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The First One

There comes a time when you have to face facts. When you have to accept the reality that what you intend isn’t what’s going to happen, so that you can decide what to do next and move on. I may have reached that point. Perhaps it’s time for me to just put my book up on Amazon and move on to something else.

I say that like it’s a bad thing. For an old guy like me, it sort of is. I grew up in a time when traditional publishing was the only way to go. Self-publishing was for people who couldn’t write. Numerous “vanity presses” existed who would bind your book and charge you a large amount of money to do so. But that was for losers.

Changes in media have modified that somewhat, although not as much as the champions of the self-publishing revolution would have you think. Despite appearances, e-books only make up a tiny fraction of readership, and, while print-on-demand services make it possible for people to hold a paper copy of your book, as most still prefer, there’s no substitute for brick-and-mortar bookstores. There’s still an inestimable degree of validation that comes from walking down the aisle and seeing your book next to one by a famous, long-established author. It means you’ve arrived, that’s you’re good enough. Being picked up by a mainstream publisher says, “This is a real book,” the way self-publishing never can, and likely never will.

Given that I have gotten zero response in two months of querying, I have to look at the causes. That means starting at the beginning. Literally. My query is good, I’m told. So it must be something else. What do agents make their decisions on? They must gauge your writing ability. They usually want a sample. And, unfortunately for me, that sample is always the first ten pages, or the first chapter, or whatever. My first chapter is lousy. It always has been and it still is. I recently took the ten-millionth stab at it, trying to address the flaws that have been previously brought to my attention. I took it to my writers group. The ones who are familiar with this chapter, having seen it dozens of times before, all said largely the same thing: “I can see you’ve really worked on this, but…” Yes, but. “But…all the problems we mentioned before are still there.” The most common complaint: my emotionally reserved main character doesn’t show enough emotion. Uh… yeah. That’s his character. As he says to his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, “What do you want me to do, jump up and down freaking out like the people on daytime talk shows?” Everyone liked that line, but apparently, yes, that’s what they want him to do.

They also wanted me to lose another character entirely because, “She doesn’t add anything to the scene.” Maybe not… except laying the groundwork for things that will be very important later. I always thought that was the foundation of good storytelling, but I guess it doesn’t work that way anymore, especially not in the teen books I’ve read, where if something doesn’t make perfect sense instantly, the reader gets all confused and bored Today’s reader/viewer would never have survived the old Mission:Impossible TV series, where they put something in the gas tank in the middle of act one so the car will run out of gas at the end of act four. Today it would be, “What’s he doing with the gas tank?” “I’m not sure. Screw it, I’m changing the channel.”

I really want to give readers more credit for patience and intelligence than that, and, based on my students, I’m right to do so, as many of them don’t much care for how simplistic and unsubtle teen fiction has become. Unfortunately, the potential readers don’t call the shots, the agents and publishers do. And if they don’t “get it” instantly, then it’s a fail. The people in my writers’ group understand this, which is why I don’t blame them for the reactions they give. They all universally said something else as well: “This is really a shame, because once the book gets going it’s awesome.” But I can’t say that to an agent, so my readers are trying to help me get published by showing me why the agents are rejecting me.

The sad reality is that you have to grab the agent by the throat with the first sentence or they will stop. They have too many other submissions to go through to “hang in there,” even to the second paragraph. Unfortunately, they have an infinitely higher standard than readers, who are much more inclined to stay with a book a bit, especially if others have recommended it. Not agents. And they stack the deck by requiring that your writing sample be the opening chapter. Any writer will tell you that the first chapter is the hardest. Most writers spend more time working on the opening than the entire rest of the book, because they know how important it is. But if agents want to see how well you write, why they hell aren’t you allowed to showcase your best work? That’s what artists get to do when they submit a portfolio. I have breathtakingly good material, but I’m not allowed to show them that. They only want to see the part of the book that is guaranteed to be the roughest, the most in need of more work. In other words, they don’t want to see how good I am, but rather how bad.

This is further proof that agents lie when they say they want to work with and nurture authors. If it were true, they’d look past the misery of the opening in order to find out if there’s something worth nurturing. But they don’t. They look at the first sentence of the first paragraph of the first page of the first chapter, and if it’s not already perfect, they pass. They don’t want to put in any effort; they want you to send them a manuscript all ready to be shopped around to the film studios. The end.

The fact is, after two years of trying, I’m running out of ideas. When people tell me, “I would have stopped reading by the third paragraph,” I want to shout at them, “Okay, how would you start it? What would be a good first sentence? What would you put in the first paragraph?” They tell me what isn’t working, but seem no more capable than I am of figuring out what would. At this point I’m annoyed enough that I have written an entirely new first chapter that emphasizes the one character they liked, even though doing so wrecks the fact that she’s supposed to be mysterious. It’s like telling J.R.R. Tolkein, “Downplay that lame-ass Frodo and focus on Gollum in the first chapter; he’s really funny.” I’ll now need to redo the entire rest of part one of the novel to accommodate this change.

So I’ll make one last attempt, even though it may mean a substantial rewrite. And if that still doesn’t work, then it will be time to stop polishing the turd and focus my efforts on something else, something I can publish. I have written other things, a couple of short stories, the openings of another couple of novels. Universally praised. I’m commended for the quality of my writing, and told how great these books sound.

Okay, I should take encouragement from that, right? Solace at least. I guess. But my heart’s not in it. It’s a truism among writers that, “You never sell your first novel.” It’s the one where you learn to write. That is perhaps the greatest tragedy of the writing process. You see, your first novel is special. It’s closer to your heart than anything else you will ever write. It’s the story and the characters who inspired you to want to be a writer in the first place. It haunts your dreams. Everything you write after that may be more competent, but that’s because you are less emotionally invested. By then, writing has just become something you do. But the magic is gone, along with some of the passion.

I am not exaggerating when I compare it to first love. We all remember our first requited crush, the first time a person we had feelings for returned them. It’s like catching lightning. The first holding hands, the first kiss, the first… well, I’ll let you take that however far you want. The point is, you will never forget any of those “firsts.” And, ironically you probably wish you could. There was fumbling and awkwardness and embarrassment and pain. You wish you could go back and get a do-over, because it’s astonishing how many amazing ways you probably screwed things up.

But, even if you could go back, you wouldn’t. Because those memories, pain and all, are too precious to tamper with. You’ve had other relationships since, and may well be with someone now with whom you couldn’t imagine not spending the rest of your life. But that first one… There will never be another like that.

We invest so much into that first book. It’s a cruel irony to know that it will never be what you wanted it to be. How sad that that painful learning curve was expended on the most cherished story you have. Too bad you couldn’t somehow compel yourself to waste effort on something not worthy of going anywhere. If only writers could begin writing with a lousy book.

Perhaps they do. Perhaps many successful writers look back and say, “Thank God that piece of crap never saw the light of day.” Perhaps that’s the case with my book. Maybe I’m fooling myself. Maybe I shouldn’t even try to self-publish it and risk tarnishing a reputation I haven’t even started building again. Maybe this book never should see the light of day. I don’t know. I know only how I feel about it, and what everyone else says: “I would have stopped reading.” Point taken. Time to move on, to write something else. Something good enough to publish.

Unfortunately, at my advanced age, I may not survive this journey again. That’s why I put so much into this book, because it may well have been my only shot. I’ll go ahead and self-publish, even though I have no marketing skill. Nothing to lose. But self-publishing isn’t the same, not for me. It means I’ve given up, admitted that I’m not good enough for real publication, that I’m not as good as the writers of crappy, overwrought dystopian violence-fests. Just stick the knife in my heart and be done with it.

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Writing Habits: A Questionnaire

One of my recent visitors, Jodie Llewellyn, posted this little exercise, and it sounds like fun and might get me going again.

1. Typed or Handwritten?

Typed.  Word processor, actually.  Forget writing anything by hand.

2. Cursive or Printed?

See above.  But when I do write by hand, it’s print.  I put the curse in cursive.  According to my signature, my name is Ro& P Gm&&&.

a cool pen3. Show us your favorite pen.

Heh.  Okay.  This one is a combination flashlight, laser pointer, counterfeit money detector, and stylus.  Oh, and you can also write with it, I assume.

4. Where do you like to write?

Basically at my computer.  It’s a laptop, but it’s so old and creaky that I’m scared to move it.  I wrote a short story (autobiographical science fiction) where the climactic point is probably that computer being smashed on the floor.

5. Who are your five favorite authors in terms of authorial style?

Hmm, tough.  I’m nowhere near as well-read as I supposedly should be.  Here’s five I consider to be good writers: Douglas Adams, Dave Barry, Ray Bradbury, Jack L. Chalker, Arthur C. Clarke.  You might have noticed there are no “young adult” authors on that list.  Uh huh.

6. What are you your three favorite books on writing?

Don’t really have any.  I’m not sure it’s something that can be learned from a book.  I got partway through Stephen King’s On Writing, but eventually realized it would more accurately be called On Stephen King.  We writers do love to talk about ourselves.

7. Have you ever competed in NaNoWriMo?

No.  For one thing, it comes at a bad time of year for me.  Further, making myself write has not been a problem in the past.  I’ve written complete short stories in the space of an hour or less.  I’ve cranked out multiple chapters in a single afternoon.  If it’s coming, it comes.  And I prefer not to try to force it into a mold.

8. Have you ever won NaNoWriMo?

No.  Didn’t even know you could “win”?  What’s the prize?

9. Have you ever had anything published?

Um… how to put this?  No.  No, I have not.

10. What projects are you working on now?

Trying the change the answer to #9.  Revising the opening chapter on the assumption that it’s one of the reasons I’m getting rejected.  I should sit down and revise a short story I recently wrote, so I can try submitting it places.  I shared it with writers’ group and they all liked it.  And I wrote the first chapter of a time-travel novel, in a genre that I am inventing called “Old Adult Science Fiction.”  If we can target a thousand crappy books specifically to teens and their “unique” concerns, then it sould be possible to put out some good ones for people like me.  I really should try to get it going.  The writers’ group liked it as well.  Too bad none of them are agents or anything…

11. What is your soundtrack to writing?

Oh dear.  My iPod is famously eclectic.  Everything from classical to jazz to old school prog to grunge to bluegrass to Hawai’ian to novelty songs.  But these days I have been getting lots of play from the Star Trek Original Series Soundtrack Collection.  At this moment I’m being serenaded by the legendary Vulcan fight music (you know what I’m talking about!).  It’s just great music and a lot of the cues fit nicely with different scenes I’ve written.  And during my recent two week pause to wallow in Olympic figure skating, I found myself mixing together a four-minute sequence that I think would make a great program for ladies’ free skate. Specifically the cues called. “Enter Miranda,” “Alien Ship” and “Big Fite,” for anyone nerdy enough to be familiar.  I’m serious.  Isadora, are you still out there?

12. Do you have a writing pump-up song?

Not really.  That said, I’ve been very motivated by Ambrosia’s “Somewhere I’ve Never Traveled.”  It’s a cool song, and lyrically it perfectly sums up the motivation and experience of three of my main characters.  I like it so much I worked it into the book.  Then one of my crit partners basically said, “You’re referencing a song from 1974 in your Young Adult novel?”  Then she stared at me.  Followed but somewhat more contemporary alternatives.  Yes ma’am.

Okay, any of my writer buddies want to try this?

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The Critique Process: How to Chop Liver

Adlai Stevenson, one of America’s great orators, had this to say about oratory: “In ancient times, when Cicero finished speaking, the people said, ‘How well he spoke!’  But when Demosthenes finished, they said, ‘Let us march!’”  In other words, the one got praise for his skill, but the other got results.

I feel a bit like Cicero, as I am once again struggling with my writing and trying to find the motivation to continue.  One resource that most writers can find very helpful is critique groups.  There are a couple I attend, and, while they are good sources of connection, I’m starting to think they have outlived their value for me.  A recent session suggested that in particular.

I took a submission for critique, a chapter that is central to an entire section of the novel that I have gone on to cut.  I am endeavoring to meet the deadline for a publisher’s “Open Door,” and one of their hard and fast requirements is that the manuscript be less than one hundred thousand words.  I have revised mightily but have been unable to get below that figure.  I took this chapter as one I had recently worked on.  The response was harder on me than I expected.

It wasn’t bad, let me be clear.  It just wasn’t good.  They praised the fluidity to my prose, my humor, my creativity.  I realized I hear that on a regular basis.  “You’re a really good writer…BUT…”  That’s where Cicero comes in.  I don’t want them to tell me my writing is good.  I want them to tell me my story is good.  But that’s something I don’t hear all that much.  In the end it tends to come out a clear message: “You’re a good writer, and maybe someday your writing will reflect that.”

Okay, that’s me being oversensitive, but I couldn’t help noting that many of the others got responses on the theme of, “I love your story,” and “You always write such great stuff” (as opposed to “you write so well”).  There it is:  I write well, but the others inspire them to march.

Again, I suppose I’m being oversensitive, but their response actually showed some fundamental problems with the critique process itself.  For one thing, it’s hard to really get feedback on a story, because the readers are only seeing little tiny fragments.  They critique minutiae because that’s all they have to work with.  More than one writer has expressed frustration about that, but it’s very hard to fix the problem.  I suppose that’s what beta-readers are for, but it does skew the feedback towards things that actually may not matter as much as they are made to sound.  This isn’t always productive.  In one group we had a new member with a publication history who sat in one session, chewed us all out for focusing on trivia, and never returned.  Sounds like a jerk to me, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong.

Critique is hard, and all groups have rules and procedures, and one that is nearly universal is the requirement for positive feedback.  This is important because people need to know what they are doing well, and, unfortunately, it’s much easier to focus on the negative.  I’ve been guilty of that more than once.  I tell my students when they read each other’s drafts that they must point out good things.  One critique group I’m in has even made a procedural rule that we always begin with something positive.  This has led to a standing joke that someone hard-pressed to find something good might end up complementing the choice of font.

In my case, I have to wonder if the constant praise of what amounts to abstract skill on my part (rather than the quality of the story itself) might come from the struggle to find something good to say.  I am famously unconfident so they work to be sure to give me something that’s feel-good.

But, while requiring positives is a good rule, the obverse rule is also needed.  Just as you have to say something positive, you should also have to say something negative.  Well how hard can that be?  You’d be surprised.  I have to require that of my students as well, telling them they cannot simply write “Good job!” on the draft and hand it back.  That’s worthless.  No writer is so good there’s no room for improvement.  But that’s not always how it comes out in writers’ groups.

It will always be the case that different people in the group are at different levels of skill and accomplishment.  Some will be approaching genuine success, and will be lauded for that.  Others might be inclined to offer them bountiful praise and say, “I can’t find anything negative to say about it.”  I’m guilty of that too, on occasion.  Some people go overboard: “It’s awesome, amazing, don’t change a thing!  This is ready for publication!  You’re such a great writer!”  One person went so far as to say, “Whatever anyone else says, ignore them, don’t change a word.”  While we all laughed, it was actually very insulting to the opinions of the others.  And to their skills.

I would love to have someone tell me that my submission is perfect, but they never have.  Okay, good, there’s always room for growth, and I don’t go in looking for empty flattery.  But somebody new (or even more vulnerable than I tend to be) might not take it so well.  Sure, any group will have its “stars,” but coming in and hearing them heaped with praise while getting no such thing yourself can be hard.  “Who am I,” you think, “chopped liver?”

The point is, writers’ critique groups are for writers to come together and help each other.  As equals.  It doesn’t work when you heap praise on some but not on others.  That doesn’t mean you should offer backhanded compliments about how easy to read my style is, but rather that maybe you should scale back on the effusiveness toward the stars.  It would also be nice if the “stars” didn’t disappear once they reach their goals, but that sometimes happens.  Nor should any members set themselves as some sort of authorial experts because they picked up some buzzwords from reading a book or attending a conference, although that happens too.  As a composition teacher, I have to hope I don’t do that, and I suspect my lack of self-confidence keeps me from being a blowhard about the writing process.  But maybe I’m fooling myself.

As for the chapter in question, one thing that more than one reader said was, “You need to fix this, but I’m not really sure how you are going to.”  Gee, thanks for the help.  That’s about as useful as when the grammar checker says, “Consider revising,” or “No suggestion.”  That’s why I tell my students to be specific.  Just telling me it’s not working doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know, since that’s why I brought it to them in the first place.  Again, perhaps this is a deficiency in the process, but in the end I decided trying to fix it would be more effort than I want to spend at this point, and I ended up gutting the entire sequence that it was the centerpiece of.  I need to get my word count down, and I won’t accomplish that by focusing on nice prose and creativity.

That was the problem.  I was revising to improve my story.  I was tightening things, sure, but mostly at the sentence level.  I was also strengthening character, adding setting, tying elements together, foreshadowing, all the things good writing is supposed to have.  That was my mistake.  I’ve been trying to write good fiction, when I should be writing young adult fiction.  And my reading endeavors have made it clear those are not the same thing at all.

Young adult readers are not interested in nuanced, layered characters; they want them simple and “relatable.”  They don’t care about lavish setting; the setting is simply the place where the plot takes place.  And that’s what it’s all about: they want a straightforward, clothesline plot that pulls them along at breakneck speed with nonstop action.  I was managing to do that in part one, but in parts two and three, where the real story gets underway, it fell apart.

So I have removed that huge series of events in the middle, followed by another long sequence later that did tend to repeat things that I’d already done.  I also realized I was spending way too much time developing the character relationships.  And, related to that, I finally came to my senses and accepted that sex and nudity have no place in YA fiction.  All that’s gone as well.

So what’s left?  An empty shell where my story used to be.  But it’s fast, simple and, most important, under 100 thousand words.  Yay.  And I hate it.  Which means I’m back to the same place I’ve been before: I can either write the story I want to write (as people tell me to do), or I can write a story that would have a prayer of getting published.  I can’t do both.

But that’s for me to deal with.  Perhaps this has accomplished something.  Maybe my words here have inspired those of you who are in critique groups to reevaluate your procedures and identify how the feedback you give could do more harm than good.  But more likely, given my track record, you are simply noting how well-written this is, and will have to turn to others for inspiration to march.

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