that saucy waitress at the diner
Originally uploaded by the dark.
First of all, a warning: The official definition of The Waitress Method is The Hard Way. It means entering ignominiously by the back door or the service gate. In publishing circles, it's known as the Slush Pile.
It's also, for many of us, who have no Literary Connections or pedigree, the ONLY way. So here goes:
1. You're probably bored with this dictum already, but I have to repeat it, because if you miss this one, nothing else you do will really matter: Write something good enough that people will pay money for it.
In other words, write for love. See vividly, listen intently, feel deeply, store it all up, and when it's ready to explode inside you, give it up. All of it.
I know it's a paradox, but that's how it works. Write because you want to give everything you have, and maybe the world will give back to you. That "maybe" probably sounds unfair. It is. File it under "working conditions."
2. Research like a mad scientist. There are virtually hundreds, maybe even thousands of literary agents out there. Some of them aren't even real bookselling agents. They're unscrupulous fee-charging sharks, whose business is making money off lazy writers' dreams. And yes, I mean lazy! With the abundance of warnings about these predators in print and on the web, I'm amazed that people still fall for their scams. Would you send your child out after dark in an unknown neighborhood? Of course not. Then why would you consider putting the work of your mind and heart into the hands of someone you know nothing about?
The literary guides advise that once you make contact with an agent, you ask him or her for a client list, and inquire about recent sales. But I never queried an agent before I had answered those questions for myself. The information is out there. An on-line subscription to Publisher's Lunch is free, and will tell you on a daily basis, which agents are selling what, and who their clients are. The acknowledgment pages of your favorite books are also great resources.
3. No pressure here, but if you have any hope of being lifted from the slush pile and actually read, nothing short of a fabulous query letter will do. You've got one page to convince a harried agent that you can write something that people will pay money for.
4. Iron your uniform and comb your hair. Remember, you're coming in by the back gate here. You can be kicked to the curb at any moment and don't forget it. Know the rules of professional manuscript preparation and follow them to the letter. If someone has to remind you to include an SASE, you haven't done your homework. Come to work with a hot pink bra showing through your tuxedo shirt, chipped nails, or no bow tie, and you'll be out of there before you have time to mutter an excuse. A busy literary agent will 86 an unpolished manuscript even quicker.
5. We're getting to the heart of the Waitress Method here, so pay attention. (It's also the method that agents themselves frequently use when submitting to editors so there has to be something to it.
Through your research, find twenty agents who seem like good matches for your work. Then query ten of them. Like kids applying for college, mix a few "stretch" or dream agents with some newer ones who work for respectable agencies, but who might be accepting new clients. (Unfortunately, there's no such thing as a "safety" agent in this game.)
6. Expect rejection. Lots of it. So moan, get drunk, do what you have to do, then get up the next morning and prepare queries for the next 10 agents on the list. You didn't think this was going to be easy, did you? It's the Waitress Method, for god's sake!
When those ten go out, start compiling another twenty. The good news is there's a lot of agents out there, even a lot of GOOD agents, so sending out packets of tens, you can stay in the game for quite some time.
7. In the query game, good news usually comes by email, bad news by mail and great news by phone. If things go according to plan, you will get a few emails inviting you to submit your manuscript.
8. Give the agent exactly what they request, no more, no less. Consult rule #4. No hot pink bras or chipped nails.
9. You get an offer of representation! Okay, you want to scream, cry, drink champagne, offer her your first born child. But don't. In fact, don't even accept. Not right away.
10. Take some time to get to know the agent. Talk to them. Is this someone who truly understands your work? Is it someone you feel comfortable enough to talk to about something as personal as your characters and their obsessions. (Believe me, there is nothing more intimate than that.) Is the agent willing to work with you to make your novel, or memoir or whatever the best that it can be before it goes out?
11. Notify any other agents who might have your manuscript that you've received an offer. Chances are their interest will be piqued. You may even get the opportunity to make a choice.
12. So how do you choose? Do you go with the most prestigious house? The most impressive sales list? Those are certainly valid considerations, but at this point, you've also got to trust your instincts. I chose the one whose voice crackled with enthusiasm when she spoke about my novel, the one who I could talk to like a friend, the one who was brainstorming suggestions to strengthen the manuscript even before I said yes.
13. Thirteen is bad luck; there is no thirteen.
14. This is where we talk about what happens if you DON'T get that call, if you don't even get the email. Then you're faced with three choices.
a) You write another book and make it even better than the last one. (I did that my first time out.)
b) Submit your book yourself! As Amishlaw pointed out, a tenacious writer can achieve publication without an agent. Some excellent presses still consider unagented manuscripts. Find out who they are and start making your lists of ten.
c) POD. With low costs, and lots of fine writers jumping on board, POD has become a respectable alternative to traditional publishing. But once again, some publishers are more reputable than others. Refer to #2.