Friday, June 6, 2008

If I'd wanted to go into Marketing, I wouldn't have been an English major.

I hate Marketing. Don't get me wrong; I love coupons, free samples, "buy one get one free," those Bud Light "dude" commercials.... I'm used to being the target of marketing. I've learned to tune out what I don't want to hear and take advantage of what interests me.

No, it's marketing my own work that makes the business of writing so miserable. I mean, revising Chapter 2 for the umpteenth time can be frustrating, but at least it offers the potential of immediate reward when I find just the right word. (If you're a writer, you know that can be a wonderful feeling--if one that doesn't happen as often as you'd like.) Trying to sell a novel? Well, that has the potential for future reward. More often, though, I wonder whether I'm like of those spammers sending ads for "che@p vi@gr@!" to my in-box--barking up the wrong the tree. (Barking, in fact, down an empty well, confounding the slugs who live there into wondering what the noise is all about.)

When people ask me, "How's the writing going?" I hardly know how to answer. It's easy enough to reply, "Oh, I'm two-thirds finished with my third novel," but what they really want to know is when they're going to see one of these mythical novels in a bookstore. There's no short reply, unless I want to get into the details of what the Marketing Department is up to. And since I find marketing my work boring and frustrating, why should I bother you with it? Well, because now I have a blog and I need to write something in it. So I'm going to give you the long answer, by sharing the history of my attempts at selling my first novel.

I started my fantasy A Mage and His Dog so long ago I can't quite remember when it was, but it's well over 15 years by now. It started out as a novel for adults, with the main character in his early 20s, so my first attempt to sell it was to an adult fantasy imprint. This was around 1995, and although I was only halfway done with the novel, I sent off three chapters to the publisher with a hopeful cover letter. (I rather naively thought that if they did want to see the whole thing, I'd be close to finished, and the request would give me the impetus to finish writing it quickly. Now I laugh at people who think this way.) Anyway, the chapters seemed to have vanished into some alternate dimension, for months went by without getting my SASE (that's a self-addressed stamped envelope) returned. Finally, over a year later, I got a package via UPS. I'd only sent a small SASE for a response, telling them to recycle the manuscript, but they paid to mail the whole thing back to me. It seemed like a lot of effort when they included nothing but a form rejection in the package.

So, a few years went by. I finished the novel in 1998, shortly after going freelance, and around that time I also joined the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, a professional union that sponsors some great conferences. I got a little wiser to the business aspect of fiction publishing, and also rewrote the novel in 2002 for the children's market. (Thanks to Harry Potter, the fantasy children's market remains very hot, although not for me.) Still, I had learned that it wouldn't be easy. A lot of publishers won't look at manuscripts unless an agent submits them. Others will, but those "unsolicited manuscripts" end up in a slush pile that can have hundreds or even thousands of submissions. So I tried a couple of "first novel" contests run by children's imprints, thinking at least they were open to unpublished novelists. The first one was in 2003, and never even sent a rejection; I had to search for the announcement that no one won that year. The second one was in 2004, and they were at least kind enough to send a form rejection after two months.

It helps if you can target a specific editor, and if you attend conferences you can hear them speak and get an idea of whether they might be a good fit. So my next attempt was to one such editor at a new children's imprint. This kind of submission is not quite the same as submitting to the slush pile, since they "invite" you to submit, but there can be 100 other writers who were at that conference, too. So it took five months to get a form rejection from this editor.

Another conference, another editor. And this time ... an invitation to send the whole manuscript! (For novels, you generally only submit the first 2 or 3 chapters, although I suspect most editors only need to read a few pages to decide whether they want to see the whole thing.) This invitation was exciting--I'd made it to the next level! I was willing to wait, give her time to consider it. Editors are busy people, I know this. After six months, I hadn't heard anything, so I sent an e-mail. "I need more time," she told me, so I waited some more. And after six more months, I sent another e-mail. No reply. Still, no news is good news, right? Not necessarily. When I finally followed up again, I got this reply: "Oh, I remember the piece, and I replied quite some time ago. I wasn't quite enthusiastic enough to take it on. My [devastating, heart-crushing] reply must have been lost in the mail."

Aggggh. "Can I just shoot myself now?" I was thinking by now. "Why don't you just get an agent to do the marketing for you?" you may be thinking by now. Well, you have to market to them, too. While Mage was sitting with that one editor, I tried a couple of agents, hoping to tantalize them with the info that an editor was considering the whole manuscript. One such agent turned me down in a quick two months. Another, after saying by e-mail she was willing to look at a sample, never got back to me.

And that's just the history of one of my works. Another novel has bounced through several editors and agents, as has my picture book manuscript. At this point, I might be forgiven if I gave up. After all, can two dozen editors and agents be wrong? Am I only writing crap?

Well, I don't think so. My lovely, helpful critique group doesn't think so. I continue to believe that someday, somehow, I will find that editor or agent who loves my work. It may take a lot more marketing (ick), but it will happen. It's just a matter of serendipity. And there! I now have the short answer for people who ask "how's the writing going?"

I will answer, "I have yet to achieve serendipity, but I'm still trying."

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Floundering around in Moby *expletive deleted*

So, inspired again by my pal Jacqui, I decided to participate in her summer remedial literature project. After all, despite the numerous classic novels I read during my college days--and sometimes on my own, just to feel virtuous--there are a quite a few gaps in my education. (Especially in American lit, due to the particular bias of my degree program.) Anyway, Melville's "Moby Dick" suggested itself pretty quickly. First of all, everyone seemed to have avoided reading that one, although everyone knows it's about a big white whale. And hey, they quoted it in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," and that was a pretty cool movie. If it inspired an upper-division Trek flick, how boring could it be?

Oh. My. Lord.

Now, one thing I will grant MD is that the chapters are short. Sometimes very short--less than a page. So I'm feeling like I'm making progress, because I'm on chapter 48 (out of 135), even though I've only been reading bits here and there. Unfortunately, I'm on chapter 48 and they've only been at sea a couple of days. I thought this book was about chasing a white whale, so what gives? The character sketches have been pretty interesting, but why the 10-page chapters classifying different kinds of whales, and talking about whales through history, and recounting tales of whales attacking ships? It seems like Ahab is not the only one obsessed with whales, I thought to myself.

Then I really thought about the why behind all this seemingly dull information. When Melville was writing, his audience had no real idea what whales looked like. There was no Discovery Channel HD to show us whales in all their glory, both above and below the water. There was no Sea World so that landlubbers could see Shamu in action. The best any of his readers might do, assuming they weren't whalers themselves, was to catch a glimpse of a fin at a distance off shore, or in rare cases see a beached or butchered specimen. So the idea of a whale as large as a ship, one that could attack people and destroy boats, must have seemed pretty fantastic. For Melville's contemporaries, reading about the different types of whales and their capabilities might have been as captivating as reading about hippogriffs, phoenixes, and spells in the latest Harry Potter is for us.

So, a couple of lessons for me in this observation. The first is to have a little patience with ol' Moby, and try to see the sense of wonder that Melville was trying to create with these descriptions. (It wasn't like I was going to quit the book without finishing, I can be particularly stubborn when it comes to books. And maybe the best part is at the end.)

The second lesson applies to my own writing, especially fantasy: I may have lots of details to share with you about this world I've created, but don't spend ten *expletive deleted* pages on mere details!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

There should be a word for this.

I suspect there are many people in the Detroit area suffering along with me this morning. No, not because their beloved Red Wings lost last night, but because they stayed up way past their bedtime watching the game. Now, I usually have a practical approach to watching playoff sports. If the game lasts way past my bedtime, I stop watching and go to sleep. I tell myself, "If they win, I can watch the next game in the series. If they lose, I don't want to see that anyway." But last night the Red Wings could have clinched the Stanley Cup (and were 35 seconds away from doing so, grrrr), so I didn't want to miss that. So I stayed up through triple overtime and didn't get to bed until after 12:30 am.

So now it's the morning after. I got up at the usual time (6:45) and now I feel bleary. My head is vaguely achy, I need a nap, and caffeine is not dealing with my usual morning grumps. (Plus Gigi is mewing at me because she wants to play. But, being Gigi, she will not let me get close enough to play, thus forcing me to move--blech--if I want to shut her up.) Now, if I felt this way because I'd had a little too much to drink, I'd know what to call it. I think most of us are familiar with the term "hangover." (Thanks for the lesson, RAF Association Band of Hillingdon!) It's a dreadful state caused by over-indulgence and it's all our fault.

So what to call my current physical state? It's certainly dreadful, it's caused by over-indulgence (of the TV), and it's my own fault, as much as I'd like to blame Maxime what's-his-face for sending the game into overtime. Maybe I'll call it a bangover, because "BANG! The game is over! Now try to sleep, ha ha ha!" Nah, that doesn't really sound right. A gangover, because I was watching my gang until the game was over? Ehhhh.

I think I should leave any more attempts to coin new words to mornings when I'm not suffering from--whatever.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Blogging still counts as writing, right?

This is all Jacqui's fault. She started a blog. I started reading it. I composed a few cute little responses to her very clever pieces. Boy, this is fun, I thought, not at all boring, like revising Chapter 2 in my novel for the umpteenth time. Maybe I should start a blog....

So I arrived here, starting my very first blog. After all, they say that any writing is good practice, right? And practice makes perfect, erm, improved, right? And who can't stand to improve their writing, especially an aspiring novelist still seeking that first contract? So typety-typety-type, I will write! I will improve! I will stun the publishing world with my talent and self-deprecating wit!

What's more likely, though, is that I'll just blather on about writing, reading, and other stuff you may (or most likely may not) find interesting. But hey, this is the internets! I'm sure somebody else out there is trying to put off revising Chapter 2 for the umpteenth time, so maybe they'll find my blog. We can procrastinate erm, exchange ideas, together.

At least that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.