Monthly Archives: March 2016

A Pile of Goo

I described in a previous entry about how a writer’s success or failure depends on the subjective opinions of others. When writers decide to go the route of traditional publishers, they are placing all their hopes — to start — with a single person, whether it be an agent or editor. When that particular agent/editor says, “Thanks but no thanks,” the writer can’t help but feel heartbroken.

Turns out I didn’t have to wait eight weeks after all. The rejection letter is as follows:

Hi,

Thank you for your submission.

Unfortunately, I did not connect with the submitted material enough to consider your project for representation.

I am grateful that you have afforded me this opportunity to find out about you and your project, and wish you the best of success with your current and future creative work. This business is highly subjective; many people whose work I haven’t connected with have gone onto critical and commercial success. So, keep after it.

I wish I had the time to respond to everyone with constructive criticism, but it would be overwhelming, hence this form response. However, there are three pieces of writing advice that I preach to everyone (from which I receive no monetary gain or benefit):

 

It’s hard not to focus on this part and ignore the rest: “I did not connect with the submitted material.”

My story sucks. It’s boring. It’s poorly written. I wasted my time and his. I should give up, because if I don’t, I’ll keep running into disappointment, and embarrass myself.

My brain is telling my heart not to believe it, and to shove those tears back into those ducts. Instead of focusing on the first part, my brain is trying to twist my eyeballs toward the second part about how everything is subjective, and one agent’s opinion is just that. Not everyone is going to like everything. I’ve read plenty of very successful books I didn’t like. And I’ve read obscure books that made me wonder why they weren’t more successful. Nor am I alone in this journey. Plenty of successful authors had to go through a lot of rejection letters before finally receiving an acceptance.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Yeah, well, my heart isn’t willing to be reasonable. It wants to wriggle on the floor in a pile of goo for a while.

 

Whenever I submit a story or proposal to a potential publisher, I don’t look at it again.

The temptation is there, believe me, enough to make me break out into a sweat. It ain’t pretty that sweat, nor is the resulting odor wafting from my over-reactive pores. My poor family.

Did I spell the agent/publisher’s name correctly?

Did I remember to include all he/she asked for?

Are there glaring grammatical/spelling errors that I missed?

I refrain from verifying one way or another, because if I made all those mistakes above, it’s too late now. And why make myself cry and gnash my teeth over something I can’t fix anyway?

Yesterday I sent off my query letter. Last night at about 3am I woke up in a sweat and heart pounding, terrified I had misspelled the agent’s name. I know I didn’t, because I triple-checked it before sending it off. At least I think I didn’t. I hope I didn’t . . .

The only issue I have now (aside from night terrors) is when to expect a response. Nowhere on the agent’s website did I see a time-frame. I’ll give him about eight weeks, though. If I don’t hear anything back then, I’ll pursue another agent (is it me, or does that sound too much like stalking?).

I Wrote That?

Since I’m ready to submit my novel to literary agents, I figured it was time to update my website. I didn’t realize until I started that it hadn’t been updated in four years. You read that right. Four years.

One page includes links to individual poems, articles, and other items I’ve written over the years. As part of the update, I made sure the links still worked.

Some I re-read to see if they were still any good. One in particular actually brought me to tears, both because of its profundity, and because I couldn’t help but marvel that little-‘ole-me wrote it.  Yep. It’s that good.

It doesn’t really fit into a particular category. It’s not a poem or short story, but more of an exercise in the senses.

It’s short, so instead of linking it, here it is in entirety. I hope you enjoy it:

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On The Wings of Smoky Air

Playing my second set on the black grand piano, I begin to wonder if anyone hears. Behind the perfectly tuned notes being carried off on the wings of smoky air throughout the lounge, the murmur of quiet conversations and the clinking of glasses reach past the music to echo in my ears.

I block out the noise and let each note embrace and resonate within me. My fingers, so familiar with the tune, skip across the ivory. The cool unblemished keys warm to my touch. I breathe deep, filling my lungs with air rife with stale cigarette and cigar smoke. But I hardly take notice. I reach the crescendo and the last note fades away, leaving me once again exposed to the present.

With a sigh, I reach up to stretch my stiff white collar to alleviate the chafing. I grab my wineglass, emptying it with a large gulp. The deep red wine, while initially sweet, carried a sharp and bitter aftertaste. Every taste bud on my tongue stiffens and tries to retreat in protest. With a grimace, I set the glass back down, wondering what I should play next.

Then I see her.

In the middle of the dimly lit room, an old woman nurses a glass of white wine. Her wrinkled face speaks of untold hardships and sorrow. The candle on the small, round mahogany table only deepens the creases in her wizened face. A single tear eases down her cheek. The candle’s flame glints in the drop, making it appear like a smooth, polished gold nugget.

My gaze inches up the trail left by her tear until it locks with her clear blue eyes alight with a half forgotten memory of joy.

I smile, remembering what my teacher told me long ago, “If the adulation of the crowds fade or never appear, try instead to bring joy to one person at a time with your gift.”

I remove the yellowed and brittle sheet music off the stand to replace it with another. I nod to the lady and begin to play for her and for her alone.

My teacher was right. Bringing joy to one is enough.

 

Taking the Fork

I gave my hands to God when I was sixteen for him to use as he sees fit. It’s the talent he gave me, and I understood at that moment that everything I write is for him and his glory.

The main reason I wrote my first novel came from discontent with both Christian fiction and mainstream science fiction.

Christian fiction at the time was all geared toward the “middle-aged Christian housewife.” Most of what was on the market could only be categorized as Christian romance.

Most science fiction I’ve read — especially futuristic/space travel — is written with the premise that there is no God, or it’s some form of uncaring and ethereal “universe” or “force.”

I lamented my frustrations to God one day, and he responded with, “Then you write it.”

So I did.

Ten years later I find myself at a crossroads. Even though many Christian publishers are taking science fiction, few will touch mine. Why? Because my characters, even the protagonists, do things that the publishers simply won’t accept. Many drink, some are drug addicts, two are gay, and almost all of them aren’t virgins. They also swear. (Why that’s “bad” is described in the linked articles below).

I also wrote two other novels that are geared more toward the mainstream market. God plays no central role (if he plays a role at all).

I want to see them published, but with that desire came confusion and a real spiritual struggle.

By writing secular fiction where God makes no appearance, how can my words, then, glorify God? Am I instead using the gifts he gave me for my own selfish purposes, thereby thrusting God into the back seat, if not outright kicking him to the curb? How is that right?

But then I read this article by Simon Morden, a British author: http://www.simonmorden.com/about/essays/sex-death-and-christian-fiction/

He wrote that in 2005, but revisited the subject in 2011: http://www.simonmorden.com/about/essays/where-are-we-now-sex-death-and-christian-fiction-revisited/

Both are long, but more than worth the time. By the end of the first article I wanted to cry. The author’s words were exactly what I needed to hear. He also expressed my own frustrations with the Christian book market much, much better than I ever could.

In short, he said one can still be a Christian — to write for God — without writing specifically for the Christian market. They’re not mutually exclusive.

That’s not to say I’m giving up on my Christian novels, because I’m sure there is a publisher out there willing give them a chance. I believe those stories need to be told.

But neither is God asking me to pigeon-hole my writing, to restrain myself and my passions, to silence one story or character in favor of another deemed more appropriate by a certain publisher or specialized market. I can write for both Christian and mainstream markets — even if it means using two nom de plumes. Based on those articles, and many other “signs” I’ve received in the last two weeks alone, I know I’m on the right path. Or should I say “paths.”

As Yogi Berra said (as a play on words, originally), “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

I’m taking it. Them.

Respect the Reader

Part of a writer’s responsibility is to read. A lot, both in and outside the chosen genre.

Many have suggested that a writer should include published books similar to their own when querying agents and publishers. This helps the agent/publisher determine where the prospective book belongs on the bookstore shelf (or online category).

Along with researching agents, I’ve also been researching books in my chosen genre, so I can pick a few likely candidates similar to mine.

I found one that looked promising. Before I purchase any book, I look at the reviews, usually the negative, or more critical ones, and see if it’s worth my time and money.

The critical reviews of this particular book were few and far between, but what concerned me was one of the author’s responses:

Considering that the eight novel series has sold more than twenty million copies in 13 languages, and was praised as “Landmark Science Fiction” by Publishers Weekly and Locus Magazine, I suppose Chris and I were probably doing something a little bit right.

No one likes to be criticized, and this is especially true of writers. We are a sensitive lot. Because we pour so much of our heart and soul into our writing, it’s difficult not to bristle at harsh criticism. Lashing out at it is a near insatiable temptation.

But writers must refrain, and approach criticism with a rational and humble attitude. There is but one reason we must do so:

We write not for ourselves alone, but for the reader. Readers are the ultimate decider in an author’s success or failure. Without them, an author can’t succeed. Their opinion matters. Sure, not all criticism should carry such weight that the author must change how or what he/she writes, because not all readers share the same opinions about what’s good writing and/or storytelling.

It’s a matter of respect. The author’s response above was a figurative slap across the reader’s face. It shows both a lack of respect, and an arrogance. The author basically said the reader’s opinion wasn’t worth a fly’s poop, and worse, he accused the reader of not knowing what he was talking about; that he was stupid.

If it were me, I would have either not responded or said something like, “I’m sorry you didn’t like it as much as you expected. I hope that you’ll give my subsequent books a chance.” I would then offer them a coupon or free sample of the next book with the request for another honest review.

As a reader, I would not only gain more respect for the author, but would also take him/her up on the offer. And if I do like the next book, the author will have gained a loyal reader. Even if I don’t like the next book, I’d more likely try a third time if for no other reason than the author cared enough to appreciate my opinion, and responded positively to it (even if the author didn’t necessarily agree with it).

Because of the author’s response to the review, I didn’t purchase the book. Nor will I consider buying any of his others; I don’t care how good they are. No author who holds their readers in contempt deserves my money.

Schmooze and Charm

Am I charming?

It’s a question I never before asked myself. I don’t recall if anyone’s ever accused me of it, either. Perhaps in my teenage years I tried to charm people, because who doesn’t want to be loved and accepted by his/her peers?

Now that I’m older, and I care quite a bit less about what people think of me; charming others is not even the tiniest of my many goals in life. Sure, I want love and respect – who doesn’t? What I’m willing to do to get it is the question. Truth is, not much. I simply don’t have the desire or the energy to schmooze people

ASIDE: Isn’t “schmooze” a great word? It goes great with – and can even replace – charming, because the simple definition of schmooze is “To talk with someone in a friendly way, often in order to get some advantage for yourself” (Per Merriam-Webster).

People are selfish, and I’m no exception. Too often, when someone describes another as “charming,” it’s not always a compliment. The term implies an almost dishonesty, that the charmer is only in it for him/herself – to gain something in return.

Unless the person wants to be charmed, or schmoozed.

Now why would anyone want that – to purposely be “taken advantage of”?

Feeling a bit overwhelmed with writing query letters, I purchased a book called “Rock Your Query,” by Cathy Yardley. It’s a short read at only 61 pages (Nook Book), but that’s its strength. The author’s advice was succinct, and as such took away all the mystery of what a query letter should contain, and what to avoid.

The second chapter focused on the opening paragraph. She suggests that it needs to focus specifically why the writer chose that particular agent. In other words, don’t be afraid to schmooze a bit. Be charming.

The agent in question, after all, wants to be schmoozed. Not to be taken advantage of, per se. The end result is a partnership between writer and agent where they both get paid from the profits of the published book(s).

So now I have to ask if I can be charming. Can I schmooze prospective agents enough to pique their interest?

I don’t know. And perhaps that’s even the wrong question to ask.

If I gained any wisdom from reading “On Writing,” by Stephen King it’s his advice to never lie to readers. They can always tell.

The same holds true with everything I write. All I can do while writing a query letter is to be as honest as I am with my fiction and whatever else I write. Everything else will simply have to take care of itself, because no matter how much I can schmooze (or not) someone, I can’t force them to do what I want. They will either be intrigued enough to ask for more, or they won’t.

I’m reminded of a line in the movie “Trading Places,” where Eddie Murphy’s character said (paraphrased), “What do they want from me, Coleman?”

“Just be yourself, sir. No matter what happens, they can’t take that away from you.”

Charming or not, all I can do is be me, because that’s what I’m best at anyway.

At the Precipice

I hate heights, and I know when it all started.

I think it was either pre-school or kindergarten, and the class went on a field trip. We went to a park, and at one point dug for tiny seashells near the bank of a river. The bank was very steep (and to my childlike brain had to be hundreds of feet high, but was likely no more than ten). While I stood looking down at the river below, another child pushed me. Not hard enough to make me fall, but certainly enough to scare me.

I’ve been afraid of high places ever since. What’s weird is I don’t mind flying and even took a hot air balloon ride once. Good luck getting me up a ladder, though.

With all my novels mostly complete, it’s now time to dive into seeking agents. I already found a few that look promising, so all I need to do now is write my query letter,  and synopsis. I don’t look forward to either, but it’s gots to be done.

The main part is how do you boil down a 100k book down to three pages, seven at the most (depending upon the agent’s guidelines)? Most understand that synopses don’t need to be perfect, as long as they know what happens from beginning to end.

The query letter I find most intimidating, because, like the cliché says, “You have only one chance to make a good impression.”

I want it to be interesting, and even engaging, but professional. Informative, but not boring or dry.

I stand at the precipice where I must dive into the dark below, not knowing if my efforts will succeed or fail.

Part of me wants to start another book so I can avoid finding someone willing to represent my finished novels.

Because dreaming is easy. Making it come true with no guarantee of success is hard, and downright terrifying.

Much like my fear of heights. If I want to fly and not merely imagine what flying is like, I must jump off that cliff.