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The Breaking Point

I’m getting ready for a new stage of the writing journey. I have come to accept that I will probably never be able to get my book traditionally published and so I am preparing to enter the terrifying waters of self-publishing, an endeavor I feel even less equipped for than writing. But it may be my only option. I’ve been querying for several months and not a single agent has expressed the slightest interest in my manuscript.

People tell me I’ve barely scratched the surface, that I should keep at it. But the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. A dozen agents rejected my query; the next dozen will too. And I can’t afford to keep burning my bridges. Once an agent rejects you, you can never, ever, query her again. Perhaps you were still getting the hang of it, and had a weak query, or a lousy writing sample. It doesn’t matter. Once she says no, it’s permanent, and even if you have greatly improved your submission, she will not give you a second chance. When the door is closed, it’s closed forever. I’ve already had over a dozen doors close.

I’m not really blaming the agents. It’s now become possible for anybody to hack out a book and send it off. Agents have to sort through thousands of queries a week, where in years past they might only get a handful of submissions, and would be able to take the time to read between the lines. They would be more inclined to take a chance and ask to see more. But as it is, they have to make snap judgments; if you don’t have them in the first sentence of the query, you never will. Even worse, chances are you never made it to the agent, and your query is being judged by overworked, underpaid interns who lack the experience to see subtle potential.

Add to this the reality that agency is a business. For all that agents say they want to nurture talented writers in whom they see great potential, that’s not the case. They don’t work for the writers; rather they are talent-scouts who get paid by publishers to bring them stuff that will sell. We writers are merely a commodity, and rather than nurturing us to greatness, they would prefer we come to them fully-formed and ready to bring in the big bucks. It’s about making money. And money is made, not by great books, but by mediocre books that can get turned into big-budget, special-effects-filled popcorn movies. That’s what the agents are looking for. They keep saying they’re tired of dystopia and paranormal. Yet they keep repping and publishing it. Because it sells. It’s easy to pitch to publishers. They want a straightforward, simple story with high stakes and two-dimensional characters. They want a story that can be easily expressed in a 250-word query.

Okay, if you can’t do that, they say, then there’s a problem. But great literature isn’t so easily reduced. The things that make it great, the nuances, the subtleties, can’t be laid out simply. So how to explain when literary fiction does get picked up and published. In those cases it’s not the query, but rather the author’s bio that closed the deal. One former colleague submitted a literary novel with what has to be the worst, most amateurish query I’ve ever seen. But he also teaches creative writing and has an academic publishing background. As a result, his novel is out and doing very well. For those of us without the bona fides, it’s another story. Literally.

Agents who try to be “helpful” and “encouraging” will offer advice and activities on their websites and social media. One common one is the fun exercise of taking a classic, beloved book, and trying to create a query. I suppose this is a way to illustrate the mechanics, but I notice the agents never finish the experiment. I have to wonder how it would go if someone created queries of, say, Old Yeller or To Kill a Mockingbird and sent them off to agents. I’m curious if they’d get a bite. Can you even imagine how they would react to Catcher in the Rye, a book wherein the protagonist skips school to wander around a museum, all the while complaining about how lousy everything is? That’s all that happens. What are the “stakes”? Where’s the action? We need a romance!

But there’s still some value in considering these issues. What is harder to justify is the way some agents post examples of the worst queries they receive. Granted, some are real head-scratchers, full of grammatical errors and such. But then, the time they spent compiling these is time they didn’t spend taking a closer look at my story. And decent writers don’t make these kinds of mistakes. The agents don’t post them for education, but rather amusement. A good laugh.

Even worse are the other “bad” examples agents post. In addition to the poorly written ones, or the ones addressed to “Whomever,” there are the ones that start with something like, “Dear Clueless Idiot,” or “I know you’ll reject me, but here it is anyway.” These are actual things that agents have posted on their sites. Again, the message is, “Can you believe this?”

Actually, yes, I can believe it. Only I’m not laughing. It’s not funny. It’s tragic. Unlike the poor speller, or the one who couldn’t be bothered to look up the agent’s name, the person who sends an angry query didn’t start that way. That angry tone is the sound of a completely broken spirit. They started hopeful, optimistic, and probably naïve. They did everything they were supposed to, but it all came to nothing. Maybe their book wasn’t really that good. Maybe, like mine, it was just thirty years too late, written for a readership that no longer exists. Or maybe they were just one of the 98% of would-be authors who never get published, despite being at least as good as the ones who do.

Constant rejection takes a toll on the human heart. I know because that’s where I am now. After two months of querying without a single positive response, I’m angry and bitter and discouraged, to the point where it’s become unpleasant to write, and everything I try to write these days is bleak and violent and everything I hate about contemporary fiction. And now I understand why so much of it is that way; the writers’ spirits have all been crushed. By the publishing industry.

Agents say they care, but in increasing numbers they are refraining from sending personal rejections, or even responding at all. I get it, that would take more time than they probably have. But many openly admit that they aren’t responding simply because they don’t want to deal with the nasty replies that they all too often get from writers who have reached the breaking point. They don’t want to be reminded that behind every single one of the thousands of queries they have to get through is a real human being who has poured his or her heart and soul into that book, only to see their dreams crushed again and again and again and again and again and again and again and again. Eventually some just give up in despair. Others sell out their ideals. Others still become so desperate, so reflexively needing somebody – anybody – to please look at their submission, they become easy prey for unscrupulous agents and publishers. The industry is already horrifically stacked against the author (another reason more and more of us are turning to self-publishing), but the constant rejections turn us into our own worst enemies, unable to stand up for our best interests. I have little doubt that’s happened to me and I can no longer tell if my actions are self-destructive. I’d love to keep trying, but it takes time that I am quite simply running out of. Frankly, I am amazed that there are people out there concurrently writing and revising multiple books, sending off and tracking queries by the hundred, reading several books a week, and all this while holding down full-time employment. They do it by being half my age and still having the health and energy I lost years ago. And knowing that they have many, many years ahead of them to keep at it makes it much easier for them to keep up their sprits.

I do know people have warned me that I am screwing my chances by writing this sort of thing, that my negative attitude toward the publishing industry will get me “blacklisted” by agents. If that’s true, it simply proves my point. An agent who rejects a submitter merely because that person is cracking under the strain of the process the agents themselves have created isn’t full of the milk of human kindness.

But it’s not the agent’s fault; personal considerations and compassion are a luxury they can no longer afford. I suspect those automatic form rejections sent by the interns are a pretty good insulation from the pain they cause, whether they intend to or not. But it would be nice if they could at least try to care. A good start might be to stop making fun of their supplicants by posting their desperate pleas for all to laugh at.

The least you can do is to feel bad when you stab someone in the heart.


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The Great Cookie Panic

It’s always interesting when a confluence of unrelated events creates a coherent picture.  This has just recently happened, beginning with my having run across a Publishers’ Weekly article from last fall that discussed then-current trends in teen fiction and had a number of agents weighing in on the subject.  Much of what the agents said was contradictory, and ended up coming down to, “We never really know what will succeed and what won’t.”

Much was said about how glutted the teen market has become, and how books that were published even five years ago wouldn’t make today.  The picture being painted was a rather discouraging one, not just for famous-pessimist me, but for a lot of would-be authors.  But near the end, the agents got a chance to express what they would really like to see in their inboxes.  They all made the usual sounds about wanting to see something different, unique, daring, etc.  Something that surprises them and knocks them over.  Uh huh.  I must say how gratified I was when a number of people in the comments section, including authors, educators and librarians, basically called bullshit.

The fact is, as I have said more than once, agents might say they want to see something “different,” but it’s not what they actually take on.  One key statement, the most honest line in the whole thing, came from an agent who admitted how it really works: “It’s always going to be easier to sell a high-concept idea because it’s easier for publishers to sell a high-concept story to readers. There’s a real challenge when you can’t describe a story in one sentence.”

Yep.  So much for the complex, unusual things they claim they want.  They will continue to pick up simplistic action yarns because they are easy to sell to publishers.  And film studios.  This was confirmed to me just this weekend, by a review I read of some new teen thing called “Panic,” which also put the lie to the claim that dark dystopia is on the way out.  Essentially, the premise is of some obscure high school where the students play some sort of ritualized game of fear, friendship, betrayal, etc.  Basically Hunger Games lite.  Or, let’s be honest, Battle Royale lite. The book is only just out, and has already been optioned for a movie.  Apparently there was a “bidding war” before it was even released.  No longer do they wait to see if a book is a success.  Now the agents are shopping it to film studios right alongside publishers.

The worst part, of course, is the kind of book it takes to have this sort of unwarranted success.  High concept, defined in one sentence.  Dark, violent, all that.  More stories about children inflicting horror on each other for the amusement of readers and theater-goers.  How did we become a society with such hatred of children that our mass entertainments are filled with them killing each other?

To be fair, I understand Suzanne Collins’ motivation for writing Hunger Games, which had nothing to do with an alleged mash-up of Survivor and Gulf War coverage, and everything to do with her working out having spent a decade at Nickelodeon, dealing with arrogant, ill-behaved child TV stars.  No wonder she had fantasies of them being killed on TV for the entertainment of rich people such as herself.

But that doesn’t explain the fascination with child violence that drives the rest of society.  And you are probably thinking it’s not an indication of hatred of children, that I am overstating the issue.  Don’t be so sure.  See, the next eye-opener that came to my attention was something that hit me very close to home.  I am currently enjoying my annual binge on those addictive substances with the deceptively innocent name, “Girl Scout Cookies.”  Those little marketing geniuses have us.  One enterprising little girl in Colorado, who gets my vote for the Nobel Prize in Economics, set up her little table in front of a marijuana dispensary.  She probably sold out in the first hour.

But apparently all is not well for the girls.  It seems there is an attempt to lead a boycott of Girl Scout Cookies due to a perceived link between GSA and Planned Parenthood.  Anti-abortion activists say it’s the GSA promoting “abortion on demand for young girls,” but in fact all it is is a program that emphasizes the accomplishments of women, including in the fields of health and sexuality.

And there’s the real fear.  People on various right-wing websites are decrying the idea of promoting “fact-based sex education” to girls.  It’s not “wholesome,” whatever that means.  What we see is a very vocal arm of society that is as fearful of sexuality as they aren’t when it comes to violence.  They are horrified that young people, especially girls, might have the means to make healthy decisions about their bodies and their sexuality.  And if girls can make their own decisions about sex, what’s next, deciding they don’t have to have my dinner on the table when I get home?  Oh the humanity!  And that mindset is every bit as damaging as all the violent media kids are saturated with.

That’s one of the reasons I am so frustrated at having met no success with my book.  I have very body-positive and sex-positive messages in it, messages I think entirely suitable for teens.  But I suspect if I ever do find an agent, all that stuff would be the first thing she’d want cut.  We can’t be telling kids that sex is okay, even fun.  The only way it seems to be permitted in teen books is if it’s traumatic.  I recently suffered through the first book in the Graceling series, and was subjected to a sex scene that not only was completely unnecesary to the story, but was so unpleasant, so awkwardly presented, it made Fifty Shades sound like D. H. Lawrence in comparison and made me wonder if the young author had even had sex, or was just basing it on stories she heard in the girl’s restroom at high school.  I’m not the only person whose sex drive was shut down from reading it.  But that gets a pass.   I guess to try and scare the kids away from having sex or something.  Not that that will stop them.

But the damage caused is real.  And so we deluge children with fear and hate and violence and despair, feeding the darkness rather than leading them to enlightenment and hope.  How did we get here?  One possible answer lies in the final element that has come to my attention.

A recent Pew study has found that the so-called “millennial” generation (with an approximate age range of 18-33) are not turning out to be the great community builders people thought they would be, but are instead even more self-absorbed than their Baby Boomer parents were (and that’s quite an accomplishment).  They are educated but largely unaccomplished, having lived highly structured, sheltered lives, where zero-tolerance polices on aspirin are the norm, and distrusting authority is an abstract mantra.  They are now filling a world that expects them to take an active role, and they don’t want it.  They aren’t prepared for it.  They make a lot of noise about issues, but it’s accompanied by very little action.

Is it any coincidence that the writers and promoters and publishers of violent, sex-negative, child-hating “teen” books are almost all right in the middle of the millennial demographic?  As are many of the “adult” readers of these books.  It makes sense.  It’s a generation less-prepared for responsibility than any before.  And more fearful of it.  Obviously there are exceptions, and some of my closest friends fall in this age range.  I have some highly motivated students, but they, too, are fearful of a world where the traditional certainties no longer apply.  They are the first generation in history that cannot reasonably expect to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents’, for whom still living “at home” in your twenties and even later is no stigma, but often the only practical choice.  I don’t envy them.

Many in this demographic are postponing or avoiding traditional institutions like marriage and family in record numbers.  This is not in and of itself bad, and I made the choice to not have children myself years ago.  But the scope in this case is indicative.  These are people who do not want the immense responsibility of family and children, and some of them who took it on anyway (possibly not by choice, thanks to inadequate sex education) fell apart when they discovered what’s really involved.  They do not want the responsibility the real world demands when the worlds presented in books and movies and video games are so much easier to grasp.  Unlike a best-selling teen book, life cannot be described in one sentence, so they want no part of it.  They escape a world they aren’t ready for by creating alternates where the social order they distrust and fear has collapsed, where life is cheap, and where they can lead armies and save the dreamy boy without having to worry about paying a mortgage and buying diapers.

So what’s my solution?  I don’t have one.  I’d say reject the darkness and read books full of fun and optimism, like mine.  But they don’t get published.  Okay then, have some Girl Scout Cookies.  Guaranteed to make anyone feel better.  But you’d better hurry before they’re banned for promoting sex.

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A Rejection Letter

Dear Mr. Tolkein,

Thank you for your submission, “The Hobbit.”  Unfortunately, I have to pass.  You have the basis of a good story, but I simply could not relate to your main character.   He’s much too timid.  You should try to make him more confident, more active, more heroic.  At the very least, he must be the one to kill the dragon, rather than having that done by a different character we haven’t seen before and barely see again.

You say your book is targeted towards young readers, and the story does suggest middle-grade, but your character is an adult, and an older one at that.  Surely you understand that teens will refuse to read books with characters who aren’t teens like themselves.  For your book to be suitable for publication you will need to completely revise this character and give him experiences teens can relate to, such as struggles with authority, first love, finding his place in the world, and so forth.  This character is much too settled for readers to relate to him in any way.

Also, I noticed the complete absence of female characters.  This is unacceptable and will be an impediment to anything but fringe publication.  Given that your book is targeted toward the MG/YA audience, I was very surprised that the main character is not a girl, and I encourage you to consider changing that.  But we are trying to reach male readers, so having him be male is acceptable, provided you give him a strong female love-interest.  Of course, we are also looking for diversity, and giving him a male love-interest instead would provide LGBT appeal.

The Gandalf character doesn’t seem necessary.  Young adult books need the adult characters to be secondary.  It is unfortunate that Gandalf is the one who kills the trolls in an early scene, when obviously it is Bilbo who should do so.  You actually do get it right by having  Gandalf leave halfway through, but you don’t really need him at all since you already have Thorin as an authority figure, so you should just lose Gandalf entirely.

The digression with Gollum and riddles and something about a ring just brought the story to a halt.  The means by which Bilbo obtains the ring is not compelling; it would be more effective if Gollum were to try to kill Bilbo, forcing Bilbo to kill Gollum and obtain the ring that way.  Since we never see Gollum again, it would be far more appropriate in the story for him to die; that’s really the only means of removing antagonists that is appropriate in books for young readers.  You seem to imply in your query that there might be some reason Bilbo doesn’t kill Gollum, but I could see no indication spelled out in the chapter.  It’s very important that everything be fully explained and not left hanging, as otherwise readers will just become confused and stop reading.  All that said, the ring itself doesn’t serve any real purpose, so it might be best to cut the whole sequence and stay with those hilarious dwarves.

But that leads to another concern: the continued over-reliance on adult characters.  A book for young adults must always present teen characters as wiser and more capable than adults and, while you do this effectively near the end when Bilbo resolves the conflict between the men and the dwarves, it is much more important that he should be the one rally the troops and lead them into the climactic battle, rather than spending most of it unconscious.  It’s unacceptable to have such a specular action sequence but only show it indirectly.  You will need to revise the battle to allow multiple scenes of violence because otherwise it will be boring to teen readers.

The dragon is really good, but he’s only in a couple of scenes partway through, and he is dispatched far too easily.  You need to bring him in much sooner.  Perhaps instead of that scene with the trolls, you can introduce the dragon then.  It’s much more visceral than just having the dwarves talk about him the way you have it now.  And again, Bilbo must be the one to kill the dragon, preferably as part of the final battle, because killing his enemies is the only way for him to really assert himself as a role model for teens

Please don’t be discouraged by these notes.  I’m sure you will find representation; if you apply these suggestions, you will have a good story.  Good luck.


Anne A. Gent


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