One Thing We Writers Lost By Not Being Polite

In a previous post, I bemoaned the fact that many of the literary agents who I’ve queried don’t respond. Of the agents who reply, almost all use a polite form of rejection that tells me nothing about what they didn’t like or what I might improve. One reason for the lack of feedback is the impressive number of queries an agent has to wade through.

Recently I was wandering through the Twitterverse and I came upon a post by an agent who I’d queried a few months ago and who had sent me a form-letter rejection. This is an agent who I vetted, and I am sure it would have been wonderful to work with him. He explained there’s another reason (besides the sheer volume of queries) that literary agents rarely give personalized responses: writers often take the personalized responses… personally. And then they respond angrily. Agents say they’ve been insulted and even threatened for having failed to appreciate the brilliance of some writer’s query.

Am I the only reader who has started a book and partway in realizes there is no connection with the author or main characters and says, “Meh, I’m done?” I bet you’ve done the same thing. It’s nice that when I don’t enjoy a book, the author doesn’t insult me and threaten me! We have the right to not like a creator’s work. For example, I don’t understand a lot of modern art. If I roll my eyes at a large blue square that some joker painted, even though the label below it says the museum paid $10,000 for this “artwork,” (I’m referring to a real painting, by the way — a large painting entirely one pleasing shade of blue). I am glad that I have the freedom to not like this painting without the artist threatening me with bodily harm.

I don’t expect every reader to love my work. I’m looking for the people who find value in my writing. As much as I would love to find a literary agent to represent me for the duration of my writing career, I don’t expect every query to be enthusiastically received. I don’t expect every agent I’ve queried to go all Hunger Games on each other for the honor of working with me. Therefore, it never occurred to me to respond to a rejection email with vitriol.

Maybe if an agent responded to my query with, “For the love of God, Eric, please never again put pen to paper!” Perhaps then I would reply with a smart-ass remark. Otherwise, I say nothing. I update QueryTracker and that’s the end. Agents often send their rejections from an unmonitored email. I didn’t understand why at first. Now I get it and it saddens me.

I wish we lived in a world where someone with experience could give me valuable feedback without worrying that I’ll go postal on them. I wish I had a secret code I could append to my queries so that agents would know I’m a mature adult, I will listen to their advice and, if it makes sense to me, I’ll follow it. But in any event, I will not insult them or their ancestors.

Doing It Right

When I decided to document my path towards traditional publication through this website/blog, I knew I wasn’t the first person to do this. But I had not seen anybody take all the steps in a way that grabbed me:

  • declare themselves a writer
  • tell the world they’re going to finish a manuscript
  • do the research, do the work
  • complete a first draft (only 3% of people who say they’re going to write a book ever finish a first draft, so congratulations!)
  • rewrite it multiple times based on feedback from critique partners and beta readers
  • possibly hire an editor
  • polish their manuscript to the point that it’s ready for an agent
  • query, rewrite the query, rewrite the first pages (or more) based on agent feedback
  • and then, eventually, find a literary agent, sell the project to a publisher, and become an author (being a writer fills a need in me, but being an author would be cooler in my opinion)
  • and work on other manuscripts while all this is happening, so the pipeline stays full

Anyway, each writer is unique so each will take a different path. I figured there was room for me to share my “traditional publishing” story. Some days I’m excited to share, other days I’m not sure my legions of followers give a rip.

However, I recently found another new writer with a similar idea, and I love her approach. I don’t know this lady, though I hope to meet her someday at a conference and congratulate her in person. Her “writer on the path to publication” website is warm and welcoming, and does several things better than mine. She’s got me thinking about what I should update or rework.

Welcoming. Strange word for an autistic person. I can see “welcoming” when someone else does it, but it’s not something I think of on my own. My landing page has a photo of chokecherry tree blossoms, because the original title of Beautiful was The Chokecherry Tree. The photo is quite pretty but is unrelated to my WIP except historically, so it may not be the best use of that space. Danielle the Writer’s home page makes me want to look through the rest of her website. I’ll give some thought to how I can up my homepage game.

Another thing I like about Danielle’s website is that she provides value. She put together a variety of writing lessons/tips/how-to’s, things that clearly took many hours of her time, and they’re available for free. In addition, she lets you download a scene outlining guide in exchange for your name and email. That’s fair. And it helps her build a list of people who are interested in what she’s doing.

Finally, I notice Danielle’s website provides links to her social media accounts and her Goodreads. I’ll figure out how to do that on my site. The harder part will be remembering to post stuff on all these various accounts. For example, I read all the time but I forget to update my Goodreads.

Did You Really Need To Say That?

I thought–

No, we all thought that 2020 was a rough year for a lot of reasons. Then 2021 starts off with, “You thought that was bad? Hold my beer!”

Through all the Sturm und Drang of 2020, I managed to keep my mouth shut. The world doesn’t care what I think about Covid-19 (yes it’s real, no I don’t want to get it) or what I think about people who blindly believe fantasies and lies and for proof say, “75 million people agree with me.”

A recent blog post by an agent discussed the importance of a social media presence for a writer. It makes sense to me if I’m self-publishing or if I’ve found an agent and they’ve sold my book to a publisher, because I want potential readers to know about my novel. It doesn’t make much sense for me where I’m at right now.

I don’t have much activity on social media because it’s damned hard to make oneself understood in 140 characters. Even FaceBook is a poor platform to discuss ideas that are important yet nuanced. And social media is even more treacherous to use for those of us who are neurodivergent. It’s way too easy to open mouth and insert foot. In my opinion I have too much to lose and nothing to gain.

I lurk on FaceBook and Twitter and I watch famous people, and my fellow writers and friends (and some family) hang themselves with something they shared that arguably didn’t need to be shared. Something may be legal to do or say, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. When I point my finger to judge someone, there are three fingers pointing back at me… so I stay quiet and watch and take notes.

But I have opinions on just about everything. It’s too bad that conversations about religion and politics quickly devolve into shouting matches. I fondly remember when I was a college student, 40+ years ago, when we’d often talk all night, passionately, about whatever. Then I’d do my research and return the next night for round two, refreshed. The worst that would ever happen, back then, was that I’d learn to see the world a new way. Sometimes I’d help a friend see the world a new way. I miss that.

Although I found your query interesting, …

All you “numbers people” are doubtlessly wondering: “For a site titled ‘How’s Your Book Coming’ we don’t really have a good handle on… like… how your book is actually coming.

Fair enough. My first book, Beautiful, is done. Has been done for a while, actually. Of course, if a literary agent requested revisions so that they could sell it better, they’d get their revisions. I’m easy, just so long as the agent and I share a vision for my work. My editor, Julia, would tell you I’m perfectly willing to kill my darlings to make the manuscript stronger.

Following Beautiful, I had two ideas: a sequel to Beautiful that I’ve given the provisional title Beautifully Made, and an unrelated novel, also contemporary YA with elements of magical realism, with the provisional title Out of Sight. For a while, I tried to work on both simultaneously but for me that didn’t work. Therefore, I made the call to complete Beautifully Made first. The first draft was completed in August 2020 and is currently out to beta readers. I’m about 15,000 words into Out of Sight. I actually wrote an outline for it, which is a new thing for a “pantser.”

The reason I decided to finish the sequel to Beautiful first is because I’m proud of it and I have no doubt it will sell… if I can find a literary agent who will advocate for it. If I cannot find an agent, then I’m not sure how people will read my first two novels.

Which brings us back to the numbers. To date I’ve queried 70 literary agents, of which 25 were polite form letters saying essentially “Thanks for querying me but no.” The remainder have not yet responded. After four months without a response, I close the query on QueryTracker. That leaves 20 or so that are still open. I’ll send another batch in the next couple of weeks to make sure they’re out to agents well before Thanksgiving. From what I’ve read, the holiday season is a poor time to query.

Have I changed anything based on my results? Hell yeah! It takes a while to get actionable data since most queries are sent out into the void and disappear without response, but last fall I paid for a query and first five pages review through Writer’s Digest that I didn’t find helpful (told me my query was fine as is but I should tell the story from Cara’s perspective rather than Adam’s, which didn’t make sense to me and she provided no explanation). I tried again this past August with a “First 10 pages Bootcamp,” again through Writer’s Digest. This time the agent connected with my characters, understood what I was trying to accomplish, and gave me actionable advice. When this agent explained why she didn’t like my first chapter (that I had believed was a very strong start to the novel), her explanation made sense and I was pleased to kill another darling. Note for non-writers or new writers: “kill your darlings” means to get rid of something you wrote that you were really proud of. She liked my revisions and asked me to resubmit to her once I’d made those revisions throughout the entire novel. Done and done! I hope she likes what I did because she’d be great to work with.

Big News: New Novel 1st Draft!

Whilst I am banging on the doors of Traditional Publishing, I have completed the first draft of the sequel to Beautiful. I haven’t found the perfect title yet, so until I do I’m calling it “Beautiful 2: Needs a Title.” Clever, huh?

My original plan was for the sequel to continue with Cara’s story. Now that it’s written, I see that we do learn more about Cara but the true main character — the one who grows the most — is Adam’s little genius sister Wendy. Be excited: you’ll get to see the parts of Lelia Fortune’s lair that Adam and Cara never visited in the first book. You’ll see a bit more of how Lelia’s unique business works. But mostly, the three teens will have to overcome greater challenges than they could have ever dreamed. Their lives have been thrown in disarray. Oh, for the good old days when the worst thing they had to deal with was a gang of criminals and a suspicious police detective!

With a new first draft comes the opportunity for beta readers to help me improve this novel till it’s good enough to give to an editor. Think of it: your name in the acknowledgements in a real published book that will be in libraries and bookstores all over the world! I know, that and $5 will buy you a cup of coffee in Starbucks. But still, there is something cool about seeing your name in print. Let me know if you would be willing to give me real, honest feedback (NOT “Oh, that was very nice.”).

I also need beta readers with specific expertise or backgrounds. I want at least a couple of Black ladies or teens who, in addition to being beta readers, would edit the language I’m using regarding a new character who I wish to treat with the respect she deserves. I would also like someone who has worked in the Merchant Marine and, ideally, has personal experience with Conley Container Terminal in Boston.

I think Traditional Publishing is behind this door. Trying to open it.

Shoutout to My FBI Guy

My last post was serious, so I thought I’d have some fun with this one. I don’t remember how or why it started, but four decades ago my college roommate and I had a running joke. We used to laugh about the poor (fictitious) FBI guy who listened to our phone conversations and bugged our dorm room. How bored must he have been?

From there, my mind jumped to today. Technology has made it a lot easier for the government to keep track of us. I think I’m pretty law-abiding, but then there’s my search history! Aah, a writer’s search history. If I actually had an FBI guy, he’d have a field day with my search history. And if my FBI guy is actually a lady (I know two female FBI agents), she’d be just as puzzled.

image credit

Here are some of my recent searches. Again, these are all research for my current novel. I am a very gentle, law-abiding person, though my search history must be driving my FBI guy mad.

  • how to blow up a house (this was quite a few searches for amounts, types, and placement of explosives)
  • do police cars have GPS (can they follow you if you steal a police car?)
  • Defense Intelligence Agency
  • competitive chess, Judit Polgar vs Viswanathan Anand
  • German pastries
  • St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica
  • tracking IP packets
  • the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago
  • The Peninsula Chicago
  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra, layout of the symphony hall
  • history of guilds
  • famous swords
  • industrial 3D printers
  • railguns
  • Chinese naming conventions
  • Stargate Project
  • prepaid phones
  • how to disappear (live off the grid)
  • KATIM phones
  • spider anatomy
  • free energy minimization, Dr. Karl Friston
  • natural language processing
  • layout of a cargo ship
  • and more…

How worried should my FBI guy be? Tell you what, if he can figure out how I put all this information into a novel, I’ll buy him a beer.

How to Not Be Too Annoying

It’s been too long since my last post, but there’s something on my mind that I’d like to share. Those of you who know me know that I stutter, and have done so for as long as I can remember. I can imagine how talking with a person who stutters might feel awkward. Do you guess what they’re going to say and say it for them? (Hint: please don’t.) Do you look at them or somewhere else? (Hint: look at their eyes, just as you do when in conversation with a non-stutterer.)

In our culture, stuttering has an undeniably negative connotation. People who stutter are assumed to be at worst lying, and at best unsure of what they’re saying. Think of this trope as played in Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi. The great actor Benicio Del Toro plays the hacker DJ, a man who agrees to help Rose and Finn break into the First Order ship and disable the tracking device. But we know DJ is going to screw them over because…wait for it…he stutters. That’s how we know he’s lying.

Benicio del Toro as DJ in THE LAST JEDI

One of the things I wanted to accomplish with my first novel was to show a main character who is intelligent and honest, and who stutters. His stutter is not a part of the plot, it’s just a part of him. So the question is: how should a writer write stuttering in the manuscript? In Beautiful, I strived for accuracy, or at least a degree of stuttering that sounded reasonable to me (a lifelong stutterer) and to my wife (married to a stutterer for 32 years). Now I think that this may not have been the best choice.

Here’s what happened: I shared a chapter of the sequel, Beautiful 2 (haven’t thought of a good title yet), with my critique group. One person told me — and once someone verbalized the thought everyone else at the table agreed — that Adam’s frequent stuttering was annoying. That was the word they used: annoying.

This was interesting and potentially actionable news. Nobody had ever mentioned to me that Adam’s stuttering was annoying to read. The thing about a good critique group is that we have to be honest with each other. Not mean, but honest. So I thought about what the critiquer said. How did I handle the Russian accent in Beautiful? I mentioned that the man spoke with an accent and I left out the articles as Slavic languages do. The character said, for example, “I will release hand grenade.” rather than “I will release the hand grenade.” Subtle, but it gets the point across without beating the reader over the head with dialect.

See, in retrospect, that’s what I’d done wrong: In an effort to show that a stutterer could be honest and intelligent, I was beating the reader over the head with Adam’s stuttering. So I went through all 73,000 words of Beautiful and the 50,000 or so words I have so far in Beautiful 2, and rewrote Adam’s speaking voice so that he stutters much, much less.

I wonder if that may have been, consciously or not, part of why agents have been passing on my query and sample pages. And this is an example of why it’s so damn important for a writer to find a good critique group, and take their critique to heart.

One good resource for best practices in writing a stutter is here. The only thing I disagree with in her excellent article is that, in my experience, there are no specific sounds or sound combinations that are more likely to cause me to stutter.

News From the Front

This past weekend was incredibly exciting. I attended the Midwest Writers Workshop in Muncie, IN from July 25-27. Then this afternoon I was in the front row for Jane Friedman‘s workshop through the Indiana Writers Center on How to Get Published My head is buzzing with ideas and renewed enthusiasm.

It’s helpful, sometimes when I’m wondering if I should really be doing this, to be told by people I respect that I’m on the right path. My love language is Words of Approbation, which makes any arts-related career that much more difficult. Not everybody likes any writer. I get it. But I’ve been sending out query letters about Beautiful since January of this year. I’ve received maybe 3 or 4 “no thank you” form letters. Most queries just vanish into the void. Jane Friedman said today that silence on the part of literary agents is the new “no thank you.”

Over the past few days I learned that I am working the process correctly, though I should send out queries more aggressively, in batches of 6 per month rather than waiting too long to hear from any particular literary agent. I also learned that my first ten pages are strong, though yesterday Holly Miller showed me some ways to make them even stronger. My synopsis of Beautiful and my query letter are on the money.

Meanwhile, on the creative side (which is much more fun for a writer), I’m now about 50,000 words into the sequel to Beautiful. I’m excited for y’all to read it! It’s going to be really good! We’ll learn more about Cara, about her “little sister” Wendy, and about the enigmatic and reclusive Lilia Fortune. Adam’s, Cara’s, and Wendy’s world will be thrown into turmoil. TWO villains, independently of each other, want them dead. One of them may get their wish.

The only things I haven’t quite figured out yet are:

  • the exact ending, and
  • the title. I hope to come up with something better than Beautiful 2.

So! Back to work. I’ve said this before, but I’ll try to post more regularly.

Networking for authors

Three weeks or so ago, a good friend of mine who is working on his first book asked me if I thought it was worth his time to join a local writer’s group or two (he lives a couple of hours away from me). He wondered if it was “just pumping each other up” or if I was getting anything measurably valuable from the writers group I joined last fall.

As of the evening my friend and I spoke, I wasn’t able to identify a specific insight or value from my group. They’re good, intelligent, talented people. I enjoy the monthly meetings when I’m in town. But none of them have taken the path of traditional publishing that is my dream, so none of them would make a good mentor for me.

The following day, though, one of the writers in my group sent me an email. She had heard about an opportunity for authors to pitch their work directly to literary agents, she remembered I’d said I wanted to publish traditionally rather than self-publish, so she thought she’d tell me about it. I would have remained oblivious to this opportunity had she not emailed me.

The weekend of May 10 & 11, my networking efforts paid off. The Midwest Writers Workshop Agent Pitch Fest was without doubt way out of my comfort zone, but I’m so glad I participated. MWW brought in seven agents from well-respected New York literary agencies. I pitched Beautiful to three agents who specialize in YA. I thought the pitches went well. The agents were excited rather than just polite, and all three requested more material.

So we’ll see. We all know that “looking excited” is not the same thing as a seven-figure book deal. But my point is that networking with like-minded people is always a good idea.

Wait, don’t look at that one, look at this one!

One of the things I like about writing is that I get to make revisions before people see what I’ve written. Perhaps a beta reader or my editor has comments, I agree with their thoughts, and I make changes to my manuscript. From that point on, the manuscript is different, improved and nobody will ever see the old version. It’s as though the former version never existed, as though the manuscript was always as it is now.

Alas, it’s not the same situation with query letters. I research each agent, what they do and do not like, and I personalize each query that I send. Great, except that as I mentioned in my last post, the fish weren’t biting with my original query letter. So I modified it…a lot, to tell you the truth. In retrospect, I think my original query was too sterile. It was professional, and there was nothing wrong with it, per se, but it didn’t get the blood flowing. My query didn’t provide the prospective agent with a window into my brain so they could see what I’m trying to accomplish with this novel, and why it’s so important that it be said.

Now, after having written and sent many queries, I have the letter I wish I’d sent initially. It’s powerful, it’s moving, and I believe it will more effectively explain why Beautiful needs to be read. I wish there were a way to magically morph every agent’s copy to the newest version.

Addendum several days later: I received a couple of very quick “no, thank you’s” — unusually quick. So I just dialed my passion back a notch by deleting a sentence that I fear may be triggering worry. Somewhere, there’s a sweet spot. Agents want contemporary and raw, but apparently not too raw.