Monday, October 31, 2011

Dealing with Literary Agent Rejection

Rejection ... it is as much a part of a novelist's life as plot lines and character development. You put out good queries to various agents, and you WILL get rejection notices.

OK, what next? Agent Rachelle Gardner dealt with that on her blog within the past week. Her post couldn't have been more well-timed with my own circumstances. I received notice from one agent ... I won't identify the agent ... who wanted a partial manuscript of my first novel. She requested the first 50 pages, but I sent the first 54 in order to include a full chapter rather than breaking it in the middle. The result was something I have encountered before ... request for partial, followed by a rejection letter. How do I read the context of the rejection letter?

Here is what I received ... "I enjoyed reading it. While your pages are interesting and well-written, after careful consideration, I feel that your project is not right for my list at the current time." That is as much depth as any rejection letter will contain. What do I take from those words? I like "interesting and well-written" because it validates my own feelings. Beyond that, there is nothing to grasp.

Rachelle Gardner says that is typical. Agents don't have the time to detail things that might have swayed them this way or that. As an author, I have to go with the flow. I will take "interesting and well-written" as some sort of validation. That means I will send out more queries soon ... but not today. I have writing tasks I want to complete and a day job to give my full attention to. My days off will include queries to at least three agents whose areas of representation fit the parameters of what I have written.

None of us like rejection, but there will be that day when my novel and an agent will make the right connection. That has to happen, doesn't it?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Thank You to Paul Simon

I attended the Paul Simon concert in Broomfield last night. It was a blast ... dancing in the aisles, people singing along and adding backup on a song like "Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes" and there's just the joy of spending time with a man of massive talent. I am biased here. I think he does a better job of blending music and lyrics than any other performer of my time.

But for all the amazing moments, one brought tears to my ears ... but it brings tears to my ears every time I hear the song. It is "The Obvious Child," and if you know me or have been reading this blog, you will understand. It is at once joyous and challenging, somber and celebrational. Paul brings it to life as only one of the best writers of our time could. I think it fits nicely in a literary blog because it is a novella in slightly more than 4 minutes. Simon simply is able to get to the essence of the story. What a master.

Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

What Should a Christian Write?

Before launching into my thoughts, I need to make an important distinction. There is a difference between being a Christian writer and a Christian who writes. A Christian writer is someone who writes for the Christian publishing market (referred to usually as CBA) and creates to exacting standards on issues such as using profanity or not being detailed in matters of sexual activity, to name just two areas of concern. A Christian who writes is a believer who is not bound by those rules.

I fall into that second category, by design. Part of it because of intended market, the readership group I want to reach. I think there is a market of Christians out there who want real characters because they are real characters themselves ... complete with flaws, sins, weaknesses. There also is a general class of readers who know enough about Christianity to understand the moral boundaries, and they will be able to relate to my characters. When I use characters in my novels, I want them to be REAL ... complete with flaws, sins, weaknesses. Second, this need to put flawed characters out there is something that is screaming inside my creative soul, and I want to let it out.

That being said, let me get back to the basic question here: What should a Christian write? Obviously, going outside CBA rules means barriers are erased, but that could take a writer in any direction from a slightly spiritual book to a Dan Brown novel to pure erotica. There must be something within that mosaic of possibilities at which a Christian who writes must aim.

I taught a fiction writing class at a church in Eugene, Oregon, about six years ago, and I made that question the centerpiece of one class. It was easily the best subject I covered.

I came up with one dominant theme: Christians should write something that is in some way redemptive. Now, that doesn't mean redemptive in any spiritual sense, such as a character answering an altar call, but that character must do something or undergo some change that makes his or her life better. That change also has to be in something foundational, not in something ethereal like money or status. It can be forgiveness or simply getting real with who you are. By extension, that change will impact other characters around them, and that impact must be positive in some way. After all, our own actions in real life are just pebbles that we cast into a pond. (Of course, sometimes we throw boulders.) We are not isolated human free agents. Those pebbles (or boulders) cause ripples that have an impact on others in our pond, and they may extend into other ponds.

Why is that redemptive quality a prerequisite for a Christian who writes? Because it is what our belief system is all about. We are to varying degrees (and I apologize to anyone who is offended by my metaphor here) lumps of spiritual dung. The good thing is that God, through Christ, won't allow us to stay in that condition. He will mold us, shape us, hammer at us, lure us, persuade us to get better. My fictional characters will face those same challenges, even some who have no background in churches or spiritual belief systems.

How does that character look when freed from CBA rules? Each character differs, but he or she will drop f-bombs, connive, have sexual backgrounds that would make a nun blush, have a spiritual life that is dead with no impulse to become spiritual, have family backgrounds where huge weights are part of the baggage they carry, be divorced and happily so, have abandoned their children, be spiritual searchers ... the possibilities are many. Why do I build characters who some say are so rough? Because church pews and the general populace are filled with real characters just like that.

How can I be so sure? Just listen to the sermons. Even in very conservative churches, the truly honest pastors will talk about things like Internet porn, sex outside of marriage, tensions that tear away at married couples, recovery from divorce, etc. Those tensions are part of life as a Christian. Anyone who says they have overcome those things is one of two things, either someone who has encountered a spiritual level not common to most Christians or a liar. I think the second option is truest. Statistics say that divorce is as prevalent in Christian homes as in the general populace. I have heard that per capita subscriptions to porn sites are highest in the state of Utah. Go figure. The perceptions we'd like to have about ourselves and those around us in church is one thing; reality is something else. We reach for a standard many people don't understand, but we encounter serious obstacles along the way. I think God intends for those obstacles to be there. It's how we grow.

In short, people are real, even when they occupy church pews every Sabbath. Many pastors will agree because they face these things when they counsel troubled congregants. I simply put those factors into my characters. That doesn't make it easy on me, because I run the risk of being too Christian for secular and too secular for Christian. So it goes. I would rather be true than hypocritical in order to carve out a little niche of success.

Peace, love, long life. Strive to get better every day. If you have the gumption to do it, allow God to lead you along the way.The rewards can be overwhelming.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Getting Started on The Second Novel

I have been pretty quiet on Facebook, Twitter and this blog over the past couple of weeks. Reason? I have started my second novel. Well, actually, it is the third start on my second novel, which makes sense if you have ever sat down to write a novel.

Here's my explanation:

I started a second novel about five months ago that is a sequel to the first. I put that on the back burner for one reason. Sequels are bad ideas unless you are already published. Publishing houses don't buy that idea, which means that agents don't accept it, which means that first-time writers should put those novels on the back burner.

I started my second second novel, and it glided onto the page. I loved the character, and I loved the setup of the story line. But I put it on hold because the subject matter is SO different from my first novel, and what I intend to write in the future. Again, an experienced author can get away with that. James Patterson can almost simultaneously release one of his thrillers and release a second book about the tensions of being a middle schooler. One is adult thriller, the other young adult. A newbie can't get away with that, so my great character and setup ... which will be a young adult growing into a real world with real challenges ... will wait for a later date.

Now I am starting the third second novel. It will fit snugly into thriller/mystery territory. It will use areas with which I am familiar ... the Seattle area and Northern California to a small extent, Los Angeles and the surrounding area to a much larger extent. I have written five chapters, and I believe it is a solid setup. I have been spending the past few days gathering and tossing out plot ideas ... you know, those middle-of-the-night reveries when great ideas interrupt sleep. Now I will sit down and begin building on that solid foundation. There are no twin story lines in this one, no single character existing in a fantasy world while the other resides in the real world. It will be easier to craft than the first one, but no less challenging.

So it is time to put the first principle of being a novelist into action: Put your ass in the chair and begin creating. I love doing that. It will be a great ride.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Swimming Against the Tide

I never intended to become such an iconoclast as a novelist. I never intended to make things so rough on myself as far as becoming published. I just sat down and wrote my first novel because I liked the story lines, not to satisfy some marketing guidelines.

Let me backtrack here. I know most of you are unaware of what that first novel is about, just because I have been so tight-lipped about the content and you weren't given a manuscript to read. I have done that because all the feedback from agents has been that my idea is original, hence my hesitance to divulge my secrets. I will try to give a general idea of my novel's structure without giving away too much info. So here goes:

One part of the novel is based on the fantastic, a story about a man thrown into an uncomfortable world where he must face his greatest fears again and again. That repetition of facing fears and the reality that he is powerless to stop it put him on the knife's edge of sanity. If you read my little exchange on this blog (Aug. 3, Turning a Character's Life Upside Down ... Again), this is the John Craft story line.
The second part of the novel is based on a real-world set of challenges, the kind of challenges you and I could face any day of the week. I want readers to see themselves in this second story line, the Sean McNabb section of the novel. Sean might not be you or me, but we probably know a Sean McNabb at work, at church, in our personal history. I want to make him very approachable to readers, the kind of character someone can examine and say, "Yeah, I know that guy." They might not like him at times, but he's just the real deal.

The problem with this approach is that I obliterate the lines between literary genres. Most writers try to carve a little niche within a genre and then "build a platform" within that genre. My approach takes me into crime story, romance, military references, spirituality, etc., etc. That wandering through many genres means my work is categorized as "mainstream fiction" ... which is a catch-all that really equates to "every novel that doesn't fit anywhere else." It is a crowded field of novels.

The reactions to my approach have been interesting. One agent loved my premise but said she couldn't see the subject matter being an easy sell to her established contacts at publishing houses. She passed on my project. Another loved my premise but said I wasn't using the type of narrative voice he was looking to represent. He passed on the project. Several others have given the generic "this isn't what I am looking to add to my list of representation at this time." I had an editor show interest, but she said that my book would have to be a tome of immense size if I developed the story lines the way they needed to be developed. Well, I am an experienced journalistic copy editor. One part of our job in something of this size is to sift out the b.s. and keep to the main points. Hence, my novel comes in at just a little more than 92,000 words. That means it is a good-sized novel but nothing of "tome of immense size" volume. (I pulled the plug on that editing relationship, for more reasons that I detail here.)

So what am I left with? It's a good novel, or at least a great premise. It's just not an easy sell. But I will put on my best "Kathryn Stockett as suffering writer" mindset and trudge on in order to get published in the standard way (get an agent, who gets me a book deal). There is an agent out there who will accept my focus, stand beside me and help polish a diamond in the rough. The sooner the better.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Writer's Block Meets Writer's Honesty

That chapter that haunted me last week ... it came back to haunt me again. I once again stepped back and looked at what I had written. This time I put on my reality glasses.

The chapter had bothered me since the earliest stages, back when the novel was in its skeletal stage. I rewrote the chapter several times, and finally reached a point where the writing and subject matter were acceptable. But something kept nagging at me. It felt false ... like a literary work. I don't strive for that, opting for real characters and situations. But my "real" characters were in a situation that never quite fit. That led to my seeking of different entry points into the chapter, and the resulting mess I made. I went back to my original idea because it was the best of the five I crafted.

The problem? It still missed the mark. I finally sat down and ripped apart about 15 pages of manuscript last week. I tossed preconceived notions out the window. Some of my original ideas survived. Others hit the cutting room floor. What resulted is a solid chapter. I am happy that the false feeling to the work is gone. It is just a supporting chapter, but one in which I trace the growing dynamics between a man and woman. I want that relationship to be real.

Now comes the important part: An agent has to accept my grand idea and think it is good enough to pitch to a publishing house. That means today is query day. Wish me luck.