“We Love Your Story, Characters and Writing Style…But We’re Going to Pass…”
A hundred years ago, a writer just had to write a good story. There was no hype, best seller list, no five star ratings, no book tours, no second guessing by agents or publishers, no white-knuckled, migraine-inducing, inflated expectations of the “next offering.” There was just the book and the populace either loved it or hated it.
Yes, the PEOPLE had the say of whether a writer was worth reading. And that is STILL the way it is. It’s the people who devour books, join book clubs, share their favorites with friends, chat about books on the Internet and love discovering new talent who will make or break a writer. The trick these days is getting your book into the hands of these people. And that, my friends, can be one helluva rocky road.
I thought writing Protector was an exercise in endurance. I was only half-right. Gearing up for the selling of Protector was akin to training for the Olympics. We’re talking girding the loins, growing a tough hide and stoking the coals of willpower each and every day to withstand the constant rejections. Getting Protector to an agent and then publisher while staying true to my story and myself was a process that was depressing as well as debilitating at times. But along the way, I learned valuable lessons that I’ll share with you.
As I referenced in my last post (Part 1), I finally got an agent who was seriously enthusiastic about Protector. But first, he strongly suggested I hire an editor to review the book and make suggestions. (It’s always interesting when an agent or publisher gushes about your work and then suggests you make changes to it. It’s the ultimate “You’re perfect! Now change!” attitude.) But the guy had a point. Which brings me to:
Valuable Lesson #1: Never think your book is “perfect.” The more time you have to reflect on it, the more chance you’ll have to improve the character development and tighten the story. I’ve learned that, if possible, you should finish your book and then set it aside for several months before re-reading it as if you were a casual observer to see where changes can be made.
So, I hire the editor. His name is Lou and he’s terrific. He loves Protector but outlines several pages of alterations, including severely cutting 200 pages from the manuscript. The first draft was a hefty 650 pages and included a lengthy back-story on a former boyfriend of Jane’s named Mark. Mark was an integral part to Jane’s history and a fulcrum for her behavior in the present day. But did he add anything substantial to the plot that wasn’t already there? No. Thus, I agreed to cut Mark from the book. That chopped about 100 pages. The other 100 pages were cut over the course of about five months as I tightened scenes and cut out extraneous ones. This brings me to:
Valuable Lesson #2: Always have passion for your story but approach it with a critical eye. You could easily be attached to a scene for personal reasons but those reasons may not propel your story forward. You often need to be brutal when it comes to trimming the fat from your book. If a scene still feels long after the 15th read, keep cutting.
Once Protector was edited down to a suitable 450 manuscript pages, my agent proceeded to eagerly submit it to publishers. Remember, he was sure he would sell it “within weeks.” That was February of 2004. Well, weeks passed and nothing happened. No rabid bidding wars ensued from publishers. By late summer of 2004, the rejection letters began to pour in to my agent’s office. In turn, he forwarded them to me. His comment? “I’ve never read rejection letters like this before. They’re actually…glowing.” Here’s a sampling:
“We love Laurel’s story, characters and writing style…but we’re going to pass…”
“Laurel Dewey has created a memorable character in Jane Perry…I look forward to seeing her name on the NYT Best Seller List…But I have to pass on this book….”
“This is one of the best debuts I’ve read in a long time…It’s a powerful story…Compelling…But I don’t know how to sell it to the public…I’ll have to pass.”
“I think Laurel has created a great story but I’m not sure the public will relate to it…Thank you, but I’ll pass on this.”
“Good story but it’s not good enough. I don’t think the public will care as much as they should…But I know you’ll find a publisher willing to take the chance…Good luck…I need to pass on this…”
My agent, editor and I were all dumbfounded. So, where to go next? It was decided that we’d wait six months and then re-send the manuscript to new editors at the publishing houses. Good Lord, I thought. That would be a year from the day my agent told me I was the next sure thing. This was getting depressing. Which brings me to:
Valuable Lesson #3: Depression and discouragement are part of the writing game. Accept it from the get-go or don’t become a writer. It’s okay to get depressed, scream into the night sky and bang your proverbial head against the wall. I did all of these and more. Frankly, after 18 rejections, it gets damn hard to take it with a cheerful, positive, Pollyanna smile. You have the right to be despondent and drown your sorrows in a glass of wine or pint of ice cream or both. But you also have an obligation to get over it, toss aside the tear-stained tissue and keep plugging away if you expect to make it in the business.
Once I emerged from my Sylvia Plath moment of despair, I decided to see the glass half full. I was determined to use those six months to slightly alter Protector even further. Since there was a paranormal thread in the story, I decided to ratchet up that element of Protector. Which brings me to:
Valuable Lesson #4: Always be open to new ideas in regard to your book and new approaches to strengthen your story. It was at this point of the game that I added a brand new character, Tony Mooney, into the book. Now, adding a new character on the third draft is not typical but after a lot of careful thought, Tony became a solid chord to establish the paranormal element. It was exactly the strengthening point that Protector needed.
Six months came and went and my agent got interested in other projects. Discouragement crept back into my bones. He promised to give my book more attention “soon.” Thus, I took one more look at Protector and made more adjustments to it. Fourth draft. The final draft. I read and re-read it and knew in my heart that it was good.
Publishers, however, had other ideas. Once my agent sent out the book again, we were met with less than high praise.
“The chapters are too long.”
“The book is too linear.”
“What’s the genre? Is it a crime thriller or is it metaphysical? It can’t be both.”
“I don’t think readers will care.”
“The story structure is too old fashioned.”
“It’s a mid-list book. The mid-list author is dead.”
“It’s not the next DaVinci Code…”
And my personal favorite….
“Laurel Dewey is not extraordinary.”
I fell into a slump. I was beyond depressed. This was my baby and they were telling me my baby was ugly and needed a lot of dental work. But this is where the rubber met the road, folks. I had to ask myself how much I believed in myself and what I wrote. This is the point of the journey where you either crawl in a hole and give up or stagger forward and keep pushing. Lou made a comment that lingered in my head: “New York publishers are out of touch. If you can get this into the hands of the public, you’ve got a hit…”
Shortly after that, I had to fly to Los Angeles on family business. I always troll the bookstores at the airport whenever I have a long layover and that’s when I observed something wonderful. One by one, travelers from all walks of life trudged into the bookstore. They tiredly stared up at the array of book offerings, grabbed one that had an enticing cover, read the blurb on the back and usually purchased the book. I overheard one of them say, “I’m just looking for a good story to take my mind off my day.”
And suddenly, it was so clear again to me. When it came right down to it, we writers are not curing cancer, brokering peace in the Middle East or splitting the atom. We’re just storytellers. A lot of the publishing merchants and agents have forgotten about that. Too many of them are looking for the next “big” book. The only problem is, they’re so into discovering the next big book, they overlook the “good reads”—the read that those airline travelers were searching for. The story that takes a person away from their troubles for a few hours at a time. Readers want to be entertained. If a story happens to be profound, all the better. If it happens to make a reader explore ideas they never thought of before, great. But in the end, people just want to kick back, read a book and then pass it onto a friend or leave it in the seat pocket of the airplane. Which brings me to:
Valuable Lesson #5: Stay true to yourself and your vision even when the Ivory-towered power brokers tell you that you’re not good enough. Hey, it’s YOUR vision and YOUR creative outlay of energy. In the end, YOU have to believe in yourself and your project more than anyone else.
You probably think that this is the point where I tell you a publisher said “yes,” the clouds parted, the angels sang and I broke open the champagne, right? Wrong. I may have seen the light but my agent did not. He dropped me, explaining that he had done everything he could and wasn’t interested anymore.
I spent the next nine months sending queries to more agents. Twenty-eight to be precise. They all declined to represent me.
But still I believed that if I could get Protector into the public’s hands, I’d have a hit. However, the big publishing houses made it clear they weren’t interested. I realized I’d been focused on the big guys and ignoring, the smaller, independent presses. So, without representation, I started to call small presses and began submitting Protector directly to them. Within less than a month, one of them said “yes.”
What a sweet, almost unattainable word. After a glut of “no’s,” the word “yes” sounded like the ting of fine china against the edge of a spoon.
A lot of work followed, but I dove in happily, knowing that the effort was all pointing toward the snowy day many months later when I’d open a box from the publisher and finally hold Protector in my hands.
You only have one chance to experience the publication of your first novel and the memory will forever be etched in my mind. Which brings me to:
Valuable Lesson #6: The journey is often more important than the journey’s end. It’s important to keep your eyes forward on the prize but it’s equally vital to turn around every now and again and remember the path you’re traveling. If you’re going to be a writer, there’ll be plenty of potholes and detours and a few dead end roads. But as you migrate up and down that often-rocky road, you’ll eventually discover that to capture the golden egg, you’re going to have to carve your own trail. It’s in the carving of that trail that you’ll learn what you’re made of and whether you truly believe in yourself.
The road hasn’t ended for me. It’s just gotten a bit steeper. But the view from the road has certainly improved.