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10 hurdles my submission could fail at

Those hurdles ahead of me look awfully big.

All these hurdles

All these hurdles to overcome… (Image cobbled together from free bits’n’pieces.)

I know at some intellectual level that my chances of overcoming them are almost infinitesimally small. But… some people do make it, right? So it’s gotta be possible.

So you think you can write?

Granted, I could be one of those self-deluded people who go on some gameshow or public contest, actually believing they have what it takes and will blow everyone away with their awesome talent that’s been simmering inside them all these years… only to make a complete fool of themselves and discover in the most embarrassing way that they’ve become the laughing stock of everyone.

I choose not to believe that of myself. I refuse to believe that my awesome beta readers and my close friends and relatives who’ve read my work were just “being nice” to me or couldn’t bring themselves to tell me the truth.

My toolbox

I’ve drawn up my battle plan. I’ve done my research. I know which agents I want to query first. Only two agencies here in Australia actually accept submissions for epic fantasy, and that’s only via snail mail – I’ve kept the printer busy lately – another accepts only a short pitch with synopsis, but without sample chapters, and two more are maybes that aren’t exactly clear on their website about what they do or don’t accept. I’ve found a few more agencies in the U.K. that sound good; for now, I won’t be submitting to U.S. agencies, mainly because I’m not sure whether I’d need to go through my manuscript and change things like “colour” to “color”, and Australian “-ise” endings to “-ize”, and “talk/speak to” to “talk/speak with“, and so forth. I have no idea whether they might think I just can’t spell or realise (ahem, realize) that that’s just how some people spell things in other parts of the world.

I’ve registered on Query Tracker, and checked Preditors & Editors to make sure I’m not submitting to the wrong sort of agents. I’ve done research on them to pick those who have published authors in my genre before with respectable publishers.

My query letter has been written, edited, thrown away and re-written more times than I can remember. The same goes for my synopsis. But… I think I’m as ready as I’m going to be.

Let me count the hurdles… 1001… 1002…

If I start to calculate the odds of finding an agent and a publisher (let’s say each agency gets 50 submissions per day, 6 days per week, maybe accepts two new clients per year… ouch!) I’ll just go insane and give up. But if I make the bold assumption that I’m actually good enough to be published – just for the sake of argument (and my sanity) – then… what hurdles are left, i.e. what might still go wrong?

  1. The submission might not even get there. Lost in the (snail) mail, an accidentally deleted email or a server crash, and I’ve lost before I’ve had a chance. Not getting a response is essentially a rejection, and as far as I can tell, following up or (God forbid) asking for reasons, is a big No-No. Can’t be helped; out of my hands.
  2. They might not like my cover letter (which some people call query, though I’ve also seen that word used to describe the whole submission). I’ve studied several “successful queries” and have tried to learn from them, about being succinct, polite, and professional, to minimise the chance of that happening. That’s all I can do, I think.
  3. They might consider my word count to be too high. At about 130k, my word count is a vast improvement over my first attempt a couple of years ago (where I stopped sending out submissions after realising that rejections were coming back less than 24 hours after I’d submitted, from agencies saying they’d take 8-10 weeks to respond, and figuring out that my 185k word count was just too ginormous for agents to want to take a chance with an unpublished author), but still somewhat on the high side. (Hey, it’s called epic fantasy for a reason, dammit!) Too bad I won’t get the chance to argue that point, and bring up all the wonderful, successful, oversize books from first-time authors.
  4. They might not like the title. With agencies receiving such a staggering number of submissions, from what I’ve read, any reason will do to reduce the size of the slush pile, even if it’s something that can be changed quite trivially. Nothing I can do about it.
  5. They might not believe the author is marketable. Even if the product (the book) is considered marketable, in this day and age, authors need to be prepared to do more than just write. Media obligations, promotions, and that sort of thing, they all come later, and you can’t really tell from a submission whether the author has what it takes. But the thing they can assess is the author’s social media presence. Can they interact with their fans (once they have some), do they have a platform on which to promote their work, are they tech-savvy enough to use Twitter, Facebook, and whatnot? I think I’m actually doing ok on that one. My blog and social media accounts are purely for my “writing persona”, separate from my private life, but I think that’s ok. I have them, and I’m not afraid to use them.
  6. I might accidentally hit the pet-peeve-nerve of someone. I blame the many, many bad writers over the years for that one. They submitted their below-par work, and made the agent to whom I now want to submit not just dislike but actively hate a certain phrase or habit to a point where they’re not just against its overuse but against it appearing anywhere, ever (adverbs, anyone?). The turkey city lexicon is, to some extent, based on some of these pet peeves. Beyond what I’ve tried to do already, I can’t do much more about that one.
  7. The right person might not get to read it. By necessity, agencies can’t possibly completely read through every sample chapter of every submission and need to have ways of reducing the pile. For a submission to make it through to an offer of representation, it needs to be read and liked by a chain of people. The agents who have authority to actually make such an offer, especially in larger agencies, won’t read material unless it’s passed through the ranks of “readers” or junior agents. If anyone in that chain doesn’t like it (even though someone higher up might have), it gets rejected. Again, out of my control.
  8. The agent or reader might just not be in the right mood. Quite possible that a submission can get rejected on one day but would’ve been accepted on another day. Maybe the one they read just before was extremely bad (or extremely good), or reminded them of something, and their mind isn’t completely on what they’re reading now. Maybe it’s just before lunchtime, or they’re about to go home. Not sure how realistic this one is, hopefully it doesn’t happen often, but who knows? Beyond my control.
  9. They might not believe the story will sell. That one is such a subjective point that I would have to admit that they could be right. I’d disagree completely, of course, but I don’t have the experience in the publishing world to be able to claim I know better than… well, anyone else. I can only go by my experience as a reader, what I’d like to read, what I would buy in the bookstore. I’ll have to grind my teeth and concede, “Fair enough.”
  10. They might like it, but happen to know that the publishers they’re in contact with aren’t looking for that sort of thing right now. Ouch. But possible. The market is a fickle thing, and different things sell or don’t sell at different times, based on the whims of… who knows? That one would probably hurt the most, falling at the last hurdle.

Scary, isn’t it? I’m sure there are others I haven’t even considered, these are just the top 10 that come to mind.

Seems very unfair, seen from the angle of the authors submitting their work. Also… necessary, I suppose, seen from the agency’s point of view. They have to get through all those submissions somehow. I get that. I do.

The thing that’s hard to take is that I could fail at pretty much any of these hurdles with any given agent, and I’ll never know what it was that I should’ve done better.

So should I give up?

If everyone stopped just because the odds are daunting, humanity wouldn’t achieve much at all.

Let’s do this!

My submissions will start going out before the end of the week.

Wish me luck… (*swallows audibly*).

The Road So Far

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.)