Friday, August 20, 2010

Taboo or not taboo

I'm your typical wannabe-writer. I'm 25 and have dabbled a lot but am working on my first novel (it is up to 50,000 words so far). I still have a long way to go. My question is this: are gay characters too taboo to publish here? I'm painfully aware that lesbians in general are under-represented in popular culture and this is even more true in Australia. Is there even a chance that an Australian could get something that is gay (dare I say?) literary fiction published? As a second question, how short is too short? Things I've read say not to even bother with less than 70,000 words, others suggest 60,000.

The question is not whether or not the subject matter is taboo - it's not. The question is whether or not there's a large enough market for it for a publisher to take on gay-themed fiction in this country - and there's not. It's nothing to do with anyone's social sensibilities or lifestyle choices (after all, we work in The Yarts); it's purely about the amount of units they can shift.

The majority of book buyers, and readers, in this country are women: straight or straight-identifying women - that's just statistical, I'm not at all implying anything better/worse by that. The straight sheilas tend to want to read about men who want to have sex with them (or fictional versions of them - heroines). The gay blokes don't want to have sex with them, ergo they make bad heroes for straight-sheila stories. Just look at romance fiction: arguably the biggest-selling genre around the world, absolutely killing it on the e-book front, and no gay heroes in sight. So publishers go where the money is. A gay hero would necessarily be in a story largely written for gay men, and that's a smaller audience. James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room is one of the most sublime pieces of fiction ever, but you'll never hear it - or him - being whispered of in the same breath as, say, Norman Mailer, and it's probably just because not as many people were aware of the novel at the time it was released. (And if you've never read any Baldwin, you simply must - Another Country is almost unbearably beautiful.)

As for lesbian stories - well, same thing. The audience for lesbian stories is mainly lesbians, and that's a statistically small group. Straight women don't mind a bit of a lesbian storyline in their otherwise straight saga - the same way straight women like The L Word because it's about girl world, not just lesbian world - but they're not likely to buy a story that's written purely for a lesbian audience. First, because there's no straight-male hero who may want to have sex with them. Second, because escapism is a powerful motivator for reading stories and it's hard to escape into a world that is so different to your own in terms of how relationships work. There's a reason why Rita Mae Brown isn't as well known as Barbara Taylor Bradford, and it's not because BTB is a better writer.

The good news is that the United States market is big enough for everyone. So query agents there. I'm not saying it would never happen in Australia, just that it's statistically unlikely.

As for your word count: your story is as long as it is. There is so much talk about word count but, really, the story is what it is. Write it first, revise it, revise it again, then see how many words you have. Less than 50 000 isn't a good idea; over 120 000 probably makes it look like a fantasy novel. But please don't let word count dictate what your story is going to be.

Category me, category you

I have written a book which is a similar structure to Kathryn Eisman's books - 'How to tell a man by his shoes' and 'How to tell a woman by her handbag'. My question is what category or genre is this? Does it fit into the category of gift books? And if so, do you know any literary agents offhand who represent these type of books?

I don't think these would be gift books so much as lifestyle/humour. When discussing categories one has to remember that they are invented purely for the 18-year-old casual bookshop employee who is not going to look at the cover or read the blurb - they're just going to shelve according to the category (hopefully). So the publisher's marketing department will sometimes kvetch about how they categorise books if the category is not immediately obvious - and even then the pesky teenagers will sometimes wilfully ignore the category anyway. So don't worry about it too much. Let the publisher worry about it for you. As to whether or not agents represent these types of books: it depends very much on the book. If they accept non-fiction submissions of any kind, send it in.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The first cut is the deepest

It's coming. My first rejection, that is. I can feel it. It feels like doom and despair. I'll soon be rushing about wailing and gnashing my teeth. In a mere few days it will be four months since a big publishing house received my manuscript. Apparently they take about that much time to give a yay or nay to a submission. And the odds, I'm told, of having a manuscript accepted are so slim I might as well hope to get struck by lightning while winning the lottery during a terrorist attack.

Yes, I know. Rejections, hey? Part of life. Won't kill me, will make me stronger. People keep saying, "Oh yes, but [insert name of famous author] was rejected [insert large number] times and now look he/she [grand statement of success]."

But, Agent Sydney, I'm scared. Scared of rejection, that is. I feel like a geek who walked up to a beautiful supermodel at a party and asked her out. She said she would answer me after four months. I am anticipating the pain of her rejection: owwwwwwwieeeeeeeeeeee!

What should I do? Am I acting like a crazy person? Need I not fear rejection until it's staring me in the face? And, once rejected, what should I do? Send to another publisher/drink myself into a stupor/something else?

You're scared of rejection? Why the hell are you submitting manuscripts to publishers, then? Rejection is part and parcel of success. Can you point to any single successful creative person who has not been rejected at least once? Even George Clooney spent years in the wilderness (I KNOW - unbelievable, non?) and he is definitively the single most attractive set of XY chromosomes ever known to humankind, with the exception of the young Paul Newman. And how do you think poor old Vincent Van-G was feeling when he took to his own ear with a bladed instrument?

Granted, you don't want to wait for posthumous success - that's understandable. But if you want to put yourself out there in the creative realm, you have to take the inevitable rejections. And you also need to understand this: 9.75 out of 10 times, the rejection has nothing - NOTHING - to do with you. Many is the time I've had to reject something I love simply because I don't think I can get it published - and that's nothing to do with the author, it's because there's not a publisher in the land who'll be interested in the book. Fast forward five years, go back eight years, who knows? There could be/could have been.

Of course, you haven't even been rejected yet. You're just anticipating being rejected. Don't you think you could spend your energy doing something more constructive, like writing a new story? And don't you know anything about quantum mechanics? Planning for rejection is only going to get you rejection. (Yes, this sounds a bit woo-woo but quantum mechanics is a valid string of physics.)

Also, four months? FOUR MONTHS? Publishing operates on reverse dog years - i.e. if a dog lives 7 years for every 1 human year, the publishing industry experiences 7 human years as 1 publishing year. Four months isn't enough time for us to even get out the lead and take you for a walk in the park.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The curse of reviews - for the author, that is

How much do reviews matter? I am a published novelist (Aus and UK) and I AGONISE over them. Good ones make my heart soar; bad ones depress me for days. So far I’ve had my fair share of both ... Should I get myself so worked up over them? Do they significantly affect sales? Is a bad review better than no review at all? And as an agent do you watch for and similarly exult/agonise over your clients’ reviews??

There's an old chestnut that says 'Any publicity is good publicity' and I adhere to that belief. Having been a bookseller at one stage, I can attest to the fact that most people remember that a book was in the book section of the paper, and beyond that they don't remember details - including what it's called and who the author is. For publicists the important thing is getting a picture of the cover in - because they know, as the rest of us should, that people will remember what the cover looks like more than any other detail.

I've seen authors - wonderful writers - so distressed about a bad review and they probably don't understand my usual response ('Meh'). But that response is borne of several years witnessing that reviews really don't make a dent one way or the other because most people can't remember the content of a review when they go to a bookshop. Think about how many people would actually read the books section of a newspaper and then how many of them are going to read the review for your book - they aren't big numbers. I can't remember someone ever telling me that I shouldn't buy a certain book because they read a bad review of it (and if they did, I wouldn't let that influence my purchasing decision) but I can remember lots of people telling me that they loved a certain book and I've then bought it as a result. Word of mouth is far more powerful than a review will ever be. If you wrote a great story - if you believe you wrote a great story - then what do you think the word of mouth will be?

You say that you've had both good and bad reviews, but I wonder if you've stopped to consider that the book you wrote has been both positively and negatively appraised, and from the sounds of it you set the same store by both types of appraisal. In goddess' name, WHY? Surely the fact that there are differences of opinion about your work tell you that no response to your book is 'good' or 'bad' - just as your book isn't 'good' or 'bad'. Each reader has a different experience of the story, and that's what the reviews reflect.

You may also have noticed that reviews of fiction tend to be on the emotional side, compared with reviews of non-fiction and children's books. That's because novelists - often unpublished - review fiction, and they tend to review the author as well as the book. Non-fiction reviews usually stick to the subject matter and the way it's delivered. You'll rarely see a non-fiction review saying that the author is God's gift to writing (or the opposite) yet statements about the author often appear in fiction reviews.

My opinion about some fiction reviewers - and this is probably a controversial statement to make, but my magic shield of anonymity protects me (although I've said it in person to other people, without the shield) - is that they're jealous. Particularly if they're reviewing first or second novels and they're unpublished themselves. Reviewing a first novel - 'well, why should that mug have been given a contract when I can't get one' - is fraught with green-tinged possibilities, as is reviewing a second: 'it could still be a fluke for aforementioned untalented mug'. By novel number three it's harder to pretend that the mug is simply getting away with it, and the tone of the reviewing may shift accordingly. This is, obviously, an unscientific analysis and you'll note I said SOME not ALL fiction reviewers.

So, to answer your questions in a concise fashion:
- It's understandable that you get yourself worked up over them but I believe your energies would be better directed towards your writing. After all, 9.75 out of 10 times, someone else's response/reaction to you has nothing to do with you. Who are these people whose opinions are affecting you so strongly?
- No, they don't affect sales in any great - or measurable - way. No doubt at the local indie bookshop there's some tergiversating about one new Australian novel over another, and a review may swing that decision. I suppose that could happen a handful of times for each book. But word of mouth is far more powerful.
- Yes, a bad review is better than no review at all, because it's hard enough to get a review - if they're going to put your name and your book's name and, possibly, its cover in a publication for people to see and perhaps remember, then yay!
- I watch for reviews but the agonising/exulting within me happens out of empathy - I don't actually feel it myself, I feel it for my authors. Because I know that they'll feel the way you do, even though I try to talk them out of it.

Use it, work it, own it

Advice I have received on queries includes listing your writing credentials. As an unpublished author, I was told that I should list my journalism studies and experience as part of my personal bio. Recently my YA speculative fiction was voted as a "Top Pick" for June out of more than 25,000 pieces of submitted work on a large publishing company's international YA writing community site. As a result my manuscript is being reviewed by an editor and they will also consider it for publication, though I realise being an Australian writer with a story set in Australia my chances are pretty slim.

There has been some debate between my writing friends as to whether having a piece making "Top Pick" status is something that should be included in a query letter. On one hand my work had hundreds of extremely positive comments and votes from readers who are in my target demographic, many of whom say they would like to be able to buy my story. On the other hand I have been told agents would not view this news favourably as it is theoretically possible for writers to make that status by clever promotion over amazing writing.

Should I mention in my letters my success of the site and the fact that this company is currently reviewing my manuscript?

Yes, you should mention it, for no other reason than it tells the agent/publisher that someone else is looking at your manuscript.

As for the favourable comments on a blog or posting of a piece of writing - I suspect these will shortly become the online equivalent of 'my mum and my best friend think it's great' (or variants thereof), which is a line that turns up in submissions with surprising regularity and always makes me want to write back and say, 'OH REALLY? Are your mother and best friend going to buy 10 000 copies of your book?' So if you include that information, do it with the knowledge that not much weight may be given to it.

When writing your query letter you should include any writing credentials that you think are relevant, even if it's a short story published in an obscure journal, and so long as the credits don't take up most of the letter - if you have a lot of credits, pick out the highlights. The credits show that you've been writing for a while, that you're trying to find an audience, that you may have succeeded in finding audiences.

However, those of you who don't have writing credits, don't fret - the decision about whether or not to take on an author and their manuscript always comes down to the writing and the story in the end. You may have no writing credits and an amazing manuscript - the absence of credits is not going to make the manuscript any less amazing.