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.”
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.
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.