When will it ever end

Last September, I dotted the last ‘i’ and crossed the last ‘t’ on my final final final draft of SINGLED OUT. Or so I thought.

murder your darlingsLast September, I believed I’d taken My First Novel as far as I could in drafting and editing terms. I wrote my synopsis (a traumatic experience) and carved off a chunk of text into a sample document. I took a set of fluorescent markers to my copy of ‘Writers’ & Artists’ Year Book 2014′ and lined up a shortlist of lucky, lucky agents who were to be the priority recipients of my masterpiece.

Then I sat back and waited for the offers to flood in. I waited, I blogged about the wait, and I waited some more. Instead of a flood, there was a trickle, and what trickled in was not overawed, enthusiastic ‘oh my word, this is magnificent, send us your full manuscript and come in and see us at once, and by the way don’t talk to any other agents until we’ve explained what we can do for you’ emails. What trickled in was – yes, right first time – a smattering of polite and kindly worded ‘sorry, not for us’ rejection emails.

I kept going, still fairly selectively. But those rejections kept on coming. The current tally is 17 agent submissions and 13 rejection emails. Of the remaining four, three date back to February/March and can thus be regarded as time-expired, rejections by omission. (Happily, the majority of agents have proved to be more courteous than this.) To date one agent, in theory, still has my novel in review, but as this agent accepted it as a courtesy following a seminar, I’m not holding my breath.

There was the odd flicker of interest. Two agents requested the full manuscript on the back of my submission, prompting palpitations and a wave of misplaced optimism in yours truly. Their rejections followed in due course.

But here’s the thing. Pithy though their feedback was, those two agents made broadly similar observations in their rejection emails. Not only that, but a very welcome latecomer to the beta reader party (you know who you are…) and a much loved and valued writing buddy both offered more detailed critique which, blow me down, highlighted the exact same issues.

I went away for a few days last week with these critiques much on my mind. The original plan had been to spend a few days rereading my manuscript and sharpening up a few lines here and there. But I’d begun to realise the ‘problem’ with my story was more fundamental than scrapping yet more surplus adverbs (though the volume of those infectious little critters you have to steel yourself to eliminate across layers of editing is a revelation in itself).

As I grappled with my folder of curiously comparable critique, I confess I grew frustrated. Having been so close to my novel for four years, I just didn’t get it. Intellectually, I could grasp what they were saying were the shortcomings. But when it came to addressing them, I couldn’t see how without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. Worse still, I couldn’t see why my story seemed to need such fundamental changes. Cue a gnashing of teeth and much grizzling and pouting.

In the still of the night I lay awake, frustrated, fretful. True to form at around 4:00am, my brain at last began to shift into the right gear. I began to get my head around what they’d all been saying. I started to find my way from I can’t towards how can I?

In the morning I got to work, identifying sections which screamed out for more tension and scenes which demanded more mystery; I earmarked pages where the pace dipped, weighted by too much unnecessary detail; I hunted down paragraphs where the language had to be nipped-and-tucked to better fit the character.

I decided two of my main characters will undergo a name change; I’ve finally conceded they have too much of the stereotype about them, and it begins with their names. But that’s mind-bending for me, as I’ve lived with them for upwards of four years. Oh, and talking of characters, I’m introducing a new one.

If this all sounds like a major rewrite, I don’t want to mislead you. This is far more than the tweaking I’d originally planned, but it’s not a rewrite. The story is essentially all there and all the pieces matter. Everything fits together and the plot is – I still believe – strong. What I’m dealing with is tone and pace, adding suspense in places I hadn’t realised it was needed, keeping up the tension instead of allowing it to fade away, injecting moments of uncertainty, deleting yet more extraneous detail – that sort of thing. This means I’m back in murder your darlings territory – not just words and lines, but paragraphs, great chunking paragraphs, sometimes one after another – and it hurts. But I know what I’m doing and at last I can see why it’s needed.

So that’s my job for what remains of the summer – to carry on culling whilst I meld new and modified material seamlessly back into the story. Then the plan is to approach a few more agents in the autumn months. As to what happens after that… Well, without suggesting anything at all about my more grounded expectations for this part of the process, I’m booked into a ‘how to self-publish’ seminar towards the end of the year. So we’ll just have to see.

Thanks, but no thanks

I received two more email rejections of my SINGLED OUT submission this week.

thumbs downAs always, both literary agencies let me down gently and politely – but both were clearly standard format replies this time. One gets to tell the difference between the standard thanks but no thanks emails and the ones where someone has taken the trouble to insert a personal line or two. You can’t expect it, but it’s nice – even in a rejection – when someone adds a personal touch.

One of my standard email rejections advised:

“We receive over 300 manuscripts a week and can only take on a handful of new writers every year. The result is that we have to be incredibly selective, so please do not be too disheartened. Another agent may well feel differently.”

Over 300 manuscripts a week!

I think SINGLED OUT is a solid piece of work – it’s an original setting with distinctive characters and, even if I say so myself, a pretty decent plot. It’s gripping and grizzly in parts and laid-back and sunny in other parts. Perhaps that’s a fault, but if it is, no one has yet homed in on it. It’s not perfect, but that’s because it’s my first attempt at a novel. It’s as good as my (lack of) experience can make it, and I imagine I’ll find I can do better with subsequent manuscripts, given how much I’ve learned through writing this one.

The question for me is, is it good enough to rise to the top of a pile of 300 manuscripts in one week, let alone an annual pile of over 15,000 manuscripts. Is SINGLED OUT good enough, original enough, compelling enough, well-written enough… to rise to the top 5 or 6 in a pile of, what… 15,000 on any literary agent’s desk? Even I have to admit, this seems slightly more unlikely than winning the lottery jackpot whilst being simultaneously struck by lightning – and a meteorite.

I’ve blogged before here about whether I should simply chalk it up to experience and bottom-drawer SINGLED OUT before moving on to the next. But with so many other options available to today’s authors, struggling for recognition through traditional publishing avenues, would it be a waste, simply to bury it?

In truth, I’m coming round to the idea of self-publishing…

Submissions Update – Scores on the Doors

I’ve been submitting Singled Out to literary agents for the last few weeks. I promised I would share my experience.

2014-04-24 16.32.37There are, as far as I can tell from the Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook (UK), around 60-70 UK-based literary agencies where one or more agents handle books like mine – that is, quality general fiction/women’s fiction.   I’ve been taking things steadily on the basis that if I learn anything from any one submission or agent or from the various seminars I’m attending, which might help improve my chances, I don’t want to have burned all the bridges. Also, it seems unprofessional to me to fire off my work to dozens of random agents at once, so I restrict my open submissions to 4 or 5 at any one time.

I began with the agents my mentor recommended I contact. I had dared to hope for success with this short list of personal contacts, but it was not to be. I’ve since moved on to a few more agents where I can cite some kind of a relevant connection. I’m using the Yearbook directory and agency websites to learn more about individual agents, what they want to know and who they represent, so I can make my submissions as relevant as possible. Many agents specify what sort of stories they like to see, what characteristics a book might need to posses in order to catch their interest, and so on. Most list the authors they represent.

Each submission is slightly different; it’s a painstaking process, definitely not a factory assembly line thing. The query letter or email is personalised of course. I always say why I’ve picked the agent in question and mention if there’s a personal or professional connection. If they already look after any psychological suspense writers, I make reference. The jury’s out on whether one should compare ones work to that of established authors. All I can say is that sometimes I do, and sometimes I don’t. I say a little about Singled Out, point to one or two relevant career details, writing courses I’ve attended and so on. And, in a couple of lines, I highlight some reasons why this book at this time could be marketable.

I enclose sample chapters of course. Most request a sample of 10,000 words or 3 chapters or 50 pages and this generally equates to much the same thing. But some are more specific, insisting on a strict limit. I presume one does well to follow instructions, so I do, as far as possible.

Then there’s the synopsis, and I continue to find this aspect of submissions the most troublesome (as I’ve blogged about before here and again here). Even now, every time I read through my synopsis, I find things I want to change; things I’ve skimmed over or omitted which should be included; sentences which groan under the weight of spurious adverbs and adjectives. I now have a long version, a medium-sized version and a short version, and I tamper with them as little as possible because apart from anything else, it tends to turn me just a bit paranoid. After a while synopsis editing becomes a bit like Whack-A-Mole; you hit one problem on the head, but another one pops up elsewhere, and it never ends, never. So, as far as synopses are concerned at least, I’ve stepped away from the keyboard.

So, how’s it gone so far, Julie? Go on, tell us. Okay… here are the numbers: I’ve made just 12 submissions so far. This morning, I received my 7th rejection. That means there are 5 open submissions.

A couple of these have been open since January, but I have good reasons for not chasing either of them. They’re probably closed/rejected, but… but… As I said, I have reasons for keeping the flames alive. And then there are 3 more, submitted in the last 6 or 7 weeks.

All rejections so far have been courteous and not at all discouraging. I know it’s a numbers game. I understand the degree to which a debut novel must stand out, to make it into the literary universe. What surprises me is that I’ve had a few personal rather than standard format notes. Bizarrely, that’s been an encouraging thing and I’ve been touched that busy agents have taken the time to do more than press the ‘send reject email’ button.

When a rejection comes in, you have no idea what aspect of your submission has failed to connect – and of course, you can’t refer back, it’s simply not done. You won’t know if an agent (or an agent’s assistant) is getting bogged down in your synopsis, or bored by your first few pages, or worse still, has not managed to make it past your query letter.  Of course if you’ve written it in green ink on fluorescent paper you can stop wondering. But most of us – I presume – manage to keep the lid on that sort of self-expression.

This morning’s rejection was particularly interesting. The agent remarked that my writing has ‘a lot of energy and verve’ – I liked that. They then suggested the decision not to move forward with Singled Out had more to do with their lack of courage, or their faint-heartedness (the exact word was pusillanimity – I am embarrassed to admit I had to look it up), than the quality of the work itself. And it left me wondering, what is it about my book that requires courage to promote? I wondered if it was the subject matter, which is undeniably gritty. Or perhaps an agent requires a degree of courage to go forward with any debut novel. I will likely never know. But this is, to date, my most thought-provoking rejection email.

I’d like to think I won’t see too many more of these. But is that me being over-optimistic again? I do understand the numbers, I do. So I’m greeting those rejections with equanimity. I’m in this for the long-haul, if need be.

It’s nothing personal

White rabbitFor those amongst my lovely readership who are following my search for an agent… I received my first rejection email today.

It was clearly a standard rejection email, but for that, it was courteous and kind and it urged me not to be discouraged. In a bizarre way, I was actually quite pleased to receive it, as it broke my duck in terms of agency rejection. Now I know how it feels. What’s more, if they’re all like this one, it won’t hurt a bit. Well, maybe just a bit – but not much. Also it was a pleasant surprise to receive an email, as one is often advised simply to draw a conclusion of rejection, as in, if you haven’t heard from us in X weeks, we’re not interested.

Rejection is an unwelcome visitor, returning time and again in life. It introduces itself in in the playground, where friendships are fluid and children can be unintentionally cruel. It rears its head at the school disco, where everyone except you seems to get a last dance and you feel the sting of being looked right through, as if you’re transparent, in pursuit of a prettier model.

For several painfully pubescent years, rejection is a constant companion. It’s all boys, boys, boys, with their dismissive see you around, or worse still, the casual I’ll call you, ahead of the anxious three week wait and the phone that never rings. Harder to bear today, I imagine, with ever-on phones in pockets. At least back then, we could convince ourselves that we must have missed the call during those few occasional minutes when we moved beyond earshot of the phone in the hall, or when our mothers or siblings so inconsiderately monopolised the dreaded device. And what about the acid-tongued adolescent rejection – the one that brands you as frigid, inadequate or repressed, because you won’t do what all the other girls will, round the back of the bike-sheds?

Then comes work, and rejection sticks its head around the door again. In the 80’s, an era of full employment, I confess I don’t recall much in the way of rejection as I progressed through a succession of secretarial posts. But I do remember I was neither sufficiently cutting-edge, nor sufficiently waif-like, for a position at uber-trendy Virgin Records – one of relatively few knock-backs I was forced to swallow in my early career.

It was when I moved into IT Sales, that rejection and I became regular bedfellows. Here’s where you learn to lean on the platitude that it’s not personal – that the people to whom you’re trying to sell your impossibly complex technology are not rejecting you; they’re rejecting the impossibly complex technology. That thought doesn’t halt the torrent of negative reflection and self-criticism however; because if only you’d seen one more manager, made one more presentation, found the answer to one more tricky technical question, brought one more expert over from the States, put one more tick in one more box… it could all have gone your way, not the way of your competition, who, as everyone knows, are a load of amateurs flogging a box of old rubbish – aren’t they?

When it comes to redundancy, rejection has its feet firmly under the table. You’re supposed to appreciate that it’s not you that’s redundant, it’s your position… But that’s no help as you carry your cardboard box to the lift lobby and everyone on your floor contrives to be in the toilets or out running errands as you stutter your goodbyes through gritted teeth. Two redundancies for me – about par for the course these days.

Now I’m self-employed and rejection, when it comes calling – which, thankfully, isn’t often – is a gentler and more subtle guest; a display of interest or enthusiasm that isn’t followed through, for example; a polite, sorry, but we’re not quite ready to go ahead with this. It’s a kinder world I inhabit these days, and I’m glad of it.

One last place where rejection elbows its way in; I played around with internet dating for a couple of years. Here, I dished out as much rejection as I received in this plenty more fish in the sea environment. Snap judgements were the order of the day – on an ill-judged profile picture, a stuffy turn of phrase, an interest in football, the presence of a dog, the absence of ambition or the inability to string a few words into a sentence. Yes, I get it; maybe there’s a message here. Perhaps the whole agent/rejection thing is set to dish me out a bit of karma.

That said, no would-be novelist goes into the business of writing, blind to the possibility – nay, likelihood – of rejection. It’s a numbers game and there are more writers seeking to be published than there will ever be agents seeking to represent them, by a mind-boggling margin. Rejection is a fact of literary life, and I shall embrace it and take encouragement from something a dear writerly friend has just shared with me: Only real writers get rejections.