There are a thousand websites, seminars, books and blogs about how to get published. How to identify the best agents to represent your work. How to write a great query letter. How to find a great editor. How to self-publish. How to do your own promotions. Frankly, it’s a little overwhelming.
The arduous journey to publication typically starts with finding an agent. You do this by identifying those agents who are seeking new clients and also represent your genre. Your agent should be 1) experienced and well connected, 2) really passionate about your book. This I know from reading numerous articles and writing blogs.
Another thing I’ve learned from articles and blogs is the basic structure of a query letter. The query is essentially a cover letter. In this one-page marketing piece, you endeavor to hook the agent with a 2 or 3-paragraph description (think book jacket but with spoilers) of your story, the reason why you think your work may be a good fit for him or her, and a brief bio. Easy peasy, right?
Nope. I’ve been struggling to write my query letter for over a month now.
The irony is that this essentially what I do for a living. In my marketing job, I write a lot of cover letters summarizing precisely why my company is best suited to work with that client. Last Spring, I gave a presentation on how to write winning cover letters to over 100 of my fellow marketers.
The difference? A) While I believe in my company and the work they do, it’s not personal. Selling someone else is always easier. B) I spent four years writing a 95,000-word novel and now I have to sum it up in fewer than 500? C) It’s hard to write a letter that essentially says Please love my book! I poured my heart and soul into it for years! without feeling a little pathetic.
But I will keep at it. And in the meantime, perhaps I just need to read more book jackets for inspiration.
I planned to write about my struggle with the query process this time around, but something happened this week that bumped that topic* from the roster. Tuesday night, I had to give a healthy dose of tough love to one of the members of my writers’ group. And now I’m wondering if either a) she will actually absorb some of what I said and be better for it, or b) I will never see her again.
It’s been building for a while. This member, I’ll call her Shelly, joined our group about six months ago and since then we have been reading the first draft of her manuscript, which purportedly comes in at a whopping 150,000 words and still doesn’t have an ending.
Prior to joining our group, Shelly had only shared her work anonymously on writers’ support websites, and she was clearly uneasy when she submitted her first chapter to us. It’s hard to put your work, and ostensibly yourself, out to be judged. But we all loved her first chapter. It was dark and mysterious and utterly intriguing. She seemed heartened by our praise and our desire to read more.
As the chapters kept coming, we noted issues of plausibility, repetition in scenes, unnecessary details, and other things that I absolutely expect while reading a first draft**. Submission after submission, we gave her the same critiques, the same suggestions, but none of our feedback ever seemed to make it into subsequent chapters. There may be some selfish interest at work here, but it’s a bit frustrating to critique into a vacuum. After all, hadn’t she joined the group in the interest of improving her writing?
During our meetings, she readily acknowledged that her novel needs work, but repeatedly made statements such as “But I don’t know how to fix it” and “But I need for [insert random scene] to happen that way”. When we questioned the plausibility of certain plot points, she responded with complicated explanations as to how it was actually possible. The real issue was that she listened to five people express the same concerns, and instead of making a note to address the problem, spent five minutes essentially telling us why we were wrong.
But the real topper came along with her last email:
Yeah, just think of these [two chapters] as a rewrite of the last. Or if you have a really bad memory, you can think of them as new… You guys ever seen Groundhog Day?
I actually rolled my eyes when I read this. She was essentially warning us that the next two chapters would be exactly like the last. So why the hell was she submitting them?
This week’s meeting was much like those in the past with one exception: someone finally spoke up. One of our members, Gus, ended his critique with the following statement: “In this group, we are here to help each other in whatever capacity is most beneficial to the writer. I’m not sure what your process is, but as a reader, I would like to see a lot less repetition of the same issues submission after submission.”
Shelly looked like she’d been slapped in the face. I tried to soften the blow but also back him up.
“I’m not sure how beneficial it is for you to hear the same comments with each submission, so perhaps it’s best if you take some time to revise before you share your next chapters.”
This only seemed to make matters worse. “But I can’t revise until I finish the book. I can’t go back, and also I don’t even know how to fix it.” I pointed out that she is currently sitting on about fifteen chapters’ worth of our feedback, but she shook her head. “But I can’t go back. I have to write the ending first.”
Gus suggested she write a synopsis of the ending, that way she could start revising from the beginning in good conscience. “But I can’t,” she insisted. “I have to write the ending.”
We went around in circles for some time, with each suggestion met by an adamant “But-“ or “I can’t-“. Then Shelly said maybe it wasn’t even worth finishing her book since clearly none of us like it, since we’re always pointing out how many problems it has.
Finally, I had to level with her.
“For the last fifteen minutes, everything that has come out of your mouth has been negative and self-defeating. You can’t do anything until you finish your book but you don’t know how. You know you need to revise but you aren’t going to do it until you finish the book and anyway you don’t know how to fix it. You have already decided that there is no hope and you immediately dismiss any suggestion we make. Why are you so determined to self-sabotage?”
This got her attention.
Of course I already knew the answer. We are all afraid of failing. We are also afraid of succeeding, and in some ways, even more afraid to let ourselves believe we are actually capable of success. Shelly is essentially telling herself – and now us – that she is going to fail. Don’t get your hopes up because this is going to suck!
Words matter. A lot. The words we read, speak, and hear inform who we are and how we see the world. And when you tell yourself that you are a failure, you will believe it.
I leaned in toward her, pointer finger extended. “Stop telling yourself that you can’t. Stop shitting on yourself and your work. Stop it!”
I’d like to say that in that moment, Shelly had a huge life-changing realization and we all hugged and everyone left much happier. In truth, I did see the shock of recognition spread over her face, if only for a moment. I had called her on her shit and she was temporarily without words. Alas, deeply ingrained destructive habits aren’t so easy to break, and she responded with, “But that’s my M.O. I don’t know how else to be.”
On our way out of the café that night, I told Shelly to call or text or email me if she wants to talk more after she has time to think about our discussion. Because I get it. I have spent a fair amount of time in introspection and therapy to finally get the “worst critic” voice in my own head to shut the f*ck up. Mostly, anyway.
Our next meeting is scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving, and I hope to see her there. But it’s in her hands now.
*Although believe me, the struggle is real.
** Which is why I generally do not let anyone read my first drafts.
Ten weeks after I submitted the entire fourth draft of my novel to my writers’ group, my big night finally came: the group critique.
In the weeks leading up to it, one member of my group kept asking me if I was “ready for my Big Night”. The truth was that I hadn’t given it much thought. Most of the group has already read an earlier draft (albeit piecemeal over the span of more than a year), and I’ve incorporated much of their feedback into this latest version, so I was feeling pretty confident in its marked improvement. But Gary’s repeated questioning made me wonder if I shouldn’t worry. After all, he’s been through the group critique before. Maybe he knew something I didn’t.
I approached the meeting with some trepidation but resisted the urge to have a stiff drink beforehand. The booze would calm my nerves, but it would also dull my senses and I wanted to make sure I recorded down each and every even slightly relevant comment.
I needn’t have worried. While each member had a number of recommended tweaks and clarifications, overall the group feedback was very positive. As one member, Jeremy, put it: “Aside from all of my little comments and suggestions, I think you should start sending this manuscript out to agents starting tomorrow.”
This is a major milestone in the lifespan of all novels: it’s ready for the query process. This is also one of the most terrifying milestones in the lifespan of a novel. Now I must leave the safety of my writers’ group and my beta readers to subject myself to a whole new level of rejection. No longer can I waffle on about “family and relationships and stuff” when someone asks me what my book is about. I no longer have an excuse to avoid the dreaded query letter – the longest one page masterpiece a writer will ever write.
Next Time: The Query Quandary
The epic romantic or confessional letters of novels past were replaced by telephone calls in the early 20th century, emails in the 1990s, and texting in the 2000s. These days, pretty much every novel that takes place in modern day Western civilization includes a series of text conversations, and I’ve been crafting a few of these exchanges for a brand new writing project.
Text exchanges, both fictional and real, are rife with complications. Sarcasm doesn’t always translate well even with the aid of an winky emoji, and the most heartfelt declaration can come across as mean-spirited or dismissive. Often times, we are forced to read between the lines, to (mis)interpret at will and hope we understand the other person’s true intentions.
I had a questionable text exchange of my own about two weeks ago. I was hiking with my dog in one of my favorite spots, Redwood Regional Park, when my phone buzzed four times in about thirty seconds. I generally avoid technology when I’m trying to enjoy the woods, but the rapid fire texts made me wonder if there was an emergency.
The first two texts were from two different friends, coincidentally checking in at the same time. The next two texts were from a phone number I didn’t recognize. I will refrain from comment and simply share the transcript as is:
And once again, he disappeared into the ether. Sorta makes you nostalgic for the days of the handwritten letter. I’m pretty sure that letter would have never made it to the post office.
This past weekend, I was driving on a two-lane stretch of Route 41, surrounded by vast empty fields and punctuated by the occasional warehouse or farm. It was around 7 o’clock. The light of the day was starting to wane and most drivers were on their way home, either near or far. I noticed that a few of the cars in front of me swerved to avoid something in the road, something black and curved. A blown out tire perhaps. But as I got closer, I saw that it was moving. That is was in fact a black dog. It had been hit. It was dying.
My stomach clenched up as the heat of shock rushed over my skin. A million thoughts raced through my mind: Should I turn around? There were a lot of cars on the road, and no safe place to turn around. But how could I leave the dog back there alone and suffering? And once I got back to the dog, how would I even get to it without getting hit myself? And even if I did miraculously get the dog out of the road, what could I do for it? I wasn’t equipped to put it out of it’s misery. I didn’t have a gun or a syringe of cyanide. We were hours away from any emergency vet clinic. There was nothing I could do.
I kept driving.
Over the next twenty minutes, I saw both a dead striped cat and a dead gray dog on the side of the road. I was grateful when it got too dark to see anything except the other cars.
I was a wreck for the rest of my three hour drive home, looping through a series of crying jags as I tried to shake the vision of that dog from my mind, and assuring my own black dog curled up in the backseat that I will always look after her. That I will keep her safe.
My sixteen year old cat is in slow decline. My fourteen year old dog recently had a health scare that smacked me across the face with the reminder that she is getting old. The father of someone very dear to me is losing his battle with numerous ailments to the point where he must be spoon-fed most of his meals — that is, when they can get him to eat.
And then I saw that dog in the road. Several days later, in quiet moments, I keep catching myself thinking I should have done something.
It is difficult not to be affected by this sense of death lurking around the corner, and I’ve been in a bit of a funk. A friend suggested that I find a way to celebrate life. Start a new creative project. Adopt a kitten. Foster a puppy. While the two animals I already have certainly will not allow the addition of a third, my friend was on to something. This is why people have children. Make art. Write novels. To celebrate life. To create something that will live beyond death.
So. Perhaps it’s time to start my next novel.
One of the first rules of the Internet is Never Read the Comments, especially when it comes to something you have written. As most of us have witnessed first hand, there’s something about the relative anonymity of the comments section that transforms people into hate-spewing cretins. People routinely misinterpret – often willfully it seems – each others’ words and then clamber up onto their virtual soapboxes to preach their version of the gospel. Or call you a goddamn stupid motherf*cking a$$hole licker. Or, you know, whatever.
But sometimes it’s impossible to resist reading the comments.
A few months ago, I wrote a story for xojane.com* about the time I spotted an old flame making balloon animals at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. This guy had 1) broken my delicate eighteen-year-old heart, and 2) once been a moody and pretentious aspiring filmmaker, so there was some satisfaction in seeing him surrounded by sugar high children. My story received hundreds of comments, ranging from amusement to solidarity to irritation. Some accused me of pettiness and insensitivity. One commenter was outraged that I was picking on balloon artists.
Over the last two years, I have written and recorded a number of short pieces for the Perspectives segment of my local public radio station. This experience has taught me that even public radio listeners can be over-reactive, albeit while using more polite language. My tribute to my former-hunter-now-elderly cat inspired a heated exchange between an angry bird lover and a defensive cat supporter. When KQED aired my analogy on the nature of prejudice and race relations, let’s just say I was grateful not to get any death threats. Two weeks ago, I was at the station to record my latest piece about staving off a panic attack at 13,000 ft, and the segment editor joked, “I’m sure the commenters will come up with something. Perhaps self-indulgent?” We laughed and I prepared myself for whatever would come.
In this day and age when it seems that everyone has a righteous opinion on just about everything, what does it say that my piece did not receive a single comment, good or bad? To most creative types, the worst reaction to our work is indifference. While I have received positive feedback from friends and acquaintances, I admit that I am somewhat distressed that my writing failed to inspire even one listener to indignation.
I really ought to stop checking the comments section. Seeing that “0 Comments” is breaking my heart.
*For the record, the bordering-on-cheesy heading and subhead were not mine.
We were taking a break on a rocky outcropping at 13,400 ft when I was hit by a terrible headache. My temples throbbed as my heart pounded in my head. The pressure was sudden and acute. I felt as if my blood vessels might burst.
“Vamos,” our guide said. “Time to go.”
We were on day two of a three-day trek across the Andes that would take us across twenty miles and up to 15,600 ft. We had already ascended about 1000 ft that morning, but had twice as far to go until we hit the summit of Sicllaccasa Mountain, before we could begin the sharp descent to our camp for the night.
I’d spent months preparing for this trek, hiking seven or eight hilly miles every weekend day. But I soon realized that no amount of exercise at sea level was going to help me breathe freely at that altitude, and all of my “training” seemed naïve, absurd. I got winded after walking only short distances, my heart hammering in my chest. I just couldn’t catch my breath.
All around me, other members of my group were taking swigs from their water bottles and zipping up their backpacks, ready to get back on the trail. I remained where I was with my head in my hands, trying not to panic. I couldn’t stand up, let alone resume our breathless hike up the mountain. My fingers and toes prickled with sharp pins and needles as anxiety washed over me. What if I physically couldn’t go on? What would happen to me? Certainly they couldn’t leave me behind. But was it too late to turn back? Could I even make the trek back down the mountain? And how mortified would I be to give up? To FAIL? What would everyone think of me?
As my panic increased, so did my heart rate and the pain in my head. I had to do something.
I fished through my backpack for some ibuprofen, and then managed to get to my feet and seek out our guide, Gerson.
“Do you have anymore magic potion?” I asked, referring to the golden liquid that acted essentially as herbal smelling salts, calming both the mind and the belly. He had passed it around on the bumpy ride to the trailhead.
Gerson eyed me carefully. “How are you feeling?”
“My head hurts,” I whispered, grateful that my sunglasses disguised the tears welling up in my eyes.
He nodded. “Ah, okay. You’ll be okay. Just take your time and keep breathing.”
I would have laughed if I wasn’t on the verge of tears. Keep breathing? I could barely think of anything else.
But I closed my eyes and tried to marshal all of my yoga Zen to calm my breathing, to slow down my heart. To stop the pounding in my head. And after a moment, it started to work.
“Ready to go?” Gerson asked a couple minutes later. And to my surprise, I was.
In less than five minutes, I had gone from a state of total panic to an unexpected but welcome sense of peace.
You got this, I told myself.
I continued my yoga breathing, repeating “slow and steady” over and over again in my head, until I found my rhythm. Until I found my breath.
We made it to the summit about three hours later, exhausted but exhilarated and a little delirious from the lack of oxygen. The wind whipped through my hair and clothes, and my eyes filled with tears due to the cold, a powerful sense of triumph, and the beauty of the snow-capped peaks and the valley far below. I was so damn happy to be there.
(Note to self: Whatever happens, DON’T PANIC. Just take your time and keep breathing.)
While Morrissey’s lyrics have never been what I would consider cheerful or optimistic, his songs about heartache and longing still resonate with the lost teenager inside of me. Judging by his song title “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful”, it appears that his more than 30-year career and loyal fan base has inspired resentment and jealousy among his fellows.* Yet I wonder how anyone could possibly begrudge a friend’s success, that is if he or she really cares about that friend.
Which begs the question: Are these people really your friends?
A very dear friend of mine—someone I have known since way back when I was still a lost teenager listening to Smiths cassette tapes on my Walkman—just published her third book, a graphic memoir about trying to connect with the Japanese half of her family. Last week, I attended her standing-room-only reading at a popular Haight Street bookstore before she headed out for her multi-city book tour.
I have never been published. I do not have an agent. I have spent the last three years writing a novel that may never make it into print. So, am I envious of my friend’s success?
Yes and no.
Sure, I would love to have my book published. I would love to have a second and third book published. I would be both thrilled and terrified to read from my work in front of an eager audience.
But I do not feel even a drop of resentment toward my friend for achieving these things. I witnessed first hand the many years that my friend has practiced her craft: her drawing, her writing, and her storytelling. I have watched her quick pencil sketches and stripped down text transform into this beautiful book that I can now pull off of the shelf and hold in my hands. I saw how hard she worked to get her first book deal, and know well that she worked just at hard to get her second and third.
In short, I have seen my friend work her ass off to achieve her success.
As I watched her read from her new book in front of the packed room, I felt a swell of pride and privilege to know such an amazing person. Congratulations on all of your success, Mari!
*Or perhaps he just got rich and bitchy.