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Fearing agents’/editors’ pet peeves

I just came across Thomas Weaver’s great post on Thinking to myself – or not that raised an interesting point about sometimes having circumstances where you need to dare to break some of the “rules” that seem to be so important to literary agents and editors.

Reading the beginning of the post, where Thomas explains the redundancy of adding “to oneself” after “thought”, at first I thought to m— I mean, I just, er, thought, “Heh, silly noob mistakes.” (Then I ran off and searched my manuscript for occurrences of “to herself”, “to himself”, and “to myself”.)

But seriously in all seriousness(*), I find it scary that agents/editors seem to have all these semi-undocumented pet peeves and the poor sods who submit their hard work and may commit one or two of them (which may soon be me!), despite the fact that these faux pas are easily corrected easy to correct, may never hear back from them nor ever find out what they did wrong.

(*) See what I did there? I avoided triggering someone’s pet peeve against adverbs (against which I’ve ranted previously) by using an adverbial phrase. Same thing, really (except it’s less succinct), but strangely enough, the same people that really mind adverbs don’t seem to mind adverbial phrases. Hypocritical of them, I know, I know… but they seem to “make” the rules.

I hope that there are more “reasonable” agents and editors out there than I realise (despite the fact that I understand how they came to be that way; I’m sure some of the things they have to read are just… shockingly bad). Because I’ll be running that gauntlet soon(ish). #amwriting

Wise Old Tree

Even this Wise Old Tree doesn’t know all the pet peeves that need to be avoided. (Oh, fine, I admit it – the tree doesn’t really have anything to do with this post’s topic. I just wanted to sneak another one of my wife’s great photos into my blog. Sue me.)

Does anyone have (or know of) a list of these types of pet peeves, or unwritten rules, for authors to avoid? And please don’t point me to the Turkey City Lexicon – in my opinion, that’s just common sense mixed with “never do this!” overreactions to serial-pattern-abusers.

The other side of the (Literary) Submission Circus

Sometimes this whole submission thing seems to me a little like the Submission Circus I blogged about last time. I apologise to any agents or editors and hope they’ll forgive my exaggerated presentation of how the process can appear from the writer’s side (not that I expect any of them to actually read my humble blog). Of course there’s another side to the Submission Circus.

I get it, I really do. Agents and publishers need to make a living as well, they need – nay, are forced – to make cut-throat decisions to sort the wheat from the chaff. With so many manuscripts to read that reading them – something we all passionately love to do, right? – becomes a tedious chore, and turns even the most enthusiastic professional reader into a cold-hearted cynic, the Powers That Be of the publishing world need some sort of method of wading through the slush piles; there just have to be multiple filters to weed out the various layers of The Unworthy:

  • The masses of wannabe-authors who suffer from self-delusion and can’t string a grammatically correct sentence together, let alone a complete story. Not entirely unlike those pathetic dorks who make fools of themselves on TV talent shows, and even though it’s painful in a way because you want to sympathise, the expression on their faces when they realise that they’ve just given their best and the judges are trying not to laugh… is just too delicious. Along with millions of other couch potatoes, you laugh yourself hoarse at those idiots, even though you’d never have the guts to even get up and have a go….
  • Those who are, well, not that bad, and something could be salvaged from their manuscript, but only with the help of some book quack. Er, book doctor. Sorry.
  • Those who are, grammatically speaking, absolute geniuses, but their book idea has been done before, or is just plain lame. Maybe they end up being cynical enough to become book doctors.
  • The writers with the heart of a poet, who, like a grand master pianist, can entwine several harmonised melodies so beautifully it makes your heart ache, make their music tug at the heart-strings, make it invoke the full range of emotions from their audience… their audience of five, three of whom are family members, because, let’s face it, man, who the f*ck wants to listen to “classic” music anymore, get real, that’s so last-friggin’-millenium, dude, shut the hell up and let me check my twitter feed as I roll my eyes.
  • Then come the truly talented, who get what it takes to write a story even the twitter generation may want to read, and can do so. But they lose heart at all the obstacles in their way and just aren’t willing to jump through all the hoops. Or they can only receive so many rejections before it gets to them and they can’t take it any more.
  • Finally, there is that tiniest of percentages, who persevere through it all, who are realistic about their chances but cling to that glimmer of hope, who learn from their mistakes and who don’t give up.

For a very few of the latter, Lady Luck finally relents and gives them the chance they deserve. They seize that chance by the throat and, well… the rest of us end up reading their books. Maybe.

Kudos to those last few, most of you really deserve it and we wish you all the best (though it’s hard to entirely suppress the suspicion that some got through because they “know somebody”, because occasionally, books get published that shouldn’t).

But my heart bleeds for the writers with the heart of a poet, and the truly talented who lose heart or just don’t persevere long enough, and Real Life just doesn’t wait long enough. Despite being worthy, their stories are lost to us forever.

It’s a little like in school, where the ones that do best are those with above-average intelligence who are also willing to do the boring legwork. To the really brilliant, smarter than the ones who do best but they don’t do as well because they’re either lazy, or rebellious, or they have street smarts but not book smarts, this school rewards system seems rather unfair. Sometimes Real Life is the great leveller, they all find their niche, and the brilliant are able to laugh at the book smart ones who can’t fight their way out of a paper bag, but all too often, that’s not the case. A word to those with the street smarts, though: sometimes, having street smarts means you need to get your hands dirty and do what the book-smart kids are doing.

I don’t have any answers about how to fix the established submissions system. And if I did, I realise it would be nigh impossible to change the existing system, not even over the span of many years. I can only write down my own personal observations about it. Not to whine for the sake of whining, but to encourage others – and myself – not to give up, to accept things for what they are, to persevere, to roll up our sleeves and to jump through the necessary hoops so that one day, baby, one day we’ll be old… but our story will have been told. (Pat yourself on the back if you get that reference.)

Welcome to the (Literary) Submission Circus!

Step right in, don’t be shy! No, silly, your time of just watching is over… now you’re the performer. Shout three quick words – choose wisely, for your audience behind the curtain has many more performers to watch, and has watched more than you can count, so you must make it memorable, but hurry! – and off you go, now jump through this hoop and that one, and, wow, that was one terrific quintuple somersault, but sorry, kid, the audience of one (for whom you must perform before you can show your act to the world) stopped watching long ago. Seems she heard those particular three words before. Oh well.

What are you doing, still standing there? Get off the stage, freak! Don’t you realise there are hundreds – nay, thousands – of other performers waiting in the wings for their turn?

There’ll be other towns you can perform in. Not all that many, at least for your particular type of act, but there are others, and maybe the audiences there haven’t heard your three words yet, or you can tweak them slightly. Which won’t matter, because you’ll forget that their hoops are at a slightly different angle, or height, and, well, you should’ve done your homework better to read up on their particular hoops, shouldn’t you?

And what about the remaining twelve towns that, according to your new research, have audiences willing to watch your particular genre of performance? It’ll go a little something like this:

One won’t like that you addressed him by his surname before you started. Too formal, you’ll sound like a pompous prick.
Two won’t appreciate you using her first name. Presumptuous pervert, you.
Three, Four and Five are currently doing something else, but they’ve left assistants (not that you’ll be able to tell the difference) with instructions to send you a very politely worded “thanks, but not quite right for us just now” letter.
Six and Seven will be enthusiastic about helping you, praising you lavishly, but Six’ll want you to first pay some money to his friend, Six Point One, just to help you polish up your act a bit, you know how it is, and then you and Six will take on the world, while Seven will think that your performance would be just perfect if only you’d be willing to take your clothes off.
Eight. Well, Eight will want to watch your performance, but he needs four months to think about whether he really liked it. During those four months, you can’t perform this particular act for anyone else. And after four months of waiting nervously, your tentative enquiry about whether he did in fact like it will be answered with, “Who were you again?”
Nine will only allow you two words, but you’ll think you can get away with your standard three. Gotcha!
Ten will only do taped performances, not live ones, and will sell tapes of your act to anyone, but they need to go to his stand and pick out your tape from amongst a trillion others. Plus you won’t get much cash each time your tape does get picked.
Eleven and Twelve will be the last on your list. They’re old-fashioned and want you to actually walk to their towns. If you arrive by car, or even by bicycle, they won’t even watch anything you do. You’ll arrive at Eleven, exhausted, only to find that they’ve gone on a Christmas holiday, so you need to come back again next year. Then you’ll arrive at what you think is Twelve with bleeding feet, desperate but not yet losing hope. You’ll perform your act better than ever before… but you’ll never even find out that the reason you never heard back was that your street directory was outdated and your performance simply… lost its way.

Live and learn, baby. Come up with another act and start all over. Or just make it easier for everyone and give up now. You didn’t really think your performance was good enough for the Big Top, did you?

But… wait! New research reveals there’s a Thirteen you didn’t see before, because you weren’t searching hard enough, and thought, “Surely one out of One to Twelve will get me.” Thirteen is looking for something just like your act right now, and she’s willing to overlook that you touched the side of the second hoop a little when you jumped through it. She actually watches your full performance. What’s more, she likes it. She makes a few suggestions of how it can be improved, and you’re skeptical at first, but realise she knows what she’s talking about. In time, she helps you to get an audience with The Ringmaster, and with Thirteen’s support, you’ve finally made it at last. The Big Top. You can share your performance with the world as you’ve always wanted.

Fellow writers of the world, may you persist until you find your Thirteen.

(More on my take on the submission process in the next post, The other side of literary submissions.)