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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Puttering around in the garden

I saw a picture on twitter yesterday that got me thinking. Not thinking in any sort of productive way, but that way that writers start thinking, as in: There’s a story here and I’m going to find it. So, here is the story. It’s not well edited or polished, but here it is. 

To say Samantha loved her garden would paint a dramatically understated picture of bright days filled with every shade of green complimented by brilliant flowers in every color of the rainbow. She luxuriated in the smell of damp earth and gentle buzzing of a thousand types of insects. It was her one sanctuary from the hectic bustle of domestic demands, and a job that would make even Einstein’s brain hurt.
On a day as perfect as any she could recall, she went back into her garden, eyeing a big, horribly bland patch of grass. That patch of grass had been on her landscaping shit list for entirely too long. Sure, lawn was nice, but it was boring. She wanted more color, more vegetables, more greens, and most importantly, less grass to mow. She took out her shovel, she took out her hoe, she took out her gloves, and she faced the grass. 

Armed with the tools to convert a perfectly good lawn into a far better garden, she set to it. First, she removed the sod, then began turning black dirty digging ever deeper. With each shovel, she got the satisfying shuck of the shovel sinking into the earth. Then, a resounding clang rattled the shovel handle. 

Samantha frowned. Rocks of any notable size weren’t common in this area. The topsoil should go for many feet, not just a few inches. It certainly did in the rest of her garden. She tapped the bit of rock with her shovel and found it was, indeed, a substantial obstacle. It was deep enough that she could have left it, but leaving it would bother her. She got down on her hands and knees and set to finding the edges of the rock so she could move it.

A few minutes with her hands in the dirt and she uncovered not a rock, but a perfectly round metal object some sixteen inches in diameter. She continued to remove the dirt until she revealed an old rusted car wheel rim. It was absolutely embedded in the ground and wouldn’t so much as wiggle. More digging revealed the entire rim. It sat neatly in the hole as if she might just be able to pick it up and move it, yet it still wouldn’t budge. She pulled it, she kicked it, she even jammed the shovel under it and tried to pry, but nothing seems to help. It was almost as if it were still attached to the car. The thought made her feel cold, as if a great curtian of rain clouds had rolled over the perfect blue sky and quenched the sun.

In an attempt to reassure herself that this silly bit of debris was not still attached to a vehicle, she cleared yet more dirt from further around the rim. It took little time before she struck something else. This time, she hit what proved to be a fender. She nearly stopped and covered the whole mess, but curiosity pressed her on. Who would bury and entire car? 

As the morning wore on to afternoon and threatened to become evening, Samantha revealed more and more of the car, finally coming to the driver’s side door window. She tapped it with her shovel once, then twice, and on the third tap it shattered. It was so sudden and unexpected that she let out a little scream. Then she looked around to make sure nobody had noticed. They hadn’t, she was quite alone. The kids were with dad at soccer practice. 

Curiosity continued to push her, so she took her shovel and pushed it in through the broken window. She tentatively poked the interior of the car. The shovel stopped. Something pulled on it. She pulled back, but the shovel wouldn’t come free, then it shot clean out of her hands. She stared, absolutely dumbfounded and more than a little frozen by fear, staring at the broken window where her shovel had disappeared. 

A skeletal hand reached out of the window. Samantha screamed and turned to run, but something grabbed her leg. She screamed all the harder as she fell to the ground and something pulled her inexorably toward the broken car window. No matter how hard she grabbed at the grass and thrashed about, she kept moving until she reached the very edge of the car window. Then, she felt more bony fingers grasp her legs, pulling her yet hard, and in one very hard, swift yank, she was in darkness.

When her husband and children returned from soccer practice, they found a shovel, and a hoe, and a pair of gloves laying next to a small hole where an old car rim sat partially covered in dirt.

Dear writers, why do we write? – My reason

This question came at me out of the blue this evening after a particularly long day that started with a 2 1/2 hour commute to the body shop and rental car agency before work (almost triple the usual with an odd detour). The off the cuff response to ‘WHY?!’ is: because maybe writing is a sort of really cheap drug that doesn’t actually get you high. I mean, I could quit if I wanted to, right?

Probably not – and that’s the crux of dependency, isn’t it?

Everyone who knows me, knows that I started programming back in high school and went to college for the same. What fewer folk know is that I started out with little games and I wanted to turn that into programming games for a living. It turns out, I’m not really smart enough for that sort of thing and don’t have the temperament to live in the sort of city where that’s a possible job option and I certainly haven’t got the steady hand nor sharp eye you have with most artists. My creative world lives in making things where I can measure twice and cut once. it’s one of the reasons I like wood-working. There’s a precision your tools give you that a paint-brush, for example, won’t. In any case, my education and various career options led me to where I am today. Not game programming.

I don’t want to sound as though I don’t enjoy my job. In fact, I think that after having left a year and returned, I feel much more fortunate and committed than ever before. You sometimes get lucky and it’s not always obvious when you do.

So, here I am today, a writer who’s chief success is publication in a small-town newspaper as the author of a sometimes entertaining recipe box. My lesser known successes are more of the personal variety and simply involve having actually drafted more than one novel (I’m up to 3 and have two more well on their way to full draft status). On more than one occasion, I’ve attempted to just give it up completely and walk away, because well crap, I’m not very good at this and in spite of tremendous support and help from the writing community haven’t managed to achieve the fundamental author task of just getting something published.

Repeated failure is demoralizing, and incredibly painful to the ego yet, I keep doing it, and I’m not alone. So many of us are in the same boat, constantly chipping away at a story that we desperately want to share and not quite getting there. Or better, finding that one lucky break that puts us in the enviable position of getting to write for a living! Oh my. Wouldn’t that be something.

To circle back around the the metaphor with the drug & dependency. I can’t speak for my colleagues out there, but for me, I cling to the tangible creative outlet that writing provides. It’s a way to express myself and create things that didn’t exist before. When I was a kid, I was absolutely intoxicated by the writings of those who created new worlds for me to explore and be a part of, and ever since, I’ve remained drunk on the idea and am continually looking for a bigger fix, and in comes writing, the only drug that might get me that next big high with the occasional collapsed ego hang-over.