Monday, February 2, 2009

Where I've been, and notes on being an unpublished author

Last week I disappeared into the black hole of editing a novel I was entering in a writing contest. Each morning I told myself that by the end of the day I'd post a note here, explaining why I wasn't blogging. Each night I shut down the computer, vowing to post the note in the morning.

Last night I completed the entry process, and now I'll be in limbo until March 16th. So here's your note. And here's a shiny new blog post.

I've been an unpublished author for a decade now. I have a funny feeling that this is and will always be my reality: brown hair, blue eyes, size 6 1/2 M shoes, unpublished author. I have no idea whether this is ok with me or not. I used to think it was a temporary state, like carrying around ten extra pounds. Now I know that my hair color is more temporary than my authorial status. And the ten extra pounds? We're not even going to go there.

So what's it like? Embarrassing. That's the first word that leaps to my mind. It's just damn embarrassing to be hawking your life's work like some kind of snake oil salesman. Writing query letters, wondering which tone to strike: blustery confidence, or abject humility? Straightforward has proved useless, and the old businesslike model I used to print up on expensive paper and send out via snail-mail now strikes me as heartbreakingly naive.

But writing queries is easy compared to the task of summarizing a four-hundred page novel in four paragraphs, while trying to obey the standard exhortations: use your very best writing! If you can't write a compelling synopsis, who's going to read your book? Make it shine!

Probably the hardest thing of all is the pitch: define your audience and explain why your story is relevant. Generally, an audience is defined this way: "Readers of Famous Bestselling Author will be interested in this book."

Me and Margaret Atwood, man. We're peas in a pod. (As to relevance, my question is: Why? Can't it just be fun?)

And how about that bio? They assure you that it's fine to write about your life, but at writers' conferences, they admit that all they really care about are your publishing credits. If you've got some, they'll give you a second look. If you don't, be prepared to wax poetic on the great handicaps you've overcome to produce this life-changing novel.

See? Embarrassing.

Then there's the constant rejection. I'm a connoisseur of rejection letters. There are the form letters: Due to the volume of requests we receive, we are unable to answer your query personally. We have read your submission with interest, but we feel that it does not meet our needs at this time. Blah blah blah ba-blah. There are the nice ones with the handwritten notes at the bottom: I really think you're almost there! Keep working! There are the unintentionally cruel ones: Have you considered self-publishing? There are agents who don't bother to respond at all, and some whose response is incomprehensible: the rejection letter received in reply to a request for submission guidelines, for example. That was a good one. (Huh? You won't even tell me how to submit?)

Some things I've been spared. I knew a writer who received, in lieu of a letter, the first page of his manuscript back with the word NO! written in red ink, and little red holes where the reader had stabbed the page with his pen. That hasn't happened to me. Yet.

Would I like to be published? Sure. I'd like to feel validated. I'd like to think those hours of midnight oil weren't wasted. I'd like to cash a check.

But then again, maybe not. Setting up book-signings sounds like a whole new ball-park in the experience of humiliation. (Hello, I'm Local Author, and I'd like to sign copies of my book at your store. Yes, Local Author. Yes, that's my name. What do you mean, you aren't stocking my book? Oh, I see. Well, thanks for your time.) And what if the reviews are horrible? Or worse - what if no one is interested in writing a review? What if it's reviewed as humor? Lord, that last one gives me palpitations.

Still. I entered the contest. I'll let you know how well I do. Don't expect good news, though. I'm the unpublished author, and I'm guessing I'll be lugging that label around for a long time. It weighs about ten pounds.


Jennifer said...

Ma? You there? Good post. Made me laugh and choked me up. I'll make you a get published, and I'll arrange your book signings for you. XO ED

McMama said...

Oh, my gosh! You will? Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Those twenty-three hours of labor? I'll never mention them again!

Love, Ma

The Gill said...

I'll do the hors d'oeuvres at your functions! That would make me useful, right?

xo DIL

other lisa said...

Hmm, well, I think I need to move you from "friends and lives" to "writers and writing" on my blogroll, for one thing.

You know, it's a flippin' random process. Did I ever tell you how I got my agent? - and BTW, still haven't sold a book, so there's that whole video game aspect - you get through one level and think you've won and then there are must more monsters to kill.

But I digress.

Anyway, I'd quite given up on my latest book. Felt like once again I'd written something weird and awkward and unpublishable. I asked my writers group buddies if I should just shove it in a metaphoric drawer or keep querying? One of them said, "Why don't you query THIS guy?"

So, it was after a drunken barbecue on July 4th, I was leaving for San Francisco the next morning, and my query still sucked, so I sat down rather late at night and rewrote it. My attitude at this point was, "well, you know, WTF?" This seemed to capture the mood of my novel far more effectively than my more serious queries, because I sent it off and the next AM had a request for a partial. I sent in the partial before getting in my car and heading north. About 3 PM, or right around Santa Maria, I had a request for the full. I cruised around Santa Maria, looking for a wireless hotspot I could jack into, found one and sent it off.

Next day I had detailed notes on the MS, no offer but an offer to reconsider if I were willing to rewrite along certain lines and resubmit. Since I happened to agree with the agent's feedback and suggestions, I said, "Okay," and proceeded to do that.

Many, many revisions later, well, maybe not "many, many," I got signed, and THEN did more revisions before submitting, and hell, did some revisions in the middle of the submission process, some as recently as three weeks ago.

You know, I just happened to hit the right person at the right time with the right project.

My only suggestion would be that at some point, you DO have to put the old project in a drawer and work on something new. Doesn't mean you are abandoning the old one and that you aren't going to sell it and that there aren't ways you could still improve it, but you also can't get stuck on one thing and need to keep moving forward.

I think it's probably easier than loosing the 10 pounds, anyway...

other lisa said...

p.s. - excuse the typos. It's late.

McMama said...

Lisa, you're right. Putting the old project away is the best move I can make. I need to rejuvenate my thinking. As to typos - hm. Must be early. I didn't notice them.

Gill, you're always useful, but yes - hors d'oeuvres will be appreciated. If no one turns up for the book signing, we'll stuff our faces...

~Sia McKye~ said...

You keep hearing, it only takes one who's interested to start your career as an author...hmmm, so will the 'one' just please stand up or raise your hand? That way I'm not wasting everyone elses time. Thank you.

Crapshoot. No other way to think of it. But I aree with Lisa, there comes a time to set one aside and work on a new one.

Hang in there. :-)

aries18 said...

I am aiming for that label, too, Cathy. Unpublished author. I'm not there yet. I won't feel I'm there until I have a finished MS under my belt and some submissions too. But I am heading in that direction. Now, about that 10 pound?

Anonymous said...

Hi Cathy. Good post. It is hard to explain to your friends and family just why you've spent hundreds, maybe thousands of hours writing a novel. Querying is a frustrating process, but we live for the positive responses, even if they don't end up taking it. As Lisa said, at some point you work on the 2nd project and continue to hone your craft. Sometimes I feel the process is like selling your house; you need to find the right buyer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on all of this.


L. King said...

I read your excerpt for the contest, which I entered too, and thought it was really good. I see your Ursula K. Leguin influence.

We have a lot in common. I am also a mother of a certain age living in So Cal. I'm also a Gemini, for what that's worth. I've also been trying to sell my book for nearly 10 years. In fact I had an agent until this morning, when she effectively dumped me. But I'm not giving up and you shouldn't either. I refuse to accept that all that time and effort was wasted.