This year’s Bloody Scotland is bearing down on us. There’s a pitch competition that I’d like to try but I’m having trouble working out which novel to pitch.
Until recently I would have assumed that I’d have to pitch a finished novel but that doesn’t seem to be hugely important for the competition. That’s confusing to me since every published author’s top piece of advice is “Finish your shit”.
For this competition I have to write a 100 word pitch and submit that and if they’re interested I get to pitch in person in front of actual publishers and agents and a paying crowd. The live pitch will be in late September at the Bloody Scotland festival. It’s dedicated to crime writing so the publishers and agents will be looking for crime/detective/mystery fiction.
I have to decide which novel I want to pitch because that’s the novel I should be focusing on just now. Let me describe them for you.
Firstly there’s the one I’ll call Project Kindness. It’s the one that’s closest to finished. Close enough that I could have a complete 3rd draft to show anyone who was interested by the end of September. However it’s a supernatural spy thriller. There are some murders and there is a mystery but it’s not what they’re looking for.
Secondly there’s the one I’ll call Project Cecil. It’s the furthest from being finished and I don’t really feel ready to work on it. However it’s the closest to the kind of novel they want. It’s a modern epistolary novel told through emails, chat logs and blogs. It follows a group of friends as they investigate the disappearance and murder of a mutual friend and eventually come to realise that one of them did it. I think I could do a killer pitch of it but it’s the one I feel least able to finish.
Thirdly there’s the one I’ll call Project Dingo. It’s about half done. It’s the funniest. It’s set in 2012 and it’s about a locked room mystery that nobody wants to solve. It’s the closest to a traditional mystery novel in structure but it has witches and other weirdness in it that might make it a harder sell at Bloody Scotland.
I can’t make up my mind. I feel like I should pick Project Cecil because it’s the one they’re most likely to want. But I don’t want to work on it. I’m not ready yet. Then I want to stubbonrly pick Project Kindness because ‘Finish your Shit’ and because it’s the one I’ve been working on recently and it’s in my head. But then I want to pick Project Dingo because it’s the balanced one.
I don’t know how to make up my mind. Suggestions are welcome in the comments.
And if you have enjoyed this indecision you could show your appreciation by buying me a coffee with Ko-Fi.
It feels like there’s an invisible wall between me and my novel. Some part of me doesn’t want to work on it and I’m not sure what it is.
It’s not because I don’t know what to write, or because I’m having plot problems. I know where the story is going and how to write it. It’s not because I don’t like the novel or because I’m tired of the characters. I like it and them as much as I ever have.
It feels like I’m scared of something. Or at least reluctant. Could it be that I’m scared of finishing it because that would mean I’d have to query it and that would mean more rejection?
I’ve invested a lot of hope in this novel. I’m hoping that, because it has a better opening, it will have more chance of attracting an agent. I think the opening is good but it doesn’t solve the problem of writing that doesn’t fit easily into any genre. Agents just don’t seem to be looking for the stories that I write. I’ve been trying to build contacts but so far the contacts that I have don’t link up with the kind of stories that I write.
There’s also the problem of my, apparently, terrible grammar. I say apparently because every grammatical problem that gets pointed out is stuff that I can’t see even after it gets pointed out. I know there are rules to formal english but prose isn’t formal. In prose you’re allowed to break the rules. Unless I’m wrong. Unless I should be following the rules of formal English just so that agents will know that I know what they are. Are agents laughing at my terrible comma usage?
It’s tempting to just give up on the idea of ever getting paid, stick a plain cover on it, self publish and then try to find something else to do with my time. It is just so frustrating to put all this work in on stories that nobody wants to read. I believe in them but I don’t know how to communicate that belief in any useful way.
Impostor Syndrome is something that most creative people experience at some point. It’s that feeling of not being good enough, of not being a ‘real’ creative, or that you are somehow performing your creative endeavors in the wrong way.. For successful creative people it might also come with a fear of being ‘found out’.
I don’t have a ‘hot take’ on Impostor Syndrome. But I either have a bad case of it or I’m a genuine impostor. And it’s so hard to know which.
In the last week I’ve found out that I’ve been formatting my manuscripts wrong and that I’ve either been using commas wrong since forever or the rules have changed since I was at school. That might seem like a small thing. Surely a slight difference in formatting and a few stray commas won’t drive an agent away? Well… Maybe.
Agents are looking for excuses to stop reading. Of course they are. They get hundreds of queries. It makes no sense to read all the way through something if they can’t sell it, or don’t want to work with the writer. The formatting and the commas alone wont stop them but that’s already two strikes. It makes the agent less likely to overlook any other little weakness they might find. It makes me look less professional. It also makes me question whether I have any business attempting to write as a profession. What kind of an author doesn’t know how to format a manuscript or use a comma.
And while worrying about all this I discovered that part of the opening of the current novel in progress isn’t nearly clear enough. I had a beta reader read right through the death of a character and part of their wake and then ask me why they were reading about all these other characters and not the dead one. And this is an intelligent person. That means that 1 in 4 readers didn’t get a pretty major plot point. I can’t just decide that this person is an idiot. I have to make the scene clearer somehow. And I don’t know how.
So in the last week I’ve found out that I’m failing at punctuation, formatting and clarity. How’s your week been.
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Well it’ll be the last rejection for a while at least.
Today I got the form rejection letter from the last agent I queried. I’m not going to query again straight away. I know that the standard advice is to query 100 agents and not to start panicking about your work until you’ve been turned down at least 80 times but I’m not sure there are 80 agents representing Urban Fantasy in the English speaking world. Good agents, anyway. And what’s the point in pissing off potential agents by querying them with a broken novel?
I don’t know if my novel is broken. I’ve had conflicting feedback. I need to think about it for a while. I probably need to sell a kidney so I can afford a development editor to tell me what’s wrong with it.
Or I could stick the whole thing out somewhere for free. Give up on the idea of ever earning anything back for my effort.
Or I could give up on it. Just stick it in a virtual drawer and try something else. I really don’t want to do that because I have plans for the characters and for the world. I have other novels that I’m working on that are linked to it. I wouldn’t just be giving up on that one story but on literally dozens of others.
At the moment I’m trying to work on one of the other stories in the hope that I can pitch that as the first in the series instead. If that one doesn’t work there’s maybe one more that I could use as the starting point but it’s a lot more work and maybe the whole thing is just doomed. Maybe these are stories that would never sell.
Perhaps it’s presumptuous to assume that there is a solution. That would be to assume that I can succeed at something and so far there’s no evidence to support that assumption. I’m not going to stop writing. I have to fill my time somehow. But I might give up on the idea of trying to get anyone else to read what I write.
Yesterday I posted about my latest rejection from an agent. It never gets any less painful but I did manage to query the next agent on the list before the day was out.
I don’t know how many more times I can manage to query. There is a finite number of agents in the world and eventually I will run out. I’m also running out of fucks to give and it’s starting show in my query letters. Is there any point in sending a query if the letter is only going to piss off the person reading it.
The latest submission included the following paragraph:
You’d probably like working with me. I’m funny, hard working and resilient. Also my life is just so horrifically awful that it will make you feel great about your own life in comparison. I know this isn’t the sort of thing I should put in a covering letter but this way I can blame your inevitable form rejection on my terrible letter and not on the novel. Which is great.
That’s not going to help but I I no longer believe that there’s any point in trying to get an agent. I’m just doing it because that’s the path I’m on. I’m querying the next agent on the list because I don’t know what else to do.
I’m trying to change course. It feels like trying to turn a supertanker against a strong current and a high wind. I’ve been working on another novel so that I can start querying that but I’m starting to feel like that’s pointless too. I’m trying to get up the enthusiasm for the move to self publishing. Once I’ve found the enthusiasm I’ll have to find the money.
Anyone need a kidney?
And so we close out the year with another email from an agent who isn’t passionate enough about my novel to represent it. More than a year of querying and I haven’t even got a detailed rejection yet.
I know that there are famous writers who got rejected a lot before they got their first agent/publisher. I also know that there are a lot of deluded people sending terrible novels to every agent and publisher on the planet and wondering why no-one is backing a dump truck full of money up to their house to publish it. It’s getting harder to believe that I’m in group one and not group two.
From here I think there are three options. Keep querying this novel in the hope that further down the list there might be an agent who’d be interested. Give up on this novel for now, finish something else and query that. Give up on traditional publishing and self publish it.
There are problems with each of these options. I’ve already queried most, maybe all, of the agents who’d actually be interested in such a weird novel. It’s the first in a series and most of my other novels are in the same story universe. If I can’t interest people in the first one they’re unlikely to care about the rest. I really don’t want to self publish and once I’ve self published the first in a series I’m unlikely to find representation for the rest unless the first one is a huge success. I don’t have the resources to ensure that success.
Am I nuts? Could it be that I’m just not very good at writing? Are my novels bad? Have I been deceiving myself? How do you know if your novel is bad?
Every year I write a first draft in November and every year I try to learn something new while doing it. This year’s first draft was a straightish crime novel with the working title Project Cecil. The name doesn’t mean anything I just had to call it something and one thing I’ve learned in previous years is that I suck at titles.
This year’s big lesson is that I can write a novel without relying on fantasy, science fiction, or the supernatural. I’m just not entirely sure I want to. It’s really too early to tell if the story is any good. That wasn’t the point. A first draft doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be written. But I am starting to question the logic of writing it.
I wrote a straight crime novel because a friend challenged me to write it. She challenged me because my attempts to get an agent or a publisher are hampered by the kind of stories I normally write. It’s not that they’re bad it’s just that they’re hard to market because they don’t fit easily into any single genre. My friend suggested that if I could write a regular crime novel I would have more chance of getting an agent or publisher interested and once I have something published I might have more luck with my weirder books.
My friend might be right. But I’m starting to think about the long game. My ultimate aim isn’t to get a single book published or even to get paid for a couple of manuscripts. My aim is a career as a writer and to do that I need to concentrate on the books I actually want to write. I like the story I’ve been telling but it’s not representative of most of the stories that I want to tell.
Of course it might still be worth taking this novel to Bloody Scotland next year and pitching it. Even if it doesn’t lead to the career I want it might at least lead to enough money to pay to self publish the other stories well enough to build a career that way.
This doesn’t mean I regret this experiment though. I’ve met some interesting characters while writing this story and I think I’ll probably come back to them at some point and finish telling their stories properly.
Today’s displacement activity is obsessing about genre. Again.
I should be writing or querying. Instead I’m obsessing about which genre I should be describing my completed novel as.
I know that the books that it most closely resembles are usually described as urban fantasy or contemporary urban fantasy. Except for when they’re magical realism but there’s at least two contradictory definitions for that. The urban fantasy thing isn’t quite right because the magic in my books is too subtle and I also have some weird science. There’s some alternative history but it’s not alternative history because it’s set in the present. There’s some advanced technology but not enough to make it science fiction. It’s quite dark but I don’t think it’s dark enough to call it horror.
The opening paragraph of a query letter should tell the agent you’re querying what genre the work is. How do I describe my weird, dark, slightly magical, detective thriller so that the right agent will actually read it?
None of which solves the problem of finding the right agent in the first place. They say that if you think an agent is right for your novel you should query them regardless of their stated genre preferences. Ok. I could do that. How would I find that out? I only have so many hours in the day. I’m not stalking every agent in the English speaking world until one of them expresses a fondness for ghosts and detectives and demons and magic and artificial intelligence all in the same book.
So, obviously, I should employ the scattergun approach and just query every agent in the English speaking world because I’ll eventually find the right agent that way. Right? Except you’re supposed to tailor the query to the agent. And tell the agent what genre you’re querying.
Why can’t I just be a sensible writer and write in a sensible genre?
The title of this post comes from my favourite episode of South Park. It comes from the Underpants Gnomes and their three point business plan.
- Collect underpants
As a writer I understand the Underpants Gnomes on a deep, spiritual level. For a long time I wasn’t a writer but I kind of, sort of, wanted to be one. I thought that I was smart enough and good enough with words but I didn’t feel like I had anything to say. I thought that if I just had a story that I wanted to tell then maybe I could be a writer.
Like everyone else who isn’t a writer I thought that the idea bit must be the hardest bit. Or maybe the actually sitting down and writing. I knew that there were a lot more people talking about writing than actually writing, therefore the writing bit must be really tough, but I also thought that it was probably easier if you had a really good idea.
In the time before being a writer I did write. I wrote in my diaries when I couldn’t not write. I wrote forum posts. I wrote on usenet (does anyone else remember usenet or was it all a fever dream). I wasn’t a writer yet but I was practicing to be one.
I got a lot of practice writing journals for my therapist. It drove me nuts that every week I would sit down in his room and he would ask me how I was and I would say… “Fine.” I was not fine but when there was actually someone there asking me to talk about all the ways in which I was not fine I couldn’t find the words. So I wrote in my journals whenever things were going badly and I took them with me and he would read a week’s worth of misery while I was making coffee and tea.
One source of misery was the feeling of not knowing what I should be doing with my life. My therapist would hint that he thought I had a talent that I should pursue and that it was obvious to him what it was but that he wasn’t going to tell me what I should be doing because it wasn’t his choice. I’m pretty sure now that he meant writing.
But the thing about writing is that it’s kind of like the Underpants Gnomes. Sooner or later you run into the big question mark.
- Have an idea
- Write a first draft
- Tidy up the first draft
- Throw out most of the first draft
- Write a second draft.
- And possibly a third
- Find a Beta reader
- Find another Beta reader
- And possibly a third
- Discover massive hole in the plot
- Write a bunch of new scenes to fill the hole
- Tidy up the scenes
- Find a new Beta reader to look at this latest version
- Tidy it up some more
- Declare it finished
- Start pitching
- Start querying
I know what in theory there’s a bunch of steps that fit where that question mark is. Either you pitch and query till you get an agent and they get you a publisher or you get the publisher yourself or you cut out both of them and publish it yourself. But how?
How do you keep going in the face of silence or rejection? How do you find agents and publishers that actually want the thing you’ve written? People talk as if self-publishing is easy but even self-publishing badly is a lot more than hitting the print button and doing it well requires money and skills that I just don’t have.
My other half self-published 8 short stories last year and saw less than $2.00 in return. That doesn’t sound like profit to me.
I have decided that maybe it’s time to give my completed novel a rest for a bit. Maybe it’s the wrong work to query? Maybe I was thinking too big, too long, or too crazy?
I’m going to concentrate on another story. As it stands it’s a complete first draft of a novella but I think it could be more. I think it could be a short novel. It’s smaller in scope than the novel I was querying though I think it will get a bit bigger as I expand it. Maybe it’s more what agents are looking for as a first novel? I know that the setting will be easier to pitch to Scottish publishers and easier for them to sell to readers.
Of course it’s probably displacement activity. It’s easier to write another novel than it is to query the finished one. The novel has to be finished before someone can reject it and, by extension, me. Writing is the bit that I know I’m good at. Well, think I’m good at. Most of the time.
It’s something a bit different for me. The narrator character is disabled. Writing stuff that’s too close to home is something I usually shy away from. It feels like cheating somehow. But I keep seeing agents and publishers asking for diverse storytelling and diverse characters. Maybe they actually mean it. And if they don’t I’ve got this other story I can whip out when they tell me that they can’t sell a locked room mystery set in Aberdeen where the central character is an unglamorous disabled woman.