The Good Old Days

I recently received a beautifully written question. (If you have questions of your own that are of a general nature, and not necessarily specific to the manuscript you’re working on, check my sidebar for how to contact me!) My reader, Cate, had a lot to say about the golden days of children’s publishing. I know many of you are probably wondering the same things as her, so I’ll let you read it, and then I’ll answer.

Here goes:

A little over a year ago I read Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, and was amazed that somebody had been able to look at that manuscript and draw To Kill a Mockingbird out of it – and was struck by the fact we probably wouldn’t have TKAM today if it hadn’t been for Tay Hohoff. Then I forgot about it, until recently, when I was reading a collection of Ursula Nordstrom’s letters. She told about receiving a collection of random notebook entries, called the writer in to discuss them and how they could be developed into a book, and was taken aback when the writer finally said, “I’m sorry you don’t like them,” since she’d just spent an hour and a half talking about them. The writer was Louise Fitzhugh and the pages turned into Harriet the Spy. Ursula Nordstrom also talked about going to FAO Schwartz and being so impressed with a window display that she asked the designer, a kid from Brooklyn, if he’d like to “draw some pictures” for her. That was the start of Maurice Sendak’s career. Then last night I was looking at a collection of letters by Margaret Mitchell, who said that (contrary to popular legend that says her book was rejected umpteen times) Harold Latham of MacMillan tracked her down on a trip to Atlanta, persuaded her to let him see her incomplete first draft of Gone With the Wind, and had to buy an extra suitcase to carry it back to NYC with him.

You know where I’m going with this, right? It seems like the relationship between editor and writer has changed a lot over the past few decades. I’m wondering if you can address that – why the change, and what expectations are realistic these days. I’m also wondering if you have any thoughts on the fact that some of our favorite books might never have existed if they came along today?

***

Oh Cate, Cate, Cate, sweet Cate. I hear you, loud and clear. I also think you know what I’m going to say.

In the good old days, a lot of crafts used to be much more obscure, or at least prohibitive to most people. If you wanted to make a video, or take pictures, you had to afford or borrow cameras and film. If you wanted anyone to see your work, you had to schlep it around on media that you carried in your hands, and you had to sit them down, and you had to show it to them. Flash forward to now. Now my dogs could have a thriving YouTube channel with millions of subscribers, and I could film, edit, and post their content all from one gadget. While wearing pajama pants.

Publishing used to be a niche industry. It wasn’t until the paperback revolution that books started selling to the masses and actually making money. It turns out there was a market for this stuff! That revolution didn’t come to children’s books specifically until the 1990’s. If you’ve read Ursula Nordstrom’s letters (and if you haven’t, you absolutely should), you will get a sense that she was seen as the red-headed step-child at Harper. Children’s books weren’t sexy, they didn’t bring in the big bucks. They were…quaint. And then Harry Potter showed everyone what a “dumb little kid’s book” could do. In terms of cold, hard sales numbers. Enter the commercial revolution, kidlit phase!

Editors used to have to track writers down and squeeze books out of them. Develop their careers. Foster their talents. Deal with their eccentricities. Take the train to Vermont and trudge through the snow to their cabins in the woods, if need be, to get good books. Believe it or not, it wasn’t always thought of as glamorous to be a writer. Kids didn’t aspire to it. People didn’t dream of it. “That’s my weird old aunt Emily Dickinson,” folks would say in an embarrassed whisper, “she’s a writer.” So editors wouldn’t have thousands–yes, thousands–of submissions coming to them per year. They’d have to go out and make submissions happen.

Trust me, I would love to have a kindly editor come to my house and say, “Mary, I know that you’re having an existential crisis and have written five pages in the last six months, but I really think there’s something there. Why don’t I advance you a little money so you can pay for that cabin in the woods and some quiet time to create?” I would love it.

But the crux of this new age is that publishers and platforms are swimming in content. They no longer need to make content happen. It comes to them. Their jobs now are to cherry pick good and marketable content. Today’s editors are overwhelmed with submissions. Sure, they do tremendously important editorial work with their stable of authors, but those authors are brought to them on platters. The tough truth is that editors also spend their days attending powwows with marketing and sales people. Doing administrative work. Meeting with agents. They often edit–which many would consider to be their actual jobs–on their own time. Any effort they spend to massage good books out of people becomes a second job.

Furthermore, your weird old aunt Emily Dickinson would have someone standing over her, in today’s market, asking her where her next poetry collection is because the last one didn’t perform as hoped, and we’d really like to get on a book-a-year-schedule, kthnx. Today’s most successful writers are expected to produce. With minimal hand-holding, if possible.

Sad? Yes. True? Yes. That’s why more and more writers are choosing to work with developmental editors before they get to the publication phase. In this new reality, you are just not going to find the same editorial relationships as you did in the good old days.

Synthesizing Feedback

One of the most difficult things to do if you get a lot of critique or pay for reads at conferences is to synthesize all the feedback you’re receiving into something that makes sense. Last week, a blog reader wrote in to ask the following:

I have a question about feedback about a WIP. I recently had 3 manuscript assessments completed, two full reads by highly recommended freelance editors (paid for), and one 10-page review by a professional agent (also paid for). The first two were really positive with minor ‘fixes’ to consider and when asked if I should persevere, the response was ‘absolutely’. However, the third feedback, from the literary agent, basically told me to start something new and give up on that MSS. So how does one take such varying feedback? Which feedback do you take on board and which do you reject without being biased?

This is a tough one. If it were me and my manuscript, I’d try and find a middle ground between “minor fixes” and “trash the thing.” Also, keep in mind that the editors read the full manuscript, which is helpful, while the agent only read the first 10 pages. In this writer’s case, I would be very tempted (as a human) to choose the editors’ opinions and discard the agent’s. However, as an agent (definitely not human, LOL), I say that the source does matter. Don’t reject the agent’s harsher feedback because you don’t like it. Here’s why: Besides writing quality, agents also have to react and think about premise and marketability, and they know more on that front than laypeople or even trained freelancers. They’re the ones staying on top of trends and the ones closely familiar with what is and isn’t selling.

(Sidebar: I’m not particularly thrilled with the agent’s response myself, though I would say there’s probably some truth to it. The reason for this is that saying “burn it” isn’t constructive to a writer. Even if I see little hope for a manuscript, I always try to at least provide some actionable feedback. I’m sorry to hear this wasn’t the case in this situation.)

Freelance editors focus primarily on the strengths and opportunities for grown in the manuscript as it exists before them. If the manuscript is technically good and the story moves along well, they may be tempted to rate it highly. Agents, however, are looking at the quality of the thing, sure, but they are also always trying to place it in the context of saleability. Because the most amazing piece of writing isn’t going to do anyone much good if it can’t be published for whatever reason (usually a too-slow or too-quiet or too-clichéd premise). So while the agent’s feedback is harsh, there may be truth to either the writing or the concept not working.

If the writer in question wants another agent’s opinion and money is not an issue, I would encourage them to seek yet another agent or editor’s opinion (someone from the sales side, not another freelance editor). That should clarify the picture a bit. If they can’t get another professional critique at the moment, I would focus on tweaking the story and concept to something that’s more exciting by today’s standards. Concept might, after all, be what the agent reacted poorly to. There’s also nothing like actually putting a project aside and getting a fresh new idea. The project doesn’t have to die, it can just step aside for a minute while you chase something else. Odds are good you’ll come back to it, ready to see it with new eyes. That’s a way to take the agent’s negative-sounding advice and make it empowering instead.

Social Networking for Beginning Writers

Consider this your friendly primer on social networking for beginning writers. We all know that the Internet is a great way to “get out there.” Get known. Put yourself in people’s sightlines in a new way.

social networking for beginning writers, blogging for aspiring writers, social networking for writers
Get your head on straight before you let loose on Facebook and Twitter.

Social Networking for Beginning Writers: Important Don’ts

This can be intimidating, but it’s also inspiring. Shy people become less so online. Connections and friendships and business relationships are forged. More people know about you than ever before. But the kind of “shoot for the moon” attitude that social networking sometimes inspires also has a bad side. Sometimes people do things to get noticed that they wouldn’t ordinarily do, all because the Internet makes them feel bolder.

This can get dangerous when you realize that a lot of literary agents, editors, and publishing imprints are also online. The exact people you want to impress. This should be easy, right? Not so fast, buckaroo…

Here are some things that I absolutely hate when people do to publishing professionals on social networking sites*. Just because I accept a friend request on my public agent profile (I have two Facebooks, one for Agent Me, the other for people I actually know from high school, etc.), just because it’s easy to find me and add me, that doesn’t mean you now have an open channel to do whatever. My colleagues at ABLA or other agencies may feel differently, but here are the social networking moves that I consider a faux pas:

Do Not Send Query Letters Via Social Networking

Don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Don’t ever do it. Don’t ask me if I want to read your work via a Facebook or Twitter ping, either. Follow submission guidelines and get your work to an agent or editor the way everyone else does.

Unless you are specifically participating in some sort of logline, pitch, or query event on Facebook or Twitter, do not send your query to someone’s social media account. Chances are, you will not only be ignored, but you’ll look unprofessional, to boot. You’ve spent many months writing the novel. Give it the pitch it deserves.

Refrain From Obnoxious Wall Posting

I welcome posts to my profile thanking me for the add or talking about a conference where you just saw me speak or about a book I’ve represented or whatever, but leave it at that. Don’t post things to my wall about your book.

The thinking is probably this: “Lots of people visit this person’s wall, so I can generate some extra traffic to my blog/ebook/whatever. It also looks like this person is endorsing my thing. That’s great!” I pick the things I endorse, whether for my Resources for Writers page or things I mention via social networking very carefully. I’ll either review something or retweet it. In fact, earlier this year, I retweeted a contest and it turns out the company running the contest was claiming rights ownership for things submitted, so I deleted my Tweet and didn’t recommend the contest anymore. I take whatever I mention seriously. It’s a matter of integrity.

Don’t use an agent or editor’s page as a billboard for your stuff. Not only is it annoying, but I guarantee that any such posts often get deleted, which takes time, which will only make it even more annoying. And forget about trying to pal up to an agent or editor by sending those quizzes or game invitations — we may be “friends” on Facebook but we’re not that kind of friends, and my real life friends know better than to waste their time (and mine) with that nonsense.

Don’t Invite Publishing People to Facebook Events for Your Book

There are a few blunders in the invitation arena, too. Don’t invite me to Events unless I actually know you. No book signings if I’m not a real friend of yours, no virtual launch parties, no poetry slams or what have you.

No group invitations, either. There was this one writing group that I was invited to a few months ago. My name was added to this group without my knowledge or permission. Members of the group started posting their writing samples. I’m guessing a lot of agents and editors were added to this group because the leader thought it would be a great and creative way to get some work noticed. Since I don’t join groups, I had no idea that my mail settings for Facebook sent me an email every time someone posted.

The day some random person added me to this writing group, I got over 200 emails from people posting. All for a group I didn’t want to be in. I was traveling that day, and couldn’t leave the group from the Facebook app while I was flying, so I had all this spam in my inbox. It made a bad impression

The new thing people are doing is adding me as a co-worker. They click that they work as “Writer” or “In publishing” or whatever, and they mark us as working together. Then I have to go to my profile and say to ignore this work information. Please stop doing that. I work alone at home and I know, for a fact, who my co-workers are. They’re two pugs named Gertie and Olive. And a baby named Theo. These people adding me as a peer on Facebook are not them.

It’s Illegal to Add People to Your Mailing List Without Their Knowledge

Another abuse of the Internet is adding my email address to mailing lists and newsletters. I’ve had many authors do this. They will add me to either their newsletter or add my email to another social networking site where they want to connect with me, and I get deluged in emails that I didn’t ask for. Do not sign anyone up for anything without their permission by using their email address. This should be common sense but you’d be surprised at how often it happens. It’s also illegal, and it could get you banned from your mail marketing client if someone were to complain. So if you value your relationship with Mail Chimp, and the agent you’re trying to target, rethink this strategy.

The Right and Wrong Ways to Get Attention

The bottom line is: there’s a right way and a wrong way to get attention. There’s also a right way and a wrong way to get your work noticed. Don’t try and catch my eye through tricks or overstepping your bounds on the Internet. Catch my attention with the strength of your work and through official channels. All of the scenarios I mention above annoy me. And when I’m grumpy, I focus my frustration on the source of the social networking error: you.

You may be trying to expose me to the coolest event, newsletter, query, game of Angry Birds ever, but I am never going to notice it because I’m too busy thinking you’re rude. If you really have something wonderful to show me, just show me like a normal person, don’t resort to Internet gimmicks.

Looking to refine your self-promotion and marketing strategies with ideas that actually work? Hire me as your publishing consultant and we can plan your next steps together.

 

Looking Around While Still Represented

Every once in a while, I talk to a writer who is still represented by a literary agent. They are not happy in their relationship, so they are seeing, first, who else is out there, and, second, if there is potential interest in their work. Writers have approached me at conferences with this particular situation, and I occasionally get queries that outline a similar conundrum.

After just such a query this past week, it dawned on me that I’d never addressed this on the blog. First of all, this isn’t in reference to any particular writer who I’ve counseled on this issue (you know who you are). And it’s not a specific response to that one query. But here, for the record, is what I always tell writers who are struggling with what turns out to be a bad writer/agent relationship:

It is considered unethical by many agents to seek other representation while still in a relationship with your current agent. It’s like looking for a new romantic partner while still dating or married to your current one. I know there’s fear at the front of your mind that you won’t find someone new if you cut ties with your dysfunctional agent relationship and go out on “the dating scene” all over again, so you’re testing the waters. Still, this behavior is frowned upon. It is only considered correct to query after you’ve severed your existing representation relationship

There’s another option for writers who feel like they’re not getting their needs met by their agent: communicate. If you’re feeling bad, be honest in an email or phone call. Some of the time, an agent will not know that you have these issues festering. Writers are often intimidated to talk to their own agents, or they don’t want to be seen as “high-maintenance,” so they keep their problems to themselves and suffer in silence. Where’s the point in that? Tell your agent what you’re not getting and what you need to be getting in order for the relationship to function.

In some cases, the agent will say, “Wow! I never knew you felt that way. Here’s what we can do to make things better.” In other cases, the agent might be feeling their enthusiasm wane as well (this is not said to make you paranoid, but it does indeed happen in the business) and will either be honest with you about the poor fit of the relationship, or they will keep doing whatever dysfunctional behavior in order to avoid confrontation (we can be like writers in this regard). If your issue is that your agent isn’t being responsive, for example, they can own up to the past and set a better course for the future…or they can continue ignoring you.

If it’s the latter, or if they vow to change but don’t follow through, you are probably better off elsewhere. It’s scary, I know, but the situation isn’t likely to improve. If you’ve done your due diligence and voiced your concern and it’s still not getting resolved, I’m afraid you have your answer, unless there is a real reason on the agent’s side that is temporarily impacting their job performance (illness, etc.).

As daunting as it is to face the idea of being unrepresented again, to consider queries and conferences and rejection after you thought you were done with all that, you need a better fit for you, and making an agent change is a proactive thing you can do for your career. This move happens all the time.

But don’t query or court agents before you either try to fix your current relationship or leave it. It reflects poorly on you (even if we sign you, we will always wonder…are they querying others behind our backs?), and the agent you contact might, if they end up offering representation, get a reputation as a “poacher,” someone who steals clients from other agents.

As for me, I often find myself counseling writers who are in this situation, but I have to draw the line before looking at any material. My verdict is: no walking papers, no query. For our sake, for your agent’s sake, and for your own, make sure your dealings are all above board. As with any relationship, you don’t want to blur those lines.

Creative Confidence

Sometimes “the muse” is feeling coy (As a former MFA student I really, really groan whenever someone calls it that…let’s just call it “creativity,” okay? And please let’s take off the ironic hipster glasses…), other times, inspiration seems to flow. The push and pull of the creative life changes with our lives. Sometimes we have more hours in the day and more energy to devote to creativity. Other times life seems to explode around us, eating up and choking all of our creative oxygen. Sometimes we write and get in the groove and keep writing. Other times we stop.

I firmly believe that people are creative beings. (Why, yes, I did grow up in California, with a painter for a mother and a dad who used to live on a Buddhist commune…why do you ask? That’s how come I can say “creative beings” and talk about the “Universe.”) Creativity is our mode. That’s what we do. Life is also creative. That’s the point.

For all of you out there who are still struggling to validate your own creative impulses or give yourself permission to create — both of which are really hard for some people to do — I say: Get cracking. That’s the first step in fulfilling the rest of your creative dreams. Everybody has them. Not many people get around to honoring them, and then that disappointment tends to fester. If you feel really damaged or self-conscious about your deepest desires to write or paint or do performance art on a street corner, for goodness’ sake, run out and get a copy of The Artist’s Way, buy a journal, meditate, go into therapy, shut your kids out of your office, and do whatever else you have to do to take some responsibility for your creativity.

What’s that? You have no time? Or work is too hard and leaves you too tired? Or you’re trying to go back to school? Or you’re sick and in pain? All perfectly valid. However, all are excuses. As I tell my clients: You are the only person on this planet who is going to care the most about your creative output and your career. Sure, you will get people in your corner, like your agent, your editor, your mentors, your friends and family, you cat, and your fans, who will care about your books or whatever else you do, but nobody will care about it half as much as you. (I do work hard to be a close second for my clients, though!)

Instead of this idea being empowering and liberating to a lot of people, it’s paralyzing and scary. It means you have to take responsibility for your creative ideas. It means you actually have to do something and make them happen. It means that you have to face (gasp!) obstacles and failure. Sure, there’s fear in every endeavor, but that’s good. That’s the way it works. I’d rather live a life where I’ve followed my dreams, been myself, created, lived big, failed a lot, succeeded more often, and experienced as many things as possible. Unfulfilled creative people really are the worst…they’re bitter and resentful, they blame everyone and everything else for how little they accomplish, they pull dark gray clouds along with them as they walk down the street.

Lots of people have really valid issues in this area: parents who weren’t supportive or present, real economic hardship and family obligations, societal pressure to conform, crippling self-doubt. I don’t mean to mock or make light of these things. But they are all negative. Creativity is positive. (California, remember?) And creativity doesn’t have to mean something big: a million dollar book deal, a novel completed in a month, a sleeper hit music video (ahem, Rebecca Black), a poem published, an agent secured after the first round of queries.

Creativity can be something small: one page a day, one journal entry in the morning, one picture taken, one walk at sunset. But the point is opening yourself up to it…and then being disciplined. The more you do, the easier it becomes, and the more your creativity builds off of a solid, steady foundation. Be creative regularly; every day is best. Do it for its own sake, not for the sake of the outcome (book, agent, publishing deal, etc.). Just create. Nobody will do it for you, you’re gonna regret it if you don’t, and time’s a-wastin’. What are you waiting for?

(This is as much a pep talk for y’all as it is for me. And yes, I fully acknowledge the irony of talking about creativity and the Universe and positivity and hating the term “the muse.” I’m an enigma, yo.)

Writing Woes

This email comes from an anonymous blog reader, and I think we can all relate to this concern:

Lately, I have been having trouble finding inspiration and the drive to actually write something. Instead of writing when I sit down with my computer, I end up checking my email, surfing the Web, and discovering other ways to waste precious writing time. In addition to being a bad procrastinator, I also have trouble finding good ideas for novels that sound interesting and appealing to my target audience. I feel like writing is constantly an uphill battle for me. How can you tell if you’re just not meant to be a writer?

Well, there are no guarantees in life, of course. You can never be 100% sure of anything, including whether or not you’re meant to be a writer. Or, I should say, you can be completely sure of it in your head but reality may not always match that conviction. There are several answers to this question, and I will strive to be as comprehensive as possible.

First, why do writers sometimes waste a lot of time and procrastinate when they know they should be writing? The good news is, all of the professional writers I know, many of them bestsellers with lots of books on the shelves, do this. They have good days and bad days, they celebrate and complain, they ride the highs and lows of creativity, just like the rest of us. But writing is their job, they’re getting paid, they have deadlines, so the most successful of them keep showing up to the page to write, even if they don’t feel like it. Because they are writers. So one piece of advice I can give you right off the bat is to keep writing and keep up your habit. If you find yourself avoiding a part in your novel that’s challenging or doesn’t feel right for some reason, skip that part and write around it. The temptation to avoid writing something and stay blocked is always there, but the trick is to keep writing past it, around it, underneath it, and the block will loosen up eventually.

The other part of the equation, of course, is the idea and the project. Sometimes, the writing urge may be there but writers get derailed by an idea that just won’t come together. So they stop writing, but the writing isn’t actually the problem. Writing a novel is a long process full of frustration and crisis (for the writer and the character, ideally). If you are losing excitement for your idea, you are going to be your own worst cheerleader. I say it’s perfectly fine to put a novel idea aside if it isn’t working or if inspiration has struck elsewhere. You can always open the file back up and start typing at another time. But if you have ideas you’re not excited about, how do you expect readers to get psyched?

So there are three issues at play: the writing, the point in the story that may be causing you to avoid it, the story idea itself. Diagnose which is making you stuck. Most likely, it is story-related. Jazz up your story or start another one. If it really is the writing, maybe take a break. If you miss it and want to come back, that will reinvigorate you.

One way writers tend to get frustrated, also, is by setting too-high goals for themselves right at the beginning. When I started writing, as a teen, I told myself that I would be completely unacceptable as a human being unless I published a novel by age sixteen. Did that happen? No. Did that put a lot of pressure on my writing at the time and take the fun out of it? Absolutely.

The fact is, not everyone who strikes out to publish a novel will end up reaching that goal. But there are many more writers out there than authors who have books on the shelves. If writing is something you are called to do for life, it you can’t think of doing anything else, then take the heat off yourself in terms of seeking publication. Take a little bit of time off. Get back into why you love writing in the first place. No matter what anybody says, publishing will still be there when you want to take another run at a book contract or an agent.

But if you find yourself churning out joyless, passionless stories or writing, day after day (and not just a brief block or period of depression), something is wrong, and you should fix it before you slog through to the query and then submission. If you’re not excited, it’ll be hard for us to get excited, too.

What Next?

Here’s a question I received a while back from Michele:

What is a writer to do when and agent really enjoys their work but passes? Obviously a form rejection tells you you’re way off the mark. If you are rejected because of an issue with the writing you can look at fixing it. But a rejection because the agent doesn’t connect with the story leaves a lack of direction. Do we leave our work as is and search for other agents? Do we assume the MS isn’t marketable and scrap it? Do we consider submitting other another Ms to that agent in the hope it will be a better fit? And, if we did submit to that agent again (and got accepted) would he/she pitch the stories the he/she already passed on? If the agent works for a house we really respect, do we query a different agent there with a future MS because they might be more passionate about our work?

Rejection isn’t just disappointing and hurtful, it’s frustrating, too. The writer is left with very little direction, as Michele so astutely points out. If the writer goes back to the agent with a question or a request for more detailed critique, the agent will usually decline to elaborate or not answer the email. We simply don’t have the time and energy to give personalized advice to everyone who wants it. So what’s next?

I’ll address Michele’s thoughts in order, starting with the first two. After an agent fails to connect with the manuscript, do you submit to other agents or do you scrap the MS and call it unmarketable?

When we submit a client’s manuscript to editors, we often get detailed feedback. If we made our client do a revision after every rejection, the client would feel jerked around, it would take forever, and there’d be no guarantee that the editor who offered some thoughts would go on to buy the project. It’s exactly the same here. I personally submit to smaller rounds of editors to see if we get some of the same feedback over and over. If we do, I can guide the client on a revision before submitting to other editors (or editors who wanted to see a revision). I suggest you do the same. Send to a group of agents and see if they all say the same thing. If they do, maybe think about revising. If they all hate it, try another group or, yes, it might be time to consider how saleable your work is. But do bounce it off several people before making revisions or the drastic decision to give up on that manuscript. There are so many tastes and opinions out there that letting one person’s rejection decide these questions isn’t the smartest thing to do.

As for querying that agent again (or another agent or editor at the same agency or house) with a different manuscript… I say you can try, but only after some time goes by and you really hone your craft. We really do get annoyed hearing from writers we’ve just rejected, if we rejected them because of basic writing issues. We’re going to think their new writing has the same issues, because so little time has passed since we saw those issues in a previous piece. Michele astutely wonders, also, if getting representation after a previous rejection means we’ll have to represent the previous project, too.

This is a sticky situation. I firmly believe that all writers are on a path toward improvement. So I never swear off a writer just because they’re not “there” in their craft, their ideas or their execution just yet. You never know. Everyone starts somewhere and then they go on to grow and learn and really impress people. That’s why I’m always going to at least look at a project from a writer who I’ve read and rejected before. If I do end up offering representation to them after time has passed and after they send along a different project, we’ll talk about their previous project. In most cases, writers who improve a lot tend to hate their previous work because they can see all the flaws in it. I can’t stand to look at most of the things I’ve ever written because I know so much better now. If the client wants to pursue it, we’ll look at it together and see if it’s viable. If it’s not, I am under no obligation to represent a client’s past work and drawer novels because I put my name and reputation on the line with everything I send out to editors, too.

If you still want to work with the same agency or house but want to try another editor or agent there, do make sure that you’ve done significant revision. And wait until you’ve heard from all the other agents and editors who you have submissions out with. One of them might have feedback for you. If you’re really set on working with a particular company and they’ve already rejected you once or twice, really do put everything you’ve got into that next submission, since you may not have that many more chances. And, as always, patience is your #1 asset at this point.

Growing a Thicker Skin

It hasn’t happened to me yet, but I know that I’ll get ragged on for telling people the truth, as I see it. Writers are sensitive beings. I say some pretty harsh things. Like that you’ve got to write a million bad words before you can start writing seriously. Or that getting published is easy, if you’re good. Some of these things are not fun or easy to hear. I’m sorry for that, but I’m not sorry I say them. Why? Because they’re true.

Writing is a difficult, solitary, extremely personal thing. People spend years of their lives pouring their souls and creativity into a project. I’m acutely aware of that fact every time I sit down to read slush. Not only am I rejecting a particular manuscript, I could be rejecting years of a person’s life. It’s a tremendous responsibility and an amazing act of trust. I don’t take it lightly, even if I do make jokes about bad queries or the slush sometimes to keep things lively on the blog. Many of my friends are writers. I make a living by working with writers. I write myself. I have the highest respect and reverence for both writer and the written word. And that’s exactly why I dish out the truth, even if it sometimes sounds harsh or callous.

The biggest thing that stands between a writer and their own success is their ego. So many critique groups flourish on the idea of positive reinforcement. Unpublished writers sit around complimenting each other for hours and tiptoe around the problems. Everyone feels good but nobody learns, nobody grows, nobody goes through that horrible revision that makes them want to eat a gallon of ice cream every five minutes. And nobody gets published.

It’s very difficult to divorce yourself from your writing, since writing is so deeply personal. However, writing is personal, yes, but the business of publishing isn’t. Divorcing the two in your mind is the only way to grow and learn anything. Feel free to have that “I’m a genius and nobody else understands me!” moment. But don’t get stuck there. The fact of the matter is, there are many aspiring writers out there who are constantly honing their craft. Don’t get behind just because you’re afraid of a little criticism. (Don’t follow all criticism and change everything about your work for other people, of course, but that’s for another post…)

Here are the facts, as I see them: Not everyone who wants to will get published. A lot of people’s writing is mediocre and will most likely stay that way because nobody has ever told them it’s mediocre. Some critique groups are more harmful than helpful because everyone is afraid to actually, you know, critique. Not every book deserves to be published… in fact, many writers practice with two, three, five, ten manuscripts before they ever start to see a positive response from agents or editors.

It’s tough going. Really tough. It’s in your best interest to develop a thick skin, learn how to take criticism and rejection, separate yourself from what you’ve put on a page, learn everything you can about the industry, get realistic, and keep writing every day. The one-in-a-million publication stories are the ones you hear because they’re glamorous. Most people get published through the tears, snot, spilled coffee, midnight breakdowns and rare moments of joy that comprise a long time spent chasing a dream. It’s not terribly sexy, nor is it quick. But that’s how people make it and that’s the truth.

You come to this blog to learn things from the perspective of someone who sees thousands of queries, reads thousands of manuscripts and meets thousands of writers. Unlike well-meaning critique partners or clueless friends, it’s not in my best interest to sugarcoat. But I will tell you that books sell every day and that dreams do come true. When they do, though, it’s no accident or luck on the part of the writer, agent or editor, it’s hard work and determination and the hard-earned reward at the end of a long road. Unless you’re Stephenie Meyer, as this funny op-ed from agent Stephen Barbara recently pointed out. But that origin story is taken, so it’s time to find your own.

Fix Your Beginning

Let’s begin at, well… enough smart-assery for today. But seriously, let’s talk your beginning. The first sentence of your novel. The first paragraph, the first scene. This will, in most cases, determine whether an agent reads on or not. Whether an editor reads on or not. Whether a reader picks you book up, scans the jacket and then the first bit, and buys it… or not.

Before I tell you what to do, I will tell you what not to do, in no particular order:

  • Waking up: DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today? On that note…
  • Regaining Consciousness: This is also a no-no. I know a lot of people like starting their books moments after a character has just received a blow to the head. Here’s the problem. A reader wants to be grounded when they begin a story. They’re looking for basic information: Who is this character? Where are they? When are they? What’s going on with them? A little bit of confusion is fine, but that doesn’t play well with a reader, especially at the beginning of a story, because all the reader wants is information. If your character is confused, your reader is confused, they’re working hard, they’d rather put your book down and go have a cookie. You have to hook them… not give them a headache. So if your very own character is asking “Who am I? Where am I? What year is it? What’s going on?” then your reader will not have anything to hold on to. They’ll put your story down.
  • Scene Setting: People care about characters, not landscapes. Start your story with a person, not with beautiful prose about the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care. This especially goes for weather. Remember how “It was a dark and stormy night” is lambasted as being the worst first sentence ever written? Lots and lots of people start out talking about the weather… especially stormy weather… because they think it’s dramatic and will heighten tension. No, relationships between two people who want different things, in a scene together, are dramatic and heighten tension.
  • Emotional Scene Setting: The same goes for a long description of a character’s emotions. I read a lot of manuscripts that begin with things like, “He was so depressed. Depressed-er than depressed. Things were so wrong, they’d never be right again. He felt like he’d been plunged underwater, all the colors and the sounds and the joy… gone!” (Obviously, this is bad on purpose.) Well, this is fine, but we don’t know why things are so terrible for Emo Boy, so we don’t care. It’s a bad place to start.
  • Normal: This is perhaps the biggest cliche I see in novel openings. “Jimmy was just a normal kid, everything about his life was so totally normal. He woke up when he typically does and walked the normal path to his normal school. ‘What a normal day!’ he told his usual friends, Norm and Al…” etc. And then, something completely changes him into an extraordinary kid!!!! WOW!!! Okay, so, granted, this is usually how a book starts. A character’s “normal” way of life, their equilibrium, has been knocked off-kilter. Now they have to find a new normal. That’s fine. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! SHOW US! (More about showing vs. telling later.)
  • Backstory: A long prose-filled retelling of the backstory of a character, place or event isn’t a good start, for me. I don’t know the character, event or place yet, and I’d rather see it with my own eyes, see it in action, than being told about it. Work backstory and context into the prose later, but not in the very beginning (and not too much of it).

I bet you’re asking yourself: “Well, what’s a good place to start my story?” If you hadn’t gathered from the above, a good beginning involves tension, conflict, relationship and characters. In other words, a scene would be a very good place to start! You have a main character, you have what they want, you have what’s getting in the way right now, and you have another character. Toss them like the Chaos Salad they are and give us a scene to launch your story with action.

It’s called in medias res in Latin. And no, I don’t know a lot of Latin, just enough to make me seem slightly pretentious. It means “in the middle of things.” Launch right into some conflict with more than one character and catch the reader up with backstory and quick flashback as needed. Start with a scene. Most movies start like this, so do most plays. You don’t often go to a movie and see the main character monologue for 15 minutes before the action starts, right? The same should be true for your book. Start with a scene that shows the reader, a) who the character is, b) what they want and c) how things have changed for them recently. Try imagining this scenario for your characters and writing a scene for the beginning of your story. It’s hard, but beginnings are often the most time-consuming and most-frequently rewritten bits of a novel.

Speaking of which, there’s also a little something called the “promise” of a novel that you need to consider in the opening pages. I need to know, after the first 10 pages, what the rest of the novel will be about. This is the promise you make to the reader when you start out. You don’t have to say, explicitly, “The rest of this book will be about alien warfare.” But little Jimmy should at least be gearing up to fight aliens or in alien warfare class or something so that, in my head, I get a sense for where you’re going with this. Don’t start the book off with Jimmy in alien warfare class and then make the rest of the story about his passionate fight to save the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both stories are fine, but you need to make sure you make a promise to your reader — my book will be about _____ — and stick to it. We won’t know how far you’ll go or where your plot will take us, but if we’re prepared for the general idea of your story from the first page, we’ll follow you very far. Up next… plot!

Taking Life Risks

In October 2006, I quit my job as a telemarketer sales rep for a web hosting company. It was the job I’d been holding down since college graduation, a job I got because everyone else was getting .com jobs in Silicon Valley. But it made me miserable and I couldn’t write a word when I got home. So I quit. It took me about two weeks to really muster up the courage (plus, I was waiting until after the really cushy company anniversary party came and went… Take the free food and drink while you can get it, I say, especially if you’re about to be unemployed!) but I did it.

There was no other job lined up, no shining recommendations coming my way since I’d been a lousy, lousy hawker of useless products salesperson. Considering that I was young, and yes, I had unemployment benefits, and no, I didn’t have a family to support, some might not see this as a great accomplishment, but it was.

It taught me something very simple very early on: if you jump, the ground will rise up to meet you. If you believe it will, that is. That’s why I’m a big proponent of taking life risks. Taking a life risk means facing the thing you’re most afraid of, whatever that means to you. For some, it’s tattooing a snarling tiger on your forehead and moving to Brazil. For the less bold of us, it’s quitting a lousy job or sending a query to your Dream Agent or writing the idea all your friends think is stupid. (And unless your friends are editors or agents, don’t listen to them when it comes to books.)

In the few years since I quit my job and walked out of my cube with a box, a plant and a deflated orange yoga ball, I’ve learned the following:

  1. If you don’t take the risk, you’ll always wish you did.
  2. Nobody can believe in you or your work more than you. That’s where everything else needs to start.
  3. No matter what you’re doing, you could commit to it even more.
  4. You will fail and you will fail hard. But if you get up, that means you’ve learned from it.

After I quit my job, I tooled around and wrote for a while with the money from my last paycheck. Then I got a job three days a week at a restaurant. After that, the restaurant took me on as a prep cook and I got to show up early in the morning, before anybody else, and walk into a kitchen with the stainless steel glinting all around me. I got to shuck oysters, peel carrots, put the caviar away. It is, to this day, the best job I’ve ever had. Then I got another job, and another one. And none of them involved explaining what a web browser is to grandmas who just wanted to put pictures of their grandkids on “that world wide web everyone is always talking about.”

It’s your life and you’ve only got the one. If something sucks, especially about your creative life, fix it. Until you do, the only person suffering is you.