I’m sure many (if not most) writers have similar career circumstances as me. That is, writing is not what puts bread on our tables. (If you’re lucky enough that it does, fantastic! I hope to be in our position one day! ) Running parallel with my writing career is my day job. I’m a lawyer. (And yes, I do know what you call one hundred lawyers at the bottom of a lake, and that is one of my favorite punchlines.) At a fateful meeting with a college career counselor, I was asked what I most enjoyed doing. I responded, “I love to read and write!” The counselor didn’t ask whether creativity played a factor in either of those interests. That should have been my first clue to get up and run out of that meeting. She declared, “You should be a lawyer! They read and write all day!” (I fell for it, too. I am that naïve.)
While I wish I could regale you with a legal career involving exciting courtroom drama in the vein of Alan Dershowitz or a John Grisham novel, I am not a litigator. I have not set foot in a courtroom since the day I was sworn in. And thank God for that. I don’t have the stomach for all that arguing. Rather, I’m a corporate lawyer. Images of one hundred plus-page contracts and government filings and due diligence memos should swarm around your head right about now.
What—in my humble opinion—is the single most important quality a corporate lawyer can have? (Aside from a huge ego, a big mouth, and a healthy dose of bravado.)
Here’s an organizational tool corporate lawyers get all jazzed about: a Closing Checklist.
It looks something like this: a spreadsheet with tons of columns, dozens of rows, and detail, detail, detail. Sometime between the signing and closing of a business transaction, one of the attorneys working on the deal will pull together this coveted document that serves as the roadmap for the deal. On it will go every conceivable item you can think of that needs to be drafted, filed, and/or signed before the deal can close. It’s invaluable and it keeps everyone apprised of each document’s status at any given time.
Fast forward many moons and, despite logging hours at my day job, I found myself with a completed manuscript ready for querying. (Whether or not that pitiful first manuscript should have stayed on my hard drive is another issue entirely.) It was now time to let loose those fun lawyerly neuroses that I had to squash in order to let my creativity shine through.
With the trusty Closing Checklist in mind, I went a little wild crafting a “Query Agenda” to keep things organized as I researched agents. Here’s a peek at the columns I created:
I started compiling the data for this document way, way, way before I send out that first hopeful query. Think like a lawyer! Be forward-thinking! I wanted as comprehensive a list as possible with fully researched and vetted agents waiting for queries. That way, if I was ready to send another batch of queries out, I wouldn’t have to go back to the drawing board and waste time researching all over again. It’s already been done. All it took was jumping to the next name on the list.
Maybe it’s the tech-suspicious side of me but I never relied on email trails to tell me when and to whom I sent queries. What if something went wrong and I couldn’t get into my email account? What if I accidentally deleted something? Use a lawyer’s brain! Anticipate disaster before it strikes! It may seem redundant, but we lawyers love repeating ourselves (read any contract, you’ll see what I mean.) So even though I could likely look up dates in an email trail, I also always, always, always repeated those dates and details in my Query Agenda. I used a column for the date the query was sent, a column for the agent’s request or rejection (including the date of that response), and a column to include the date I sent the requested pages. Digging through emails (many of which have the same subject line) to find one important email is a waste of time. Keep that info on your Query Agenda and you’ll never have to scroll and wonder, “How long has it been since I sent that query? How many pages did I send? And where is that damn email anyway?”
Another thing any lawyer worth her salt will tell you—keep a log of communication! That’s where my “Comments” column comes in handy. If an agent passed on my manuscript but said she’d like to see my next project, I recorded those details. Because people forget conversations. You’ll (likely) be juggling a lot of queries to a lot of agents. You don’t want to forget important email communications, and you also don’t want to have to wade through old emails to refresh your memory.
And finally, I leave you with a lawyerly dose of reality. You might go through this whole query process and wind up with some promising leads and relationships formed, but ultimately no agent. That’s okay! I reiterate: That is one hundred percent okay. In a nutshell, here’s the secret to the practice of business law: Hope for the best, plan for the worst! Stay positive and dream big. And if you don’t wind up with that dream agent, you’ve already planned a fully-prepared Query Agenda form that will take you through your next round on the Query-Go-Round.
Jeanmarie Anaya is a YA contemporary writer represented by Jessica Sinsheimer of the Sarah Jane Freymann Literary Agency. She’s a University of Michigan grad (Go Blue!) who somehow missed receiving her Hogwarts letter and has never gotten over the disappointment. You can find her on a beach in NYC, with a book in hand, wishing she could surf as well as her daughters.