Does stupid sell?

As dylanmcpreviously noted, both Julia and I have newly completed manuscripts we are attempting to market the old fashioned way, that being the agent and conventional publisher route. We have saleable books in every respect of the word. Well written, with interesting characters and plots that tie in with popular culture. Julia’s in a form of ghost hunting story with light humor. Mine is a kid shooter book that explores what these horrendous deeds do to the people who are often forgotten after the fact: the friends and family members of the victims. It honestly amazes me that neither of us has received more than a mere blink of interest from agents, which once again begs the age old question: what do today’s agents want?

Since I am sort of a TV addict, I’m going to use a current television series to tie into the title of this post. The show is Hostages, currently airing on CBS. The show has an interesting premise at first glance: a doctor who was scheduled to operate on the president is forced to pledge she will kill said president in order to save herself and her family, all of whom are being held hostage by a rouge FBI agent. The problem is, this show is being stretched over a series of 15 episodes when it should have been, at best, a 90 minute made-for-TV film. Each week something more ridiculous happens to keep said hostages from escaping the clutches of the evil FBI guy. Last week’s gem gave viewers (the few who are left) the reason why this seemingly competent, decorated FBI agent has gone ballistic. For those unfamiliar with the show, which probably includes most of you reading this, the explanation was that his wife is dying of cancer but her cancer is curable if she gets a bone marrow transplant. Alas, there is only one match in the entire world: her estranged father, who—Are you ready?—just happens to be the president. To quote the infamous Forest Gump, stupid is as stupid does. So, after that “shocking” revelation, the doctor becomes sympathetic to her hostage holder and begs him to give her some time to find another suitable bone marrow donor.

So now for the question on all of your minds: why in the world am I still watching this loony show? Pure curiosity. I want to see how many more stupid plot twists (a generous description, I realize) this group of writers (again, a generous description) were capable of coming up with. I can’t help but wonder how much longer it will be before FBI man and Killer Doc wind up in bed together. That, in turn, could lead to a plot to kill Doc’s husband, who, for the most part, is the only sane character in the entire show. Even the actors, including the handsome and talented Dylan McDermott, seem anxious for this thing to just end.

And finally, to answer my own question, yes, I guess stupid does sell, as long as you know how to wrap it in a fancy package and top it off with a pretty red bow.

Thinking like a literary agent

The query process to literary agents may not be so steeped in anguish if writers can empathize with agents. What, after all, do they go through in attempting to find the needle in the haystack? 214

Empathy requires parallel situations. Literary agents must receive a lot of poorly written material. I can understand that. As a writing teacher, I have had distressing emotional reactions to plowing through one unexpectedly bad student essay after another. The reactions sometimes imitate the three-stage grief process of denial, anger, and acceptance. I cannot tell you which is worse of the three.

Denial can sound like this from the lips of a writing teacher:

1. I cannot believe you had the audacity to hand in this paper to me.

2. I deny you put any effort into this essay (potentially traumatic to the student who tried hard).

3. This is not your work. You accidentally gave me your second grade sister’s essay.

Anger towards the student can lead to nasty phrasing that does not complement the cologne, makeup or hat I have worn that day. Typical angry phrasings that I have been guilty of include:

1.What is this? (Pointing in general direction of essay, one eyebrow raised).

2. Let’s see–why don’t I fix this for you, then I can grade my own essay and give you an A (dripping sarcasm in tone).

Anger is an emotion teachers should definitely avoid. It is not attractive and can hurt the writing student immensely. Most teachers will try to avoid it because teaching is a face-to-face situation. Anger is less avoidable in faceless situations–as for instance, on the road (road rage) when cut off by a panicked or daredevil driver, we imagine an alien from outer space with lizard skin having his first fling behind the wheel on solid earth ground.

Acceptance, for a writing teacher, can be fatalistic: 1. I hate my job. 2. If I can connect with a single student in this class, I will be lucky. 3. No one listens.

For a writing contest judge, it is the same process. The problem with reading a slew of bad essays or books is that the nth book, which may be wonderful, will come under the tarnished vision of the teacher/judge/(literary agent?) in the throes of denial, anger or a114cceptance and suffer from the viewer’s unhappy state.

The viewer is human. The reaction we writers receive from a literary agent may be a reaction to 25 proposals just read, and not ours, the 26th.

If we could figure out a way to stop bad writers from submitting to literary agents, life would be peachy.

As writers, we need to get a life

There was a time in my life, say from the late 1980s to mid-90s, when I spent every free second I had working on my writing. It never came before my family, but there were some close calls mixed in. I felt I had to write at least 7-8 hours a day, including weekends, if I were to have a chance to reach my ultimate goal of being a published author. In retrospect, that slightly obsessed attitude probably contributed to the publication of Elvis Presley, Richard Nixon, and the American Dream in late 1999. The book wasn’t a national bestseller, but it was published by a respectable house and sold out its print run. By the time Hoop Lore hit the market in 2007, I had come to the realization that being published wasn’t nearly as rewarding of an experience as I had expected. Now, if my books had sold tens of thousands of copies, it’s likely I wouldn’t be writing this post today—but the fact is, most authors who sell a book don’t become rich or famous. In fact, their lives go on pretty much the same as before.

That’s an important thing to keep in mind for writers of all ages, published or not. Writing isn’t glamorous, and most of the time it isn’t even fun. We are writers, so we have to write. Speaking of which, I am about to begin sending out queries for a new fiction manuscript. My expectations are realistic: it’s unlikely I will find an agent who wants to take on my book. The publishing world is changing so rapidly, agents are even less likely than they were five years ago to take on new clients. They only accept books they are absolutely certain will sell and sell very well. And really, who can blame them? They make a living from commission. No commission, no income. So I am stating upfront that I will have no hard feelings toward any agent who rejects my work. The last part of that sentence is key, by the way: when an agent says no thanks, he or she is declining to represent our work, not us. It isn’t personal. I know it’s hard to look at it that way, but we must.

And that brings me to the point of this post. Writers must have a life away from writing. We must have outside interests, friends, and hobbies. My circle of friends is small but supportive and caring. (Yours should be the same, or they aren’t worthy of your friendship; don’t waste time with negative people, it will drain your creativity.)  I spend the majority of my mornings outside taking care of my gardens, which in itself feels like a full time job in Fresno. Last but certainly not least, I have an abundance of animal companions who never fail to brighten my day. We recently lost our beloved boxer, Kook, who finally succumbed to heart disease at the age of 12. We adopted him when he was two, and he quickly became our “Director of Enthusiasm” with his upbeat, funny personality and his obvious love for life.  (I will be writing a full post about him soon, so if you are a fellow animal lover, stayed tuned and have plenty of Kleenex handy.)

Your outside interests might be completely different than mine. What matters is that you have interests other than writing, and that you engage in them every single day. Chances are doing so will enhance rather than distract from your ability to become published.

Agents and marketing

Let’s be honest: there isn’t a writer among us who doesn’t want to get an agent and see his or her book(s) published by a major house. It isn’t our purpose here on The Grassroots Writer’s Guild to suggest otherwise. Our point is that we can’t just sit around on our hands, waiting for a contract to drop out of the sky. We all know it’s incredibly difficult to get an agent, and harder than ever to sell to our work to publishers directly. Much of that is due to conglomeration among publishers, but that’s a topic for another day. What’s relevant to this post is that as writers attempting to secure quality representation for our work, we must come up with ways to make that work stand out from the ever-increasing competition.

Agents are very skeptical of new authors, and, looking at it from their prospective, it’s hard to blame them. Literary agents run a business, and that business is to sell books that generate income. The expanse of the internet and e-mail, not to mention social networks like Facebook and Twitter, has made it a snap for anyone to “write” a book and push it to weary agents and editors without investing so much as a stamp. Given how tight the market has become, with fewer and fewer people actually reading for pleasure, agents must be incredibly selective with their client lists, especially fiction. They can no longer afford to take on writers whose work they personally fall in love with unless that work suggests a sure sale, or very close to it.

The question is, how do we convince them our book qualifies?

First and most importantly, we make sure it’s the best it can be before sending out queries. (That’s rudimentary advice, but you’d be surprised how many writers ignore it.) Write a good first draft, flush out the characters, write a second draft, tighten the plot, then rewrite it all again. When the story and characters have been shored up via a third draft, get some input from writing peers. Set aside emotions and digest their comments honestly. Edit some more and rewrite again. Strive for perfection, but—and this is important—don’t dwell on it or the project will never be complete.

Another thing we can do is develop strong marketing skills. It’s imperative to put ourselves and our books out there so readers can find us. Make a website and blog. Post sample chapters. Sell e-books and CDs. Offer to do readings at local bookstores and radio stations. Invest in a small number of printed copies and submit them for local reviews. Sell them as limited first editions. Do interviews. Get people talking. Develop an audience. Prove we have what it takes not only to write a good book but assist in promoting it. Doing so might not land us that elusive contract, but it might be enough to get a toe in the door.

Writing is like a rose garden

Off hand, it might be hard to imagine what roses and writing have in common. If you have a rose garden you personally tend to, however, I suspect you know exactly what I mean. It’s a love – hate relationship. As a longtime gardener, I’ve grown hundreds of different flowers over my lifetime, but none more gorgeous than these thorny creatures. And make no mistake, they ARE thorny. Last year I cut open my lip while trying to snap off an inner branch at exactly the right spot. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they make a conscious effort to hurt me. And to thwart my loving efforts. I spray to prevent insect infestation and black spot takes over. I prune away bad growth and white flies attack. I could go on and on (but fortunately for you, I won’t). The point is, no matter how many hours I spend slaving away in the hot sun to care for my persnickety roses, I still feel it’s worth it in the end.

And I feel that way about my writing, too. Every writer I know spends countless hours revising, pulling out his or her hair, and revising some more. Sometimes we can spend half a day reworking one sentence—a sentence we might end up cutting completely when all is said and done. But when we get that sentence right and we know it, a feeling of euphoria spreads through us. We no longer care that we spent half a day getting to that point because its beauty is overwhelming.

Similarly, we may spend years writing a book that will never be enjoyed by its intended audience because agents or editors don’t find its first three sentences breathless enough for them to spend another five reading the entire page. Fair enough. It’s a business, and every writer who has survived their first rejection letter understands this. The point is to keep slaving away at the keyboard. Keep the ideas flowing. Write, write, and write some more. Eventually, be it by traditional or self-marketing methods, you will connect with readers who enjoy your work. It’s at that point you’ll realize all the hard work you’ve put in to make those roses bloom was more than worth the effort.

For writers, rejections are personal

I don’t know one writing friend or acquaintance who hasn’t received a form rejection letter. You know what I’m talking about. A few flatly worded sentences along the lines of “Not what we’re looking for at this time, but keep trying. Other agents (or editors or contest judges) might feel differently.” Writing instructors tell us we shouldn’t take those rejections personally. Agents and editors who speak at writing conferences agree. To which I say, fair enough. After all, how personal can something be when it begins with the heartfelt greeting, “Dear Writer.” (Your actual name might be inserted in place of “writer,” but rest assured, it’s a database program doing it. Thousands of writers have received that exact same letter, and I mean exact: word-for-word, including the punctuation.)

I could easily spend a few pages here going over the types of rejections I’ve gotten over the years: some cold, some neutral, and some quite encouraging. Unfortunately, even the latter are, in the end, rejections. But not to worry. These sources weren’t rejecting me as a person, they were only rejecting my work, right? The problem with that theory is, my work and my person are actually one in the same. My characters are all melting pots of my own thoughts and ideas. My feelings. How is that not personal?

The sad truth is, rejection is a part of life for everyone: students applying for grad school, workers sending out resumes, lonely people searching for that all-elusive soul mate. And yes, being rejected is personal. Very personal. The trick is to corral that intense feeling of personal rejection and transform it into a strength. For me, that translated into my creating this blog with Julia. For you, it might be continuing to submit your work the conventional way until it finds a home. Although rejection in itself is personal, admitting that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.