Tag Archives: getting published

When Literary Agents Turn You Down: A Useless Analogy

Rodney Dangerfield

For novelists seeking traditional publication through agency representation, the most spirit-crushing moment in the whole sordid affair may occur somewhere around rejection number 8. That’s when reality hits, shortly before the numbness kicks in. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let us go back to the beginning of the querying process for a moment…

Though you have written a literary masterpiece, you know on a rational level that rejections are coming for one of the following reasons:

  1. No one wanted the last thing you wrote, proving rejections do exist.
  2. The book people warned you about rejections.
  3. The book people are idiots who don’t recognize a brilliant, innovative, blockbuster work of art and/or a merchandising goldmine when they see it.

There’s no concrete evidence yet, but scientists who can’t get their books published believe C is the correct answer. Still, you’re different from the other writers. You are meant to be.

You start querying.

The first two rejections hit. No problem. Those were only part of the pre-game warm up anyway. The next two submissions bounce back. Who cares? You didn’t want to work with those agencies anyway. Then another drops, and you adjust your tie, Rodney Dangerfield style. Did you overestimate yourself a bit maybe? Then another. You start to sweat. A seventh! What? It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Surely somebody should have recognized—

Your smartphone chimes to indicate a new email. You look. It’s her! The agent at the very top of your wish list, the one who needs exactly what you wrote, is about to tell you she is simply dying to read your manuscript. You tap the icon and the email opens.

Dear Author. Thank you for considering our agency. Unfortunately, due to the high volume of submissions, we regret that…

You delete the message in an instant and jam your smartphone into the front pocket of the handbag you got for 75% off at TJ Maxx so you don’t have to look at the stupid ugly ungrateful little bastard anymore. But it’s not your phone’s fault you keep getting rejected, is it?

No. It’s because you suck. You are the worst writer who ever lived. Ms. Agent probably forwarded your query letter to all the other agencies, where it was laughed at hard for good 30 seconds and then forgotten forever.

That’s not remotely true either. You are as talented as anyone. Writing futility is just another reminder of the meaninglessness of life (that’s the numbness kicking in, by the way. Congrats. You are now dead inside).

Though we all know the chance of landing an agent for our novel is slim, it still stings when you are not picked, because statistics aren’t especially effective at buffering disappointment or boosting self-esteem. Most of us who manage to actually finish a novel, revise it, polish it, and dream about publishing it are also the kind of people who work incredibly hard at honing our craft. After all, the agent said she was looking for New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thrillers in Esperanto, and you wrote a New Adult Paranormal Romance Spy Thriller in Esperanto, putting two years of your life into making it as awesome as you possibly could.

Ready for a non-sequitur?

I have two superpowers. One is the ability to compose funny limericks on any subject. The other, unfortunately, is not the ability to solve unsolvable problems, like why a good writer can’t find an agent. My second power is to come up with analogies (that may or may not stand up to logical scrutiny but at least sound good on a folk-wisdom level).

So here’s my analogy for when literary agents turn you down. If you are a frustrated, unpublished novelist, it won’t get you any closer, but it might help the sting feel less personal:

But does he speak Esperanto?

But does he speak Esperanto?

Pretend you are looking for love and sign up at Match.com. In this scenario, you are interested in men who are over 6 feet tall and have dark brown hair and eyes, and you let your potential suitors know this via your online profile.

The caveat: If you make it to a third date, you have to stay with him for at least a year, and you have to give him a lot of attention despite your insane schedule. Not only that, you have to find him a job with a company that has only a few openings but thousands of applicants. All this time, he doesn’t have to spend a penny on you.

Are you gonna take the first 6-foot-tall brunette that asks for a date? The second? The third? You might meet 50 guys fitting your dating preferences and not click with a single one of them. Not to mention all the short redhead and blonde dudes who didn’t bother to read your dating preferences and cluster-bombed you with requests.

In this analogy, you are the literary agent.


A little sliver of writing motivation, just for you

Cue the music.

Any writer with hopes of publication experiences moments of doubt, sometimes wondering if the game is rigged. That is, unless you are in the Super Secret Club and know the special handshake, you won’t ever be accepted. You don’t even know where the clubhouse is for cryin’ out loud.

If you’re feeling like that these days, here’s a little shot of motivation: This week, four people I know… four real, not-in-a-super-secret-club writers I know had stories accepted or published. I don’t mean random bloggers I tracked down with publication-related tags so I could manufacture a post. I mean writers who regularly interact with me here or on Twitter.

Those writers are JH Mae, Barbara Myers, Jodi Milner, and Philip Wesley (whose announcement came on Twitter, hence no link).

See? Real humans do land stories. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Philip is entirely human, but he is a reasonable facsimile. His cat can’t tell the difference as far as we know.


The 3 Keys to Writing Success

Disclaimer: I don’t know what the heck I’m talking about. But neither does anyone else, I reckon, or that expert would be the only person a writer ever listens to. So it’s possible that, however accidentally, my advice today is worthwhile.

The changeling

If a writer tried to follow all the writing tips flying around on WordPress, agent/publisher blogs, and in writing magazines, she would probably explode like that robot on Star Trek who couldn’t handle paradoxes (by the way, why do electrical things in the twenty third century explode instead of flashing a useless error message like every HP printer I’ve ever owned?).

If you’re a writer, I’m sure you’ve found yourself exasperated by all the contradictory messages (sometimes from the same source) about what you should be doing that you’re not. I used to get frustrated too, but then I stopped listening to advice and became much happier.

I think a lot. I analyze. I study logic. If someone said I reminded him of Spock, I’d take it as a compliment. Through thinking and analyzing and logicating, I’ve formed a hypothesis that the following three activities are the keys to writing success, and the rest is noise. They are drawn from the worlds of business, sports, entertainment, science, and personal observation.

If you see me selling lots of books with my name on the cover someday, that means my test supports my hypothesis, ‘cause the following are going to be my three writing practices from now on. If I’m wrong, you will have long forgotten this post and me. I can’t lose!

Practice, Practice, Practice

Whatever you do—be it knitting, painting, playing Pong, photography, writing, or following some skeleton keyother passion—nothing beats practice. The Malcolm Gladwell 10,000-hour rule, however unscientifically derived, is hard to argue with on a practical level. If you want to be an advanced writer, you’ve got to hammer through the beginner and intermediate stages. If you can’t push through, you aren’t cut out for having writing passion.

Kristen Otte is an author many of you know from WordPress. She writes a cute children’s book series about the adventures of Zelda, her pet pug, as well as sports-themed young adult novels. Her prose is as clean, slick, and professional as any you’ll find in Barnes and Noble. Although I believe there’s such a thing as innate talent, I’m convinced Kristen’s work is that good because the woman is simply possessed by the urge to write. She writes a lot. Her daily tweets typically say things like, “Finished another manuscript today.”

To get good, we gotta write.

Modeling Successful People

Ripped from the pages of business books!

skeleton keyPeople often dish writing advice based on their personal quirks and preferences rather than on proof that what they say is true. I’m sure you have your own advice peeves, but my two are “You have to use an outline” and “You have to join a writing group.”

Since heaps of authors have written blockbuster novels without using outlines (Stephen King, Elmore Leonard, and JK Rowling, for example), and tons more never joined a writing group, the above declarations are really just personal choices. If you write better with outlines, use outlines, and if you enjoy the support and experience of a writing group, join one. But don’t tell me I have to.

I prefer to study what a successful person did to achieve success, not what [irony/paradox alert] people like me say. Everyone takes a different path, of course, but as with practice, you can’t argue with success. If Writer X makes the bestseller list, don’t you want to know how?

It works in business and sports, so why not in writing?

Stop Worrying about What Other People are Doing

Yes, model success. No, don’t compare yourself.

skeleton keyDo you know what type of athlete is most successful? The one who keeps practicing when others are off watching TV. The one who doesn’t worry if someone else scores more points or gets more press. The one who listens to his editor coach. Any sports psychologist will tell you so.

Another bit of advice I often get is to read everything in my genre and know what my competitors are doing. Why? Is that going to make my writing better? Is it going to help me finish my novel? I doubt it. From one writer to another, I wish you success, but when I’m creating, I ain’t thinking about you, and you shouldn’t be thinking about me.

Bonus: A key to blogging success is “Keep it under 800 words.” So, on that note, peace out homey.

Don’t forget to sound off in the comments!


Self-pity never fueled a single accomplishment

I made the above statement a few days ago and impressed myself enough to use it as a blog post title. If someone else already said it, please don’t tell me. Let me keep the fantasy alive of one day appearing in the “Quotable Quotes” section of Reader’s Digest.

pity

Pity

With so many of you on summer hiatus, I’ve been forced to troll WordPress in search of blogs to read. Here’s something you missed (besides endless talk of Jennifer Lawrence’s nude photo leak): People complaining that they can’t get their novel or story published, can’t get an agent, can’t win a writing contest, can’t get blog traffic, can’t get motivated to write, and so on. Common theme: It’s a conspiracy.

I feel like I’ve been a supportive member of the blogging community. Some writers I encounter on WP are experienced professionals while others are still trying to develop mechanics and find a voice. Wherever people fall on that scale, I am always willing to offer encouragement.  Because really, the difference between good and not-good is often practice. Innate talent helps, but talent is nothing next to determination.

We should all agree that, to be successful at something (define success your own way), you must engage in activities that get you closer to your goal. For writers, that includes writing, reading, learning and researching, observing, and seeking feedback from writing groups, beta readers, or editors. Getting to know people in the industry can’t hurt, either.

Lamenting one’s struggles publicly will not bring writing goals closer to realization. Time spent bemoaning could be time spent on one of the constructive activities mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Frustration

Frustration

I read a dead-serious blog post last week from a writer complaining that, no matter how much she writes, she is still nowhere near as good as John Steinbeck. Poor thing. The Fates have conspired to stop her from being a generational genius who writes some of the most legendary works in the entire history of fiction.

Note: None of us is owed a place in the pantheon of great writers.

I think I’m a pretty good writer. I believe my novel-in-progress is, if nothing else, clean of prose, and it has potential to be a fast-paced page-turner. Those are my opinions. I know, as a statistical fact, that my chances of getting an agent to rep it and a publisher to buy it are almost nonexistent.

Almost nonexistent.

If I were to say, “It’s just too hard. Look how great I am, but they still don’t want me. I quit,” I’d be doing a disservice to you and me. To you, because I would be dismissing your talent and effort and desire as inferior to mine; and to me, because I’d be taking an almost nonexistent chance and turning it to an impossibility. I can’t publish a thing I never write.

Moments of frustration are inevitable when one pursues a lofty goal. If the likely thing happens and I don’t find an agent or a publisher, I’ll probably want to chuck my laptop off a cliff and stop writing. But you won’t see me hosting a pity party about it on my blog, because I am not going to chuck my laptop off a cliff and stop writing. I’ll get a new idea—a better one—and I’ll spend that pity-party time working on my next story.


When Bad Books Get Published

book of the dead

There are two realities: The one we insist upon and the one that actually is.

For writers, the insisted reality is that nothing less than perfection will get us a sniff at publication. Agents, publishers, editors, other writers, and bloggers don’t mind telling us everything we’re doing wrong in our quest, either.  Taken in toto, their advice demands that our stories have intriguing, likeable, and flawed (but not too flawed) characters who interact via engaging, authentic dialog and whose arcs roll out in perfect synchronization with an expertly paced, surprising (but not too surprising) plot, within which we have woven the perfect balance of descriptive details and crisp verbs while employing a narrative style that utilizes all five senses, avoids adverbs like bubonic plague, layers in foreshadowing that is not too obvious yet not too obscure, and speaks to the human condition in an original, innovative, and commercially viable way.

The actual reality is that most books fail to meet these demands yet are published all the time. Go to any bookstore, and within 5 minutes you should be able to find at least one novel that is a derivative, bland, and cliché-ridden exercise in tedium, the sole purpose of which seems to be: I dare you to finish this. Within a half hour, you can probably find a dozen more like it.

book of the dead2I say this because I am currently reading a debut novel that is, at its very best, mechanically competent on a sentence level. I’m reading it because it’s set during the early Italian Renaissance, a period that intrigues me, and because someone lent it to me.

None of the characters offers anything close to a personality or motivation, tedious exposition stands in place of a plot, and tension is nonexistent. I’ve invented the following dialog exchange for your amusement, yet I feel it captures the character interplay quite accurately:

“It’s not fair that you are sending me to the monastery. You know that all I long to do is paint and to become a great artists like my father!” said Luigi with a wince.

“You know what is not fair?” replied Super Mario. “It is not fair that you stole that apple from the street vendor, forcing me to give 3 florins to the jailer to secure your release! It is not fair that your mother died of consumption those five years ago and left you in my care, for, prior to that, I had no worries in the world. Oh, what else can I do with you, Luigi? It’s a monk’s life for you, I’m afraid.”

This followed by a three pages of exposition detailing the hitching of the cart, the ride into town, the condition of the roads, the oppressive atmosphere at the monastery, and so on.

To end up in a bookstore, this manuscript had to interest an agent then be pitched and sold to a publisher, edited, printed, and distributed, despite the writing being objectively poor.

As would-be professional novelists (presuming no best-selling authors currently read this blog), we show good form by not whining in public about our struggles to find success, not trashing our contemporaries by name, and taking our lumps from experts with humility. But you know as well as I do that lots of awful books get published and sometimes—admit it—you think, “Geez. I would have written that so much better.”

Which leads me to this question: When you browse a novel that forces you to stifle your gag reflex over its dreadfulness, do you end up feeling bitter or motivated?

monty python book


There’s Always Somebody Better

Trying to write the next Grapes of Wrath and getting blown away like so much dust? Dreaming of outselling J.K. Rowling with an epic fantasy series that knocks Harry Potter off his broomstick… but ending up with a migraine instead? Outraged that people don’t notice your religio-art conspiracy detective thriller (?) is ten times more brilliant than anything by Dan Brown?

Bad News: Whatever you try to do, there’s always somebody who does it better.

Take me for example. I’ve been known to sport a pretty decent beard. In fact, I get compliments on it from a lot of dudes (and the occasional dudette). Here’s a picture of me wearing it:

 Eric's beard

Guys tell me they wish they could get such solid, even coverage. Women tell me their husbands and boyfriends try to grow beards but end up getting frustrated because it looks bad and shave it off. But the truth is, I’m only semi-pro. If you want the King of Coverage, the Baron of Body, the Thunder god of Thickness, the Heavyweight of Hair (that all grows in the same direction)? I give you hockey player Hank Zetterberg, all-star forward for the Detroit Red Wings:

Henrik Zetterberg

Zetterberg is to ______ as Daniel Day-Lewis is to acting. (Answer: beards)

 hank

Not even Chuck Norris would mess with Zetterberg’s beard!

 Zetterberg

I could become despondent over the fact that I’ll never have a beard like Hank Zetterberg’s. But remember what I said above? Lots of people tell me they wish they could grow a beard like mine, and some ladies’ husbands are indeed envious. To boot, it only takes me about a week.

Once upon a time I became frustrated that neither of my manuscripts landed me an agent or a publishing contract. I’d glance over the shelves at the bookstore, randomly picking up new novels and scanning the beginning pages. A lot of them were drivel, honestly. I’d grumble. I’d furrow my brow. My manuscript was better than this junk!

You may have had the same experience. Or perhaps you didn’t sell nearly as many copies of your self-published novel as you dreamed. “Darn it,” you’d say, “How come this other thing got popular? Mine is better. It drives me nuts that that one particular writer is more successful!”

But, guess what… You wrote a novel! And it was pretty good. On the planet Earth, how many people can make that claim? Not many. And you learned a lot, so much so that your next novel will be ten times better. You might not be the next John Steinbeck, J.K. Rowling, or Dan Brown, but you are already the first you. That is a worthwhile and unique achievement.

**************


Writing advice: Personal quirks and preferences are not “rules”

Science

Science

If you’ve read my blog for a while, you know I’m not big on writing rules… unless they are backed by evidence. I’m a science-brained person. If you tell me all writers should do X, please show me some stats.

I’m going to steal an example from myself: I while back I blogged about how so many experts say, “You must join a writing group.” In my post, I asked why. I didn’t say writing groups weren’t good for some people; I merely wanted evidence that being in a writing group increases my chances of publication or makes me a better writer. Because if it doesn’t, why must I join one? Statements aren’t proof of themselves.

Ok. In the world of science, it’s standard practice to back up statements with hard data. Since the goals of writers vary so much, and “better” isn’t a concrete measurement, let’s expand the parameters to include common-sense proof.

For example, agents often advise, “Don’t send a 10-page query letter. I’m not going to read it.” Read enough agent blogs and websites and you will see, again and again, instructions to limit your query to one page, or the equivalent in e-mail form. That should be enough common-sense proof that “Don’t send a 10-page query” is good advice.

Same thing with, “Keep your first manuscript under 90,000 words.” It’s a good, common-sense suggestion. Occasionally a debut novel will be a massive epic, but not usually. Go to Barnes and Noble and look at the new-authors display. Most of those novels are about 300 pages. Go back a month later, and a month after that, and you will see a pattern: 300-page novels. That new-authors display should be solid evidence that your 700-page manuscript will probably get rejected. The odds against being industry published are already dramatic, so why reduce your chances from almost zero to zero?

But then there are the “my personal quirk” bits of advice that writers, agents, publishers, and writing teachers dish out as if from a science book about the solar system: Jupiter is the largest planet. Venus is a rocky world roughly the size of Earth. All writers should use outlines.

What? If Neptune, Uranus, and Saturn joined to form a superplanet, then who would be biggest? Huh? Jupiter? I think not.

Wait, that isn’t the point I was trying to make. Where was I? Oh yeah…

What? All writers should use outlines? That’s not a fact, it’s a personal preference, yet I come across that claim at least once a month somewhere in the advice-o-sphere. The fact that Stephen King does not outline is ample proof that not everyone needs outlines. He became one of the best-selling writers of all time without them. If outlines make you a better writer, then use them, of course. Personal fact: I write better without outlines.

More science

More science

I can give a dozen examples of quirks masquerading as advice that alleges to make us better writers, but, given space limitations, I’ll discuss only one. It really grinds my gears:

“Don’t have characters using profanity. If your characters are swearing, it means you lack creativity with dialog.”

Since lots of really good writers—who are known for their dialog— depict characters swearing, this advice is not advice at all, unless it is prefaced with, “If you get hired to write the next Nancy Drew book…”

Not having characters swear isn’t more creative or less creative. It’s a preference. It might be an unrealistic one sometimes, too. If you write novels and stories about NYC homicide investigators or about angst-filled teens caught up in a world of cheap booze and homemade drugs, for random example, PG-rated dialog would come off as silly and tepid, as if you are trying to avoid offending anyone instead of telling the story the way it needs to be told.

Maybe the advice giver read a poorly written, cliché-riddled manuscript with lots of swearing and thought, “This writer is uncreative. Look at the dialog!” But could it be that, even if the writer had chosen a less-profane route, the novel would still suck? Maybe the profanity-laced dialog is smoke and mirrors. Maybe the problem isn’t that the dialog is dirty… it’s that the writer lacks skill.

Or perhaps the advice giver has a visceral reaction to profanity. Visceral reactions are organic and words are intellectual. That requires a lot of back-and-forth translation between our primal brain to our cerebral brain. That is, there must be a rational reason I was repelled by this dialog. I know! I am a writing expert, and I react to bad writing. Thus, cursing is bad writing!

Oops. I’ve reached my self-imposed limit (see, no plan). Talk to me: