The Road So Far
Posted by Amos M. Carpenter
One of the reasons I started this blog, as mentioned on the about me page, was to document my journey as I hope to eventually become a published author. Whether this journey will have the happy end I’m hoping for (which in itself will, of course, be just the beginning of a new one), is yet to be determined, but I’ve found the journey itself to be rewarding, so if I never reach the end, it will still have been worth it. (Ok, enough talk about journeys now… promise. I don’t want to sound like I’m a contestant on one of those reality TV shows or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)
In order for future posts to make more sense (and to help me sort things out in my head), I’ll take a look back on what I’ve accomplished thus far.
The original idea
Over ten years or so, I’d occasionally work on the epic fantasy story I had in my head about a boy who grows up in the tropical jungles of a remote island – not unlike the jungles of Papua New Guinea, where I grew up – and experiences the world of a more western culture (though less developed, of course) from a rather unique perspective. I wrote, slowly at first but gathering momentum over the last year and a half or so when I really got into it, had some great ideas, and ended up with a manuscript of over 180k words that was supposed to be the first part of a trilogy. The rest of the trilogy, and another possible trilogy from around the same time but from a completely different perspective, were all mapped out in my head and in my notes.
When I thought it polished enough, I sent sample chapters to a few agents who accept electronic submissions and accept fantasy works (many don’t). One or two came back incredibly quickly with a standard “thanks, but no thanks” reply.
My first rejection, and I felt like there was no way they would’ve read my sample chapters (formatted the way they wanted and all that). Initially, I thought they just weren’t looking for new fantasy authors, but after a more “normal” time of two months or so, I got a polite rejection from the reader of the agent I’d really wanted to read and like my work; I’d just had a feeling she could be the right fit for me.
I firmly believed, and still believe, that the story in my head is too good and wants to be shared too badly for me to give up after a few rejections. (I chose to completely ignore what I thought was bad advice, the fourth rejection and the only one offering any feedback, claiming that I shouldn’t use adjectives in my two opening paragraphs, and I shouldn’t write in first person, amongst other things. The email had several typos and commas in the wrong places; I find it hard to take literary advice from someone like that.)
Time to revamp
Yet something had to be wrong with my work. I know when I stop to think about it that I shouldn’t be discouraged by those rejections – they might have happened for all sorts of reasons, and the odds of getting the “right” person to read your work early on in your submission process are very slim. But it did stick a needle in my sense of bouyancy after I’d finally finished the manuscript. I considered persisting with the same pitch to other agents, but decided against it after reading up more about the submissions process, querying agents, etc.
I decided to take two main pieces advice I’d read about.
Firstly, about having a beginning that grabs the attention of my audience. My story was a coming-of-age story, and though I had a (probably too) lengthy prologue that had some exciting stuff in it, I never really felt comfortable submitting the opening chapter or three, because the story was just getting going. My first-person protagonist, the way I envisioned/created him, was a slightly dreamy boy with the heart of a poet. When I wrote from his perspective, I couldn’t help but use long sentences, adjectives, details, formal language… things of which agents and editors of typical make-a-quick-buck novels probably don’t want to see too much. The protagonist of the other trilogy (let’s go with protagonist B) was completely different: a girl from a war-like race whose language (I’d only written a single proof-of-concept chapter) was snappier, pacier, grittier; used fewer adjectives, more contractions and slang. Language that I’d never feel comfortable coming out of protagonist A’s mouth.
And secondly, about keeping the wordcount to where agents and editors would be more likely to consider it publishable. If you’ve read this far through my post, I suspect you can see how I might struggle with that…. (I asked a wordcount-related question in an earlier post today by the way.) I’d still like to point anyone who thinks fantasy wordcounts should be low to Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, which is a brilliantly written story with great character development, details galore, and I’ll gladly wait a few years for the third book if it’s going to have another 1000 or so pages with relatively small font. Robin Hobb, GRRM, Robert Jordan, Tolkien… all have great fantasy series with high word counts. But I digress….
I didn’t really like having to revamp it all, but this whole thing is a learning experience for me, and I won’t shy away from doing more work if it helps me to grow as a writer. I took a few days’ break from writing and polishing (seems you can always polish some more!) and thought about it. I thought about the bigger picture of my story and how I wanted to tell it.
An epiphany later, I had my new “delivery mechanism”, the story around my story that would combine my two intended trilogies, that would explain why protagonist A wrote the way he did before the reader ever got to his chapters – as journal entries, not the main story. Protagonist B’s chapters would come first, the reader would get drawn into the world more and be interested enough before being exposed to the slightly slower perspective. I’d have to move a significant portion of the 180+k words into a later volume, but there was a good spot where I could end Book One. I even thought of a suitably “grabby” beginning that would also explain the setting well.
Where I’m at now
I’ve now written roughly half of the story around the story and the chapters from my (originally) second protagonist’s perspective and will see it through to the end. My target is around 110k words, and I’ll just have to hope that the right agent will be able to swallow that. (Obviously I won’t point out that Book Two will be about 600k until much later.)
And I’ve realised that, when I’m done with my revamp, with my “first book in its second incarnation”, it will be much stronger than it was in its first. I therefore owe those agents who have rejected my first attempt a big Thank You. Even the one whose advice I scoffed at initially.
Literary agents and publishers do not reject you to hurt you. They reject you to improve you.
— James Hughes
(I came across that quote on Literary Rejections, which is a very useful resource for any aspiring authors. Have any similar experiences writing or being rejected? Please let me know in the comments.)