Thanks For the Rejections!
I'll start, here, by thanking all the agents who have sent me rejections. I know agents have somewhere on the order of bazillions of queries to get through daily. They barely even have time to paste in boilerplate rejection verbiage and hit "send." Many, nowadays, don't even do that. So, when I get a rejection that gives me even the slightest hint of why the agent decided to pass on my project, far from being bummed about it, I am actually grateful.
I often feel like I'm working in a complete vacuum with regard to trying to sell my work. I feel fairly confident that my writing, itself, is good. Good enough, I mean, though of course any writing can always be improved and polished. The manuscript I am currently querying is as polished as I can make it, with critique partner and beta reader feedback. I am fortunate that I don't have to work in a vacuum, there. On the other hand, the query letters I send out about said manuscript, well, really, the only feedback I can get about those, from real industry insiders, is through rejections.
OK, yes, I know: there is a ton – multiple tonnage, really – of Querying Advice on the interwebs. But much of it is conflicting or grossly outdated. Even AuthorTube videos by actual literary agents offer advice that conflicts wildly! I wade through all this cognitive dissonance and snatch desperately at what seems to be the most common advice. I do my best to incorporate it all into 350 words or less but, in the end, I'm totally winging it. I have no way of knowing – not really – whether or not my query letter is really the killer pickup line that will get me the girl, or just a slap in the face.
Most of the rejections I get are some form or other of the standard boilerplate: "This is not on my list." And, if this is the actual reason for the rejection (rather than an attempt at the most inoffensive waffle possible) I can't complain about it. My little world of Woodley, USA is never going to fit neatly onto anyone's list – it crosses too many genres. Agents who rep Fantasy seldom rep Horror, for instance. Not that there's any Horror in my work, but nowadays the word "ghost" is synonymous with "guts splattered all over the walls" and I totally understand why some people are not interested in that. God knows I'm not. And, sure, it's not fair that when a Fantasy-inclined agent sees the word "ghost" in the second paragraph of my query, they roll their eyes and ball up their fists and hiss through clenched teeth, "Oh, FFS, why don't these #^&$@ writers ever bother to look at my profile – I specifically stated I do not do Horror!"
But it is what it is, and until Western entertainment culture undergoes another sea-change (a sea-change I actually hope to help incite with my work!) I have to figure out how to deal with the situation as it is.
Two rejections I've received recently, though, contained completely new and different feedback! This gives me hope that I'm at least getting better at writing query letters. I mean, I'm sure these rejections are also copy-pasted – I can imagine agents need to send this particular one out a thousand times a day, too. But, honestly, I got a little giddy about these because they made me think the agents who selected this particular verbiage from their copy-paste choices had actually got past the word "ghost"!
They said, basically: "The concept of your story just did not draw my interest strongly enough." Thank you, thank you, thank you, Dear Agents, for this specific feedback! Even though it may seem like a slap in the face to some, it was a gift to me, and I truly and honestly do appreciate your having taken the time to send it to me.
My first response, of course, was to think, "Oh, OK, so what can I do to change my story to make it more gripping? Give it more pizzazz! How can I make the stakes higher? Maybe I should give in and put in some guts splattering across a wall here and there after all? Oh, I know: a climactic car-chase where the world will end if I don't make it over the cliff in time to rescue the president from terrorist dragons from Alpha Centauri!"
And then I said:
My story is what it is. It is what it is because that's exactly what it needs to be. It is internally consistent and beautiful. It gave itself freely to me from an eternal well of Story, and I will be true to it in return. The world does not have to be about to end in order to make the stakes heart-wrenching. Kittens and little children do not have to die horribly. I will not change the actual story itself, even if that's the only way to get myself an agent. (I don't believe it is, mind you. I just don't know how to sell the damn thing, is all.)
Because I know it does, in fact, "draw my interest strongly enough." I know for a fact that it does this to other people, as well. I am even reasonably confident that the kinds of people whose interest is drawn are not all that uncommon. These are the people I wrote it for. People who, when I describe it to them, say "Oh, I LOVE that sort of thing! Where can I find a copy?" Readers who say, "OMG I hope there's going to be a sequel – I want to read more about this world!"
If I change my story in order to land a publishing deal, I will be betraying them. And I will be perpetuating the literary vacuum that led me to write this story in the first place because I couldn't find enough of it in bookstores. There are people out there who want to walk down Main Street in Woodley, USA, and sleep in the Rose Room, and bump into George in the hall in the middle of the night, and jump the fence into the meadow and discover what lies beyond. Hang in there, peeps: I'm still trying to figure out how to reach you, but I am reaching!
All this by way of saying, I am grateful to all who have contributed the various data that has helped me make a decision. Thank you readers, critique partners, beta readers, and literary agents. I think I've made a decision? I've been trying to make this decision since last fall. I think I've decided I'm going to go ahead and self-publish Moonlight and Moss. Maybe. Probably. I will probably do this sometime in May 2019 (which is about a year since Seven Turns came out.)
On some level, it feels like I'm accepting defeat, but I'm not, really. I just don't want to leave my readers waiting too much longer for the sequel to Seven Turns. My pride isn't as important to me as loyalty to my readers - they've earned it! That's the only thing of which I am absolutely certain.
I am fully aware that the second I hit that "Publish" button over at IngramSpark, I will turn to check my inbox and see I've just received an offer of representation. Because of course I will. Murphy is a real jerk, sometimes! OK all the time. Maybe I'll kill him off in my next book.
Meanwhile, I'll keep gathering data and polishing my querying skills so that someday when I finish this series and start a new one, I will – as I am still determined to – obtain agent representation.