Dear Agents

Dear Agents That I Query,

Thank you. I understand that you’re extremely busy, and you might not be thrilled with the idea of slogging through the slush pile tonight after work. But you do it anyway on the off chance that someone sent in something that isn’t terrible. Hopefully you’ll be in a reasonably good mood when you come across my submission. Hopefully you’re a fantasy geek like me and the idea of a kid in the desert who hears weird voices intrigues you.

I can’t imagine with your job is like. I hate reading bad writing, which is why revising my first and second drafts is like pulling teeth. I couldn’t imagine a more torturous version of hell than having to read through every trotted out and beaten down trope-laden crapfest of a storyline we writers come up with and present to you with 76% spelling accuracy and bad grammar. On a daily/weekly basis.

I’ve been querying my fantasy series for years now. I started before it was ready. I thought it was ready, but it definitely wasn’t. Looking at it now, after having a group of extremely talented and skilled writers critique and help me improve it, I almost laugh at how bad it used to be. And even then, I had a couple of nibbles from agents, because they saw the potential in it. Now, though, it’s probably as good as it’s going to get without some serious professionals nit-picking it and polishing all those little rough spots that I’m not experienced enough to see.

Now, after a few years, you’d think that it would become sort of rote. Draft a query, send it out, forget about it and get a response. Rinse off the rejection. Repeat.

But it doesn’t work that way. I fret over each query I send out. Each one is unique. I sit and draft a brand new letter for each one of you I send a letter to because I want each agent to know that I am querying them for a reason. They are a person I am hoping to build a career with, a business partner that I would like to spend quite a long time building a trust and rapport with. That sort of commitment shouldn’t be made lightly, or with just the first person who offers it to you.

I send out a query and mark it down in my spreadsheet, then I enter it into my querytracker account, then I review the statistics on how long you typically take to respond (even though my experience has shown just how far off those stats are) and I check the comments on querytracker every few hours during the day to see if anyone who queried around the same time as me has heard anything back and then what that might or might not mean vis a vis my query and whether you’ve looked at it and whether it might have made a second round of ‘this might be interesting’ or whether it’s just sitting there because you haven’t had time to send out the boilerplate. Yeah, it’s a little manic sometimes.

And I totally understand why it takes weeks to hear back. You’re extremely busy during the day working and fighting to get the best deals for your clients, and making sure that each project is as good as it can be before it gets to the editor’s desk for submission. Expanding your client list probably isn’t your number one priority, nor should it be. Your first responsibility is to the authors you already represent, the ones who trust you with their careers. But that doesn’t make it easier.

And as much as it sucks to get that rejection letter, I have to say I am EXTREMELY grateful that you replied (closure is a wonderful thing), and it climbs to a whole new level when it’s a personalized rejection. Even a simple mention of my protagonist’s name lets me know that you actually reviewed my pages and had an opinion on them. Then there’s the second-best response. When you ask me for a manuscript and read it and get back to me with a genuine, helpful, personalized response with the reasons you didn’t quite connect with it. Those are the next best thing to an offer. Because, while you might not want to rep me or my book, your honest critique is going to help make me and/or the work better.

So, in closing, thanks for doing an extremely frustrating job. It balances against the frustrating job we’re doing out here, pouring our blood onto the page and hoping it matches type with someone out there in need of a word transfusion. One of these days I’ll scale the wall and all the self-doubt and anxiety will have been worth it. Until then, expect to see my name in your inbox.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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First World Writer Problems

So, I went to WorldCon back in September. While there I learned a ton about the industry, agents, editors, other authors, and all that writing stuff. I met a boat-load of writers, a few of whom have kept in touch, and we started a writing group that is pretty great. In short, I had a blast.

I also learned what agents are looking for, and got a better idea of how to make an agent want to read my book. So, of course, I got back home and sent out a half-dozen queries with my newly refined and sharply honed pitch. I included such information as ‘I heard about you through XYZ author you/your agency represents and they spoke highly of you’ and ‘I’m looking for an agent who can help me grow into a career writer’.

And it worked. I got several partial requests and waited for the glory.

But alas, it did not come.

So, back to the other writers I met and the group we started. We’ve had a few meetings now, and things are going really well. They’ve pointed out all many of the reasons my story was not hooking agents in the first chapter and I’ve fixed most of those. Good news, right? Well, yes and no.

See, now I’m in the middle of a rewrite after they pointed out some weak motivations in one of my primary characters. I know where I’m going with it, but it’s going to take time to fix. Which wouldn’t be an issue if I hadn’t just gotten a partial request last week from an agent.

This is a first world writer problem. I had a manuscript for an agent, sent the query, but by the time she decided she wanted to read more, I had already started fixing all much of the bad stuff in my manuscript. In essence, I’ve shot myself in the foot, because I can’t send in the partial without a completed full to back it up! I’m wishing I had found such a great writing group a long time ago.

The best I can do at this point is finish my revision as quickly as I can and get it sent out before she loses interest. Publishing is a slow business, though, right? I mean, I’ve got some time, don’t I?

Maybe I better go work on that revision…

NaNoWriMo

Ahhhh, November. Best known for that holiday where friends and family gather to beat each other with serving spoons and turkey legs while children turn their noses up at casseroles and insist on eating nothing more than the scant leftover Halloween candy Mom and Dad have tried to squirrel away into the back of the pantry to save for themselves on a rainy day. Oh yeah, and it’s National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo rubs me two distinct ways: 1) Huzzah! People are getting into writing and for a month being an author who isn’t published yet is a little more normal and slightly less shameful! 2) Who the hell do these people think they are? They’ve been trying to write for less than a month! Come back in a few years with a stack of rejection letters and tell me how much you love the craft!

Most of the time, I’m more firmly in the former mindset. NaNoWriMo is a great way to get people interested in writing and to bring more people to it as an art form and a skill. It’s also a great way to develop the community, and get readers to understand the perils of writing and maybe cut some of us a little slack when we take too long getting that next book in the series out (yeah I’m talking to you, beta/gamma readers; you know who you are). So, in the spirit of NaNo, here is some advice from a guy who’s never tried to write a novel in a month:

1) Write. When you feel the ‘muse’, when you don’t feel the ‘muse’, and when the ‘muse’ has had WAY too many Jaegers and thinks that guy at the bar is a girl and keeps telling you to get her number. Sit your ass down and write. Write every day, even if you only stare at a blank page and write ‘what the hell?’ over and over again. Sit there and do it.

2) Don’t judge your work… yet. You can’t expect to have a shiny diamond of a novel after a month. In fact, similar to a diamond, after a geologically short period, it’s much more likely to look like a powdery mess of coal than anything sparkly and jewel-ish. Only after ages of heat and pressure (I’m not talking about cute squeezy pressure, I’m talking ass in a vice at the bottom of the ocean with the Titanic on your head pressure) will your pretty piece of stardust be morphed into that diamond you knew it could be. It will probably still disappoint you, but just like jewels, novels are judged by more than just their size and cut.

3) Join a writing group. Writing groups (good ones at least) are invaluable. They will give you feedback, help point out things you didn’t see, provide encouragement, tons of advice, and perhaps a few contacts. Writing Excuses has a great podcast about writing groups, you should check them out. In fact, there’s number four.

4) Find some good podcasts and blogs. I will give one example of each here: Writing Excuses and Terrible Minds. Writing Excuses is a long-running pod with such unheard of characters as Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal. If you didn’t catch it, that ‘unheard of’ bit was sarcasm. If you don’t know those people, Google them and realize what you’re missing. I’ll be here when you get back and begin contemplating how you could have thought your life was complete before being acquainted with those people. The pod covers a huge range of topics, all related to writing, generally talking about genre and speculative types of fiction. Brandon comes from a background of writing MEGA epic series in the fantasy genre, while Howard has a ridiculously long running web comic of a sci-fi comedy bent, Dan writes mostly horror and sci-fi, and Mary is a puppeteer who also writes beautiful books and recently out-Rothfussed Pat Rothfuss in his #RealRothfuss twitter campaign for charities. Terrible Minds is Chuck Wendig’s blog and is as full of awesome as Writing Excuses. I met the ‘Dig at WorldCon 2013 and he is a genuinely wonderful person, and an extremely talented writer. Read what he says, or else… No but seriously, these two sites are treasure troves of writerly goodness that you NEED to be tuned into. These are by no means the only ones, but they’re my two favorites.

5) Go ahead and feel inadequate, but keep writing anyway. As writers, we all get days/weeks/months where we don’t feel good enough. We feel like what we’re writing sucks, nobody will like it, and in fact they will not like it so badly that they’ll ridicule us publicly for it. As a bit of insight: every good writer feels that way. That feeling is what makes people who are mediocre writers strive to improve their craft to the level that it’s outstanding. People who don’t feel that way from time-to-time won’t push themselves the same way and their so-so work will stay so-so and people won’t care enough about it to take notice. The overwhelming conviction that you’re an impostor and you shouldn’t be trying to tread where giants have walked before is a real emotion and should be treated appropriately: with coffee and chocolate. The thing that no one thinks about is that those giants whose footsteps dwarf your own on the path to publication started out just like yours, you were just too busy being lost in the woods to notice them until they were freakishly huge. Your feet will grow, you just have to keep walking.

6) Don’t stop come December. I’ll repeat my last phrase from number 5: keep walking. If you liked NaNo, make every month NaNoWriMo. Keep the story going and when you’ve finished that first draft, let it sit, write something new, and come back to it for a second pass.

Writing is a beautiful release that I think everyone should try at least once in their life. So sit down at the computer, start up Spotify, and jam out to Two Steps from Hell while you crank out that epic. I look forward to seeing your name on a cover some day.

Going Back

Around a month ago, I submitted a manuscript to an agent I was extremely excited about. I had met him at a convention, spoken with him at length, and convinced him to take a look at the first two novels in my fantasy series. I made some quick revisions he requested, and sent them off.

Then I waited. Far less time than I expected, honestly.

Then the rejection came.

But lo, and behold, the rejection came with sound reasoning, and the assurance that he would be interested in seeing those manuscripts revised and any future projects I may work up.

This is a win, but it brings me to the topic I want to discuss: revising, reworking, or rewriting.

Based on this feedback, I’m straight up rewriting. There are several reasons for this, and most of them filter back to inexperience on my part when I started this project. This novel was the first piece of fiction I had tried to write since grade school and I wasn’t very good. There were fundamental problems that simply rewording a sentence or dropping a few adverbs wasn’t going to fix. So, I rolled up my sleeves, tucked my pants into my galoshes, and trudged through the sewage.

Yes I just compared two years of writing and revising to poop water. I’m classy like that.

I currently have the stance that what I wrote, edited, modified, cut up, had someone else edit, gave to readers, shopped to agents, and tried desperately to get published, is a beautiful and shiny first draft. A first draft that has been edited twelve times. A first draft that will serve me well when I need to refer to the next events to come in my rewrite. A first draft that I can treat as a wonderfully detailed outline.

That hurts a bit, but when I’m done with this rewrite, I will have a much stronger book, with dense prose, a tight storyline, stronger characters, and better relationships.

At least I fucking hope so.

My Ideal Editor/Author Relationship

I’ve been going back and listening to a bunch of old Writing Excuses podcasts. For those who have been intentionally avoiding all things related to writing in the last several years, Writing Excuses is a brilliant podcast with Brandon Sanderson, Howard Tayler, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal where they talk about writing, publishing, cartooning, graphic novels, etc. in a short, easy-to-digest format. It’s updated weekly and is only 15 minutes long because we’re in a hurry and Americans have a short attention span. This podcast has really given me a bunch of blog ideas, but the one I have most strongly latched onto is the idea of working with an editor or and editing agent.

A lot of writers operate under the guise that editors are the enemy of purity in literature and seek to destroy all that is holy and worth cherishing in their works. I used to be one of these people. I think this feeling stems from an insecurity about the value of their written words, and a simultaneous belief that what they have written is the best thing to ever grace a page. I may be revealing too much about myself here, but I have both of these thoughts almost constantly battling in my cerebrum. Part of me wants for people to read it and love it, and the rest of me is overwhelmed with terror that they will laugh me out of the room.

This story is perfect! No one is going to like it.

What I have grown to learn, though, is that people in the industry, particularly agents and editors, want your book to succeed, and the things they will tell you in the editing process are intended to improve the manuscript. They will not tell you something they do not believe will make your story better. Agents don’t make money if you don’t get a publishing deal. Editors don’t make money if that deal doesn’t make them money. Agents and editors like to make money.

If we then rationally consider those points, we come to the logical conclusion that an agent who knows their stuff will only help make our books better, and an editor who knows their stuff will only serve to make that better book even better. Better + Better = Good As It Gets

In that case, I can’t wait to get an editing agent to grab hold of my manuscripts and tell me what’s wrong with them. I can’t wait for an email with an attachment saying ‘I’ve found these 42,659 places you can improve this’. I can’t wait for this because I know when all that is done, when I’m all through being pissed off about how much of my blood I’m having to sap from these pages and replace with someone else’s brain spatterings, I will have a stronger story and a better book. In the end, that’s what we’re doing this for. We’re writing stories for people to read and enjoy.

My Ideal Editor/Author Relationship is the one where he/she knows what I’m trying to say, can find a better way to say it, and can then convince me that the better way is really better. I want to publish my stories, but I want them to be better than I can make them on my own.

Because the readers deserve the best story we can give them.

In the Face of Rejection

Fellow writers will all know what it’s like to come finger to eyeball with piles of rejection letters. If you don’t know, then you are either the greatest writer to ever grace the planet, extremely lucky, or a big fat wuss who’s never tried to put your work to the test against an editor or agent.

I’ve sent out around 40 queries up to this point, which means I’ve put my first manuscript against nearly every agent in the genre, and several of the acquiring editors. The ones I haven’t queried just didn’t feel right for me, for one reason or another, or were closed to submissions. I have three of those queries unanswered right now, one of them has a full manuscript, and the others probably haven’t opened their slush pile boxes long enough to slog through to my submission. It’s only been a couple weeks, so I don’t expect to hear back for a while.

So, 40 queries, 3 awaiting response, (I’ll do the math for you here, that’s what my Physics degree is for) that’s 37 rejection letters. I’ve been told no 37 times. While on the surface, that may not seem like a lot, it feels like way the hell too much. And it’s SO easy to look at 37 rejections and think ‘that must mean there’ s something wrong with my writing; it must really suck.’ And some days I do. Some days I want to just set the laptop aside and walk away from writing for good.

But I never do. Here’s why:

Every now and then I get some real feedback. Three times out of 37 letters, I’ve gotten some feedback from an agent where he/she tells me some unbelievably encouraging things, and gives me ideas on where I can tighten up the story and how I can improve my chances of publication. Those rejections are the little flecks of gold in the pan that keep me sifting sand from the riverbed.

Those rejections help me grow.

I take heart in those because usually there’s enough good stuff that I know I’m on the right track, I just have to take the Turtle Wax to that sucker and make it shine (some cases it seems more like sanding it back to bare metal and giving it a whole new paint job). Constructive feedback is a beautiful thing, and all we have to do is sustain ourselves on it long enough to get that one gorgeous letter that says ‘I read it and I love it, now change these 200 things and we can sell it.’

So, fellow aspiring authors, or those who have already been published and still feel human and fallible, hang in there, keep writing, keep working, and keep improving. One day you’ll look back on that time you almost gave it up and think ‘I’m glad I stuck with it just a little while longer, otherwise I’d never be where I am today.’

Now, get to work. You’ve got stories to tell and rejections to read.

What My Outlines Look Like

Chuck Wendig inspired me to write this with this post. Go there, then come back. Or don’t. Maybe just go there, he’s better at all of this than I am.  I’m going to continue as though you were still here, pop back when you’re ready… In that post he talks about all the ways and reasons to outline and the benefits and drawbacks thereof. It’s brilliant in the way that most of Chuck’s Terrible Minds posts are brilliant, which is ‘how in the bloody hell did you know exactly how I operate, you must be the devil!’ I assure you, Chuck Wendig is the devil.

Within the above linked post, he links to another of his posts, which is to be found here, where he details all the plotting methods he can dream up, and maybe a few that came to him in the meta-physical delirium that accompanies too much drinking and too little sleep at cons. If you’re a writer, I strongly recommend perusing these two posts and picking out a few contenders you may not have tried before to see if any fit. As writers, one of the most important things we can do is expand our toolboxes; we should constantly be improving. The best way to improve is to try new things and see which ones work for you. If you’re not a writer, do it anyway. Writing is fun. Do it.

To address the title of the post, my outlines look nothing like outlines. In fact, for the most part they are invisible because they are inside my head. Sometimes I jot a something down and toss it in my ‘don’t forget this’ folder, or throw note into my Evernote account to remind me of a particular thing I want to do, but generally, the major events are in my head. The trick is getting from one event to another.

For my first series, I started out with 3 events– 3 things that had to happen. I also had a world in mind, which got fleshed out as the story and characters developed. Everything in between got filled in by placing those characters in the place I had built, and letting them figure their way to where they needed to be. If things went too far astray, a little massaging and a couple of insurmountable roadblocks led them back where they needed to be. If they got really crazy… let’s just say thousands of words went unused.

All that in between stuff– how a character will react to a thing and where that reaction will take him/her is why I can’t outline. The character’s decisions being natural and spontaneous important to me, and to be honest, I don’t always know what they’re going to be, so I can’t even put them in an outline.  I’ve heard this style of writing coined as ‘discovery writing’ and I think it’s spot-on. I have an idea of where things need to go, so I point the ship that direction, then I let the interstellar winds, gravity waves, and dark energy carry me off and discover all there is to find between here and there.

And that’s fun.

It’s also scary as hell.

It’s scary because I’m always convinced I’m going to lose the story and it’ll take me 500,000 words to get it back again and by the time I finally do get back to it I’ll have totally forgotten where I was going and then the whole thing will fall apart and I’ll be a complete failure as a writer and no one will ever want to read my work and I’ll die hopeless and alone without ever getting published and all my friends and family will laugh at me and think I’m worthless and I’ll die of shame and embarrassment with no one to hear my dying words where I lament that I didn’t write an outline (I realize I died twice in that sentence, but it ran on long enough to warrant a second death scene). But seriously, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat and tried to make a detailed outline of a story simply for confidence or to relieve that overwhelming sense of self-doubt and fear that I’ll lose my way and never get back to the plot. Every time I start to write there’s a little part of me going ‘Okay, Martin, don’t fuck this up. You’ve been doing all right so far, but I know you, and you’re bound to drop the ball sometime.’ And chalk points up to my grade school English teachers, because I hear voices of little schizophrenic demons on my shoulders chastising me about how much easier it would be if I just finished that damn outline, just like they always told me I should.

Because, after all, who can write a plot without an outline?

Lots of fucking people, that’s who.

And I’m one of them.