Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The dead end

I’m an author and I’ve written what I think is a really good book. I’ve passed it around to colleagues and friends, and friends of friends who tell me (hopefully with honesty) that it’s full of all of the good things a great book should be full of.

Yet, I’m having terrible trouble finding a literary agent, and I think that it’s because my book (as great as it may be) is hard to market. I’m 29 and unpublished, and my book takes the form of a prose-y, personal memoir-ish, travelogue in which I challenge the conventions of modern marital restrictions, and question my own relationship and existence.

I’m getting decline letters left and right despite the fact that I know I have a good book! What on earth do I do?

Honey, every writer thinks they've written a good book, otherwise they would never submit their manuscript to agents and publishers. I've not yet come across an author who says 'I think my manuscript is crap, but I'm sending it to you anyway'. Funnily enough, though, a lot of my published authors - wonderful, talented people - are convinced that everything they write is crap. I find this simultaneously hilarious - It's brilliant! How could they doubt it! - and disturbing - If they think it's awful, how can I convince them otherwise? Why can't they see it's good? (AL, I'm talking to you). Maybe there's some kind of logarithm for that ... Author self-belief (X) is in inverse proportion to literary merit of novel (Y) where Z is variable. I'll leave you to work out what Z is.

Anyway, back to you. Here are a few tips:

1. Friends and friends of friends are not good judges of literary quality. They are always going to tell you what you want to hear, especially if they tell you that that's exactly what they're not doing. Unless all those friends work in the publishing industry, their opinions won't matter. And please don't put them in your query letter.

2. Saying that you think your manuscript hasn't been picked up because it's hard to market is equivalent to blaming the formatting of the ms ('I should never have used Courier New!!!'). If something's good enough, being hard to market doesn't matter.

3. ' I challenge the conventions of modern marital restrictions, and question my own relationship and existence' - at this point I thought your email may have been a joke, but I proceeded in good faith. Don't you think this subject matter has been done before? What makes your manuscript different? How are you going to do it differently to, say, Jay McInerney in The Good Life, even if that was a novel and you have written a memoir? Or Julie Benz in Perfection? [Ed note: after writing this I realised I was confusing Julie Benz - 'Darla' in Angel - with Julie Metz, the real author of this book. D'oh! So it's Perfection by Julie Metz.]

4. If you're convinced you have written a brilliant, if misunderstood, manuscript, publish it online. You'll find out soon enough.

I'm probably sounding snarky. I know I should be encouraging you to hang in there et cetera. But I'm reluctant to, for these reasons: first, because I don't understand why everyone who writes thinks publication is the sine qua non of their endeavour, when there are plenty of musicians who never want to put out a record or dancers who never want to appear on So You Think You Can Dance; second, there is a lot of complaining about why agents and publishers close submissions, and the reason is that we get far too many manuscripts that are simply not up to scratch, and we then make a decision to miss the potentially brilliant one because we're not up to wading through the other stuff.

It's possible you have written a brilliant manuscript, and that it's just not the time for it to find a publisher. Or it's possible that it's just not ready yet. Or that it will never be ready. So I'll go back to a common piece of advice: put it aside for six months and then read it again. If you find absolutely nothing to change, put it aside for another few weeks or months. Repeat. Good writers - great writers - will always be drafting, realising that the story is continually in motion. If you think your manuscript cannot be improved, well ...


BubbleCow said...

I would add that timing is important. Writers need to find a space in time when the publisher has the vision and resources to match the writer's book. Therefore persistence is the key.

diane s said...

I think it's time to get a (reputable! do your research!) literary consultant to take a good look at the book and give you truly unbiased feedback. Like many writers you may be very talented but lacking commercial focus, or promising but in need of polish. Or your work may not be up to scratch this time. If you're really serious about your career, pay for expert feedback and heed the results. It may be painful. But it may help you get published.

Anonymous said...

I think one of the hardest things about writing is being objective about your own work - whether you have a huge ego or low self esteem, are receiving nothing but flattery from brown-nosing agents for whom you're the flavour of the month for now or rude dismissals from others. I've experienced both. But equally difficult is keeping going when you know your manuscript is good but you receive rejection after rejection. It might just be that the market isn't into your genre at the moment and you have to bide your time, or you're unlucky and another writer you've never heard of coincidentally has a book with a similar character or plot. Keeping that self belief and being persistent is v. difficult when the harsh reality is that the literary world is callously indifferent - it's a business after all - and cares only about celeb memoirs and Dan Brown. But read the lists of hundreds of rejections of famous authors' work and you will feel a bit better. Its easy for agents to criticise writers in this way and throw manuscripts in the bin because of one spelling mistake when they don't have to go through this soul-wrenching experience themselves. Sometimes I wish I was good at carpentry instead of writing, but this is what I do. When in doubt, find a good literary editor and pay them to read your work and give you objective feedback. Don't get your friends to read your stuff. They will either just tell you lies or, if they don't read your genre regularly, provide feedback that isn't necessarily useful. Never give up!

Marisa Birns said...

Wow, that email brought to mind Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.

And writers wanting to be published is not so bad. It's their job. If they write and put their work in the closet, it's just a hobby..a way to pass the time.

I can't imagine a publisher or agent just publishing or agenting in their basement...alone in make-believe.

Any endeavor is difficult. All we can do is try. And in the trying find satisfaction...and sales!

Nicola Morgan said...

Excellent post. I came here through bubblecow and like your realistic and how-it-is advice - not unlike the advice I give, which is no doubt why I like it!

I think your correspondent has failed to take a long hard look at why some books get to market and others don't. It's called demand. And there's always a demand for gripping books, whether "literary" or otherwise. Great story + great voice + properly presented to the right publisher/agent at the right time = success.

"full of all the good things a great book should be full of" is just not enough. Bit like having a cake that's got the right ingredients but mixed badly and in the wrong order and then baked at the wrong temperature for too long ... Or not long enough?

Orange Slushie said...

i have worked in publishing and assessed mss professionally.

firstly: no publisher ever rejected an ms on the basis of one spelling error. perhaps that's what they told you, though.

secondly: there is plenty of daily soul-wrenching in the life of your average book-loving, underpaid editor/publisher/agent.

thirdly: family and friends and friends of friends, unless they have some kind of publishing-related expertise, almost never know what they're talking about.

i recommend assessment by a reputable ms assessment agency (there's a list on the ALAA website).