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.

Is There Anybody Out There?

Yes, that was a damn good song by Pink Floyd, but that’s not the topic of this blog post.

You’ll remember that this blog is a peek into the mind of a new writer. Therefore, you cannot reasonably expect that mind always to be full of unicorns and rainbows. Sometimes I wonder if anybody’s listening.

I have been sending queries to literary agents since January 2019. To date, I’ve received exactly one response, from my dream agent’s assistant. She wrote a lovely email saying that the agent has many clients and “she wasn’t able to fully connect” with my project. Again, her email was polite and professional, maybe two or three lines long, AND she sent it within two months of my query. My other queries to date have vanished into the void.

This business of finding an agent to represent my manuscript (and hopefully future manuscripts!) to publishing houses is, I think, the hardest part of being a traditionally-published author. Writing is fun! Even the times when I have writer’s block are more fun than waiting…hoping…praying that an agent will read my query, request the full manuscript, and say, “Yes, I can sell that!” I’m proud of my first novel, and I believe that a literary agent who reads it will like it. Of course, I’m only sending queries to agents who have indicated that they’re looking for this genre of manuscript with the kinds of characters I’ve written.

Speaking of writing, my second novel — a sequel to Beautiful — is coming along wonderfully. So far it’s about fifty thousand words. I haven’t come up with a title yet. A couple of characters from Beautiful have expanded roles in the sequel, and I brought in some new characters that I think you will love as much as I do! I’m very excited. I almost wish I could leak some details or plot twists, but I suppose that would be a bad idea.

My wife and I have been doing some serious traveling; in the past six months we’ve been to Alaska, Spain, Scottsdale AZ, South Africa, and the US Virgin Islands. The latter three trips were all since mid-January. I did not take my MacBook Pro on most of these trips. It would have been one more thing to worry about and possibly have stolen. When my laptop is not available, I write with my iPhone (Scrivener has an iPhone app) and a notepad. They’re obviously not nearly as convenient as a real keyboard. I hate to complain too loudly, though, because I read that J.K. Rowling wrote her first two Harry Potter novels longhand in a notebook.

If You Ain’t Gonna Say it Right…

Question: Imagine a hypothetical author wrote a hypothetical novel in which one of the main characters is named “Linnea.” How would you, Dear Reader, pronounce this? Would you say

  • LIN-nee-uh?
  • Lin-EE-uh?
  • or Lin-AY?

I thought it was obvious when I wrote the story, but it doesn’t seem to be obvious to a lot of my readers. That’s a problem for me. I felt like an idiot when I read Harry Potter the first time and thought there was a major character named “HER-mee-own” rather than the correct “Her-MY-oh-nee.”

Anyway, I am thiiiis close (imagine thumb and forefinger a quarter-inch apart) to renaming her Wendy or Maddie. Everybody knows how to pronounce those “normal” names. It’s just that in my head when I first thought of the story, she was Linnea pronounced to rhyme with Hooray.

What do you think? Should I keep Linnea or change her name to Wendy? Maddie?

Ego on the Line

Last month, my wonderful editor gave me the third round of her thoughts, and I made the final few changes she recommended to my manuscript. My first novel, Beautiful, is completely done. I’m proud of it, which is why I decided to use my real name as the author rather than a pseudonym. I believe many people will enjoy the story.

But there is a serpent in my garden of happiness post-first novel. You see, I’ve decided to go the route of traditional publishing. My personal serpent has a name: Querying Literary Agents.

Today I stroked the serpent’s head in an attempt to make friends: I emailed my first query. Then I sent another few, which were easier.

I don’t like this feeling that my immediate future depends on a gatekeeper who has way more applicants than available openings. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt! I disliked this feeling when I applied to university and also when I applied to medical school, I hated it when I applied for my residency in Internal Medicine, and I loathed this feeling of “please like me, please like me, please give me a chance” when I applied for my fellowship training in Cardiology…although each time it turned out great for me. And here we are again, hoping and praying that someone will request my manuscript.

What will my agent, whoever she turns out to be, get? She’ll get a professionally-polished manuscript (though I expect she’ll want to make changes, which will most likely be fine with me), a sequel that’s about halfway done, and a client writer (me!) who has shown himself willing to delete or rewrite entire chapters and characters. I’m easy to work with, I do what I promise by the deadline I promise, and I pay my bills. I’m about 15,000 words into a totally unrelated novel. I figure I have over twenty productive writing years left, and I have lots of ideas.

So…I’ll keep you informed. It’ll work out well, I feel!

What is a Writer?

I’ve been having this experience more frequently now: someone asks me what I do, and I say I’m a writer.

“Oh, what have you written? Do you write articles for magazines or do you write books?”
“I wrote a young-adult novel, and I’m about half-way done with the sequel.”
“Wow, that’s cool! What’s it called?”
“My novel is titled Beautiful. It’s about a seventeen-year-old homeless girl who…”
“Where can I buy it?”
“It’s not published yet. I’m looking for an agent.”
“Ahh,” they say as their interest wanes to nothing. They smile and nod as though I’d told them I’m trying out for the Indianapolis Colts (I’m 59 years old and 138 pounds, so that ain’t gonna happen).

It seems to me that to non-writers, a real writer is a published writer — no matter that I could self-publish my novel tonight on Amazon or wherever. There’s no bar anymore for that, and I’ve been clear all along that my goal is to be traditionally published. I want to see my books on the shelf in libraries and bookstores.

To me, a writer is someone who writes daily and treats their writing as a business, whether or not they’ve sold a piece yet. One wouldn’t tell a new business owner that they’re not really a business owner until they’ve made a profit. I want the same grace.

“Oh, Eric, don’t worry about what other people think?”
Uh, hello? Writers do care about what other people think, at least insofar as we depend on those ‘other people’ to buy our books.

“Eric, I only write for myself.” So do I; I call that my First Draft. Then, after beta readers, I hire an experienced editor to cut out all the extraneous crap I loved so much but which doesn’t add to the story: info dumps, unnecessary backstory, “perspective hopping,” characters or subplots that don’t matter…all that stuff has to go so that Other People will hopefully buy my novel and read it and enjoy it.

Where’ve I Been?

Hello again! I’m baaaack! I plead guilty to having violated Rule 1 in the Blogging Bible: Thou shalt not wait more than two weeks between posts, else thy followers will forget about thee. But see, the so-called blogging experts don’t understand or appreciate the blind fanaticism of my legions of rabid followers. 😉 They will wait till I have something to share; between times they will amuse themselves some other way: maybe YouTube videos, maybe…Heaven forbid…a book.

I believe the rush to post on social media is mostly a generational thing. I don’t see something interesting and think, “Gee, I’d better post this to SnapChat!” Anyway, I let some time go by since my last post. But you’re still here, so it’s all good.

Anyway, in early September I received another manuscript critique from my editor. She liked a lot of it but had some suggestions for improvement with which I agreed. So I took a break from writing the sequel to make changes to the manuscript for Beautiful. I liked it before, and I’m even more proud of it now. I’m not sure how many iterations I’ll make with my editor. Yesterday, I read an interview with Markus Zusak, author of several books including The Book Thief and his newest, Bridge of Clay. He said he never feels his books are quite done, that he can always find something to change or improve, but that at some point an author has to “go with it.” I don’t have the experience to know where that point is, but I think I’m ready to find an agent. If the agent wants changes, we can talk about them. My editor, Julia, has been excellent about explaining her thinking rather than saying “Do this!” with no thought process from which I can learn. I’ve been willing to “kill my darlings,” referring to parts that I thought were cool but Julia felt did not add to the story.

It’s not always comfortable to submit one’s ego to an experienced editor, but damn does it make one’s writing stronger. There were two or three scenes in Beautiful that I didn’t love, but I couldn’t quite put a finger on what was missing. My editor said she’d like to see more emotion in this scene and that scene. I think about how to do that, I rewrite the scenes, and I love them; they’re stronger, more realistic, and if I have to fight back tears then maybe another reader will too.

A beta reader is reviewing my manuscript now, to make sure I didn’t confuse things with the recent rewrite. Then I’ll discuss next steps with Julia.

Outlining My Characters (Before I Start Writing) Doesn’t Work For Me

I’m finishing up a Reedsy Learning module on how to write characters that readers will love and care about. The idea is that the writer needs to understand her characters’ backgrounds, lives, and formative experiences, their personalities, their desires, their appearance, and their mannerisms before the point where the story begins. The problem, for me, is that my creative process is different. Does it sound odd for me to say I do some of my best creating when I’m asleep?

Here’s what happened with my first novel, Beautiful, and what’s happening again with Out of Sight:

  • I come up with two or three characters, very roughly sketched out, and a situation. We’re talking “very big picture.”
  • I tell the story of what the characters are doing.
  • This is good for a chapter or two, maybe three, then I get stuck.
  • I think about it to the point that the story stays with me when I’m asleep.
  • The next logical step comes to me in a dream or as I drift near sleep.
  • I jump up, write it down, and that gets me further in the novel.
  • When I’m stuck again, I don’t worry about it because I know the next step will come to me. It always does.

An example of this, from Beautiful, is that I had given no thought to Adam’s last name. To that point, the issue had never arisen, so I hadn’t worried about it. One night, in a dream, the protagonist, Cara, grew agitated at Adam and yelled at him using his full name. From then on, he was Adam Samuelson.

To be clear, I do end up filling out a character sheet to keep characters consistent. For instance, Cara is wary of boys and men so that it would be unlike her to, for example, say something funny in class. As the plot and subplots progress, the character sheets grow even more essential.

Also to be clear, I do most of my writing and plotting during the day, while I’m awake, like a normal person. I haven’t yet figured out how to research in my sleep.

I do not write my novels “one chapter after the other” beginning with the first chapter. I use Scrivener, which is great for writers like me who write the story as they think of it, which is not necessarily in chronological order of events. With Beautiful, Chapter One was one of the last things I wrote; I didn’t truly understand Chapter One until I’d completed the first draft of the novel.

This way of writing keeps me out of my comfort zone. Last night, the muse hit me regarding my current WIP, preliminarily titled Out of Sight. I learned, last night, that the main character Marcie (a teenage girl like Cara from Beautiful) is African-American. This makes my life more difficult because I expect my characters to be believable and real. It’s bad enough that the protagonists of both novels are teenage girls. I’m a 59-year-old (as of today!) white male and I have before me the task of writing a believable black teen girl! On the other hand, I’ve never been homeless yet Beautiful is about a homeless girl. Research is a writer’s friend. That’s how writers who aren’t themselves secret agents pen thrillers, and so on.