Sunday, August 30, 2015

When 'Thank You' Is the Hardest Thing To Say

Some words come easy to us. Words of tenderness for a loved one. Colorful metaphors. The proper order of terms for the grande triple mocha latte flavored coffee you order every day at the local Starbucks. But there are also those times when the words are not so easy to say. Things like I'm sorry. You were right. Those hot pants make you look great. And in my case today, thank you for turning me down yet again.

Yes, today I received another rejection letter from another agent. My stack of shame letters is beginning to grow, much like the wedgie count for the nerdy kid at school after the first day of classes has come and gone. The most amusing letter to date came a few days ago. It contained so much information on how busy the agent was, offering statistics on how many letters they receive a week. I actually missed the fact that they had even read my query and were turning me down. I must have blinked through that part. Needless to say it made me laugh at first. But yesterday's letter wasn't all that amusing. It was another 'I think am going to pass' letter. Those are the hard ones. Again, it leaves the impression of the unsavory meal.

Sending out query letters makes me feel a little like the ancient penitents of the old church. The ones who wore hair shirts and giant crosses on thin twine cords. The ones who flagellated themselves and walked barefoot in the snow. The more the penitent suffered, the more worthy they were of glory in the end. For a writer, query letters and the flow of unending rejection letters are the penance. It's what making your bones is all about, or so everyone keeps saying.

I always do my research before I send anything out. I learn about the agency. I try to learn as much about the agent as I can. All the things they say you should do before submitting. I was reading one agency website (which will go unnamed) that was kinda snooty on their submission page. Aside from the unusual "look how great we are" part of their introduction, they were really hard on authors in general, as though we as a general breed were lazy and shiftless in our approach to what we did. The "onus of responsibility" lay at the author's feet to "thoroughly research, understand, and implement the current standards of query letters", and any author who had not met this level of "rigorous research" should not bother to submit.

Oookkaaayyy. So here is my problem with that terse little presentation. There is no standard. Not that I can find. Before you shoot me down and start quoting this or that book, hear me out. I have read the books and the blogs and watched the oh-so-riveting vlogs dedicated to the topic. I have read the list of the 50 most earth-shattering query letters ever to be submitted and accepted ever, ever, ever, and why they were chosen by each of the agents who selected them. Do you know what I found in all of it, after all that time and energy? THERE ARE NO RULES!!

What appeals to one agent will annoy another and what draws an agent one day might be the very thing they dread the next. Some loved gimmicks. Others hated them. Some wanted whimsy while others wanted a straightforward, cut-to-the-chase letter. Then there were the frustrating instances where the agents themselves said "This isn't the kind of query letter I normally LIKE to receive BUT...." Even when the agents set their rules in black and white, they broke them, so I say again....THERE ARE NO RULES!! THERE ARE NO STANDARDS!!

There is hope wrapped up into each query letter that is sent out, even though the greater part of you knows a resounding 'NO' awaits you as the last grain of sand falls in the proverbial hourglass. Like little Oliver Twist asking "Please, sir, may I have some more", you are asking for more disappointment, more rejection, more heartache each time you click the SEND button, but that glorious letter is the only way to open the door to the bigger publishers. It is that very act of self-immolation that makes your bones as a writer, and I hate it sometimes. I hate that hopeful feeling of desperation that comes with wanting this so much. Where the desire is so dependent upon someone else's mood. Someone else's whimsy.

But like the fighter who has yet to earn the "prized" moniker, I am undeterred. I keep sending and hoping and writing and dreaming, but it doesn't stop me from feeling the impact of the blows. I would be lying if I said it didn't matter what answer I received. If I said I didn't feel it each and every time when the answer was no.

And to the agent who felt it necessary to expound in the form letter of rejection just how many query letters they receive each week. NEWS FLASH! I get about the same amount every week in my day job as well and that is on top of all of the other work that is required of me in my highly technical career. It is part of what I do. It is how I pay the bills. And after those long, arduous days that sap the life out of me and leave me with little more than mush on the brain, I write and dream and research the very things you demand (as best I can) so that I can land in your slush pile and receive your impersonal rejection. So please forgive me if I seem a little snarky at being told how busy you are while my dreams get to stay in a perpetual holding pattern.

To the agents who have shown kindness and consideration and mercy even in their no's, THANK YOU! And I do mean Thank you. Sometimes it is a hard thing to say when what you want to hear from the other person is "YES. Please send me your manuscript". The way you deliver the 'no' however makes it possible for me to send out another letter and still hold onto the hope that maybe this time, a YES might be waiting on the other end.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Joys of Editing: It sounded so much better when I was in the shower....

We have all had those glorious moments in the rain locker. There you are...glistening wet skin, the perfect echo chamber, and your favorite song. The need to belt out the words seems as natural as breathing in and out. We are braver somehow in those private moments of utter nakedness. The world seems different. More magical. We take the risk and go for the gusto. Karaoke bar be damned, we have found that inner rock star or dancing diva. Invariably we have the magical moment of acoustical perfection, and we believe for just a twinkling of the eye that we were meant for greater things. We are Maria Carey, Whitney Houston, and John Bon Jovi rolled into one perfect, soapy package. All we need is the record deal and an open road and life as we know it would be perfection.

We step out of our shower dripping with confidence and then the cold air of reality hits us. We sing a few tentative notes in our bedroom as we plaster our dreary day-clothes over moistened skin and realize that perhaps our vocalizations weren't quite as perfect as we thought they were. In fact, the farther away from the humid acoustic hall we get, the more we become aware of our imperfect pitch and quavering voice. By the end of the day, we are fairly certain music is for misfits, and we are hesitant even to hum a few bars of our favorite tunes on the radio. By nighttime, we are curled into a fetal position with sweaty arm pits, a dripping upper lip, and the deepest, darkest dread of ever hearing another note again.

Then morning comes, and we find ourselves in the shower again. In the magical, mystical shower, and suddenly, hope springs anew. The notes appear once more and we are ROCKING! this is a bit of a stretch but you know what I am talking about. We have all been there in some form or another, and in the realm of writing, there is that "place" where everything seems so "right". Where you find your fingers flying over the keyboard of your computer, and you hear the words issue from your lips, "OMG...I am so good!" Tears spring to your eyes. Your heart soars, and you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the great masters of literature are MORONS compared to the work you just created. You are the next Steinbeck. The next Shakespeare. The next Jane Austin. You have achieved the height of literary greatness in your disheveled writing nook. All you have to do is find that lucky literary agent who is blessed enough to represent your brilliance.

Then you put the work down for a time. You get busy. You get a call. You have surgery. You pop out a few kids. Whatever. When you go back and read your brilliant masterpiece that will cause the world to weep from its magnificence, you find yourself saying, "OMG...I suck! I can't spell! And what the heck is a schloombov?"

You have just been hit by the cold wind of reality that I call the need for revisory rethought. It is a fancy way of saying you need to edit what you wrote because the first go-round of your glorious master piece isn't going to be perfect. Listen to that again.....It is never going to be perfect the first time around.

All writers get hit by the reality of their imperfection, if they are honest. It is true, some need that revisory rethought more than others, but the need is there regardless of the author. It is why even back in the day, the masters had revisions and multiple editions. They added things. They corrected things. They took things out. We take all of that for granted because the process happened centuries ago, before our great grandparents were glimmers in their parents' eyes. But trust me, those masters of old went through the editing process just like we have to today. And they had their writing "shower moments" too when they thought something sounded grand on paper and then regretted it once they took a second look at it later on. Why do you think we keep finding these "lost works" of theirs? These are the pieces they really didn't want anyone to see.

I have shower writing moments all the time. In fact, they are part of what keeps me humble. I love the writing process and getting lost in the worlds I create, but the editing process keeps me grounded in the reality of how fallible I am as a writer.

I suck at spelling. I catch my own inconsistencies all the time when I go back and edit my stories. I even got the name of one of my semi-main characters wrong once. (Should I even admit that?) ZOIKS!! The fact is, no one is perfect, and that is the beauty of it. But editing can be daunting, especially when the cold, hard reality of your imperfections hit you in the face for the very first time. When you realize that the "perfect" story you just finished writing needs a little work....or maybe a lot of work.

Fear not. Even the best of the best of the best have editors. We all pepper our work with too many adverbs. We often spell like we have regressed to the glory days of kindergarten when we are really on a roll, or maybe we just sound like a Valley Girl from time to time when we are trying to write an authentic Medieval piece. The point is, the editing process helps smack us back into shape. It smoothes out the rough spots, and if we are open to it, helps make our story better than it was when we started.

Here are a few of my rules to edit by:

1. Give your work time to sit once it is complete.

Never start the edit immediately after you have completed the work. You are way too close to it emotionally when you have just finished it. Either one of two things will happen if you don't give yourself enough time. One - you will still believe you are a writing god among men and will find nothing wrong with your Olympian prose, or two, you will think every word of it is crap and will end up deleting it all. I will never forget reading the Twitter of one writer who deleted 64,000+ words after spending weeks toiling over them. BIG MISTAKE! Even if it was crap, there might have been some tidbit worth keeping. Deletes are forever, so let the work breathe for a bit.

2. Find a good editing software to help make the first round of edits more clinical.

Editing is always emotional, so anything that can put it at arm's length is a bonus. I swear by Smartedit. It runs a series of reports against your work and looks for a host of issues for you - repeated phrases, adverb usage, cliches, curse words, misused words. It's great! Each problem is linked to the portion of the story where it can be found. I often find myself editing around the phrases I go to correct. By the time I get to the read through, I have a stronger piece of work. Does it make it perfect. No, but it does a heck of a job for an algorithmic based program.

3. Get another pair of eyes on your work.

For some people, this is hard, especially when they are just starting out. It feels a bit like asking your neighbor to check out that swollen boil on your butt. Once you go down that path of exposure, you can never go in reverse. They have just seen the best and worst you have to offer. Asking someone you know to view your work can feel much the same way. It makes you feel raw inside. They might laugh. They might poke fun. They might not like it. The thing is, once you get out there and published, you are going to have a host of people waiting to take pot shots at everything you put to paper, so you might as well take the risk and ask someone to look over your story. Have them look for the basics....slow points, inconsistencies, things they like, things they don't. The feedback can be invaluable in the end as you work your way to your finished product.

4. Edit more than once.

One read through is never enough. There is such thing as over editing where you spend so much time tweaking the story, you never finish it. Not really. But don't ever stop at "once". That would be like going for your all important driving test having given parallel parking a go "once". Not really a good approach to take if you think about it. For me, I always miss things the first time around. I know even the professionals miss things. I cannot tell you how many times I have been reading a New York Times Best Seller only to catch a typo of one kind or another or even places where I found myself going 'Huh?' because a segment of a paragraph didn't seem to fit what I was reading (copy/paste error anyone?).

The point is, allow breathe-time for your work, get some editing software and extra sets of eyes, and take a repetitive approach to editing. Combined with diligence and care, these things will help mitigate a lot of heartache. Yes, there will probably still be those times when the genius writer is wrestled awake by the reality of their imperfections, but hopefully, when the edits are done and it is time to create again..........

The music of the mind will call to you once more and before you realize what you are doing, you will find yourself blissfully shaking your glistening wet brain and belting out the music that is your next big idea. And in that glorious moment of pure abandon, the notes are perfect, just as they always have been. Just as they should be in the moment of creation.

If you enjoyed this post, don't forget to connect with H.L. Stephens on Google+, Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter. Also check out H.L. Stephen's mystery series The Chronicles of Mister Marmee. Book 1 - The Case of Jack the Nipper and book 2 - The Case of the Wayward Fae are available in print and eBook format at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other online retailers. Coming Soon! Book 3 - The Case of the Monkey's Misfortune.