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Saturday, February 12, 2011

What you Can Control--and What You Can't

Last week, I spoke on breaking into magazine freelancing at the Bloomingdale Public Library as part of the Inside Writing & Publishing series. One of the things I emphasized to the attendees was to focus on the things about their freelance career that are within their control.

Let me explain. You control how much time you spend writing, how much research you do, how polished your query is, and to a degree, how good your writing is. While some people are blessed with innate talent, writing is also a skill that can be developed and improved over time. Marketing ability—identifying, locating, and pitching potential clients—is another skill that must be learned.

But you have no control over whether an editor will buy your magazine article or whether a publisher will acquire your book. While you can improve the odds by studying the market and writing a compelling, timely query, or by finding a niche for your book and demonstrating that you have a rock-solid platform, selling your work is something of a crap shoot.

That’s why I suggest that you worry about what you can control and forget about what you can’t. Let’s say you have a completed book proposal and you want an agent for it. You can’t force an agent to take you on. But you can make a list of potential agents, determine which would be most likely to acquire your book, and research what clients those agents currently represent—and what types of projects they’re looking for. You can check each agent’s website to learn how he/she likes to be contacted, and follow those directions. You can spend time drafting a targeted query letter that will capture that agent’s attention and make the case for why he/she should acquire your manuscript.

But you can’t make an agent love your book. You can’t even make her read your query. That’s why a fall-back plan—one that has elements within your control—is so important. If you’ve been rejected by your top list of agents, you can create a new goal. Maybe it’s to have queries out to your “second-tier” list by month’s end, to research publishers who often work with unagented writers, or to consider POD publishing. Or maybe you decide to take a closer look at your manuscript to see if you can improve it to make it more marketable.

Get the idea? Forget about what lies beyond your reach, like getting a certain editor to say “yes” to you, and spend your time researching and writing the best query or book proposal you can. That alone will increase your chance of success, regardless of what you’re pitching.