Surely it’s the time most writers dread: those weeks (and sometimes months) waiting for a reply from an agent. After analyzing the odds, the percentage of submissions rejected, I defy any writer not to be worried. Or to not feel despondent when the rejection does come.
Personally I’d reject most of what I see, not just from debut authors but a lot of professional writers. But then I’d make a bad literary agent: too quick to judge, not being open to something that seems unconnected with my life on any easily accessible level. In particular, science fiction (which, actually, I mostly read) can seem forbidding initially. And, perhaps like most readers, I also rely too much on reviews and reputation. The challenge these days is finding something new and special among the sheer welter of books.
Now that my own work is out there to be assessed by those who are still thought of as the gatekeepers to the literary world, I’m wondering if what i’ve submitted is going to be judged so hurriedly. It would be interesting to know the exact process of each agent: how much is determined by that first page, chapter or synopsis – where I feel I’ve already failed (see Synopsis Hell).
After my last book Time Over had been rejected a few times, I did some rewriting then self published. How tempting it is these days to just give up on the traditional route. Because rejections are troubling if not painful; you read into each word, wondering what s/he truly felt behind the polite or diplomatic language. Well, I guess I have more of that to look forward to in the near future.
…that precious manuscript to an agent is probably the most delayed action in every writer’s life. At least once you’ve had the experience of rejection. You never feel adequately prepared, remembering – in my case – more than one example when I sent an MS off to an agent only to later bitterly regret it. Oh, no wonder they rejected it, it was inevitable, I think to myself with typical 20/20 hindsight. And yet at the time my novel seemed perfectly honed, that covering letter just right. But if only I’d given it a bit more time. So won’t be rushing to send it off now, whether post or email.
Not that rejection could definitely have been avoided. I might be fooling myself into thinking the work had commercial potential if only I’d got the presentation right – the pitch, or made that change to the first page and chapter. Fact is, there are always things you think could have been done better, but you have to eventually move on to the next one. Science fiction is especially tricky when you’re pitching it through a synopsis; it can seem to get bogged down in fantastical-seeming detail which requires too many words to explain why in fact it’s not so fantastical.
I don’t think any author can really know what will meet with wider approval. Even those who are supposed to be objective about these things can often get it wrong. And usually their default judgment is negative.
Here’s an extract from a Guardian interview with this year’s Booker winner Marlon James, who had one novel rejected 78 times.
“No! No,” he says, shaking his head, as if it is the question that is mystifying. “This is why I tell students when they ask for advice, if you’re a writer, you have to believe in yourself.” He bangs accompaniment to the last three words with his hand on the table. “Because if you’re a writer, you’re going to come across that moment where you’re the only one who does.” He sounds freshly disappointed when he adds: “And I failed that test.”
The best way to put readers off your novel is to write a scene-by-scene synopsis. Or so it can feel. Prose is replaced by dry description. It’s like looking at an image of your most precious one rendered as an x-ray skeleton; the bare bones revealing nothing of what made them special.
Yes, I’m in the midst of writing a synopsis for a potential literary agent … and not managing it very well … and feeling that because of it i will fail, facing a winter of rejections. I don’t know if this is a common feeling. But it’s when the doubt creeps in – going over the whole thing again and finding yet more careless errors.
The main problem: how do you compress 100,000+ words into less than a thousand? Whole scenes have to be omitted. Which ones? This is where it’s so easy to become lost; not able to see the wood for the trees. The funny thing is, writing a blurb-style teaser précis hasn’t been a problem – you give an impression, set up the tension (must stop rhyming now). But by the same token that can build false expectations in much the way advertising often does.
I’m certainly not expecting much sympathy from anyone in the publishing industry. They’d probably tell me: “If you can’t manage to sum up your novel in less than a thousand words then maybe there is something wrong with the book itself.”
….is knowing what to leave in, or cut out.
On that (possibly) final draft, when I’m feeling confident, I rewrite with ease, often thinking: that so obviously needs changing, how could I not have seen it before? So another paragraph further honed until I’m happy with it – again. But the thought of having to cut said paragraph seems, well, unconscionable. This is common; it must have given rise to that troubling phrase “kill your darlings.”
What precious sections were in need of cutting only becomes apparent when it’s too late. I recently noticed a new review for my novel Time Over, having assiduously avoided reading them lately (I find it’s generally best not to read my own reviews, and certainly while the next book is in progress). I just happened to see the word edit (or editing); it was enough to make me turn away and click off before I could see any more words of that damning indictment.
The problem is, one reader’s self-indulgent dross is another’s profound insight. At least that’s what you tell yourself … to keep the darkness at bay. But really you can’t strike the same cord with everyone. Yet there is a standard, and maybe this is why a professional editor can be valuable.
But if my latest book does go to an editor, it would be tempting to tell them: “I accept all the amendments you advise/the corrections you’ve made. Just don’t let me see them.” Then I am spared the potential pain of seeing my creation ripped apart.
Very little reward, if you’re one of the ninety-nine percent of fiction writers. Well, that’s what it feels like when you read about the latest multi-book/million [insert currency] deal, and you’re still trying to make that breakthrough, still getting the rejections. Or self-published and garnering fewer sales than some second-rate generic knock-off that managed to get five-star reviews from well-wishers (or dare I say it: followers). Actually some of the most brutal reviews have appeared on Amazon, not so much for my novels but those who have achieved acclaim for their previous works; well that’ll knock ’em down a peg or two – is perhaps the thinking, but also it could be that expectation has been built up way beyond anything a mere mortal writer can fulfill.
So if you do make it to the big league it’s not all plain sailing. Acclaim doesn’t guarantee good sales, neither does fame. I was shocked, looking at the sales rankings for authors with big publishers who are probably only selling in the hundreds. Maybe that goes to show that less and less readers bother to even notice if it’s HarperCollins, Tor or some small press, and instead look for reviews and recommendations. And, yes, this is when it’s good to have many followers. One big league author who got a huge advance and deal was questioned over whether he might not make even more money if he self-published, such has the indie route come of age. He pointed out that it was a risky option – and it is: many successful self-pubbers have accepted the lure of a big publisher, because that means less hassle and more security, if less profit for said author. Editing one’s own book is the most difficult thing an author can do, even when it doesn’t feel like it is.
Of course, writing novels can be a rewarding experience. Just not, in my case, financially.
My site: http://www.adriankyte.com/
In a book review I read only this afternoon someone decried the use of a prologue, recommending that you skip it, saying it detracted from the story. While that can be true, it can also give an insight onto the essence of a novel, a flavour (if it’s done properly) of the style as well as story. In brief, a shortcut.
Not that I’ve managed those things perfectly. There’s always been something of a compromise, having to balance interesting or entertaining writing with explanation (though trying to avoid exposition). There may have even been inconsistencies. My latest focuses more on a key character than any important plot point; it’s about his condition as result of his predicament.
A prologue is not about leading you into the story’s beginning but more like a snap-shot taken from a different angle to the rest, maybe a wider angle or a narrow focus, whatever seems the most interesting and revealing. If it focuses on a specific point in time dealt with later on in the novel then best to avoid repetition, even if the reader has forgotten much of the prologue by then. Peter Watts’ Blindsight is a the best example I’ve read in recent years.
It’s true that the prologue seems to have gone somewhat out of fashion. I don’t know how much publishers and agents are reflecting this or leading the way but many now are showing their dislike, judging by blogs I’ve read. Maybe it became too obvious a device; in science fiction often used to ease the reader in to a complex storyline concept. Then that dreaded word formulaic is invoked.
But here’s a final plea from someone who still cleaves to that old device, not as a standard formula, but just as an option. Because sometimes there seems no better way to begin a story.
If you’re writing the third and possibly final draft there’s no excuse for not giving it your all. The question is, does that mean only working on it when you feel a hundred percent well, comfortable and generally on top of your game?
Today I’m writing this with a cold when I’d normally be on that third draft of The Captured. It’s easy, then, to make excuses for not really feeling up to it. It could be that you’re just feeling fed up for having missed the only bit of sun on an otherwise gloomy February day; a whole multitude of reasons for being less than a hundred percent focused on the work. (And, BTW, I hate it when people talk about giving something 110 or more percent, as there’s no sense of any maximum effort. OK, rant over.)
There’s plenty of advice out there on writing fiction in general, about ploughing on even when the muse is not there. But this (though hardly ever stated) seems to refer to that first creative stage, when just getting those words down is a achievement and never mind the quality. Not that I’d ever set myself a word-count goal – that’s a tyranny of the self, treating it like some feat of endurance. If someone has set a deadline, a contract with money involved, then maybe. No hard and fast rules otherwise.
I guess many writers have realized that on their third draft they haven’t been completely focused, and so they do a fourth, or a fifth…. But why waste the time if your not giving it your A-game?