This is a difficult post to write. Not because I’m embarrassed to share this experience, but because I really had to do some digging to understand what urged me to share this. The point I hope readers take away from this post is that as writers, we fall. We fall hard and often. I don’t want to say fail, because it’s only failure if you don’t get back up and fix the problem the made you fall in the first place. So I hope, by sharing my stumbles and flat-out face falls, readers find comfort in knowing this experience is hard for everyone. Writers in the writing stage, or the querying stage, or even the publishing stage all go through set-backs, self-doubt, and necessary readjustments. I suppose this post is also a mantra to myself that everyone experiences these emotions and fears, and the only way to overcome them is to work through them.
I recently submitted my first novel to a few agents for representation. However few my submissions, the response–or lack thereof–reiterates the fact that there are millions of fish in the sea and even more microscopic plankton trying to latch onto those fish for a ride. I now fully understand that I’m just another microscopic plankton. In order to even be considered by the fish, I need to make sure I’ve got something worthwhile to offer them. Okay, that metaphor got weird. Apologies.
After reading the excellent article, “Is Your Book Good Enough for Publication: A Cold-Blooded Assessment“, recently posted on Writer Unboxed, I considered the replies to my query submissions, the first of which was my most coveted agent who just so happened to reject me about an hour after I clicked send. Now, it could have been my query letter, but I think it had more to do with my premise. Then again, there must be thousands of situational combinations that could have prevented these agents from asking for a full manuscript. To better guard myself in the future against any potential pitfalls during this process, I had to reexamine my work and pitch from the outside in. I had to consider each from an agent’s perspective to effectively refine them.
Though I wrote a book I would love to read, I didn’t really consider whether it is what publishers want right now (and therefore what an agent would want to take on). Did I think enough about marketability? Will it tidily fit into a niche somewhere? And the biggest question, will it be what people want to buy? I have taken this “Cold-Blooded Assessment” (and a number of other articles WU keeps putting out, like “Writer, Boxed“) as a sign that my decision to strip my novel down to its bones and tendons to better see the inner workings is the right one. My plan is play up the vital parts of my concept in a work, not only I enjoyed writing, but others will love reading, people will want to buy, publishers will want to print, and agents will want to pitch.
My critique partner and best friend has always been encouraging and assuring that my novel could be published. And I know, when we encourage one another, we both mean it as readers honestly gauging each other’s work against the quality of the other stuff we’ve read. On the flip side though, we’re not publishing experts or agents. So after six rejections and three resounding cricket choruses, I could submit to more agents, but I’m taking this as a learning experience and responding, rather than reacting, to it. I will take measures to ensure I feel comfortable with every aspect of it before putting it out there again (Is that even possible? Has anyone ever felt that way in the history of this craft?).
I saw this advice somewhere recently: If you have a gut feeling that some particular thing is wrong with your work, that element probably needs revisiting. Why should you expect an agent, a publishing house, or, most importantly, your readers to overlook that problematic element you noticed? Until heeding this advice, I never truly understood the meaning of throwing out 50 plus pages. I used to scoff at such a thought–why write a book if you end up trashing a quarter of it? But here I am now, starting anew and racking my brain for the perfect formula of internal action versus external action, weighing the genres I should most closely associate myself with (I’ll be tackling this in a future post), and just trying my damnedest to write a good book people cannot put down.
If you haven’t gotten this far in the publication process, know that there is some amount of satisfaction about getting your work out there though, despite how terrifying it is. Knowing that your pitch has been seen by people in the biz–rejected, granted, but seen nonetheless–is pretty amazing. You have to pat yourself on the back if you’ve gotten this far. Whatever you do, don’t stop just because you fall a few times. It’s only failure when you let it make you stop. You have to keep moving to get anywhere.
Have you refined your process, your novel, or your approach to getting published as you moseyed along Writer Road? What advice, rejections, or encouragement incited those changes?
I am obsessed with procedure and process and understanding others’ processes and methods. As an aspiring writer, you should be on the up and up with expert advice and examples of successful methods. Fortunately for you, I actually enjoy researching the valuable and not so valuable information out there on the writing process, agent finding process, and publishing process. So, I have taken the time to compile all my finds here. Obviously it’s not everything, but I find these resources useful (to be determined yet as to whether they are successful). Hopefully this blog can be a start for those of you who hate doing the footwork of researching this stuff, or those of you who just haven’t come across these golden nuggets. Without further ado, what follows are 9 resources you might find useful as an aspiring or established writer, not in any specific order:
1. So, the first one’s kind of obvious: Blogging. I have learned a lot from blogging (I think I am getting a little better about these damned parenthetical asides). It’s an entirely different kind of writing that really does click when you speak to a focused audience—which should, in turn, clarify your writing on your blog. Blog writing is also different than writing fiction, because it forces you to be concise and entertaining with less of the bells and whistles with which novice writers often clog up potentially good fiction writing (I am totally guilty of this). Blogging necessarily teaches you to to cut down on excessive purple prose. I, myself, like purple prose every now and then, but sometimes it is just downright superfluous.
2.Nathan Bransford: I have learned things from this gentleman’s fun, highly accessible blog that I do not think I would have been able to glean from anywhere else. He’s got years in the biz, so he knows what he’s talking about. But he also brings a fresh, modern perspective to this subject of breaking into the publishing world that you do not encounter with other “experts” giving this advice. Bransford’s blog covers everything from “How to Write a Query Letter” to “How the Publishing Process Works” and the hilarious, “The Publishing Process in GIFS”.
3. QueryShark. I am a big fan of learning and I enjoy laughing. I get both of these needs utterly fulfilled on this website. I haven’t yet submitted to her because I haven’t read her entire archive, which she requires. But honestly, I don’t know if my big girl panties will ever be big enough to prepare me for her ruthless red pen. QueryShark is an invaluable resource for understanding what makes an excellent query letter and how agents respond to the ridiculous number of requests they get from would-be writers seeking representation.
4. How to Write a Great Query Letter by Noah Lukeman. It’s short, sweet, to the point and chock full of great, easy to follow advice (if you’re willing to sit down for multiple hours or days to beat that query letter draft you already have into submission). He helps the reader to perceive the query letter like a business transaction. In a more methodical and slightly less entertaining approach than Query Shark, Lukeman lets you in on the thoughts an agent cycles through while reading your query letter, effectively laying out exactly what you need to do to ensure, at the very least, that yours is not overlooked. I got this book for free off the kindle store.
5. Journal databases. Somebody has already compiled for you hundreds—nay! Thousands!—of potential platforms for your work to shine! You just have to find the right list of journals, then the right kind of journal. Poets & Writers has a pretty awesome list. From what I’ve read, in this publishing climate and century, you have to expect to get some recognition on the humbler platforms before you make it in the big leagues.
6. Literary agent databases. As with the literary journals, if you’re of the majority then you’re probably going to need a literary agent to get published (though it seems this majority is being swiftly superseded by successful self-published authors). And don’t let anyone fool you. It’s hard work finding one. Poets & Writers has a pretty cut and dry one. Literary Agent: Undercover was a nice resource when I was compiling my list of agents to submit to. I used it to supplement my copy of The 2013 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino. Some of the information is outdated though. For instance, I sent a query to an agent who is now the digital director for her agency. Doh! But if you do your homework on the people you find there, the format is really nice and accessible, and it gives you a good, solid start.
7. AnnieNeugebaur.com. Her “Organized Writer” page boasts an impressive list of helpful plotting and submission tracking charts that the web-directress created herself. She posts the fruits of labors for free, but donating for all the hard work she obviously put into these doesn’t hurt! I have used the “Writer’s Bio Template”, the “Agent Query Prep-work Chart” and keep current versions of the short stories and poetry submissions charts. A great source for the resourceful aspiring writer!
This one isn’t free, per se, but it was for me. Picked it up off my university’s ‘take a book, leave a book’ shelf (I didn’t leave a book, shhh). While you could probably find a copy of it for free in a thrift store, just shell out the four or five bucks to buy it used off Ebay or Amazon.
I’m not a big fan of memoirs. Once in a while you read one that just knocks your socks off but I was very pleasantly surprised by this (also, of King’s work, I’d only ever read to the end of The Gunslinger and The Drawing of Three, so I didn’t know what to expect from this. Pretention or some boring, drawn out dusty, old recollection about how he grew into the amazing writer that he is today. But it was none of these things). King gives us an engaging account of how his own writing life developed, his addictions as a writer (he says stimulants do not boost our writing with anything that wasn’t already there before—completely contradicting my post on Writer’s Lot, I might add), and in the ‘Toolbox’ section and ‘On Writing’ second half of the book, he seamlessly moves into an outlining of the tools every writer needs to acquire and hone. Bottom line, it’s a useful read well worth your time while being immensely enjoyable. Especially helpful, which I will certainly refer to many times in the future, is the comparison of his ‘closed door’ version of the beginning pages of his story 1408, and the ‘open door’, heavily marked version, which shows all of his changes and cuts. Most predominantly, his cuts. The lesson from this little exhibit of his has melded itself to my brain, like a barnacle on a ship’s hull.
9. And last, but not least, the sober-minded friend or relative (very important that they are not a writer) that can honestly, and comfortably tell you, ‘no, that’s insane’, when you pitch a whack idea. If this sober-minded third party is another writer, he or she will probably just start trying to figure out how you could work the bloody idea in.
But it is as good to have a (mostly) sober-minded friend who is also a writer. These kind of folks make invaluable critique partners. Writing groups, or even a regular date with one other person, help you focus, engender a bit of a competitive edge sometimes, get us talking ideas until the wee hours of the morning, and aid us in gaining a fresh perspective.
Bottom line, all of this is just the nit and grit that many don’t care to bother with. We want to just get back to our writing, our darling WIP, our current baby. But alas, this is necessary. Sometimes we can get bogged down in all this prep work and research, the fear that we might not be good enough heightening all the while. Or the realization that we don’t actually know what we’re doing steals the breath right out of our lungs, rendering our entire life’s goal/ambition/work null and void. That’s how it is for me anyway. But as the King says,
‘The scariest moment is always just before you start. After that, things can only get better.’
Fun extra tidbits
If you get Writer’s Digest magazine (and I hope you do), the themes of February’s edition were awesome! I was just thinking about the pros and cons self publishing versus traditional publishing and lo and behold, I open the magazine to find “What Writers Need to Know About the E-Book Market”, “Best of Both Worlds”, “10 Top Publishing Insiders (& Outsiders) to Follow Online.” Also, I recently reviewed my query letter for my first novel and have concluded the story must be worked on before the query letter can be improved. So you can imagine my ‘it’s a sign!’ moment when I found some very helpful outlining articles and provocative questions for raising the stakes in one’s novel, like “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”, “Mapping Out Your Hero’s Adventure”, and “Outlining and Story Mapping: 7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline for Any Story.”
The musicology of the novel is fun and quite useful for a multitude of POVs. I like being able to see a visual diagram or my characters’ point of views in my fantasy. I need to keep track of how often they switch, and it helps me to feel the beats of the novel’s temporal progression. Especially with as many character point of view changes I’m utilizing in Blood of the Realm, I need to keep track of who we haven’t heard from in a while or who we’re getting a heaping helping of.
I’ve been considering the idea of rewriting my first novel to introduce the villain sooner and involve him more to heighten the stakes. I’ve always wrote these exercises off with a ‘meh’. But once I actually did it, not only did I know my villain better—their motives, their dreams, their infatuations and nervous and/or psychotic ticks—I also knew a better direction to take my story in, having gleaned ideas for major plot points from this exercise. It was amazing and eye-opening. I suggest everyone do it. Even if all it amounts to is just a fun freewrite, it’s worth it, because you still probably benefit, even if you don’t consciously realize it.
Know of any fun prewriting exercises or imperative writers’ resources? Please share them in the comments.