#FAILURE IS NOT FATAL

#amwriting #amquerying

Just the other day, I posted this quote from Winston Churchill: Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts. Normally, I’d just leave it out there and it would hopefully inspire some other folks the way it inspired me. But I’ve found that over the past few days, I can’t seem to get it out of my mind.

Maybe it’s because I’m at a point where some writers I know have given up: 100 query letters sent, no nibbles. A handful of really nice responses, praising one or more of the elements of my offerings. But no concrete interest to date.

Many people would move on.

It’s not that I thought it would be easy. In today’s anyone-can-publish environment, I knew it would be hard to find an agent or publisher the traditional way, as the bar is set so high. I knew that books set in the Old West aren’t all that popular, particularly when they don’t adhere to the expected story lines. I knew that rape and incest were topics that would be rejected immediately by some agents.

But I also know it’s a subject that needs the light of day to shine on it, and that I’ve handled it with both empathy and sensitivity. I’ve explored the effects of these horrors not only on the abused, but also on those who help others heal, who become the caregivers for the exploited, and who may feel guilt and despair because they think they should have somehow, in some way, been able to intervene and change the path of fate.

So, yes, it’s a hard subject. I often find myself drawn to hard subjects, like intractable physical pain; the plight of Native American children in missionary schools; Irish slavery in the Americas; hatred of those who are not “like us”; the failure of those we trust to defend us; being disabled in an able world; and An Gorta Mor. I have written or am writing on all of these subjects.

Knowing that LET THE CANYONS WEEP was going to be harder to place is something that gives me the ambition to keep going with the query process. The book hasn’t failed because it hasn’t found the right agent, but I will fail if I give up on it.

Or it could just be the hardhead incurable optimist in me…

That Dreaded Query Letter: Critique by an Agent

Today I received an agent’s critique of my query letter, and it was pretty positive. She said it did a nice job of presenting a complicated plot succinctly. Hooray for that!

However, she felt the “stakes” weren’t quite high enough. If you’ve read my previous posts, you know that after Adam Donovan kills a bank robber, he decides to tell the outlaw’s family of the death himself. The agent asked why he would do that, and further posed the question:

“What makes his moral code run so deep?”

I’ve been pondering over that all day, and I really don’t know how to answer it. I’ve confessed before to being a very literal person, and the question literally seems to me to be unanswerable.

It seems to me that a moral code is something a person has or doesn’t have. There are those who have set standards for themselves, and those who have not. That’s not to say that some standards aren’t flexible, or that some aren’t closer to being “wrong” than “right” (think Hannibal Lecter). But those without a code seem to do whatever appeals to them at a particular moment, while those with a code can usually be expected to react in a similar way to similar situations.

I consider my own moral code to be fairly rigid. It’s based on the ideal that I would never intentionally harm another being, or allow another being to come to harm if I can prevent it. (Kind of sounds like Asimov’s Laws of Robotics, doesn’t it?)

So what causes one to adopt and adhere to a moral code? I believe that it’s first made up of the total of our lifetime experiences, including education and parental guidance, but I know that can’t be all of it.

My sister and I were brought up by the same parents in the same house and had essentially the same education. We were both well-loved, we were both occasionally spanked (all the kids of our generation were – we never thought it meant we weren’t loved). We ate together, played together, went to church together. Our birthdays fall only one day apart (so there goes the astrological explanation). Why then are we so different?

My sister worked one job for over 30 years; I changed jobs every 3 to 5 years. She worked in pre-school; I worked in finance. My sister still practices the religion of her youth; I don’t. She’ll “go with the flow”; I prefer to map things out. I tend to collect evidence and examine it from all sides; she’s more likely to follow her instincts. My sister inherited red hair and blue eyes; for me, gray eyes and brown hair.

We both love to read and we’re both optimistic.

So is it genetic? Part of it must be, don’t you think? If the corporal identifiers are so different, doesn’t it stand to reason that the internal processes must be different as well? What leads one to be more accepting, another more inquisitive, when all other factors would seem to be the same?

Can we ever know? Will brain mapping ever tell us why even identical twins have different interests or laugh at different jokes?

Or is the answer to the original question a whole lot more simple? Could it just be that the men I admired most in my young life – my father, my grandfather, my uncle – had a moral code that never broke? Could Adam be the reincarnation of them – my wish to have them all live again, if only in print?

I think that may be true. In fact, after further thought, I’m sure it is.

But it still leaves me with absolutely no idea of how to answer the original question:

What made their moral codes run so deep?

If you have a theory on this, I’d love to hear it.

Those Lowdown, Lonesome Query Blues

How does it happen? How is it that this perfectly written, perfectly polished, perfectly appealing manuscript of mine gets so little positive attention?

Of course I’m kidding. First of all, I know that nothing’s perfect. Secondly, I know that nothing will appeal to everyone. How many book are there that I haven’t taken out of the library? Tens of thousands. How many authors have I read once and not returned to, because they weren’t “my cup of tea”? Hundreds. How many times have I started reading a book and put it down before I finished? Well, that last number is probably 3 — I’m pretty optimistic that even the most unappealing work will eventually get better. After all, it did find a publisher!

Which, at this point, is more than mine has. I’m still trying to snag an agent. And that’s not as easy as I thought it might be when I started my quest.

Specifically, the number of rejections I’ve had on my query letter just hit 30. I think this is a milestone — it shows both that (a) traditional publishing is indeed a subjective business, and (b) that I’m persevering in spite of the obstacles. One I can’t do anything about, the other I can be proud of.

As I review the rejections, I’m struck by one thing: in an industry that requires absolute adherence to the guidelines in a query letter, there’s no cut-and-fast standard for responses. I’ve received everything from a 4-word text (“Thanks not for us”), to extremely helpful critiques from agents who enjoyed my work and wanted me to know specifically why they passed on it. I’ve mentioned a couple of those letters here previously and I’ve used the advice in all of them to improve my story.

Most letters are either kind or professional; even the form letters have thanked me for considering the agent. But a couple have registered pretty high on the rudeness scale. So how do I keep from getting aggravated, depressed or outraged?

Frankly, sometimes I don’t. But I try to keep those times to a minimum and go on to something that’s going to help me a lot more than grousing. Recently I’ve begun to send out two more query letters for every rejection I get, and two more for every query that hits its “expiration date” with no agent response. That way, each rejection turns into two new prospects for publication.

And I constantly remind myself that really great authors have received just as many, just as awful rejection letters to their masterpieces. Did you know that Rudyard Kipling once received a letter telling him he “didn’t know how to use the English language”? Emily Dickinson was told her work was “devoid of true poetical qualities“. Chicken Soup for the Soul received over 100 rejections, while the first Harry Potter book was rejected 14 times. Ouch! In the long run, I bet it didn’t hurt as much to get those letters as it did to send them!

So I thought I might try my hand at writing a rejection — specifically a rejection of a classic novel. I decided to turn Jonathan Swift’s delightful irony around; I’ve taken cues from responses I’ve received, included a few digs of my own, and created the following rejection letter for Gulliver’s Travels.

Dear Dr. Swift;

Thank you so much for your query, but we’re going to decline at this time. I know you’ve put a lot of time and effort into your project, however, your characters didn’t seem realistic. A ships’ surgeon who gets involved in shipwrecks? People who wage war for no reason? Where on earth did you get those ideas? And talking animals — well, it’s pretty cliché. You’re beating a dead horse there.

In addition, it is considered quite rude to refer to vertically-challenged folks as anything other than “little people”. I do so wish that you authors would observe the current conventions and mores.

I would also recommend researching “limited third-person POV”. Rather than hopping from one character’s thoughts to another’s, you should write your story from the point of view of a single character. Granted, this can be quite challenging at times when the character is unconscious, but rules are rules after all.

We also encourage you to gather beta readers and critique partners to help hone your craft; their suggestions can be invaluable, and you might have avoided some of the aforementioned pitfalls by seeking them out. Please keep reading writers’ advice booklets, taking writing courses, and study some books on writing well. And practice your writing — it is a learned skill.

Or perhaps consider that this business may not be for you.

Thank you for considering us for your work and we wish you well in the future.

Sincerely,

Bud I. Donhafacloo
Snobb & Bish Literary Agents

So tell me, have you received a rejection letter that made you wonder why you should keep going? Do you want to try your hand at rejecting a classic? Submit your “G-Rated” letters below — and have a ball!

That dreaded query letter …

Oh, the dreaded query letter! It is, in my opinion, the hardest thing in the world to write. Writing an effective query letter takes the ability to ignore your creative urges and write in a way that‘s totally foreign to your instincts.
books art-writing
Remember how you used to write book reports in grade school? You’d take someone else’s work and boil it down to a one-page review. Hard, right? A query letter allows you that same one page, except it also has to include some personalization, your biography, comparable titles, and any other little thing a specific agent wants to see. So, in reality, you have about a half-page to work with.

To condense a book of 80,000-120,000 words down to its most basic elements in three paragraphs (or as one agent recommends, 5 sentences!) verges on the impossible. Add in your voice, the stakes, and a hook that makes the reader say, “I’ve got to see more of this!” — and, well, you’ve gone right over the cliff.

My query letter for LET THE CANYONS WEEP has undergone more than a dozen transformations. I’m still not totally satisfied with it. But the other day I heard what I believe is the most pithy and on-point advice since I figured out “show-don’t-tell”.  And it’s this:

Nouns do not create characters.

Huh! Was I trying to create a character with nouns? Or have I stuck to the basics and used lots of verbs? Let’s see if I can change something and make my query letter stronger.

I took a long hard look and realized that, though my query letter did not contain a lot of unnecessary nouns, there were a number of adjectives. But more to the point, I was not putting enough emphasis on the verbs. Take this sentence for instance:

Jesse is small, fragile, and shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.

Reading it over, I realize I’ve put as much emphasis on the descriptors “small” and “fragile” as on the action “shunned”. The first question I asked myself was: Is it necessary for the reader to know that Jesse is small and fragile? The answer (at least in my unqualified opinion) is “Yes”. However, a simple re-wording of the sentence could move the emphasis.

Small and fragile, Jesse’s been shunned by the village for her brother’s misdeeds.

The readers still know what they need to know about Jesse physically, but now the emphasis is on “shunned”. This version, I believe, creates a more emotional response in the reader. And when you’re trying to get someone so interested they can’t help but want to know more, you need that emotional response.

Half a dozen small tweaks like that one have, I believe, made my query better. How about you? Are you in the query trenches? What do you think the strongest thing about your query letter is?