He Was A Burning Pyre of Concupiscence in a Sarcophagus of Despair, or, What a Good Agent Does for You

He was a burning pyre of concupiscence in a sarcophagus of despair.

Yeah, I actually wrote that. Sounds like something that would have fitted right in at the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, Best Beginnings for the Worst Novels Never Written. And here I thought I didn’t do purple prose.

Fortunately for me, Kristin Nelson, my lovely literary agent, caught it and crossed it out right away. I remember staring at the bright red line through my darling words. I was highly tempted to reject that particular editorial change and reinstate the sentence. It was pithy, it was strong, and it was startling imagery. It was mine, my own, my precious.

I’m glad, however, that I acquiesced on that one.

In a way, that little experience is symbolic of the trust I place in Kristin. By now her niceness is probably legendary, but most readers of her blog probably don’t realize that she is also a terrific editor. Not that I went along with everyone of her editorial suggestions–Kristin would be the first to tell you that I struck out my own way on some major story decisions. But when she took the trouble to delete one particular sentence, it was my trust in her, rather than anything else, that made me go along, cuz I didn’t realize how ridiculous the sentence was until much later.

Give at that point we’d been working together only a couple of weeks, how do I know she is that good? Easy, because she sent me a long list of editorial points right after our figurative handshake and everything she asked for made SCHEMES OF LOVE stronger and better. Some of what she wanted made hellish rewrites, because she had exposed underlying weaknesses in the story that I hadn’t even considered. But judging by how quickly the story sold, and what a relative cakewalk I had with revisions from Bantam, it was well worth the effort.

How quickly the story sold brings me to another point. The first editor who offered for SCHEMES OF LOVE did it within three days after the manuscript began making the rounds. Part of it was pure luck, that the manuscript hit her desk when it did. The other part of it, however, had to be Kristin. I don’t believe any editor is ever completely free from the to-be-read pile. That particular editor, even in a moment of relative lull, probably still had various manuscripts lined up. That she chose to read what Kristin sent in right away tells me that one, she trust’s Kristin’s taste and selectiveness, two, Kristin probably did one heck of a job selling it over the phone.

The funny thing is, the ms sold to Caitlin Alexander at Bantam in the end. I have never heard of Caitlin before, nor was Bantam even on my radar–and I’ve been writing a while, and know the names of many editors at different houses. So this is where Kristin’s familiarity with editors and their tastes and what they are looking for really paid off big time.

Big time. Therefore, I don’t understand why Kristin even has to explain that nice doesn’t mean wimpy in negotiations. Ask anyone of her clients. They will tell you she is a tough, shrewd gal. Not beneath that niceness, mind you, because there is nothing surface about her niceness, it comes from empathy and sensitivity. But just right alongside each other, the triumvirate that is Kristin Nelson: shrewd, tough, and nice. (I’d throw honest in there too, but I don’t know the 4-part equivalent to triumvirate.)

I’d go on, but I’ve homework piled up and 4000 words to write for the week. Plus, I’d better disengage my lips before they become permanently attached to Kristin’s posterior (haven’t seen it, but I’m sure it’s nice too). Hehe.

Next Tuesday, But I’m So Much Better than What’s-Her-Name!

Everything I Know About Writing I Learned from Rejections, the Sequel

I have never understood why people remain in unproductive relationships. Not just the obviously abusive kind, but relationships that seem to generate no particular emotional benefit, that coast on through sheer force of habit—because breaking up is hard to do.

It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized that I myself had been in such a relationship for a rather extended period of time. With one twist. In that relationship, I’d been the no-good sorry-ass that I kept telling my friends to ditch.

That’s right; I’m talking about me and my former agent.

Like all once-promising relationships, ours had a romantic beginning. She was one of the agents I queried for my very first finished manuscript (a prior incarnation of SCHEMES OF LOVE, which, torn down and rebuilt many years later, was sold this summer to Bantam). We did the usual song and dance. I queried. She requested a partial. Then she requested a full. Then I didn’t hear from her for nearly two trimesters.

Then one day, out of the blue, she called. She didn’t offer representation, but we talked for two hours, on my book, on writing, on everything else under the sun too, probably. When I finished my next manuscript, I sent it to her and she called right after I brought my newborn second son home from the hospital. She loved it. We became a team that day. And what a lovely time it was in my life, with a beautiful, sweet baby in the house and a limitless future in publishing stretched before me.

The manuscript didn’t sell, but we continued to have fun. When my husband gave me a surprise registration to RWA’s national conference in NYC, she changed her vacation plans and flew back from New England especially to meet me.

That was, however, the last run of good times for us. My new manuscript she did not like. I revised and sent it back. When she finally called me, she was livid. I’d changed the story around, but did absolutely nothing to improve it. “It’s not that you don’t have conflict,” she thundered. “You don’t have a story!”

Oblivious to the precarious position I was in, I sent her a few chapters from my new WIP, a slow-moving few chapters where absolutely nothing of importance happened and—I cannot believe it today—the whole thing was written from the view point of an unimportant, observing character. I never heard back from her.

She tried to tell me where I needed improvement. She really did. But I simply never heard her. I’d written one manuscript that she loved and I thought I’d learned everything there was to know about writing novels, not realizing that that particular manuscript was more of a fluke than anything else. I’d sat down and done more or less the same thing as I’d done on my first ms. It just came out a lot better. Then I pretty much went on doing the same things, and predictably enough, there was only so much story luck going around in the universe, or encoded in my karma. And my subsequent efforts sucked like the black hole at the center of the Milky Way.

A lot of times, when I see women stuck in relationships with men who don’t deserve their love, I get as angry at the women as I do at those men. Why do you tolerate that no-good sorry-ass? How is he gonna learn that what he’s doing is unacceptable unless you refuse to accept it anymore?

Well, my former agent wasn’t one to stay stuck in such a relationship. When she finally saw how clueless I was, she did the smart thing. She dumped my no-good sorry ass. And, proving that my theory on relationships and sorry-asses was exactly correct, getting dumped by someone who used to love me was one hell of a wake-up call.

I stopped assuming that everything I scribbled was readable. I became a lot more suspicious of my affectionate indulgence toward my own output. I finally got a critique partner. And tried, at least tried, to do things right.

I didn’t get things right immediately. I floundered for another whole manuscript—sixteen months, that one—showing flashes of improvement in certain chapters, and a great deal of laziness and lack of understanding on what makes anything a good read in other chapters.

But one thing was for sure. Getting rejected by my own agent taught me, if not a whole lot about writing techniques, at least a lot about myself, about the weaknesses in my character that needed to be addressed before I could sustain any kind of success, in publishing or any other field.

I can’t say that I enjoyed the process. But, just as I enjoyed neither pregnancies nor labors (no drugs, ah the pain, the pain) but am awfully fond of my children, I’m glad that someone had the wherewithal to kick me out of the house and say “I’ve had enough of your sorry ass. Grow the bleep up!”

Next Tuesday, the conclusion to the thrilling trilogy, Everything I know About Writing I learned from Rejections III: When Rejections Go Bad.

Everything I know about Writing I learned from Rejections, Part I

Alas, the author interview has been devoured by the Crapometer, hungry for some nourishment before its next appearance at Miss Snark’s dig. I have it on good authority that by the time the Crapometer has feasted on the blood and guts of dozens of hopeful writers, it will regurgitate my insignificant little piece. In the meanwhile, nothing to do but wait, and muse about rejections.

I took rejections well. When I tore open a limp, self-address envelope that had hitchhiked all the way back from New York City, and read that “thank you, but no thank you,” I grimaced a little, maybe rolled my eyes, tossed that sucker in the shoebox in my closet, and got on with my day.

No weeping into my porridge bowl, no banging my head against hard, shiny surfaces, no telephoning my fellow scribes, begging them to help me picked up the broken pieces of myself. And boy, was I smug about my robust ego and Teflon-clad, resolute sense of self. I was tough, baby, t-o-u-g-h. I got what it took to make it in this business.

Problem was, I wasn’t making it in this business. I churned out completed projects with some regularity. I had people who liked my work. I even had representation for a while. But I couldn’t scale that final height, cross that last hurdle, and get a publishing house to cough up cash for my work.

Slowly it a rather appalling suspicion began to take shape in my mind. Was it possible, was it at all possible that my toughness was actually a-r-r-o-g-a-n-c-e? I was plowing ahead, damn the torpedoes. But was I learning anything, getting any better at this whole mysterious, inexplicable art of storytelling? Or was I doing the same thing over and over, each time expecting folks to like the results a lot better?

One of the most instrumental rejection letters in my writing life came at the beginning of the query process for my grand martial-arts historical fiction. An early query letter went out via e-mail to Marcy Posner, an established NYC agent. She responded within three days, asking to have three chapters snail mailed to her.

Needless to say, I complied immediately. Three weeks later, her response came.

Dear Sherry,

Thank you for sending HEART OF BLADE. Unfortunately I just did not love it. It needs a lot of editing and is too long for the marketplace. Please do keep in mind that this is only one opinion. It is often the case that material one agent doesn’t respond to is to be met with much enthusiasm by another. You will want and need an agent who will get behind you and your work with full confidence. Given my hesitation, I’m not the one.


Marcy Posner

I haven’t seen this letter in over a year. I pulled it out of the bowels of my mail folders today and was shocked by how kindly it was worded. Because I remembered it differently. I hated it when it came. It had been a bucket of cold water thrown in my face. I couldn’t care less at that time that the water was Evian and had all kinds of curative properties, I just cared that I was cold and wet and royally peeved.

What made me unhappy were the words “It needs a lot of editing”. That totally conflicted with my view of my writing. I wrote polished prose, damn it. What the bleep was I supposed to edit? At least she had the sense to acknowledge that this was only her opinion, I thought huffily.

But as the rejections trickled in, singly and in pairs, I became less and less sure of myself. Every “not right for us” joined the chorus that backed up Ms. Posner’s professional opinion. Reluctantly, but ineluctably, I began to see that my grand opus wasn’t the masterpiece I’d thought it was, but a great idea trapped in an unwieldy execution.

The other dozen or so rejections were important. They added weight and preponderance to Ms. Posner’s judgment. They made it hard for me to say, “Oh, that’s just one person who doesn’t get it.” But it was Ms. Posner’s words in that personal rejection that really sank in, that went a long way toward turning me into a much harsher judge of my own writing.

And I’m a better writer for it.

Next Tuesday, Everything I Know About Writing I Learned From Rejections, Part Deux.