Tuesday, August 29, 2006

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.

Sincerely,

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.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Great Divide, or, I am not an inspirational speaker, I just play one on this blog

I used to think there was a Great Divide, a deep chasm, between published and unpublished writers, with the huddled mass of unpublished writers forcibly held back on one side of it, like citizens of the former East Berlin. We stare at the other side, all sunshine and rainbows and professional authors sipping cosmopolitans at publisher cocktails, carelessly gamboling on a lush carpet of publishing contracts. And we wonder what’s wrong with us, damn it, why are we still on this side, and when oh when would we finally be let out from this languishing hell of the unpublished?

When you wish for a publishing contract with every set of birthday candles you blow out, and birthdays come one after the next without that wish coming true, the label of “unpublished” begins to chafe, and chafe badly. I stopped telling people that I wrote. And I learned, when people who already knew about my literary aspirations asked that dreaded question—“So did you publish your book yet?”—to shrug as if my failure to attract a publisher mattered no more to me than my inability to grow the world’s heftiest tomato.

Then, one fine day, The Call came. I was toasted, garlanded, and feted. People wanted to ask me questions. They wanted to hear my opinions. I was now a Published Author. I’d leaped the Great Divide at last.

Or did I?

The day I had my first offer, I was so proud of myself. And what was I proud of? Only one thing, my persistence.

Why is that remarkable? Isn’t everyone proud of their persistence? Well, no. I’d been no admirer of persistence. In fact I thought persistence a crock of bleep. Only those who failed had to persist. Why did I want to be among those who failed?

Indeed, wise readers, forgive me for having been so shallow and blind. I’ve been among the most inspiring collection of human beings—Those Who Strive—and saw only what they, what we, as a group, did not yet achieve.

There is no Great Divide. The never had been. It was a construct of my mind, a silly yet dangerous concept. Because of it, I regard my own struggle with scorn, rather than the respect it deserved. I saw only failure, when I was but a learner making the necessary mistakes.

The true watershed events in my quest for publication happened not on the day I got bought, but on the day I first sat down to write the story in my head, on every day that I filed away rejections and did not quit, and on the day when I finally realized that rejections are meant to be learned from, not just filed away. The publishing contract is but a delayed recognition, the slapping on of an inspection sticker after the iron ore has already been forged into steel.

May I always be a member of Those Who Strive.


Next Tuesday, we interrupt our regularly scheduled program to bring you The Life and Times of Sherry Thomas, an author interview

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

A Tale of Two Queries

Long ago, in a cinema not too far, far away, I saw the first trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. To this day I remember the collective gasp in the theater as the Lucasfilm logo flickered onto the screen. Oh, that familiar, haunting music. Oh, the ravishing images. Spring 1999 couldn’t come fast enough.

I attended the motion picture event of the decade the day after its opening, late at night, with a pumped, overflowing crowd all hoping for the same thing: magic. We clapped and hollered at the start of the movie, as the lovely crawl scrolled into infinity. Alas, the applause at the end was scarce and half-hearted.

The query letter for Heart of Blade is like that trailer, full of enticing promises of a rollicking good tale that would make you forget for a few hours that the fridge is breeding new life forms and the grass in the backyard is taller than the kids. Every agent who received only the query letter asked for a partial.

Heart of Blade itself, unfortunately, is more like The Phantom Menace. There is a really good story in there somewhere, but it got lost in the telling. In hindsight, my manuscript opened six chapters from the real beginning, didn’t go anywhere deep enough with the characterization, and for all its dangling of geopolitical intrigue, was less than breathtaking in scope.

The query letter for Schemes of Love, on the other hand, was written with an entirely different mindset. The failure of five manuscripts in seven years finally beat into me the lessons I’d been too arrogant to learn earlier. Begin in the thick of things. Excise everything unnecessary. Put your characters in situations that rip them apart. And rip them apart some more. You know, those fundamental rules of good writing that I barely paid attention to anymore because everyone and her critique partner were always yammering on about them.

By the time I decided to find presentation for Schemes of Love, I knew I had a really good story. I didn’t need to compose the Wonder Query. I just needed to not mess up. And let the manuscript take care of the rest, which it did, ably.

The moral of the tale—tales always have morals, right?—is that a query letter doesn’t have to shock and awe, though that certainly won’t hurt. Aim for clarity and competence. And remember to back it up with a mind-blowing work, in which every scene has been worked and reworked at least as many times as the query. Trust me, it hurts a lot worse to have requested partial rejected, because then you can’t just say, “Dang, guess I needed a better query letter.”

Next Tuesday, The Great Divide, yeah that one, between writers who have publishing contracts and writers who don’t, yet.

Post Script

To answer your questions, Heart of Blade took 16 months to write, Schemes of Love 10 months. I'm currently a grad student. And about Bridget Jones's age.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Two Queries

I’ve said in various places that my first blog entry would be my query letter. Well, I’m going to exceed your expectation. Yes, I’m going to give you two query letters.

Query # 1

May 2005

Dear Ms. Agent,

Catherine Blade is a woman of uncommon beauty, great intelligence, and deadly martial arts skills. She is also the illegitimate child of an English adventurer and a Chinese courtesan, the disgraced mother of an illegitimate child of her own, and a servant in perpetual bondage. And now she has been given the one chance to serve her country, earn her freedom, and redeem herself.

She travels to England to recover stolen relics, clues to a legendary treasure. But standing in her way are three men: a new enemy bent on arresting her for espionage, an old foe out for blood, and the lover she thought she had killed long ago.

Heart of Blade is a quest, a book of thrilling martial arts action, and a perilous love story. But above all, it is the tale of an extraordinary woman, set in the waning days of the Qing Dynasty, the glitter and glamour of fin de si├Ęcle Victorian England, and the deserts and mountains of Eastern Turkestan, at the height of the Great Game. It is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Forsyte Saga, a book unlike anything available in the marketplace at this moment.

The manuscript is complete. If this query piques your interest, I should be delighted to provide a partial. Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Cordially,

Sherry Thomas


Query #2

April 2006

Dear Ms. Nelson,

I’m a faithful reader of your blog. I admire your enthusiasm, your humor, and your candor. Since you represent all subgenres of romance, I’d like you to consider Schemes of Love, my historical romance set in late Victorian England. The manuscript is complete at 100,000 words.

Gigi’s marriage is doomed from the moment she decides that she must have Camden, by fair means or foul. Camden, who has come to adore Gigi, discovers her deceit on the eve of their wedding. Shattered, he responds in kind, gives her a tender, unforgettable wedding night, then coldly leaves her in the morning, devastating her.

As the story opens, it is ten years later. Gigi has petitioned for divorce in order to remarry. Camden returns to England and sets the condition for her freedom: an heir. Despite the years and the sea of bad blood, the physical attraction between them remains as ferocious as ever. Though they each vow to make the act of procreation a cold, clinical one, the overwhelming pleasure of their marriage bed soon makes it apparent that the enterprise is fraught with emotional peril, for both of them.

In an atmosphere thick with mistrust, desire, and incipient hope, they are torn between the need to safeguard their hearts and the yearning to reach out across the chasm of ancient mistakes. As they rediscover the easy rapport they’d once shared, they must decide whether to let the bygones rule the future, or to love despite their painful past and forge a new life together.

Schemes of Love recently placed first in its category at the Merritt Contest, organized by San Antonio Romance Authors. Chris Keeslar at Dorchester has requested the full. Another one of my manuscripts has won the Romantic Elements category of the 2005 On the Far Side contest, hosted by the Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal Chapter of the RWA.

Thank you for your time. I hope very much to work with you and look forward to hearing from you.

Sherry Thomas


The query for SCHEMES OF LOVE is superior in its clarity, with the genre, the sub-genre, the setting, and the word count all up front in the first paragraph, where as Query #1 doesn't mention the setting until the third paragraph. Discerning readers will also have noticed that there is no word count in Query #1. An deliberate omission in this particular instance--the book was quite long.

But if you are thinking, well, in spite of its shortcomings, Query #1 isn't half so bad, then you, my insightful friend, share my opinion. Furthermore, Query #1 succeeded every bit as well as Query #2 in its chosen function, and generated several requests for more material.

Then how come I am not happily announcing my fabulous historical fiction with the half-English, half-Chinese kickass heroine coming soon to a bookstore near you the way I’m happily announcing my fabulous historical romance SCHEMES OF LOVE’s debut from Bantam (thank you, Ms. Nelson!), in fall 2007?

The answer next week, in The Tale of Two Queries.