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.

Query Letter (Aarrrgh!)

My first novel, Beautiful, is waiting for a final blessing from my editor. I don’t expect any significant changes at this point. The next thing for me to do, of course, is to find an agent. Ideally, I’d like someone who will sell a publisher on the idea of Beautiful. Of course! And who will work with me on marketing; I do what I can, and the agent does what he or she can. For sure! But most important, for me, is that I find an agent who is excited to work with me for the rest of my career which, God willing, will be another twenty years at least.

Aahhh, finding an agent! That means writing the best query letter I can. But what do agents want? What are they looking for? How can I avoid inadvertently turning them off? I researched query letters on the internet, but as Abraham Lincoln famously did not say, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

So, the last week of April, I attended (is that the correct verb for a webinar?) a Writers Digest webinar on writing query letters. The instructor, Maria Vicente, is an agent with P.S. Literary Agency. From what I can see online, it would be indeed a coup for a debut author to work with PSLA. The webinar was about 90 minutes long, with a bit over an hour being Maria’s presentation. The remainder was Q&A. Any questions that weren’t answered live were answered later as a supplemental download. The best part, from my perspective, was the opportunity for Maria to review my query letter.

I was actually pretty proud of the query letter I submitted although, as I mentioned in an earlier post, I was pretty proud of my writing ability in high school and it was a shock when, in Oberlin College, I learned how much more I had to learn. So it will be interesting to see what Maria thinks of my query.

Anyway, I’m chomping at the bit to start submitting query letters. This is where authors compete to see who overcame the most “no’s.” The conversation goes like this:

Author 1: “I had 192 rejections before I found someone who would read and accept my manuscript.”

Author 2: “Ha, that’s nothing. I had so many rejections, I need to write the number in scientific notation.”

I really do understand why many authors nowadays say, “This is stupid. I’ll just publish my manuscript my own damn self.” I won’t say I’ll never come to that conclusion myself. All I can tell you is that we need to be honest with ourselves and follow our heart. My dream is for my novels to be published through the traditional pathway and to see my work on bookstore shelves. That said, I wish the “traditional pathway” would move faster.

Plastering the holes

First, a quick follow-up from last week: my wife removed the staples from my scalp, I have no headache, and the radiologist read my CT scan as normal. So all is good, though I have a healthy new respect for gravity.

This past week I’ve been plastering in my living room. We have an older house (older from an American perspective, anyway, where the country itself has only been around for 240-some years). There was water damage around the chimney; the water had leaked through the brick and damaged the plaster. Once we were sure the source of water had been fixed, I removed the affected plaster, leaving large, ugly holes in my living room wall. I replastered the holes, sanded, and now I’m repainting. Very domestic!

Plastering leaves one a lot of time to think. It occurred to me that in some ways plastering is like writing. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I’m the kind of writer who creates characters, puts them in a situation, and then documents what these characters — who are real in my mind — do and say. I do not outline before I write. Imagine doing this for an 80,000-word novel such as Beautiful. There are bound to be plot holes…quite a few, as it turned out for my debut novel. Some are obvious; some are subtle. Each one must be found (thank goodness for beta readers) and plastered over so that it’s no longer a hole. When I’m done, the plot…or the wall…is seamless and complete, and looks as though it were always that way.

The other similarity between writing and plastering, of course, is that in both cases the process is incredibly messy. It takes faith, which is an action verb, to continue forward through the mess, believing that the result will look beautiful.

Eric vs. Gravity

This morning is the first real test of my commitment to writing weekly posts. Around midnight last night, I was sitting in my kitchen snacking on a soy yogurt. This is not, for most people, a particularly dangerous activity. Apparently, I fell asleep and fell off the chair. Using my catlike reflexes, I…hit the floor and busted open my head. I remember sitting in the chair, and then I remember seeing an unholy quantity of blood.

My intrepid wife and I spend the next couple of hours in the local ER. It was a strange experience, confirming to me that I do not like being on the other end of the doctor-patient relationship. The quick-thinking and compassionate physician on duty last night ordered an ECG and a CT scan of my head, but did not do, as best I remember, even a cursory neurological exam or look in my eyes. As a bonus, probably because he was worried about my self-esteem, he told me I have the brain of a seventy-year-old. I’m 58.

So yeah. My day can only get better.