You “Read It With Interest,” My Foot

Mail

Mail (Photo credit: Bogdan Suditu)

There’s no way to stop them from happening. Rejections. I’m talking about in the publishing industry. I have yet to hear about a published author who sent out queries and never received a rejection. The only way to achieve such a feat is to never send a query. Even the most successful authors went through many a rejection before they broke through.

So what’s the big deal? Someone like little ol’ me should expect rejection, right? Yes. And I do. I remember back in the days before e-mail queries were acceptable (and when every agent I queried preferred exclusive submissions), I snail mailed them one at a time, each with my SASE included, and then I waited. Never for acceptance, although I pretended to keep my hopes up. Usually, within a week or two, I would find my self-addressed envelope in the mail, creased from where I’d folded it into thirds. I would carry it inside, almost not wanting to open it. If anyone was around, I would wave it and say, “Here’s another rejection.” I was always right.

The types of rejections varied. Every once in a while, I received my query back with a coveted, hand-scrawled note, giving me some encouragement that at least someone had read it all the way through. Other times, the agency in question couldn’t be bothered to use a whole piece of paper for their form rejection. I do understand that it’s wasteful to use a whole sheet on a message that boils down to, “We’re not interested. Bother someone else, please,” but it just adds an extra little sting.

Worse were the rejections that never came. There are a few agencies that inform authors up front that SASEs are unnecessary. You can assume you’re rejected if you don’t hear anything within a specified period of time. If they want to see more, they’ll either call personally or go to the expense of using their own envelopes and stamps. You can guess the kind of “response” I received from these agencies.

One time, I received a form rejection that made it very clear that no one ever read my query. It so offended me that I got in a huff and wrote the most sarcastic query I could muster in response. The idea was to see if I could make an agent mad enough to respond, even if it was just to say, “How dare you!” Of course, I never sent it. The act of writing it calmed me, and I eventually decided that agent wasn’t worth my time, anyway.

But it made me wonder if querying was a futile effort. Why spend my time polishing a letter that no one was going to so much as glance at before rejecting? I understand that agents are extremely busy. Some even have periods when they do not accept submissions because they have to get other work done (like working with their already-established authors). Is there some kind of magic trick for those of us who don’t have an “in” in the industry?

Nowadays, more agencies are open to simultaneous submissions, and with so many accepting e-mail queries, as well, it keeps the process from stretching out for years. Already this month, I’ve sent ten queries, whereas I don’t think I ever sent ten in a year before, what with doing them all one at a time and then waiting for the mail. Still, it doesn’t make rejection hurt any less.

One day this week, I sent a query just before 5:30 P.M., and a lot of these agencies have an auto-response e-mail that lets you know your submission went through and is waiting in line with all the other millions of submissions. Most agencies have a response time of four to six weeks. I was surprised, however, that the auto-responder said someone would be in touch with me “shortly.” That was different. They seemed to pride themselves on expediency.

Well, “shortly” turned out to be midnight. Or that’s the time listed on the e-mail I received the next morning. And the opening was quite cordial. They thanked me for my query, which they “read with interest.” But they were so sorry that it just wasn’t right for them. Now, who are they trying to fool? This agency isn’t two time zones over, where someone might possibly have read it before the office closed. It’s in my time zone. In my state, actually, which, to be honest, was one of the few things that attracted me to it. So either someone stayed after hours to read submissions and then sent the robo-rejections, or some computer program scanned it for key words, didn’t find what it was looking for, then sent the rejection when it was done. I’m going with the latter option.

There are a lot of things that bother me about this, but the first is that their response flat-out lies. You don’t want to do business with me, so why sugar-coat it? Just say, “You know what, your type of submission isn’t what we want right now. No thanks.” I’ve heard this before and moved on. Don’t tell me you “read it with interest” when the only person in the building was the janitor. And, of course, since this is a form rejection, all authors receive it. We’re all being lied to.

Second, they asked for a writing sample. Why bother? Well, I suppose the software that reads for them could send up a red flag if the writing sample was full of typos, but even if I don’t write the most gripping queries, they’re grammatically correct. (Well, one that I sent out did have a big typo that I didn’t catch until the next day, so when I receive that rejection, I will fully deserve it. But I digress.) I always bemoaned that, when querying by mail, the agents judged me based on a one-page cover letter. I would try to throw in lines from my book, hoping to show my style, but that approach never worked. I recently had the opportunity for an agent to critique an excerpt of my story, and she said the voice and opening were strong. So if they’ll just read the bit of story that I send (and I only send the length they ask for), they’ll have to admit it’s well-written, even if it’s not subject matter that they want to represent.

The vindictive part of me wants to become the next J.K. Rowling, so I can rub it in the rejectors’ faces. But really, I just want someone out there to give my middle grade fantasy novel the time of day. They certainly don’t seem to mind representing some of the absolute garbage that litters the bookshelves. But I refuse to write something sensational, just to sell copies. If no one wants to publish my story, I know a great place that’s friendly to indie authors, and it’s called Smashwords.com. (I’ve already published my short story “Stranded” there and have another story in the works.) There are many indie authors out there who are doing pretty well, even getting discovered by big agents and publishers. I was encouraged when my cousin sent me Hugh Howey’s publishing story this week. It would be a stretch for the same kind of circumstances to happen for me, but. . . maybe there’s hope for this girl, after all.

A Story of a Scammer

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...

photo credit: Wikipedia

It’s like being the unpopular girl for so long that when any old popular guy shows a bit of interest, you immediately latch onto him and proudly proclaim him your boyfriend, ignoring little things such as barely knowing or having anything in common with him.

What’s like that? you ask. Shopping a novel around with literary agents for nearly five years, and when one finally says, Sure we’d like to see it, signing up with her and e-mailing all your writer friends to say, I’m successful! I finally landed an agent! We’re in the money!

That was me in early 2009, when I thought my writing career was made. Easy Street? No. But I thought that at least any future rejections would be filtered through someone who would believe in and stand up for my novel. I completely ignored the fact that having an agent doesn’t equal publishing at all, and even publishing doesn’t equal book sales. I was just thrilled to be done (I thought) with the agent search.

If you take nothing else from this blog, know this: You should always, always, ALWAYS double–no, triple and quadruple check out literary agents before you query, much less sign a contract with one.

That said, I’m sure you can guess what’s coming. I didn’t check.

I thought I’d be able to spot a scam a mile away. I thought that finding the agency’s listing in Writer’s Market was the same thing as a writing industry stamp of approval. I was impressed by a professional-looking website. I was sucked in. And they got 68 of my dollars pretty quickly, too. What’s the first red flag you look for with a scammer? They want your money. You should never pay an agent for any services, until you sell books (unless they say up front they’re going to charge for postage or copies). And I knew this. But I rationalized that it was only a book critique, and I would pay a professional outside the agency more, so $68 really wasn’t all that much, if the critique helped me publish my book.

I did have this little twinge that said it was too easy, or that just because one agent was interested didn’t make her the right agent to represent my novel. But, as I mentioned, I’d searched–and been rejected many a time–for almost five years. I’d put my story through a number of revisions, some of them pretty drastic. Still, the rejections came, and they wore me down after a while.

When I first started querying agents, e-mail queries were a big no-no. Most of the agents I looked into had little more than an address listing on the web. And everything I read cautioned against simultaneous submissions. So I queried one at a time, via snail mail. As I am sure you can imagine, it took forever.

I compiled my list, starting with the agencies that seemed really promising. Some requested authors give them a month, and after that, no response equaled rejection. Others promised to respond but never did, even though I always sent SASEs. So I refined, searching for info online, just to make sure I had the correct address and the right person at a particular agency. I received one hand-written rejection that I remember. I cherished it, feeling like someone had finally read my query instead of throwing it away and stuffing a form rejection in the mail. I remember getting those self-addressed envelopes back, always thinking, Oh here’s that rejection I’ve been waiting for. I guess it doesn’t help to always have that defeatist attitude, but I thought of it more as, If I expect a rejection, I won’t get disappointed. But who am I kidding? I was always disappointed, even if only by the merest amount. And I think a big part of me was disappointed in myself for not being able to write a mind-blowing query that would convince them to beg for more. I wrote some kind of snarky queries, mainly to blow off steam. I didn’t mail those, although I did play around with some, figuring, What the hell? If they’re going to reject me anyway, I might as well have a little fun.

By the time 2009 rolled around, I wasn’t sending out queries nearly as often. I had a one year old who occupied most of my time, and it had been a long time since someone had lit a fire under me. But I still searched the web, looking for potential matches.

One day I found the website of one of the agencies toward the end of my list, one I’d never tried before. And it not only encouraged e-queries, but there was a form right on the website that I could fill out with all of my info. It seemed a little off-putting. Don’t send a nicely formatted letter? Well, okay. I typed away and hit “Submit,” and almost before I could blink, I received the wonderful news (I thought) that their children’s division would love to see my manuscript. It all seemed odd and informal, but then the contract came and all kinds of info that seemed legit, so I just ran with it, leaving my second-guesses in the dust.

First was the $68 critique. The agent explained that I really couldn’t get started without it, unless, of course, a professional had critiqued my book before. (Didn’t a workshop of more than a dozen fellow writers count? Well, no, not if I didn’t pay them for it.) At least the critiquer gave me credit for writing good dialogue, always my strong suit. Titles, however, are not, and that was also pointed out in the critique. So I changed it, no problem. But that wasn’t the only change I needed to make. Of course, I always expected a thorough edit (or two or three) before publishing, but I did not expect the critiquer to come right out and say that I wasn’t competent enough to follow through with necessary changes. I silently fumed and thought, I’m an editor! I know how to properly structure sentences and fix typos! Give me some credit–$%*&#@!!!

But I continued with other parts of the process. I filled out all sorts of marketing forms, keywords and loglines. I agonized over a brief (actually, I’d consider it a G-string) synopsis and a slightly longer one, neither of which I felt did my book justice. I was annoyed by the five or six articles my agent sent that had guidelines for writing said synopses because the guidelines all disagreed with each other. Was using a byline good or not? Should I put the title in italics or all caps? I did the best I could, sent it all to the agent, waited for some good news.

Then came the e-mails about a wonderful opportunity. The agent had a publisher who would sell my book internationally. I wasn’t quite sure why the Chinese market was a better fit than the American one, but why not? Publishing is publishing, right? Well, not if it’s self-publishing, and that’s what this publisher was. Of course they were “interested.” They didn’t have a clue what was in my book, and they didn’t care, as long as I paid them to print it. And I don’t say this to belittle self-publishing. It’s a lot of thankless work that usually goes unpaid. (I know–I’m an indie publisher, myself!) But if someone can tell me why a self-published author needs an agent, please enlighten me. I declined, and that’s when my agent started pressuring me about getting a professional edit. She gave me industry rates and said that she had a list of editors on hand (might as well have said “on staff”) who could help me. Yet again, I declined, started saving my pennies, and looked for editors on my own. At that point, I knew something was up. They wanted more of my money, and I already regretted the critique, which I knew was their ploy to show how desperately I needed their particular writing services.

This didn’t happen quickly, either. There were weeks or sometimes even months between our e-mails. After the agent told me I needed a professional edit, however, she refused to so much as lift a finger. As soon as you get your edit, we can move. . . I still have that list, if you’re interested. And I was torn, of course. I was saving money for website development and also for the second baby my husband and I hoped to have.

I don’t remember why I did it, but one day I Googled my agent, and one of the first searches that popped up had “scam” written in it. I almost didn’t go through with it. Ignorance is bliss, right? But choosing ignorance is really just stupidity. So I did the search, and oh boy did I find a lot of revealing stuff. That’s how I discovered WRITER BEWARE and Preditors & Editors. I found blogs filled with experiences that sounded eerily similar to my own. I felt sick. . . but also vindicated. No, those other writers’ experiences didn’t mean that I was a better writer than my critique let on, but they gave credence to the idea, at least. And I won’t deny that there were a few positive comments sprinkled in with all the negativity. But they were all from people who did self-publish and really just needed someone–like an “agent”–to guide them through the process because they were absolutely green when it came to publishing. Unfortunately for those authors, they don’t have any sales behind their books (and neither does the agent, to this day). After nearly two years of dealing with my agent’s shenanigans, I used the I’m-a-busy-mommy-so-I-don’t-think-I’m-going-to-write-anymore excuse to get out of the contract. I knew that she was just waiting for me to end it; after all, I wasn’t giving her any money, so why should she bother with me?

And you know what? I’m glad, as with many negative experiences in my life, that I went through it all. I don’t think of it as a waste of time, as if I could have found a legitimate agent and been in my third printing by now. Other life and writing experiences have caused my novel to grow in a way that it would not have if I’d given in and self-published, like my agent wanted. (That doesn’t mean self-publishing is off the table for the future, just that the time wasn’t right back then.) Also, I am now armed with a lot more knowledge about what not to do. Like that electronic contract? Completely bogus. Turns out that nothing was binding about our relationship, although I didn’t know it at the time.

The publishing industry has changed, big time, since I first started querying. E-mails are the norm now, although some agencies still use the good ol’ USPS. I reviewed The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent: Everything You Need to Know to become Successfully Published for a small publisher recently, and not only was much of what I already knew confirmed, but the author added that it’s crazy not to submit simultaneously; otherwise it could take years to even send queries to all the agents you like. (Tell me about it.) Also, indie (or self-) publishing has come a long way, especially for ebooks. And I know a great place (Smashwords.com–check it out!) where I can epublish for free and who distributes to all the big ebookstores, if I choose to go that route. (As I did for my short story “Stranded”–and other stories to come soon.)

As for my young adult novel, there is an honest-to-goodness agent looking at it right now. I researched her former and current agencies before taking her kidlit webinar, and both agencies passed the test. By the way, it is very common to meet agents through conferences, seminars, webinars, and workshops. I highly recommend it, to broaden your writing knowledge and contacts, if nothing else. Who knows if this agent will show any interest, but she is going to give me a critique, and I’ll go from there. When my book is ready, I will get it into the hands of young readers, one way or another. But the next $68 I spend will fill my children’s Christmas stockings, not some phony agency’s coffers.

From Muse to Masterpiece

Writer Wordart

Photo credit: MarkGregory007

When my muse inspires me to write, why can’t I put onto paper exactly what comes into my brain and just have done with it? Why isn’t it brilliant the first time? I wouldn’t even mind the process taking a while if I could trap the thoughts and phrases mentally until I’m ready to sit down and transcribe them verbatim. That never happens, though. I can’t tell you how many of my stories fizzled out because I had a great idea, but when I finally had the time to write, I’d either lost every bit of passion for the story, or my attempts were feeble in comparison to what I thought was in my head.

This week, I thought about writing a short story, which in itself was weird. I never think of anything less than novella-length, unless I’m commissioned to do so. But I was stimulated, I think, by an invitation for submissions from Glimmer Train. I don’t have anything for them, I thought. Then—BAM!—short story, fully formed, in my head. And on Monday, of course, when I was so stupid-busy that all I had time to do was take notes on my iPhone during the red lights on my daily commute.

That night and the next, it was all I could do to type a few scenes and details that I didn’t want to forget. Then Wednesday I had time (well, I actually stole an hour from my sleep) to poise my fingers over the shallow keys of my MacBook and type away until the whole thing was out of my head. I forced myself to keep at it, even when I didn’t know how to transition from one scene to another. I finally finished, and I even proofread it, something that I often leave for later, exhausted by the initial output of imagination onto the page.

What I’ve discovered from participating in fiction workshops and reading hundreds of submissions for the online literary magazine Fiction Fix, is that many writers stop there. They might not even proofread, or if they do, their skills are so poor that it doesn’t do much good. And while I understand that you might need to take a break to regain enthusiasm, a first draft does not equal a finished piece.

According to Laura Cross’s The Complete Guide to Hiring a Literary Agent, agents only accept one percent of submissions (27). Now, you don’t have to have an agent to be a good writer, but if you’ve received rejections before, from agents, literary mags, or publishers, consider the following statistics about submissions sent to agents: “87 percent of content is considered amateurish and unpublishable” and “3 percent has a potential market but is poorly written or researched” (28). Nine percent have problems marketing or target markets that are already saturated, or they might have potential but need revision. Only “1 percent is considered well written, promising, and ready to be presented to a publisher” (28)

Why do so many writers assume that their stories are worthy enough to send to magazines and agents and publishing houses? I’ve workshopped with people who could take zero criticism. If a room of other writers had issues with their stories, it was because we couldn’t read them properly, not because there were problems with those stories. Well, I guess that could be the case, but if your goal is to sell a book, the public won’t buy it if they can’t understand it.

As an editor as well as a writer, I am not only ready but excited to correct, revise, polish. I seek critiques and opinions from fellow writers and readers, and I’ve developed such a tough skin that you could take a hatchet to my literary arm, and I wouldn’t bleed (well, not much). It is not only necessary but fun, to me, to watch the lump of raw story as I mold and shape it into (I hope) a masterpiece.

The stories and books that you read and enjoy, that make you wonder how the author was able to work such a complex twist into the ending, took a lot of a hard work to create. It is extremely rare (if it happens at all) for someone to write a story that needs little revision. If Madeleine L’Engle, who had already published several novels, received a decade of rejections before she published A Wrinkle in Time, it is only reasonable to assume that your writing will need considerable work before it garners the positive attention you desire. Join writers groups. Read anything you can get your hands on. If grammar and spelling aren’t your strong suit, seek a teacher or professor who can help with your manuscript. If you can afford them, go to conferences, workshops, and look for independent editors who have edited writers you admire. And when you’re ready, pull your literary ax out of you writer’s toolbox, and begin hacking away at the extraneous stuff that gets in your story’s way. When you’re done with that, pull out your chisel for the fine-tuning. Even though it takes considerable time and effort (during which you won’t feel very profitable), you can make yourself into that one percent to out-do your writing competition.

I guess if I’m going to take my own advice, I need to roll up my sleeves and get to work.