Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why I Write

            A couple days ago, Jim McCarthy, an agent with Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, asked a question in his blog post:  Why do you write?  Well, I thought that was an interesting question and I pondered it for quite some time before answering, though in the end, I decided there was not one clear cut reason.  But for the most part, I wrote my novel to exorcise the demons from my head.  I will admit, I am not like most writers out there who have had a love of writing since they were children.  I mean, I’ve always loved to write, but I never felt compelled to do it, as so many writers say they are.  When I had to do it, I did, and I enjoyed it.  Nuf said.  But something happened to me over the last year and everything changed.  Now I feel like if I don’t write, I can’t breathe. 
            I can’t say I’ve enjoyed everything about this process.  In fact, the only part I actually do enjoy is the writing itself.  I kind of learned this the hard way over the last couple of months.  I’ve slaved over my manuscript: editing & revising, critiquing with partners and revising, reading it over and over again and revising…ad nauseum.   I like all that.  No actually, I love all that.  I didn’t mind when critique partners were brutal with me as long as they were constructive.  It made my story so much better.  But when all that was done and I thought it was ready for the next step, I jumped into the querying-for-an-agent process with both feet.  I was excited to be moving on and making real progress towards getting published.  And while I know and understand how impossibly difficult it is to first, find and agent, and second, find a publisher, I was astounded by how much I really hated that part of the process.  I’m sure most of that has to do with the rejection factor.  I mean, who the hell likes to be rejected by countless strangers who have never even read your work?  So, yeah, that part is quite demoralizing, as I posted about last time.  But that’s not really it.  That’s not why I hate it so much.
            I hate it because I’m not actually writing any longer.  I’m waiting.  I’m hoping.  I’m praying.  And I’m blogging.  But I’m not writing.  I know you might think that blogging is writing, but it’s not.  Not really.  I don’t really enjoy this blogging crap.  I watch my stats and I know people are reading it, but I don’t really know or understand why.  What could I possibly have to say that would ever interest people out there?  Especially strangers.  And except for one, all of my followers, the few there are, (on blogspot & tumblr) are strangers.  I don’t know what the hell they find so interesting to actually follow.  But I am grateful.  Really, really grateful.  I did a happy dance today when I scored a new one.  But still, blogging is not writing. 
I didn’t really think about how much I loved writing until I actually stopped doing it.  I only discovered this last week when I stopped querying in order to give an agent her three week exclusive read on my first three chapters.  Wow, I felt so relieved to not be querying.  I found myself thinking about my next story and that really excited me.  I just wanted to jump right in and start writing.  But I can’t because I have a ton of research to do.  And then I have to crank out an outline because I am not a pantster—someone who writes by the seat of their pants.  I am a planner.  I have to have everything planned out.  Once I have that outline in front of me, then I just go crazy and write off the top of my head.  It gives me the freedom to explore within a framework.  And I love, love, love that part of writing.  The first draft.  There are no rules.  You can just go crazy and write what you like and worry about how it will all work out later when you revise, revise, revise.  My best buddy, Lisa Regan has a great post on first drafts here.  She hit the nail right on the head.  She says she is happiest while writing her first draft and I could not agree more.
 There are so many other things about the process that make me unhappy.  First off, there’s finishing.  I cannot tell you how much I panicked when I finished my first draft.  Of course, being the idiot that I was at the time, I thought:  That’s it?  I’m done?  Really?  But I don’t want to be finished.  I can’t just drop my characters—whom I love so very, very much—in happily-ever-after-land and call it a day.  I need them.  I want them.  I didn’t realize that I would spend more than four times the amount of time that I originally spent on the first draft just to edit and revise, edit and revise, edit and revise, blah, blah, blah. 
So I was far from done with my beloved characters, one of whom I fancied (okay, fancy) myself in love with.  There, I said it.  I’m in love with a fictional character.  I get it now.  Back in the day when all those Twihards (those crazy fans who love Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series) were carting signs around at the movie premieres extolling their love for either Edward or Jacob, I thought they were a little over the top.  But I do so get it now.  I think the part I hated more than anything was saying goodbye to my characters and their world.  I even blogged about it once.  (You can read it here if you’d like.)  I lived in their world for months on end.  I experienced their crushing losses, their fear of death, their sadness and finally their joy.  After all that, I found it unbearable to say goodbye.  And to be honest, I haven’t completely left them behind.  I just don’t visit as often anymore.
Second to that, I had to start the hard part, the summing up of everything in as few words as possible, be that one, three or four pages, or even worse, 250 words.  That’s crazy, summing up an 85,000 word manuscript in 250 words while in the same voice and sense of urgency.  But I did it.  And pretty quickly, too.  So then it came time for…you guessed it:  querying.  Now, I have blogged about querying several times already.  I started off very excited (read here) and have recently ended, or suspended anyway, rather demoralized, though I learned quite a bit (read here).  Simply stated, I don’t feel productive any more.  The only world I am living in now is one of loneliness and rejection. 
I’ve read on several agent blogs how important it is to start on your next project while querying for your last.  I haven’t been working on my next project yet because researching agents and writing customized query letters is very time consuming.  I at least wanted to have a complete list of agents to query before I started on my next project.  So that’s where I am now, compiling a full list.  I have sent out quite a few queries already and so I am rounding out my list.  But when I went on query hiatus to allow for that exclusive I told you about earlier, I found I was calm and happy again.  I didn’t cringe at waking up every day knowing I would only be working on that damn list.  I could enjoy my days again.  That told me a lot: that I needed something else to focus on besides querying. 
Unfortunately, I’m still not ready to start my next project.  That will require a lot of focus and energy.  I never do anything half-assed.  My ass is all the way in, even when I am screwing up.  So I still have to wait to finish my list before I can move on, but now I am looking forward to starting that process all over again whereas when I was querying exclusively, I thought to myself: why did I ever start this?  I was so much happier before when I didn’t know how much I loved to write.  But in the end, I wrote my novel to exorcise a few demons from my head.  And it worked.  I used to have nightmares about an event in my life, but writing a fictionalized account has chased those demons away, so I don’t regret it.  And besides all that, I made the friendship of a life time with my beloved Lisa, whom I adore and respect and idolize more than anyone else in my life.  She saved me.  She taught me.  She helped me stand up each day.  I would be lost without her.     
I admit this is a tough process, writing novels.  Every step of the way.  And when you have triumphed upon finishing, the hardest part is still yet to come.  Look at poor Natalie Whipple.  She has written a bunch of books and finally queried and landed an agent for her last only to go on submission and not have any publishers pick up her novel.  She was incredibly demoralized by that.  So now (read here), as she has finished the final draft on her next project, she is so nervous about being on submission while living her life in the public blogosphere, she has decided, after receiving some insensitive email, not to blog about writing or publishing until she lands a publisher because it is just way too difficult. 
            I don’t know what it is about writing and seeking to get published that wears on one’s nerves.  I can easily see why so many writers have gone insane or killed themselves in the process.  There are so many extraneous pressures and most of them are intangible, elusive or hard to pin down.  It’s crazy.  And I’m crazy to want to do it all over again.  But I write so I can breathe.  I write so I can live.  I write so I can share.  I just hope someday I will actually be able to do that.  I don’t give a shit about the money.  Sure it would be great to make money at it, but I just want people to read my stories and enjoy them.  Fingers crossed, I can do that someday. 

Friday, March 18, 2011

Querying for an Agent: What I've Learned So Far

It has been a couple of weeks since I last sat down to write a blog post.  I promised myself I would try to post at least once a week, but I’m feeling a little off these days.  I think—no wait, I know—it’s all the querying I’ve been doing lately.  Was it only a couple of months ago that I was so gung-ho about starting the querying-for-an-agent process?  It feels more like a lifetime and I’m beginning to find this the single most demoralizing thing I have ever done in my entire life.  And that is no small amount of time either.  I’m not exactly a wet-behind-the-ears third-year college student with stars in my eyes.  Well, I might have had stars in my eyes, but I am a bit longer in the tooth, as they say. 
I first approached this process with fearless optimism, but now find I have been ground down to more of an unwilling participant, too stubborn to simply give up.  But I must say, I have learned a lot during the last few weeks, mostly through mistakes—rookie mistakes, from what I gather.  Perhaps I am looking at this the wrong way.  Maybe I should be looking at this as more of a learning process.  But I don’t really want to see it that way because I have a book I love and I want to find someone else who loves it, too.  Someone who is willing to work with me to make it the best it can be and then find a home for it at a publishing house.  If I simply look at this as a learning process, I feel like I am giving up on my manuscript, chalking up every lost opportunity to land an agent as a burned bridge, never again to be crossed.  Well, I’m nothing if not diligent.  So onward I go.  But let me sum up for you what I have learned along the way, so hopefully if you ever find yourself in the same place, you can learn from my mistakes.
Well, first I should own up to the fact that I have made some of those rookie mistakes so many agents and editors blog about, like not editing my first draft before I started to query.  Mind you, it was more of a fishing expedition for me, and by that I don’t really mean that I was fishing for an agent so much as I was feeling the process out.  I only queried a small handful, perhaps seven or so, but I did proceed long—way long—before I was ready.  But okay, I learn fast, at least I like to think I do, and I did what I was supposed to do next.  I read and reread my manuscript and buffed it out a bit.  Then I searched for and worked with a number of critique partners who helped me polish it to a gleaming spit-shine.  But once again, I jumped into the querying fray.  And I did not simply dip a toe into the pool this time.  No, I jumped in with both feet.  Trouble is, I forgot to change into my swimsuit. 
Yes, I will admit, I was very close to being ready, but I was not quite there.  Yet I pushed on and forced the issue.  Besides the obvious, there were a couple of problems with this.  First, I had a friend who had an agent that was willing to have her arm twisted by her beloved client and read my full manuscript at her request.  Whoa, an “in,” I thought.  Wrong!  It turns out, a simple read through means nothing if the material is not ready, really, really ready.  And, as I said, I was not quite there.  But I did not discover this until I had hit that damn send button.
Well, unbeknownst to me, hitting that send button has a rather disheartening effect on the psyche.  It made me doubt my work enough that I just had to give my manuscript another read-through.  And what do you suppose I found as I read through?  That’s right…mistakes.  Not just grammatical errors, though there were a few of those.  I’m talking about stiff dialogue, telling instead of showing, a few too many adverbs and the like.  It wasn’t bad, but then again, it wasn’t good enough either.  But too late.  My friend’s agent had it in her hands, so to speak, and there was nothing I could do about it. 
Of course, she rejected me after nearly a month’s time, but that “in” had set the bar kind of high for me and missing—or ruining, I should say—that opportunity for myself was like a swift kick in the teeth.  But okay, it was a learning experience, however painful.  I was not ready.  So I read and reread, revising and writing new content, having my beloved critique partner (the one with the agent) blast away at it and whip it into shape.  Onward I go, compiling my query list.  Well, actually, I lie.  I was using, for the most part, my friend’s query list.  She had spent countless hours on the Publisher’s Marketplace website gleaning information, compiling the list of agents perfect for her manuscript.  So, she says, since our novels teeter on the same provocative subject matter, this list should work well for you, as well.  Enter my third mistake though I would not say it was a rookie mistake.  I have never heard or read anywhere about this so how was I to know?  But since I had dipped my toe in all those months ago and burned those very few bridges, I should have known better.  Do not query those agents you deem the best fit for your project right off the bat. 
Now I realize this seems counterintuitive, but hear me out.  Like I said, querying is a learning process.  Unless you’ve had experience doing this before, chances are you don’t have it down to a science just yet.  Not many queries are perfect out of the gate and this is something the aspiring writer does not realize until they have received rejection after rejection.  It is only then that they take the cues and rework their query.  So why would said aspiring writer send out an early query draft to his or her favorite agents?  Yep, bad move on my part.  I know, it’s only natural to want to give that special opportunity of representation to your favorites, but if your query is not quite ready, much the same way your manuscript was not quite ready, then why would you want to waste your learning chances on your favorite agents?  See what I’m getting at here? 
So I barreled through my friend’s perfect list of perfect agents, sending out several queries a week.  But once again, the bar was set a little too high for me.  Much to my surprise, I got a hit on my first week.  Super Agent X requested a full manuscript an hour after I sent her the query.  Whoa!  Well, as you can imagine, that sent bolts of electricity shooting through my body.  A request for a full!  Surely that must mean my query is kick-ass, spot-on perfect, right?  Ah, well…no…not so much.  But once again I was energized by the vote of confidence, this time by someone I did not have an “in” with.  I shot my manuscript off to her without waiting, like my editor / blogger goddess Anne Mini suggested on her oh-so-wise blog.
Of course, there was that zap when I hit that damn send button again.  Another push to read through my manuscript so I could reacquaint myself with the material I had just sent out.  And yeah…you guessed it.  It was not quite there yet.  Almost.  Maybe 93%.  But my goal was 95%.  A number set by several blogging agents out there.  So here I am, with regrets about sending out my full manuscript for a second time before it was ready.  And this agent is like Julia Roberts is to the acting world.  A real superstar.  And I sent her my manuscript before it was ready.  Or at least 95% ready.  How f-ing stupid can I possibly be?  Well, as it turns out , pretty damn stupid.
So as not to be totally demoralized, I continued to send out queries.  Mind you, it was after I fixed those remaining problems I saw in my manuscript after the Super Agent X read through, but I knew I had most likely ruined an outstanding opportunity.  I have not, as of yet, heard back from Super Agent X.  It has only been about six weeks and I know it takes a long time for a busy agent to read through her stack of manuscripts.  So I am still hopeful, but I am also a realist.  I pray she can see past some of that stiff dialogue in chapter three.  After all, that was the only problem I could see in the material I sent her, but still, there should never have been that kind of problem. 
Oh well, it is what it is and I had to move on.  And I did.  I continued to work my way through that substantial perfect agent list.  I did receive one request for a partial and I sent it out with confidence that it was good to go.  I don’t have any qualms about that submission.  But after sending out those queries in the last month and a half, I have only received one more request, though I will admit , she is a real winner.  Yes, that bar was set rather high early on and I am beginning to think that is not such a good thing, at least for my self-confidence, but perhaps my query was not so kick-ass, spot-on perfect as I first thought.  Too late.  I’ve already sent out a few too many queries.  And to the ones best suited to my kind of project, too.  

This is me kicking myself in the head.

So now I am compiling a new list. One of my very own.  I am spending an inordinate amount of time researching each and every one of these agents to make sure they are a suitable fit, but I am not as experienced as my friend who compiled the original perfect agent list so I have no idea if these new additions will work for me.  So I am completely demoralized to have burned through my list of perfect-fit agents during my preliminary trials of first-time querying.  And now I am on query-hold at the request of one agent who wants an exclusive.  Am I an idiot?  (Okay, don't answer that.)  Of course, I will give her whatever she wants if she wants to give me a chance. 
My whole point is that this is a lesson to all you aspiring writers out there with a much beloved project you think might be ready to go.  Read through your manuscript in hard copy, out loud, and in its entirety.  And then do it again and again and again.  Then send out that query you think is so perfect to agents that fit, but not necessarily those you think would be the perfect fit.  Give it time, allowing a couple of months to roll by before you send out more queries.  This will allow you to see if your query is garnering requests or not and is therefore effectively attracting wanted attention.  And before you send out any requested material, read it through as if you had indeed sent it out.  Read it through with another’s set of eyes in consideration. 
As an update, I have received about thirty-three rejections thus far.  Each one another brick added to the load I carry on my weary shoulders.  Each one a demoralizing stab that I am just not good enough.  But I am trying to keep in mind that I have still not heard back from the great majority of agents and while I know I probably never will, many agents seem to say that they do, in fact, respond to every query over time.  
So there is still hope and I hold onto that hope like a life preserver.  I often picture this process like that of a human egg being fertilized by sperm.  Here I am, one of a million little sperm, swimming against the current, nudging along the periphery of the hard-edged shell of one little egg, knowing that only one of us will eventually be admitted while the rest of us are washed away, out to sea.  It is a one in a million chance, but then I also play the lottery from time to time.  What is life without a little hope that we can achieve our dream if we are but persistent?  Never give up, I say.  No matter how heavy that load gets.  What do I have to lose except a little self-confidence and pride?