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Once upon a time I sat down to write a book. I confess that in that particular mindset I wasn’t thinking about intelligent and logical things like publication and where the book would fit into the market. I hadn’t considered comparable titles and marketing strategies. I had an idea. I was excited about it. Images, words, characters were clamoring to get onto the page and that was all that mattered.

Later, during revisions one, two, three and four, (and five? I’ve lost track) the idea of publication was on my mind, but largely as background static, a vaguely defined fear that this book wasn’t going to fit neatly anywhere in the known universe of publishing, that it wasn’t quite fantasy or magical realism or literary fiction. But it was far too late for such thoughts – the story now had a life of its own and would be what it was determined to be.

Which brings me to the present, to the business of querying and agent feedback and a semi-frenzied perusal of existing books that might be considered comparable titles. There are some – nothing perfect, mind, but things that put Swimming North in the ballpark at least.

An agent question – what would a series look like – set me off on another alarming quest, because I never see to the end of a book before I begin it, let alone a series. When I write I start with characters and a problem, and the characters interact with the problem and with each other, and things begin to happen. Random elements creep in and I allow them, because often my subconscious sees what I do not. While all of this is going on, I try to keep an eye on plot and character arcs and pacing and all of the stuff that makes for a compelling plot, but I never quite know where the story is going until I hit the end.

I am experiencing a moment of envy for those who sit down before they begin to write and plot the whole thing out, from beginning to end. But I blink, and the envy passes. The truth is, I enjoy the surprises and the unexpected detours along the way. And it’s not like I set out on a writing voyage without any landmarks at all. I have a general sense of where we are all headed, I’m just not sure of a) how we’re going to get ‘there’, and b) exactly what ‘there’ will look like when we arrive.

At the moment, the best compromise I can make is to sit down and play with ideas. If the story would go on, how would it look? What would happen with the characters? What would be the unfinished story winding through all three that would allow them to stand alone but still bind them together. I think I see. And that’s all I need to get started.

Yes, it is that time again. Time to take stock of where I am in my writing life, and where I am going. I would prefer to just keep on writing and believe that somehow, magically, one of my books will be published. The fantasy goes something like this:

I’m sitting outside on a sunny afternoon with a cup of coffee, writing away on the newest manuscript. The words are flowing freely, the characters are brilliant and witty, and I’m completely immersed in the creative process.

My phone rings.  I do not leap out of my chair and spill coffee all over my laptop because I am not on call, and have learned to accept a ringing phone as a harbinger of human relationships and maybe even good news, rather than a signal of disaster. I answer the phone, and a pleasant and professional voice inquires,”Is this Uppington Smythe?”

“Why yes, can I help you?”

“Ms. Smythe, this is Agent X – of Prestigious Literary Agency Y. I stumbled across your manuscript this morning – pardon me? Oh, no – you didn’t send it to me. I believe that a friend of a friend of yours, who happens to be my identical twin sister,  was so impressed by it that they brought it in and urged me to read. I dropped everything and fell instantly in love.”

“I’m – speechless, Agent X.”

“I believe your book can be a bestseller. I am prepared to offer you a contract, right this moment. In fact, I have a publisher standing by with a lucrative advance in hand.”

Yeah. In my defense, I’ve been working on Swimming North, which involves surreal reality shifts. But I am not demonstrably insane, and I know it will never go down this way. When I find an agent, when I get published, it will be because I worked hard at perfecting my craft AND paid attention to the business of publishing. I wish that the writing were enough, but I know that it’s not.

And so. What are the next steps I need to take?

  1. Query widely. Yep. It’s about time to send out more queries on Filling in the Blanks.  Every agent from the last mailing who is going to respond has probably already done so. Sadly, the blank spaces on my tracking sheet that indicate ‘no response’ should probably be interpreted as ‘NO.’
  2. Finish Next WIP. I’m actually on this one. Swimming North is undergoing the scrutiny of my beta readers as we speak. As soon as the critiques roll in, it’s back to revisions and edits (hopefully the final draft).  While I’m waiting, I’m running edits on my first novel ever, a YA Fantasy, which has been dust gathering for several years. When I brushed it off, I decided it deserves a shot at the spotlight. There is a problem though – when I set out to write it I was oblivious of the publishing industry and just wrote a book. What I now have is a YA fantasy of about 95,000 words. Yeah. I’m paring it down as much as I can, and I will query it, but I know it’s likely to get turned down sight unseen due to length. The good news it – I am capable of learning. I now know better than this. If I write another YA Fantasy, it will be shorter.
  3. Write Queries and Synopses. While I am working on revisions and edits, I will also be working on queries and synopses for both Swimming North and Losaria. This way, as soon as the manuscripts are polished and ready to go, I can begin accumulating rejection letters on three novels at once.  Because I believe that with every new novel I write, and every new rejection letter I receive, I am that much closer to YES.

As always, I’m interested in every body else’s progress toward goals. Where are you at, and where are you going?

“As for discipline – it’s important, but sort of over-rated. The more important virtue for a writer, I believe, is self-forgiveness. Because your writing will always disappoint you. Your laziness will always disappoint you.” – Elizabeth Gilbert.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am in need of this self forgiveness.   If I were Catholic and went to confession, right now I think it might go something like this:

Father forgive me for I have sinned.  I have been lazy and self indulgent.  I have spent far too many hours on Twitter and blogging and Facebook when I could have been writing.  I have cherished words that do not further either plot or characters in my writing, and have been profligate with adverbs.  On two days of the last week I neglected my novels altogether, and did not write a word.  I have worshipped vainly at the shrines of agents and editors before my manuscript is ready.  I have been envious of the success of others and I have entertained the demon of despair.

I’d like to think that perhaps, even without a priest, there is absolution.  I am human after all, and there are so many factors that go into this process of writing: emotional, psychological and physical, as well as the unfortunate need to abide by the laws of our physical reality.  I’d get a lot more writing done if I could only adjust the space-time continuum at will. 

Self immolation is futile:  every thought you indulge about failure, every self doubt you entertain, every bit of energy spent on the counter productive process of beating yourself up, is energy taken away from forward motion. This doesn’t for a moment mean that we should ignore our faults and failings.  What I have frequently suggested to clients who practice the art of despair is this: stop talking to yourself as though you were the enemy.  Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love who is struggling.  This doesn’t mean sugar coating reality, it just means that you speak with love and a little understanding.

Reframe:  I have been brave enough to go back to a novel I thought was finished and begin restructuring the entire thing.  I have studied the art of the query and researched agents appropriate to my work.  In good faith, I acted on this information and began my collection of rejection letters.  I have taken myself seriously as a writer, and registered for my first writing conference – Write on the River, coming up next month. My brain is a creative and busy place, and I have allowed myself to take pleasure in the act of creation rather than worrying excessively about where I will publish it.  I have, on occasion, turned up at the page when I was exhausted, distracted, and sick at heart.  I continue to believe, against all odds, in the power of story and words and that somewhere in this upside down economy there is still a market for what I write. 

How are the rest of you faring with the art of self forgiveness?  It’s been awhile since I posted a writing challenge, and today’s is a little bit different. I challenge you to comment positively about the current status of your writing:  time spent, temptations overcome, courage shown in the face of your own doubts, a brilliant quote from your own work, some kind of forward movement on the road to publication.  

As always, keep your fingers moving, and may your muse be kind.

Over the last month I’ve watched with a sort of horrified fascination as Queryfail morphed into Agentfail, and all of the agent bashing that has occurred as a result.   I’ve resisted blogging about it because I didn’t  want to get caught up in the sound and the fury, but here I am this morning anyway, because the storm seems far from subsiding and has given me pause for thought.

In my day job, (and often night job) I work as a Mental Health Crisis Response provider, dealing with people who are under duress.  One of the things I have noticed, is that powerful emotions bring out the ugly.  It’s easy to begin slinging mud; to distance ourselves from a perceived threat by spewing vitriolic blame.  And the natural reaction, when somebody spews vitriol at you, is to either suit up in vitriol proof armor, or sling it back.

The result?  Nobody hears what anybody else is saying, because everybody is on either the offensive or the defensive.  

What I hear, when I take a step back to listen, is this:

All of us, writers and agents, are human beings.  All of us are in this business because we love books. All of us are splendidly flawed and carry emotional baggage, and here is where I think it all blows up.  Every human being on this planet sees the world through a unique lens created by experiences, emotions, and beliefs.  Which means that there is not One Reality, but many, and when we try to communicate we always assume that we are talking about the Same Thing.

Usually we are not.  Some of us live on adjacent planets, so to speak, and we manage to come close enough to a common reality to have a meaningful exchange of ideas.  Some of us dwell on far flung solar systems and the frame of reference between one galaxy and another is so vastly different, that although we use the same words we are not speaking the same language.

When you look at the comments somebody has written with shock and disbelief, and find yourself asking, “where did that come from?”, my guess is, a place far, far away from you.  One insightful blogger, whose name I have unfortunately forgotten, made a very apt point: many authors want to see agents as larger than life, archetypal representatives of something.

They are not.  They are not archetypes, but human beings, and they have problems just like everybody else’s:  they have kids and pets, car trouble, financial difficulties, and complicated schedules.  Most of them receive hundreds of queries a day, most of which do not follow recommended guidelines, some of them not even written in acceptable English; many of these queries are sent by writers living in a far flung reality with a language all it’s own.  I’m not surprised if agents feel a bit snarky from time to time about the junk they are expected to wade through in search of the occasional piece of gold.

As a writer, I sometimes feel like I’m playing the lotto when it comes to publishing.  I’m guessing it feels a lot that way to be an agent.  In all honesty, after following Queryfail and reading the Tweets of various agents, I feel less hopeful than ever about getting published:  I’m honestly amazed that with the onslaught of trash that agents are expected to deal with they are still speaking in complete sentences and able to uncross their eyes to read the good queries when they come in.

The good news is, I no longer take rejection personally.  This system, like the social services system that I work in, is entailed in unsolvable knots (to quote Dr. Seuss).  It’s a miracle that writers manage to complete a manuscript, given all of the forces that work against creativity and writing time.  It’s a miracle that agents find and recognize the rare jewel in the trash heap.

Agents are not enemies, they are allies.  I hope, when I find representation, to have a partnership with respect on both sides.  I hope, when my destined agent and I finally connect, that we can work as a team, that our worlds lie close enough together for us to have meaningful conversations and get books published.  And I think that is the whole point of the query process: finding the agent who speaks your language.

That said, I’d better get back to writing, or there will be no queries for me to add to the slush pile.  And while I’m writing, believe me, I’m looking for the alchemy that makes my manuscript the chunk of gold that someday makes some agent’s day.

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