Monday, January 16, 2017

Road to Publication: One Small Step, A Giant Leap for Me


I considered smashing a bottle of champagne over my computer, but aimed it at buzzing fly instead. I missed.

It’s hard to speculate how well you know me. I only gauge my audience by my hit counter and the messages I get in response. Sometimes I do feel like I’m submitting out into the void, but people do come up and talk to me about what I’ve written, informing me that I’m not as alone as I think. Some of my readers have known me all my life, some just follow my posts, knowing only what I say here, which I honestly can’t always remember. Then there’s some of you who are complete strangers, I know. Some of you are very aware of how long it’s taken me to get here, others not so much. So let me let you in on what I’m on about.

I finished my first novel at 13. I’m 27 now, have been writing most days since then, with a few bad periods, of course. The currently titled The Dying Breed is my 13th manuscript, which I completed the first draft in 2013, five months after starting, ending a whopping 180,000 words.

For size reference, The Hunger Games is approximately 100,000 words, almost half.

I have an affinity for all my manuscripts, but The Dying Breed was different; even before I had finished, I knew it was unlike anything I had written before. The male protagonist Raiden came out exactly as I had imagined him. He has always lent himself to the moment, his motivations and desires clear to me, even before I began to ask him about himself. He was exactly the person I had been trying to write for some time.

Libra was the opposite. She and I fought most of the way. At first, she attempted to be a mouthy, unfunny little jerk, which within the first few scenes I pulled way back on. I knew nothing about her, other than her abrasion to the world around her, but as the first draft was completed, she came into her own. Second time around, I ended up switching her character arc, Libra growing more and more opinionated and brave as the events went on, starting out as a quiet, humble person before coming into her own.

But they had a certain chemistry between them, the affection palatable no matter the changes.

The idea originally came to me when my dad was having a midlife crisis. He took me out on his brand new motorcycle, and I began to wonder if it would be easier to jump out of a car—in which you had to open the door, but weren’t as aware of the speed of the cement rushing by before you hit it—or a motorcycle—in which you were physically free, but needed to mentally prepare.

My thoughts turned to kidnapping, mostly my fearless escape, which turned to the bigger question on how a kidnapper would prevent it. You’d have to be in a location in which few people would come by, traffic lights wouldn’t be an issue, and basically drive through a barren wasteland until you got out far enough there was nowhere to run.

Then the question turned to motive—why would they be kidnapping you in the first place—and with motive, came the story.

By the time I got home, I had the first half of the book plotted out. (Though at the time I only expected it to be a third.) I wrote out the first pages, and answers came quickly. But, being currently in the middle of another manuscript, I decided to wait until the next month and start it for National Novel Writing Month (I love seeing the visual of the little graph going up and up as I write. Makes me feel productive.) That manuscript is still incomplete, though fully, in detail outlined, landing about 50,000 words at the moment. I work on it from time to time, hoping to keep it below 95,000 words, minimum of 80,000.

Right at the time of completion, I heard about the film rights of Divergent being purchased—a book I hadn’t yet read. I knew of Hunger Games already, but it hadn’t occurred to me that dystopian novels were becoming a thing of a fad… and already falling.

I had a decision to make; keep editing this manuscript and aim for publication, or focus on something else.

Too many times had I decided the next one would be the big thing. Too many times did I start writing something new instead of working on something old. But this book, I was proud of it. It felt right. It had been successful in a way that the others hadn’t. As much as it was preferable to prioritize new and shiny things, I knew I needed to commit. So I decided: I would dedicate myself to get this book published until I knew that it wasn’t going to happen.

Of course I worked on other things as well. In fact, I struggled for a time with the huge variation to the reaction of the manuscript completed after that and the reaction to The Dying Breed.

No one was nearly as excited for the older that they were the newer.

Thirteen drafts and three years later, five complete overhauls of the beginning, 70K+ words cut (and many added) I have a version that my critique partners, beta-readers, editors, agents, have all agreed, “Now is the time to submit.”

Outside of short stories and play productions, I’ve only attempted to submit a manuscript once before. Manuscript four, my freshman year of college, I sent out queries to five publishers/agents, received one rejection, and then unceremoniously abandoned the project. I still like that fourth book, but even then I knew that I wouldn’t want it published exactly in the spot it’s been in.

I’ve known for five months now that I was ready to start searching for agents, but with the move, working long hours, and dealing with family, I put it off. It wasn’t until I was settled that I could finally sit down and do one last run through.

“January 17th,” I decided. “That seems like a good time.”

It was originally the 15th, until I realized that was a Sunday. I don’t know if agents truly are inundated with weekend mail on Mondays, making them less precise, but that’s the word of wisdom, and I don’t have an reason to chance it.

I won’t talk too much about the process in the coming months—I think that would be like blogging about dating while trying to find a boyfriend. For one thing, no one wants to be talked about, and not a lot of good comes out of airing dirty laundry. I’ll update with any positive events, and will give an overview at the end of the year, but for now, bear with me. It’s still a business, a negotiation, and about presentation of self, so as valuable as the learning experience would be for my readers, I will keep the majority of what happens to myself until further notice.

But, I can tell you the prep work that has gone into it:

List of agents

I have a list of agents who represent not only my genre, but genres that appeal to me. While I have decided to shop the book as adult science-fiction, I read young adult which has influenced me, so I know that if an agent represents both, they are more inclined to share my tastes. Some of the agents on my list said things that really enticed me, like someone who pointed out her love of secondary worlds—an unpopular but shared opinion. I’m not a fan of contemporary settings.

I found their names through various places: writing conferences, representing authors I like (their names are often on their website or in their acknowledgements section), and The Writer’s Market.

I did research on the internet, read interviews, their Twitter pages, etc. to find out what kind of people they were and tailor queries to each.

This took years of cultivating, but if you can stomach research for long periods of time, once you know where to look, it’s not hard.

The query

A query letter is a short introduction of your book and yourself. It is like a commercial; it must be informative but catching at the same time. I probably wrote eight entirely different query letters, but I’m not sure at how many drafts.

I am not so sensitive to constructive criticism on my books—My skin is a cockroach hotel. Thick to get through at first, but once you’re under it, you’re there for life. However, getting people to read my query was the most nerve wracking thing I’d done in years.

I won’t share it, but I learned about queries from reading agents’ blogs, going to conferences, and the website, Query Shark, as well as Caitlin McDonald's blog which features query critiques.

The synopsis

This is the one I forgot about. After getting top agents in mind, I looked through their initial submission requirements to really polish the parts they would see first, when I realized after years of writing queries, I hadn’t even started writing a synopsis.

It’s a more in-depth version of your book. Unlike the query, which is only aimed to get their attention, the synopsis tells the whole story from beginning to end, showing that not only can you write well, but you can write satisfying arcs. The size of the synopsis varies, many agents not wanting one at all, so I have several versions.

The manuscript itself

When I got my first short story in print, I found a typo. Since then, I have made it my motto that I will not submit anything I would be embarrassed about if no editing happens. It’s a good way to push myself and my writing.

Most agents ask for the first three chapters or 40 pages, but that too varies. Some want nothing. Some want the whole thing.

Before submitting I had…

Gone through 13 drafts.

Had five readers who went through the whole thing—as many as I could get.

Had over 30 readers go through the first three chapters.

Gone from 180,000 words to 110,000 words.

The book went through some substantial developmental edits, predominantly in the beginning. The rest of it was tightened with merged scenes, cut scenes, added scenes, excess slack, and upping the stakes. In the early drafts, I solidified a history of the world and added in a much more enriched culture and geographical setting. Over time I realized that I’ve diverged from the dystopian world and, outside of this blog, perhaps spin it as pure science fiction set on another planet. The trendiness of the background is possibly my biggest worry, but as I look over my pitch, I think it’s not so easily categorized anymore.

I won’t talk about expectations…

Too ambitious and you seem delusional. Too small and you’re insecure.

I will say this: I’m proud of my book. I enjoy reading it. I hate putting it down at the end. There are limitations I am wary of, but aware of, and everything that I considered flawed, a deal-breaker, a red flag, I have fixed. I have done everything that I can with it by myself, and can only hope that it will find itself in capable hands. If not, there will be others, and the story has, at the very minimum, enriched my life.



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