Sunday, June 15, 2008

How not to get published...

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."


laughingwolf said...

could not agree more with your advice, holly :)

to improve overall mss: art of dramatic writing, by lajos egri

Ramona said...

Direct and frank, but not unkind.
That's the best kind of advice you can give an aspiring writer.

And she'll either take it or end up packing it in.

wordman17 said...

A friend of mine who lives in Texas "almost" landed himself one of the industry's top agents (the guy had offered him verbal representation) but then my friend argued with him so much about the changes he wanted to make to his manuscript over the next 30 days that the agent retracted his offer and said, "Buddy I don't need this. I can work with 10 other authors who actually appreciate what I'm trying to do for them. You're on your own."

NOW he kicks himself in the butt and wishes he could go back and change it. Too late.
Sad crap, huh?

Nadine said...

Sheesh! No offense intended but she sounds like she really does have to crank down her ego a few notches.

Just cuz a person's an English teacher doesn't mean he/she has what it takes to get published.

P.S. I heart The First Five Pages!!!!! One of my favs!

Travis Erwin said...

Great recommendations. I've read 3 of the four. I'm about to finish novel #4 and as I prepare to query, I'm feeling upbeat that this will be the one where I take that next step.

ORION said...

oh yes oh yes oh yes!!!
By the way people. FYI
I met Holly at my first Maui Writers Retreat and Conference several years ago --I had just completed my first atrocious novel.
She took me by the hand and told me what for...
The only difference between me that the other writer is that I LISTENED...
nuff said.
oh word verification?

Karen said...

Sad life lesson for your friend; great advice for the rest of us. I hope to take it since, though I have my first YA novel out now, I'm just beginning to hunt for an agent. I've already read three of those four titles so I'm on the right track.

(And hello from one Albertan to another.)

Victoria said...

This is so interesting!

I did not know agents would offer to represent a writer and then suggest changes to the manuscript. Makes sense, but I think it'd take some getting used to to accept anyone wanting to gut or rearrange a book I'd already written.

Adam said...

Them English teachers, huh?!! lol

Give 'em a degree and they think they can teach the rest of the world a thing or two.
Just goes to show.

Heidi the Hick said...

I haven't read any of those either, but I have a few valuable ones on my shelf.

On Writing by Stephen King (my favourite of his ever!)

The Elements of Style, Strunk & White

76 Reasons Why Your Novel Hasn't Been Published and 15 Why it Just Might by Pat Walsh

It's hard at this point for a writer to accept that all the work poured into a novel means there's more work. But hey... that's what it's going to take.

Trish Ryan said...


It's one of the hardest parts of this job, taking feedback that isn't of the, "Omigosh this is the best thing I've ever read!" variety and making real changes from those suggestions.

Wow, are the results worth it, though!

I'm off to get "THE FIRST FIVE PAGES" :)

kyla-dale said...

I haven't read The First Five Pages but I have heard from others that it's an amazing book.
I'll add it to my list.

Patti said...

that she received constructive feedback from agents is like finding gold in the street. what i would give...

Therese said...

What we don't know when we're in the "aspiring" stage...

Ego has so little place in the professional author's life! Every published novel is a collaborative effort, from story-shaping to cover art/cover copy to marketing to publicity to...

We have to be selectively stubborn.

You gave her excellent advice.

Melissa Marsh said...

Brilliant advice, Holly. And I'm proud to say I own all those books. :-)

ChrisEldin said...

I received the best rejection a few weeks ago.
My ms has been read by a variety of agents, and just now starting to query a few publishers. All the letters have said positive things (creative, strong voice, etc) but not why they chose not to take on my project.
Well, one publisher took the time to give me three reasons why she passed, and asked to see my other work.
I'm going to incorporate her three suggestions, and query on. I loved that she took the time to give me that advice. I wish someone had done it sooner....

Doreen Orion said...

It never ceases to amaze me how many people can't take critiques about their writing. These are the people who say "Yes, but... " to any constructive criticism. I saw this all the time in screenwriting workshops (including Maui - wonder if we were there at the same time?)

I went through 113 agent rejections before landing mine. I'm very grateful to the ones who offered suggestions (although sometimes they conflicted with each other!) and always gave the advice a lot of thought. Over those 2 years, I honed my proposal and sample chapters based on this feedback, so that when agent Mollie Glick actually said yes (!) she didn't want any changes and neither did the editor who bought it on pre-empt.

We have to be able to take criticism in this business and view it solely as fresh eyes helping our work.