "if you spend a year writing a novel and they think it's godawful, you're going to hate yourself," says Jack McDevitt.
Look for reviews of short fiction online to figure out who's publishing cool stories right now, and try to submit your work there. Try Locus Magazine, advises Frenkel. The markets that Frenkel looks at to figure out which authors are up and coming include the big ones, like Asimov's, Analog, F&SF and Realms of Fantasy, plus some online magazines.
Send your work to the biggest magazines first, and then wait for them to reject your work before sending it elsewhere. Also, the top magazines are the ones that pay the most, says Gunn. "You have to have enough ego to send your stuff to the top-paying magazines first."
Top image from Cult Of The Giant Brain.