A woman I met at a conference seven years ago emailed last week to catch up. She's written four novels and still can't find an agent to represent her. She has a shoebox full of rejection letters. She's frustrated, disheartened, and fighting to stay positive as she begins her fifth novel.
I like this woman. She's a retired English teacher, she has a sense of humor, and she's a good writer, but she's constantly getting in her own way. Years ago, I recommended a few books to her about the publishing industry and she said she didn't have time to read them, she already knew how to write. Twice last year she was 'almost' offered representation but refused to make changes to her manuscript and both agents backed away.
"I was told my novel's are too quiet," she said.
"Maybe they are," I replied.
"One said my female protagonist isn't likable."
"Maybe she isn't," I said.
"Another wanted me to cut a main character right out of the story, said she doesn't offer anything to the narrative drive!"
"Maybe she's right," I suggested.
"I'm so down," she complained. "What would you do next? I want your honest opinion."
So I gave it to her.
I told her not to write another word until she'd read these books. (By the way, I'm of the opinion that all four of these should be mandatory reading for aspiring writers trying to break in the industry.)
The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas
"Listen to what agents are saying," I said. "You need to be more flexible. Swallow your ego. Shelve your pride. Show them you're professional, someone who's easy to deal with vs. a diva with an attitude. Open your mind. Think of your novel as a product. How can you take what they're saying and use it to make your product more saleable? What you're doing isn't working, so kick the stool away and do something radically different! Allow these people to take you under their wing, experts that they are, and guide you. It's what they do for a living."
She emailed back and sheepishly admitted she hadn't read one of these books, that her husband had told her much the same thing not long ago; that if she didn't change her approach she'd never get published and she was probably developing a bad reputation in the industry among agents every time she queried like crazy and then didn't take their advice.
"Smart husband," I said. "Buy that man a drink."