On this Easter Monday, perhaps I should chat about the Book Eternal.
No, I’m not talking about the bible. I’m talking about my Work-in-Progess that started somewhere in the Obama administration, and is still sitting in about twelve different files, four different versions, on my laptop.
Kinda feels like it’s been around since Roman times. All it’s missing is some divine inspiration.
When I first referenced this work-in-progress, it was a flash fiction I wrote that started a black hole of my brain. The following week, I posted the first draft of the scene in the book that correlated to that initial idea nugget. It was still in EXTREMELY first-draft mode. Not that I understood the difference between first and later drafts back then. I still don’t.
If I ever get an agent, and that agent okays me posting some of my content for free, maybe I’ll pair those with the “final draft.”
Is there such a thing as a final draft?
I’m currently on chapter five of my third work-in-progress (fourth, if you count my first aborted attempt at “autobiographical fiction”). I know it’s a normal reaction, opining how shitty it is compared to the one that’s on its third draft. When left brain takes over, I remember how often that first WIP felt like a smoking pile of dung-heap. All the characters were boring, but especially the main one. The action was plodding and predictable, the writing full of clichés and prone to use five words when two will do.
Even worse, I think to myself, is that this new book is horribly dry compared to my lightning-in-the-bottle first book, and that first book hasn’t even been accepted by a literary agent, much less sold to a publisher.
Of course, I haven’t actually shopped it to any agents. I’ve heard that helps?
Damn you, publishing world! Why can’t you crawl into my computer whilst I sleep and see the brilliance that I’ve written? Maybe I should ask the dude I send a bitcoin to every month for the alleged pictures he took of me doing certain things on a webcam also get me place my book into a “to be published” folder at Simon & Schuster. Or Simon & Garfunkel. I’m not too particular.
Am I the only one who does this? One time, a writing podcast was reviewing ways to make progressions feel earned, character-driven instead of plot-derived. I’m looking at you, “How I Met Your Mother” finale. Yes, I’m still bitter.
While listening to the podcast, I thought to myself, might’ve even spoken aloud to the empty car, “I fucking did that! Why the hell aren’t I published yet?” Then I remembered I hadn’t actually finished writing the novel. It was still sitting at 60,000 words where I left it when I gave up on it six months earlier. Because it was boring and predictable and full of cliches.
Damn you, publishing world! Why can’t you crawl into my computer whilst I sleep and finish my manuscript. Maybe I should get my friendly neighborhood hacker on that. Google keeps telling me all my passwords are hacked. All I have to do is make my passwords 100,000 words long and…
Anything to avoid working on that query letter.
I just spent a weekend delving into the querying process, and let me just say that rabbit hole is deeeeeeeeep! I’m talking Fantastic Mr. Fox level, needing a tractor to sift through all the bullshit that rabbit holed through.
My first foray came via Pitch Wars, a made-for-Twitter event where you condense your life’s work, your magnum opus, down to two-hundred-forty characters. Well, you need to throw a bunch of hashtags in, so it’s really more like two-hundred. I thought I had it down pat, at least until I saw it on my phone screen. Yikes! So I re-wrote it, and again, and again. You’re allowed to tweet your pitch three times in a day. My three pitches were as distant from each other as can be while describing the same book. Unfortunately, none garnered a like from agents, so I can’t figure out which one “worked.”
Next up: the query letter. The good news could use more than thirty words. The bad news was I now had to introduce myself as well as the book. I had to greet the agent like she’s a real-live human being and not a simulacrum, a Twitter bot searching for a specific keyword.
And don’t forget that hook. Like my students do, with a rhetorical question.
“Have you ever been king of France?” they often inquire. “Looking for a way to control the nobles, all the while owning a plot of land precisely twelve miles from the center of Paris?”
“Why no,” I respond, cursing English teachers for providing only one rhetorical crutch. “What an oddly specific question to ask of a position that hasn’t existed for a hundred and fifty years. Does one often respond yes to such a quandary?”
But what the hell. If a history teacher reading thirty essays gets tired of that hook, I doubt literary agents who get thousands of unsolicited drivel will mind.
Have you ever poured five fucking years into a hot pile of garbage and have finally whittled that steaming feces into something your mom describes as ‘better than what you wrote in third grade’?”
Hold on, I need to go check all those manuscript requests flooding my inbox.
I read plenty of how-tos and don’t-dos over the years, so I knew what to expect. I subscribe to Query Shark where we all laugh at atrocious query letters. I follow writers at varying stages of their career, listen to podcasts. I figured I had it dialed.
Until I sat down to write it, at which point I promptly became a third-grader learning to write for the first time.
In a foreign language.
Seriously, I’ve written over a million words and now all of a sudden, I’ve lost all ability to communicate via written word. Stephen King says that once I pass a million, I’m a real writer. Do I have to write an extra million in business-letter format?
It shouldn’t be this difficult. All you have to do is be sincere, but not drab. Stick out from the slush pile, but don’t say anything outlandish. Follow the formula, but don’t be formulaic. Opaque much?
It doesn’t help that most of the “sample” query letters start with phrases like, “I’ve written seven previous best-sellers” or “I have 25,000 social media followers” or “You asked me for my manuscript at that one writing conference.” If I’d written a bunch of best-sellers, I probably wouldn’t be looking for an agent. And writing conferences haven’t existed for a year.
Ironically, I did write up a little “elevator pitch” for my book back when I was about halfway done. On its own, it kinda pops. Intrigue, a basic establishment of plot and character, a couple of non-rhetorical questions to whet one’s appetite. Yet when I drop it into the second paragraph of a query letter, I’m all of a sudden second-guessing myself. It’s too focused on the worldbuilding, the MacGuffin that sets my 90k words apart from all those other batches of 90k words.
The query gods say I should focus more on the character, less on the setting. Also, it should read like the back of a book. But most of the book covers I’ve read focus more on inciting incident than on character. The characters are what keeps us in the book, but isn’t the setting what draws us in the first place? Star Wars starts with an imperial cruiser, not whiney Luke.
So let’s see if I got this straight. Introduce the character and the setting and the MacGuffin and the inciting incident. Plus the major plot progressions and other conflicts and themes. Maybe throw in the character’s social security number and mother’s date of birth. All in a sentence and a half. Got it!
With that out of the way, it’s time to find what lucky agent gets my speed dating salvo.
Holy shit! There are quite a few of them thar agents.
Time to pare this down. They suggest looking up the agents of books you liked. Or the books you’re going to use as comp titles. Because we all must have comp titles, published in the last five minutes because after you get your agent, it’ll still be seven decades before the book finds an editor and another three centuries before the traditional publishing houses will put it on the shelf. So you need to prove your book has a market right now.
Fine. Kings of the Wyld is one of the books I’m comping. It came out in 2017, two years after I started writing my book, and its sequel came out last year. Zeitgeisty enough. Unfortunately, Nicholas Eames is Canadian, as is his agent and agency. Plus they’re not taking submissions. Maybe not the best place to start.
So I went to the “Manuscript Wish List” website to search for agents who liked Kings of the Wyld. Found two. Unfortunately, one of them cited the multi-character viewpoint as her main takeaway. Well shit, that’s not why I’m comping it. Come back next week to see why I’m comping Kings of the Wyld. My first book review in a while and yet another post milked out of the WIP That Will Not Die.
My other comp title is Ready Player One. It shouldn’t surprise that most agents who liked that book are looking for Sci-Fi, not alternative history. Strike two.
What about the agent that actually represented Ready Player One? She’s unavailable, unattainable. She left her old agency to start her own agency, but is taking no new clients. In addition to Ernest Cline, who got a seven-figure advance for his second book to say nothing of movie rights, she has one other huge client, which I imagine is enough for both workload and income.
That’s the problem with querying comp titles and “authors I like.” Those who come to mind are successful, and many an agent retire upon capturing their white whales. Let’s do a rundown of authors who’ve inspired me.
Check Wendig and Delilah Dawson have the same agent. She’s closed to queries.
Kevin Hearne has a private, part-timish agent who only represents him.
I’m not gonna bother looking at Stephen King’s agent. If I were his agent, I would spend all my time updating the lock on the safe that contains my four-leaf-clover-embossed, golden-rabbit-foot horseshoe. Except for the one day a month I get another 2,000-page best-seller from my one and only client.
Harry Turtledove is a prolific alternative history writer, and his agent is, at least in theory, taking queries. But after a gander at his rep list, ain’t no fucking way. There are like fifty names on there, some of which are whipper-snapper upstarts like Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, Terry Goodkind, and Johnnie Cohcran. Yes, that Johnnie Cochran.
On a positive, half those guys are dead, so I won’t have to worry about a huge influx of new material from this guy’s other clients. But sheesh. I doubt he’s devoting his time to explain publishing nuances to some wide-eyed noob.
I guess what I’m looking for is the sweet spot in the middle. A magical agent who has some, but not too many, successful clients. Whose authors I admire, but who I can write as well as.
Once I find that agent, all I need to do is come up with a pithy sentence that tells him or her that I’m the perfect reincarnation of their best clients, totally worth the time they’d spend reading through my drivel, and that fits perfectly into the publishing world of today, being exactly like countless other books on the bestseller list no more than three weeks ago. But it’s also completely original!
Or I could spend the next few hours adding more agents to my spreadsheet and wait for the hackers to do their work.
Maybe Shakespeare’s agent is available.