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.

Can’t I just disappear for a while?

This morning I got up, dragged my sorry rump off to work, got stuck in traffic and rolled into work late. Not awesome. I was able to stay late to make it up, no problem. The bigger problem was that when I hit the parking lot and climbed out. My first thought was “I am so done, so done.” To be clear, I don’t hate my job, but I’m so so busy, so incredibly busy. I know I claim to be a writer and should easily be able to describe how many flavors of busy I am and how it feels to work in an environment so saturated with crises that everyone seems to think adding unnecessary crises is a pretty good idea  – you know to really show how busy we are, but the best I can come up with is that I can’t finish a current task without having two more added to the list. My colleague and I have written about 120 reports in the past five months. To add some context to that, this is roughly the annual throughput of the entire team prior to our arrival. As this is my job and I’m well compensated for it, it should be YAY us, we’re freaking awesome. Nope. Not feeling it -I’m tired.

Last weekend, the wife and I went to Seattle, sans children, to have a romantic stress-free weekend. This was fully achieved, it was great. I don’t care how many homeless people I didn’t see or how much I didn’t have my car broken into or any of those things that happen in big cities. I frikkin’ loved Seattle. LOVED. I figured the trip would really recharge my batteries. It did for about a day. Then, I came back and reality hit again.

I have made myself so busy, I now feel guilty about the 1 hour a week I’m devoting to watching Westworld. I’ve got a demanding job, for which I’ve recently had a title change that I can’t tell anybody about that because apparently something got screwed up, I don’t know what got screwed up, just that I have a shiny new meaningless title and I’m also pretty sure everyone thinks I’m slacking. On top of that, I’m trying to start another company for another company, which is NOT going as hoped. I’m also trying to write 2 (no, actually 4, but only two actively) books AND I’m trying to get a book published on inkshares – that’s not going great, but I’m doing the best I can to promote without being absolutely insufferable. To continue to add to the list, I’m writing a recipe article for my wife’s dad’s newspaper (any suggestions? – due tomorrow, looks like). Then, last but not least, I’m trying to keep up on my blog, which (obviously) is not going well. I’m so damn over-taxed that I’ve tried about half a dozen posts in the last week or two and have gotten just past the “hey, I had this great thought I wanted to share” point and realized I didn’t have the mental energy to get to the point and wrap it.

Yesterday, I started the audiobook for Felicia Day’s autobiography – it’s called something about being weird on the internet, don’t ask me the title, I’m too lazy to pick up my iPod or open another tab to Google it and get it right. This audio book is good, I mean I love her work, and think she’s a spectacular writer. I’m pretty sure the book is meant to be a ‘rah-rah, love yourself and follow your dreams’ sort of story. Well, it didn’t work for me. I pretty much finished it and have more or less come a way thinking that this woman is brilliant and talented, and I am not, and no amount of hard work I put into anything is going to amount to anything one tenth so brilliant.

Part of the reason I’m so busy at work is that I’ve built a system that lends itself to extremely rapid adhoc report development. Someone can ask me the question: How many CCU visits resulted in this particular diagnosis in August & September 2016 and the same for 2015. I can spin that around in like 20 minutes. The usual timeline for an adhoc like that is like six months – largely because it would take 3-6 hours, maybe more, and it doesn’t count as a big important thing, so it gets dropped to the bottom of the list. In any case, having built this system up, I am becoming ‘the guy’. I’m not the only ‘the guy’, but I am one, and so I’m in demand. On one hand, you could call this a win and say it’s brilliant within my work context, but I don’t see it that way. I still have 50 unresolved tickets and have a mountain of documentation and training materials, plus hours of meetings and requirements gathering for more reports, I don’t have much of a handle on planning or even progress, my whole project management game is shit, really. Basically, I have worked my ass off and am further behind than when I started. This is not a win, nor is is anything like brilliant.

I wrote a book I love and characters I think are awesome. That book received 0 response from more than 40 agents and has not gained any sort of momentum on inkshares. I have had TREMENDOUS support from so many people, who are endlessly sharing and tweeting and pre-ordering, but with less than a month and more than 200 copies to go. The win is looking beyond remote. That book is very unlikely to see the light of day. I can’t tell you how much THAT makes me feel like I’m letting folks down. So much support, and I’m unable to make the win. When you crowd-fund like that, the project becomes the project of everyone who supported, and for me to not hit the magic number is an ENORMOUS failure to deliver for EVERY SINGLE PERSON who has helped and been generous and supportive.

I’m not stuck on my other works as much as I simply haven’t got the time to work on them as much as is necessary to finish any one of them. I mean, I do write -every day. Sometimes, I get super productive and knock out 2K in a single night, but those nights are rare and with so little energy to spare, the best I can do is read through what I wrote on one of those WIPs and think about how much work remains.

So.

Here I am.

I don’t have the bandwidth. I just want to walk away from all of it. I’m tired and my motivation for doing more than coming home, having a beer and falling asleep on the couch is basically non-existent. I clearly haven’t got the drive or talent of a person capable of pulling off any of what I’ve set out out to do. The hard part is that I can’t help but try. I suppose that for every ‘I worked my ass off to get here’ story you get, you get as many ‘I worked my ass off and I’m no further down the road than I was ten years ago’ stories. Anyhow, now I’m off to work on something that requires my attention.

Maybe stupidity and unrelenting stubbornness will pay off at some point?