An Excess of Riches

I'm learning something new about myself. When I have a full requested by an agent I like, I stop querying. It's not an intentional, "This is it. No need to send these things out any more!" It's more of a, "Damn, that's hard work. I'll get to it later." Later just happens to come after I hear back on my full request.

That's not entirely true. Later will come after a month or two before my common sense kicks me in the back of the head and says, "What are you waiting for? That's two months another agent might have been interested in your work!" My common sense wears cleats, so I don't like it when it kicks me in the back of the head.

But, here I've received a full request and here I'm not sending out queries even though I should be. Really, I should have been sending out queries for the past two months. I even had multiple rounds of feedback from Jennifer S. Wolf. So you'd think I'd be all over that.

Well, then I had a new idea for a novel, and I wrote that instead. Then I revised that novel. And the day before I finished revising that novel to send to beta readers, an agent asked me for a full of a third manuscript. So querying seems so out of place.

Oh woe is me! I sent a new novel to beta readers and received a full request for a separate novel so I don't feel up to querying a third novel. Gee, Joe, that must be a rough life you're leading there.

It's actually kind of awesome. It's also kind of confusing. My process has been: write a book, query a book, write a new book, get rejected, query new book, write a third book, get rejected, and so on. This whole revise a book, write a book, send off a full, query a book makes me all dizzy!

So all that self-aggrandizement is really meant to say, query. Don't sit back and wait. It is not in your best interest. At worse you garner multiple rejections (okay, at worse you garner someone telling you you have no talent and should stop breathing) and at best you garner multiple offers of representation and can declare a Thunderdome among agents to see who you will pick.

Either way, there isn't much reason for you to rest on your Laurels. Your Laurels are tired of you resting on them. They told me so. Get to work and give your Laurels a break. They work hard enough as it is without having to put up with your ass in their faces.

The Good, the Bad, and the Stuffing

So I have decided that rejections that offer praise first actually sting more than just flat rejection. "This is a great story with strong writing, but I didn't fall in love with it" says to me "Damn you were close, but it just didn't click with me" which stings SO MUCH MORE than just a straight "This isn't for me." (Granted, by the time an agent has requested pages, a "this isn't for me" response doesn't work because you'd have to wonder how they couldn't figure that out by the query.)

I am not one of those people that take solace in coming in second. That just means you won at losing. (Extreme, and probably hyperbolic, but you get my point, yeah? I want to win.) Knowing I was SO CLOSE bums me out more than if I hadn't come close at all. I think this may come from a childhood of choking at sports when it really mattered. Or not. I don't know.

But this is not all self-created doom and gloom. Two agents I greatly respect have used pretty much those exact words. Strong writing. Great story. One loved the world building more than the other, but they also read different stories so I'm not sweating that. This is wicked awesome confidence inspiring bolstering supder-dupertude. I've got the tools. I've got the talent. I just need some ghosts to, an agent that clicks with the stories I tell.

SO CLOSE! It's time to finish in first place. Let's get on that.

...after lunch. Chicken and stuffing. Nom nom nom nom!!!

A Paragraph

If you read industry blogs at all, you have seen an agent or two (or two hundred) occasionally talk about reaction emails. Reaction emails are when an amateur (not an aspiring author) shows that he or she is no way emotionally ready for the challenges of publishing and may never be. They submit their query and receive a form rejection.

See now right there, that's pretty awesome. More and more agents are just not responding if they don't want to see more and I think that's lame because accidents happen and who knows if they ever received it or not (*beats the dead horse a little more*). Regardless, when you get the form rejection, that's pretty awesome. They saw your query and decided to pass. Closure.

But then these jerk offs write back and tell the agent how he/she cannot possibly conceive of the genius they have just rejected. That X number of other agents have already offered representation (which is a load of crap because no one goes from querying to partial to full in that little amount of time). And how could an agent ever think to judge one's genius by the five sample pages requested as part of the query!?!

See, I don't like that last part. I don't like any of it. When you get a rejection that's the end of it until you have something new to query. Don't be a dick. But if you think a professional in the industry needs more than five pages to gauge the quality of your work, then you're not a professional in the industry. Be thankful they gave you five pages. They probably knew the answer in the first paragraph. If you're particularly shitty at this whole thing, they knew in your first sentence.

And if you're not shitty at this whole thing, then you should be able to do the same. Critical reading is a fundamental skill and one necessary to improve your writing. When you read, you should find every crack in the paint, every loose nail in the floorboard, every over-watered cement mix in the foundation. You need to know when someone's repeating the same descriptors, using conflicting cadence, and/or showing and not telling. You need to know all these because you need to do it to yourself before you let other people read your work. You want your writing to be the best it can be so they don't waste their time finding the things you should have found but finding other things you hadn't thought of. (To which you will commit those mistakes to memory and find them on your first past the next go around, thus continuously improving until you're so awesome you cause the universe to implode from the sheer mass of your awesomeness.)

For the time being, pay someone you love (spouse, sibling, best friend). It won't cost much. Five bucks and a pizza or something. At any time they overhear you complaining that someone would love your work if they'd just read the whole thing, you have that person slap you across the face. Then say thank you, because that person is on duty, always vigilant, to bring you back to your senses. You make sure that you build the most amazing house of a novel in those sample pages, not a McMansion that would lend itself to hijinx with Tom Hanks and Goldie Hawn.

And if you think what I'm saying is harsh, keep in mind two things. First, it's late and I'm not feeling well, so my personal filter is working at half-capacity. Second, you already do this. When you read a book and that first page is utter shit. So then you go to the next page and it's even worse. It's a rare thing to keep reading a book in hopes that you'll love it only if you read to the very end. You put your much valued time toward endeavors that are worth it. You can tell by the page. You can tell by the paragraph. Perhaps even by the sentence. And so can they.

Remember that the next time you're in the mood to bitch. (Not to mention there are so many other things to bitch about! Like agents that don't even send form rejections! Or that the Canucks won game 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs against the Bruins with an off-sides goal! Priorities, people!)

The Red Pen

Your pardon at the quality of the pictures, but I took those with my phone which does not have the best camera. They get the point across, though. I received feedback from an agent awhile back, feedback I was uncertain about. I never rush right into feedback assuming that a person is right or wrong. I weigh everything on a case-by-case basis. In this case, she pointed out a "defect" that wasn't actually a defect because it was intentional (I had intentionally slowed the pacing as a parallel to the bureaucracy of the setting).

Not to dismiss this feedback out of hand, I pondered on it long and hard. Not just long or hard, but both long and hard together, which is proven to yield better results. What I found was two things. 1) She was correct that, regardless of the atmosphere of the setting, there was an element of the craft that needed improvement. I could do better. 2) Whether I write it intentionally or not, slow-paced books are not the way for a first-time author to get published.

All this meant little until I realized a mistake I had made. I made it in the original draft and thought I fixed it in the final but never went far enough on the correction. This was the key! Not only would I fix the error, but I would improve the pacing and everyone would be happy.

So that's exactly what I did. I set about taking a comb a la Spaceballs in the desert scene. I chopped something like six-eight thousand words, combined chapters, rewrote two entirely, and in the end, the story was so much stronger for it.

So I go back to said agent and say, madam you are wise and virtuous. I have followed your inspired criticism and proffer to you a better draft, should you be willing to accept it. Her response was: send me the first three chapters.

You know that sound effect where the car tires screech and then there's a loud crash? Yeah, that happened in my brain. The first three chapters? But my revisions start in chapter 4!

Again, not to dismiss things out of hand, I ask myself, could these chapters use attention as well? I had already cut some five thousand words from them just during my normal revision process (yeah, they were big). Looking at the word counts and previous feedback, it seemed like chapter two had room to give. There was a lot of cool stuff that established character background and setting but didn't do a lot for the story.

So how do we approach this? I mean, this is serious. This is the time. Make it or break it. Do it or die. We need...THE RED PEN!

I don't use hardcopy much any more. I'm 100 times faster on my computer. I write on my PC. I revise on my PC. I revise again on my PC. But sometimes there is a time when things are important enough that I have to go old school.

Now very few of you (and by few I mean 1, unless you came over from Book Country where I reviewed some others) have ever experienced my critiquing. To put it mildly, I am ruthless. I don't normally offer to review other people's work for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is that they don't like me when I'm done. (That might be an exaggeration. I made one guy cry, but we became very close after that.)

What those people don't realize is that I'm equally hard on myself. And so you don't have to take my word for it, here is my long-form photographic evidence.

Here we go, making changes.

Wow, this needs tightening. Move stuff. Get rid of that. And that.

Okay, really? What they hell were you thinking. Just no. Don't do that.


And the Blind Shall See

If I had known that I was going to attend Sara Megibow's Writer's Digest webinar today, I would have posted earlier. It was a last minute decision1, and boy am I glad I attended.

It was a seminar on querying. I have attended such a seminar before hosted by her boss, Kristin Nelson. That seminar was geared specifically for sff. I've also followed Kristin's blog for YEARS, so I've heard a lot from the Nelson Agency about what makes a good query. So why did I attend? Because I continue to suck at queries.

Actually, at first, I asked Sara on Twitter whether I would get anything new from the presentation. And while she admitted that their philosophy on queries is pretty similar, there was one fundamental point I was short-selling: Sara isn't Kristin.

It has to be hard for an associate agent to work for a popular and established agent. How easy must it be to assume she parrot's Kristin's opinions or is the "second" option at the agency. Attend a webinar hosted by Sara, and you'll have that misconception dispelled. I will go so far as to say I learned MORE from Sara's presentation (which wasn't geared specifically to sff) than I did from Kristin's.

The part that resonated with me the most is when she took examples of debut authors and showed us how she took their query letters and formulated her pitch to editors2. That made a REALLY big difference in how I see queries and how I will approach them in the future. I rewrote the query for JH but am waiting for the audio archive to become available and listen a second time before I finalize things. It feels like there's a hole in the middle, which probably means it's perfect.

Now, if you're counting pennies and this kind of topic doesn't seem worth the expense, I will also point out that the webinar ends with a QA session3 and then you get to submit your query to Sara for critique. This is like a free swing. Here's my query. *feedback* Okay, here's my revised query, no harm no foul!4 I have heard from other people that sometimes the expense is enough for this fact alone. Basically they're buying a query critique and the rest is just icing.

For me, querying truly is my biggest weakness5. I want to improve and I feel that I have. Looking back at previous queries, I definitely have. *shudder*

If this sounds like something that may be helpful to you or if you've been on the fence about this kind of thing, I strongly recommend it.

1 Okay, technically it was a last sixty minutes decision. I went and grabbed lunch and then came back and participated.

2 She even spoiled Roni Loren's big reveal of her new cover. I know a secret!2 1/2

2 1/2 A secret until tomorrow when Roni reveals her new cover.

3 Sara saw a question I submitted and said hi to me. I squeed like a tween fangirl. :D

4 The query I submitted after Kristin's webinar led to the closest I've been to signing an agent.

5 Shut up, Liz! I like my pacing just fine.

A Disturbing Thought

So if you don't make it out of the slush pile, you're most likely getting the ax by the assistant tasked with grinding the slush. Assuming the assistant wants to be an agent someday down the road, not only are you getting rejected by the agent you queried, you're getting rejected by an agent from the future! Double the rejection, double the fun1?

It's like Jet Li's "One"2 but for querying.

1 Rejection from the Spearmint twins would be easier as it would be wholly expected.

2 Which is a lame sci-fi reinterpretation of Highlander. I prefer Li in his kung fu roles like Hero, Fearless, and Forbidden Kingdom.

Sonny Liston

If you know the name Sonny Liston at all, you know it's the guy on the mat in the famous Mohammed Ali photo. It's one of the most highly recognizable/promoted sports pictures in American sports history. There's Ali talking smack and some boxer on the mat he's just knocked down in the first round. That's Sonny Liston1.

In the world of publishing, you are not Mohammed Ali. You are Sonny Liston. You need to focus on the fight you're in and not think of the fight that comes next. If you're not focused, you'll get an Ali jab to the face that will drop you to the canvas and then they'll publish your humiliation for decades to come.

I submitted a query on Monday. It was a damn fine query. One of the best I've ever written (and while I only have four completed novels, I wrote eight different queries for WANTED alone, so plenty of queries for comparison's sake). I submitted it to an agent that had previously requested a full manuscript. I then started doing wat I always do. I started a new project to take my mind off the wait. But, I skipped back to the completed manuscript. I had rewritten the beginning and wanted to make sure that this new content was as good as it could be. I wanted to make sure they requested a full again and not just sample pages.

Do you see what I did just there? I'm working to make sure they request a full when they haven't even requested sample pages yet. A solid query + a desired genre + previous positive history with the agent summed a presumption that they would want to see more. So thirty hours later when I got a rejection, Ali got me right in the face. I have never had such a strong reaction to rejection as I did yesterday. Why? Because I wasn't focused on the fight I was fighting. I had moved on.

Don't do that. Publishing is hard enough. There are so many steps along the way where someone can tell you that your awesomeness isn't good enough. Put your effort into staying emotionally strong. Learn from their criticism, improve, continue. You need to put the next foot forward and you can't do that if you're lying on the mat getting your picture taken.

This is only one rejection. I still have plenty of other agents who--if they have any sense at all--will want to see my manuscript. ;) There's another fight after this one, and it's time to prepare for that one2.

1 Sonny Liston had a record of 50-4-0 and was world heavyweight champion when he faced Cassius Clay for the first time. The famous photo is from the rematch. Clay had changed his name to Ali, the Nation of Islam was at the height of its national power, and Liston took a considerably light jab in the first round and dropped. The ring ref was so occupied with getting Ali to a neutral corner that he never started the ten-count. It was a sports reporter who informed the ref that Liston had been down for longer than ten seconds that prompted the ref to call the match (even though the rules of boxing require the opponent to be in a neutral corner before the count can begin). Years later, according to Wikipedia, Liston admitted to taking a dive because he was scared of retaliation from the Nation of Islam if he should win.

2 The next fight involves a synopsis. I hate synopses. They just suck the life out of a story.


So I posted a three drafts of the query for JEHOVAH'S HITLIST (twice as primary posts and once as a response). I got some ingenious feedback from Elizabeth Poole following my third draft that took in it a whole new but slightly different direction. I am withholding the final draft until querying has passed and/or my brand spanking new agent says it's cool to post it.

Today I sent out the first query for this manuscript. Hello anxiety, my old friend. I haven't seen you for awhile. Welcome back.

QUERY: JEHOVAH'S HITLIST (another draft)

In September '10, I made a first draft of a query for Jehovah's Hitlist. It's a rule peoples, never go with your first draft. Of anything. Not your novel. Not your query. So I've written a few drafts of JH (and will be doing one more) so it's time to put the nose to the grindstone and get a quality query.

...of course, I suck at queries, so I need your help! Read the below. Help me make it better. PLLLEEEEEAAAAASSSSEEEEEE!!!!!!

Jehovah knows a secret. On Sundays when they parachute down the charity box, he can see where they open the sky to make the drop. First one to the box gets the best charity: ration bars, medicine, ammunition, and what all. Jehovah gets himself real leather boots meant for the Hanged Man with a list of five names stuffed inside.

It lists five people who can lead him up above. He must find them and kill them or the Hanged Man says he will destroy Missouri Avenue. That ain't a threat to take lightly. When the folk on Alaska Avenue betrayed the Hanged Man to the deputies, he pulled himself out the noose and leveled the entire block. He'll do the same again lest Jehovah does what he's told. Go up above and deliver a note for the Hanged Man. Do that and all is forgotten.

That's the dream of everyone in the Nation. Escape the jackals and the marginalized, the spikers and the snake oil addicts to the platform city above. That was Jehovah's mama's dream. She sold him and his brothers to buy her way up and here the Hanged Man was giving him the opportunity. All he need do is kill five people and don't look back. Leave it all behind, friends and family, violence and vice. But at the end of all things when the waters have risen and humanity has fled to the sky above, all one has left is family.

JEHOVAH'S HITLIST (or DOWN BELOW THE UP ABOVE) is a completed 94,000-word adult, dystopian science fiction.

If this is YA, Society is Coming to an End

I have mentioned previously that despite the popularity of YA, I have little interest in trying to cash in on the genre. I like writing adult work. I like deep moral and ethical exploration that comes from an environment of violence, sex, and all the topics that a YA book can ricochet off of but never delve into too deeply.

Admittedly, the genre has been getting grittier. I continue to claim that Janice Hardy's Healing Wars series has become too violent to be considered Middle Grade. That's YA. And YA is getting more violent as well, but it hasn't reached where I write yet.

I'm revising JEHOVAH'S HITLIST to submit for querying next week. The story is much more solid than I remembered and I am pleased to find it so. The main character (Jehovah) is 15 years old. This is perfect for YA, yeah? Teenager. Protagonist. YA dystopian is hot. Here we go! Of course, he kills four people in the first chapter alone. The book has profanity, public nudity, drug use, prostitution, slave trafficking, masturbation, underage sex, racism, and lots of killing. It's a dirty, gritty world, and I would not diminish that a fraction to cash in on the YA market., if the publisher thinks parents won't mind their teenagers reading about a Nevada Avenue fuck whore or a marginalized too doped up on spike to get hard, then I wouldn't complain about the higher advance that comes with a YA sale. ;)

Holy Balls!

I have been pondering it for months and I finally made a decision. An agent gave me feedback on WANTED: CHOSEN ONE, NOW HIRING. He wanted Bastin to be the main character rather than Nashau. I've discussed that here before. Bastin is clearly the most likable, charismatic of the group, but the story was Nashau's and I didn't want to give that up.

So after a lengthy amount of pondering, I finally saw the story as Bastin's while keeping Nashau's subtext. Thus, I chopped off the initial four chapters (which were all Nashau and Podome) and condensed them to a single chapter 2. I kept the alive/dead juxtaposition that I loved in the original draft (something you won't understand unless you've read it, but take my word for it, it's awesome) and have moved on through chapter three.

You know how people often say they can't go back and read their own work? That they find it embarrassing? Not me. I LOVE this story. LUVRE IT! I wrote the damn thing and after watching Bastin hoodwink Farmer, I was just bouncing up and down on my seat. Holy balls this is a good story!

I will revise Podome/Nashau's story and hopefully inject more of Bastin's early energy later into the story. And then the hardest part: I'll need to write a new query for it.

JEHOVAH'S HITLIST will be the next story I query once I get beta reader feedback, but this one will follow shortly thereafter. I consider it a significant enough revision that requerying is appropriate. I have tentatively changed the name to FLIMFLAM just so I can keep the two stories separate. Not sure if I'll keep WANTED: CHOSEN ONE, NOW HIRING as the final title. It seemed to turn some people off.

(This means I'm suspending work on 7Sac for the moment. I'm having a crisis of confidence following my rejection and can no longer manage the pacing. I'll need to get my feet back under me before I can continue on that one.)

The Waiting Game

So you've written your novel, you've revised it, you've received feedback, you've revised it again, you've written a query, you've revised it, you've received feedback, you've revised it again, you've queried, you've paced madly worrying about rejection, you've been asked for a partial manuscript, you've revised the partial in fear of it not being good enough, you've submitted it, you've paced madly worrying about rejection, you've checked your email obsessively, you've paced madly worrying about rejection, you've been asked for a full manuscript, you've revised the full in fear of it not being good enough, and you've submitted it.

What happens now?

You wait. And wait. And wait and wait and wait and wait.

It's a common enough topic among writing blogs. Don't wait for a response on your current work. Move on to the next one. Publishing is a lot of hurry up and wait. You'll revise your entire book over the course of a weekend to make it as perfect as you can and then nothing.

It can be hard to deal with. The closer you get, the harder the rejection is, and the harder it is not to make it back to that level again. If you come close to touching the sky, nothing short of reaching your hand up into heaven will do. It's maddening to not achieve your goal no matter how hard you try.

But wait you must. Good things come to those that wait. ...crappy things too, I can attest, but nothing good comes from something rushed (just ask my previous girlfriends).

The first time I had a full manuscript (BLACK MAGIC AND BARBECUE SAUCE), I was told to expect a twelve-week response time. I was mortified when twelve weeks passed, thirteen, fourteen. Were they JUST about to get to my manuscript? If I asked for an update when they hit delete and tell me to sod off? Was it all a test to see if I would be a low-maintenance client and not pester them a thousand times a day with inane questions?

Finally at fifteen weeks, I emailed to confirm the file had been received and asked if they needed any additional material. That's the polite way of asking, "Hey what the fuck?" They confirmed that they had received the manuscript and apologized for the delay. The assistant was super awesome and I like her a whole lot. She was never anything but professional with me.

In total I received an eventual pass 7 months after I sent the materials off. They offered feedback which was awesome. I never expect feedback on a query. I don't expect it on a partial (though it would be nice). While I don't expect it on a full, after waiting so long and having invested so much, it certainly would be nice for even a paragraph of feedback. But hey, we're not entitled and that's not a statement of how things should be. I got it on my first two manuscripts, though, and it was incredibly helpful.

I thanked the assistant and the agent for the pleasure of working with them and the feedback. I then said I had finished another novel while I was waiting and asked would they like to see it? Sure it was a dig, but only a little one. I really had finished a second novel (and not first draft, the thing was done and in the can). I queried the second one (HELP WANTED: CHOSEN ONE, NOW HIRING) and we went round and round again.

They passed and I think it was for the best. This agent wants a manuscript ready to shop as soon as it's submitted. While I hope to be able to produce such a manuscript eventually, it doesn't seem like I'm producing them yet. I'd like an agent who not only points out what (s)he thought was weak but how that could be improved.

Which brings me to the current manuscript (THE TRIAD SOCIETY). This is with a different agent, one that I think is exactly the person I would want to work with. When they asked for my full, they said to expect a turn around time of two months. This is a third less than the previous agent but nothing says it won't be another seven months. Except for my experience with this agency. I queried (twice) my first two manuscripts (for a total of four queries) and they were prompt and always beat deadline. Two months is up Saturday. Of course, that two months covered Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years, and the general winter holiday.

This brings us to what I'm calling Injury Time (watch soccer to get that joke). Given the number of holidays that occurred during that stretch of time, I really don't think the two-month mark hits until February 5th, three weeks later. If they replied to me within that time, I would still consider it at or less than two months.

Now like I said, that's just an estimate. Things come up, emergencies with existing clients, illness, family emergencies and the like. If it takes seven months it takes seven months. I have finished the second draft of JEHOVAH'S HITLIST and sent it to beta readers for feedback (could use a few more if you're in the mood for adult, dystopian, alternate-history science fiction). I'm also working on the first draft of THE 7TH SACRIFICE. I've got plenty to do. No resting on my laurels here.

BUT, like I said earlier, this folks have always come in before their deadline. The arrival of injury time means that it's likely I'll hear back from them soon.


You can tell yourself not to obsess, not to worry, but really, I consider all this anxiety part and parcel to my ambition. I want this and have wanted it for decades. This is my life's goal and I've taken as many steps as I can take without an agent. That's the next step. That's the next step in my publishing plan. I could query publishers directly or self-publish, but there are other blogs for that kind of thing. Here in the Inkwell, we follow the traditional mode of publishing and we plan on ruling that bitch with an iron fist!

I won't even begin to tell you how many times I've checked my email just writing this post. Granted I have a smart phone so all I have to do is glance at it and see if it's blinking at me. That only enables the obsession.

I started actively tweeting and blogging about my writing before I was published not only to build platform but to document how hard it is to try and achieve your dreams when you can send off a completed manuscript and not hear anything for months and months and months. When I'm the flipping Clint Eastwood of fantasy, aspiring writers will read these early posts and see all this desire and anxiety and worry and think to themselves, Clint Eastwood? Really? I would have gone with John C. Reilly.