QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Listen. Listen.

In exchange for tuition to get my MA in English, I tutored at the college's writing center. Tutoring is a bit like editing, and I discovered I loved it. Every day I'd show up for three hours. If no students came, I was free to work on my coursework or my own writing. When students showed up with papers, I would read their essays with them, point out mistakes in grammar or spelling, make sure they addressed the question, and suggest areas for improvement.

Over time, I picked up "regulars," and I got to know their quirks. One in particular was a young man battling dyslexia, and if I had no other students waiting, we would talk after his essay review. He had a difficult home life.

One afternoon he brought me the second version of an essay about "a vivid experience." He'd attended a sporting event locally, which I understood to be one of the rare ways he connected with his father. While there, the action on the field had gone terribly wrong, resulting in the death of one of the spectators. My student had seen it happen.

We went over his essay, taking care to read it aloud for sound, rearranging the paragraphs for impact ("You'll want to delay saying she died until afterward, to raise the tension") and experimenting with different words that better fit the description.

He said to me, "This is so tough."

I shrugged. "It is, but you have something important to say, and I want to make sure you know how to say it the best you possibly can. Like in this paragraph, where just by inserting a line of dialogue, you draw us into the story a little more."

I looked up and the kid was staring right at me, his mouth trembling, his eyes shining. Tears.

I stiffened. "What's wrong?"

He swallowed. "You really think I have something important to say?"

And there I sat with this college freshman, a guy who worked hard for every word he wrote and who could hardly talk to his family except about a sport that had left him traumatized, and I realized he'd made it through thirteen years of schooling without anyone telling him he had something worth saying.

Why do we teach people to write except that we think they have something important to say? Why was I the first person in this young man's entire life to make sure he knew his perspective was important?

You're writers: you want to tell your stories. For Christmas or whatever holiday you celebrate, give yourself the gift of believing you have something important to say. Give your message the gift of saying it as well as you can. That's why you're reading blogs about getting published. Believe in yourself. In the end, the only reason writers persevere against the odds (and the rejection and the critique and the blocks…) is that we believe our stories are worth telling.

And then pass along the gift -- the gift of making sure those around you know they've got something worth saying -- because everyone has a story, whether they're writers or just human beings living their daily lives. Give the gift of listening, the gift of affirming, the gift of letting others know their voices should be heard.

(This is a repost from 12/2010.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

When should I give up?

Over on the QueryTracker forums, someone has asked us when is it time to give up. What happens if you've got a manuscript you love and the agents just don't love it the same way you do? How many queries do you send and get rejected (or get nothing but silence) before you stand down? How many times can you hear an agent say, "I love this, but I just don't know any editors who would take it"?

I'm kind of an expert on that, so I wanted to weigh in.

Giving up sounds really fatalistic.  We're in the business of communicating, so let's change that wording. Giving up implies there was winning and losing instead of the whole spectrum of successes and fallings-short that encompass the drive toward publication. I'd say it's more like "standing down" than giving up. If it happens, it happens, but you're no longer tense and expectant, no longer swimming against the current.

Being sick of the querying process is a sign that you need to stand down for a while in order to protect your emotional and mental health. Publication is grueling and it's a long haul. If you were training for a marathon, you wouldn't run on a sprained ankle; you'd rest and give yourself time to recover before lacing up the sneakers again. This is the same thing. As soon as you start hating the process, or before if you can catch yourself, cut yourself off. Stand down. Lower your weapon. Let any queries still out there come back, but don't send any more.

Why? Because you'll make yourself bitter. Think about a guy who's asked four people to the prom and been rejected each time. He starts going lower down his list of prioirities because all he wants is "a date," not a particular person's company, and probably starts showing it in the way he asks. Then when he's turned down (because he's asking indiscriminately, or because he's asking with an eye toward the coming rejection) he becomes bitter and says dating sucks. Don't let yourself get to that point. You don't need a date to the prom, and you don't need an agent.

When you're getting regular feedback along the lines of, "I love this, but I can't sell it," that might be time to consider that you're not writing blockbusters, and publishers are looking for blockbusters. They need money, and their first two questions are whether the book will pull them out of a debt hole and whether the book is safe enough not to lose money. The agent is looking at your book to evaluate whether it's similar enough to something popular that it won't lose money and different enough to stand out, that way the publishers she approaches will feel comfortable looking at the book.

In other words, your book could be amazing, but editors "aren't sure they can break it out in a big way." (Ask me how many times I heard that rejection.) And maybe, "I love it, but it's kind of different." (Ditto.) And here's my favorite: "This would be a great second novel, but not a debut."

That's my favorite for two reasons. My sarcastic side says that's the editor or agent sticking a bookmark in you. They don't care to nurture your talent or give you a chance, but on the other hand, they don't want you to go to someone else. So they tell you to just, you know, spend another couple hundred hours writing something else in the hopes that maybe they'll take both books.

The other side of me says, "Second novels are how careers are made." You'll only have one debut, but having a string of solid follow-up novels is how you develop a following and end up with checks to deposit every year for the rest of your life.

So when should you stand down on querying your manuscript?

1) The minute you start to feel bitter, give your querying a vacation.

2) If you're hearing a lot of the same feedback, examine your novel and decide whether it's accurate.

3) If you keep being told this is a great second novel, rejoice, for you have it in you to turn out many solid novels that will keep your fans happy.

And your alternatives once you stand down?

1) Give it a rest and try again when you have your energy back. (Speaking for myself, though, I have gone to a permanent stand-down.)

2) Look into small publishers that aren't as intent on earning a billion dollars right out of the gate. They may well love your solid novel that "isn't a debut."

3) Read up on indie publishing, where you can nurture your back list so that when you do write a blockbuster that would make a billion dollars, you have the option of querying again, and the blockbuster will feed sales of the prior books.

Never give up on writing itself. Your stories are still there. Give them daylight, and let them breathe.

If you push when you're feeling bitter, the bitterness may transfer to your writing itself, and that will choke your stories. Please don't let that happen.

And finally, never give up on yourself. YOU are not the problem here. YOU are not "not good enough." You just didn't create a product they thought would sell. That's not a statement of your worth.

Keep writing. Put down the queries and take a break -- stand down if you must -- but always keep writing.