Q: I’ve written a manuscript, how do I get an agent?
A: First of all, major congrats on finishing a novel-length work. Ninety-nine percent of aspiring writers will never manage to do even that! Second of all, you’re in luck! Writing fiction is unique, amongst the arts, for being very transparent in terms of how to break in. Just google “how to write a query letter for a novel,” and read up on how to write a one-page query. Then do some research into agents (looking at who reps your favorite authors, for instance, or you could see what’s cooking in the deal reports) and, once you’ve got a list of agents, google them and figure out their submissions guidelines. Then email away! Do it in batches of 10. If you don’t get any responses, go back, rework your query letter, and try again. Repeat until you’ve either lost all hope or have run out of agents.
The other advice–the advice that authors don’t necessarily like to give, since it leads to people badgering us–is that you do have a slightly higher chance of an agent taking you if you’re referred to them by one of their clients or friends. It’s not exactly that they’ll give you a free pass–it’s more like they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. If you come in over the transom, they might toss out the query if the book opens slow or if the storyline seems unclear. But if you’re referred by a client of them, they’ll feel honor bound to read a little further, and that does help a tiny bit.
But plenty of writers (most of them!) still get / got their agents through blind querying.
Q: I write speculative fiction. Would it be worthwhile for me to do an MFA?
A: Umm…depends on what you mean by ‘worthwhile’. Will it help you publish? Definitely not. Agents and editors in the speculative fiction world don’t really care about MFAs. However, if you can get into a funded MFA program, one that offers tuition remission and a stipend, then it can be a pretty good gig: not very much work, lots of free time to write, the company of other writers. However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that this MFA program is likely to be particularly conversant with genre speculative fiction…
Q: I write speculative fiction. How do I get into an MFA program?
A: This series of posts is about four years old at this point, but I think it’s still pretty worthwhile advice. Here’s part one, part two, part three, and part four. If you have any further questions, feel free to email me (I think my email address is in the Contact Me page)
Q: Will you take a look at my work?
A: I ought to say, ‘No.’ But in truth the answer is more like, ‘Maybe?’ It kind of depends on how I’m feeling when I get the email. I’m more likely to say yes if you’re queer, trans or a person of color (particularly a South Asian). I admire chutzpah, though, so I won’t judge you for asking!
Q: How did you decide to write YA?
A: A lot of YA writers get pretty defensive about this question, because they feel like it implies that YA is a lesser genre, but I actually understand it. In most genres, people write books for an audience that’s like themselves, but when you write books for kids, you’re writing for an audience that’s different from yourself, and there is a weirdness to that.
For me, it was primarily path dependence. I was writing a speculative novel with a seventeen year old protagonist, and I eventually realized it’d be easier to sell it as a YA novel (since YA is, at least right now, much healthier as a genre than adult SFF). Writing that book and submitting to agents who handle YA made me, I guess, get into more of a YA mindset, so I eventually wrote an explicitly YA book, and that’s what became my debut: Enter Title Here.
I really enjoy writing YA. I don’t think of it as writing for teens, I think of it as channelling my own teen self. There’s something intoxicating about all that energy and emotion. But I also write science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews, plays, and I’ve tried my hand at TV and movie scripts too. I write all kinds of stuff: YA is just what’s gotten published.
Q: Are you a full-time writer? Do you have a day job? How do you earn a living?
A: I am a full-time writer, and I don’t have a day job. For my first two years out of college (2008-10), I had a day job, then for the next eight years (2010-2018), I supported myself through freelance work, my MFA stipend, and my advances (I’ve gotten combined advances in excess of $100,000).
But since getting married and having a child, our household expenses went up right as my income both from freelance and creative writing was going down, so nowadays I am supported primarily by my wife’s income (she’s a doctor) and assistance from my parents (who are quite well off). Without the latter, there’s no way we could afford to own a house or afford childcare. I do some freelance work, but by far the bulk of my time is spent on my creative projects.
I know that this is an incredible privilege, and I’m very thankful for it. I note it here not to apologize (my story is not at all uncommon amongst creative professionals), but because I want my fans and followers to know that my life is not replicable without money waiting in the wings.
Q: How do you stay focused when you’re home all day and don’t have a boss to impose deadlines?
A: You get used to it. My number one advice is something I read in some random blog post: there are some things in life that are urgent, and some that are important. Do the important stuff first, otherwise the urgent things will crowd it out. This is counterintuitive advice, but it makes sense: urgency provides its own motivation. If someone wants something, or if something bad will happen if you don’t do something, you’ll probably get it done. What won’t get done is the stuff that’s closest to your heart, the stuff nobody is asking for. So do that first. I tend to do my own writing first, then work on freelance projects. When I have a book under contract, I’ll usually do my non-contract work first, then work on the contracted book.
Q: How do you handle rejection?
A: This is the core of a writer’s life. If you can keep submitting your work despite rejection, you’ll eventually get published. If you can’t, you won’t. Ultimately, from the standpoint of being a published writer, it doesn’t matter if accept the rejection with serene aplomb or if you get angry and swear eternal revenge upon the editor.
Truth be told, I’ve never found a great way of easing the sting of rejection. It’ll hurt, until it doesn’t. And then some new kind of rejection will come along, and that will hurt. I have 1800 short story rejections. They mostly don’t bother me anymore, but sometimes, when I think they’re particularly unfair or when I thought the story was a really good fit for the magazine, I still get bothered by them. Believe me, as you progress in this career, you’ll be astonished by the number of fresh kinds of rejection you’ll get. In 2017, my publisher dropped me (cancelling my two-book deal) and then my agent fired me (I got a new agent and sold the book they thought was unsalable)! That was a rejection ne plus ultra, but even that didn’t make me forever immune to feeling bad about rejection.
Q: Why do you link to Amazon in your blog posts?
A: I do most of my reading on my Kindle. When I listen to audiobooks, I use Audible. When I buy digital comics, I use Comixology. These are all Amazon products. I use them because they’re the easiest and best services in their category. I also buy lots of day-to-day products from Amazon, and I watch shows on Amazon Prime.
When it comes to books, I spend plenty of money at independent bookstores–probably much more than the average person–but it would be a lie to pretend that most of my book-buying dollars don’t go to Amazon. Furthermore, Amazon provides a one-stop place to get reviews of a book, a preview of the contents of the book, and often provides the best price for buying a book. If I can only choose one place to link to when I am describing a book, it makes sense to choose Amazon.