Always a Silver Lining… The Upside of the Great Pager Swap Fiasco

If you read my last post, you might think the Great Pager Swap 2009 was all hassle and no payoff. But you’d be mistaken.

I have an unpredictable schedule that can keep me away from a computer for big chunks of time. I also have in-laws with dial-up whom we visit frequently.

Like every other author seeking representation, I don’t want to miss a reply from an agent when I can’t get online. So I set up an email filter that forwards messages with “Query” or “The Edge of Memory” in the subject to my text pager.

This works great, overall, but it did backfire on me once.

An email reply on my full manuscript was forwarded to my pager from an agent who’d requested my full after reading my partial. My pager displayed the beginning of the message:

From: Awesome Agent

Re: Requested Full Manuscript of The Edge of Memory

Dear Heather,

Thank you so much for letting me review The Edge of Memory. I’m really intrigued by the premise and definitely think it has appeal in today’s market

<snip>

As you’ve probably guessed, I thought this might be good news, but the next sentence (which didn’t make it onto my pager display) started with “However.”  When I finally made it back online, I was crushed.

It turned out to be a great response nonetheless, since her feedback gave me a Eureka moment that made my manuscript much stronger. But I could have done without the false hopes.

Well, my new pager displays more than twice as much text as the old one did. And I doubt any agent will beat around the bush that long before lobbing a “However” or an “Unfortunately” at me.

So, you see… there is a reason for everything. Even for the Great Pager Swap Fiasco.

U Got the Look: Novel Marketing and Prom Ensembles

Well, Prom season is upon us. You may wonder what the heck that has to do with marketing a novel. Well, I’ll tell you.

But first, I’d like to introduce this into evidence:

That’s me (with my sister) on my way to the prom circa 1992.

Now, if you’re like me, after looking at this picture, you’re rubbing your stinging nose with one hand while wiping the coffee off your laptop with the other. Which is hard to do when you’re shaking with laughter. I mean that is really quite the look, right?  Check out the asymmetric hair-do and the “floating pearl” necklace. Not to mention the white iridescent tights. And when you’re uberpale, the best look is almost always baby pink patterned satin over white tulle, natch.

Here’s the thing:

At the time, I thought I looked awesome. Other people thought I looked awesome, too. I overheard my date’s younger sister whining that her brother must have bribed me or something cuz OMG, she’s actually pretty!

Unfortunately, I believe writing is a bit like fashion. I finished the first draft of The Edge of Memory in 7 weeks. I did a quick grammar edit, and then shipped the manuscript off to a bevy of test readers for feedback, while I took a month away “for perspective.” (yeah, right.)

Over the next several months, I completed several major edits. I then decided I was done tinkering and ready to seek representation. I read the blogging agents mantras of “Don’t Query Before You’re Ready” and “Write a Great Book” and felt confident. I loved my manuscript. I didn’t think it was perfect, of course, but I thought I’d reached the point where I needed professional feedback to progress further.

I was both right and wrong.

Since that first stopping point (when my book was titled “Still Haunted”), I’ve done at least six more rounds of editing. And each time I finish a round of edits, I cringe to look at the previous drafts. Just like that prom picture, I look at those versions and wonder, “what the heck I was thinking?”

In February, an agent who had requested a partial and then my full manuscript pointed out a plot detail that bothered her. She gave me a eureka moment and I subsequently rewrote several scenes. I am very pleased with the resulting manuscript, and have not edited again since (which, of course, shatters my previous record of approximately nine minutes between edits). I think this time I finally have reached the most polished version I can produce.

Naturally, I wish I had known that I wasn’t as ready as I thought I was when I first began querying. But then, I’m not sure I would have reached this place without the submission process. Certainly, I might never have had the eureka moment without that agent’s input.

The take-home point here is that I’m glad I’ve never been a Query Player (much as I’ve tried). If I had queried a zillion agents when I first thought my manuscript was ready, I’d have burned all my bridges.

But since I’ve only queried a few agents at a time, I’ve got a chance to show my best work. And I’m grateful for that.

Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Quarterfinalist

I feel like the father on A Christmas Story: “I’ve won a major award!”

If you’re the sort of folk who reads my blog, you are probably well acquainted with the ABNA contest. For 2009, Amazon accepted up to 10,000 entries of finished novels in February.

They narrowed the entries down to 2,000  on the basis of the Pitch (basically the meat of a query letter). Excerpts of the 2000 novels were then reviewed and scored before the 500 quarterfinalists were announced.

And The Edge of Memory was one of those 500 novels.

At this point, the contest gets a bit American Idolish… the quarterfinalist excerpts are posted on Amazon.com for Amazon customers to review. Based on these reviews and a formal score/review of the full manuscript by Publisher’s Weekly, the entries will be cut to 100 semifinalists on April 15th.

So, if you have the time and inclination to read and review my entry, I’d greatly appreciate it. You can download the excerpt here, and then click “Create your own review” to leave your thoughts and star-rating (the button to leave a review is on the right side of the page, just below the “Customer Reviews” heading.

A Thought on Rejections…

I believe I’ve finally settled on the proposal that works best for The Edge of Memory.  But Holly Root’s post on the new Waxman Agency blog today reminded me of how the query process started for me and for several writing buddies.  If there’s one thing that comes up over and over again when discussing proposals seeking representation, it’s how difficult it is to know what works and what doesn’t.

I mean, sure… Janet Reid is doing what she can to help over at Query Shark, and the gang at QueryTracker is very helpful with query revisions.

But it still comes down to a fundamental problem:

Many authors are willing to make changes to their proposals and manuscripts, but don’t know what needs to be changed.  Many agents would be willing to make suggestions, but do not have the time and fear hostile responses to even the most constructive criticism.

So it occurred to me a while back that it might be possible to bring these two together so that everybody wins (Hey! You got chocolate in my peanut butter!).

In a subjective business like publishing, we have to rely on trends.  To define a trend, we need data points.  But to obtain data points from simple “yes” and “no” responses is difficult and slow.  Let’s take a hypothetical example:

Author submits a proposal for “The Spoon That Moved” to Agent consisting of a query letter, a brief synopsis, and the first 5 pages.  Agent sends rejection.  Author only knows that the proposal didn’t work on Agent.  Was it because Agent can’t stand stories about spoons?  Was the query yawn-worthy?  Did Agent read the query with excitement but the sample pages didn’t hold up?  Did Agent actually love the proposal and seriously consider it before passing?

Author has no way of knowing.  So she has two choices… submit the same proposal to someone else, or change the proposal.  And she can’t be sure what to change.  The process becomes a twisted game of Mastermind, where you never find out how you’re doing unless you happen to win.

Do we have the right query letter and synopsis, but the sample pages need work?  Do we have all the right components but just on the wrong agent’s desk?

So… what if we embraced the Mastermind element?

Here’s my proposition… a standard rejection card WITH data points.  Then, with only a handful of submissions, an author could identify a potential weak spot and fix it.  The rejection card would take seconds to complete, and hopefully its standardness would ward off overly-emotional responses.

Here’s what I had in mind…

So what do we think? Helpful idea, or big pain in the butt?

Give your opinion in the comments!

Back on the Chain Gang: Genres

My Blog Chain Gang is back at it again and our new topic is Genres. We’ve had to skip over one blogger who’s moving, so the previous post from Elana Johnson is here.

If you’ve followed my blog, you know that Genre has been a hot topic over here on Trying to Do the Write Thing. I had a heck of a time deciding what genre in which to market my novel. One of the more amusing discussions of this is listed in my Blog Hall of Fame in the sidebar: Genre Crossing and The Edge of Memory.

I read all sorts of genres, and so influences of several genres found their way into my novel. It’s a mystery, but not a whodunnit. It’s suspense/thriller, but personal. It prominently features romance, but it isn’t a romance novel. It has paranormal elements, but they’re subtle and late in the novel.

This might suggest a feeling of “something for everyone” but conventional publishing wisdom states this is not a desirable place to be. Publishers and editors (and therefore agents) need to know where your book will be shelved and how it will be marketed. Simpler is better. Which does leave a more complicated book a bit nowhere.

Based on my research, it seems that a book with elements of multiple genres would be classified as mainstream fiction. This might lead you to wonder how I came to be marketing in Upmarket Women’s Fiction.

When I first prepared to market my novel, I had a hard time finding a good definition of “women’s fiction”, other than that women ought to like it. Women make up the majority of readers anyway. My novel was long on romance, so that suggests a female audience. I sent a survey to my test readers asking them to write in what shelf they would expect to find my novel on, and got a wide variety of responses ranging from “Psychological Thriller” to “Family Saga” to “Mystery” to “Romantic Suspense” to “Whatever shelf Jodi Picoult is on.”

If I had paid more attention to that last suggestion, I would have been on the right track sooner.

In that same survey, I asked if there was an author or a novel that my test readers considered my novel similar to in style or audience. I received a number of flattering responses, including Fannie Flagg, Nancy Pickard, Maeve Binchy, Anita Shreve, and most frequently Jodi Picoult. After a little research, I realized these awesome authors are categorized as “women’s fiction” when they’re not over on the “Bestsellers” shelf.

At long last, I found a clear definition of women’s fiction from the FWA:

Women’s Fiction: Fiction which includes subjects and themes that range far beyond romance. The woman is the star of the story and her changes and emotional developments are the subject. Relationships are at the core of the plot. Could involve relationships with siblings, parents, friends and not necessarily just a lover. Doesn’t have to have the standard “happy ending” but there is a life-affirming resolution to the story. Focuses on the hopes, fears, dreams and even secret fantasies of women. (Examples: “Shellseekers” Rosamonde Pilcher, “Fortunes Rocks” Anita Shreve, novels by Sue Miller and Elizabeth Berg.)

YES! That’s The Edge of Memory, absolutely.

So, why upmarket? Well, this part I’m actually less certain of, as it seems that not all agents have embraced this particular term which I am given to understand means a novel bridging from commercial to literary fiction: a book club sort of novel. My novel does use symbolism, echoes, and allusion, but not in a way that is distracting to the story.

My second option for genre would be suspenseful women’s fiction. When I get farther into the query process, I may find that fits better. This whole publishing thing is a learning process, after all.

So Take Home Tips from what I’ve learned on Genres:

  1. It’s important in marketing your project to identify the best fit for genre category. This gives agents, editors, publishers the most efficient way to pitch your book up the chain.
  2. There are different expected book lengths by genre, so bear that in mind when marketing. I posted about wordcounts here and included Colleen Lindsay’s wordcount breakdown by genre.
  3. Once you’ve identified your genre, read the current releases in your category to get a feel for the current market.
  4. Although important, genres can be flexible, too. I’ve seen agents posting that they market a cross-genre book in either category, depending on the pitch-recipient.

Okay, Chain-gangers, Kiddoc out. Next up, I believe is the lovely and talented Mary Lindsay.

Everything I Needed To Know About Publishing I Learned From Willy Wonka

Well, that title is a bit misleading… I’m new to writing and publishing and don’t know “everything I need to know” by a long stretch.

The inspiration for this blog post came when a quote from Willy Wonka popped into my head and seemed to fit my quest for publication.

“There’s a hundred billion people in this world, and only five of them will find golden tickets [representation as a debut author]. Even if you had a sack full of money, you probably wouldn’t find one. And after this contest [process] is over, you’ll be no different from the billions of others who didn’t find one.”

“But I am different. I want it more than any of them.”

The more I recalled from that film, the more appropriate it seemed. So, here’s what I’ve learned about publishing from Willy Wonka:

  1. You should never, ever doubt what nobody is sure of. If there’s one refrain everyone and their brother is singing, it’s that publishing is subjective. Rejections are expected, even for eventual best-sellers. A particular genre or topic or plot device may be unanimously declared cliché, or overdone, and yet opinions can change in a split-second based on fresh execution. So, all you can hope to do is keep writing what you love, and hoping someone else comes along who loves it as much as you do.
  2. Rude demands and entitlement issues will send you down the garbage chute. There have been a lot of posts about this recently on agent/industry blogs. From moonrat’s unproductive lunch, to odd or hostile letters sent to Jennifer Jackson, Colleen Lindsay, Jonathan Lyons and even intern Jodi Meadows… the one clear fact is that these author reactions did not help them get published. Take home point? Be a good egg.
  3. In here, all of my dreams become realities, and some of my realities become dreams. I am often surprised at how often control becomes a fundamental point of focus. Part of what I enjoy about writing– the reason I find it therapeutic– is that I finally have complete control over something. My characters, their world, and what happens to them depends entirely on what I decide. That is a heady feeling. Interestingly enough, once the writing is finished the next step (if publishing is the goal) means putting yourself in a situation where you have very little control. I think that’s why so many authors get frustrated riding the query-go-round and alternately cling to rules and/or declare them arbitrary and unreasonable.
  4. There is no life I know to compare with pure imagination. Opening yourself to other people is the only way to share something wonderful you’ve created. It also means they might disrespect or destroy it. Be ready to filter your chocolate river.
  5. A little boy’s got to have something in this world to hope for. I struggle with this one a bit personally. I realize rejections are expected. I know thick skin is a publishing industry prerequisite. I know I haven’t queried remotely enough to make any assumptions about my chances to be published, but reading the odds can be pretty discouraging. But stories are meant to be shared, so I’ll keep a healthy dose of optimism on hand.
  6. Don’t let a golden ticket make the chocolate taste terrible. As much as any aspiring author wants to be recognized and published, the publishing process should not be allowed to spoil the experience of writing. It’s easy to get swept into the madness of query letters, synopses, and pitchcraft. And I’ve spent my fair share of time agonizing over query blurb wording (many can testify to that), but it is important, I think, to remember why we started writing in the first place.

Kate on ktliterary posted a while back about Josie Bloss’s plans for a tattoo to celebrate the release of her novel Band Geek Love, and asked what other aspiring authors would do to celebrate publication. I think I might sing “Golden Ticket” at the top of my lungs:

I never thought my life could be

Anything but catastrophe

But suddenly I begin to see

A bit of good luck for me.

Cuz I’ve got a golden ticket

I’ve got a golden twinkle in my eye.

I never had a chance to shine

Never a happy song to sing

But suddenly half the world is mine

what an amazing thing!

Cuz I’ve got a golden ticket

I’ve got a golden chance to make my way

And with a golden ticket

It’s a golden day.

ETA: I’ve added a couple more points to this list. Part II is here.

What I’ve Learned, Part III

This is tangentially related to Part II.

When in doubt, err on the side of making it easy to contact you.

A few months ago, I attended a lecture on “What to Do After ‘The End'” by author Sean Chercover.

When asked what he would do differently if he was seeking agent representation today, he told us he would never have enclosed the self-addressed stamped envelopes, as they are only used to mail rejections, and he would have preferred no response.

I wavered when I sent out my handful of letters, but in the end, my Catholic school-girl obsequiousness led me to include them.

So today, when I saw my last AWOL SASE sitting in my mailbox, I expected a rejection. (I know I need to send out more letters, but since my resolution to become a query player, I’ve been distracted. My husband and I discovered we’ve been victims of identity theft, and that has taken up all our free time lately. But that’s another story).

I opened it over the trash, in fact. And barely glanced at the first line in time to catch it before it fluttered into a pile of coffee grounds.

Another partial request. In my SASE.

No, seriously.

So, send SASE’s to those who request them (which is virtually everyone who accepts queries by snail mail). And read whatever comes back in those familiar envelopes. Might actually be good news!