In the world of Volve [my first, as yet unpublished book], journeybirds are the messengers of choice. Rather than carrying written notes, they are capable of remembering and repeating what they hear. Noble houses keep captive flocks and watch carefully for wild birds, which have been known to overhear and disseminate sensitive conversations.
Journeybirds can travel great distances in a short time, but their limited intelligence means the messages they carry are sometimes garbled – and their love of shiny trinkets makes them susceptible to bribery.
If you’re new to this blog, it shouldn’t take long to learn that I’m currently trying to find a literary agent. I’ve completed a fantasy novel, Volve, and I’m working on a second (unrelated) novel now. I’ve got four to six more novels simmering in my mind, some of which have been there for quite some time.
Writing has been a lifelong hobby, and something I have wanted to do professionally since I was about eleven or twelve years old. It’s what I went to college for, and though I have a day job that I find quite rewarding for an organization I care passionately about, my career ambition remains to become a full-time novelist. This is not easy. It takes a lot of time and hard work, a lot of luck, and a very thick skin to break into the industry, and just getting a book published is very far from earning a living wage as a writer.
Most of the agents who express an opinion on this sort of thing seem to agree that it is important for an aspiring writer to have a web presence. I’m also savvy enough to realize that if I am lucky enough to be published, and luckier still enough to have readers who enjoy my work, the first thing they are going to do is take to the internet – and I’d better have some way of connecting with them, particularly during that window of time following publication of a first novel, when I don’t yet have anything else to sell.
Which brings me to the topic of blogging. As it happens, I’ve been blogging for almost ten years. I had a blog on WordPress called “The Hanged Man” where I expressed my thoughts about politics and pop culture and posted photos of celebrities I found attractive. I got a couple of thousand hits a day, but it wasn’t exactly the way I wanted to represent myself professionally. So when I got serious about pursuing publication, I made some changes. I migrated the blog to a personal web space, I deleted all of the more juvenile posts about half-naked celebrities, and I decided to keep my posting related to my would-be profession.
Two things changed. My traffic dropped to two visitors a day, and I stopped writing content. My internal censor seized control of my writing brain and nixed every idea I had for a new blog post. I was terrified that literary agents who received my queries would pop my name into Google, visit this site, and reject me because of some remark I made about David Beckham’s abs. Nothing seemed professional enough to fit my new guidelines, and so the blog started growing cobwebs.
Eventually I changed my mind about content. I realized that if I were going to write, I had to be myself, and that while I’m willing to work to market myself, it’s not worth giving up my personality in the interest of making money. I’m still terrified of literary agents who plug my name into Google (and I suppose this post is really written for them more than anyone) but I’m also guessing that any agent who is going to reject me outright because of what’s on my blog is probably not going to back me up artistically if we do work together. So while I’m not about to go back to writing posts about Jessica Alba’s behind (we do all mature, at least a little bit) this blog will be whatever I feel like it should be, even if there are some warts
So I guess what I’m saying to any visiting literary agents is this: If you can get me a contract, I’ll take this blog down in a heartbeat.
No, just kidding. But we can talk about it.
Every step in the process of trying to publish a book teaches new lessons. Faithful readers may recall that I sent out nearly thirty query letters for my novel Volve in September, and met universal rejection. I deduced, hopefully correctly, that the specific problem was my 130 thousand word length, which exceeds the upper limit accepted even for the fantasy genre. Well, after a couple of weeks of work, I managed to cut that length down to 119 thousand words, and I have begun once again to query literary agents.
Though Volve and I have been through at least six major revisions, I had never before sat down with such a clear goal: reduce the length of the work. I wound up learning a valuable lesson about my writing. When I first sat down, I thought I was going to have to approach the book with an ax instead of a scalpel. I started thinking about which chapters I could lose. In the end, though, I was able to cut 11 thousand words without losing much substance.
I did this by cutting away unnecessary adjectives (amazing how clearly unnecessary they become when one needs to cut away a tenth of the manuscript), losing redundant information, and approaching the manuscript with one question in mind: does this matter to the reader?
I found that there were many passages, spanning from a few words to a paragraph or two in length, that communicated little relevant information to the reader. They didn’t advance the plot or story, they didn’t reveal anything significant about any character, nor did they describe any physical aspect of the environment that was relevant to the reader.
This is the absolute best and most marketable version of Volve that I’m currently capable of producing. It’s time to move on to other novels and other ideas. I’m crossing my fingers that this query process leads somewhere, but even if it does not I can take something worthwhile out of the revision and rewrite process. I’ve certainly learned why agents generally agree that a writer must complete three novels before he writes one worth selling.
So I’m back at work on Volve again. I considered it finished back in September, and sent a couple of dozen queries via email and snail mail, all of which returned rejections. Based on my experiences querying past incarnations of the work, I expected at least a few requests for partials, so my 0.00% response rate was disappointing. I had intended to shelve the project and focus on completing the manuscript for my second (presently untitled) novel, but then I came across a number of blog posts addressing the question of word count, and realized I may have committed a cardinal sin.
All of my queries mentioned that Volve is about 130,000 words long. At the time, I thought that was acceptable for epic fantasy – even encouraged, as readers of the genre expected a thicker “meatier” book for their money. Not so, say several literary agents. Fantasy does tolerate a higher word count, but not that much higher. Anything above 120,000 words is usually an automatic rejection.
Armed with that information, I looked back at previous incarnations that generated interest. 120,000 words. Horrors! When I did my last rewrite, in which I changed the prologue into scattered flashbacks and moved my inciting incident into my first chapter, I apparently also bloated my manuscript up to an unpalatable length.
So I’m back at it, this same manuscript that has been on my desk for portions of the past decade, this time focused on paring it down. My target is 115,000 words or fewer.
I spent my morning commute today doing markup on the first chapter, and wouldn’t you know I found two hideous typos hidden away like trap door spiders ON PAGE TWO.
Two dozen queries. Two dozen agents, to whom I sent a bloated manuscript that greeted them with two mistakes in the first 500 words. Two dozen agents I can’t solicit again merely six months later.
More than 20 literary agents have been sent queries for Volve this week, the first time in the book’s long life that I’ve made this kind of effort toward publication. I finished the third rewrite a couple of weeks ago, and I have a good feeling about this version. The rewrite tightened up the narrative considerably, and re framed the opening chapters to engage the reader faster, introduce the main characters and their conflicts, and get the plot moving.
One thing I discovered during this query process is that I prefer paper query letters. If you mess something up, you can open the envelope and fix it. Nothing is final until the package is in the mail. E-mail queries are final as soon as you click “send,” and that can sometimes lead to trouble.
Just for fun, let’s look at some of the screw-ups I made in my e-mail queries. Sigh.