Thursday, January 14, 2016

Remember when I said "it's the writing?" It's the writing.

Good news: I'm the concept queen. I have a spreadsheet full of high concept plots, three that I've turned into manuscripts. I can also write a mean query. As a result, I've had a phenomenal response to my queries. It's not 100% by any means, but about half the agents I query request my projects. Hooray! I'm so grateful for the opportunity.

Bad news: About half the agents I query reject my submissions. The feedback is varied, but it often points to pacing and intensity with high praise for my concepts and writing. No one has offered me to revise and resubmit, but most encourage me to submit my next project. And several have said, "I'm sure this will find representation."

My latest manuscript, which deals with a relevant topic, got an extra enthusiastic response from agents, but rejections are starting to trickle in again. I fear this one isn't going to stick either. I know my writing has improved, but I think the middle loses some momentum, and I'm not sure if everyone is sticking around for the surprise ending.

I'm reading all the books. I'm writing all the time. But I feel like I'm throwing away clever ideas with my not-there-yet writing. Should I wait to use another high concept until I've perfected the art? Should I revise this one? Am I being held to a higher standard because the concepts require flawless execution? Are my ideas bigger than my talent?

Help! I'm open to honesty and eager to improve.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to the day you add middle grade and young adult books to your list.

Ira Glass did a wonderful talk on creativity and taste and how long it takes your skill to catch up with your taste.

It sounds to me like your writing chops haven't quite caught up to your imagination yet: you've got some terrific ideas but the execution isn't there.

And it IS the writing. Concepts are great, but they're not the book. The writing is the book.

So, how to fix this?

Well, don't stop writing. That's the one sure road to make sure you never improve.

Second, get to a class, a GOOD one. One that makes you weep with despair at the end cause you're sure you're the worst writer there.

If you can't get to a class, save your money and buy a manuscript critique at any one of the many places agents offer those up: charity auctions are the big ones, but there are other places too.

You don't say how long you've been writing or what kind of feedback you're getting before you've queried.  A good crit group can be invaluable, and if you don't have one, that's another resource.

If you can't do either of those things, pick a book in your category that you LOVE. Pick one with a good concept. Then read it with your writer's eye engaged. Read it analytically. See how the author keeps the tension going.

One tactic to do this is to write the novel out yourself. Transcribe it to paper. By actually writing the words, they get into your head in a much more visceral way.

Find a good beta reader who can help you figure out why the novel isn't working because you're right: your novels aren't working.  And if neither of you can figure out why it's not working, think about whether your novel is doing anything fresh and new.  I see a lot of good concepts with good writing, but everything sounds like something I watched on TV twenty years ago.

I'm sure the writers who read this blog will have some good suggestions as well. Pay attention to what they say cause they're the ones actually in the trenches with you.

I'm just siting here, sipping a mai-tai, waiting for ya'll to send me something good to read.


Lucie Witt said...

OP: I think you will find many of us have been there. When you know you have a great idea, the requests start coming in ... followed by rejections.

QOTKU's suggestions are all great, of course. If money is an issue, I can't stress enough finding valuable critique partners. If you already have some, it might be time to mix it up. Keep your eyes peeled for "CP matchmaking" kinds of posts and contests. I found a great CP this way. The best part is you're dealing with strangers, so they aren't as inclined to be overly nice as a personal friend. You can also seek out someone who describes themselves as brutal/honest/etc.

There are also some affordable online workshops. I was able to find an excellent 5 week one for, I believe, $100 (I don't want to downplay that $100 can be a lot for many people, but comparatively it's pretty cheap for a workshop).

Of course, you might already have all this covered. Sometimes the only answer is just to stay the course and keep writing, keep trying.

We are all rooting for you :)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Opie: First off, congrats on finishing 3 novels! And receiving requests for your manuscript. Wow. I admire your tenacity, drive, passion.

I am working on my first novel. Still. I keep reading craft books to learn more about pacing, tension. I keep outlining, rewriting my query, and discover yet another plot hole. I have crit partners who want more of my characters on the pages--their motivations, their thoughts, their feelings.

You mention that your middle loses momentum. Pay attention to your gut instincts.

So...yeah. What Janet says. What the folks here in the comments say.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Over my word count today, hope this helps.

Late ‘80s, while I waited for my toddler and new baby to wake up and entertain me, I wrote an op-ed I thought was just okay. Never been published, I lived the dream. I sent it to a newspaper op-ed editor I had taken an adult-ed writing class from, he requested a rewrite, which I did.

He loved it.

I had finally figured out what they wanted. That acceptance had me submitting to another, even larger, newspaper. On the same day in August of 1987 my two op-eds (different subjects) filled white space in the state’s two biggest dailies. I was the most famous person I knew, still am. (Shows how dynamic my life is.) I’ve had hundreds and hundreds of bylines, since first figuring it out.

My point.
Write until you figure out exactly what it is they want. Then carry on.
I’m doing that with fiction now and as yet, I haven’t figured it out. But, thanks to a kick in the butt from fellow Reider Donna, I haven’t given up…yet.

Today, as should you, I carry on.

Amanda Capper said...

No doubt you have a website, OP. A blog? Review books by established authors on your blog, and review new authors. Be fair and honest, but most of all, be thorough. What kept you reading. What bored you. What did you think of the characters. This is free and I firmly believe in order to improve your writing, you should read. A lot. And use your writer's eye.

For a little bit of money, join a critique group. I'm in the process of joining one organized by Sisters in Crime (is there a Brothers in Crime?), and I'm looking forward to reading others' work as well as having a deadline to get my work read.

I need deadlines. Know thyself. It sounds like you already do, that you might have a notion of your weak spot. Zero in and attack.

nightsmusic said...

Sometimes, it's the POV that's holding you back. Take a scene and write it in a different POV. Let the character take you through it. You might find the pacing changes, the excitement grows, the story fills in more. Pacing and intensity change dramatically with POV. What might be exciting for one character isn't for the other involved. The wrong POV can make a huge difference. You can have brilliant writing abilities, but if your characters don't touch anyone, that's a huge drawback.

I agree with QOTKU in that you should take a book you really love and write it out. Do it longhand. Don't type it. You'll find those aha areas that make you take notice and you'll figure out why. It's a great exercise.

Good luck! Sounds like you're almost there.

BJ Muntain said...

Many writers have said that you have to write to get better at writing. Some have said 'write a million words', others just to keep writing.

One way to do this is to write short stories. This way, as you're improving, you're also seeing some progress. "Yay! I'm done this story and it's better than the last one!"

Granted, short stories take a definite skill set, in some ways different than novels, but writing short stories can help in a lot of ways. You can see the plot better - there's fewer subplots, if any; there's fewer words, so you can see your beginning, middle, and end. You'll get a feel for how a plot needs to work. And because you have so few words to work with, you'll learn how to choose the words that work best.

Short story writing isn't for everyone, but it's one way to train your writing chops.

There's also some very good books that can help you with plot. Check out James Scott Bell's and Donald Maass's books and find one that's right for you. If money's an object you might find them in your library or order them on interlibrary loan (if you don't know how that works, ask your librarian).

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Well, Ms. Reid, you don't want what I've currently got finished, and I think several of us are in that boat, so I hope your Mai-Tai has unlimited refills. And cabana people.

I like the suggestion to read a book you like, a good book, with a critical eye. Sometimes I do that unintentionally, but that happens in two ways. Sometimes, it's because I'm jarred from the narrative and feel the author made a mistake. Other times, I notice something particularly good or clever, and intellectually I know that it's manipulating me as the reader, but it's so damn good. I had moments like that this week reading WAKE OF VULTURES by Lila Bowen. The good moments, that is. I had bad moments like this reading SLADE HOUSE by David Mitchell (these are my two completed books so far of 2016)

Lennon Faris said...

I had (and still am working on) that same issue of pacing.

I once read the advice to print out your story, leaving a little room in the margins. Then go through each section and make sure that every single section moves the plot. Mark the plot points in the margin. If you get to a long blank space, that's an issue.

And one more idea that may or may not be an issue for you: I think nightsmusic had a great point - even if I am reading a really intriguing book, if I don't feel a connection to the character(s), I let the book sit on my nightstand. It might be worthwhile (if you haven't already, since it sounds like you are good at concepts) to map out character sheets. Make sure you know them like you know your best friend: what they wear, what kind of bad habits they have, what music they listen to, what they think about faith, what scares them, what their favorite candy is, what annoys them, and what thrills them, etc. You don't have to put it all in there, of course, but sometimes seeing a couple of those details in the story can bring really breathe life into a character. You want your reader to be unable to get your characters out of their head!

Best of luck! If you can write a concise, intriguing query letter, I am certain you can put those same skills into your writing.

Adib Khorram said...

Janet has given the advice to write out a great book before (I believe in several places on Query Shark) and I have to say it is the single greatest piece of writing advice I have ever heard. Well, second greatest. I suppose the greatest is "Read Janet Reid's blog."

Anyway, I've written out two books now (typed, not handwritten, but I will have to try that next time) and I felt like I grew tremendously from the experience. I kept making notes to myself about how the author was accomplishing things, great phrases, the way their voice came through. It was enlightening and invigorating.

10/10 would recommend to a friend.

Cate Morgan said...

If pacing is a problem, and you're writing fiction, then I highly recommend you get comfy with story structure. Yes, even if you're a dyed-in-the-gills pantser. Story structure is the underlying scaffolding upon which all else hangs, and is therefore absolutely necessary, especially for pacing and tension. Hope this helps, and good luck!

Steve Forti said...

I think Janet has some solid suggestions here. I'd like to echo BJ Muntain's comments about writing some short stories. Flash would be my recommendation (thinking 1,000 word range). But make sure you have a hard word count cap to force you to revise to fit it. I've found it has helped me tremendously.

It's the same help that these 100 word contests provide. You learn how to be concise, how to make every word matter. That sentence you thought was great and descriptive? Well, now you need to pare it down by five words, so you trim the excess description, use more powerful verbs. Suddenly your writing is more crisp, there's less filler. You can better see which pieces are essential to move the plot and pace forward, and which are just thoughts you wanted to include but aren't helpful.

After focusing on short stuff, I look back at my first novel and cringe at the writing. Then I look at my second and think "definitely better than the first, but wow, I would never have written like that today." You'll see where you've improved and can fix old writing without even realizing it's happening until reflection.

Colin Smith said...

I'm woefully unqualified to offer advice here since I've had about the same success rate with novels as you have, Opie. Except my queries didn't generate as many requests, even though I thought they were pretty good. I daresay the novels were at fault. Anyway, where I relate to what you say is in the feedback I got from my betas and the few agents who responded. They all faulted my character engagement and story structure. What am I doing to resolve this? Obviously, keep writing. But, as Janet suggested, I'm also reading more critically, looking for tips on how to keep the pace moving along, how to make characters more engaging. Think of your favorite page-turners and re-read them with an eye to what makes them page-turny. Likewise your favorite characters--what makes you engage with them so much?

So, my advice (for what it's worth): what Janet said (obviously), and focus your fiction reading and craft reading on structure. Maybe the SAVE THE CAT books by Blake Snyder will help? If your novel suffers from a saggy middle (as do I), maybe consider more chapter breaks, forcing yourself to come up with a cliff-hanger for each one. The cliff-hanger doesn't have to be life-or-death, it just needs to be suspensful enough to make the reader say, "Oh, go on--just one more chapter." If you get the reader invested in your MC, then some minor hiccup in his/her life could be sufficient to keep the reader engaged during that middle point. As Chantelle Aimee Osman pointed out in one of the Bouchercon talks I attended, conflict keeps the readers attention and keeps the story moving. Have as much conflict as you can, whether it’s a fist fight, or a misspelled name on the Starbucks cup, or a burned tongue. (I just lifted that directly from my notes on her talk.) Just a suggestion.

All the best to you, Opie. I'm in the trench with you. And when you've found a way out, throw a rope for the rest of us! :)

Heck, I'm going to risk Carkoon and break my rule for Opie's sake. Here's a link to my Bouchercon Day 1 article with all my notes on Chantelle's talk. It was the first one I went to, and one of the best. It spoke to me, and it might help you, Opie. Here it is. Scroll down to the bold heading "50 Editing Mistakes Authors Make".

RS McCoy said...

I recently picked up Spellbinding Sentences by Barbara Baig (at the recommendation of the queen shark herself) and it has me taking notes, highlighting, and facepalming with every turn of the page. I've read LOTS of books about the craft of writing, but this one is different in both its execution and end result. I'm reading in a different way, thinking about the words differently, and carrying those changes in thought to my writing. I HIGHLY recommend it!

P.S. I, too, have a completed manuscript the shark wouldn't like (science fiction). Sad face.

Kitty said...

...pick a book in your category that you LOVE. Pick one with a good concept. Then read it with your writer's eye engaged. Read it analytically. See how the author keeps the tension going.

I've never read a book that didn't have a least one place that lagged somewhat or even bordered on boring. So when you read that book, decide if that part is relevant to the story, and if so, how you'd rewrite it.

Btw, the video message was great but the visuals were horrible. I had to look away and listen because all that motion obliterated the message for me. Just give me the message and forget the creativity, because the message was the important part.

Angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

OP, congratulations on the requests and the agents asking to see the next work. Though you are receiving rejections after fulls are read you are on a good path because you are questioning yourself.

Writing is my hobby, I think about it first thing in the morning, in the middle of the night when I wake and cannot sleep and when I fall asleep. I don't know if I'll ever get published but I write everyday. I take classes and read constantly.

That video is fantastic because it says you have to produce a huge volume of work before your craft reaches your ambitions. I know my writing is not on par with my ambitions. I know because I've made a living as a painter for over 30 years. For the last 20 years I've painted and sold over 200 paintings, each year. When I look back at the paintings I did ten years ago I'm often embarrassed at the lack of craft. I'm self taught but I had some amazing mentors.

Keep writing and like Janet said find a class that makes you weep or a mentor who makes you furious. BJ suggested Donald Maas' books. The Fire in Fiction talks lots about tension and those sagging middles.

I know I'm over 100 words and this is off topic, but today I received a weird email from someone I don't know. They want to couch surf at my place in exchange for modeling nude and house cleaning so they can observe how I work.

S.P.Bowers said...

Pacing and increasing tension are issues I, also, struggle with. Good beta readers are worth their weight in gold. If your beta readers aren't helping with the sagging middle, then find some who can.

Also, Barbara Rogan's online workshops (one good scene and next level) are brilliant. They're about 3 moths long. Think a semester long class. They do cost (around $700-$800 if I recall) But they are amazing and I never regretted paying that much. Totally worth it for what I learned and how I improved. I still pull out her lessons and use them.

Colin Smith said...

And while we're talking about words mattering: when you say you have a manuscript Janet "wouldn't like" or "doesn't want" *eyes RS, Jennifer R* what you mean is you have a ms Janet wouldn't normally represent. She may love it. Some of her clients write stuff that ride a fine line between (and even across) sci-fi and suspense. Have you read THE BREACH by Patrick Lee (nytba)? Be Bold. If it's a great story, query her regardless of genre. She may end up requesting. And even if she reads the novel and says, "Sorry, I loved this but I wouldn't know where to begin representing it," you would have at least given her some hours of pleasure with your work. :)

Richard Brune said...

God, I'm a lurker.The worst kind. A nerdish observer. But yet, I feel I know all of you by name. Had to comment. Telling a story, after you got the idea, is pure craft. After 20 odd (I think) novels, Lee Child still astonishes me. The way he crafts suspense - he has SUCH a finely tuned ear for it. And every novel, regardless of genre, at the end of the day, is about suspense. I think. And THAT is where it starts. Getting to a place where you can see the structure of a good story, how a writer plays the waiting game, and having the ear to tell your own story honestly, while doing the same. There is really only one recipe. Look at EVERY page. Make sure the reader turns it when he/she is done. Repeat. I'm only scratching the surface, but I'm sure many great writers, past and present will say the same thing - I'm only scratching the surface today. The depth of this art/craft thing is a never-ending learning curve. Great news is, though, that the learning, is reading. That's homework I can stomach. Remember, as writers, we're all in the same boat. :) Oh yes, as writers we always feel this clever idea is the last one we'll ever have. Trust me, it's not. You're a writer. You're a walking clever idea.

RS McCoy said...

Colin, you read my mind. I, in fact, just returned to catch up on comments after querying the grand shark duchess. After all, science fiction and mai tais are the perfect pair.

Anonymous said...

Echoing Colin in that I'm probably not the best person to get advice from, as I haven't solved that problem myself. Plot is a major weakness for me. What I've been doing is finding as many different pieces of advice as I possibly can. Personally--sorry Colin--I don't find SAVE THE CAT to be helpful. It's too strictly formulaic for me. I have a hard time agreeing with the idea that every story has the same moments in the same order, or that every story should. It's one option for a story, but not the only one.

For me, SCREENWRITING 101 by Film Crit Hulk! (the exclamation point is included, and I'm sure he'd prefer I put his name in all caps as well, too bad for him) was much more helpful. Very little in the book applies strictly to screenplays, and he breaks down flaws in the three act structure, defines what acts really are, and gives advice for approaches to building stories that don't rely on formulas.

Regardless, Opie, my advice is to find varied pieces of advice. See what clicks for you. You never know when a turn of phrase will pop out at you and knock down the walls you were beating your head against.

Susan Bonifant said...

BJM...I love your advice. Float the brilliant concept in short story form, gain some confidence, hone your writing, and then, when you've "caught up" with yourself, let the full-length games begin.

Dena Pawling said...

Find a very popular high-concept MG or YA, since this is the genre you write, and instead of [or in addition to] writing/typing the book, make a scene outline. Write every scene title on a 3x5 card or a separate sheet of paper. Something short, like Dorothy Meets Scarecrow or Snow White Finds Little Cottage. Under the scene title, note all the characters in the scene. Note the setting. Then the important part, at least for me, note (1) each character's goal in the scene, (2) the conflict, and (3) how the scene moves the plot forward [what does the reader know at the end of the scene that she didn't know at the beginning]. Once you're finished, note in bright red marker which scenes are the inciting incident, first plot point, etc.

Lay out all the cards/papers on the floor or tape them to the wall, in order. Stare at them. Make more notes.

Now do this same thing for YOUR story.

This has been really helpful for me, because I tend to write too episodic.

Congrats on how far you've come! Keep working and you'll find a home soon.

Megan V said...

This hit way too close to home. OP I've been in your boat—I'm still in it, clinging desperately to the thought of survival as the sharks ignore the chum I've spread and chow down on the boat instead.

I've also done pretty much everything the QOTKU has suggested and it's helped. A lot.

Nevertheless, I think there comes a point when you have to set aside the new ideas swimming in your head and start clearing out the grimy water clouding your older manuscripts. Work on your ability by revising your earlier manuscripts (especially after you take a class or read another book) because it will improve your craft, help you identify your weak spots, and key you in to potential revisions of the new manuscript when you start writing (as opposed to rewriting) again. Who knows? You might uncover a gem when you clean off that silt-covered pebble.

Matt Adams said...

I'm over-reaching, but I'm guessing you haven't edited enough, Opie. Or in the right way.

You can't look at editing as something you just have to get over with -- you have to look at editing as another form of creating. Editing is sculpting -- your first draft is the block of granite, and editing is where it becomes art. So you have to embrace it and look forward to the technique to make your stuff the best it can be.

This is hard for concept people, because the fun part of writing is the idea. But in order to get your writing where it needs to be, you have to read it so many times that you are past the idea and the story -- you have to get to the point where you're only focusing on the words, on each sentence to make sure it's exactly where you want it to be.

But this is hard because you have ideas in your head that you can't wait to put down on paper, and you don't want to have to slow down and put them off because God only know when they will come back again. You just have to get past that feeling and trust ideas will return, but at this very moment, the key is not the idea, but the medium you use to present them.

One of the best things I think you can do is read backwards sentence by sentence. Doing that pulls you out of the narrative and lets you focus on each word on the page. Reading out loud helps, too, but even then it's too easy to be too impressed with your ideas. I think in order to make your writing shine, you have to find a way to get yourself beyond the story.

Good luck. it may not seem that way, but to most people ideas )ideas long enough to sustain a book) are the hard part. Making the words sing well enough for the world is a matter of practice and detail, and we can all master that if we work at it.

Colin Smith said...

lucia: That's okay, and that's a fair critique. Some might find that structure helpful as a starting point, but we ultimately have to find what works for us.

S.D.King said...

Opie, I, too write Middle Grade. Glad to see another Reider in the kidlit trenches.

I am struggling with some of the same issues. I am taking a plotting class next Thursday (Jan21) from Rebecca Petruck - multiple award-winning Middle Grade author. It is a 2 1/2 hour online event which costs $95. The reviews of her classes are very positive. (full disclosure, I got the class free for being in Pitch Wars). FYI - perhaps such a class may be helpful to you, also.

Best wishes - I can only dream of having a 50% request rate!! Most of us out here are astounded by that.

stacy said...

I'm with Cate--studying story structure helps a lot, particularly in revising for pacing. There are lots of good books on the subject--the SAVE THE CAT series Colin mentioned, along with STORY by Robert McKee and THE STORY GRID by Shawn Coyne.

I hope Janet doesn't mind my hawking it, but Les Edgerton's new round of classes starts Jan 17 and has auditor openings. $50 bucks. You won't get feedback on your own work, but you will have access to works-in-progress for students and the feedback they receive. And Les is great. Honest--sometimes brutally so--but great.

stacy said...

Here's the link to Les Edgerton's site, should anyone be interested: Les Edgerton on Writing

Hope the hyperlink works. Thanks!

Robert Ceres said...

What Dena said!

And, get another beta reader. Have him/her read straight through until they want to stop, until it's not a compelling read, then provide feedback as to exactly why. Do the same for her/his book.

This has helped me in ways beyond my beta/cp finding problems. For me, becoming a beta reader for other manuscripts has been as much help as any other method for improving my writing. It's all fine and dandy to read other great books in genre, but being a beta reader has made me great at spotting weakness. Weaknesses that used to be really hard for me to spot in my own writing, until I learned to spot them in other's writing.

I've said it before, this blog resulted in my finding my very best cp. Drop me a line via my Google profile. I'll gladly volunteer to be your first beta reader in return for the same.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Colin: I participated in the last Chum Bucket with the urban fantasy Orpheus rewrite that I'm querying, and received a gracious declination and the instruction to query widely. I figured I had little to lose and everything to gain. And I continue to query widely, because what's the worst? A form R and maybe some snarky subtweeting? Whatevs.

(which is not to say Janet will snarkily subtweet, but rather that I see other agents doing so. Some whom I've stopped following on social media and will not query.)

Craig said...

Since it seems you write MG and YA with a tremendous imagination the best suggestion I have is to simplify.

It is easy to get lost in big story lines and forget little things like emotional development.

Build a synopsis and see if you can find a few things to cut down then fill it in with emotional development. Keep an eye on the tempo.

Both MG and YA are more about voice. They are both about coming of age and discovery. Leave some room for the wonder to slip in. Perhaps there are ways to break your one manuscript into a series.

When I got talked into heading toward being a writer I decided to write Sci-Fi. There was so very much that I tried to chuck into it that it collapsed under its own weight. My idea was to build the main characters with a prequel or two. That kept growing and now I finally have a starting place for it all. That start is seven possible manuscripts before that Sci-Fi story.

The SAVE THE CAT line can give some nice insights if all else fails. I suggest giving it a go first. It is easy to miss what others are trying to tell you if you aren't in the right place to listen.

Best of luck to you.

Colin Smith said...

Jennifer R: I stand, or rather sit, corrected! Well done for being brave. You too, RS! :) I just keep remembering the number of times Janet has said that while there are certain genres she's comfortable representing, she'd rather have the opportunity to pass on a great book than never see that great book because it's not what she usually represents. You never know...

Dave Rudden said...

This topic really hits home for me. I sent The Shark a query letter for one of my books a few weeks ago and am waiting to hear what she thinks. In my letter, I explain the plot and the drive for the main character in the hopes of getting her attention. The manuscript is special to me, because it is my first attempt at a full novel and sets the story line for other books that I am writing.

What is not in my query letter is how long and how much work I put into writing my manuscript. I spent years formulating this story in my head before I put the first line of the story on paper. I wrote the book while in school, working full time and trying to raise my boys. When I was about finished with the story, I realized I had made it impossible for the story to end the way I needed it to end. This led me to rewriting most of the story again to put the characters in position for the ending I wanted. After putting so much time and effort into the story, I took it personal when my beta readers found plot holes and suggested changes.

It was at this point that I wanted to quit. I would have rather been beaten unconscious with a Nerf bat then write another word.

It took a bit of soul searching, but I finally realized that they were not attacking me personally. They were trying to help me see the story from the readers point of view.

Now that I am at the point were I ready to sell my manuscript, I understand that submitting to agents is opening myself up for rejection. However I also know that an agent is going to see the story from the marketing point of view. The Shark may love my idea, but she will need to decide if she can sell it. Doesn't necessary mean my story isn't good or that I am a bad writer, it just means the market isn't there for my book.

Now it could mean my story and writing make her want to rip her eyeballs out, but I try not to think about that.

Theresa said...

I also recommend concentrating on story structure. Yesterday I watched a YouTube video chat hosted by Jennie Nash that delved into specific examples. It was just over an hour long and very informative. (I'm a very literal person, so many, many examples are essential.) Nash has developed a whole program for writers that costs $$, but it looks like she has several freebie videos online, too, if you can't afford a monetary investment. The other takeaway from the chat was how important it is for writers to have good CPs or coaches.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Well, OP, looks like you are in the same crowded boat with many of us Reiders. A great concept might win you a look, but it won't earn you a publishing contract. At least you know how to write a great query. That gives you a leg up on many writers.

You may simply have queried too soon. Most of us do that sincerely thinking our book is good to go. At least, I did that. Sigh.

As others have mentioned, I have found these flash fiction contests invaluable in helping me discern story while not wasting any words. And keep writing. If it's a story you feel strongly about, keep revising until it sings.

Use workshops, beta readers, a good editor. Have it read out loud to you. Try one of those first ten pages reviews some agencies offer. Does your story start in the right place? Write a full synopsis. That should clarify beginning, conflict, and resolution (structure) with great clarity. Our own Donna suggested that I do this first with my new book instead of waiting until the query phase. Holy guacamole is that helpful! The new book is progressing much better than all my previous works.

Twelve years ago, during early drafts of my fantasy series, I was told by several people in a workshop - amazing concept, poor execution. I had to put it aside for years and just write and write and write and read, read, read.

Now I am revising a year beyond what I thought was needed. Even after workshops, beta readers, and so many revisions, I stopped counting. It has been worth it.

It's a better book than I could have even imagined, and I still have work to do. Persistence and boldness. And listen to your potential readers. Yes, you will get bad advice but most are trying to help you do better. Don't be put off by criticism. It is part of the process. And don't be put off by revisions. That is also part of the process. And you'll find some great tools and advice here among the Reiders. This bunch won't steer you wrong. Hundreds of years of widely varied combined experience lurks here in these shark infested waters. Take advantage of it.

Randi Bacon said...

Um, yes, excuse me, tiny, unpublished voice here. I write short stories to entertain a handful of friends that claim to enjoy them. Frankly, it's their oohs and ahhs that keep me writing. So, to up my reward of people pleasing, I first submit to a non-reader. My husband does not read for pleasure but for information only. There are times I have looked up from reciting my latest masterpiece to hear, "I don't get it." Once I am able to pin point where he lost interest I go back and clarify, rewrite, make more interesting for God's sake! He's been right every time.

Colin Smith said...

Randi: My wife's my First Reader, and she gives similarly honest and valuable critiques. Likewise, she's usually right.

And I believe the majority of us here are tiny, unpublished voices--even Donna, at least until November! :) I'm glad you spoke up. Lots of tiny voices can make quite a lot of noise.

Anonymous said...

Well, OP, Colin Smith beat me to the "Save The Cat" punchline because that's what smart people do -- give good advice. :) And then a myriad of others offered up all manner of equally great advice.

Your topic really does hit on something that interests me and that I have some experience with. I've had the great fortune to read for an agent, and it's been a very enlightening experience. The more things I read, the more I start to pick out that invisisble thread that seems to connect all the books that get an offer. My experience is only limited to the one system/agent, but I'd like to propose a different thought. One of the threads I always see in good and even great books that don't get offers is this - there is no fulfilled promise.

Pretend every reader is a brand new reader. They've never read a book of yours. They haven't heard of you. They happened upon your book and decided to read a page because the cover was pretty. But overall - and invariably - they don't have even a hint of confidence that you can successfuly craft a sentence, let alone string together a plot that makes them swoon. You've now entered into an unwritten contract with this reader. The contract goes as follows - "Prove to me you're worth my time and I'll keep reading."

Often - way too often - the promise is not upheld, and the resulting reader sets the book down. It could have the best, most mind blowing, completely eviscerating ending on the planet, but zero people can get that far without the confidence that you will pull it off. That promise starts on the first page. It is renewed at the end of the first chapter. And it is etched in blood by the end of the first 50.

Read your first page. Read it as if it's someone you've never met. Read it as if there's nothing else. No option to explain how cool things get. No idea what the plot is. No background. No history. No confidence. Would you keep reading? Then repeat that with the first 10 and the first 50.

The books that make me call/text/tweet/scream/jump up and down yelling at agent to read this now, they feel visceral and give me confidence long before the last page. In fact, I'd almost say the ending is irrelevant. Becuase you can always change an ending with little effort -- after all nothing comes after it. :)

That's my long-winded two cents.

Colin Smith said...

I'm risking Carkoon again--this time to blow past the comment limit to give Mr. Schwarz a hearty AMEN! So true!! I started reading a book a few days ago by a new-to-me author. Brian, you just articulated what was going through my mind, and has been going through my mind every time I pick up to read: "Prove to me I should carry on reading." Very perceptive comment. And very helpful, I think. :)

Kate Larkindale said...

Everyone here has given such good advice. I don't feel like I have anything new to add, but just want to add my vote to the writing short stories pile. I started off writing novels with no great success. Then I joined a writing group focused on writing short stories for publication and really learned how to craft a story. After just over a year of writing and publishing short stories (over 20 published in that period), not to mention critiquing other writers' stories, I was ready to write a novel. The book I wrote at the end of that intense short story writing year was the first of mine to get any requests from agents.

Okay, so it took me another 5 years, and another 5 novels to get an agent, but no one ever said this was a quick and easy process...

Practice and good CPs are essential.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

OP, what others said, but let us remind you that you are not alone, and give you a hug (((HUG!))).

I am not a paid published literary Author, but like you, I want to be. I've attended college (changed careers each time I've gone back!) but in my lifetime, I have always written "things" :D. I've written successful Grants for various organizations, written articles to inform others of critical updates in local publications, co-authored speeches to speak before State Representatives and committees (I was a Union President and Lobbyist in a former life) and currently hold the attention of about 400 people or so for the last 5 years writing an entertaining, interactive blog (because I love to "tell" stories, jokes and take pictures :). The writing has always been there, just not in the traditional publishing format.

Like you, I am now trying to figure out how and what the big publishing world wants, but still keeping my writing voice. AND especially find where my weaknesses lie. And if I may be so bold, I think that is what you are doing. Your writing voice is there, you just need to figure out what is needed to go in the direction of the literary world. There are all sorts of solutions, and if you are persistent in growing your literary style and sense, it will happen. Like Janet Reid says, Be BOLD.

Just don't give up, and know that there is a good group to support you right here! ((((hugsbecauseimahuggerpooryou))))

Donnaeve said...

I will have to come back and read all these wonderful comments when I'm not required to rip up the roads running errands, BUT, I did want to say this to Ms. OP:

"I think the middle loses some momentum..." If you "think" this, it's likely true. I liked QOTKU's advice up and down and sideways, but mostly about taking a comp book and reading it with an editorial eye. Do this till your eyeballs bleed from the analysis of what worked for that story and how to keep your pacing/momentum up.

"Are my ideas bigger than my talent?"

That question reminds me of the gift we gave our next door neighbor's little girl. I bought this beautiful round, decorative gift box to put her present in. It was pink, with white Ho, Ho, Ho's all over the base, and then the top was sparkly white with red, green and gold glitter for words like Jingle Jangle, Santa, and Reindeer. Her eyes got SO BIG when she saw it. I got worried. I told her Dad, "I hope this isn't one of those gifts where the box out does what's inside."

She actually loved what she got - a slew of SHOPKINS. :)

But the point being...aand I hate to say it but it does sound like something's up with the writing... The wonderful responses from the queries, then requests from agents is definitely a big YAY! moment. Now you just need to get it beyond the YAY! and to the WOW! Or WHOOP!

Timothy Lowe said...

Hearing OP's question and all of these supportive yet realistic responses is daunting. Acknowledging the difficulty of the thing is an important part of coping with rejection, the dues-paying process of what we all love. When you wake up in the middle of the night and spend half the night tossing because you're suddenly sure you have to rewrite the first 100 pages of your WIP, you know you're a writer.

Everyone in this club should be proud. This is not for the faint of heart.

Andrea van der Wilt said...

I received about 60 form rejections (including no reply) and one partial request for my first novel. At first I told myself I just had to stick with the query thing. One day I would find the right agent for this novel. I was - and still am - convinced that the novel itself was good enough for publishing. I also thought that despite its length (145K for YA fantasy), it couldn't be any shorter or told any other way. I'd worked on this story for quite a few years and the way I'd written it was the only possible way in the universe. But after those 60 rejections I thought, if nobody apart from a few beta readers was interested in this story, then so be it. I was already writing my second and third novel. I had moved on.

But not quite. I couldn't let go of my characters. I thought they deserved better. And after I'd finished another draft of my second novel, it suddenly hit me. I knew I could rewrite that first novel and make it into something better, something that might not be ignored.

I haven't started rewriting it yet. I'm drastically rewriting my second novel at the moment, changing it from third to first person, changing the plot, changing characters... anything to make it memorable rather than just o.k. I ask myself if I'd have wanted my first novel as it was to be my first published novel, the novel from which the world would get to know me as a writer, and the answer is no. I can do better.

Intended moral of the story, for what it's worth, coming from someone who isn't published and not even querying anymore at the moment: it can always be better, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to make it so. Every draft contributes to the learning curve. Go back to your first manuscript in a few years. I left my first manuscript alone for a few months and it wasn't enough. I needed a few years. Oh, and read good books. Well-written books. I write fantasy but I love reading literary fiction for style, characters, symbolism, and depth. Writing classes and books about writing can only teach so much.

Joseph Snoe said...

I needed that video this week. I'm currently in one of those I can be good but it's hard and so many writers are far more accomplished than I am funks.

Heck, my writing is so bad now I couldn't even get gmail to understand I wanted to post this entry!

P.S. - I worked as a busboy at Trader Vic's while in high school. I've seen (and sampled)my share of mai tais.

Steve Forti said...

@Donnaeve - I can't even escape Shopkins on this site? Oy. My daughter has so many of those friggin things. Stepping on them has become my new unavoidable fear (replacing stepped on Legos).

John Frain said...

Kate Larkinsale,

What a wonderful and encouraging tale. Twenty published short stories in a year? That's amazing if I followed the math correctly. Heck, that's amazing if the math is off.

I salute the entire group today. Great stuff for OP and all of us.

Dave Rudden said...

The existence of Shopkins makes me glad that I have boys.

ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) said...

@Dave Rudden... you are glad that you have boys that don't like Shopkins. Haha.

Anyway, key line in the OP?
"I know my writing has improved, but I think the middle loses some momentum, and I'm not sure if everyone is sticking around for the surprise ending."

Sometimes, when we write out our questions, the answers come through in those questions.

Obviously there is the idea of subjectivity, but as someone else already mentioned, there is also the idea of agents really liking your novels, but not loving them enough to feel they can sell them or knowing they might not be successful in the current market.

However, maybe they just aren't engaged enough in the middle that loses some momentum. I might follow that instinct and start there (and remember that for the next manuscript).

And cheers to the high amount of initial positive response, but man, I can imagine the discouragement that you must be feeling, too, at being CLOSE, but not quite where you thought you'd be or wanted to be, yet.

Lucie Witt said...

happened to see a CP match thing on Twitter today if anyone is looking:

Colin Smith said...

Lucie's Lovely Link: :)

SiSi said...

So much great advice already, I don't think I have anything to say that isn't a repeat of someone else. OP, your in good hands here!

I'm still working on finishing my WIP, even though at the moment I'm fighting the idea of giving up on it and starting something new. Plot, structure and the sagging middle are always my problems--it's actually nice to hear that so many Reiders share that! Not that I'm glad others have this problem, but if you do I'm glad to hear about it.

And now I have that old song "Stuck in the Middle With You" in my head.

Karen McCoy said...

Like Opie, I'm good at coming up with concepts, and have to constantly keep improving my craft to make sure it's up to snuff. Something I'm willing to do, of course, but I'm constantly concerned that my writing doesn't measure up in the way I want it to.

Perhaps look at the protagonists in each high-concept WIP, and figure out what each one wants, and how they react and relate to the worlds you've created for them. Donald Maass had this very helpful post regarding just that.

For those wary of SAVE THE CAT, Janice Hardy has a much shorter version of the three act structure here.

I used this to roughly outline my last few projects before I wrote them. Once drafted, I looked at each chapter and did a GMC--Goal, Motivation Conflict. (GMC: Goal, Motivation, Conflict by Deborah Dixon was very helpful with this.)

Wishing you all the luck, Opie!

James Ticknor said...

I have been wondering whether or not Writer's Digest provided good critiques with their paid services. Has anyone had experience in using them?

CynthiaMc said...

I've been fortunate. I haven't sold a novel yet (it's been a while since I tried) but I always got nice letters that said "we have something close to this coming out please send us something else." I have a bit more success with newspaper columns, short stories, and magazine articles (though I took a break from all that as well).

One thing that helps me is to record what I've written and play it back while I'm driving or doing housework. Awkward dialogue, wordiness, etc. really stand out to me when I hear them.

I also will read a page or two of my stuff and then a page or two of someone I really admire. If I'm working on an opening I'll look at several openings of books I love or what's popular now.

I read an interview with Danielle Steel where she talked about having no luck with her first 6 books and how glad she was that she sent out #7.

Never give up! Never surrender!

Anonymous said...

Some great advice here already. Some of it will work for you, some won't, but give it all a try. A few additional things that have been useful for me:

I find it difficult sometimes to see what works in a really good book. I get too caught up in the story. I've learned far more while reading a truly craptastic book where it's easy to see the mistakes. And then I ask myself: am I making these mistakes? Sometimes it's just as helpful (to my ego, if nothing else) to realize that, no, I'm not. But once I see someone else doing something that doesn't work, it's easier to see when I do it.

I tend to read with a different degree of attention when I know I'm going to be giving feedback to the writer. If you don't know anyone who will let you critique their work, pick a random book in your genre and pretend that author asked for your input. And then actually do the work, write a critique saying what worked and what didn't. You'll learn to think critically. Just, you know, don't actually send it to them. That would be weird. And rude.

It's hard to give advice without reading your work, but you sound a bit impatient. I'm going to second the advice to slow down and make a few more editing passes. Great concepts may hook a reader, but compelling characters are what engage our interest and make us keep reading to see what happens to them. We want the emotional payoff, not just a surprise ending. Make sure you know what that payoff IS in your genre.

Richard Brune mentioned Lee Child and suspense and I think one of the most interesting things I've heard him say [paraphrasing here] is that at the beginning you ask a question and then don't answer it until the end. So think about what the reader wants to know in your story, why they should care.

And good luck! It sounds like you're almost there, wherever there is. It just involves a lot more work and a lot more time than most of us thought it would when we started.

Anonymous said...


We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.--Ernest Hemingway

I'm infinitely better than I was when I penned The Bard umpteen years ago. The next three were better than the previous. People say practice makes perfect, but it doesn't. Perfect practice makes perfect. If you keep practicing doing something the wrong way the only thing you'll get is faster at doing it wrong.

That's why it's so important to keep honing your craft. Janet had a list of recommended writing craft books a few weeks ago. That's a good list to print out and take a look at. I particularly like Don Maass, Gary Provost, and James Scott Bell. I probably have a hundred craft books around here somewhere. The ones I made sure got unpacked were those, my dictionaries and thesauri. Breakout Novel Workbook by Maass is coming to pieces.

Find a good critique group. I found mine on Compuserve Books and Writers Lit Forum, but there are several around. I just like B&W because interesting writing craft discussions are prone to pop up like wild mushrooms and various people from new writers to mega successful authors will get involved.

Find some good beta readers. You'll go through a passel of these before you find the keepers.

Read, always read. After you write, read. Renew your source of creativity.

Taking a class is a good idea. Two Reiders are taking a class with me right now. Some of the students are in the pits of despair. Once the smoke settles and they are out of the battle, it will start sinking in. They'll realize they aren't horrible. They'll see ways to apply things to their writing that will help them from now on.

One bit of advice. If you take a class and you decide to offer advice, do try the sandwich method. Find something that works and comment on that. Try sandwiching some potentially tough criticism between something positive. You don't have to be born gracious, but you can fake it for a little while. Sometimes being gracious is like mediocre sex, fake it even if your don't feel it.

If all you do is offer biting criticism to show off how much you know, you might make yourself feel superior, but a truly superior person is the one who lifts someone else up.

Don't give up. Most writers don't fail because they aren't talented, they fail because they aren't persistent.

Janet is write, execution is everything. There are a dozen books out there about lady bronc riders. Most of them are so bad the covers tear themselves off.

Good luck

Her Grace, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Oh, Opie, I feel you. I sooooooo feel you. I'm getting the exact same results with my current WUS on the query train. Brilliant, charming idea, but it seems I'm not executing it to its best ability. Now, it just might be this particular book, because I'm getting sales in other areas. I won't know for sure until this one comes off the query train and I throw up my next book.

Also, I second what everyone else has said. Sounds like you're at the end of your apprenticeship but haven't been able to make that jump to journeymanhood. You need personal, one-on-one dissection of your current work. A mentor, crit partners, beta readers and a class/workshop to do this for you. There is only so many craftbooks and websites we can read. Now what it sounds like you need is someone to analyse your application and offer suggestions for tweakage. You need someone to tell you what you did right, and what needs work and WHY. This is how we refine our craft.

As for your questions: But I feel like I'm throwing away clever ideas with my not-there-yet writing.

No! No, you're not. Absolutely not. Just because you've executed an idea poorly doesn't mean it's locked in stone. Goodness, no.

In my early days, I came up with a brilliant plot; I love it to bits. But I did not have the mastery of my craft back then. Wrote two-point-something books of the trilogy, then moved on to something else.

When I came back to it several years later, I realised just how bad it sucked. Made me cry.

So I threw out 200,000 words and started again.

You heard me: I threw away two hundred thousand words. Don't freak out; that wasn't a total loss. Those 200K words taught me a great deal about the craft. These words were necessary when I wrote them. But that doesn't mean I have to keep them.

I rewrote the whole trilogy, and I'm so glad I did. It's much stronger now. (Is it strong enough? We'll see. It's the book that's next for the query train.)

So... Should I wait to use another high concept until I've perfected the art? [or] Should I revise this one?

Eventually you will revise every single novel you love. That's the nature of the profession. If the concept sings to you and makes your heart swell with joy, come back to it when your skills are sharper. Don't worry that you are throwing away another high concept. You're not.

You are simply practicing your skills until you can get it right. At this point, it might not matter what you write about. You're not creating a viable product at this point. You're refining your craft. Write lots. Write everything. This is good practice.

The beautiful ideas will remain. You can always go back and rewrite them later.

Are my ideas bigger than my talent?

No. Your ideas are bigger than your current skill. Skills can change and improve. Keep at it with your ideas until your skills matches them. It happens eventually with persistence.

Meanwhile for starters, consider putting a chapter or two through an online grammar checker like Your issue might be something as simple as grammar mistakes.

Anonymous said...

I'm commenting again to offer a resource that might be helpful to this particular questioner as well as to anyone who has heard the advice to "keep editing" and are not exactly sure what the hell that means or what they're supposed to be doing.

This post from Alex Sokoloff is one of the best I've ever seen for advice about what to look at while editing. The first time (years ago) she posted this list of "Top Ten Things I Know About Editing," all the tiny lightbulbs in my brain exploded. Her entire site is full of good advice, especially about structure.

Colin Smith said...

Can I just jump on a point Heidi (Duchess of Kneale) made above? Talent and skill work together. A skilled pianist may not have talent, and a talented pianist might not be skilled. Both are tolerable to listen to. But a talented pianist who has worked and trained to become skilled is a delight to the ears.

Laura Moe said...

Here's an idea that will take time, but will also open your writing brain in unimaginable ways. Pick a novel you love, one that sold well or at least mortally well. Open a file on your computer. Retype the entire novel. Just don't try to sell it as your own( see The Words, where Bradely Cooper gets in hot water by doing this.) the act of wriing rather than just reading someone else's words gives you a blueprint for how the writer designed the structure. You will live inside his/ her syntax and diction, and grasp how he/she developed plot and character.

You may want to begin small with a short story.

Good luck!

Brittany Pickett said...

I love that. What a great example.

Brittany Pickett said...

I'm looking forward to trying my current manuscript in different POVs. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I'm late to the party with this comment, but something has been niggling at me.

"Am I being held to a higher standard because the concepts require flawless execution? Are my ideas bigger than my talent?"

The most ordinary concept can become a bestseller if the writing is gorgeous. How many times has Romeo and Juliet been rewritten? The Titanic movie has elements of it. Young, star-crossed lovers find love, but meet a tragic end.

Conversely, the most wonderful concept can be ruined with mundane writing. I have several books about the lady bronc riders that are either so romantic and idealistic to be laughable or dry as toast. They got published, so obviously someone liked them well enough to do that, but there isn't a single one that is truly interesting.

All books, regardless of concept, should be written with the idea they will be held to a high standard. As a writer, you should demand nothing less of yourself.