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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Looking Forward

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In 2016, I had one real resolution for the year -Finish Wine Bottles and Broomsticks and get it published. I may as well have just gone with the old stand-by of ‘lose 30 pounds and run a half-marathon’ because that was going to be a hell of a lot easier to pull off. Sure, I did finish, but that’s as far as I got in the success bracket.

On Christmas, we had friends over for dinner. It was a pretty mellow affair on the whole and the usual get-together at the Koster’s – food, drink & conversation. The topic of Wine Bottles and Broomsticks came up with the question “so what’s next for Wine Bottles and Broomsticks?” I thought I had a good plan and answer for that, write book two, and self-publish both sometime late next year. That’s what I said. However, in the week since, I’ve been thinking about it more. I even had a lengthy discussion with a co-worker the other day on the topic. His perspective was something to the effect of: “It doesn’t matter if it’s un-edited shit. You just need to get your name out there, put it on Amazon.”

I got to thinking about that in preparation for this obligatory new year blog. There are a lot of perspectives out there and I’ve received a ton of good advice. Hell, most of the blogs I even bothered to write in the last half of this year have covered just that. All of the advice has basically been in the vein of, “Don’t give up!” It’s good advice. Being discouraged is not a route to success. However, at some point, you need to move on.

The real, honest truth about Wine Bottles and Broomsticks is that I don’t have a plan. Yes, I could spend a lot of money to self publish – annoy all of my friends and family with pleas of ‘buy my book’ …. again. I could try to go through the process of crowd-funding using a slightly different approach, but I’ve basically burned that option down. The fact is, I did everything I could this year and it just wasn’t good enough – I’m not sure which part was not good enough, but it was a big enough part that the book wasn’t going to catch anyone’s eye. The only practical plan is to move forward. Don’t look back, just keep looking forward. What’s done is done and I need to look to the next thing.

So, if you’re wondering what’s going to become of Wine Bottles and Broomsticks, the answer is nothing. I’m moving forward now. Other projects are  in the works, and no I haven’t been moping around kicking myself either. I’ve got 3 other projects in the air just now and I’m happily plotting them out and moving them forward. My hope for this year is that I finish at least one of those and I’ll have something new to share.

Happy new year.

 

Deflating (how the hell does a new author get published?)

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You might expect that I danced around the house beating my chest and being generally insufferable after finishing my first draft. Nope. I barely got warmed up before my ego was popped like a giant over-inflated balloon. While I may have been insufferable for a good fifteen minutes, I hadn’t quite gotten to the ‘beating my chest’ stage of things before sitting myself down with a nip of whiskey. Just as I was about the raise the glass and salute myself for being awesome, my wife looked over her own glass and said, “Congratulations. So what’s your next step?”

I really can’t think of a statement that is at once so supportive, non-critical, and utterly deflating.

The amount of work remaining is mind-boggling. In total, the book is 21 chapters long. There’s every bit of editing and revision you can imagine and more. On the bright side, I’ve already been sharing some of this work with friends and so the first half of the book is pretty well polished. I’d put the number of revisions on most of those chapters at somewhere between 1 and 2 dozen full rewrites. These are at the point where they really just need a bit of polish before going off for another round of beta-reading. Then, I get into the technical editing.

The last half of the book, however, is another matter. It’s in mixed condition. For me, the first full draft for me simply means that I’ve finally got at least a full draft of each chapter in the book up to the end. All but the final two chapters have already been re-written at least twice. Chapter 16, for example, has been with me for more than two years, starting life as chapter 5. It’s undergone tons of rewrites, and reads pretty well.

Dave.

Yes?

I think you’re rambling.

I’m getting there.

Are you sure? I mean, if you’re not going to get to the point, perhaps I should move on to another blog?

Just be patient. You can’t rush a really good rant.

It’s not really the editing that was so much deflating, though it’s a major thing to deal with at this point. What’s got me twisted in knots is what comes after that. Beyond revision and editing, which I expect to dominate huge swaths of my summer, I’ve got to start thinking about publishing*. To be perfectly clear, my eventual goal in life is to become a full-time writer. I recognize this is not an overnight thing, which is why I’ve got a pretty damn good day job.

For now, I’m staring down the barrel of two equally daunting possibilities**: I can self publish or try to go ‘traditional’

If I were to choose the ‘traditional’ route. I can polish this until my knuckles bleed, without any real guidance as to whether or not the polishing is even making the damn thing shiner in the eyes of a publisher. Then, I get to spend weeks developing query letters and synopsis, and whatever the hell else agents and publishers want, before shipping it off. At that point, I get the joy of waiting for months and months hoping, and praying***, some magnanimous agent or publisher decides to go out on a limb and take it up an author without a platform. In the mean time, I’ll be waiting months for rejection letters before trying again. Provided most of the accounts I’ve read on this process are accurate, I’ll get to continue revising for months before receiving a little bitty advance, and if I work very, very hard on social media, I might actually get some royalties on top of that. Once I manage to finish book 2, I’ll have to repeat the process, hoping that all of the effort I’ve poured into setting this series up doesn’t go up in smoke.

Traditional doesn’t sound so good from this perspective does it?

So, what if I go the self-publishing route? I could do that. I just need some beta readers to start – we’ll just assume the advice they give me is in-depth enough to address issues of character, plot, theme, and setting in the work as a whole. Then, I need to hire an editor. I’ll just assume my decision here is the right one, I mean, what’s a couple grand *COUGH*. (No problem, I’ve got a spare kidney.) So, that’s line editing taken care of – I don’t really need the other sorts of editing do I? So, whats left? Ah, some cover art, That should roll in at around 500 bucks, (hmmm, do you really need two kidneys?) Once all that’s set, I can get a copy of indesign. Shouldn’t take me but a month or two to get myself professionally comfortable with that, and all that’s left is to work out how to navigate Amazon. Then I hit ‘publish’ and wait for the dollars to pour in right? No… wait I have to work very, very hard on social media, and quite possibly invest some cash in advertising, (people don’t have three kidneys do they?) to see a few copies sell.

You know, in looking back at that to-do list and the associated costs, I’m not really convinced on self-publishing either.

So, then what are you going to do Dave?

I’m extremely conflicted on this point. It seems to me that going through a traditional publishing house gives you a bit of a leg up on the platform building front. I’d like the opportunity to tap into that. To be honest though, I actually don’t think there is a real option for a new author. I mean, I could go through the process of submitting to agents and publishers, waiting for months for each painstakingly mass-printed rejection notice, containing a carefully crafted one-size fits all ‘no thank you’. Sure, new authors do get published in this manner, but many more very good writers do not. I have no expectation that I would somehow be amongst the lucky handful. Of course, I could self-publish, but this is another special version of an up-hill battle, and not one that I’m convinced will lead me to my goal.

Did you get to an answer in there?

No, but if you could help me find a thoroughly convincing argument to go either way, it might help.


* Yes, I know that I’m not done yet, but summer will come and go quickly.
** Don’t bother splitting hairs on indy publishing houses here, there’s no point.
*** I am not a particularly religious individual, but if I needed to pray for something, it would save it for something other than a book.


photo credit: The Gears via photopin (license)