Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Two Parts of Brave

You want to be a writer. You want it a lot. There's a whole other life that keeps your attention most hours of the day but in those spare moments and snatched hours, you write.

You want to be published but you're not sure how the publishing biz works. You've heard writing conferences are a good place to learn. You've heard people talk about them on line. You've heard agents and editors complain about them.

You hear about a conference in New York. One with lots of agents. You save your money. You find someone to watch the kids. You cook up enough dinners to freeze for while you're gone, even though everyone will eat at MickeyD's anyway. You make your reservations. Maybe you've never been to New York before. Maybe you've never travelled on your own before. Maybe you've never invested this much time and money in something that's just for you.

And you come. To a conference where you don't know a single soul. You bring some of your pages. You bring all your hopes. You pray you won't get lost, or mugged or have to ride on the subway.

That's the first part of brave. It's bravery that's never mentioned and seldom rewarded. That neglect doesn't diminish the scope or value of the bravery in the slightest. What you did remains an act of singular courage.

Then you come to the conference. You sit in a circle with ten other people and three agents. Someone reads your pages out loud. It might be the first time anyone else has seen your work. It might be the first time you've heard your work read aloud. You sit and listen to your words.

Then the agents tell you what's wrong with it. They don't like anything. All they do is pick at things. Yours, everyone else's. How does a single book ever get sold if they don't like anything.
But you take notes. And you listen. Mostly in shocked silence, but you listen.

And here's where the second part of bravery comes in.
You don't collapse into tears.
You don't give up.
You go home and you look at those notes and you remember that you want to write, and you want to be published and no one, not even a snotty New York agent dressed in black is going to stand in your way.
You start in again.

You are one of the bravest people I've ever seen. Even if no one else ever knows it, you do. And don't forget for even one minute that I know it too.

Now get back to work.


Robin Lemke said...

That means a lot. Thank you!

Zany Mom said...

Next time when I meet a group of agents I'll try the pitch/pages thing.

This year I was too chicken (well, really, I'd like to not drag out the only finished novel that hides under the bed...).

I learned a lot from the agent dressed in black, even though I didn't pitch. And she's a hoot, too. :D

Christa M. Miller said...

Thanks for this. I sent the link to a friend, who is at just such a conference and feeling a bit discouraged. I'm sure your words will mean a lot to her, too.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Wow. That was me two days ago. Thanks for summing it up so well.

Mags said...

Not a bad time to read this...

Susan Adrian said...

Thanks, Janet. It does take bravery. (And thanks for acknowledging the first part, too!)

FWIW, I think it's brave to sit there as an agent and try to critique people's work--often a new, not-yet-ready writer's work--honestly without tearing it to little itsy bitsy pieces. Not all the agents try to be kind, but most that I've run across do. Thanks for that too. {s}

Gina Black said...

Thank you.

jjdebenedictis said...

As one of the people who quailed in the audience during SiWC Idol, thanks.

It takes a lot of courage to do what the lot of you did, also. Is there anything more unpredictable than a room full of writers? Brass nuts and stone ovaries, the bunch o' ya.

amanda h said...

Janet, thank you.
This pretty much sums up my experience earlier this year (esp. the cooking of dinners, but everyone ate out).
I'm going through my notes and am half-way done revising my mystery.

By the way, I love your blog, especially the way you talk about your clients. Your enthusiasm is contagious.

Lisa said...

I've lurked for months on agent blogs and this is the first post I've ever read that made me want to comment. Thank you. Thank you.

Mindy Tarquini said...

This is true. Absolutely true. said...

Aaaaaawww. You love us.

P.S. I cried the first time someone said, "this sucks," but then I discovered Miss Snark, and she took that right the hell out of me.

Heidi the Hick said...

This much!

I admit that I do not have the bravery to go to a conference. I don't know how I'd get to one in Toronto let alone New York. I will though. I have more anxiety issues to work out, but I will do it. I know I will because I had the guts to finish writing a book, more than once, and then rewrite over and over, and I've pep talked myself more than anybody else knows.

Sometimes I feel like very few people understand what it's like. Thank you so much.

Margaret Yang said...

This is amazing! I never knew that you agents felt our pain.

Let me tell you about a brave editor that I met at a conference. We were in a one-on-one pitch, which was my whole reason for attending, and this editor looked me in the eye and very kindly said "No." She didn't want to see any sample chapters and she didn't even want to hear the rest of my pitch. She could tell by the first sentence that it wasn't for her.

I was crushed. For about five seconds. Then I realized what a favor she'd done me. Some editors and agents at conferences don't want to say no to your face (it's hard!) and therefore agree to look at sample chapters they have no intention of reading. It makes the writer happy and the writer pays postage anyway, so why not?

This editor knew exactly why not. I found her the next day to tell her thank you. A sincere thank you for saying no to me. I shocked her but good!

Lauren J and Acid Art said...

Thanks for summing up the experience so nicely. And thanks for ripping my two pages to shreds. It made me really think about how to deal with the issues you raised, and find a way to address them. Will be spending the next few weeks on another round of rewrites, and am confident that my book will be better as a result.

It was a pleasure meeting the woman behind the blog.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

For the love of all that is Holy, can we PLEASE get a Nobel Prize category for blog posts so this kind of human insight can get the recognition it deserves?

Beth said...

Wait -- we were supposed to cook first?

Thanks for the kind thoughts and taking time to come and talk to us. I didn't get my pages ripped by the agent in black, but I did hear her panel. Inimitable. That's the word. Or maybe defenestration. One of those.

Many thanks.

Heidi Willis said...

Thank you. I almost cried at this. How good to have someone say that, especially when the kids and husband who really really want to be supportive but find it hard when I shut the door to write, don't. So thank you for not being the enemy.

On another note, I recently came across an author's blog where an editor wrote that an author should get an offer before getting an agent, and basically lambasted agents and all dimwitted authors who get sucked in the fantasy of representation without the cemented promise of publishing or a mile-long list of previous awards and published work. HUH???? I am becoming more convinced that less knowledge is better.... the more I learn the less I know! Could you please enlighten me on why an established editor might say this? The blog is here:

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

My writers' group focuses on the need to keep going, to continually improve, to (try to) enjoy the process even as we hope for a dream outcome. All lessons learned over time, edits, queries and the works. Ugh. Never before, though, had we considered ourselves "brave." Thank you!


Janet said...

I don't even attend conferences, and I found this moving!

Unknown said...

Janet, this makes me want to cry in a whole different way than having my pages ripped up! Like a happy crying this time! Thank you for writing it.

Meeting two dozen agents, a couple of editors, and several dozen fellow hopeful writers rockets you up the learning curve. Seriously, I learned more in two days than I had in a solid six months doing research online. There are plenty of writers who can be successful without this kind of ramped-up, flat-out, whole-hog experience, but if what you want is to be published, being able to take this kind of leap helps tremendously.

Huzzah for the agents who attend these things as well, because we descend upon them like flies on carrion. It must be terrifying to look up from the table after a panel and see the swarm approaching.

J. F. Margos said...

Thanks for great post, Janet.

Except for the kids and cooking, what Janet just wrote is me back in 2002. After many, many years of struggle, several conferences, manuscript marketplaces, and contests, and query letters, I decided to cough up major cash and go to the Maui Writer’s Conference. It’s huge and draws a lot of editors and agents.

Two important things about me - I’m a nervous flyer and I’m terrified - TERRIFIED - of deep water. No matter, I’ve wanted to be a writer my whole life. I felt as if I needed to meet agents in this atmosphere up close and personal and pitch my work. I felt it could really help my career. I wanted it bad (I still do).

So, I scraped up the money, made the plans, polished my manuscript *again*, studied all the editor/agent bios and every other bit of information the conference sent to me. With knees shaking and sure it would be my last act on this earth, I FLEW ACROSS THE BIGGEST OCEAN ON THE PLANET TO GET THERE. I had my priest throw holy water on me before I went (you think I’m kidding, but I’m not).

It’s 5 days, this conference. It’s in a beautiful locale. I NEVER SAW THE BEACH, PEOPLE. I worked my tuckus off for 5 whole days. I studied my notes and refined my pitch in my hotel room every night. I checked those editor/agent bios *again*. I WORKED. This was do or die time. I had spent all the money I could scratch together, AND I was going to have to fly back across that bloody ocean.

I cold pitched to several agents in the hallways (totally acceptable at this conference, but sometimes not at others, so don’t do it unless you know that’s okay). I also had 4 paid pitch sessions. Out of those 4, 3 agents were interested in my work. One of them I really wanted as my agent badly. We connected. She got my work. She’s a well-known agent in the business and a long-standing member of AAR.

The agent I really wanted was coming to my town for a conference in about a month and half. Was I going to be there?, she asked. Well, I was broke from going to Maui, but by God I was going to sell furniture for the entry fee to that conference in my town if I had to. So, I told her, yes I would be there. She said she would meet me there. She had my pages and we would talk at the next conference.

I looked for her at that conference in my home town and didn’t see her for the first 2 days, and then I saw her in one of the symposiums. It was an SRO crowd and she was standing against the wall. I couldn’t get into the room. Then she starts down the wall to leave the room, and I approached her as she came out. Much to my shock, she remembered me! (It had been a month and half, folks, and she had only seen me that one time in Maui, so I was thinking she totally wouldn’t remember me). She said she had been looking for me! YIKES!

She asked if I had time to talk (I tried to stay cool, but it was tough). I told her I did, and we sat and talked. As we sat down, she put a canvas tote on the table and began to pull out my pages - MY PAGES!! She had carried my pages with her from her city, and had been carrying them around with her at the conference!! She *had* been looking for me.

By this time, I was shaking. She proceeded for the next 45 minutes to tell me how much she enjoyed my work. She wanted to read the full - did I have it with me? she asked. I coolly told her I could get it to her that afternoon (it was in the trunk of my car and I didn’t think she’d remember me, much less ask for it, but I brought it - hey, I may be insecure, but I can dream).

She had a lunch appointment and had to go, but would meet me that afternoon to get the manuscript. That afternoon I gave it to her. She read it on the plane home. She called me 3 days later and offered me representation. The agent I wanted the most was offering to represent me! She’s been my agent ever since.

I’ve been published once and the book did okay. Now, I’m doing revisions on book #2 (I have a high stress, consuming full time job, so it takes a while to crank out books - like all my vacation time and every other spare hour I can scratch up). My agent still believes in me. She still says I’ll make it. I know I will, because now I believe in me, too.

Conferences can work, but you have to work at them. I worked my butt off at Maui (and for MONTHS before it). You have to persevere no matter what - and, like Janet said, you have to be brave. Even if that means that a nervous-flyer, aqua-phobic author has to get on a plane and fly over the biggest ocean in the world. It’s not a bad metaphor, either.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Don't quit? DON'T Quit? What do you mean I don't quit. I've quit dozens of times!

Pixie Warrior has been a labour of penance for some forgotten sin for two years. Early on Ann Crispin (A. C. Crispin to you Si-Fi/Fantasy people) read the first three chapters, and was blunt but helpful. It hurt. I quit for a day and then got busy rewriting them.

I got a rejection from an agent on everyone's "scam artist" and "bad boy list." Think about that! It was so bad, even a rip-off artist said no!

Parts of Pixie Warrior went through two critique groups. Along the way I found my friend Barb who's one of the world's most talented editors. She did line edits and made me think through every sentence. (She never made me feel like quitting.)

Back to critique groups, and some of the most savage comments I've ever gotten. But ... I also started collecting nice comments.

Then I started submitting. One of my first submissions made it to an agent's blog as one of the worst she'd ever seen. (Huge ol' typo/misspelling right in the middle of it.) I was crushed. Quit for half a day. Right then!

I got a pile of "not for me" rejections. Then ... I got this wonderful letter from Harlequin. It was a rejection, but after some specific comments on characterization problems, the person who wrote the rejection told me in some detail what was good about my book! I unquit!

I started getting more personal comments, some of them handwritten. Wild Rose, Baen, and some others wrote some exceptionally nice things, but they all said no.

Then I got a two and a half page letter telling me in great detail why my writing is goat fodder. I quit right then! Huffed at the letter and quit!

Barb sent me off to Juno and a few others. Juno said no only on the basis that Pixie Warrior is YA. The others never answered.

Drollerie bought it.

My writing either creates an instant fan, or people hate it. There seems to be no middle ground. I LIKE my own story. But ... I know that in its many permutations a lot of it was substandard. Icky! Between Barbara and my editor, Deena Fisher, Pixie Warrior is something I'm actually proud of, even if a significant number of those who read it are not fans of feral pixies.

Every rejection hurts. When I'm particularly sick, rejection hurts more than when I'm feeling above normal. But no matter how I'm feeling, rejection makes me feel bad. I quit. Thing is, I seem incapable of quitting permanently.

I still puzzle over the mixed reactions I get. I hope you all buy it when it's released, but I know some of you will hate it with a passion.

I write for those who say things like, "I never knew i was a fan of pixies. I am now." If you don't like it, that's okay too. I'll only be crushed if you say mean things.

Writers are destined to suffer! You all just need a pair of goats to relieve stress and make you laugh!

Rachael de Vienne,
Mommy to assorted children, goats and Pixie Warrior (Drollerie Press).

Oh, I know I keep saying "your words aren't your children ... edit!" But guess what ... in many ways they are.

Chris Eldin said...

One of the most poignant posts I've ever read.

Thank you.
From the bottom of my heart.

Debbie Barr said...


ryan field said...

Nice Post.

For all the disappointments in publishing, there is also a very decent, honest foundation. Though it takes a while to learn this, we do figure it out eventually.

The Anti-Wife said...

Thank you. Your timing is perfect.

Lynn Price said...

Bingo, Janet. Someone said that agents and editors don't want to say no to the author's face, and she's right. We hide behind our form letters, holed up in our offices - it's all very easy. But there comes a certain amount of responsibility (for me, at least) not to crush the spirit, but to encourage introspection.

Helen said...

I never thought about it that way. Hmmm. Thank you for this post. It's made me stop and think, and made my crappy day (so far) a little brighter.

Stacia said...

This is just lovely. Thank you.

The Belle in Blue said...

An agent with a heart. Who woulda thunk it?

Thank you for a beautiful post. I'll send every writer I know here to read it.

Anne-Marie said...

Timely and wonderful to read. Thank you.

Wonderwood said...

Janet, thanks for understanding.

Hey, Sha'el, you quoted me. Exactly what I said on the crapometer after reading one of your chapters. Never knew I was a fan of pixies. I'll pick up a copy of Pixie Warrior.

Morgan said...

This was quite inspiring. Thank you,

Dead Man Walking said...

Thanks Janet. Thanks J. F.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Hi, December!!

Dear Wonderwood,

Yes, you did say that. One of my first fans! How nice .... I've seen a rough of the cover art. Publisher and artist have been very nice to me and actually listened to my suggestions! I think I'm being spoiled. I really like the last version I saw. The pixie's face is appropriate, and the cover art illustrates something from the book! (Umm, I don't really have permission to do this, and I hope I'm not getting myself in trouble, but look here for the latest version of the cover art:

If you do buy Pixie Warrior, I hope you really enjoy it.

I've had to put Pixie Sword on the back burner while I work on a journal article. This is kinda make up for the last one I wrote. It was supposed to appear in a journal of church history. But it exceeded its 11,000 word length and turned into a 33,000 word little book. So the new one is make up, sorta ... But I haven't forgotten the pixies. Oh, we've got romance coming up ... Remember Anna? Such romance for Anna! Such adventure! And changes ... Anna will not leave the new story as she entered it. Can't tell you more. That would be cheating!

Janet's post ... the one we're supposed to be commenting on ... remember that one? It touched me. I take certain kinds of rejection very poorly.

I've met the "agent dressed in black" sort, though in a different context. I remember a very savage peer review from another historian. I hated his condescending attitude; I hated it that his remarks were off the mark. ... And most of all, I hated it that he was factually wrong ... Long story behind that. He was merely repeating something that made it in print in 1959. The source he was citing is still worth consulting, but in some areas it's simply wrong. ... We agreed that he is an ignorant twit, that I'm cuter than he, and that I'm right and he's wrong. I think he still has bite marks.

A peer review is not the same as approaching an agent. Agents are demiurges. Oh, true, a few of them think they're gods. They aren't. But they are a force of nature in the publishing world. There are a few who understand their position to confer a sort of theopneustos status to their word. They're mistaken. Indigestion does not produce divine breath!

Still, there are those who care about writers. People like Janet, Rachel Vater, and some others who want us to succeed. (Almost all of the agents to whom I submitted were exceptionally nice, even while saying, "NO NO NO, get lost and don't darken my door again!") Listen to everything they say. Measure it. Weigh it. Put it to the test. Have a good reason before you reject it. (Good reasons do not include "You just don't understand." They do understand.). Being rude doesn't mean they have poor judgment within the limits of their craft, only that they're rude.

Dang! I talk a lot ... It's the pixie part of me!

Okay, back to you ... Thanks for your kind words! You may eventually own the ONLY copy sold! Well, let's hope more than one sells. At least two, huh?


Lorra said...

Very nice.

Alley Splat said...

It's lovely that you notice and acknowledge such quiet heroism. Thanks.

Robin S. said...

Thank you for writing this.

Jenna said...

You're all kinds of awesome, Janet. :)

Janette Rallison said...

Wow. That really sums it up. That was me at the conference you just wrote about, only it was in Hawaii not New York and it happened nearly fifteen years ago. Now I'm published, and you know what--being critiqued doesn't get any easier. Ever.

But thanks for the kind words. It reminds me why I did all of this in the first place.

kimmi said...

This made me cry--And I never cry. Thank you, Ms Reid.


Sherry said...

I'm going to my first conference in April. I am a mother of eight. I have survived three tracheonomies, one of which was done under local while I was awake. I am scared out of my mind. Thanks for the encouragement.

Robin said...

Thanks for this post and for all the info you put out there for writers. I have learned a lot from you just from reading your blogs. I queried you at one point, and got a very polite rejection which provided excellent feedback. B/c of your feedback, I worked harder on developing a platform, rewrote my query and landed myself a great agent. LOVE reading your blogs! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Wow. Every writer should read this.

I'm going to spread the news. :)

Jenna Ryan, SelfLoveU said...


LeAnne said...

I've been a lurker of your blog for a while and I've finally decided to post. First of all, thank you. It means a lot to aspiring writers like me to see these words of encouragement. However, I have a dilemma concerning conferences.

I'm an 18 year old entering college in the fall. I live in South Carolina and there's a writer's workshop in Myrtle Beach this fall. It's on the weekend and I have just enough money to go (without much to spare), but I've never been to a conference before. Also, my manuscript isn't quite finished yet (I'm on the last leg of the thing), but I do need feedback on it. Should I go to this conference? Could I still bring pages of my manuscript even though I'm not quite done? What do I tell an agent if he/she asks to see my pages?

Shannon Duffy said...

What an awesome and inspiring post! Thank you for taking the time to write it and share.

Lynn(e) Schmidt said...

This by far is one of my all time favorite blog posts from you.
My first conference was an AWP conference in 2010 in Denver, CO. Thankfully, I had my sister and her friend with me but we still would branch off to our our pannels and listen in, reconviene, and discuss what we'd learned. (We also stayed a block away from where someone had been stabbed...which was scary).

This year, I attended the conference in D.C. I didn't even have the money to was my manager who gave me his CHANGE which funded the trip (gas money, food, and all). My friend who lived an hour away housed me after my eight hour drive. I was terrified about leaving my dog with my friend, finding parking, getting lost in the huge hotel, driving an hour, getting stuck in traffic, asking dumb questions...etc.

Even still, I went, and I met some amazing friends there (including authors who I now keep in touch with).

You're right that we don't give ourselves enough credit. The entire process is terrifying, but it needs to be done.

Be brave, indeed. Thank you for such an amazing post.

Tenisha Edwards said...

I love this post!!!

Bukash/ Lyudmyla Mayorska said...

I just registered for Backspace in November, and I am terrified. Thank you very much for this post.

natalie said...

I'm obviously, um, late to the comments here. But this post was so pretty I wanted to marry it.

As someone who is finding time after my 12 hour shifts at work to "kill my darlings" in my revision process, I really needed to hear this.

If sharks are this nice, I might have to go into one of those terrifying scuba tank things one of these days.

Anonymous said...

This...this post. Brought tears to my eyes. Its every step I will take, from the saving money, to the kids babysitter, to the bravery I will summon and carry myself to the soon to be attended conference. Thank You for telling us that you do know the road a lot of us take. You do acknowledge the passion and perseverance. You do know what we all would do to reach whatever goal we have with our writing. Thank You.