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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A year ago I was in a bad place

It’s been a few weeks since my last post, and to be honest, I haven’t been writing much at all lately, this is largely to do with the day job being incredibly busy, but also an experience at the Alaska Writer’s Guild annual conference which put me into a seriously weird place as a writer. I’m still digesting that and giving myself time to think about the writing endgame (read: Publishing etc…) In any case, I’ll blog about that sometime in the future, for now, something else is on my mind.

This morning, as with most mornings, I crawled out of bed and picked up my phone to check Twitter and Facebook. As Facebook sometimes does, I got a notification about memories from previous years. One of those memories was a blog post titled “Can’t I just disappear for a while?” I’ve been thinking about this post a lot lately. Not because I feel that way, because I don’t, but because it was about a year ago. Arguably, I’m as busy right now as I was then. This past weekend was the first weekend that I really took in its entirety since about mid-September. The post from last year was a long and ranty about how I wasn’t having a super-great time. What I remember most about the post was standing in the parking lot at work and staring at the building and wondering what the bloody hell I’d gotten myself into and was it worth it? There was also a keen feeling of self-loathing and failure. At the time, I was doing a lot, but didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything. In fact, every step forward felt like two steps back. I’m a pretty driven individual, usually, and this wasn’t a good place for me to be.

Not three weeks after that post, I’d gotten a promotion and a shiny new office. I blogged about that too. There was some hope and optimism in it, but in my heart I didn’t actually feel it. When I moved into that big new office, it put me in mind of what I used to do at Fish and Game, and those feelings grounded me, a little. However, by the end of November last year, I had left that job and gone back to the old one.

In looking back at those posts, it feels so far away it may as well have been someone else’s life. In hindsight, leaving that job was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done, but so was taking it.

When I left Fish and Game, I had loads of reasons, I wanted more advancement opportunities, a more stable position, a place where I could get back to programming, and all sorts of other stuff. A lot of that really ended up being true, except for the position stability – turns out that doesn’t really exist for my generation. In any case, by going out to experience a completely new environment where being the new guy meant nobody had time for me was a tremendous growing experience. Of course, that’s a bit harsh, I did get along with folks well enough, and I did get help, when I asked, but a lot of times, especially when it came to the biggest most important parts of the job, it wound around to things like “I don’t know” and “I hope this project fails” or “This project is going to fail”.

I could easily rant all day about the things that made me feel bad or worked against me, or made the job intolerable, but nobody wants to hear that. What I can tell you is that not quite one year on, and I’m back where I started and I feel positive in ways I haven’t since I first started at Fish and Game back in 2004. A lot of that attitude adjustment has to do with the negative experience I had at the other place. I think it just goes to show that sometimes we all need to step back from our current problem or situation and look elsewhere for perspective. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think, or maybe turning your back is the right thing. In any case, it was a good experience for me, even if I really look back on it with a negative attitude.

Where the hell you been, mate?

Short answer? Bethel, AK for work. To be a lot more specific, I’ve worked for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) for about 12 out of the the past 13 years. For all practical purposes, this has been my entire professional career. Unlike the vast majority of other Fish and Gamers, I’ve haven’t spent any of my time working in the field or remote places in AK. I’m one of the few who has the honor of holding down a chair at a desk to make sure all of that great info we collect is analyzed for various uses. 

This past week, I finally made it to one of the more remote corners of the state. It’s not field work, but Bethel is probably as close as I’ll ever get. Bethel is an interesting place, it’s a town of about 6,400 people along the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. It’s some 500 miles off the highway system and accessible by plane and barge. If you’ve never been to rural Alaska, I can say that it’s very likely it’s like no place you’ve ever been. To put this in terms my lower-48 friends might understand, Bethel is a lot like a developing foreign country. You’re as likely to hear the word “Quyana” as you are “Thank You” and you are aware very quickly that while this is Alaska, it’s not Anchorage.

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The truth is that I want this post to be about a lot of things, the lack of internet access being notable, anyhow I thought a lot of things while I was there, but nobody wants to read a sixty page treatise on what Dave thought of Bethel, AK. So, instead, I’m going to give you a couple of anecdotes that sum up my experience.

To be clear, I went there to work, and work we did. The average day was something like 10 hours. That was good and productive, but not interesting to anyone not involved. Perhaps it’s odd, but after having gone and returned, I feel a hell of a lot more motivated than I did before leaving. Not sure how ten hour work days for a week without my family can accomplish that, but it did.

The first thing that happened actually started while I was getting on the plane headed out, and as I sat on the plane. I happened to be just behind a young woman, probably in her early twenties who fit the description of soy pumpkin-spice ‘basic’. She repeatedly, and loudly, announced to anyone who made eye-contact that she was from Oregon, was going to move to Bethel to be an accountant to be with her boyfriend who was a dentist. She repeated this so many times I think it may very well be burned into my permanent memory. After getting off the plane I found my colleague waiting to pick me up. We stood, as it happens, behind this young woman for about twenty minutes waiting for my bag. While we waited and chatted about writing, the survey project, and whatever, the young woman and her boyfriend were rapidly becoming entwined in a situation that was going to require a bedroom very, very soon. 

So, we got my things and hopped into the work truck. As soon as I closed the door, I let out a breath and unloaded with young lady’s story. In part because it cracked me up and in part because this is the sort of shit I like to write about. My colleague’s response amounted to a shake of the head and something between amusement and exasperation along with “Bethel is going to rock that girl’s world, and not in the best way.”

By all accounts, Bethel is a rough town, but it didn’t strike me as a bad place, just incredibly real with real problems, and about as NOT Oregon as you can get. You’re not going to find Starbucks out there. The best place for coffee was actually a little safety shop in the hospital administration building, and it was, indeed, a good cup of coffee. 

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The other little story was my trip to the tundra. On night two, my colleague took her dogs out to burn some energy and let me tag along (and also made sure I didn’t freeze to death out there – if you happen to read this, thank you, that hat made all the difference, even if a bit girly). We walked maybe a half mile out and back. It was amazing. You can see the bones of the land out there in a way you can’t elsewhere, except perhaps a desert. But unlike the open hostility of a desert, this place was slightly more conciliatory. While the wind roared icy threats at us, the ground cover included all types of berries in impressive quantities. It felt a bit like an apology for all the unpleasant weather. 

In any case, as we walked back to the truck, we got to talking about living and working in Alaska. I don’t quite recall the flow of that discussion but it landed more or less like this: “Here we are, taking an evening walk across an absolutely gorgeous landscape that some people would consider a once in a lifetime trip they might never get to take, and we’re being paid for it.” Not paid to be walking, of course, but we were paid to travel out there and work, and really, who gets to go to a place like this (picture below) and be paid to be there? Okay, we’re not unique, but holy moly…

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