Same Day Rejection

The Peaceful and Just revision page #150

Yesterday I sent out my two query letters. First I rewrote the prologue, changing it into a chapter (because prologues are unnecessary) and trying to flesh out some of the more difficult concepts of my fantasy: where Malvada is, how it came to be, what the empties are, who the pallbearers are, what the wards are, and why the Teilarata and the Ars Memoriae hate each other. I think it answered questions that readers might not understand, and still makes for compelling reading, even, dare I say, being more interesting for an agent, since that is the first thing I send to them and it’s the part they might read. I was pleased with it. I sent it out as part of my query letters. Then something happened to me that hasn’t happened before.

I got rejected yesterday night. Yep. That’s right. It was a same-day rejection. One of the agents read my query on his iPhone and sent me his standard message saying that’s not for me. Now, I’m not angry about that. It was actually nice that he read it, and nice of him to respond. I’m just amazed at how fast it happened. Now I have this picture in my head of agents looking through their email, going eeeny-miney-moe, and pressing the button that says SEND POLITE REJECTION.

It just makes me think. What is the point of all these query letters? Is it a chicken and egg situation? That is, I’m continually revising and working on this thing, and sending out my letters. So my letters and my book should both be getting better. At some point, do the scales tip in my favor? Does all of my work suddenly add up into a query that jostles the agent’s eyes enough that he/she chooses to hit the SEND MORE MATERIAL button? Or does word get around between them, hey, I’ve seen this idea before, it’s kind of tickling my fancy, this kid has sent out a few hundred of these things, maybe it’s time to give him a shot? Or, option three, is there no chance of ever getting an agent with query letters, and I need to start meeting people and going to writer’s conferences, because all of these agents really only book artists who they have met over drinks with friends? If that’s the case, what’s the point of query letters at all?

I guess it’s just a mystery to me. What happens in their minds and in their jobs is alien to me, and I just have to keep trying to make my stuff better, and keep working at getting it into their hands. I just want to know what the magic bullet is. What’s the one sentence that will make the agent on his iPhone look up from his coffee and go: “Hmmm . . . got a live one here.” I’ll keep searching until I find it. It’s all I can do.

Agents’ Advice for Writers

Today, since I have begun to work again, and working means I should write a blog to get my mind and fingers flowing, I have decided to mention two pieces of advice I have seen in numerous places while submitting query letters. One is titled Writing 101 or something similar, and discusses the need to begin with a character who is in a comfortable situation, who then wants something or has conflict introduced to their lives, and so must take a physical or spiritual journey that changes their outlook and then returns them to a comfortable place. This is known as a story arc.

I don’t like this piece of advice. Not because it isn’t true. It really is story-telling 101. My problem with this piece of advice is that any story teller should already do this automatically. Otherwise they’re not really telling a story, right? So my question is, what kind of novels are these agents getting, that they think they need to put this sort of advice on their websites? And more importantly to me, why the heck aren’t they even bothering to read my novels? I have story arcs. I have story arcs all over the place, but I can’t even get my query letters through the door, past the “butt-sniffing stage.”

The second piece of advice is to not write prologues. Most books don’t need them, or so the wisdom goes, and it’s better for a writer to just begin at the beginning without the fancy labels. This piece of advice is better, although I do have a prologue (I wrote it before I read that advice) and so I have to figure out what to do with that. Actually, I have an author’s note, and a little poem, and then a prologue, and I have begun to think that maybe all of those paragraphs are just too much jumping around, and it leads to confusion in what should be a straightforward story. So the advice is correct for me, and I will have to work on it.

I would still like to change the advice a little bit. Last night I began to read A House for Mr. Biswas, by V. S. Naipaul, and it starts with a prologue. A wonderful prologue. A perfect beginning to the story. It introduces the character, tells us what he’s all about, and let’s us know that he is dying, but dying satisfied because of the struggles he has gone through and overcome in his life. At the same time it shows how fleeting and unimportant those struggles were, and what a farce the rules of life are. It’s a marvel of storytelling, and if I could write it I would have sold a million books already.

So here is my rule. Don’t write a prologue, unless you can write one as good as the prologue in A House for Mr. Biswas.

January 1st, 2016

Today I:

Started with a clean kitchen floor,

Put in a fresh pair of contact lenses,

Dressed my shoes,

Trimmed my beard,

Paid the rent,

Cleaned the drain in Kim’s bathroom,

Scraped the snowboards,

Sent out two queries (okay, both to JABberwocky, lazy, but I just love their website) . . .

And blogged about it.

 

Mailing It In Old School

Today I’m sending in two more queries, one for Chivalry to Kathleen Anderson at Anderson Literary Management and one for The Peaceful and Just to Marcia Amsterdam at Marcia Amsterdam Agency. Both of these agents, surprisingly, asked for queries by snail mail, so I did the whole thing with the big envelope and lots of paper and printed words and a self-addressed stamped envelope. So at least I’ll get some mail.

Looking at my queries laid out on the desk, fat stacks of papers neatly lined up with a cover letter and printed words spread across the page, perfect, lovely . . .  It is good to look at. It is hopeful. Still, I can’t help but think of the phrase “Mail it in . . .” It is not an endorsement of quality.

It is strange now to scramble around looking for paper to print on, and hoping there is enough ink, and trying to make sure the manuscript looks right on the page. I remember my worry, years ago, that we would run out of trees, and so out of literature. Also my worries that every agent would want their submissions over the internet, and I wouldn’t have the technology to compete. Now I can send my submissions in a flash from my iPad, and it is this old style of solicitation that gives me pause.

It’s wonderful to think of someone in the literary world riffling the pages through their fingers and reading my words. Joyce: “The pages of his timeworn Horace never felt cold to the touch even when his own fingers were cold: they were human pages . . .”

Is it as close as I will ever get? Will Kathleen, or Marcia, or both, like what they read? Will my words spark their imagination? Will they ask me for more? What more can I do?

Joyce: “It wounded him to think that he would never be but a shy guest at the feast of the world’s culture and that the monkish learning, in terms of which he was striving to forge out an esthetic philosophy, was held no higher by the age he lived in than the subtle and curious jargons of heraldry and falconry.”

Ahh–wounded. Well, James, you made it, didn’t you. And so those words you wrote ended up being ironic, or prophesy, or something you read again with a smug and satisfied smile . . .

Now it’s my turn.

Queries

Yesterday I requeried Gemma Cooper at The Bent Agency with The Peaceful and Just. I sent it to her mid–July and received a reply stating that she was too loaded up to look at it, resubmit in August. From her I got a nice and immediate e-mail telling what she was looking for (children’s and YA), her submission guidelines, and an offer to resubmit again if I didn’t follow them (I did, so good to go.) It’s always nice to get some form of acknowledgement that the submissions actually arrive.

Today I sent The Peaceful and Just to Sara Sciuto at Fuse Literary. Since I am still waiting to hear from Gordon Warnock at the same agency with Chivalry, I figured I would sent what I’m currently working on to another agent at that same agency. Also, I read her twitter post at #MSWL saying she was looking for YA fantasy with well imagined settings and rich characters, and immediately changed my query letter to reflect my feelings that I have created exactly that. I was depressed all day on Friday, actually, after reading that she was tired of novels about dystopian futures (of course, that is also my setting, and that’s what depressed me, because if she’s tired of it, then everyone’s tired of it.) Then I thought, what the hell, that’s really just background stuff, and it’s the story and the characters that matter, and dammit, my characters and my story are awesome. So I conquered my depression and sent it anyway. Hope you like it, Sara, since you also sent an immediate reply saying you will only get back to me if you’re interested. LIKE MY STORY, SARA. YOU WON’T BE SORRY.

Then I decided to send Chivalry off to Sarah Jane Freymann, since Sarah Jane likes edgy YA fiction and it was her associate Jessica Sinsheimer who actually came up with the hashtag #MSWL, which stands for Manuscript Wish List. So there you go, another bunch of queries out, a bunch of work still to do.

Keepin’ On Keepin’ On

I sent another query out today, for Chivalry. I sent it to Elizabeth Kracht at Kimberley Cameron & Associates. I chose her because she also at the TMCC Writer’s Conference. During the Q & A section of the conference I asked her why I felt like agents never got beyond my query letter and into my manuscript, and she said it’s probably because my query sucked. I reminded her of that in my letter. I was funny about it, and I think it might make her remember me, but I’m still not sure it was the right tone to take. I guess it’s part of the submission process to immediately doubt what you have sent off into the ether. Like for instance, did it get there? Will they open it up and see a bunch of dots that don’t mean anything? Will I ever know what I did wrong?

It’s amazing how much time and effort it takes, but I really want to get to a place where I have a couple of letters out at all times. That way, even when I’m hearing no, I’m still thinking yes. I learned a few things this time around. I learned that every agent is a little bit different, and so I’m going to have to rework my letter each time. I already knew that, and I think it is a good thing anyway–how could I send out form letters and get them right? I learned that it’s easier to see on the big computer, or that my eyes are getting bad, one or the other. I had to learn that because you can’t add an attachment on an iPad, while its easy on a full sized Mac. I’m sure there’s a reason for that. I’m sure there is. For me that means so much moving around between files, saving this here, putting this there, that I start to fear inadvertently changing my manuscript. So I learned to use word count to make sure I’m not doing that, and I learned to make a copy of everything, and then I learned to put a copy on a hard disk in a safe deposit box at the bank. Oh, and to do that I had to learn to partition a drive for a Mac.

Yeah, technology. It’s amazing how much of this stuff I have to get through just to be creative. Was I still creative today? Yes, I was. I wrote about spears, and people getting stabbed by them.

Don’t Panic

All right, I did it. I sent out two query letters today, one for Chivalry, to Gordon Warnock at Fuse Literary. I said it is about a small town that is polarized by rumors of an affair between a young man and an older one. Then I sent one for The Peaceful and Just to Victoria Marini at Gelfman Schneider. In my young adult fantasy novel all the roads on planet Earth are turned into matter transporters, greatly enhancing life. One day, all of the matter transporters break. From that point on, anything that touches them is carried to an unknown place.

I don’t know how I would look for agents without the Guide. The Guide holds the names. The agents make great web pages that tell exactly what they want in a submission. Victoria even tells prospective authors whether she’s responded to their query or not based on when it was submitted, which is really nice. Without the guide, how would I ever have found her website? I wouldn’t have, that’s how. So get the Guide, and, with respect to Douglas Adams, don’t panic. I’m going to go have a Trans–Galactic Gargle Blaster, the drink that hits like a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.

Why I Want an Agent, and How I’m Going to Get One

I remember the day I decided I could be a writer. It was summer and I was looking down the cul-de-sac from a spot near the front yard of our house in Gladstone, Oregon. There is a place where the sidewalk/bike path crosses from that cul-de-sac to another street. As kids we learned all sorts of ways to dodge between houses and fences to get where we wanted to go without using the normal sidewalks or streets. In this case, I looked at that particular pathway and it made me wonder where I was going to travel in my life once I started using the roads that everyone else uses.

By then I had already written some childish things, and some not so childish things, but that was the first time I really decided that a writer was what I was going to be. Even then I remember holding it back to myself, as a secret. I knew that I would go on to do all sorts of other things, and when I was finished exploring I would be a writer. It didn’t seem difficult at all. It was a realization of potential.

Nothing much has changed. I am still experiencing life, and I’m still thinking about being a writer, but now in a different way, not in a “someday I will” sort of way, but in a “this is my dream, this is my goal, and this is what I have to give” sort of way.

The difference between then and now is that now I work on it. I come up with ideas, and write out sentences, and the sentences turn into paragraphs, and then into chapters, and then into books. I rework and revise, over and over again. When I go back and read the books, I am impressed with what I have created. There are characters and there are stories, and also hidden in there is my whole life, my feelings about the world. I am tough to please, where books are concerned, but once I let them sit for a while I am pleased by what I have created.

Naturally, there are days when it all seems impossible, when I feel that I don’t have the talent of a shoe. Everyone feels that way sometimes. In reality I am excited, proud, trembling with eagerness to share my work. However, the thinking, the polishing, the finishing, the excitement, all of these things do not in themselves guarantee an audience. It seems like it should, but there is still another step to take, and a long road to walk.

I have to entice other people to read my stories. I have to find my audience. This is where an agent comes in. It is easy to feel that agents are antagonists. That is because they have the power of yes and no, and with the exception of Gordon Warnock, the only response I have ever received from an agent is “No.” That is not an accurate representation of what an agent does. Agents are there for the writer. They are the ones who earn a living by connecting writers to their audience. The agent must be just as enthusiastic about the project as the writer, and for to happen, the writer has to find the right agent for their work, instead of assuming that their work is simply “great” and that anyone should be able to see that.

Here, then, are my three resolutions.

I resolve to send out a query for one of my novels every two weeks. I have created the books I need to find an audience. I resolve to start fresh with each query as I go, until I find a way to describe my work that makes my agent want to read it.

I resolve to be selective when searching for my agent. I will not be lazy. I will not choose someone who sounds like they might fit. It is easy to find current information. I resolve to read blogs and websites and find the agent who is right for my work, and then convince them to read it.

I resolve to keep trying until I find my agent. I resolve not to get discouraged, or to think that I have no talent. I resolve to remember that agents get hundreds and thousands of letters, and that hard work pays off. I resolve to do the hard work until it does, and then start working harder.

The Right Tool for the Job, Part 2

As a writer working towards becoming a published author, I face a difficult and potentially heartbreaking reality that I try not to think about. I work hard to shape my novel, mapping out the story, rewriting, fleshing it out, revising, adding here, taking away there, realizing new things about my characters and putting them in place. When I finish it, I will read it over, and I will like it. I will believe that it is good enough, that other people might want to read it, and buy it. I think that other writers feel this way, too. In fact, I think that actually finishing a novel is quite an accomplishment, one that sets me apart from a lot of the others out there.

There is still a barrier in the way, and that is finding a way to get it into the hands of the people who are my audience. My audience is not my wife, or my mother, or my friends. They are all wonderful, but my audience is out there, in the world, in that part of the population of earth who is really interested in what I am writing. Out of the seven or so billion people in the world, believe me, there is someone who will relate to what I write on a personal level. They would like to be entertained by me. I know that.

That is where an agent comes in, and the potential for heartbreak. After doing all that work to finish a novel I believe that it is the best thing in the world. I think any author would feel that way. The problem is, finding an agent to feel that way too is really hard.

Part of the problem is they get so much stuff. They get letters every day from people like me who have finished novels and want to publish them. They have to sort through all those query letters. There is not a whole lot of critical advice given out. Either they like something and ask for more, or they reject it. That’s all. I think it is important to realize that part of the reason for rejection may just be that what they are reading just isn’t good enough. I am sure that there is that moment when an agent is reading a query letter where the sun shines down and he or she says, “this is it, this is the one.” It is my job to make what I send in so good that they have that moment when they read it. I don’t think any writer wants to admit it, but I suspect that a lot of what gets sent in just isn’t on that level.

Here is where the right tool comes in. If you are a writer, and you have finished what you know is a perfect story, and you want to find an agent, make sure that you research the agents you send it to. All of them have profiles online that tell all about themselves. Find one you connect with, so that they can connect with you. Don’t be upset if you choose badly and aren’t considered. The temptation to believe that a great novel will appeal to everyone is a conceit. Agents are looking for a reason to skip on to the next query letter. If you send them something in a genre that they are not interested in, or a story idea that they have already said no to ten times, or a page with a misspelled word, you’re done. You won’t even be considered.

Go forth, writers, and write. Do not be afraid to write some more. If you (and I) truly have what it takes, then we will get there when the time is right, because they are looking for the right tool to do their job, too. All we have to do is keep sharpening it until the time comes that it is discovered.