January 4, 2013: "Hurry Up and Wait"
A new journal entry for the new year, while a new batch of submissions fly toward their targets. Like sparrows, in a blur of tiny wings.
Moving on from the disappointment of my first round of submissions, I meticulously prepared yet another list of potential agents. Each query letter was personally crafted for every single agent. Delayed by the holidays to be sure, but this process took weeks.
For my previous submission, detailed in my September 4, 2012 journal entry below, I tried to use a free service called Agentinbox. DO NOT USE THIS SERVICE. It failed to deliver my queries and wasted a fat hump of time. For this new batch of queries, I found my targets the old fashioned way: Writer's Digest, Poets & Writers, and googling "literary fiction" with "literary agent."
I have continued to work on my query letter, soliciting advice from anyone who could read. I've worked on it for so long I don't trust my eyes any longer, but this is what I sent out:
The Object is a novel which tells one woman’s life story from fifty different points-of-view. These tales amass her portrait in a collage of overlapping contradictions, omissions and connections. Some perspectives are as intimate as your lover's scent, others are as unexpected as the strike of a rattlesnake.
Through the stages of her life, from teenaged runaway to loving mother, from world-traveling photographer to shut-in, from beloved to betrayed, from victim to savior, each chapter introduces her anew through the experience of her grandson, or a blind man in a park, or her former best friend.This novel is like a memoir written on a splintered mirror, asking the reader: what is our true life story?
If you scroll down to my previous journal entry, you'll see that it isn't terribly different from the original query. I'm sure I could make it clearer, but I don't know how. There is a limit to how many times I can rewrite three paragraphs before madness sets in.
While waiting for the last round of rejections, I started working on the screenplay adaptation of The Object. I was boostd by the successful adaptation of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. While perhaps it did not live up to its potential, and would have found greater emotional resonance if the storylines hadn't been diced up so finely, it was nevertheless a triumph of ambitious artistry, with moments of beauty. That the movie has turned the klieg lights upon David Mitchell's books is probably its most important legacy.
I just saw the Hobbit, another three hour epic (and thoroughly enjoyable -- nothing like strong source material to make a good movie). This new era of three hour run-times could be a boon to a writer like me, who revels in big, complex stories. And it should boost snack sales at the theater, which is really the point of all this anyway.
Trying to adapt The Object, which is 570 pages long, into even a three hour movie is going to be very hard work. I re-conceived my story, mapped it all out, gutted and reattached all the plot plumbing. When I adapted the first scene (the chapter "Cherub"), I found that it worked very well and that I enjoyed the process. Wonderful to see my story in an entirely new way. However, three hours to tell it properly is going to be tighter than an earthworm crawling through a keyhole.
If this book gets published and someone wants to turn it into a film project, I am going to recommend taking it to a cable channel as a series. HBO, FX and Showtime are all producing excellent shows with rabid fanbases. I have more than enough material to write one complete season. Should I just jump in? Is writing a 50-page spec pilot for a series a better use of my waiting time than cramming everything into a 180-page spec feature script?
I have also been making headway on editing the omnibus book of my father's works, Up To Your Ass in Brass. I have compiled his correspondence and satirical notes and humorous anecdotes, a veritable plethora of shibboleths. There is more of that to go, including his famed NYC restaurant list. However, the largest amount of time will be to read and write an abstract for each of his eleven published books. This project has a few years to go, but I am committed to it. When it is finished, it will be a fine thing.
What is the point of this journal entry? I guess only that I am stubborn as hell. I've done everything I could. The first submissions of 2013 are on their way.
As my father used to say of his time in the army, "Hurry up and wait."
The Object has been submitted to literary agents, and in fact has already received its first two rejections. Once I reached two hundred, I stopped counting how many rejections piled up over the last fifteen years. With a failure rate above 99.5%, one could argue that I might be in the wrong business.
But I am miserable unless I’m writing a big story. Only I can write them, and they must to be told. Without a backup plan, there is nothing to do but keep casting the net, again and again. Preparing the submissions is tedious, but waiting to hear back is the real agony.
I included fifteen agents in this first batch of submissions. The first email rejections will come almost immediately, while self-addressed stamped envelopes start trickling back in a couple weeks. Those submissions failed to get past the very first reader. In some cases, the agent may not be accepting any new submissions at all. My hope is to get out of this first round with less than five instant-bounceback rejections.
What did I submit? The heart of a fiction submission is the query letter. The point of a query is to sell the concept of my novel as well as my qualifications as an author. What the hell, here’s the basic query for The Object:
The Object is one woman’s life story, told from fifty points-of-view. Some perspectives are as intimate as a lover or rival; others are as unexpected as a houseplant or her own immune system. These narratives assemble a portrait in mosaic, a quilt of overlapping contradictions and omissions. She is approached anew each time: by a blind man in a park, a cleaning lady, or a former best friend. This novel asks, what is our true life story?
The Object is my seventh novel. My sixth, To The Last Drop (Bäuu Press, 2008), is about a modern-day water war between Texas and New Mexico. Favorably reviewed (e.g. High Times Magazine, April 2009), my book’s small publisher wasn’t able to secure wide distribution. In trying to circumvent this, I did internet, print, radio and television interviews. These are preserved on the website I created, AndrewWice.com, which has over 30,000 hits. My book cover logo sold out as stickers and t-shirts, and has been picked up by a local t-shirt/design store and is one of the briskest sellers.
I would be honored if you would read my manuscript.
I then tailored the query to each particular agent. Not only does this make the letter more personal, if I am unable to determine why an agent will be a good fit, I shouldn’t query them. At least not this early in the process.
In addition to the query, most agents request the first chapter as a writing sample. If they like my novel’s concept, the sample will give them an indication that I can pull it off. Some agents want a biographic sketch as well. If an agent is intrigued by my submission, they will request a full manuscript.
Who are the agents? A collection of longshot all-stars, up-and-coming agents at big agencies, and agents who have recently founded their own agency. There are many resources for finding agents, but they are not equal in the depth or accuracy of their information. For the first time I am trying a free electronic submission service called Agentinbox, in addition to paper queries based on uncovering the agents of contemporary authors whose work offers challenges similar to The Object.
At this point, agents are an essential part of the publishing industry. Successful agents have personal relationships with editors at different houses. Their opinions are trusted by those editors who have been singled out for the pitch. Without an agent, access to large and medium-sized publishers (of which there are fewer every day) is impossible for a fiction writer.
Beyond access, I need an agent to guide my career. I know that what talent I possess does not spill far beyond the lines of being a writer. An experienced guide in the industry, responsible for the business side, would allow me to devote my time to pure writing.
The difficulty in landing an agent is that, the old maxim goes, you can’t get published without an agent but no agent wants an unpublished writer. Five years ago I broke through this paradox when a small house published my unagented debut novel. I hope that the experience I gained in marketing To The Last Drop makes me an attractive client. In the end, they’ll make their decision based solely on whether or not they think they can sell the book. It's enlightened self-interest in a world in which book readers are quickly becoming a specialized consumer group, like model train enthusiasts.
The agent’s assistant is the first to encounter the query, and their job is to say no to everything that arrives. Only the queries which can’t be ignored get passed up to the agent. Thusfar in my career, I have not been able to craft queries that can’t be ignored. If a good agent picks me up, I'll never have endure this submission process again.
Waiting is difficult. After years of this struggle, I no longer entertain happy fantasies about agents leaping up from their desks in joy and thanks. Mine is the outlook of wary recalcitrance. Without this shell, those hundreds of form letter rejections would still be stuck in me, dangling darts of depression.
In this waiting time, I wrote an article for New Mexico Magazine about musician Joe West and the Frogville Recording Studio. Hopefully, the editors like it and I’ll get more opportunities to write about music in northern New Mexico. I’ve also started shoving around ideas for the screenplay adaptation of the Object.
Thinking about a film version of a novel which doesn’t even have an agent might be putting the cart before the horse, but I need to work on something or I go crazy. The crazy is already settling in, so I need to climb up into my writing chair. It’s also interesting to take the novel apart and put it back together again as a screenplay.
Film and novels have very different strengths. Adaptations fail when they simply try to redraft the book into a screenplay. To make a good film, the entire story needs to be built from the ground up all over again. Only in this way can it reach its potential. And so, that is where I will now sink my deep-bore attention.
I am looking forward to seeing the adaptation of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, my favorite living author. The fact that someone even attempted to film such a head-and-gut swelling, grandly sprawling, yet structurally refined, big novel gives me encouragement, down here alone in the mines.
“But writing letters by hand in the mornings when he should work or exercise, is the quickest way for a writer to destroy himself that I know.” -- Hemingway
I am certain that this applies to blogs as well. But the third draft of my novel is now in the hands of several special readers, and I must attend to other tasks in the interests of my new novel, the Object. Tasks such as writing a journal entry to bring you, dear patient one, up to date.
I started writing this book five years ago. Due to professional and personal duties, my work was interrupted. In June 2010, I finally began to work on the novel full-time. After two solid years of writing & cutting, I have a 576-page third draft.
Not only did this book take an unusually long route, its non-linear narrative imposed tremendous variability. Normally I would do research for six months, then write the first draft straight through. This book was written on a chapter-by-chapter basis (each chapter is from a different narrator’s point-of-view), and the paint on the chapter order isn’t dry, so I have not yet read the entire book straight through from beginning to end.
Which brings me to my novel’s current status. My special readers, and their beautiful fresh eyes, have the best chance of deflecting my novel towards betterment. Although I keep hinting that my curiosity is crippling, they have not volunteered much. The wee drappie o’t which has trickled down, I’ll share with you.
“Cherub” will be the new first chapter and “Prey” will move back several hundred pages, in agreement with my primordial instincts. I wanted to see if “Prey” worked as the first chapter, and have learned that it doesn’t. That alone justifies my special readers. The only other thing they’ve told me is that the book is funny.
I am not allowing myself to peek at my novel, letting it rest like a medium-rare sirloin. So at this moment in the world, only my special readers are making the book go right now. The story is only alive in their fragile eggshell minds. It’s like lending someone your bike and they ride off into the dusk and you hope they come back before you’re called in for dinner.
Their job is to find all the things wrong with the book and this should keep them busy. I already see a hole that needs filling, and am planning out a new chapter. Hopefully, I won’t have to add much content, but rather shape & refine what’s there.
The Plan: after incorporating my readers’ notes, I will write the 4th draft, its final draft before submission. With my shotgun-submission style yielding a 99% failure rate, I have found a particular literary agent who I believe will both love my book and guide my career with sagacity. I’ll be applying my new laser-submission style to this one particular agent with a query letter I hope to be able to send early this summer.
The next update, I imagine, will be after I hear the results from my readers. Stay tuned.
On a very different note, my step-grandfather Grandpa John is being buried today. He is very much the embodiment of “The Greatest Generation.” My last grandparent, I have been thinking a lot about him. They simply don’t make men like this any more. My stepbrother Josh Adler wrote a moving tribute. I quote from portions here: