I’m Glad I Failed: How Rejection Letters Gave Me Freedom to Write Again

I’m Glad I Failed: How Rejection Letters Gave Me Freedom to Write Again

In college, I studied English. This probably made sense to all the people around me, as I’d spent most of every day in High School reading and writing. I suspect that I was probably called by people who didn’t know my name, “That girl in the mom jeans who writes all the time”. I’d dreamed of publishing a book of my very own for years.

But honestly, I’d fallen into my major more by accident than any kind of plan. I thought about going pre-vet, but I signed up for classes so late in the spring before my Freshman year that none of the critical classes were open, and I would have no choice but to spend an extra semester on it. I took classes in Forestry, but the focus seemed to be mostly on cutting trees down rather than protecting them. I spent a lot of time taking Geology (so much that I almost snagged a minor in it) but eventually wandered away from it, terrified of all the math classes I’d have to take to earn a degree there.

I had taken AP English in High School, and had so many credit hours in English already completed when I started college, that I figured I might as well major in it. And so I graduated, a little bewildered, with an English degree that included a concentration in Creative Nonfiction – nonfiction being another area I’d stumbled into entirely by accident, because the Creative Fiction class was never, ever open by the time I signed up for classes.

I spent no time asking my creative writing professors how I might establish myself as a writer. This wasn’t, after all, my plan. I was just letting the currents swish me to whatever end they might. I regret that I didn’t do a little bit more, because it would have been so very, very simple, but I just didn’t have a plan.

So, I left college with my BA in English (with a concentration in Creative Nonfiction) and managed to snag a job at a company that claimed not to be a call center, and was mostly not a call center, but I also spent an enormous amount of time on the phone, calling people. It was at this point that I discovered that calling people who I don’t know on the phone gives me horrible anxiety.

I retreated, and at about the same time my husband commissioned as an Officer in the US Army. He received orders to go to Washington State, and I went along with him. A little piece of detritus swirling along in the stream.

It was time, I decided, to write a novel. I couldn’t think of anything else to do. So, I got to work.

That first draft was a really strange collision of the principles I’d learned in Creative Nonfiction classes, and the sci-fi action that I loved the most. I figured that I could apply my freshly formalized literary sensibilities with the science fiction genre, and boom. I’d be crazy successful.

I hadn’t read Margaret Atwood yet, much to my detriment

I crawled through that first draft, and by the time I finished it I knew it was utterly awful. Demoralized, I put it away. Not only had my English degree failed to get me a decent job, it had also let me down in the writing of novels.

Eventually, I came back to it, shook out the dust and the spiders, and tore half the novel out. The other half, I rewrote. I edited everything. And feeling I could do no more, I submitted it to some literary agents.

The rejection letters poured in, and rightfully so. Passive voice and adverbs riddled my sentences. I disobeyed the law of “show, don’t tell.” And in my query letters, I couldn’t state the central conflict of the story. The package I sent out wasn’t my best work, and I hadn’t learned the industry nearly well enough. I retreated, and evaluated how to fix the problems that had resulted in so many firm “no”s.

At first, I didn’t make much progress. I felt like I’d been cheated in a million different ways. No one ever told me it would be this hard. My education had failed me. My skills had failed me. After years of work, I’d taken my chance, and I’d fallen flat on my face. I was bruised, and the idea of writing for fun, some days of writing at all, seemed like something that would only happen to other people.

But of course, I kept going forward, and very slowly I realized that all the failures I’d encountered belonged to me. Not to my bachelor’s degree, or my instructors, or agents, or the industry.

I’d placed too much of my identity on getting published – not on being a writer, not on telling stories, but rather on getting a book on the shelves of bookstores. I hadn’t had fun writing anything in years. I’d stopped crafting scenes that I liked, and started crafting scenes that I thought others would see as intelligent, as skillful. I’d lost my perspective on why I had started writing in the first place.

I realized that I had to start all over again. That I had to approach my writing in a new way, like I was coming at it for the first time. I had to learn to find what it was about writing that had made me start, and that had made me commit so much time to it.

So, I pushed out of my head all my ideas of getting published. I established some time to write during my days, at the same time every day, and didn’t worry so much about writing outside of that time. I took the pressure off, and I started writing for my own enjoyment again.

It took a long time, I’ll admit, to get out of that “must-get-published” mindset. It’s a strange tight-rope to walk, to strive for enjoyment in what I write, knowing that if I don’t enjoy the process no one will enjoy the reading, while simultaneously striving for improvement in my craft. Some days I still lean too far one way or the other. Some days I grow anxious and annoyed if I don’t get enough work done. Some days I obsess a little too much over my e-mail, waiting to see if my next word from an agent will be a rejection letter, a request for manuscript, or that dreamed-of offer. And some days, I don’t work hard enough to make sure that the writing time happens.

And gradually, I started enjoying my writing time again. It wasn’t just something I did because I had to do it. It was something I did because I enjoyed it. I stopped feeling stress every minute of the day, and I started to feel like I had a life again.

My writing became a place where I explored my thoughts about the world around me, where I took off on the impossible adventures that I love experiencing in the books that I read. I’m still not quite where I used to be, but I’m getting closer all the time.

What helps is knowing that if I keep working, and I keep writing what I enjoy writing, then someday what I’ve written will speak to someone. Even if it’s just a tiny group of people, then that will be valuable. It’s for them, this imaginary, tiny following, for whom I keep to my schedule as much as possible. That I keep sending queries, that I keep working to improve.

It’s for myself that I keep writing. Because getting words on paper, telling stories, taking journeys with my characters, is what I love to do above almost anything else.

 

Personal Life Update: I recently started a class on JavaScript. This is a very new thing to me – I’ve never done any programming beyond a little bit of HTML when I was in High School, which feels like forever ago. I definitely won’t be having as much time to post here for a little while, which is sad, but I’ll be learning brand new things, which makes me very happy.

Hopefully, when I get back into my regular rhythm of writing and blogging, it will be full of new and helpful knowledge. In the meantime, thanks so much for reading.

Craft Talk: Beauty and Horror in The Handmaid’s Tale

Craft Talk: Beauty and Horror in The Handmaid’s Tale

Margaret Atwood is an author who I’ve had on my to-read list for a long time, and I finally tackled The Handmaid’s Tale last month. I’m so glad that I did, because her writing is beautiful, but I also can see what took me so long, because it’s equally gut-wrenching. I’m glad I waited until a time when Little Dude was older and I wasn’t so sleep-deprived. That said, the concepts in this novel could be particularly poignant and horrifying right now, depending on your view of current politics. I’m reading and watching things from a really different perspective right now, so the book has a lot more impact than if I’d read it in college, thoroughly convinced that nothing like this could ever really happen.

Honestly, most of what I’ve read recently has felt really heavy. Except perhaps Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, so if you’re looking for some fun escapism, that might be your best bet.

If you’re looking for a worst-case-scenario to smack you in the face with disarmingly beautiful sentences, then The Handmaid’s Tale is a great option.

Truly, though, this book is one of the most well-crafted novels that I’ve read in a long time, and if you’re interested in studying up on really great sentences and structure, then you should read it. This is one of those cases where watching the TV adaptation just won’t be enough.

 

The Sentences

Sentences are the building blocks of novels – the next step up from words, anyway – and yet sometimes we ignore their importance. Especially when writing a first draft, it is more important that sentences march forward than appear beautiful. And some types of writing even call on the sentences to vanish into the background, to be more functional than lovely. There are times when writing should not call attention to itself.

In The Handmaid’s Tale, sentences are like songs. The way the narrator describes even the smallest things are unusual and lovely, and this builds a world that is very real, full of strangeness, beauty, and horror. The images, even those of death, have a lovely twist to them. Because of the care with which each sentence is crafted, we see very clearly who the narrator is. She doesn’t have to tell us a lot about herself, because we can see the way she thinks.

There is a grim humor in lines like, “It’s those other escapes, the ones you can open in yourself, given a cutting edge.” Shortly followed by, “The circumstances have been reduced; for those of us who still have circumstances.”

Every sentence in this novel works, and works hard. Building character, building the world, building a feeling, building the story. And building the beauty of all these things. The narrator sees humor in the world in which she lives, and this rises up from the way she uses sentences to tell her story.

I think one of the most important things about The Handmaid’s Tale is that even through the loveliness of the sentences, meaning is still clear. It’s very easy for a beautiful image to lack meaning, to muddle intent, but not here. The craft in the lines enhances the meaning and sharpens the intent. Nothing is lost for the beauty.

“We are two-legged wombs, that’s all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices.”

Through lines like these – thoughts that flash through the narrator’s mind – we are drawn into her world, and what is important to her becomes important to the reader.

It should be noted that some of the sentences in this book would be discouraged by some of the rules of writing style. The author breaks rules, but I believe that they are broken intentionally. Certainly, the way they are broken is effective.

The sentence, “My young mother, younger than I remember her, as young as she must have been once before I was born,” contains several repetitions of the same thought, with very subtle variations. Some would advise the author to carve this down to just one thought, just one image, on the precept that to have three makes the thought less effective. But in this case, the repetition of the thought with slight variations actually gives the thought deeper impact. The first image, “my young mother” is simple, basic, could be said by anybody. The narrator goes farther, “younger than I remember her,” connecting herself with the image. And then, finally, comes, “as young as she must have been once before I was born,” which is speculative, an imagining, connecting to her mother in a way that isn’t entirely possible. The narrator seems to slip into a time when she didn’t exist, and carries with her an understanding that she can’t fully comprehend what kind of person her mother was before having a child.

These chains of thoughts and the way they are expressed, though considered “wrong”, actually work very well in the context of a novel where all of the narrator’s old life is forbidden. She begins with a thought that is simple, could apply to anyone, a thought that is safe. And then she continues to a thought that connects to her past life, the life that’s gone now, a life she can’t even talk about with anyone around her. And then she ends with a step sideways, to a place she’s never been, a place where she could never possibly have gone.

 

Structure

The structure of The Handmaid’s Tale at first feels loose and disjointed. It bounces through several different time periods, the narrator’s life before everything changed, her time at the training center, and her life as Offred. Sometimes there are brief breaks in the middle of a narration, a little gap of white space in spite of the fact that the time being described hasn’t changed.

But underlying these shifts, the seemingly random bouncing, is a pattern. In the contents, the novel begins with the section “Night” then moves to “Shopping” then to “Night” again. The narrator exists in this world of constant swing between stasis and action, and all the while her old life intrudes on the present, sometimes when she seeks it, sometimes without warning.

Late in the novel, the narrator addresses the disjointed structure, the way several different times have been filled in, side by side. “I’m sorry it’s in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force.”

This back-and-forth in the narration is not only tantalizing to the reader, who is always searching for clues about what happened before the narrator’s current circumstances, it also makes sense. Because the narrator’s life has been ripped apart, without ever being put back together. The present is unreal, and makes little sense. The past intrudes, and in the context of the present, it too seems unreal. Her time at the training center connects the two, and though it should be the most nonsensical time, it is in fact the most stable. Here, at least, the world the narrator is in acknowledges the past, and how bizarre it appears alongside the present.

Later, people move together through a present that they all know is strange, and yet they can never acknowledge that. And so every image is a little disjointed and broken. Through this, the reader can see how desperately the narrator is trying to hold herself together, when everything she once was has been blasted apart.

 

 

Character

This is a story rich with people who are complicated, diverse, and honest. Everyone the narrator encounters has wants, interior thoughts that the narrator can only guess at, but which are hinted at through her descriptions. Even the people she dislikes aren’t reduced to villainous caricatures. She has moments of sympathy, even for those who try to hurt her.

The narrator lays out even her worst weaknesses for the reader, and we can see her not as a flat hero, fighting to right the evil around her, but rather as a person, encased in difficult circumstances, trying to survive.

This book works because it lacks simplicity, because the people in it do not act like characters. They act with the broad spectrum of real people in the face of a radical situation. Some parts of them adapt to what has happened, and some do not. They risk their lives for what seem like meaningless indulgences, and yet live alongside atrocities that seem unthinkable.

Perhaps this wouldn’t be right for every story. Some tales of epic heroism require that the characters become archetypes, but even those tales benefit from a dash of complexity. In The Handmaid’s Tale, however, this complexity is everything. This story requires real people, because the reader needs to sink into the world, and feel that it is a true account. Without the horror of possibility, without that reality, the book would have much less meaning.

 

Application

Reading a really well-crafted novel like The Handmaid’s Tale can be equal parts enjoyment and discouragement. I know that I read something like this, and then look to my own writing knowing that what I do isn’t nearly as good. My sentences aren’t nearly as clean, my images don’t have that kind of impact. I know my characters aren’t that complicated or detailed.

But this is exactly why it’s good to read writers who are further advanced in their skills. There is no way to learn that kind of skill, no way to even envision it, without reading it first. As usual, the first step in applying these techniques to your own writing is to read in the first place. Read as much as possible (I know, it’s not always much, but every bit counts; at least that’s what I tell myself) from as many different areas as possible. Read the things that make you laugh, read the things that make you stop and think. Read in the genre where you write, and outside it, too.

I find reading a book twice, or more, can be the best way of identifying all the components that make the piece work. Sometimes techniques aren’t apparent until you’ve fully absorbed the plot.

Then, when you read something that feels out of the reach of your own skill, remind yourself that the author probably worked long and hard to achieve what you’ve read. Books that are well-crafted might be easy to read, but they are not easy to make. When a novel is beautifully done, down to the level of the sentence, remember the hours of reading and writing that came before the writer even sat down to craft those sentences. Remember the messiness of the first draft, and all the challenge of turning that mess into something beautiful. It’s a process that every single book goes through, even if it’s not apparent from reading.

Next, practice your own writing. Sometimes, when I’m feeling discouraged about what I’ve written, I like to remind myself that no word is wasted. And that’s true. Every sentence that you write is practice, even if it will never be read by anyone else. It doesn’t matter if the sentences you scribble right now hit the cutting-room floor later, it doesn’t matter if that happens to entire chapters. Everything you write builds your skill, and advances you forward. Or at the very least, keeps you in practice.

It should be noted that Margaret Atwood does not only write novels. She’s also the author of many works of poetry, and the kind of writing and thinking required for poetry shows in The Handmaid’s Tale. Even if your poetry turns out to be complete crap, the economy of language and the type of thinking that poetry demands will force you to learn how to craft good sentences.

I imagine that Margaret Atwood’s poetry is probably not complete crap, however.

As to writing richly-fleshed characters, this requires deep observation of the world, and a really challenging level of honesty about oneself. In order to create characters who feel and behave real, a writer has to be able to look at the people around him or her and see them as rich and real. This is not always easy. It can be very tempting to villainize those who make life more difficult for us. It is, in fact, a built-in part of human nature to look at those who are remarkably different from us and see them as ‘other’. But this is one of the most essential parts of character-building, to set that aside, and acknowledge that maybe those others who annoy us aren’t all bad, and that often our own actions can create pain for others.

This is another thing that takes time and awareness, and I’ll admit that I’m not a master of it. I am, however, constantly working at it. Reading things like The Handmaid’s Tale certainly helps advance my understanding.

As always, I’ll conclude by encouraging you to keep reading and keep writing, and do both thoughtfully. Try not to get bogged down in an attempt to make every single sentence lovely, of course. You could spend your whole life staring at a blank piece of paper if you do. Keep getting sentences down, one after the other, and then revise and edit them, always getting closer to the ideal result. Every ounce of practice that you can carve out of your day is time well spent.

 

 

Armor for Queries

Armor for Queries

When I wrote my post on mistakes I made the first time I sent queries, which you can find here, I talked a lot about the technical things I got wrong, and touched very briefly on how my thinking made the whole process harder. In this post, I’d like to go a lot more into how I wished I’d mentally prepared for the query process. This isn’t something I’ve seen a lot of people talk about, and I know for sure it’s something that would have helped me on my journey. So, if you’re a writer who plans on querying agents one day, or you are a writer who still HATES the query process, then this post is for you.

 

The Advice

“You’re going to get a lot of rejections, so get used to it.”

“This is just part of the process, so try to relax and enjoy it.”

“Agents get a ton of queries every day – it’s not personal when you get a rejection letter.”

Before I sent my first query letter, I’d seen all these phrases floating around in one form or another. I read them, and nodded sagely. Rejection letters happen to every writer, they’re part of the process, got it. I had been in writing classes, I’d dished out and taken critiques on my work, I knew how to roll with the punches, so rejection letters would be no problem.

But also, in the back of my mind, I didn’t quite believe that rejection letters would happen to me. Not many of them, anyway. Because I also saw the hints of writers receiving multiple offers of representation from agents, and then they had to pick. So that meant that some writers were rolling in a pile of “Yes, please, let us represent your book!” I imagined that I might be one of them.

I also got the sense from all of the “Put on your armor when you query” advice that it was a bit tired. I saw the same phrases over and over again, referring to rejection letters like they were some sort of big, awful thing. But they felt so cliche and tired after a while that I just started to brush the advice off. It didn’t mean much, and so I figured that a rejection must not be that bad, otherwise people would have more to say about it.

I suspect that a lot of writers and agents aren’t very descriptive when it comes to rejection letters, because they don’t like talking about how really gut-wrenching rejection letters can be to someone who isn’t ready for them. After all, hundreds of writers receive them every day. It’s much nicer to focus in on the success stories, on the books hitting the shelves right now, than on the thousands of hopefuls clutching their unpublished manuscripts, sending out e-mail after e-mail, only to get back no after no.

If that sounds grim, that’s because the process can be really brutal. But with the right mind-set, it becomes much easier to take on.

 

The Armor

Sometimes we hear instructions to don our armor so frequently that we forget what this actually means. Putting on armor is not like putting on a sweater. It’s not a thing you slide up over your arms then throw over the arm of the couch when you get too warm. Armor is a massive pain to put on. It has to be buckled and strapped into place, which takes hours. And once it’s on there, you sure aren’t taking it off unless you really must.

The mental armor needed for the query process is like this. It takes work to make it, and ideally it should be part of your daily life. If you put some effort into it and keep refining it over time, then you’ll be so glad that you can go into the query process confident that it won’t reduce you to a pathetic puddle.

I have been a pathetic puddle, trust me, you want to avoid this if you can.

To avoid that, I’ve built up a system of many components. You may find that some of these strategies are great for you, or you may find you have to tweak them, or try something else, but these are good places to start.

 

Prepare

I talked about this in more detail in my post on query mistakes I made, but this really is an important component of getting ready for querying. Don’t allow yourself to have little doubts about the condition of your manuscript wriggling in the back of your mind when you get rejection letters. Make sure you’ve revised several times, and edited. Get some beta readers, and listen to what they say. Learn to write a good query letter. Basically, make your manuscript shiny, then wrap it up with a bow.

That way, when you get a rejection letter, you will know for sure that it’s not because your manuscript is in rough shape. You will really know that your work just wasn’t right for the agent you queried.

 

Control Your E-mail

There are a lot of things in the query process that you can’t control. You can write a masterpiece, send it out to a hundred agents, and still get nothing but rejections if none of those agents think there’s a market for that book.

Agents are also human beings with moods, and who knows how they might be feeling when they get your query? You know how you have those days when your favorite movie just doesn’t sound good, and you’d rather watch re-runs of Modern Family for six hours straight? Agents are people, too, and the kind of day they’re having can affect what they say yes and no to.

Don’t let this lack of control totally freak you out, though. I know it’s tough – I write books because I like to have a say over every little detail, and letting go of that need to make things go the way I envision is hard. That perfectionism is a benefit when I’m translating my vision to words on a page. But it doesn’t serve me well when I’m in the query process.

So, if the chaos of the query process gets to you, shift your focus to something you can control. AKA: stop refreshing your e-mail twenty times a day.

One of the worst reactions I’ve ever had to a rejection letter happened early on in my first round of queries. I opened up my e-mail right as I sat down to have dinner at a restaurant one night. For some reason I was the only person at the table, I was waiting on everyone else to arrive, I opened my email on my phone, and there they were. Two rejections. Both form letters.

Then I had to sit and chat through dinner while those rejection letters gnawed at me.

Don’t do this to yourself. Set aside a time when you check your emails every day, when you can be ready for them. When you have time to react and respond to them, whether the news in them is good or bad. You can’t control if and when those rejection letters come, but you can control when you see them.

Use that locus of control to your advantage, and when those rejections come you will be much better equipped to deal with them.

 

Set Aside Your Ego

I’ve heard a lot of agents say this, and it bears repeating, as well as some expanding. Rejection letters aren’t personal. They do not reflect on your writing ability. They do not signal the end of your writing career.

This is not about you.

Really let that sink in. Rejection letters are not about you. They aren’t about your skills, they aren’t about your value as a human being.

When you send out a query, you are presenting agents with your work. One piece of your work. And agents aren’t offering to represent projects they don’t believe in. Agents only say yes if they are willing to stick with your manuscript for the long haul.

Have you ever read a book, and you knew it was a good book, but it just wasn’t your favorite? You enjoyed the time you spent reading it, and you put it down satisfied, but you didn’t find yourself gushing to your friends about how awesome it was? I know that describes the majority of the books I’ve read. They were good, I liked them, but I’m not going to go back and re-read them five times.

Then there are the books that I treasure, that I read over and over. I practically throw them at my friends and beg other people to read them.

You want your agent to feel that kind of enthusiasm about your book. You want them to feel like your book should be in the hands of everybody in the world, because they love it that much. And not every agent is going to feel that way about your work. In fact, most of them probably won’t. So, when agents say no to your project, it’s because your manuscript really, truly, is not right for them. Take that as a sign they respect what you do – especially if they take the time to write a personal response instead of a form letter.

Then keep searching. The right people for your book are out there. You will find them, if you keep looking, and if you remember that the people who say no didn’t do it because they dislike you.

They did it because they didn’t love your project enough to spend hours and hours of their time telling publishing companies how great it is. And that’s a good thing. You want your work in the hands of someone who loves it as much as you do.

 

Start A New Project

You wrote your manuscript, you revised it, you edited it. Then you researched agents and wrote a stunning query letter. So, you send out query letters, and then you relax. It’s about time, right?

Five days later, you’re refreshing your email twenty times a day, and spending the rest of your time chewing your nails, wondering which agents are reading your query, what they think of it, and when they’ll respond.

The best possible distraction? Working on a new project. It’s impossible to sit in front of your laptop, drumming your fingers or clicking the refresh button if you’re creating an outline or some character sketches. While you’re querying is a great time to start on your next manuscript. That way, if you get a rejection letter, it’s really easy to point out that your entire writing career doesn’t hinge on that one project. You have more material where that came from.

The more fun and exciting this project, the better. Maybe work on a genre you’ve never tried before. Write some poetry or a short story. Whatever you do, make sure it’s something that lifts your spirits and reminds you why you wanted to become a writer in the first place.

 

Treasure Direct Responses

The first time I queried I took every rejection letter as a blow. It didn’t matter if it was a form rejection, if it was personally written, if it was just no response at all by a certain date. Every single one hurt.

With time, however, I’ve learned the value of those rejection letters written just for me. Even if it’s just a couple of lines, I know that the agent liked my work enough to spend valuable time making a message. For most agents, it’s a sign of respect, a way of acknowledging the writers who have stood out from the crowd.

If the direct response contains specific reference to something you’ve done well, then that is a real treasure. Take those compliments to heart – most of the time they’re not just nonsense sent to make you feel better. If an agent who sees hundreds of queries a month says that what you’ve written is creative, then there’s probably something to that.

If you aren’t getting any direct responses at all, and you’ve received more than a handful of rejections, then that might be a sign you need to look at your query letter or your manuscript, and ask yourself if you’ve expressed the core, driving forces of your book clearly. Sending queries is a learning process, and you definitely have to be willing to revise as you go if you aren’t getting much response.

And if you do get even a small tidbit of praise from a very busy agent, remember how valuable that is. Don’t class it with the form rejections and the no-responses. Let it encourage you to keep going, because you’re on the right track.

 

Celebrate the Victories

It’s really easy, when I’ve worked on something for a long time and it’s become vitally important to me, to see only what I’ve done wrong, and forget all the things I’ve done right. But when I forget to remind myself of how far I’ve come, I turn every minor roadblock into an insurmountable mountain. And this mind-set can make querying especially difficult.

Victories.jpg

Every rejection letter is like a drum-beat: wrong, wrong, wrong.

So, before I even get those rejection letters, I try to remind myself of the obstacles I’ve already overcome. I keep in mind the things I’ve learned along the way. And I make lists of all I’ve done right. From the perspective of all my victories, the little setbacks don’t seem so enormous.

For me, I don’t just keep a mental tally, either. As part of my schedule in my bullet journal, I spend some time every week making a list of my successes from the last seven days. And when I hit a really big milestone, I take time to savor it. When I finish the first draft of a manuscript, I don’t fret over how long I spent writing it, I congratulate myself on a job well done. When I get a request for a full manuscript from an agent, I cheer and tell everyone I know. It might ultimately lead to a no, but even that is a victory.

If you want to survive the rejections with your mental sanity intact, don’t forget to throw yourself a little party when you achieve something good.

 

Find Your Community

Without Sam, Frodo never would have made it to Mount Doom. Without Hermione and Ron, Harry Potter never would have survived long enough to defeat Voldemort. And Batman would have fallen to The Joker quite a few times if not for Robin. Every journey is easier when you have comrades by your side and at your back.

You might need writer friends who can help you revise or show you the ropes of querying. You might need non-writer friends who will cheer you on through pure faith in how awesome you are. You might need people who will go with you every step of the way, and offer perspective when things look bleak. You might need family who don’t understand what you’ve written at all, but love you, anyway.

I like having all of those things. The bigger your community, the more people you’ll have to cheer you on when the rejection letters pile up.

So, reach out and connect with the people around you, whether on the Internet or in real life. You’ll find your journey much smoother when you have a fellowship to back you up.

 

These are the components of the armor I wear when I send out queries. It’s taken me a long time to figure out what works for me, but all the time I’ve spent working on it has been well worth it. Now, I can receive a rejection letter with joy, because it contains some small compliment that shows me how much my work is valued by the agent who wrote it. This is a radical change from where I started.

As you query, or even as you seek critiques for your work, remember to keep working on a system that helps you weather the difficult moments. It’s as much a part of the process as learning how to finish your first manuscript, and once you’ve constructed your own armor, you’ll find that putting your work out in the world becomes easier.

As always, thank you for reading Bright Ink, and happy writing!

Craft Talk: Ancillary Justice and Too Like the Lightning

Craft Talk: Ancillary Justice and Too Like the Lightning

Gender and Science-Fiction

So far this year, I’ve read four science-fiction books, and of those, two have dealt pretty heavily with gender norms. Those two books were also recently published. It seems that this is a topic on a lot of writers’ minds right now, and though these two novels dealt with gender in very different ways, there was definitely a challenge underlying both of them to view the topic from new angles. Both books surprised me with the depth of their impact on my thinking. Those two books?

Ancillary Justice, and Too Like the Lightning.

Both of these are well-crafted novels, and worth reading for a variety of reasons. But in this post, I’m going to specifically focus on how they treat gender. One of my favorite things about science-fiction is the way it can push readers to think outside the confines of their learned standards and norms. We come to science fiction with the expectation of seeing the world in a new way, so altered social norms are much easier to accept than in many other genres. Sometimes, science fiction is even able to lift aside illusions and show us, in a very stark way, what those norms look like.

I would argue that both of these books are successful in the way they ask readers to look at gender in a new way.

 

Ancillary Justice

In the case of Ancillary Justice, the twist on gender norms is simple, but has a dramatic effect. The ruling group of aliens in the galaxy, the Radch, do not have a separate pronouns for male and female members of their race.

Instead, everyone is referred to as “she”.

In Ancillary Justice, “she” can be male or female. “She” is an emperor, an officer, a wealthy citizen, a soldier, a doctor, a parent, a musician, a criminal, a farmer. Everyone, in the language of the Radch, is a “she”.

At first, it felt strange, to read the female gender pronoun being attached to everyone. As I read, I constantly tried to mentally correct it when the narrator referred to a character who I knew was male. My brain wanted to know, as soon as a character was mentioned, what gender to assign them. As I built an image in my mind of this person on the page, that was one of the key pieces of information, the thing that usually comes first in any other book, on the screen, even passing someone on the sidewalk.

In our world, it is coded in hair, the movement of the body, clothing, shoes, and accessories. Those who defy the codes stand out, sometimes are ridiculed. In Radch society, to distinguish by gender goes against their culture.

Eventually, my brain adapted. After a few chapters, I stopped caring, from the moment a character appeared, if she was male or female. Within the pages of this book, that didn’t matter so much. It became far more important to know what the characters did, how they behaved, what they wanted. There was a certain purity to them when they could exist without the heavy constraints of gender expectations.

By the end of the book, I still hadn’t determined the gender of some characters, and I didn’t ultimately mind. Nothing that any of them had done, none of their struggles, relied on the kinds of constraints that we typically see in our society. There were certainly questions of class, and questions of the ruling race exerting authority over the rest of the galaxy, but the idea of gender had been lifted away.

Not so say that gender was left entirely neutral by every character in the book. The protagonist does move through cultures where male and female are distinguished by their appearance, and in fact, when this character moves back into Radch society, she finds the gender neutrality of Radch appearances a little disconcerting. The signifiers that the Radch mix and match in their dress with wanton abandon seem confusing to those who are accustomed to the symbols being used with purpose.

Ultimately, Ancillary Justice spent a lot more time on other questions of identity and morality, with this twist on gender running through the background. The way it was embedded so deeply in the language of the book, however, made it a very effective way of dismantling notions attached to the pronoun “she”. Just reading the book is a confrontation of one’s own expectations.

 

Too Like the Lightning

Too Like the Lightning is a book that takes on a variety of subjects in a very direct manner. It delves into philosophy, as well as futuristic science fiction. Here, a network of flying cars (controlled by people whose brains have been shaped to work as computers) exists comfortably alongside a faction that serves people’s spiritual needs when religion has been outlawed.

Like Ancillary Justice, Too Like the Lightning imagines a place where gender identifiers have been reduced to almost nothing. Instead, most people dress to express their allegiance to a particular mindset. The Humanists wear boots with treads that leave an unique imprint wherever they go, and engage in risky, thrilling behavior. The Utopians wear coats that display ever-changing images of the world around them as they wish or imagine it to be, while reaching for impossible-seeming ideals.

Unlike Ancillary Justice, though, the narrator of Too Like the Lightning talks about gender all the time. He calls his good friend Thisbe a witch, claiming she possesses dark arts and mystical powers available only to females. In a society that attempts to maintain a level of gender neutrality, Mycroft regularly points out how a person’s behavior makes them male, female, or puts them somewhere in between. He even makes a point of discussing some around him who are anatomically one gender, and yet because of their dress or behavior he identifies them as the other gender. And he spends an enormous amount of time making his arguments for doing so.

Mycroft definitely gives a reader the sense of speaking with a time-traveller. He is at odds with the society he lives in, a society that is striving to remove the indicators of male and female. He constantly points out identities, explaining them to the reader, while also explaining the enormous impact when antiquated gendered clothing is worn. Mycroft exists in both spaces, the place where male and female aren’t supposed to matter, as well as the place where it is coded in every part of a person’s appearance.

If Ancillary Justice frees the reader almost entirely from considerations of gender, then Too Like the Lightning is more of a challenge to the reader’s thoughts of gender, no matter what those thoughts are. It is almost impossible to follow Mycroft without asking questions about why certain standards are in place, while also questioning what the detriments might be of leaving those standards behind. Too Like the Lightning presents what might be considered an ideal world, and simultaneously dismantles it.

 

Writing on Issues

A lot of books attempt to discuss the weightier topics facing society, with a broad range of success. At one end of the spectrum are those books that do more harm than good by bashing at an idea with little sensitivity or understanding. At the other end are the books that are so blindly enthusiastic about a topic that they ignore all the little snarls and complications. Somewhere in the middle are the works that dig in and really bring to light all the nuances, subtly weaving the truth about our world into the story.

These kinds of books are rare, but I think the skills behind them are of benefit to every author – really, to every human being – and worth cultivating.

I think one of the primary things on display in works that achieve that balance is self-awareness on the author’s part. The writer of work like this must know how other people think, yes, but even more they must know their own thoughts and prejudices. In order to treat the characters on all sides fairly, the writer has to be aware of when their own feelings on a subject might cause them to make a villain out of someone who is, in fact, a complicated human being.

One of the other vital pieces at work in successfully discussing issues in fiction is a connection to the subject. If the writer doesn’t have a personal interest in capturing the nuance of a topic, then it’s likely to be misrepresented on the page. Without thought or consideration, something like the discussions of gender could easily get distilled in ways that don’t contribute anything useful to the subject. Or even in ways that are harmful.

This connection to the subject is important even when the writer isn’t delving into some serious modern-day issues. If a book is going to have soul and life, the author has to care, and has to keep caring for hundreds of pages.

 

Language Shifts

I remember discussing in one of my college creative writing courses the use of pronouns, particularly attempts to speak in a way that was gender-neutral. In a lot of formal writing, the use of the phrase “he or she” when talking about some theoretical person feels stilted, but not too much so. That same “he or she” phrase in fiction is so unnatural that writers avoid it at all costs. Many students in my class confessed to using the grammatically-incorrect “they” to refer to a hazy person of unspecified gender. The professor did not give an opinion as to whether this was right or wrong, and at the time it felt entirely theoretical.

I figured, “let’s just use ‘he or she’ and move on with our lives!”

But the world has changed a lot since then, and increasingly we as a society are confronting the spectrum of gender identity in an open way. Also increasingly, I think we find that language fails us, which is why it’s not only interesting that science fiction like Too Like the Lightning and Ancillary Justice are tackling the topic, but also vital.

Too Like the Lightning, by the way, takes the stance of many of my fellow-students, and refers to most characters as “they”. Ancillary Justice applies “she” to every character. In one case, a plural pronoun has been hijacked to cover the singular in a gender-neutral way, and in the other, every person regardless of sex is given the female pronoun. Both tactics work within the context of the story in which they appear, but in the outside world, they both feel inadequate.

I think both of these books demonstrate just how important science fiction is to the broader conversations that we, as a society, are engaging in. The futuristic worlds allow all of us to examine the questions that we face now – in these two novels, we get to see two very different treatments of gender, both of them tackling the effects of gender roles in our society. As these conversations unfold in fiction, they help advance our language and our understanding of how deeply gender is woven into our society, influencing and enhancing the nonfiction work on the same topic.

This, in my opinion, is science fiction at its best.

The Pen and the Keyboard

The Pen and the Keyboard

Talking to my fellow writers about our craft is always a learning experience. The many different methods, reasons, and styles reveal just how personal and creative the process of writing is. Some people like spiral notebooks, some people write on legal pads, some people like old-school typewriters, some love their sleek Macbooks. I, for one, only lend out one of my precious pens if I’m given a solemn oath that it will be returned intact.

In this land of varying opinions, however, some things have been subjected to scientific study. That’s the controversial water that I’m going to wade into today.

 

Defending Pen and Paper

You might think that putting a pen or a pencil to paper is the same as tippity-tapping your way over a keyboard, but research suggests that these are two very different activities. Or at least your brain thinks so. This article at the Huffington Post talks about research into how the brain processes handwriting differently than typing. The short version: when you write by hand, more of your brain lights up than when you type. Even children generate more ideas, and college students remember more from lectures.

Anytime I’m writing new material, it goes into a notebook. For me, the process of scribbling my own words on a piece of paper is radically different from sitting in front of a computer and typing. It’s slower, even for a snail-paced typer like me, but that’s the point. The ball of my pen rolling over the smooth surface gives each character, each word, a visceral meaning. The ideas in my head take shape gradually, the amorphous images carved into solid characters, feelings, dialogue, and actions by my hands. Sometimes as I write through a scene, things take a very different shape than I originally imagined. New ideas weave their way into the plot. Ideas that I hadn’t even put to words start to appear, made real by the solidity of my own handwriting.

The scientific evidence suggests that this is because writing by hand actually reaches more parts of your brain than typing does. Ideas come forward that you might not have found any other way. There’s a reason that I often come away from writing a nonfiction piece with a new awareness of how I think about something. By scratching down my words with ink, I’m finding thoughts that I didn’t even know were there.

There’s a romance, too, to sitting down with a blank piece of paper and filling it up. For hundreds of years before the invention of the typewriter, this was how the process worked. The ancient philosophers did this, kings and queens have done this, Jane Austen, and Stephen King, too. There’s a strange magic to putting pen and paper, knowing how many have done it before.

 

Don’t Toss the Keyboard

You might think me a hypocrite when I say this, but I still use a computer to write. I do so love pen and paper, but that doesn’t mean typing has no place in my life or my writing.

In fact, this entire blog post was written on my computer. I don’t think that typing is inferior to handwriting, it just has a different place.

When I want to get an idea out fast, then a keyboard is where I turn. My fingers can fly and my thoughts can, too, arriving on the page unfiltered. The end result is a little rougher, but that can be a good thing. There have been some scenes that I struggled to write using pen and paper. When I switched to typing, when I could see the scene marching up and down the page, when I didn’t have to spend so much time ruminating on the individual words, everything fell into place.

From a more practical perspective, a manuscript is almost impossible to share when it’s hand-written. I had some very patient friends in high school who read my cursive stories, but I’ve learned that as much as I love my own lettering, not everyone appreciates having to sort out my ‘b’s’ from my ‘l’s’. After hand-writing my first draft, I type the second.

I know that this seems like a cumbersome  process, but considering the many, many drafts that most pieces go through before they are finished, it’s a small time investment, with big pay-offs.

The Diverse Writing Process

Research suggests my brain works in different ways when I’m handwriting versus when I’m typing. My own experience (and the experiences of much more renowned writers) aligns with studies. Which has convinced me that the best thing a writer can do is exploit this fact, and write using both methods.

Story time.

Right before my daughter was born, I finally (finally) got serious about finishing the first draft of my first original novel. To speed up the process, I pulled out my laptop and typed away. I was on a deadline, and it just had to get done.

At last, the draft was finished. I hit the print button and stuck the stack of papers in a box.

When my daughter was a few months old and I’d finally caught up on sleep (or given up on sleep entirely) I pulled that draft out. I read it. It was terrible. I realized almost immediately that the majority of what I’d typed was going to have to be cut if the novel was ever going to work. It was a disjointed series of scenes, that while interesting on their own, would never work together. Sentences and paragraphs rambled across the page, taking up space without moving the plot forward, or saying much at all. Worse, every sentence, every character, every location, was flat and dry. I had spit out scenes with very little sense of place, without any depth.

Pen and Keyboard Vertical

So I cut. And every scene that I cut, I rewrote in my notebook. The result was so much more lively and cohesive, because I had to go slowly and put thought into crafting each word.

Then I retyped those scenes. And as I retyped them, I refined them. This kind of process is much easier on a computer screen than on paper. If I don’t like the order of a paragraph, it takes seconds to cut and paste the sentences into a new sequence. Whole scenes can be moved around this way, even whole paragraphs. Highlighting an entire chapter that’s dragging the piece down, hitting the ‘Delete’ button, and watching it vanish, is downright thrilling.

Those scenes that started in a notebook and moved to keyboard were far stronger than the scenes that started out typed. I discovered the method that worked best for me, the way of writing that resulted in the most evocative sentences.

It makes sense, as a writer, to approach a piece from as many different perspectives as possible. I care a lot about how my writing impacts other people, and I want others to be able to read the most cohesive, cleanest story possible.  Drafting in multiple methods is the best, and I have found, most efficient, way of doing this.

Finding Balance

All writers have preferred writing methods, and we all have deeply held opinions about them. But if I’ve learned one thing from talking to my fellow writers, it’s that what works for one of us isn’t going to work for all of us. Often, the only way of discovering what works best for you is to try new things. If you usually plop in front of your laptop during writing time, then pick up a notebook and a pen next time, instead. If pen and paper is all you’ve ever known, then give a keyboard a chance. You might find, like I did, that there’s an important place for both methods in your writing life.

Whatever you do, don’t limit yourself to just one way. And if your notebooks have been getting dusty, pull them out and see what happens. You might be surprised at how much more depth your writing has when it begins that way. And the research backs me up.

What are some strange discoveries that you’ve made on your writing journey? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

And as always, thank you for visiting Bright Ink.

5 Query Mistakes I Made, But You Don’t Have To.

5 Query Mistakes I Made, But You Don’t Have To.

 

Two years ago when I finally “finished” my novel, I did a little dance. Then I immediately launched into a series of embarrassing mistakes that still make me want to bury my head in the sand just thinking about them.

I’m going to share those with you now, with the hope that you might avoid them. So if you have a draft so fresh there’s still steam rising off it, put that cinnamon bun away in a drawer somewhere until it’s had time to congeal. And read this. Trust me, you can wait.

Mistake #1: Believing One Revision Was Enough

My thought process, as I held several dead trees’ worth of paper covered in my words, went like this.

I spent, like, two years on the first draft, right? Then I spent a whole year taking it apart and putting it back together. And then I spent a summer making all the pieces fit together. After that I’d even gone to the trouble of editing for grammatical errors.

If I’d spent so much time on this project, that had to mean that it was ready to go, right? There was no way that I could do anything else to it. It was done. My brain hurt just thinking about peeling back any more layers of the manuscript. The thing was finished, and I was ready.

So, I picked my first agent and sent my first query letter. I knew that a lot of very famous writers had faced a lot of rejections, but I had this deep-down belief that what I’d written was special. I am a good writer. I have mad skills. And I’d worked on it for such a long time.

BrightInk 5 Query Mistakes Learn

That first rejection letter, as much as I’d expected it, came as a soul-crushing blow. It hurt a whole lot more than I ever thought it would.

The next twelve rejection letters just made me feel worse. And I got not a single request for my manuscript. During this time, I’d been reading up on the query process, and I’d started to realize just how far off course I’d drifted. My manuscript was coming in at 120k words, when it needed to be closer to 90k. It contained heaps of passive voice. Adverbs everywhere.

I stopped querying, and I went back to work. I read a couple of books on how to revise a manuscript, I bought some colorful pens and highlighters, and I revised again. I mercilessly slashed pages. I changed showing to telling. I found better verbs, I carved out better dialogue. And I researched my genre, I listened to agents.

Two years later, I’m sending queries again. I just received a rejection letter last week that made me cry, but this time with joy. The agent complimented me on how much work I’d put into my manuscript. Even though they weren’t the right agent, they still appreciated that extra time I’d taken to make it right.

I can’t take back those query letters I sent for a manuscript that wasn’t ready. But I can learn from the mistake, and present my writing in the way it deserves to be presented. Clean, well-crafted, carefully edited.

So, while your manuscript is cooling off, read some books on revising. Then pull out a red pen, gather your courage and your grit, and get back to work. You’ll be very glad you did.

 

Mistake #2: Failing to Learn the Blurb

I’d just finished writing a whole novel, not just once, but twice. Obviously, I was a good writer. I could write anything. That query letter would be no problem.

I did some Google searches and found some examples. Within a few hours, I typed up my letter. I didn’t like it a whole lot, but I figured the agents would get the point. The next day, I sent that mess out into the world, confident that the samples from the novel would speak for themselves.

I needed an overbearing mentor to come slap the back of my head, you guys.

Agents are drowning in query letters. Do not hobble your manuscript by sending out a bad one.

I came back from my string of rejections battered and ready to study. While I worked on my revisions, I looked everywhere for resources on query letters. For some reason, nothing that I read seemed to help. I kept re-writing, getting closer one step at a time, but I didn’t have a moment of sudden understanding.

Then I started reading book blurbs. Those little summaries on the back cover, or on the flaps of dust jackets. And that’s when the light bulb went on.

Those lovely little blurbs are designed to quickly set up the conflict, make potential readers ask questions, and leave them wondering what happens next. When you read a good blurb, it makes you want to sit down and start reading. Right now. That’s exactly what a query letter needs to do.

I read the blurbs of books I loved, and the blurbs of books I loathed, and the blurbs of books  I’d never read before. When I’d absorbed the language, the style, the little rules, I re-wrote my query letter. I read it aloud. I made some changes.

Now, when I read my query letter, even I start to wonder, “What happens next? How does it all turn out? Do they achieve their goal?” It has energy and zip.

If you’re still writing your manuscript, then I recommend you start making yourself a blurb expert now. If you’re ready to query, then hold back a little until you’re familiar with this art form. It is radically different from the skills needed to write that novel.

Then, make your query letter something that you’re proud to send to agents.

 

Mistake #3: Not Understanding My Genre

Oh gosh, you guys. This one is tough for me to confess.

All that time I spent writing my science fiction novel, I didn’t read any new science fiction. I read Jane Austen. I read some hilarious fantasy by Terry Pratchett. I read JK Rowling. I read Stephen King. I read a ton of blogs and books about parenting. I read about knitting, gardening, and sewing. I read Hunger Games, and (oh, the shame) I even read Twilight.

But every time I walked into the Science Fiction section at the bookstore, I listlessly picked up a couple of books, put them back, and walked away. I’m blushing right now just thinking about it. What in the name of the space-time continuum made me think I could write and query a science fiction novel without reading in the genre?

“All this stuff is just the same old thing I’ve read before,” I thought.

“What I’m working on is so different,” I thought.

Nope, nope.

Years later I started investigating the new books, only to find that all these new and exciting things were happening in science fiction. I read Ancillary Justice, and was blown away by its handling of AI, collective intelligence, and gender. I couldn’t believe how much I’d  missed.

Catching a few shows on SyFy channel was not enough. I discovered just how much I needed to read in my genre, not just to learn what was going on, but for my own enjoyment.

So, avoid that horrifying moment when you read something that’s almost exactly like the novel you just spent years spilling blood, sweat, and tears on. Read, read, read. Stephen King would back me up on this one. As would every other successful author out there.

 

Mistake #4: Failing to Research Agents

I get half-credit for this one, at least. I did not address my query letters “Dear Sir/Madam”, or “To Whom it May Concern”. I did check to make sure the agents I queried represented my genre. I did look at what the agents required as part of the query. These are all good steps and things you should definitely do.

In the past two years I’ve spent working on my manuscript, however, I’ve learned that there’s a whole lot more I could have done.

I’ve followed literary agents on social media platforms. I’ve listened to them speak at conferences via Manuscript Academy and on YouTube. Listening to them has radically altered the way I view their work, for the better.

The literary agents I queried were hard-working people, passionate about books, seeking novels that they loved enough to represent. They didn’t send rejection letters because I am a terrible writer, or because they just “didn’t get it”, or because they feast on the crushed dreams of weeping authors. They sent rejection letters because many of them received hundreds, hundreds, of other queries just that week, and as much as they would like to see authors get published, they could only do so much.

Agents are not all-powerful dragons that an author must wrestle into submission before riding it to that gleaming golden castle in the land called Published Author. Agents are more like gentle unicorns, to be coaxed and encouraged, treated with respect, more partner than enemy.

Now I follow agents on social media. I don’t just look at the list of genres they represent on their agencies’ web-pages, I search for articles they might have written about the genre, interviews they’ve done, and books they’ve fought to get on shelves. I read what they have to say about the industry until I come to view them as whole and complete human-beings, who believe in the power of words as much as I do.

A caveat: don’t be creepy. Or a suck-up. Just be nice.

When I send queries now, I remember that I’m writing a letter to a person. Someone who has sacrificed her time and energy sifting through hundreds of queries, passionately promoting clients, and reading every hour of the day for the love of books. Maybe, just maybe, my book.

 

Mistake #5: Believing This Book is IT

When I started my queries, I believed that my whole self-worth hinged on getting that book published. That the last two years of my life were wasted unless it found an agent and ended up on the shelves.

Bright Ink 5 Query Mistakes Journey

It turns out that the world kept spinning. I didn’t get an agent, but there are still things I’ve done that I can think of with pride.

One of my regrets, however, is how much of a wreck I was during that query process. I was anxious and moody. I went into an emotional tail-spin every time I got another rejection. I couldn’t see the mistakes I was making through the desperation that I felt.

“If I don’t get this book published now, I’ll never be a writer.”

“I’ve wasted so much time working on this!”

Guess what? If you’ve written a book, you’re a writer. And guess what else? If you enjoy writing and you want to get better at it, no amount of time you spend working on it is wasted.

I probably would have thrown my pen at anyone who suggested this to me at the time, but it’s not the end of the world if this book doesn’t get an agent, or isn’t published. It is possible – and past-self, you should pay attention to this – that in order to crack into the industry, you will have to write another, entirely different book.

Don’t panic. Take a deep breath. This is not as awful as it sounds. This is, in fact, a brilliant opportunity.

All that stuff you’ve learned writing the first book is going to make your second one so much stronger. So, while you’re sending out queries for that first book, go work on the first draft of second book. Fall in love with some new characters and a new story. It will make the time go faster, it will make your writing stronger, and it will give you more options if that first book doesn’t find a home.

Above all, remember that the book you’re querying is not the end of your journey. It is just one part of a wild and surprising trip.

 

Knowledge Is Power

I have some really valid excuses for why it took me so long to write and revise my books. I have lived in five different states in the last five years, and had two children. I should probably consider it a miracle I finished a novel of any kind, let alone made five rounds of revisions.

There is no excuse, however, for sending an unfinished manuscript to a literary agent. Or a shoddy query letter. There’s no excuse for failing to read, research, revise, and edit.

“But I don’t have time for all that!” cries me-from-the past.

You wouldn’t put some half-raw chicken in front of guests just because it had been in the oven a long time, right? I didn’t think so. Then don’t send agents something that isn’t fully baked. They deserve better. Your manuscript deserves better. And yes, getting it right means more time. But it’s better to spend some time getting it right than to waste a ton of time getting rejection letters because of problems you had the power to fix.

There are things in publishing you can’t control. You can’t make agents like your concept, you can’t conjure up a market for your book out of nothing, you can’t predict the trends. But you absolutely can give your manuscript a fighting chance. You can revise again. You can find time to read. You can give the industry your very best.

Don’t be discouraged by how long it takes. If writing is what you’re passionate about, then it will be worth it. Look at how far you’ve come, what you’ve learned so far, how much work you’ve done. If you made it through all that and you are still telling stories, then you owe it to yourself to represent that manuscript well.

I hope this list is helpful! Also, I’m sure that I’m making more advanced mistakes in my queries even as I write this. If you have any missteps that you’d like to share, let me know!

And finally, here are some resources that I’ve found helpful in this learning process.

The Secret to Writing a Successful Query Letter by literary agent Andrea Somberg.

A great database of literary agents, with information about what kinds of manuscripts they’re looking for, Manuscript Wish List. I could read tweets about what agents want to read all day long.

On Writing: A Memoir of Craft by Stephen King is a great resource for any writer at any phase of the process.

Trying to kick that manuscript into shape? I found Self-Editing for Fiction Writers very helpful. I also finally added Elements of Style to my shelf.

Above all, don’t give up. Keep learning. Keep writing what you love.