I’ll be the amateur so you don’t have to be.
When I was 16 I worked in a record store. We didn’t sell records (because it was the 90s so we sold cassettes, compact discs and the easily forgotten cassingles) but we still referred to it as “the record store,” probably because that sounded way cooler than “the cassingle store.”
My musical taste and my general outlook on life were greatly influenced by my time there and in particular, by my co-worker Ray, who taught me about many things, including the concept known as “amateur hour.”
See, when you work in a record store, you come to believe (for better or worse) that musical taste is someone’s defining characteristic and that being “cool” is the most important thing you can be. I am happy to say Ray and I both grew out of this phase and eventually valued things in others beyond “coolness,” but back in the day, good luck if you came into our store looking for Mariah Carey or Debbie Gibson while we were listening to Elvis Costello. If three people in a row asked for something we deemed “uncool,” Ray would turn to me, shake his head, bug his eyes out and say, “Must be amateur hour.” I learned to give a mean side-eye as a 16-year-old.
I believe this is how I became petrified of seeming uncool or inexperienced. Although I have always been naturally risk-adverse, working with Ray in “the record store” convinced me that appearing uncool was to be avoided at all costs. This meant that for the next twenty years I would stick to what I knew and could do well with little effort. This strategy fell apart when I had my first child and realized parenting was well outside of my wheelhouse, but that’s a different blog post… Right now, decades after my stint in “the record store,” I’m forced to confront my amateur status as an aspiring novelist. I have to put myself out there, expose my ignorance, try new things, and ask for help. Below you will see a catalogue of what I’ve done in the last six months that I didn’t know existed half a year ago.
I present it here (for all of the internet to see) for one reason and one reason only: Let me help you protect your cool.
First of all, let’s catch up:
Here are some things I’ve done (and things you might want to do, if you’re just starting out):
After polishing my manuscript to the best of my ability based on feedback from other writer friends and beta readers, I wrote a query letter, a synopsis, a log line and several twitter pitches. These are all different things and each of them taught me something new about my novel, my writing and the process of selling a book. (Click on any of the terms to learn more about these things.)
I queried, queried and queried some more. This involves research. It involves following Writer’s Digest and Publisher’s Weekly on Twitter and signing up for their listserves. Do this!
In fact, if you’re not on Twitter, get your butt over there and learn the ropes. I had resisted for years and now I’m making up for lost time. I have found out about so many opportunities and made so many connections through Twitter.I entered a (free) contest where the prize was a critique of your first ten pages. I did not win but it was cool to find out a thing like this existed. It’s an on-going contest that focuses on different genres each time. Check it out!
I did a Writer’s Digest webinar (for about $90) on rejections that came with an agent critique of my query letter. This was hard. I’m not a terribly spiritual person but, as a writer, I certainly believe that words are powerful. Listening to an agent say the world “rejection” over and over again was difficult. But I’ve been getting a lot of feedback from peers on my query letters and I thought it would be worthwhile to get feedback from a professional. Here’s what I learned:
My title rocks. (I have since learned I likely need to change it for legal reasons. Sigh.)
My writing is solid.
I have a huge (fixable) plot problem that no one else but this agent caught.
I submitted a query to an agent who guaranteed a personal response (either a request or a reason for the pass). I found about this on Twitter by following other writers and agents. Having a query rejected is something I’m getting used to, but never hearing back from an agent (which is fairly common) is something I don’t expect to ever get used to. The opportunity of guaranteed personal response from a top agent seemed really cool. Here’s what I learned: The contemporary YA market is over-saturated and my novel doesn’t have a strong enough hook for this agent.
I participated in a twitter pitch party. This was exciting, frustrating and illuminating. I participated in #PitchMAS but there are several twitter pitch parties and you should check them out. #PitchMAS is a two-phase contest where you can submit a 35-word pitch for a curated blog contest and then there’s an open day when anyone can throw pitches up on Twitter using a specific hashtag which agents and small presses have promised to read. I didn’t make the cut for the curated phase but I did get some interest from the Twitter pitches. More importantly, I met a community of writers who are in relatively the same place with their publishing career as I am and this was a huge benefit.
I connected with other writers. I did this through Facebook groups, through mining my own Facebook contacts and my real-life contacts. Do this! The best part of this whole process for me so far has been connecting with agented or published authors who want to share their experience and their journey. I am frankly amazed by the gift these writers have given me by sharing their time and answering my questions. I’ve also connected with aspiring writers who have turned into new critique partners and wonderful supports.
Do I feel like an amateur?
Is someone somewhere giving me and my questions a mean side-eye?
Has it been worth it?
Without a doubt.
Am I going to pay it forward?
I can’t wait!
Tell me what I’ve missed in the comments! Surely some of you out there are former-amateurs!
Jamie Beth Cohen hails from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and currently lives on the line between suburban and rural Lancaster County, PA. She is currently trying to find an agent for her debut novel in which sixteen-year-old Alice Burton is caught between enjoying her burgeoning sexuality and underestimating its considerable power. She is occasionally on Twitter @Jamie_Beth_S and you can read more about Jamie, and see videos of her recent story slam performances, at www.JamieBethCohen.com.