September 6, 2010

Querying is Scary Shit

I like writing fast. I like producing a lot of stories in a short amount of time. I have a lot of stories crammed into this brain, and I'm starting later than I should have in my life (whole different therapy session about why that is). Regardless, I have somewhere between 10 and 30 years left and a crap load of stories to tell. So I write two novels a year. Two a year will get me 20 to 60 novels by the time I'm done, a respectable number that will have demonstrated my storytelling adequately.

Now, I would not write two novels a year if those novels were poor. This isn't some NaNoWriMo deluge of fecal matter with a title on it. I write complete and revised stories that I think others will enjoy. Plenty of authors have that level of output Jim Butcher, Hannah Mosk, etc.) so I don't feel like I'm cheating my story or the writer from finishing the first draft in three months.

Most agent blogs recognize that people write at different speeds, but sometimes still say if you haven't spent X number of months doing revision/letting it sit/critiquing/whathaveyou, you're not ready. Usually X equals a value higher than I will spend on a draft (or sometimes on the entire damn thing). And while I'm normally happy to ignore their comments as something for those authors that spend a year or more writing their novels, I'm starting to wonder if I was wrong.

BLACK MAGIC AND BARBECUE SAUCE is weak on protagonist emotional evolution. The reason he does what he does in the end is more gut reaction or spiteful middle finger than any growth. And while that is perfectly possible, I think it shorts him on being a genuine good guy and not just the main character. WANTED: CHOSEN ONE, NOW HIRING has a weak subplot with Podome and Nashau's discovery of the truth. If I had let these novels sit, would I have better realized their flaws and been able to affect a revision to correct them before I queried? (Note, neither of these things had any impact on the success of my querying, but you want to present the best possible manuscript when you start the query process.)

So now we come to THE TRIAD SOCIETY. I finished the draft 11 days ago. With the previous two, I think I took a week off (or less) before starting revision. By the time you get to the end of a 150,000-word manuscript, let me tell you, you want to go back and fix everything that no longer works at the beginning. The story evolves. And once you start doing that, you just roll through the whole thing. An 88,000-word manuscript is considerably smaller. The end is much like the beginning. So why am I taking so much time off?

First, TTS's length bothers me. It puts me in a GREAT position in terms of querying agents and appealing to publishers. Paper is a mitigating factor and word-count restrictions have become tight. There are people who wouldn't even consider WCONH because of its length. So this is a good thing. But if feels like I told an incomplete story. Certainly a number of things I had plotted at the beginning never materialized because the story went a different direction. It was originally going to be an intrigue story that turned into an adventure story. 88k feels too short to me. I write fantasy, dammit. Fantasy is long. At least, the fantasy I've always loved is long.

Did I do this subconsciously? Did I write a short manuscript to better my chances for consideration? And in so doing, did I tell a poorer story? I'll tell you write now, I don't think TTS is as good as WCONH. The latter is one of the best stories I've ever told and with a good copyeditor (*cough*DeannaHoak*cough*) would be even more amazing. TTS is a 1-2-3 adventure with its own damsel in distress (yes, I disdain the trope that much that I'd include it in multiple posts).

So, now it's time to revise, but I'm not. Is it because it's a lesser script? If WANTED didn't hack it and that's amazing fiction, how could this make it? Or worse, what if this did make it? What if a bunch of agents asked to read it and offered representation? It would erode my confidence in my own writing and my belief that there's an agent out there that likes the things I like and will see the value in my work regardless of the word count. Maybe I can get some luck with Joshua Blimes. He reps Brandon Sanderson and that guy's word counts are through the flipping roof. I look like a YA book in comparison.

But what if that's not it? What if I'm delaying revising because I want to delay querying. I posted this as a rhetorical question on Twitter and IoMTolly decided to answer. (IoMTolly is a gag account from a blog I follow, Ideology of Madness, which was okay when I thought it was my friend Andrew--you can be an asshat when you've known me for 15 years, but it's not him, so now I'm annoyed). He says that yes, I'm scared. I am, but that's not why I'm delaying. I'm delaying because the ms isn't good enough. Obviously, revision will make it good enough. A first draft is never good enough. Never. Understand that now. Your first draft is shit. Second drafts are where novels are born. But it's only 88k and if someone tells me what a great fantasy it is, I'll have to smack them because great fantasy is longer than 88k. (That is all bias, THE BLACK COMPANY was short, but I think there were some definite weaknesses in the story that might have been fixed with a higher word count.)

But I'm scared? Yes, at least somewhat. No one in his or her right might looks forward to rejection. And if you're querying properly, there will be lots of rejection (don't get me started on the 3/4 of your queries should yield results for more work, bullshit; that's a tirade for a post of its own). Now what IoMTolly has never experienced is querying multiple novels in a year and getting rejected. I didn't query BMBBQ until late 2009, so if I queried by October, I would actually have three novels worth of rejection in a single year.

Rejection is hard. It's cumulatively hard. The first round felt validating. I'm in the process! I'm working the system. The second was much harder. I had written a much better story but got the same results. Worse, other people were mumbling along and getting offers. This is the first time I've written anything, tee hee. I'm fourteen and I'm ashamed I didn't start at twelve, tee hee. These are people you grow to hate not because you know them or they need hating (well, maybe the fourteen year old), but because you hate being rejected. You hate that your work doesn't grab them and say, wow, I want more! You hate being told, you're not good enough.

And let's get one thing straight, publishing is subjective, and a rejection (especially a form rejection which is what you get most frequently) is not a statement on the quality of your work. But when you've run the list of agents to query and they've all rejected you, that feels like a statement of the quality of your work. It still may not be, but that's how it feels. And going through that repeatedly is hard.

Will I stop? Of course not. That's not even a question worth entertaining. It will happen sooner or later (sooner is preferable to later). But I won't lie. Each time I get to this point in the process, it's harder than it was the time before.


  1. Querying sucks, and I am sorry you're caught up in the middle of it.

    I think you're right in being annoyed that the industry standard for fantasy has changed. It used to be that you could write a 150k manuscript, and that was considered okay. As someone who also tends to write 150K page epics, I certainly feel your pain. But as the publishing climate goes through apocalyptic like changes, I think the best strategy for us at the moment is to write something shorter, within the 80-100k range, just to get our foot in the door.

    Sanderson's word counts are through the roof, but he's an established author who publishers know will move books (especially now that he's finishing the last Wheel of Time novel. I saw him walking down the hall at Dragon Con and was annoyed because people were mobbing him for autographs, and clogging up the hallway). It sucks, but at the moment I think it's best to play the game.

    However, I don't think you should let word count make you feel trapped and limited. If you don't think 88K is enough to tell the story, maybe you can flesh some things out to get the book to be about the 100K range, which is still acceptable from what I understand.

    I think it's possible to tell a good, strong story in 90-100K words. It's just going to be a lot more straight forward than something that's 150K.

    This is something that occurred to me yesterday at my writing class, while we were all collectively bemoaning the death of acceptable word counts. What if you revised Wanted: Chosen One to be 100k? You WOULD have to cut some things out, but if this is the story that you love the best, that you think is the best chance to break into publishing, why not give it a shot?

    I haven't read The Triad Society yet, so I can't say which I like better, but I thought I would just throw that suggestion out there. I am sure you don't want to hear it, since you're already done with revision on Wanted, but I figured I'd at least make the suggestion.

    I don't want to come across as I am telling you what to do. I don't know what it's like to get nearly three novels rejected in a year. This is all just my musings and advice. Maybe you should take a little time off, just to let your psyche heal. Not necessarily three months, but maybe a week or two, if you feel like that's what you need.

    Something else that was mentioned at the conference is this frequency is in your favor. It sucks big time now, but if you continue to try, and be persistent, the agents and editors will notice. They will see you name popping up again and again, and realize that you're not just trying to write one book, and be done with it, but that you're in it for the long haul. You're not going to go away and you're not going to quit.

    Until then, I offer my condolences.

  2. Yay! Liz is my first commenter, as I knew she would be. :)

    I know the publishing-side concerns of paper costs more than most unpublished authors. I was still working the print side when China caused the paper shortage that is now a standard issue of the business (there are people whose sole purpose is to buy paper). I used to have a Lindenmeyr stress ball and everything. I understand why publishers are concerned. And I've read and try to accept that it's easier to add than to subtract words, which is why agents stick to those numbers too. But it takes the genre I've known all my life and flattens it like a pancake and that kills me. Ebook only releases will be the epic fantasy salvation.

    Sanderson's first book, ELANTRIS, was thick as well. Rothfuss' first book was 250k. Does epic fantasy need saving? Or am I just not good enough? That's the question I swing around. Exceptions are made all the time. If they're not made for you, does that mean you're not exceptional?

    And no, I would not reduce WANTED's word count unless that reduction made it a better story. If it only gave me a better shot at being published, then I'll pass. I want the story to be the best that it can be regardless of the word count. (Yes, this exposes my own ridiculous bias that TTS is too short, but I at least I admit that it's a ridiculous bias.)

    Thanks for commenting, Liz. I'll have TTS for you to read in a few weeks, probably the beginning of October.