Writing can be a humbling experience. Let’s face it, any creative endeavor is humbling, because art is personal. When you create something, whether a painting or a book or a sculpture or even a building – you are in that creation in a major way. Your mind envisioned it, perhaps your own hands created it, and you followed your vision to completion. It’s your baby, and you brought it to life.
Well, you could be like Emily Dickinson and keep your poetry only for your eyes, and perhaps the eyes of your one true love, trying to burn the rest so no one else ever sees it. Or you can be like most professional artists and writers and put your art out into the world. Which means people will form opinions about it. Opinions that mean a lot.
And the opinions that mean the most are those of the Gatekeepers. In the art world, the Gatekeepers could be gallery owners – an artist’s work may not be seen without a show at the right gallery. And for writers trying to publish traditionally (more on the “Indie” option next week), the Gatekeepers are agents and editors. They hold a writer’s professional life in their very, very busy hands. They are overworked, tired, frazzled Gatekeepers. They have to believe your work is worthy before it has a chance of publication. But first they have to see it.
A good agent/editor receives HUNDREDS of manuscripts every month. At the bigger publishing houses, there is an assembly line of assistant editors who try to separate the wheat from the chaff. In most cases, they’re not even looking at the actual book. They’re looking at a query letter (sales pitch), a synopsis of the plot, and, if you’re lucky, perhaps as few as five double-spaced pages of the book in question.
That means a writer has to write a book worthy of publication AND be fortunate enough to catch someone’s attention – not with the brilliant book you wrote, but with a sales pitch summing up an 85,000 word love story in 1500 words or less. There are times when I feel the odds are better for me winning Powerball than having my query letter hit the right desk at the right moment with the right agent/editor in the right mood and looking for exactly the type of contemporary romance I wrote.
Most queries, for most-if-not-all new writers, are rejected. Charming little rejection letters start popping up in your email inbox. Each feels like a knife in the heart. The vast majority are generic (having them start with “Dear Writer” is a good clue), usually saying something blandly friendly like “it’s not right for us at this time, but golly gosh, good luck with it!” If you catch their attention for more than a nanosecond, you might get a personal reply. “Interesting concept, I liked the setting, but the hero is not very sympathetic.” It’s still a blow, but a glancing one. It gives you a glimmer of hope, and, if you’re lucky, some useful feedback to improve your chances down the road.
Last winter, when I was licking my wounds over a “you’re clearly a good writer, but the story needs development” rejection letter, my Dearest BFF reminded me that it could be a lot worse. They could have told me that the story was good, but my writing really sucked. At least the story can be fixed (and it was).
Why is all of this on my mind today? Well, the super-enthusiastic editor I met in New York City this summer is either buried in work (not uncommon in the industry), or read further into my manuscript and decided it wasn’t for her after all. Since I haven’t heard anything in a month, I don’t know. But I can’t sit around any longer. I need to create a good query letter and a synopsis (that’s the worst part) and start selling The Hide-Away. The only problem is that I’m a writer, not a salesperson.
While my life-long salesman Hubby reassures me that “every ‘no’ gets you closer to a ‘yes’”, to a writer (at least to THIS writer), every “no” hurts. A lot. This book represents a year or more of my life and my energy and my heart, and I believe in it more than anything I’ve ever written. But I have to find the right agent/editor who believes in it along with me. It’s kinda like laying in your front yard while naked, begging people to judge you (not that I’ve ever done that, but try to imagine it). It’s scary and personal and painful. And it’s all just part of the business.
J.K. Rowling was rejected a dozen times before Harry Potter came to life. Louis L’Amour had 200 rejections. The Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology was rejected over 100 times. The Tale of Peter Rabbit was rejected so many times that Beatrix Potter finally self-published until she found her audience. Margaret Mitchell was rejected dozens of times before Gone With The Wind was published. And the list goes on and on and on. Knowing all of that helps. But it doesn’t help much. Because every rejection still hurts.
But Hubby is right (damn, it’s frustrating to admit that!). Each rejection does bring me closer to an acceptance, and I’m just going to have to face the firing range one more time and start sending The Hide-Away out to agents/editors and pray. It’s the book I most believe in, and I really do think it will find a home. But it’s still scary to jump into the querying waters again. The sharks are there, but so is the treasure of a golden book deal.
Wish me luck!