Almost a year ago I did a post in which I vented a bit about my frustration with the editorial process a literary agent was putting me through for my novel, Cherry Bomb. This agent kept saying she loved my book, but then she would send it to yet another editor (at about $750 each time) for another major overview. I spent a couple thousand dollars on these overviews, and now I wonder if the agent got a cut of that, since I paid her and she paid the editors.
More importantly, the overviews I received back were often contradictory and vague. Sure, some of it was helpful, and my novel is probably a better book because of my efforts to respond to those overviews, but after 3-4 of them, I began to feel that this agent and I didn’t have the same vision for my book. And also that working with editors in this manner seemed like something that could go on forever.
And so I parted ways with the agent and decided to query small presses instead. You already know this, if you read my blog regularly. But today I’d like to give you an update, since I recently alluded to a pending book deal. I’m working with a publisher who is also an editor, and we’re going through the manuscript together, one chapter at a time. While I don’t always agree with his suggestions, they are always specific and easy to understand. I can respond to them quickly, and revisions are coming along smoothly. I believe we are working towards a contract, and I’m so encouraged to finally find an editor whose style is so helpful. (And did I mention there is no fee?)
New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Joanna Penn talks about the importance of finding the right editor. Here she describes some of the things she likes about the one she’s working with now:
She gets my style of writing, and she understands my violent streak and doesn’t try to rein in what makes me me. What she does do is help me to craft a better book by suggesting structural changes and then doing detailed line edits.
That’s how I feel about the editor I’m working with now.
David Kudler, writing for the Huffington Post, has a lot to say about editors, but I took encouragement from his closing words:
You are writing a book because there is something you have to say, some knowledge or wisdom to impart, some experience to which you want to lead the reader.
An editor is your partner in making that happen, helping you to say precisely what you want to say in the most effective, affecting way possible.
So, today my editor and I are over half-way through the manuscript and picking up speed and efficiency as we move forward. Stay tuned for the big reveal! (And thanks, always, for reading and commenting, here and on Facebook.)
In the September 2016 (yes, it’s out in June) issue of Writer’s Digest, there’s an interesting “inkwell” column called “Scout’s Honor: What is a literary scout, anyway?” by Stephanie Stokes Oliver. Got my attention right away.
Evidently these literary scouts act as liaisons between authors and literary agents, editors, and publishers. I know, right away you’re thinking, “oh, no, another middle man.” Since I’ve been querying agents for my novel for several years now, and directly querying independent presses for several months for my essay collection (and now for my novel), I share your pain. What can a scout do for me? Who do they work for?
In addition to scouts who work for literary agencies and Amazon’s Kindle Scout program, there are also scouts who work directly for publishing houses, like Oliver, who wrote this article in WD. She works for Simon & Schuster’s Atria Books. You can read her submission guidelines here.
Oliver’s submission process for nonfiction books (she doesn’t work with fiction) is very similar to many agents’ guidelines—she requests a book proposal and sample pages. It would only take me about ten minutes to whip these off to her via email, and maybe I will. Or maybe I’ll wait until I hear back from a couple of small presses who are currently reading my essay collection. It’s definitely something to consider.
If you’re interested in finding a literary scout, how do you go about it? That seems to be the tricky part. They seem to be “out there” looking for good writing, so watch what you put on your personal blog, and keep submitting essays to journals, which they might be reading in search of a new author. New York-based Maria B. Campbell Associates (MBCA) Inc. has scouts working for publishing houses in 19 countries but their website says they don’t accept unsolicited proposals or manuscripts, so it seems that their scouts have to find us, rather than the other way around. I hadn’t even heard of literary scouts until I read this article, but they’ve been out there for quite a few years, as evidenced by this 2009 article by Emily Williams, who used to be a scout for MBCA.
Just when you thought the publishing business couldn’t get more complicated, you discover a “secret world” of people competing for a piece of the pie. I’m just trying to keep up.
An agent I queried in February requested the full manuscript of my novel a few weeks ago. She sent me this email this past weekend:
Thank you for sending me CHERRY BOMB, which I read with interest.
I am sorry not to offer to represent you. I like the intergenerational story and the way you weave the story and characters together with art. I’m not enthusiastic enough about it, however, to offer to represent you.
The market is very difficult these days, and you deserve an unequivocally enthusiastic agent as your advocate.
I may well be wrong, and you should certainly get other agents’ opinions.
Best of luck with your writing.
I know I’m supposed to be happy to receive such a personal note (and I’ve received many of them, as I wrote about two months ago) but that doesn’t diminish the fact that I still don’t have an agent to represent Cherry Bomb.
If you think you’re tired of reading these rejection letters that I share here on my blog, imagine how I feel about them. This was my 28th rejection letter since January. And yes, there are more than 28 more agents out there who still have the manuscript, although for most of them no reply means no representation.
Once again I’m on the verge of throwing in the towel and submitting the book to a small press. This would, of course, be the end of my hopes for (1) an agent, (2) an advance, and (3) a publishing deal with one of the big houses. I just read an interesting article by literary agent, Janet Reid, about this very topic. The comments are point on to my situation.
Back in January I told myself I would give this round of queries until June and then consider a small press. June sure did get here quickly…. Thanks for reading, and please stay tuned to see what happens next! (And of course, I welcome your advice!)
This conversation really began last Wednesday, when I wrote:
I knew it was going to be difficult, and a lot of just butt-in-the-chair work to research which agents to query, find their web sites, and follow the submission instructions—often cutting and pasting writing samples into the email for those who refuse to open attachments. Sometimes this process can be fun, but sometimes it’s just draining. As I said last week, I had already received 10 rejections from the 29 agents I had queried. Almost all were personal rejection emails, giving sometimes specific, understandable reasons, and other times frustrating, vague reasons for not choosing to represent me and my novel, Cherry Bomb. Like this one:
Thank you for sending me these pages. While I loved your pitch, and your credentials are impressive, I had trouble with Mare’s voice and story; something about it didn’t feel authentic to me, and so I couldn’t engage with the narrative. Thank you for thinking of me for this project, and I wish you the best of luck.
The voice and story didn’t feel authentic. Ouch. Five plus years of writing and revising, working with several editors, pouring my heart and soul into this book and it “didn’t feel authentic”?
I had coffee with a writer friend yesterday and shared my frustration with her. She has read the novel and given me feedback during the final round of revisions, so she’s completely familiar with the story. I was validated by her reply that these agents just don’t “get it”—but how can I find one that does? The more we discussed the issue, the more my friend began to hone in on the story’s insistence that the reader suspend belief in certain places in order to embrace the plot. It’s not magical realism, but there is a strong thread of mysticism in the book. Given that—and the fact that the protagonist starts out at age 12 and is only 21 by the end of the book—my friend suggested I query agents who represent YA (Young Adult) fiction. I agreed, and so I spent several hours yesterday afternoon querying 10 agents, all of whom rep YA and most of whom also rep literary and upmarket fiction. I plan to continue the process with more agents today. I’m casting a wide net.
Of course this is so difficult, emotionally, and as I was licking my wounds this morning I read this quote from Harper Lee:
I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career, that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide.
Lee contributed those words to the September 1961 issue of Writer’s Digest, in response to a request sent to some top writers and editors from WD, asking “What advice would you offer a person who aspires to a writing career?” This quote was published again in the May/June 2016 issue of WD, in which I also found validation from literary agent Barbara Poelle, who was asked the following question in her column:
I’ve been getting a few rejections on my novel saying things like, ‘The narrative didn’t resonate,’ and ‘I couldn’t connect with the execution.’ What does that really mean?
Poelle’s answer began with this:
First, if you’re getting anything beyond a form rejection—which you are, as agents or editors have taken time to point out a resonance issue—then you are just riding the subjectivity horse into the next town. Keep querying! This sometimes simply means that one man’s Colour Me Good Benedict Cumberbatch is another man’s The Goldfinch.
Poelle went on to describe some structural issues that also could be contributing to the rejection letters, but I’m sure the person who submitted the question was more interested in Poelle’s first comments, because we need to believe in our own work before we can believe that someone out there will also embrace it.
And so here I go again today…. Continuing the querying process, riding that subjectivity horse into the next town….
I’m bored with my current memoir/essay project. The one I blogged about so enthusiastically here:
Turns out shaping the chaos is a lot harder than I thought it would be when I set out to organize those 126 pages of previously published work and write new material to tie it together. Maybe I’m not bored, just tired. Partly I think I’m tired from trying to market my novel and my essay collection. Here’s what that work has looked like for the past two months:
For the novel (Cherry Bomb) I’ve queried 29 agents and received 9 rejections. Two agents are now reading the full manuscript, and I haven’t heard back from the other 18. Lots of positive comments in the rejection emails, which softens the blows a bit, but they are, nonetheless, rejections.
For the essay collection (Tangles and Plaques) I’ve queried 27 presses and 2 agents, and I’ve received 7 rejections from presses—some indie, some academic.
It’s not that all the rejections are negative—several have been quite positive, with comments to the effect that the writing is good, the subject matter is important, but the timing is bad, as their press just did something similar or doesn’t handle this type of book (essay collection about long distance caregiving for a parent with Alzheimer’s).
The time and creative work involved in the query process zaps my energy away from the writing process. So maybe I need to take a break and refuel. I’m reading three diverse but satisfying books right now, and yesterday I gave myself permission to read for several hours during the middle of the day. It was refreshing. I think I’ll do that more often for a while until I get my writing energy back. It’s hard for a writer (and probably for artists and musicians and others who work from home and set their own schedules) to allow herself these breaks. I have a friend who is a fine artist/painter. She and I have talked about the need for refueling, and how she often spends time just thinking about her work, and that is part of the work itself. I’m going to try to remember that as I slow down for a few days…. But of course there’s always the temptation just to daydream about the beach!
Just over three years ago one of my many query letters for my novel, Cherry Bomb, caught the attention of a literary agent. More than the attention—she said she loved the book—and she asked if I would be willing to work with an editor on some revisions. Of course I would.
Four editors and four major revisions later, I am parting ways with this agent. It’s not that I don’t like her. I met her in person on a visit to New York City last May, and I think our personalities are a good fit. But it has taken me this long and dozens of emails to realize that we just might not have the same vision for my novel. I think she sees Cherry Bomb as a potentially good commercial fiction book (think Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) whereas I still see it as Southern literary fiction (think The Secret Life of Bees). Of course those labels have extremely loose boundaries, and at the end of the day I’m not so concerned about which niche the book falls into. But I am concerned about it finding the right advocate and eventually the right publishing home.
And so today I find myself back at square one. Only with a good bit more experience and discernment under my belt. I’m trying to decide whether to look for another agent or seek out an independent press. Thankfully I’ve got other projects on my plate so I’m not sitting around stewing about this. I’ve got eighteen out of 22 essays gathered and revised for the anthology I’m editing, A Second Blooming. And I’m beginning to form ideas for grouping these amazing stories into sections and crafting an introduction. I’m excited to have met a wonderful photographer who will do my author photo in March or early April, when we can find a setting with things that are, well, blooming.
I’m so thankful for my circle of writer friends who are giving me much encouragement, consolation, and advice, as I have been anxious about this situation over the past few days. Writing can be a lonely business, and the publishing world is in such flux that it’s often difficult to maneuver. Stay tuned as I decide on the next steps to getting Cherry Bomb out there!
A few days ago I heard back from the agent who has shown interest in Cherry Bomb (my novel). She and her staff had finished reading the fourth major revision, which I sent her on October 1. I was hoping to hear that the novel was ready to be shopped out for publication. Instead, I read these words (this is an excerpt from her email):
We have really enjoyed reading your story, Susan. You have done a wonderful job reworking the characters and the pacing of the story. We believe your book has once again improved after the revision, and it is close to being ready.
However, we still had a few concerns, particularly in the beginning chapters. We now feel that the beginning chapters have too much backstory and need to be better structured, to really pull the readers into the story.
As you have reworked the beginning a few times, our professional suggestion would be to have an overview/assessment done again of your book to point out all the aspects that need to be developed. Your book is very close to being ready, and as we are not professional editors, we cannot provide as much detailed feedback as an editor could. Also, having someone read your book with fresh eyes may be just the push it needs to finish it.
We really enjoy your writing style, Susan….
My heart fell. I put my frustration into an email back to the agent, expressing my confusion. I had done what the editor requested—including removing most of the flashbacks and putting the novel in chronological order. But in the process, I evidently overloaded the front of the novel with too much backstory. And so now I come to another crossroads.
I say “crossroads” because while I was waiting to hear from the agent, I checked out the contest deadlines in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. I was so tempted to send Cherry Bomb in for The Lee Smith Novel Prize, which awards the winner with $1000 and publication in Carolina Wren Press. Or to send it out to several small presses, which doesn’t require an agent. But then I looked at this agent’s web site again and was reminded of her international marketing savvy and the deals she gets her clients with the major publishing houses, and I decided to dig in and do another revision.
A couple of days ago Susan Marquez—a writer friend with whom I had shared my news—sent me a Facebook post by another writer—Kaya McLaren—who had experienced my same frustration. Here’s part of that post:
If I hit the best seller list with The De Vine Winery and Goat Ranch, I want you to know I had this moment fourteen months after I first turned it in where I learned more revision is needed and I just wanted to cry, crawl in a hole or a cave, and give up. And I also want you to know that the reason I hit the best seller list was because my editor was committed to making it the very best book it could be, and because I listened to her and I picked myself back up and tried again—even when I didn’t think I could stand to do it one more time.
I’ve never met Kaya, but her words encouraged me to also pick myself back up and try again. It will probably be a few weeks before I hear back from the editor with her new overview, but I’ll be ready to get back to work on what I hope will be the last major revision!
Meanwhile, there are several contests listed in P&W that might be good opportunities for Plaques and Tangles, the essay collection I’m putting together about my mother’s journey with Alzheimer’s. Hmmm……
I’ve been poring over my novel, doing a fourth revision this week. So this morning I took a break to fill the tank. First I read the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest, which always has some great stuff. It was fun to read my friend Dinty Moore’s “inkwell” column, “Dear Mister Essay Writer Guy,” which was excerpted from Dinty’s book by the same name. I don’t write humor and I’m not currently writing memoir, but this essay was just what I needed this morning. Oh, and there’s a great interview with Robert Dugoni that you can read online, here.
And then a writing buddy just sent me a link to this excellent article in The New Yorker by John McPhee, “Omission.” It’s about choosing what to leave out of a manuscript. The readers at the literary agent’s office who are giving me feedback on my novel recently encouraged me to back off over-telling in some places, which “takes away from the discovery for the reader.” I’m currently going through the entire novel again, looking for those sections that need more white space. McPhee’s words help:
To cause a reader to see in her mind’s eye an entire autumnal landscape, for example, a writer needs to deliver only a few words and images—such as corn shocks, pheasants, and an early frost. The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder.
Another writing buddy just encouraged me to buy The John McPhee Reader and soak up his brilliant essays. Just ordered it, so more fuel is on the way! I think I can get back to work now. Have a great Wednesday!
Yesterday was a banner day in some ways. But also a struggle. In my anxiety over my work I let my guard down and ate way over my calorie budget. This morning the scales recorded a one pound gain. So today I’m struggling to keep going with this setback. And to respond to the news I got yesterday from BOTH the literary agent who just finished reading the third revision of my novel, Cherry Bomb, AND the press editor who is interested in publishing my anthology.
I was anxious to hear back from both of them, and ironically I received their emails about an hour apart. It had been seven weeks since I sent the novel revisions to the agent. Her email was encouraging—“ As before, we found your story interesting and commercial. Your writing is well rounded and the dialogue flows well. Congratulations on this edit! Your book has improved.”—but then came the part about how it still needs more work. Nothing as major as before, thankfully, but nonetheless, it’s apparently not ready to be shopped out. So it’s back to work on the novel again.
Meanwhile the editor of the press sent my revised anthology proposal out to readers and shot me back some questions, so I’m busy at work on that project at the same time. The work is so different than revising a novel, and I welcome the change of pace. I love research, so I’m having fun searching for an essay by one of the well-known authors who has agreed to contribute to the anthology. She’s busy traveling right now and doesn’t have time so she said, “Choose something.” I’m like a kid in a candy store. Only these treats have no calories. Yum.
A few weeks ago I did a post, “Taking Liberties,” about fictionalizing real, historical people for my novel. I had just sent the revised manuscript back to the literary agent who has shown interest, but I haven’t heard back from her yet. I’m getting nervous… it’s been 23 days and no word yet.
Meanwhile I’m still curious about what she will have to say in response to my questions about using these public figures’ real names in the novel. Their persona adds lots of weight to the story, so I hope I’ll be able to keep them. We’ll see.
Today I read an article in the October 2015 issue of Writer’s Digest’s inkwell column: “Keys to the Roman à Clef.”—When writing fictional characters inspired by real ones, you need to tread carefully. Shore up your story with these 7 tips. by Boze Hadleigh. (FYI:Roman à Clef translated from the French means “novel with a key.” In the case of my novel it’s when real persons are somewhat disguised.)
Hadleigh seems to be very concerned about law suits, “particularly if you’re casting them in a bad light.” He says, “If such a character is recognizable as a real person, and you portray him unfavorably, he can sue for defamation and damages—and win.”
So—just to remind you—my main historical character whose name I use died in 1989. So she can’t sue me. I guess it’s a matter of whether or not her estate would choose to. Hadleigh does say that “celebrities and other public figures are, to a certain extent, ripe fodder for creative work—once they become a part of our pop culture….” Here’s hoping my character fits into that category.
Just got home from three weeks in Denver last night so this post is a bit late and short. Please stay tuned, and as always, I love to hear from you.