REALITY CHECK – Getting a one-on-one agent review

It’s no secret that writers have big egos. Even when invited to eviscerate someone’s work, I don’t want to do it because while I want to help them, I don’t want to hurt them. Usually, though, the worst ego-bruising events have to do with rejections. I mean, we all get to the point where we’ve finished something and send it off to an agent only to have a short, terse, message come back with some version of “no,” provided we get anything back at all. Normally, these things come without context or explanation. What you rarely get though, on an unsolicited query, is anything more than that. However, if you did, I promise, your ego would be harmed beyond merely ‘bruised’.

Personally, I look at a rejection and wonder, but why? What was the reason that this has been rejected? How can I improve if all I ever get is no?

This fall, I had the opportunity to get a one-on-one review of my work by a big-time New York agent with a big publishing house. To be clear, I paid for this. I thought that having this review would finally get me to the answer of “but why did you reject this?” The goal was to find a compass bearing on the improvement process. Maybe I’d even get a sense of whether or not I was writing things that could be marketable.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t come away with an improvement strategy as much as a recommendation to be a completely different writer. I also cried. And if you’re looking for a reason to ugly cry with sort of minimal collateral damage, this is a really good strategy.

The first piece we looked at was Deep Space. I read about half of the prologue in a group setting. At the time, and especially now, I regard this piece as thoroughly unfinished. Not ready for submission and not ready for beta-readers or in-depth critiques beyond perhaps that first bit. I received the very, very favorable feedback of “That’s fun, I’d read more of that” This comment was followed by some commentary on the contents and structure which I generally regard as productive, but indicates much re-writing. This was 100% in-line with expectations, except for the bit where he handed me his card and invited me to query him O_o. Best case scenario right? (well, yes, but there’s more). After having my ego so rapidly and enormously inflated, what came next was painful and, to be perfectly honest, a little bit humiliating.

The next day, at my appointed time, I went in for a one-on-one on Hexe – at the time, this one was drafted and out for early readers to come back and tell me what’s wrong. Most definitely ready for critique, in any case. I am (was) proud of this work, even after nearly trashing it this spring. It’s got some good humor, it’s got a light fun tone and the characters are memorable. So memorable that my daughter was trying to make Hexe’s castle in minecraft – high praise from her, I can tell you. So, what was my feedback do you think? I have to paraphrase this one, because we spent twenty minutes covering the same ground. “This is really, not very good. It’s solidly one-note and I couldn’t imagine reading this for… How long is it? 120K? no, cut that down to 75K, max…” and it went on. The bits of feedback can be summarized in the following bullets:

– It’s one-note

– Play it straight

– Get there faster, shorten it up

– Make the main character more likable

– and (INFURIATINGLY) The writing itself is pretty good, can’t fault that.

He then spent the last few minutes asking why the hell I hadn’t given him deep space. I told him it wasn’t ready yet, I really wanted the feedback on this one. After hearing the review of Hexe, I realized that even if I sent him Deep Space to have a look at, certainly as it was then, he was going to shake his head and say, ‘nope’. The humor and approach are really similar. I was so certain, actually, that I told him as much right there. He repeated his advice in the bullets above, and reiterated that he wanted to see more.

I feel like this is the worst spot to leave a writer. I don’t even know what to do with the comments. I mean, sure, shorten it up makes sense, but play it straight? That was a choice I made specifically to support the humor and, in fact, to give the satire a little more punch. And one-note? – I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now and still don’t know what it means or how to fix it. What’s more, I walked away with the idea that I’m not very good and that the writer’s voice I’ve finally found isn’t either. To be successful, I have to write like someone I’m not.

The same agent who’d reviewed my work pointed out that there are many millions of manuscripts written every year, and only a small percentage of those ever get to print with fewer yet making it into bookstores. Not only is this environment competitive, the odds of having a story, no matter how good, make it into print and even on to the shelf at the bookstore are a million to one against.

A rejection letter without context is a kindness. The reality is that if you knew the agent’s full reasons for not requesting more, there’s a very good chance you’d throw your laptop into the ocean and never think about writing again. So, next time you get a rejection and ask “but why?” just assume they didn’t like the concept, and keep going. If you hit the point where there is nobody else to query, maybe write something else or simply self-publish then write something else. The real, honest truth is, on average, becoming published traditionally is simply not going to happen. In a lot of ways, it’s the best and most compelling argument for self-publishing I’ve run across yet.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. I’m headed back into my existential funk and clean the kitchen, which will also be critiqued and found wanting. Cheers.

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Not going to happen (A post for fellow writers)

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Really, anyone is welcome to read this, I didn’t mean to put you off by the title, which feels like a click-bait title. Maybe it is, and I imagine that at this point you’re wondering what’s not going to happen. To put it super-bluntly, Wine Bottles and Broomsticks is not going to happen. More importantly, though this post isn’t about the book, it’s about about the process of getting it published, or to be more accurate, failing to get it published.

There are more than a few ways to get published – the various flavors of traditional, through small indie outfits or big publishing houses, then you’ve got full-on self-publishing, and lastly, you’ve got this odd-ball in-between crowd-funded option, which blends the two up.

The basic difference between a traditional approach and a fully self-published approach is that on one hand you have professionals, experienced in the business, help you though each step of the process. These folks can get you into places you can’t realistically do on your own. On the other hand, with self-publishing, you’re completely on your own for every single step of the book publishing, marketing, and sales process. It’s my perspective that traditional publishing is pretty much the ideal way to go. You can argue with me on that point if you wish, I understand the counter arguments and very many appeal to me. It’s not that I refuse to go fully self-published, it’s just a very hard road to go down and if you can get professional help, well, that’d be just peachy.

I tried the traditional route and got 0 response after 40+ queries, no partials, no fulls, no comments, just form rejections or silence. Normally, this should be a warning sign that the book is not commercially viable, or so poorly written as to be not worth the photons required to carry the words to someone’s eyes. I’m one of my own worst critics, and if it were that bad, I think I’d know it deep in my gut, even if I didn’t want to admit it. I don’t feel that way about Wine Bottles and Broomsticks. Yes, it probably needs one more really good revision before I’d call it final, but on the whole, I think it hangs together. As a person reading the book and not the writer, I actually really enjoy it. It even catches me off guard and makes me smile on reading through -and I wrote the thing. It made me decide that the problem isn’t the book, necessarily, it’s something else – market forces? misalignment of platform? Really badly done query letters? A basic misinterpretation that the work is misogynistic shit?

Anyhow, rather than simply shelve it, because I’m stubborn that way, I put it up on inkshares.com to try and crowd-fund it. The basic idea was to reach at least 250 copies to get it published, though it wouldn’t really be published in the traditional sense until it hit 750 copies. With less than 1 week to go, I got to 56 pre-orders. Personally, I regard this as an extremely respectable performance, but it’s far from enough to even hit that vanity or quill goal. When I started, I entered the Geek & Sundry Fantasy contest as part off this and I landed at 28th place out of 400 entries. Not bad, I wasn’t expecting to be in even the top 10, so I’m pleased with that, but I’m still feeling disappointed in not having done better in general. I’m disappointed not because I didn’t have tremendous support, but because I just wasn’t able to convince enough readers that this book was for them. This is a failure I hold personally, after all of the people who purchased or retweeted or shared or just offered feedback to help me get there, I still managed to fail them. To badly mangle a sports analogy, they threw the ball, and I fumbled on the 1-yard line and now I’m watching the opposing team make an amazing 99-yard return run.

When I look at this critically, like a computer programmer debugging a particularly nasty memory leak, it seems to vindicate the response from the agents I queried. The market just isn’t super interested, or something like that. However, I’m still not 100% convinced that’s it either (I’m at 72% convinced, I think). Many of the readers who did support and began reading along really connected with the book. Last night, I had some friends over and one of the topics of conversation was the book and it’s sequel, which I’ve plotted, and sketched a few scenes for, but haven’t actually written. It was intensely gratifying to find myself in a conversation about the characters and where they are going in book 2 – and getting some pretty good advice on the structure of book two in the process. The conversation also reinforced the idea to me that there are readers out there for this book, and I need to think about book two and really re-consider where I am with publishing and where I go when the inkshares campaign runs out next week.

The one thing I can say with certainty about inkshares is that I’ve learned a lot about the process of marketing a book. The biggest thing I’ve learned is that this publishing platform works really well if you’re already a well known person, whether it be as an author or in some other realm. If you already have ‘fans’, you’re probably going to do alright. If you’re like me and still trying to make a name for yourself and connect with readers who will find your work entertaining and interesting, you will have a lot more trouble (your friends and family will probably buy, but don’t expect a tremendous amount of interest from folks you haven’t engaged with in some way.) I also learned that just like with self-publishing, you’ve got to advertise. I did a lot of this with wine-bottles and the return on that investment was fairly minimal. I managed to get 2 articles in different newspapers, and paid for some advertising on social media. The newspapers were great because of local exposure and for ads, Facebook ads worked the best, Twitter adds were like throwing money into a black hole – organic reach is better than paid reach there. In all likelihood the overall failure to pull this off on inkshares has to do with the fact that books from new authors tend to be impulse purchases and if you have to pre-order then wait for a book from an author you don’t know, you’re probably not going to do that.

I suppose this article could have been an angry or frustrated rant about who bought copies and who didn’t and authors needing a pay-check. I’ve seen them, and can see it from the perspective of the frustrated author, but that is NOT how I feel. Sure, I’ve missed the mark, but it’s not for lack of trying. Nor, and this is important, is it for the lack of so many individuals across the internet. Everyone I know has been incredibly helpful in getting my campaign out to as many potential readers as possible. I look at this as having failed them. Someone asked me if I’d consider doing this again. My response was pretty wish-washy at the time, as that was fairly early in the campaign, but right now, at this point, the answer is an emphatic no. Not because inkshares was bad or anything like that, in time it might prove to be a vehicle for getting something else published. The NO is because after all that effort on the part of so many people, there’s no product. Not because I didn’t write it, but because I couldn’t sell it. It’s an interesting perspective on crowd-funding that I hadn’t truly appreciated until now. Anyhow, that’s where things are at, I’m off to go see about the daily Sunday dose of the domestic arts.

NaNoWriMo 2016

I plan to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. I’ve got 4 separate projects I could conceivably work on during this period. None of them are just blank screens. I feel like this is a pretty good situation to be in. What if I were in the situation of not having a project at the ready? What would I do? Honestly, I don’t know. Usually, I start a project with a single concept, maybe a sentence or a few words. Deep Space Help Desk was a concept that I’d been kicking around for a while without much luck. Then an overheard conversation at work, jostled my mind into the right place for it, and things started coming together. For Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, I had a single phrase that I built a story around. The other two WIPs, one I’m calling The Dark Queen of Darkness, and the other Thittlebod or Penelope H. Adventure (That one doesn’t have much of a name yet), these both came from something much less tangible. 

In the latter two cases described above, I started with characters. I love it when a viable story starts out this way. Immediately compelling characters offer that illusive hook that writers so often talk about. Not only that, it gives me a non-flat character right away, as my wife will tell you, I struggle with character. When a character jumps off the page with what, as a writer, feels like a bit too much force, that’s the sweet spot. The only thing to be done is to observe the world through their eyes. I particularly enjoy characters who are either completely hopeless at what they do and really don’t belong wherever it is they happen to be, or they’re full experts, but in either case are inexplicably surrounded by nonsense. I love walking the character through the nonsense because it makes the dialogue much more interesting and gives me a lot of freedom with respect to what other characters say and do. Not to mention, as a writer, I can add twists that make little sense, because the main character will be quite as confused as the reader. This is excellent. If the main character is saying “Wait. What the hell just happened?” At the same moment this occurs to the reader,  the reader is on the side of the protagonist and much more likely to follow along with whatever is going on.

I think if I were starting fresh, with no real sense of where I was heading with NaNo, I think I’d start with a character and a vague sense of setting. I’d let the character’s motivations determine the plot. After all, the plot is just a series of events that prevent the MC from getting what they want and the process by which that MC overcomes the obstacles and changes as a result. Anyhow, now I’m off to pound away on my non-NaNo project before I have to switch gears. Good luck to all the NaNo participants out there!