How Getting Published Is A Lot Like Calvinball
(P.S. If you don't know Calvin & Hobbes, you have been living under a very heavy rock or in a very deep, dark cave and are missing something precious and essential in life. Get thee to a bookstore and pick up one of these gems from Bill Watterson! You'll be glad you did.)
The rules of Calvinball state that the rules are (naturally) subject to change, except for when they aren't. Simple enough & does, in fact, sound a lot like trying to get published to me. However, I thought to probe a little deeper into the idea, which requires a cut for etiquette's sake due to length.
The Unofficial Rules of Calvinball (And Publishing)
Permanent Rule: You may not play the Calvinball the same way twice.
While certainly no two manuscripts are alike, no two query letters are alike, either. Include that you certainly do not send the same query letter twice to the same agent or editor who's already rejected it once, and add the unwritten rule -- although sometimes it's written on the agency's website -- that you do not send the same query letter to another agent at the same agency. Unless (unwritten) it's at least 6 months later. Or unless you ask them in person at a conference. Or it's a day ending in -y. Or something.
Primary Rule: The following rules are subject to be changed, amended, or deleted by any player(s) involved. These rules are not required, nor necessary to play Calvinball.
This is true not just for the agent and editor players, but for the authors as well. While it's been established that basic rules like not sending attachments on e-mail submissions (fear of viruses which gets you Trashed*) or sending snail-mail gifts (bribes) such as food, snacks, bobble-heads or underwear along with your query and sample chapters is considered unwise, otherwise, pretty much anything goes. No matter how often you hear not to open with rhetorical questions or use overly-casual humor or some other logical parameter, you'll always hear of one person who did it and succeeded. So there's forever the hope that by breaking this rule this time, maybe it'll work. One never knows.
1.0. "The following words in these rules are mostly freely interchangeable, the Primary Rule applies: Can, May, Must, Shall, Should, Will, Would."
This is all true and you should read the rest of this keeping that in mind. In fact, you must.
1.1. "All players must wear a Calvinball mask. No one may question the masks."
I am translating "mask" to mean "query letter." Yes, we all know that they are a pain to write. Yes, we all know that there is a lot of uncertainty as to who wants what done how. (If you are good and research whom you are querying before you query -- a recommended practice, btw -- then you will likely find each person's preferences. Like fingerprints, no two are 100% alike, so be a good detective.) Yes, we all know that it is a hoop to jump through, but jump through it you shall!
As a teacher, I remember grading 20+ essays or quizzes -- I'd tell my students who'd groan at the news that they only had to take it once, while I had to read them 20+ times! -- and I can sympathize. It's no picnic for these people, either. They want to find a good YOU just as badly as you want to find a good THEM -- take pity: you only have to write one per person. Agents and editors slog through thousands of these! Write the best query letter you can in the way that person requests and you've just gotten that much closer to scoring a Calvinball goal. Er, contract.
1.2 "Any player may declare a new rule at any point in the game. The player may do this audibly or silently depending on what zone the player is in."
That's right! A new agent or new editor (and certainly the hordes of new would-be writers that take pen to paper or fingers to keyboard) can declare something new is expected and required. For authors, this is their book idea -- something breathtakingly new/daring/original/insightful, a must-have, a must-read that they are offering up to the world! For new agents and editors, they have their own tastes and styles and preferences, just as any of us do, and they don't have to make sense to you or to the agent or editor sitting next to them (just ask anyone who's had to switch mid-stream) so it's very important to watch for clues. Read an agent's or editor's blog or blurb, see if they have done interviews and read the transcripts from popular writers' sites. Of course, they may not state things explicitly, and then it's good to go to regional events or industry conferences or talk to other writers and find out just who wants what from one another. Luckily, in my experience, our teammates are awfully helpful.
1.3. "A player may use the Calvinball in any way the player see fits, whether it be to incur injury upon other players or to gain benefits for himself."
The actual Calvinball is the Internet. You may choose to use it wisely or choose to bury yourself with it. Research, asking questions, joining critique groups and writer's threads is wise -- complaining about your experience, flaming a professional by name, or negatively smearing anyone in the business without due cause is unwise. This can be less shooting yourself in the foot than shooting yourself in the head. Unless players can do this exceeding well, don't. Even on your personal blogs. Especially not on your professional blogs. Remember, bruised feelings may come and go, but the Internet is searchable forever.
1.4. "Any penalty legislation may be in the form of pain, embarrassment, or any degradation the rulee wishes to execute upon the other player."
See above, 1.3, and beware.
1.5 "The Calvinball Field should consist of areas, or zones, which are governed by a set of rules declared by players. Zones may be appear and disappear as often and wherever the player decides. For example, a corollary zone would enable a player to make a corollary (sub-rule) to any rule already made. Or a pernicious poem place would require the intruder to do what the name implies. Or an opposite zone would enable a player to declare reverse playability on the others. (Remember, the player would declare this zone oppositely by not declaring it.)"
Make sense? No? Neither does publishing, but I'll set the stage at conferences. Conferences ARE where you listen to what professionals in the field have to say, open yourself to learning new possibilities and points of access that non-conference-goers would not be privy to know, talk to everyone and anyone around you because you never know who knows someone or has heard something that could be in any way helpful to you or someone you know. Conferences ARE NOT where you accost agents and editors by offering them your manuscript or, worse, leave copies of your manuscript for them on their presenter's table, coffee mug, hotel room, coat pocket or in the bathroom stall which they are currently using. If a professional wants to see your work, they will ask. Trust me.
1.6 "Flags shall be named by players whom shall also assign the power and rules which shall govern that flag."
If a flag were a clue, we'd all have one -- or wave a flag for want of one. Luckily, there are many good people out there waving flags. I've linked bunches of them in this post and have a ton listed on my blog. Surf the web, talk to people, see who links to whom and your Bookmark bar will start to look like a professional writer's which, in fact, is what you want to be! I have my favorite flag-bearers up there & check in every day. I have some archived flag-bearers' words of wisdom there for the clicking. Go on some writer-friendly sites and wave a white flag and see who answers back. As Eddie Izzard says, you're nothing without a flag.
1.7 "Songs are an integral part of Calvinball and verses must be sung spontaneously through the game when randomly assigned events occur."
This means keep your sense of humor and fun. You like to write, remember? You want to make a career out of it? Well, all those awesome and slightly frightening agents and editors chose to make THEIR career out of finding great writing, too. It's important to keep in touch with the things that make us happy in this business and not let the "business" bog us down and suck all the joy out of it (unless, of course, that's the point).
I recently wrote to a talented someone who was feeling frustrated, "sometimes I just need to remind myself I write because I write and I like it and it's fun." I bet the pros have to remind themselves of that sometimes, too. Keep singing!
1.8 "Score may be kept or disregarded. In the event that score is kept, it shall have no bearing on the game nor shall it have any logical consistency to it. (Legal scores include 'Q to 12', 'BW-109 to YU-34, and 'Nosebleed to Pelvic Fracture'.)"
Does it matter if it took 1 query or 100? Does it matter if you've gone to 50 conferences or none at all? Does it matter if you spent months at the computer researching the right agencies or randomly picked one out of a hat? If you get an offer, the answer is "no." Nor does it mean -- as I have heard -- that when you publish one book, the process doesn't potentially start all over again. Or when you switch agencies. Or when the editor switches houses. Or when a meteorite hits a pro on the noggin and they decide what they really want is to be a lounge singer. (Okay, I've never actually heard of that last one happening, but you get the idea.)
The truth is that one "Yes" starts the whole process, but it's the beginning. Not the end. And no one is keeping score. Only YOU care what is happening to you or your books & how it makes you feel having accomplished something. That's how the pros in your corner feel, too.
* As opposed to, say, the fear of rejection and waiting which gets you "trashed."
Everyone is out there playing Calvinball for the love of good books. Go forth! Play fair! Make and break and invent some rules because instead of fretting over how unfair and ridiculous the whirlwind can appear from the outside (or the inside), remember that all the players are in the game to have a good time.