Category Archives: the quest for publication

Down the Rabbit Hole

Hello, my dear friends. I’ve been absent from the blog for almost a month, and since June, there’s only been the chirping of crickets round these parts. Contrary to rumor, I was not abducted by aliens (always a possibility here in New Mexico), nor did I enter the witness protection program. I have, in fact, spent the last several weeks tumbling down the rabbit hole known as REWRITES and REVISIONS.

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As many of you know, I finished the first draft of my novel in March. I’ve written quite a few short stories and one novella length piece, but this is my first full length, bona fide, Holy-Dewey-Decimal-System-Batman novel.

When the first draft was done, I thought I was done. Hah! Oh, Leigh, you foolish girl. After I edited and proofed and polished until I could no longer stand the sight of it, I sent the draft out to my eight wonderful beta readers for feedback. Then I got back to writing and stalking agents on Twitter. Oh yeah, and chewing off my fingernails and wondering what my readers would think of the book. And trying to use Jedi mind tricks to discern their impressions from afar.

Sadly, in the process I learned I have no Jedi powers.

My beta readers were a-MAY-MAY-zing. They came back with many nice things to say, but also with insightful and penetrating feedback. I took it all in like a big, absorbent sponge monster, I made notes, and then, after a week of letting it all marinate in the brain, I set about rewriting and revising the novel.

Tip of the iceberg

Rewriting and revising a novel-length piece of fiction was new to me, and a fascinating process. I soon realized that the first draft was only the tip of the iceberg, and now the real work had begun. I had insights about my story in the weirdest moments, like while watching The Wil Wheaton Project, and most of all while doing housework. And when revelation descended, I would drop everything, rush to the laptop, and write.

My revisions took nearly two months to complete, with breaks interspersed to write new stories and, well, try to have a life. Thanks to my beta readers, I believe I’ve now written a much stronger book, a novel that more fully expresses my vision for this story and these characters. And even in those last sessions reworking scenes, those wily characters continued to surprise me. I’d think I knew what was going to happen, and then they’d carry me off in an entirely different (but totally right) direction.

So now I’m dipping my toe into those shark infested querying waters. I continue to read, reread, and polish the novel. Comma placement, these days, is my latest obsession.

Yep, it’s a glamorous life.

The two lessons I take away from this are 1) listen, listen, and listen some more to beta readers. I may not take all their advice, but I’m open to every bit of it; and 2) my characters know better how the story needs to be told than I do. You might have guessed I’m not that writer who outlines and plots. Sometimes I envy those guys. Me, I just go from the hip. And I’m grateful that the story knew what it was doing, because there were many times I did not.

So, yeah. That’s my last takeaway: trust the story. And now — time for a nap.

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Dispatch from Query Hell

Photo courtesy of Jacopo Werther

Photo courtesy of Jacopo Werther

I completed my first novel early this spring, and now, after many months of preparation, I’m getting ready to query.

“Query?” you ask, intrigued. “What is meant by this thing you call…’query?'”

If you are happily pursuing a sane career that does not involve seeking publication for your novel, this term will likely mean almost nothing to you. For you, “query” simply means what the dictionary says it means: “a question, especially one addressed to an official or organization.”

Seeing the word “query” doesn’t produce in you a host of intense and conflicting emotions: excitement, terror, frustration, confusion, hope and despair.

But for writers chasing the dragon of publication, this heretofore innocent word is enough to send you plunging into the drawer for the corkscrew, gnashing your teeth and rending your garments, cursing yourself and cruel fate for ever setting your foot upon this rocky path. In short, it’s enough to make you C-R-A-Z-Y. And if, like most writers, you started out a little kooky, you’ll just get crazier.

What “query” means to writers, you see, is this deceptively simple concept: a query is a short letter directed at literary agents, condensing the premise of your novel, your main characters, conflict and stakes, into around 250 words. It’s the “hook” that must convince an agent they want to read your novel, and ultimately, if your novel rocks, offer representation.

Everything is riding on your query. No matter how amazing your novel is, how beautiful and evocative the writing, it’s going nowhere if you can’t get an agent to look at it. Any hope you have of seeing your book published traditionally (self-publishing is a whole different world) hangs on writing a successful query.

It sounds easy. But for most of us – including me – it’s more like Advanced Calculus. (And if you know me, and remember my acutely stunted math faculties, you’ll understand this means it’s really, really challenging).

There’s a reason they call it Query Hell.

I have literally written at least 25 drafts of my query letter. As I’ve edited and revised my novel, awaited feedback from beta (test) readers, and researched agents, I have simultaneously been pulling my hair out over the query letter. I mean, seriously, condensing a 300-odd-page novel into a couple of short paragraphs is a mind-bender. And it’s a very different kind of writing vs. writing a novel. It’s more like writing an advertisement; convincing your audience to buy your product with a few deftly chosen, supernaturally compelling words.

Help me, Don Draper. You’re my only hope!

There’s no need for sarcasm, Don.

But there is help out there, and for what it’s worth, I’d like to share what I’ve learned about tackling the dreaded query letter. I am no expert. Like any other writer descending into Query Hell embarking on the query journey, I’m just a fellow traveler, learning as I go. These are the approaches and resources that have helped me immeasurably, and I hope they will benefit you, too. So, with all that in mind, read on for:

LEIGH’S DECIDEDLY UN-EXPERT QUERY ADVICE

1. Step back. Step waaaaaay back. Getting distance from my novel was necessary to even begin to think about the query letter. When I finished the first draft, it was like I’d emerged from a blizzard of words, and I couldn’t see my hands in front of my face. I had no idea what I’d done. I looked at what I had written and wondered, “What is this? Does it make sense? Is this even a story? Is this even in English?” My brain was toast.

As with editing, I was much more successful at writing my query letter once I’d stepped back from the book. For me, this meant a minimum of three weeks without peeking at it. My advice is to go and write something new, pore over writing resources on the Internet, take a walk, spend some time with the spouse/friends you neglected while you were writing the novel. Do anything, just stay away from that book.

2. Keep it simple. Einstein offers what is perhaps the best advice ever given on writing query letters: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Oh, ho! I despaired when I first saw this quote. Easy for you to say, Al! At that point, my early query letter draft was a page and a half long. It was more meandering and confusing than the dream I had recently of the Today show’s Savannah Guthrie and her Romany Gypsy mother (???) cooking lobsters for Good Husband and me. Like the dream, my query was kind of weird, sort of interesting, and mostly incomprehensible.

I had to shelve that early version and start over. I asked myself, “What, underneath subplots and a gaggle of characters, is my book really about? What is the heart of the story?” This line of thinking forced me to cut everything else away and ask this:

“Who is the main character, what does s/he want, what is keeping them from getting what they want, and what do they need to do to succeed?”

Sounds easy! Right?! [Cue maniacal huffing and chortling. And gurgling. Yes, gurgling.]

It wasn’t easy…at first. But I kept at it. I kept drafting, thinking, paring, and simplifying. You can always add some spice back in. You’ll need to, in fact, if you want those agenty eyeballs to stay riveted. As I continued to write draft after draft of my query, to cut to the heart of my story, I began to find the core thread. You will, too. And when it feels like an insurmountable struggle, see #1. Step back again. Take a break. Then come back.

3. Learn all you can. There’s a wealth of advice out there in the aether about writing query letters. Take advantage of that, but be careful. Make sure the advice you’re getting is coming from people who know what they’re talking about, with regard to query formatting, content, and other protocols and etiquette. That meant, for me, seeking advice from agents, editors, and writers who have themselves recently won agent representation thanks (in part) to their awesome query. I’ve read a ton of blogs and articles penned by these knowledgable folk.

But be prepared. A lot of expert advice is contradictory, too. It’s all part of the fun.

One blog every hopeful querier should visit is QueryShark. Literary agent Janet Reid (the titular Query Shark) takes time from her busy schedule to critique query letters, point out (bluntly, but not unkindly) what works and what doesn’t, and dispense a whole lot of good advice. Read the archives. You can see query letters go from “mess to success” and apply these lessons to your own query. Studying successful query letters is informative, and seeing what not to do can be as educational as seeing what works. And it’s entertaining, too. The Query Shark is funny as all get out, and when you’re deep in Query Hell, you need all the laughter you can get.

SlushPile Hell is another fun blog, offered anonymously by a self-described “grumpy literary agent and a sea of query fails.” I didn’t learn a lot from this site about querying (except that there are some very strange people out there), but the amusement factor is off the charts — both the excerpts from hilariously terrible real query letters, as well as the agent’s acerbic commentary. Each night before I go to bed, I pray to the old gods and the new that I never, ever see my own query letter on SlushPile Hell. Even though the proprietor of SPH protects the identities of the offending authors, I would still have to change my name and go underground.

4. Get help. No, not psychiatric help, but that might be needed, too, when it’s all said and done. The help I mean is feedback from an actual person(s) on your query letter.

The best, most valuable source of help out there, in my experience, is Query Drill.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could “test” your query on professionals (i.e. the people who decide the fate of queries in real life) and get feedback before you start sending it to agents for real? Wouldn’t you dance a jig of delight and gratitude if this were possible?

Query Drill offers just this opportunity.

Once I felt my query was in somewhat decent shape (after lots of research and countless drafts), I sent it to the good people at Query Drill. These guys are amazing! Query Drill is a free service, a team of volunteers comprised of slushpile veterans (agents, literary agency interns, editors, and the like) who invite you to “practice” querying with them. You send in your query letter (just as if you were querying an agent) and they reply. They tell you what they would do in a real querying situation (reject or request pages) and why. And you can revise and re-query as many times as you want — until you get it right.

Thank you, most generous and patient people at Query Drill. I would love to send you all chocolate and flowers and fluffy puppies.

5. Always remember, it’s a subjective business. No matter how good your query is (or your novel, for that matter), it’s not guaranteed to hook an agent. Agents are people, and they all have unique preferences and tastes. This goes for querying, and beyond that, the rule of subjectivity extends to an agent loving your book enough to offer representation. Market trends, which you cannot and should not try to chase, play a big part, too. Remembering this will (I hope) help me cope with the twists and turns, and emotional highs and lows, that surely lie ahead.

I hope it helps you, too. Query on, my friends, and good luck!

Have you begun the querying process? Or are you an indie author who is bucking the system and self-publishing? What are your experiences? And if you’re not a writer, what do you think of all this mishegas? Do tell!

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Me Got the Funk

George Clinton photo courtesy of Joe Loong

George Clinton photo courtesy of Joe Loong

I wrote recently about a wonderful day off I had, likening my Day of Shirk to Ferris Bueller’s famous hooky-playing antics. I took that day of leisure in the wake of an insanely busy time of writing, a time right after finishing my novel when I felt both mentally and physically spent. I was also coping with some intense things going on in my personal life (which are still happening, but are looking a bit brighter). It was a needed respite, a recharge, a well-earned rest from the breakneck pace and emotional pressures I’d been wrangling with.

I’m reflecting now on a different phenomenon — we’ll call it “Le Funk.” (Frenchifying the funk makes it somehow more romantic.) I slipped into Le Funk a few weeks ago, with regard to working on edits and rewrites for the novel. And I don’t mean Le Funk in a Parliament-Funkadelic kind of way. Heavens to Murgatroyd, I would be delighted if my funk were of that variety. I think it would be motivational in the extreme if George Clinton turned up in my living room, pointed at my neglected manuscript, and commanded me to “Turn this mother OUT!” That might be just the kick in the bass I need.

But alas, my Le Funk is of the garden variety; a listless, jelly-brained lethargy that makes me open my novel and go, “Oh, hell, no!” And when opening my novel, or even contemplating opening my novel, I am overcome by the sudden and immediate urge to take a nap. It’s the strangest thing. The manuscript slides from my lap, my head grows heavy, and I lose consciousness. It’s like an extremely specific (and far less serious) form of narcolepsy.

So what’s going on with me? Can somebody tell me, please? I’m used to the usual foibles and eccentricities of writing life. I’m used to fighting through what feels like the most crushing inertia to get started writing, especially if it’s something new and I’m beginning with The Blank Page. I’m used to forcing myself to write even when I feel I’ve got nothing to say, and am lacking the tools and talent to say it anyway. But this aversion to working on my own story, already in draft form, is something new.

I used to think all the neurosis, procrastination, and self-doubt was my own bag. But I’ve spent enough time now with other writers, listening to them, reading their blogs and their tweets, to know that these qualities, almost without exception, are the hallmarks of our odd little species. I don’t know if people who write start out like this, or if writing creates people addled with mild psychosis, but either way, discovering I’m not alone is a weirdly comforting revelation.

An aside: Is wrestling with procrastination and insecurity all some of the time unique to writers? Or do people pursuing other endeavors experience these challenges? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

So back to Le Funk. I think what’s happened, with regard to editing and reworking my novel, is that I have spent too much bloody time with it in a very compressed period. This is the third round of editing and rewriting, and so the third time I’ve read it through (not to mention the countless read-throughs while I was writing the first draft). Imagine reading a book five or more times over a couple of months, and then factor in your own insecurities because it’s yours, for better or worse. Yup. You’d want to put that book away and read something else, or even pull the drapes and binge on an Arrested Development marathon. (This is a purely hypothetical example, of course. Ahem.)

So here’s what I’ve been doing to combat Le Funk, with varying degrees of success:

1. Yard work. Summer is here, and fresh air, physical exercise, and an immediate and visible sense of accomplishment work wonders for the old jelly brain. Also, once I’m hot and thirsty enough, covered in scratches, and the weed whacker has spat enough rocks into my face, editing my novel is starting to look pretty good.

2. Work on something else. I’ve gotten this good advice from lots of people, including many fellow writers, and it’s oft repeated for a reason: it works. Switching gears in the brain, thinking about a new story, or writing a blog post (!) can help give me a fresh perspective when I return to edit The Beast.

3. Read something else. This is my favorite, because I love to read. It also requires the least amount of exertion on my lazy part. I can switch gears and swim around in a new story, with zero effort, aside from holding the book in my hands and letting my eyeballs and imagination do the walking. Reading can also be inspiring. I’m not talking plagiarizing, but seeing how good authors spin a mesmerizing yarn (and also how bad authors fail to do so) teaches me a thing or two about my own writing.

4. Suck it up. Writing, editing, rewriting, proofreading: all of it is work. Sadly, writing is not about me (played by Jennifer Lawrence) sipping a cup of Earl Grey as I sit at my Underwood typewriter, while the Muse (played by Jon Hamm), guides my fingers across the keys. Writing is thinking and struggling to put into words the ideas in my head. It’s putting out words even when there is nothing in my head, and then reworking them and reworking them until I’ve got something that, well, works. It’s not being able to sleep because I’m agonizing over some plot point, or (more fun) because the ideas are coming on strong. Writing can leave me feeling refreshed, inspired and proud of my accomplishment — when I’m done for the day. But it is always, with fleeting and glorious moments of exception, hard work.

So ultimately, I think I am going to take the Suck It Up approach tonight. Sometimes you just have to do it, whether you like it or not, whether there is an Arrested Development marathon on TV or not, and whether George Clinton or Jon Hamm materializes to help you along, or (most likely) not.

Though before I get started, I think it might be time for some inspirational music to put me in the mood. Hmmm…how about “Give Up the Funk (Tear the Roof Off That Sucker)!” Of course! George Clinton is here in spirit, and he’s advising me in no uncertain terms to give up that funk. Now, where’s my red pen…

Do you sometimes feel less than giddy about doing your work, even when it’s something you love? Do you experience your own version of Le Funk? How do you break through and git ‘er done? I’d love to hear your advice!

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The Book is the Boss

Photo courtesy of Solipsist, WikiMedia Commons

Photo courtesy of Solipsist, WikiMedia Commons

In the winter of 1989, thanks to the generosity of my grandparents, I went to France to study as an exchange student. It was especially thrilling because two of my dearest high school friends were also part of the exchange program. And so it was that we kids from Maine were turned loose upon the unsuspecting French.

Dressed in black (it was the 80s, after all) we ran wild around Paris with our Frenchie counterparts, smoking Dunhill cigarettes and ordering les rhums cocas (We could ask for rum and cokes! In French! How chic were we?). We were delighted to discover that though we were only sixteen, the worldly Parisians had absolutely no qualms about serving us hooch. It’s a wonderful country.

The trip was not entirely a bacchanalia. We attended classes at the Lycée Corneille (the local high school) outside Paris with our French hosts. We visited historical sites, grand chateaux, cathedrals, and museums aplenty. We even saw the movie Dead Ringers (Faux Semblants) in French, which was a disturbing experience that haunts me to this day. It was a movie about twin diabolical surgeons, and truly scary, especially since I didn’t know what the heck was going on through 90% of the movie.

One day, I found myself in the Centre George Pompidou, the modern art museum, with my friend. We’ll call him Robert Smith, as back then my friend bore more than a passing resemblance to the lead singer of those masters of moody 80s spookiness, The Cure.

Following an afternoon of viewing many amazing examples of painting and sculpture, we stood at last in front of a blue monochrome canvas. Literally, it was a big blue rectangle, like an oversized paint chip. Robert Smith and I gazed at it in silence.

“Well that’s dumb,” I said finally. I was a paragon of artistic sensitivity and sophistication.

“Yeah,” said Robert Smith. “Wait, what?”

“It’s dumb,” I said again. “It’s, like, it’s just blue.” Eloquence, thy name is Leigh!

Robert Smith stared at me in horror. “Dumb?” he asked, incredulous. “Is that all you have to say? ‘It’s dumb?’ That’s dumb.”

And of course, Robert Smith was right. What did I know about art, beyond discerning what I, personally, did or didn’t like? Clearly, I was missing something here, some mystery and message within the blue painting that was winging right over my blockhead. Connoisseurs and curators who knew much more about art than me had deemed this painting a masterpiece worthy of exhibition in France’s premier modern art museum. Right then, I knew I was out of my depth.

I’ve thought about this episode on and off over the years, and each time I arrive at this axiom: Human experience is subjective. Whether it’s art, music, movies or literature, one person’s masterpiece is another person’s dud. No one experiences anything in the same way; even our experience of everyday events is different from someone else’s. “Hey, it’s raining! I love the rain!” vs. “Ugh, what a dreary day.”

Does that mean the blue monochrome (aka The Giant Blue Paint Chip) was bad? Was it not art? Was it devoid of meaning and import? Mais non.

Does it mean that personally, TGBPC did nothing for me? Ah, oui.

My novel is out with beta readers right now. I love my beta readers, those “test” readers who slog through the early incarnation of the story. Their generosity in taking the time to read my book and offer feedback is an enormous gift to me. And they are uniquely positioned: they can see the book in ways I, the author, cannot.

I wonder what their feedback will be like. Beyond that, I wonder, should this book have the good fortune to be published, what reader feedback will be like. I think of the many book reviews I’ve read, where often a story is lauded by some and loathed by others. A reader’s perspective on any story, like everything else, is a subjective experience.

I’ll give you another example from my own life, but please, please don’t hate me.

I didn’t like Harry Potter.

Ouch! Who threw that rock? Was that you?

Where was I? Oh, yes. I received the Harry Potter series as a gift, and I was beyond excited about it. 1) I anticipated a long stretch of reading which is something I get gooey over, 2) the genre was ostensibly close to my heart, and 3) millions of other readers love these books, so surely I would, too. N’est-ce pas?

I made it about halfway through The Sorcerer’s Stone and then put it away wondering what was wrong with me. The writing? Superb and brilliant. The story? Clever and expertly crafted. The characters? Unique and richly drawn. There is nothing in the book I can point to and say “This is what I didn’t like about it.” From a distance, I smiled and congratulated J.K. Rowling on her storytelling prowess. But that was the problem. It felt distant. I didn’t connect. In short, I just didn’t love it.

If I had been the literary agent (ha ha) in receipt of J.K. Rowling’s query, and if loving the book was the basis on which I made my decision, I probably would have passed. And then I would have had to go into exile to escape the shame and snide comments from the masses about what a clueless agent I am. (This is why no way, no how, should I be a literary agent).

All of this is to say, don’t give up on your story (or painting, or musical composition, or anything you care about) because some people (cretins like me) don’t like it. Nothing of any value will ever please everyone. It’s a lesson I am still learning.

I encourage you (and me!) to listen carefully to helpful feedback, even helpful criticism, always with gratitude and openness. Someone cares enough about you and the story to tell you what they think, and that’s a gift. Let it sit. Let it marinate. If something within you thinks they may be onto something, start thinking about how you can make your book better.

But remember, too, the subjectivity of the reader’s experience. Ultimately, you’ve got to listen to yourself and what you know about your story. As science fiction author Alfred Bester said, “The book is the boss.” Listen to what the book is telling you. Take your time. Ultimately, in the context of the feedback you receive, the story will tell you what it needs (and what it doesn’t). You’ll know when to make changes based on reader critique, and when to stick to your guns.

J.K. Rowling is a genius, talented, mega-bestselling author who has written a series of books that ensorcelled the hearts and minds of a gajillion people. Should she care that they didn’t turn me on? Uh, no.

If the famous French painter who created the blue monochrome had listened to people like me, he would not have pursued his dream of making art, and his painting would not now be hanging in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. That would be tragic for the many, many people who look at that piece and are moved, inspired or provoked in some important way.

And that, sans doute, would be dumb.

How do you put critique in perspective? Do you agree quality is in the eye of the beholder? Do you confess to being unmoved by “masterpieces” others adore? Come on…spill it!

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