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I’ve seen a lot of writers lately who are bemoaning their failure to write “what publishing wants.” They keep writing books that they can’t sell, and they’re feeling like it’s because what they’re writing doesn’t appeal to agents or editors. I empathize with them, because I am something of an expert on this.

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things followed the same path as all my other books. A whole lot of people said, “Hey, that’s something you’ve got there, but I don’t think anyone will buy it.” That continued until two people decided, “Yeah, I think people will buy this.” Completely random. Completely unexpected. A book that was unsaleable for three years became saleable.

I’m not saying what you feel is invalid, when you’re staring at another rejection and shouting, “WHAT DO THESE PEOPLE WANT?” That feeling you have is totally real, and it fucking sucks. What I’m saying is that publishing is a.) random, b.) cyclical, c.) not always great at figuring out what people want to read, either. If they were always right about what books will succeed, you’d never see books flop.

The other thing that I’m saying is you have to love the thing you’re writing and love it in secret. This is particularly true, because maybe nobody else will ever love this book you’re writing. Maybe you’re the only one who will ever be capable of looking at it and feeling joy. You have to love it like a monster baby hidden in the attic. You can’t look around and think, “Oh, look at all these kids on the playground. They’re so much prettier and smarter and less monstrous than my baby.” So what if that’s true? It’s still your baby. Love your monster baby. You gave it life and it needs your love. Maybe it’s never going to see the light of day, or maybe 5 years from now, monsters will be popular, and your hideous baby will be class president.

This is true even when we’re talking about own voices stories from diverse authors. It’s popular lately to complain about how agents and editors are treating diverse books like a trend, but if you already have diverse, own voices novels sitting in your drawer, how is this trend not a bonus for you? Break out those monster babies and send them to all the agents! Don’t dismiss this opportunity as a trend. After all, I used to hear people talk about vampire novels as a trend, but they haven’t gone away, have they? That door is still open. If you don’t have finished books in your trunk, that’s on you as a writer. Don’t wait to write your masterpiece until someone publishes the book that will open the door to your work. Have your work ready when that door opens.

(This post brought to you with love, by analogies gone wrong. And remember, on The Simpsons, they kept the wrong twin in the attic.)

Hugo

Hugo

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This blog post has been a long time coming, not on the small scale, as I’ve only been waiting to post my news for a few weeks. It’s been a long time coming in the sense that I’ve been seriously writing and trying to get published for two decades. In those years, I’ve had a variety of small successes (short story sales and a graduate fiction prize that paid Real Money™!) and medium successes (two novels sold to a small press.) The news contained in this post is success on a higher order.

Those of you who’ve been reading my blog for a while may remember a novel that went by the working title of Thirteen. I started writing it in the fall of 2009, and a mere five years later, it has sold. I’d put it all down to persistence, but as you’ll see from the story, my doggedness can’t take credit for everything. First the official announcement from Publishers Marketplace:

Bryn Greenwood’s What Belongs to You*, a love story between two unlikely people–a strong-willed girl of ethereal beauty and a tattooed motorcycle riding ex con with a heart of gold–and the hard-won relationship that elevates them above the Midwestern meth lab backdrop of their lives, to Laurie Chittenden at Thomas Dunne Books, at auction, by Jessica Regel at Foundry Literary + Media (NA).

It's not real until it shows up in Publishers Marketplace

It’s not real until it shows up in Publishers Marketplace

(*Due to the vagaries of publishing, after the sale, my book was retitled All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.)

So, what happened in those five years between when I started the book and when I finally sold it? A lot-a lot, as we say in my family, the exponential superlative of “a lot.”

When I started writing the book that would become All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I had an agent, and a novel out on sub. (You’ll find teasers for that novel, if you follow the tag Axyl Witt is a bad motherfucker.) Despite my agent’s valiant efforts, however, the book didn’t sell. Not long after that disappointment, my agent called to let me know that he was leaving the business of literary agenting. Just like that, I no longer had an agent.

Although publishing is changing, a writer’s odds for that elusive book sale are still dramatically better with an agent. To get a new agent, I needed a new book to query. I put in heavy hours revising, and at the end of 2011, I started querying. I queried, and I queried, and I queried. Like many writers, I have a series of Excel spreadsheets that document my writing career in the form of rejections. My handy query spreadsheet reveals that between January 2011 and February 2014, I sent 122 agent queries for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.

Now, I wasn’t sitting around doing nothing while my queries zinged around the ether (or languished in agents’ email.) I kept writing. I kept participating in writing communities. Through those communities, I met the publisher of a small press, who asked to see some of my work. I sent him the first novel I ever queried, Last Will. (Spreadsheet says: 8 queries sent, 2 form rejections received, 5 personal rejections of a warm and encouraging nature, 1 non-response. It does not record exactly why I gave up querying that novel after 8 attempts.)

The small press publisher liked my novel and offered to buy it. I accepted. In April 2012, Last Will was published. It did well for a quiet novel from an unknown writer at a small press. I suppose it did well, as in 2013, the publisher offered to publish my next book, Lie Lay Lain. (Spreadsheet says I sent 0 queries, but on the upside, got 0 rejections!) My second novel came out this April, with perhaps even less fanfare than the first.

As for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I had been querying it all along. I received quite a few requests for the full manuscript. (Spreadsheet says: 14% request rate.) I received 3 requests to revise and resubmit. I undertook two of those requests, but in the end, none of those 122 queries led to representation. Looking at that spreadsheet, at that avalanche of no, I started to consider the possibility that the book I’d been so sure was my “breakout” novel was dead in the water.

I’ve sometimes joked that selling a book to a Big 5 publisher is the equivalent of a white wedding, while small presses were more like Justice of the Peace ceremonies. With two small press books out and no prospective bridegroom, I started to think there wasn’t going to be any wedding for this book, unless I did it myself. I began researching self publishing, the Vegas wedding of publishing–no less true for its informality. I investigated cover artists, editors, distribution.

Then, in May, an agent contacted me. She’d read part of Lie Lay Lain and liked what she saw. Did I have representation? she asked. If not, would I send my current project? Why not? At that point, I had nothing to lose. I sent her the manuscript and thought nothing more of it. (Spreadsheet reveals that I had queried Jess with one of the projects that came in between Last Will and Axyl Witt, but it wasn’t a good fit for her. Based on my rejection numbers, it wasn’t a good fit for anyone.)

A few weeks after that initial email contact, we spoke on the phone and she offered to represent me. She was willing to take a chance on the book that nobody else would touch. Three months after that, All the Ugly and Wonderful Things sold at auction to a Big 5 publisher.

What’s the takeaway from all of this? Is it just that my book is like the Lana Turner of novels? Sitting there in a malt shop, minding its own business when it was discovered? You hear these stories, about writers who get an agent or publisher quite by chance, but I don’t know anyone for whom a thing like that happened. Or I didn’t until it happened to me. I am urban legend, come to life!

My conclusion, and you’re welcome to come to your own, is that you never know. This business is random, chaotic, and a little cruel. The only thing you control is how much effort you put into your writing, and how hard you work at connecting with people. The rest of it is a lot like a lottery. Once your book is as good as you can make it, you have to somehow stumble upon the perfect combination of opportunity: right agent, right editor, right moment.

What would have happened if I’d sent more than 8 queries for my first novel? I’ll never know, because I gave up. If you really want this, you can’t give up. You have to whack the publishing piñata until the candy falls out.

 

***

For the very curious among you, my query spreadsheet is like a geological history of the last few years of publishing. It reveals agencies that have opened and closed, and the careers of agents, new and old, including their entrance into the industry as interns, their moves to other agencies, and the death and retirement of other agents. It also shows the steady shift from snail mail queries to email queries, and the increasing prevalence of the non-response response.

The full stats from my spreadsheet:

In 13 years, I’ve queried 7 novels to 216 agents, for a grand total of 453 queries. In response to those queries, I received 61 requests for more material, 5 revise & resubmit requests, 452 rejections, including 197 non-responses.

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Back in May, I dropped off the radar everywhere. My new novel Lie Lay Lain had just released, and I was making various plans for what I would do to promote it. I was also considering which project I wanted to work on next: ghost trains that never stop, cougar sex in doomed bed & breakfasts, Romeo & Lolita meet Breaking Bad?

Then my pop* was diagnosed with leukemia. I abandoned every plan and project for the daily drive to the university med center, where I did what one does in such circumstances. I sat in hospital rooms and tried to ask smart questions of the doctors who were pumping my dad full of poison. I cried in bathrooms and cafeterias and elevators and parking garages so that I could put on a brave and hopeful face when I was in my pop’s room.

I don’t imagine I spent even a minute thinking about my writing career in May or June, but apparently someone else was thinking about it. An agent contacted me to ask if I had any new projects I was working on, and would I send her something. I shot off an email with a manuscript attached and put it out of my mind.

The week after I traveled by ambulance to take my pop home from the hospital, I spoke to that agent, who offered to represent me. Four years after I parted ways with my last agent, I had a new agent. Two days later, my pop died. Planning for the funeral and for the rest of my life without him ate up what would otherwise have been cause for celebration.

Now I find myself on the backside of July, about to turn in revisions to my agent. It seems like April was a million years ago, and I don’t even remember what I was supposed to do. Honestly, after four years without an agent, and having sold two books to a small press, I’d given up on traditional publishing.

Most days, I feel like I’m dragging a boat down the beach. In a perfect world, the goal is to put the boat in the water at high tide, but it’s too late for that. I’m putting the boat in at low tide and hoping for the best.

 

*To clarify, and it seems that even in this age of blended families, I must clarify: 
my pop was legally my stepfather, my mother's second husband. He was a command 
sergeant major in the Army, a 3-decade employee of the natural gas industry, 
and the man who managed to raise 5 daughters. 
My biological father is the former drug dealer and all-around scoundrel. 
My pop was my father for 36 years, and as such, has earned the right not to be 
relegated to such halfway titles as "stepfather."

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As soon as I found out about it, I become a fan of the blog Shrinking Violets.  It bills itself as “Marketing for Introverts.”  Just what I need. I’m sure all the teenagers and felons who watched me do condom demonstrations over the years wouldn’t believe that I’m an introvert, but I am.  The condom lady–that was just a role to play.  Me, the real me, is a quiet, reserved person.

Shrinking Violets recently had a guest blogger, C.J. Lyons, who writes medical suspense novels.  She also has some interesting observations about identifying and solidifying your “brand” as an author.

We’ve all watched commercial properties go through branding changes with varying degress of success and failure.  Remember when Phillip Morris changed their name or when Coke changed their recipe?

It’s strange to think of my writing in this light, but it is a product.  I am trying to sell it.  It has left me wondering what my brand is.

Obviously, I’m not flashy, as you can tell from the plain design I picked for my website.  Nor is my writing flashy.  On occasion I engage in verbal pyrotechnics, but those darlings usually end up drowned in the bathtub of revision.  I like my prose to be solid, practical, and easy to understand.  Primarily, I think that’s because I want people to think about the ideas behind the writing instead of the writing.

My website design reveals another aspect to my “brand” that I haven’t given much thought to.  Apparently I’m a “regional writer.”  I’ve written plenty of stories that take place outside of Kansas and Oklahoma, but I do find that my best short stories develop out of the rather narrow locales of my childhood.

Even when I step outside of Kansas, as I do when I write fantasy, I find that the dry pragmatism and deep passions of the place sneak into the cultures I make up.  The abolitionists who fought in the border wars and the people who stayed through the Dust Bowl crop up in places I never expected.

Also, I love intimacy.  (And by intimacy I don’t just mean sex.  Although I don’t shy away from including it where it fits and where it develops the characters.)  It’s more that I like stories told in close-up, to use a camera analogy.  I quickly lose interest in stories, reading and writing them, that are told in the long view.  Although I prefer third person to first, I like a very close third.  In stories of grand scale, I want the main action to play out in a narrow room with two or three people intensely interested in that moment.

There’s a dark element in my writing, too, that surprises a lot of people.  Betrayal, isolation, disappointment, and cruelty all make their way into my stories.  It’s what I always think of as the Peyton Place Factor.  In isolated places, people become dark, strange, secretive, and intent on their desires.  Yes, even the wholesome young men who stop to help when you have car trouble, and the little old ladies who cook at church suppers, and the nice neat Christian families who eat across from you at those same church suppers.  They’re all hoarding secrets: meth addictions, shameful lust, decades-old jealousies, crushing disappointment, daily revenges on petty slights.

In some ways, it all comes together in the novel I currently have out with a few agents.  I call it Ugly and the Beast on the days I love it.  Blackneck on the days I hate it.  Depending on who reads it, the book is perhaps urban fantasy that takes place in rural Oklahoma.  Or it’s literary with elements of magical realism.  Cormac McCarthy smokes a bong with Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Despite my original intentions, it has a deep vein of politics on the issue of the death penalty and a parallel track of folkloric whimsy.  The Executioner’s Song meets  Snow White.

Its main character, Axyl, could be my half-brother: a boy who grew up isolated among well-meaning people, with a basic notion of decency that hasn’t stopped him from killing people.  Carrying secrets and longing to find someone to tell them to.  Trapped in a cycle of betrayal and always looking for the joke that will make it okay.

Austere, dark, funny, in close-up.

What’s your brand?

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Writing almost seems like the easy part.  The hard part is the way waiting sucks your will to live, and writing involves a great deal of waiting.

Get a group of writers together and that’s the dirge we will sing in four-part harmony.  The waiting is a killer.

It all starts small and diffusely.  You’re waiting for one of dozens of agents to respond to your query.  Then it snowballs and intensifies.  You’re waiting for a handful of agents to read your manuscript and offer representation.

Once you have an agent, you’re waiting for revision notes.  You’re waiting for the book to be submitted to publishers.  Then you’re waiting for an editor to decide whether they want to buy your book.   And you’re waiting and you’re waiting.

If you should be so fortunate as to get through those hoops, you’re waiting again.  For the publisher to send corrections, for the galley proofs, for someone to decide on cover art and title.  Then you’re waiting for your ARCs and for the book to be released and for reviews and sales numbers and book signings and tours and your appearance on Oprah.  (Don’t lie, you’re totally waiting for that.)

Even if all of that goes smoothly (and how often do things go smoothly?), you may well end up right back at the beginning of the waiting game.  Waiting to finish the next book, to see if your agent can sell it, or even if your agent will represent it.

It’s a strange game and one that only a masochist would indulge in.  A kind of literary mumblety-peg.  Even if you win, it doesn’t mean you get to go home without a limp.

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Query Holiday

A lot of discussion has been raised recently by agent Stephen Barbara’s article in Publishers Weekly about how increasingly polished query letters have changed the shape of agent-prospective client interactions.  He laments, tongue-in-cheek, the passage of those halcyon days of query letters that hadn’t been workshopped to within an inch of their lives.  Of course, in some ways he’s right.  I belong to several writing groups and to a very large online writing community, where an entire enclave is devoted to brutalizing other writers’ query letters.  The goal is to end up with a query letter that will make an agent snap to attention and say, “Tell me more.”

It works.  It works too well sometimes.  I have seen query letters that went from woop-de-doo to wow!  I have also seen writers utterly crushed by the inevitable disappointment.  A fabulous query letter that produces multiple requests for full and partial manuscripts, followed by curt rejections.  No matter how much writers joke about it, it’s not easier to write a novel than it is to write a query letter.  Or at any rate, it’s not easier to write a good novel than to write a good query letter.  The letter is a paltry two or three paragraphs, and it’s no trick to get a dozen people to work those paragraphs over until they glisten in the sun like the tanned flesh of some nubile co-ed basking on the French Riviera.  If the novel hasn’t been given the same treatment, the agent is likely in for a disappointment, and the writer is in for the same.

Some people take Barbara’s lament seriously, but of course, this phenomena doesn’t ultimately harm the publishing industry–and certainly it isn’t as harmful as bad business decisions.  It just delays a rejection.

Still, writing query letters is a troubling thing.  In essence, it is the act of writing a letter to a complete stranger, asking for a favor. 

Dear Agent:

I’ve written this book which I think is quite good and I hope you’ll be kind enough to read it.

Sincerely,

Writer You Never Heard Of.

Firebrand Literary has decided on an interesting and old-fashioned approach: a query holiday.  Beginning today and running until January 15, they are not accepting query letters.  They’re simply asking writers to e-mail the first 20 pages of their novels.  The idea being that the agency will do what most readers do: open a book and start reading until it loses their interest.

I had a little frisson of delight when I sent off my sample chapters.  Without regard for how it turns out for me, I do wonder what the impact will be on the agency.  Will this be a one-shot that goes down as a failed idea?  Or will it usher in a new age?

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