…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.”
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?
Let’s be honest. What matters most is not how good you think your novel is but how others rate it. Now I’m not writing this as someone who received accolades for their work and can smugly pontificate. On the contrary, I’ve had some negative reviews, one even used the dreaded B-word (bored), a state you should try to avoid causing more than even offense. So how could this happen?
After a number of rejections I lost confidence in my second novel Time Over. The first book The Hidden Realm was also rejected, but the problems with it were clear and I mostly fixed them although in the days before self publishing became, er … respectable. So I cut my losses and put it out as a free download. It proved relatively popular, got a good number of likes. Only Time Over seemed to have no easy fix; I’d set up a simple premise, which then spiralled into something rather complicated.
The problem is, once you lose confidence in a project you focus on what’s wrong rather than the positive: a loose end here, an inconsistency there. You imagine a reader picking up on some implausible aspect (and in SF there can be a lot of those). So what you do is add more detail for verisimilitude. Dialogue can also be affected in this way, slowing down the pace. I’ve of course tried to address these issues. But regaining confidence: that’s something entirely different.
Still, you move on to the next project with a renewed faith. At least until the next rejection.
Time Over is free to download for a short while:
Reviews still welcome.
My other site: http://www.adriankyte.com/
For me, starting work on a new book has been easy. Getting beyond the first chapter – let alone to a completed novel – is an entirely different matter. Some might compare embarking on a new novel to falling in love … again: This is The One, at least you think that when it starts to take shape. Of course, all previous ones seemed exactly as special at the time – it was going to be your magnum opus, nothing was ever going to top that. Then reality hits. In my case in the form of reviews. Although some have been positive I always like to fixate on the negative. My initial reaction (in my head) is: But you haven’t read it properly; you don’t understand that character’s motivations or the underlying causes. In truth, I would get carried away with an idea. But – in science fiction – you can get mired in trying to unravel a complex theory shaping an event with an even more complex explanation. Brushing over it can seem like a lack of attention to detail or authenticity; the obverse seeming weighty and stymie the reader if not the plot. However, this type of insight has tended to be very much after the fact (when the book is out there). At least with an E-book it’s never really too late.
If I’m going to stretch my initial analogy, then think of that work-in-progress as a new relationship. You invest your all into it and expect to find answers very quickly. You are filled with hope but also troubled by insecurity, the latter tends to happen about a quarter of the way in. Life eventually intrudes: distractions, maybe personal events or outside that can make your big idea seem insignificant, irrelevant or inappropriate. At the start it might have been like living in a bubble. But when that bubble bursts is when you can truly get a handle on what your WIP will become. Not that there’s anything wrong with quixotic thinking at the outset, because the voices of doubt telling you to prepare for failure are rarely useful. Anyway, if you make it halfway (for me around 50,000 words) then there is that sense of having been on a journey with a possible destination, maybe not what you expected it to be, but still well worth continuing.
Time Over is now free to download for a very limited time.
The most commonly quoted advice, write about what you know, is often open to misinterpretation. I’m not entirely sure how much it refers to personal experience or general knowledge. But it’s generally accepted that experience of life is a good thing for a writer. That is, going out and travelling as much as possible, and just living. But should there be limits?
There have been times when I have forced myself to go on risky holidays where things haven’t worked out as I’d hoped. We’re not talking any life-threatening adventures here (I could happily brag about trekking along the Amazon or Gobi desert were it true). The only things truly threatened were my sense of morality and bank balance. Possibly this has helped my creativity, given a better perspective on my writing. Possibly.
I wonder, as a writer, the way of dealing with things that go wrong is different; you process them differently. Maybe it takes a while, and then: I could incorporate that experience for one of my characters. Even in science fiction, in my view good sf, you should bring something of contemporary life into whatever future. After all, it’s all about transposing … and it’s probably something I should have done more of. I’ve tended to avoid autobiographical writing in previous years; it had seemed somehow self-indulgent. But I guess there is always a way to finesse that into fiction.
It is said that the best writers are often the most troubled. Not an observation I entirely buy; I know of some seemingly very well-adjusted prize-winning authors. Maybe, though, writing is a therapy in itself, and without it those authors would be wrecks. Certainly with a novel in progress I seem to be at my most contented, even if there’s no knowledge of it ever being publishable. Otherwise writing this blog comes a close second. But without either would problems and worries become insurmountable? Well, I wouldn’t want to test that.
A question many writers ask themselves is: how much do reviews matter?
I noticed something curious when I recently withdrew a novel I wasn’t happy with, and also had some spare time to rewrite. The book could best have been described as an interesting failure, problematic in its creation. So I’d given up finding a traditional publisher and went with Lulu.com as well as putting it up on various other sites as a free download. Anyway, checking the Amazon UK page I was surprised to see there’d been nine reviews of the book, averaging 3 stars. So did that suggest mediocrity, or something more interesting? I think most writers would prefer to think – given that average – some hated their work and some loved it. But there was not that smiley face bar graph. Ok, so there were way out concepts in the book, stretching the science fiction to the fiction end at times. I half expected there to be some negative comments about certain sex scenes that were not exactly conventional (although not especially graphic). None however. Frankly, it was That Difficult Second Novel where I tried to expand my writing range, where I’d got a little too ambitions. You aim for the stars and end up getting three! It is pleasing though that even ten people (1 US) were motivated enough to write a review of a free book from a relatively unknown author, especially those who seemed just a bit disappointed. Trouble is, when you write a blog about writing you build yourself up to be knocked down. At least that’s usually the British way. But I’d be the first to admit there’s always room for improvement. It’s a constant learning process.
Well, I’ve republished Time Over on Amazon KDP. The price can’t be set at zero but is as low as possible, for now anyway. Will be interesting to see how it fails this time. I know there are those who have an aversion to paying for a novel that hasn’t been recommended or passed some threshold of star rating. But any starred reviews are welcome – if they’re well considered.