As many of you already know by my near-constant complaining about how demoralizing I find the road to publication to be (sorry about that, by the way), I have been on a roller coaster ride for the last few months—or more accurately, for the last year. Last spring, I had this crazy idea to write a novel and I completed that task and rejoiced at the accomplishment because, let’s face it, not many people accomplish such a thing, at least none that I know. Of course, that was just the beginning. I found out that the original draft was nowhere near ready for the next step, which was querying for a literary agent. So I worked with an assortment of critique partners—other writers in the same boat as I was—and polished my manuscript to a crisp spit shine. Another major accomplishment, considering how much the narrative changed, and another rise on the roller coaster ride.
I started querying in earnest—which I see as on the down slope because I hate it doing it—and received several requests for fulls and partials. Yay! Big ride up on that roller coaster. Then came the ride down, for not only was I receiving near daily rejections to my query, I also received rejections for all but one of those requests, too. I’m almost too afraid to contact the last agent to find out what he thinks. I realize that if he liked it, he would have contacted me again to request more pages. So down, down, down I go on the big, scary roller coaster.
But I did have to take a break when I received a request for an exclusive read and while she ultimately turned me down, I found that break refreshing. It was the flat part of the ride, the part where you get your bearings and take a breath in anticipation of the next hill or dip. And while I have not been querying at all during this flat part of the ride, I have continued to read and comment on writer and agent blogs. And, again as many of you know by past posts, one of my absolute favorite bloggers is the incomparable Anne Mini .
Her blog is very different from most bloggers out there. She freely offers advice—a lot of advice—to writers pursuing their dream of becoming published authors. As Anne admits, many find her blog posts a tad long-winded, and while she does generate an inordinate amount of words per post, I consider each one a gold nugget to be snatched away and horded with greedy pleasure. You just cannot pass up that kind of advice and disregard it. She is, after all, a published author with a boatload of awards and degrees and accolades, not to mention that she makes her living editing books for publication. Why would anybody want her to be brief when sharing her hard earned information? In fact, I find she raises questions in me that require I comment in order to alleviate my concern or confusion. Yeah, I probably comment too much. I often wonder if she cringes whenever she sees my name pop up at the bottom of her posts. But if she does, she doesn’t show it and she always answers my questions or comments on my opinion.
Last week, she continued her series on pet peeves in material submitted to literary agencies. She expressed how important it is for a writer who wants their story to be read in full by the agent to construct a first page with conflict while introducing the main character and telling the reader what the book is all about. The way I read her post, I determined that she was advising us to start our novel off with a big bang, a blockbuster explosion, so to speak, to grab the attention of a tired, over-worked, bleary-eyed literary agent’s assistant—Anne refers to them as Millicents—who is the first obstacle a writer encounters on their way to the ultimate gatekeeper, the agent herself.
This advice kind of took me aback and I commented to Anne: “It seems like we should be tailoring our early content for the sole benefit of an over-worked, bleary-eyed, impatient Millicent so that she doesn’t hurl our beloved pages into the trash. It doesn’t seem right to fashion our stories in this manner. It feels much like pandering to me. I’d like to believe that Millicent doesn’t need the blockbuster explosions in line five of chapter one just to pull her into the story. Surely she is more sophisticated than that.”
Anne advised me that that is just the way it is. So I briefly explained the content of my first chapter—which actually reads more like a prologue, but prologues are out of fashion these days, so chapter one it is. And my chapter one is only two-thirds of a page long, introduces the main character and delves into exactly what the story is about: Can a good man who has been affected by outside forces to do an unspeakably bad thing, redeem himself and find the man he once was? This leads into chapter two which does, in fact, have conflict, or so Anne judged by my description.
But a funny thing happened in our discourse over this issue. She wrote me a personal email explaining that she was “intensely curious” about how I had structured my novel. Since it would be difficult for her to give me further advice without actually seeing the pages, she had a proposition for me. She wrote: “Would you be willing to allow me to use the first two chapters as an example on the blog? That way, I could give you specific feedback on a structure that does sound as though it might give some Millicents pause, and it might provoke some interesting discussion…It would involve a certain amount of bravery, but my gut feeling is that a professional reader might respond quite differently to these pages than a room full of writers.”
Well, uh…hell yeah! Of course I would love to provide my first two chapters to someone I admire and respect who, in turn, would evaluate its content, therefore making it better. That was my first reaction. Then I focused in on her words about it taking a certain amount of bravery on my part because, as she states, her “blog has a surprisingly large readership amongst Millicents and in publishing houses.” Ooooh, scary!! No really. Scary! But these are the exact people I want to read my pages. These are the folks who determine what is read, what is voted on, who is contracted and what gets published in
today. Yes, they just might ream me out, tear me a new you-know-what, embarrass me, humiliate me, ground me into the cold, hard earth, turn me into dust, a quivering mass of tears and nerves. But they also might just make my content better which could, at some point, lead to another agent reading my material in full. I would be insane NOT to want that. America
Yes, I am afraid. Very afraid. When people have the chance to critique without being seen, they can be, and often are, fairly brutal. They don’t hold back. And since I have suffered a bit at the end of the rather large stick of rejection lately, I am concerned about just how hard I might take their criticism, but in the end, it’s all about making the book better, about getting read. And Anne added that “It's never a bad idea to have those people know one's name!”
So here I go. I’ve already submitted my first two chapters—about four pages total—to Anne. She says it will be a few weeks since she is under a deadline to get a current client’s book edited for editor number three at Random House. (God, how I envy that author who has Anne Mini editing her words!) I don’t know what will happen. At the very least, I pray that I receive advice that will turn my first pages into something that will eventually catch Millicent’s eye, that she will want to tell her agent boss about it, who will then be so intrigued as to request more pages. So I consider this a big ride up on that roller coaster. And while I do worry about the part where I come down, I know that part down can be a lot of fun if I look at it in the right way.
My skin is getting thicker with each rejection, especially after the personal ones, the ones where the agent read my full manuscript only to turn me down without any real advice on how to make it better. I guess I wouldn’t mind the rejections if they came with some constructive criticism. But that’s not the way it works any more. The agents and Millicents are simply too busy. So this step with Anne, however big and scary, is one way in which I might actually receive some constructive criticism—constructive being the operative word here. So, am I crazy to go through with this? Perhaps, but I’m just telling myself to check my sanity at the door and enjoy the ride.