Why Querying is Like Dating

I wrote the first draft of this post about a year ago, but never posted it in case it felt too frustrated. Now I think is the right time to share my thoughts.

A while back, I explained to my non-writer friend (who has way more experience in modern dating than I do) why querying agents was just as nerve-wracking as swiping through Tinder/Bumble/Hinge/dating app du jour. A transcript with comments in bold:

… you’re out there, searching for the perfect person to fall in love with your book as much as you love it, someone who will cherish it and find the best home for it, and it seems really scary but then you make a move with all your soul. First comes the waiting (because yes, agents can ghost you, too, but this isn’t a comment on you) and you just kinda have to deal with the grueling silence and repeat NO RESPONSE MEANS NO to yourself and dry your tears and pick up the pieces and go home (I live for Stevie Nicks references). But even when you DO get a response, most will (probably) be sad form rejections with consolations like “this isn’t right for me at this time”, “I wish you the best”. You know, just like “it’s not you, it’s me” and “Sorry I was busy”. It’s always nice when they do get a little more personal, because they wouldn’t if you were totally off. And even if they ASK YOU TO SEND MORE CHAPTERS (which is the equivalent of getting a second date), they can reject you for absolutely any subjective reason at all.

This is not an anti-agent rant, this is just a surprisingly apt metaphor. You’re only looking for one yes. You only need one person to love you and your book.

I’ve had agents who I thought would love my book based on their bios or websites not respond to my initial query. I’ve had agents request partial or full manuscripts and respond with something like, “I just couldn’t connect with the voice.” That’s frustrating feedback, because you don’t know how to fix it. You don’t know how much of the manuscript to change based on one person’s reaction, just like you don’t know how to change how you come off to potential dates based on the fact that one person didn’t want to see you again. In each case, you desperately want to know what made them turn you down.

But sometimes they can’t articulate it. The spark just wasn’t there.

No matter what happens, please do not be the person who sends angry vitriol to an agent/date in response to a rejection. You just reinforced their decision to block you and not want to work with you.

Putting yourself out there pays off. These days, I’m trying to trust the process.

Why Creative Control Isn’t What You Think

In the end, writing is a collaborative art.

Lately I’ve been in a bit of a crisis in regard to my long-term publishing goals. For the past year and a half, I’ve been querying literary agents with mixed results (more on that here, and to come in future posts). Even as several agents have considered and are seriously considering my book, I wonder do I even know what I’m getting myself into?

There was a post by author Heather Demetrios that went viral in the publishing world a few weeks ago. She warns writers about her negative experiences after getting a six-figure book contract from a major publisher. I won’t try to summarize her story here, but suffice it to say that though she takes a lot of the responsibility for what happened, her experience points to a lack of transparency in the publishing industry. Writers are generally so happy to get a contract (as we should be!) that we don’t think about what’s in it – the rights we are giving up to make our dreams happen.

That’s a problem for another post. We have one solution to this problem, that of forgoing the system entirely and turning to indie publishing. I know several successful indie authors who say they would never want to work with a company who can change the vision and meaning of their art for a projected profit.

For a hot second, I considered scrapping my plans and loading up my book to Amazon’s KDP. But then I thought, the whole reason I want a book deal is to get the exposure I think my book deserves. if I’m ever at the point of considering a publishing contract, I would want to ensure the addition of language that would protect my rights over the writing – anything from that one sentence in chapter 8 I’ve labored over for years to a character’s name to their ultimate fate. Writers know their work the best, but in order to achieve the goals we want, sometimes we have to compromise.

That’s where the title of this post comes in. I would argue that there’s no such thing as pure creative control (note that I am neither a lawyer nor anyone in publishing, and these are just my impressions of the term, not advice for someone who may actually be considering/negotiating this facet of a contract). A book that has been only read by its author isn’t ready for publication, indie or traditional. When I finished my first book (or so I thought), my first task was to get it into the hands of friends I trusted to give me their honest opinions. Did they love every word of it? No. There were awkward sentences, character motivations that were still unclear, any number of scenes that ended up getting thrown out of the draft.

The process repeated countless times, but making these revisions wasn’t compromising my vision of the story. I’m currently working on that same manuscript as part of a revise & resubmit (R&R, which no longer stands for rest and relaxation, at least in my book) from an agent. Her suggestions led to much more work than I thought.

But I don’t see these suggestions from an industry professional as an attempt to wrest control of the story from my hands. If we do end up working together, we have to be on the same page, literally and figuratively, with a shared vision for our project. This goal is even more emphasized with publishers who are the ones making the majority of the money from your book sales.

There are whole chapters in my latest draft that I love with an increased fervor now because of the work that I put into them. But it’s work that I wouldn’t have known needed to happen without other people’s careful eyes.

My friends, parents, and colleagues didn’t write a word of this book. That was all me with my hands to the keys. But I would argue they’re just as responsible for it as I am, with their generous feedback, considerate space, and time and love.

Who can say they entirely controlled and executed every bit of their art? As writers, much of our ideas for topics happens like lightning striking. We go unexpected places while on the journey of each draft. We give our work to other people in the hopes that their opinions will make it better.

Even though writers look like they’re working alone, we have help, whether that comes from a team of publishing professionals or friends.

What do you think we talk about when we talk about creative control? Am I entirely off base here? Chat in the comments!

Photo by Riccardo Annandale via Unsplash.

On Waiting

A lot of the writing life can feel like you’re always on the verge of something happening. It’s around the corner, you can feel it, but it’s not here yet.

You can wait for inspiration, for your WIP to work itself out, for the stars to align, for a first draft to sit like a fresh-out-of-the-oven dessert before you start hacking away at it. You wait for feedback on your drafts, for responses to your queries, even if it’s just a form rejection, for responses on a requested manuscript.

Once you get an agent, the cycle repeats, as you both wait on editors. And if you’re lucky enough to sign a contract with a publisher, you wait to finally see your book’s cover design, to hold a final copy of your precious book baby, for the release date to roll around.

Inspired by Amy Sue Nathan’s post on the topic, I’m going to share some of my thoughts about all of this waiting. Because as Tom Petty (RIP) sang, the waiting is the hardest part.

I’m easily distracted and frustrated. I get bored in the time it takes water to boil for tea. The past few weeks, I’ve definitely been guilty of refreshing my email multiple times an hour when I know nothing will have arrived (part of this is because most of my emails have been going to spam, but I digress). I look ahead in my class syllabi and fret about my upcoming work weeks before it’s due. I tell myself I will be happy when something perfectly works out, whether in the near or distant future.

The problem with all of this “waiting for something to happen” is that it’s taking away from my experiences right now.

So what do I do about it? This long weekend, I’m indulging my extra free time. I buy perfectly plump pumpkins and tall cornstalks. I bake. I bring more stuff into the room I’m calling my office but really just feels like a collection of old books and a desk with a nice, leafy view.

Tomorrow, I have plans with family. I’ll try to write this afternoon, but I’ll also try to read. Take life moment by moment.

Really, that’s all we need.

Photo by Umit Bulut via Unsplash.

Why I’m Probably Cheating at NaNoWriMo This Year

It’s October, which means writers all over the world are already jumping ahead of horror movies and candy and ghosts and thinking about November.

The scariest thing about this season, for many people, starts after the Halloween decorations come down. It’s NaNoWriMo, aka National Novel Writing Month, when a bunch of overcaffeinated, overworked writers the world over attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel entirely within the thirty days of that month.

Truly, I’m horrified.

2011 was my first attempt at this endeavor. Because I was young enough then to qualify as a young writer, I could set my own goal instead of adhering to the 50k rule, and decided my cringeworthy attempt at a rom-com heavily based on my favorite Avril Lavigne music video would get me about 30,000 words. What I got was 20,000 words, half of which was lost forever due to technological difficulties. Moral of the story? SAVE EVERYTHING.

Even if it’s only to laugh at it in 8 years.

Maybe especially if it’s only to laugh at it in 8 years.

Anyway, for my second go at NaNo in 2012, as a sophomore in high school, things got a little more serious. I made an attempt at a dark story of social commentary on attitudes of entitlement, sexual violence, and the lies we’ve been fed that promote such deviant behavior. I don’t remember how long this one got, but it went through about fifteen titles and I could never settle on one ending. Fun fact: many of the characters got reworked into Woman of Words.

Wow is right.

I think I tried rewriting that hot mess in 2013, but it never got much farther than providing some source material and character names for my first completed manuscript. Some incredibly minor writer character named Brandy walked in on, like, the last third of the story, and stole the show. And that explains the past 6 years.

But then I got too crazy busy with… high school, I guess, and applying to colleges, and living my life. For a while I frowned on events like NaNo – just because people wrote 50,000 words didn’t mean they were 50,000 good words.

However, as I got more responsibilities and found my own writing time to be even more precious, I appreciated the way competitions (really, you’re only competing against yourself) structured and promoted creativity and gave you a community to whom you could be accountable. Camp NaNoWriMo happens in April and July, and I tried it out, but it never motivated me as much as knowing that everyone else was also working on a frenzied book-length project the entire month of November.

Or maybe the magic ingredient is that special fall weather.

Anyway, this brings me to the title of this post. I don’t know if I’m officially going to enter NaNo when November 1st rolls around. I have graduate school projects, exams, a job, family, and other writing commitments that all keep me stretched pretty thin. But if I do take the plunge, and writers like Angela here are making me lean towards doing it, I’ll be starting with the almost-10k of my WIP that I’ve already written.

I know, it’s technically cheating, and it takes away from the chaos of NaNo, but I think it’s actually within the spirit of the event. This month is about reaching personal goals, no matter the timeline.

Photo by Alex Knight via Unsplash.

How My Writing Process Changes Based on What I’m Writing

As some of you know, I recently outlined a new WIP and I’m about 9k into the first draft. Which is super exciting, because that’s, like, more than a tenth of my goal word count. Granted, some of those words are notes to myself and scenes that don’t work anymore because I wrote them before the outline, but it’s all part of letting ideas marinate and creating my draft zero, or as I affectionately call it, a steaming pile of word vomit.

A tenth of the book may not seem like much, but it’s more than I had before. What took me so long to get going on this draft wasn’t a lack of excitement about the idea. It was life transitions, stress, studying, research assistant-ing, and dealing with the fear that this book concept wouldn’t measure up to my first.

Even though I knew, on some level, that each book an author writes goes on its own journey.

I’ve written previously about the dangers of comparing draft #1 to draft #21. I knew I’d grown as a writer since 2016, when I (probably?) started writing Woman of Words (for real), and I wanted all this growth to show in book #2.

I set about making a very detailed outline, in which I would outline the book’s structure and major plot points, character arcs, and the goals and conflict present in every scene, even though I didn’t know what every scene would be. I thought if I could foresee all the story’s problems and fix them NOW, I would save myself immeasurable stress and suffering down the road.

But the thing about writing is it’s like driving around sharp turns in a fog at night with one headlight and no cell reception.

Okay, maybe not that bad. But my point is, foresight is pretty difficult, if not impossible.

After tweaking the over-complicated outline for weeks, I decided the only way this story would move forward was if I started writing.

So I dove in, and I think compromising with a flexible, general outline was the right choice.

Which got me thinking about the ways I write differently for different purposes and audiences. I don’t mean modifying my vocabulary or sentences. Every project I’ve had has brought about a different process.

In college, I rarely wrote more than one draft of an essay, even though as a writing tutor I encouraged heavy revision to many students. I credit my reliance on outlines with saving me so much work on the other end.

For my first book, I tried every pre-writing exercise you can imagine before embarking upon the first draft. Character sheets, scene-by-scene outlines, three act templates, detailed spreadsheets, condensing the story into a synopsis to see what was missing, pages upon pages of notes on character arcs and themes.

I was trying to plan every turn of my long car trip before I’d left. Now I know that you can get a GPS/Google Maps, it can predict the traffic, you can study the map, but you won’t know the exact conditions until you get there.

Okay, I’ll stop with the elaborate driving metaphor. Bottom line: I’ve learned to be more flexible and allow my crazy drafting to fill in my beat sheet-type outline as I go.

Creative writing doesn’t have to fit the same rigid structure of an academic paper or journal article. My sweet spot for novel planning now looks like a list of all the major plot points, how my leading cast will change, settings, snappy dialogue bits, and any other ideas I have. This allows it to be a fluid, changing document rather than something that’s fixed.

Learning how to adapt to the needs of each particular story is something every writer has to do. I’m sure my process will change again in the future, and I’m excited to see what that looks like.

Thanks for reading!

Photo by Cathryn Lavery via Unsplash.

Writing For Yourself vs. Writing For Others

A conversation with a friend inspired my idea for this post. I know several people (myself included) who view writing as a way to process emotions, old wounds, and hopes for the future. We hold up a mirror made of words and hope, through whatever strange alchemy gets them on the page, they’ll guide us to insight and change.

(I mean, maybe my inner psych nerd and future therapist is projecting. But I still think it’s true.).

If that’s the case, then we should write for ourselves first and only. Toni Morrison (RIP) famously said some version of, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” Books become medicine for our past selves and supplements for the future.

I do believe that writing is a safe place where we can explore the feelings we can’t say or act on. We can be brave if these come masked from the mouth of a character and not our own.

But then the cynic in me asks, “How can you ever think someone else will connect with what you’re writing if it’s just for you?”

This can leave many writers feeling stuck, without any solid idea of how their book will fit the current market.

There’s no easy answer to this conundrum – both sides make solid advice.

Write for yourself first, to get the frenzied, screaming story out as it demands to be told.

Write for others as you refine that story. It’s not compromising or selling out to take other opinions into account. Other people will create their own versions of your story as they read, anyway.

I learned this with my first book. I thought it was done, but my trusted readers were still like, “Why is she doing this?” On a craft level, you might know exactly what your main character’s motivations are, but if it’s not clear in the text, your readers will still be confused like mine were. If any of you are reading this, please know that book is a lot better now (I think).

My stance on whether we should write for ourselves or others might be summed as:

Write the book you most want to read, but remember that someone else feels the same way.

Who do you think writers should be writing for? Share your opinion in the comments!

Photo by Glenn Carstens Peters via Unsplash.