C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

Write and publish with love and fury.

The Writer Rejection Scam

Stephen King signature.

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Sometimes I hear writers take pride in the number of rejections in their file cabinets. The idea is that they compete with writer friends to pile up the rejection slips. The person with the most number of rejections by a certain date…er…”wins.” Riiiight. I don’t know how this myth got started but it’s a popular one.

It’s not that this is a totally useless strategy (and I’ll review the advantages in a moment) but first, let’s burst the rejection scam bubble:

If you are writing fast without second drafts or third or umpteenth drafts in order to pump up your submission rate, you’re losing. More rejection slips? That’s no measure of how close you are to publication. If that were true, the worst writers in the world submitting the most illiterate crap across the planet are all just on the cusp of bestsellerdom.

If you get a lot of rejection slips that don’t actually include personal notes on how the writing didn’t work for the reviewer, you’re losing.

It’s also very hard to get any personal notes on your work, by the way. Many agents and editors don’t believe in detailing the reasons for rejection. There are so many variables to evaluate writing that are idiosyncratic and peculiar to the editor, it doesn’t profit you to hear they rejected you for subjective reasons.

Neither does it profit them to take the time to give you a heads up that you were a near miss. Many editors have so many submissions on their desk that they really don’t want to encourage more people to resubmit. The mailbox will be full tomorrow regardless and your persistence is expected without free coaching and hand holding. (And just because you submitted a manuscript, no editor owes you free manuscript evaluations, feedback or reasons for rejection.)

If you’re clearing an alley of bad guys, use the twelve gauge with the .00 load. With manuscript submission, however, scatter shot is less effective than picking and aiming at your targets.

Submit everywhere without careful thought on how to target your market? Then you’re losing. It’s time you’re losing primarily, though the loss of confidence and self-esteem can’t be glossed over. It takes a lot of ego to put yourself out there, so choose carefully how you put yourself out there. Artists need all the narcissistic hope and unreasonable aspirations of a lottery player.

If you’re submitting everywhere in the slim hope that an agent or editor will take the time to take you under their wing, build you a nest and show you where you went wrong with your flightless novel, you’re losing. When dealing with mass submissions, editors and agents get impatient with bad writing, or even writing that isn’t bad but doesn’t suit them. I’ve seen it personally. Behind closed doors there’s even a lot of laughter at published writers’ work that’s bound for publication. (Oh, yeah, that’s right! I said it! I’ve seen it and endured it!)

If it’s feedback you’re after, alpha readers, beta readers, hired editors, writing and critique groups will get you more feedback than can be fit on a tiny rejection slip. Plus, you’ll be getting much more careful evaluation.

People going through a slush pile aren’t there to help the writer. They are there to evaluate whether your manuscript is a good bet for a business deal that suits their purposes and interests.

Much is made of Stephen King‘s pile of rejection slips. I think too much has been made of the rejection slips impaled on that spike in King’s attic. It’s not that some magic kicks in once you hit a special number of slips. It is, instead, what the rejection slips symbolize: sweat equity and time invested in improving craft. I’m not suggesting you submit fewer manuscripts per se. I’m saying, offer your work wisely.

A higher number of rejection slips is not an achievement to be celebrated any more than failing to complete every race you enter makes you a better runner. It might make you a noble aspirant. Or maybe you’re too bull-headed to train properly and learn. Either possibility has validity.

It was all the writing and reading King did while the slips piled up that mattered

It was the feedback he got from a newspaper editor that mattered

That editor sat down with King and went over a story about a high school basketball game. He showed King how to tighten his writing. A little mark up, some rearranging and red pen work et voilà!: The magic of editing improved the writer’s craft. (If you haven’t read Stephen King’s On Writing yet…well, just go do that and thank me later.) 

What are the advantages of piling up rejection slips? If you need to compete with a friend to get you to write, I don’t see anything wrong with that. Everybody needs some gentle  motivation (or a kick in the bum) sometimes. (Okay, maybe you don’t ever need a writing crutch, but that makes you an inhuman freak, Trollope!)

If you get personal feedback and encouragement from editors and agents, that’s a good sign you’re on the right track. If you just get a note or two though, that doesn’t constitute a trend you should necessarily heed. Editors and agents have their own agendas that may reflect very little on your writing and you’ll never know what’s in their minds.

Don’t rush to produce writing at the expense of quality. As Truman Capote said of Jack Kerouac‘s On the Road, “That’s not writing. That’s typing!”  (Granted, Capote could be a bitch and lots of people like On the Road.)

Still, getting a big pile of rejection slips is not the end game. Writing extensively (and well), reading broadly (and well) and getting righteous feedback will get you where you want to go.

Yes, I know: Rejection is part of the process. But neither should rejection be fetishized and assumed useful. Some lucky few writers are a hit right out of the gate. Are they still bad writers because they haven’t “paid their dues” and “jumped through hoops”?

That thick skin some say you’re supposed to develop through rejection would be used more effectively if you  got a manuscript evaluation or joined a critique group. (And thick skin is another thing that’s overrated and fetishized. Thick skin helps you take writing advice, yes. But when the reviews come in and someone writes something nasty in a comment about your book —your baby!—on Amazon, veteran author or newbie, you’ll be just as pissed.

Now, how do you target your submissions to likely editors and agents? 

Well, that’s a post for another day. Another day that will come soon.

Stay tuned. 

Filed under: Books, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Writers, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Writers: Take a penny, leave a penny

New York City Serenade

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The agent talked about her latest sales: This fabulous author and that little debut. She called them her authors, her books. It sounded like such a glamorous world. The writer hadn’t seen any of it for herself, but she had a writer’s mind so she could imagine every tantalizing detail.

“Good for you,” the writer said.

“Well, it’s not all cocktail parties, you know. In fact, it’s not nearly enough cocktails. Sometimes I hate it. You should see our slush pile. Long nights. No down time. I’d love to read the latest good books, but I have so much to read, I end up reading more bad stuff than good. You know how it is.”

The writer nodded and smiled, but she didn’t know how it was. She only read the good stuff. She aspired to be one of those writers who get a book launch and get to gripe about not getting paid enough as they examine royalty statements.

She glanced down at her own manuscript in the middle of the desk between them. She had changed the title five times over the course of as many drafts. Now she thought the words on the cover sheet should read: THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM.

The writer thought of the bills that had been piling up as she wrote and rewrote multiple drafts of her book. She wanted to ask, “What do you think we can get for it? Any chance of an auction?” The writer didn’t have dollar signs blinding her vision. Her family had been supporting her efforts to get published for a long time. She wanted to finally have some money to show for it. She thought of all those nights she said, “Mommy’s working.” Everyone else she knew who worked got a paycheck.

But the writer knew those questions would sound impertinent. Unprofessional. Instead, she acted cool and casual and nodded at her manuscript. “Is it any good?”

Is it benign? is what she meant.

Sure, it’s good,” the agent replied. Then, a deep breath and a furrowed brow. “A lot of people might even think it’s great.”

The writer’s shoulders relaxed.

“But it’s not just a question of it being good.”

The writer’s shoulders tensed again. “It’s not?” Uh-oh…

The agent picked up the manuscript, felt its weight a moment and then placed it back on her desk. Then she slowly slid it back toward the writer. “The landscape has changed a bit since we last spoke.”

The writer sat up straight in her chair. She didn’t want to pick up her manuscript. Not yet. If she took it back, it would signify something she didn’t want to see.

“There are a lot fewer bookstores. The economy isn’t recovering as fast as we’d hoped. E-books are really screwing things up, I can tell you. There’s a lot of flux in the industry,” the agent said.

“Flux.”

“Yes.” The agent pushed back from the desk and stood. “I tell you what,” she said. “The market just isn’t ready for this sort of thing right now. I could have sold this a year ago, maybe even a few months ago.”

A few months ago you told me to take another swing at it, the writer thought.

“But it’s just not hot enough with my editors—”

There it was again. My authors, my books, my editors. It was if her agent held the keys to the whole world.

“…and I’m not as enthusiastic as I’d hoped. If I take something to them which isn’t really double-plus ready for prime time, they’ll never let me in the door again. I have to love it to sell it. You understand.”

The writer thought of all those years her father sold Fords. He didn’t love every model, but he had sold a lot of cars. The writer refused to rise from her chair. And she would not touch her manuscript. Promises hadn’t been made, no. But the agent had always sounded so positive. It had taken her two years to find this agent. Everyone said two years was lucky.

“Can I…? What could I do to fix the draft?” She hated the desperate tone that crept into her voice then.

The agent shook her head, but she was smiling in a way the writer guessed was supposed to be reassuring. “I wouldn’t worry,” the agent said. “Eventually, with a stick-to-it attitude, you’ll be published soon enough.”

Soon enough? What did that mean? The writer winced.

The agent put up her hands in a soothing gesture. “Relax and persevere. Your writing shows so much promise.”

The writer had heard this phrase many times. She thought if she heard it again, she might just throw a very embarrassing, very childish tantrum.

“So what should I do?” the writer asked.

“Oh, I think you should start fresh, of course,” the agent said. She was still smiling that infuriating smile.

Fresh? The writer had begun this manuscript (her third unsold manuscript) four years ago! The weight across her shoulders felt like an ox yoke.

“Don’t be discouraged,” the agent added breezily. “This is how this business works.”

“This business doesn’t seem to be working for me,” the writer said. I’m not even sure you’re working for me. She thought it but she didn’t dare say it.

The writer took a breath, held it a moment and then let it escape between her teeth in a slow hiss. “I don’t want to hear about flux. Give me something I can chew,” the writer said. “What’s wrong with it? You were so enthusiastic about the pitch.”

The agent came around the desk and took her elbow, ushering the writer toward the door as she spoke. “It’s a combination of elements. Not loving it enough is the main thing. If you’re looking for something more concrete to work on, I’d say this draft turned into a bit too much of a cross-genre issue. We have to be sure which shelf the book will be on so we can market it effectively. Is it a thriller or is it a sci-fi? I’m not sure. I bet you don’t know. It’s not…” the agent searched for the right word, “definitive.”

No, the writer thought. She’s appearing to search for the right word, but she’s acting. She’d said this many times before. She said it the way human resources people spit out, “…and we thank you for your years of service.”

“Wait. I do know. It’s a thriller, but if they aren’t sure—whoever they are—they can put it on both shelves,” the writer said. “And if bookstores are disappearing and people are buying books online so much, bookshelves aren’t really such an issue anymore are they? Shouldn’t we at least give some editors the chance to say no?”

The agent’s mouth was a line now. “You have to trust me,” she said. “I know this business. I’ve worked in it for almost twenty years.”

The writer said nothing. She was angry, but she wasn’t sure she should be angry with her agent. She wished she knew who to blame. The agent’s answer seemed to be that she should blame market conditions. Or herself. She didn’t know, but she wasn’t so far gone she didn’t wonder if the agent’s twenty years of experience meant she was now twenty-years stale.

The agent’s hand was on the doorknob. “I have a piece of advice for you,” she said. “I have to share it with all my clients at one time or another. Are you listening?”

The writer nodded. She could hold back the big fat baby tears until later, but she cursed herself still. She knew her eyes were wet and shiny. She wasn’t looking like a professional writer just now.

“Pick up the pennies,” the agent said.

“Wha…whut?”

Pick up the pennies! My mentor always told me that and now I’m telling you. When you see a penny or a dime in the street, pick it up. It’s your message to the universe that you’re open to receive your fortune. You’ll get good things eventually if you let the universe know you’re open to whatever it will give. When you pick up a penny, you’re telling the universe, God, Fate, whatever…you’re saying, ‘I’m patient and worthy of your grace. I’ll wait for my time and my turn.'”

With that, the agent grabbed her hand and pumped it firmly twice. “Good luck!” She seemed almost cheerful. “Pitch me again some day when you’re really really ready.”

Outside on a bench the writer searched her purse for tissues that didn’t look too well-used. Somehow she had the manuscript in her hands again. The agent had slipped it into her grasp so smoothly. She looked at the cover again. She felt the weight of it. It had seemed so valuable.

And what would she tell her family? Worse, what would her writing group say? They hadn’t been fans of the story at first but she’d honed it and they had come around. The people she had trusted most had loved the story, but now, obviously, their opinions had been wrong. All wrong. Not even close to right by accident.

This, she thought, had been needlessly humiliating. She should have just waited for an impersonal email instead of making an appointment. What had she been thinking when she picked up the phone? When she had spoken to the agent’s snotty assistant, the writer had said, “I’m in the city and I thought, hey, I can finally meet my agent in person!” As if she ever just happened to find herself in New York. As if she didn’t live three states away.

She’d felt so good about that move. It seemed so bold then. She had pictured the agent taking her to lunch where they could plot strategy over gourmet coffee with cinnamon swizzle sticks. The agent, she knew from her blog, was big on planning her stable’s careers. She felt like such a rube now that she hadn’t even stayed long enough for a stale cup of office coffee with lousy powdered creamer in a paper cup.

The city street bustled on around her. Hundreds walked past and they all ignored the woman snuffling on the bench. How much older would she be before it was her turn to get noticed? How much patience was reasonable? Maybe it was time to quit.

She had always dreamed of being a published author, but it was a dream with no known origin. She didn’t have to do it. It wasn’t beyond the dictates of her own will. Would she always be held hostage to the whim of her eight-year-old self? This was like running a marathon with no known finish line. Why not stop? No one was making her do this. She couldn’t call this a profession after this. Now it was just a hobby.

She could do something else, too. She had talents. She loved to cook. It wasn’t too late for culinary school. Maybe she would write a cookbook one day. She didn’t like the hours and the time it would mean away from the kids, but she could go for that real estate license. If she saved enough, there was still time to go back to university, she supposed. But what, besides english lit, would interest her? And wouldn’t all those books be a terrible, daily reminder of the beautiful dream she’d abandoned?

The writer looked down. At her feet she spotted a penny on the sidewalk. It was so soiled it was almost black. This, she thought, was one of those plot twists that would make an editor with a MFA scoff. She smiled and, without thinking, reached for it. Before her hand touched it, she froze.

What message was she sending the universe? Patience and openness and receptivity? Like her place could only be a gift? Like the universe was deciding whether she was worth a favor?

No.

That’s when she knew what picking up pennies really meant: If she stooped for a penny she was really telling the universe she’d settle for anything.

No.

She would not settle for a grudging gift. She would choose the dignity of earning her place instead. She would go get it herself.

The writer marched down the street with renewed purpose as she shoved the manuscript into her bag. She’d print off a new one as soon as she got home. She held her head high. Her step was fast and her shoulders light. A plan was forming. There was so much to do. She had to research ebooks and POD and formatting. She had to figure out self-distribution. She had to hire an editor and recruit proofreaders. When she got back to the hotel she’d call her husband and announce the great news. She wasn’t just an author anymore. She was a publisher now, too.

She knew she wasn’t supposed to smile at New Yorkers. You were supposed to look straight ahead, avoid everyone’s eyes and blend in. Instead, the writer beamed at everyone she saw. “Bright lights, big deal.”

Filed under: agents, authors, Books, ebooks, getting it done, manuscript evaluation, publishing, Rant, Rejection, Writers, , , , , , , , ,

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Writers: The mire of conflicting advice & unfair criticism

The hierarchical structure of the autobiograph...

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When I got into the business, there was a criticism meant to shut writers down.

“Too autobiographical” was the kiss of death.

That’s ironic for several reasons:

Biographies and autobiographies are moneymaking books. Sarah Palin‘s ghosts have already published more books than you and possibly more books than she’s read. Okay, that was a cheap shot, but somewhat funny and it has the added bonus of being an Irish fact—that is, something that is a lie, but should be true.

I digress.

Back to the issue of unfair criticisms and misguided advice:

 The mind boggles at Augusten Burroughs work. How much childhood trauma can one man recycle into his fiction and non-fiction? He has enough monsters, addictions and insanity in his past that he’s set for several more books at least.

“Too autobiographical” is now a stale criticism when you consider the movement of the market toward tell-alls, whistleblowing and confessionals. There’s a lot of popular fiction that’s thinly veiled life story, too. In fact, if you’ve been a lion tamer-stripper-celebrity-prostitute, you’re a much easier sale than if you’re just another writer working away at your desk making stuff up.

Diablo Cody is a talented writer, but she had a lot more heat going into the fray because of her tattooed image and history as a stripper. I’m not saying she wouldn’t have sold the brilliant Juno script anyway, but really, how many celebrity screenwriters can you name besides her, McKee and William Goldman? If you came up with a few names, it’s probably because they are famous writer-directors, not just writers.

(And notice that irksome phrase “just writers.” I use it advisedly, as a synonym for “merely,” since that’s the stature writers generally have in film, television and publishing.)

“Too autobiographical” was once a stinging barb. It marked a talent that was undeveloped. It suggested teenage angst worthy of a diary, not of publishable quality.

The worm has turned. Now your tortured history as a brawler helps; Chuck Palahniuk brawled a bit and escorted sick people to support groups long before Fight Club. Your time in seedy bars lends authenticity to your writing and manuscript evaluators may well take you more seriously because of the stuff you don’t want your mom to know. A work can still be too autobiographical, but that criticism doesn’t carry the weight it once did.

Evaluators can be off the mark in what they think qualifies as authentic, anyway. One writer, for instance, was told that her dialogue didn’t ring true for how contemporary teenagers speak. She was advised to hang out with some kids to catch the flavor of the real thing. What the manuscript reader didn’t know was the writer was 17 at the time.

We’re a culture that worships celebrity, so “too autobiographical” isn’t a criticism that comes up as much (unless your life story is deadly dull.)

The true irony is that the same editors who would say “too autobiographical” would also routinely tell aspiring writers to “Write what you know.”

That’s bad, even egregious advice. Don’t write what you know. If you only write what you knew, there wouldn’t be much fantasy, science fiction…or much literature at all, come to think of it.

Instead, write what you care about.

 Your research and the knowledge

flows from caring, anyway.

Filed under: authors, book reviews, Books, Editors, links, manuscript evaluation, Rant, scriptwriting, Useful writing links, writing tips, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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Writing Critique: What’s Reasonable?

The other day I recommended Nathan Bransford’s blog (especially the publishing wrap-up on Fridays.) On Mondays he provides an excellent service in showing how he thinks as he evaluates a manuscript. I often agree with his opinion, but this Monday’s critique post struck me as hypercritical. Check it out and see what you think for yourself.

On this one, I didn’t understand most of his problems with the writing sample. When Mr. Bransford professed that he wasn’t understanding the story, I was thinking, “Why? I get it. Wouldn’t everybody get this? Sounds interesting. Tell me more.” (Dean Koontz wrote a book and there were a couple of TV shows with a similar premise.) As I read I thought, if they don’t get it, they’re probably not readers, anyway.

Larger point? It’s a subjective business. Keep submitting. Writers can’t hear that message often enough. Somebody will get it.

Filed under: agents, manuscript evaluation, queries, , ,

The Basics of a Good Writing Critique

My clients appreciate my input into their projects because:

1. I’m encouraging and I accentuate the positive.

2. I’m not coming up with criticism because I’m convinced they must be there to be found since you asked. All criticism is the constructive kind and I help people find solutions to their story problems.

3. I strive to be gentle and insightful.

4. I don’t mock effort or ambition (I’m looking at some of you FBAs*).

5. My clients know I’m trying to help them make their project better. I’m on their side and it’s their choice to adopt my editorial suggestions.

I’m for the underdog.

*FBAs= Famous Blogging Agents

Filed under: manuscript evaluation, , ,

Years ago  I evaluated a manuscript for a young man who dared to dream big. His manuscript was only a hundred pages long or so. His sci-fi that barely made sense. 

However, there was one sentence and image so powerful and memorable. I told him he needed to channel more of that kind of craft to make the story more readable. Since the rest of the news was so bad, I focused on that cheery bit so the meeting wouldn’t be a horror. If you suck, that’s a sign you should write more. I told him to write much more. He took my critique and paid my fee without hesitation.

I gave him pages of notes so he could improve. He focused on the good news. His last words to me were, “Thanks! I knew this was really good!”

That was 20 years ago. If he managed to keep up his work ethic and optimism, he’s probably a sci-fi author who has met with some success by now. I tried to teach him something about story and structure. He taught me about blind optimism. To be a professional writer, you do need that. That’s why I’d never tell anyone not to write.

BONUS:

Your odds of success are low, but that’s true about everything.

Your chances of being paid much at all as a writer are next to nil, but you’re hardly making a living anyway.

Write!

Filed under: manuscript evaluation, publishing, writing tips, , ,

Winner of Writer's Digest's 2014 Honorable Mention in Self-published Ebook Awards in Genre

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