Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Winding Road of Writing

I've been reading. And writing. And reading a lot about writing. Reading about other writers' experiences is enormously helpful when trying to navigate some of the frustrating waters of publishing, particularly when it comes to querying agents for representation. I had signed with a literary agent for my memoir, and she helped me edit and shape it into something that sold to a publisher. Six months after the book was published I made the decision to leave her. Not because she was a bad person, or because she was a bad agent. She was neither of those things. But she also really wasn't right for me. Your relationship with your agent is much like a romantic relationship: you have to feel a connection, you have to feel like that person "gets" you, you have to feel secure and supported. And you absolutely know in your gut when it's just not right.

So, you put on your big-girl panties, and make the difficult decision after agonizing over it for several weeks, and then, you're single again. And getting another agent is not quite as simple as logging onto or OKCupid or Tinder. It's a lot more agonizing, and there's a lot of second-guessing and far too much personality-analysis you as a writer have to do, to make sure you're pitching the right person.

Kathryn Stockett was rejected sixty times when she was querying The Help. This both inspires me, and pains me. I loved that book so much that when I finished it I tried to email Stockett through her website (no longer live). My email bounced back, so the email never reached its intended recipient, but I did try to let her know how much I loved those characters, and how sad I was when the book ended. To think that I might never have had the chance to read the book makes me completely insane. Sixty rejections. That is sixty professional literary opinions that The Help wasn't good enough to be published. I have read so many mediocre novels, represented by top-notch agents (although, to be fair, they may have had a difficult time getting published as well), and I just think, "So-and-So Big Mucky-Muck represents this slop? Well, missy, maybe you don't understand anything about anything." Indeed.

In addition to weathering rejection, writers must be able to incorporate useful feedback into what they're writing/pitching. Jennifer Tress hilariously suffered from "creative interpretation" when reading feedback from an editor:

"What my editor said: This is a fun and compelling read and you are an engaging, accessible writer. But story X is too long – you give too much weight to it – and I feel like you have more, maybe different stories to tell.

What I heard: This is great, you are great. Time to find an agent!" 

This made me laugh hard, and out loud, and reminded me of when I had queried a great agent for my memoir. I remembered the feedback as:

"There is so much I like about your voice, but ultimately I was hoping the book would be a little more like Eat, Pray, Love."

My reaction was exasperated bluster: "Well, SURE! Don't we all wish our lives were like Eat, Pray, Love? Who wouldn't want an agent/editor to send her off to Italy to eat delicious pasta and gelato and write all about it, and then end up in Bali having a passionate romance? Psssht."

When I revisited that email, months later when I had stopped huffing and puffing, what it had actually said was:

"There is so much I like about your voice and your energy, but ultimately I wanted more of an organizing principle (Like EAT, PRAY, LOVE)..."

And I was like, "OH, an ORGANIZING PRINCIPLE! She's absolutely right." The manuscript I had sent her was wildly disorganized and kind of all over the place. She was 100% correct in her assessment, but when I read her email that first time all I could see was the rejection and her wish that my book was Eat, Pray, Love.

The lessons I learn from the query process are the same that I apply to the writing itself. Read it, but then walk away from it for a while, then go back and read it again. And do this when you're having an awesome day (hair, body and otherwise), and are in a super-positive frame of mind, and with a little luck you can say "This is great! You are great! And your new agent is sending you to Italy to eat pasta and gelato!"