I hate name-droppers, mostly because I never get to be one. But I used to live in the same building with Marti Noxon. She even came over a few times just to hang out.
At the time it looked as if our careers were headed in the desired directions. I started selling short vampire fiction right about the time she got her job with Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But selling a few stories, even to well-reviewed anthologies, isn't exactly earth-shattering. I wasn't jealous of Marti's new job. I didn't want to write for TV. I wanted to write novels. Actually, I was already writing them. Now I wanted to sell them. And I kept sending them out, and they kept coming back.
Marti was more than nice about it when I groused. She was encouraging in a way that only those in the field can be. "Already, you've done a lot more than plenty of people have," she said.
I thought she meant the writing itself, but she was talking about the fact that I was actually mailing my work out. "Anybody can do that," I said.
"But how many people actually do?" she asked.
Lots, I assumed. Marti disagreed. She told me about a friend of hers whose idea of writing was talk with occasional typing. Submitting his work to an actual editor? Forget it.
That gave me a boost. If success really was mostly about showing up, maybe I had a chance.
This was almost fifteen years ago. Let the record state that I am deeply grateful that none of the novels I duly submitted to every publisher I could find was accepted, because these novels were very bad. I had some talent and some good ideas, but they were buried under adverbs, arrogance, pretentiousness, and a blissful ignorance of the fact that a novel is not an episode of 24. Turns out, not only is the writer allowed to fast-forward through whole minutes -- days, even! -- of her protagonist's existence; she's required to for the sake of her readers' sanity.
I made pretty much every rookie mistake in the book, is what I'm saying. No brag, just fact.
I kept working. I wrote what Shirley Jackson describes as that first novel about your parents that you have to get out of the way so you can get to the good stuff. (Jackson wrote two of these, actually, and they were both pretty good. I'm not bitter. Shut up.) I wrote one novel with a premise good enough that it might be worth revisiting someday, and several more that had nothing going for them but a lot of words and a certain flair for dialogue. I wrote and I mailed and I filed my rejections and I wrote some more.
And then, just for the heck of it, I had a baby who grew into a child who I ended up homeschooling. And then his dad developed a slew of lethal adult-onset food allergies, forcing me to shift my lame cooking skills from trying to make my family happy and healthy to trying not to kill anyone at any given meal. And right around then, something clicked, writing-wise.
Maybe I finally grew up a little. Maybe all the advice I'd been hearing and reading had time to seep in. Maybe parenting was what it took to show me that I still had a lot to learn. Maybe when you have minutes instead of hours every day to write, you're willing to do whatever it takes to make those minutes worth everyone's while. Maybe the irony gods loved the idea of my being able to type some words worth writing just when I had the smallest possible amount of time each day to do so.
Whatever it took, the change was this: I stopped wanting the world to see what a great writer I was, and started wanting to do some writing good enough that people I didn't know would want to read it.
So I wrote novel number six. (After I finished the first draft, I read in some writing manual that six is the lucky number. Here's hoping.) I reread and rewrote it. I got a beta-reader I could trust, and I made most of the changes he suggested. When I didn't make a suggested change, I made damned sure I understood exactly why he thought I should have done things differently. I reread and rewrote one more time. I resigned myself to the idea of being lucky enough to be asked for extensive rewrites from both an agent and an editor.
I found a great site for chatting with writers at all stages of development. There, I confirmed that my wisest course would be to seek an agent rather than submitting my work directly to editors. There weren't that many editors who'd even look at no-names like me, anyway.
So I found some sites about agents and query letters. I fell in respectful, terrified love with Janet Reid at Query Shark, and read every posting on her blog even when I realized I wouldn't be submitting a query letter to her. She told me to take notes, and I did -- handwritten, in a dedicated notebook. I dove into other sites as well. I laughed at the mistakes irate agents described (yes, there really are writers out there who will describe their submission as "a fiction novel"), and then cringed as I forced myself to admit how many of them I might have made, left to my own devices. I started to get a sense of what my own query letter might sound like.
And then I choked.
As a homeschooling parent who's the onsite manager of her apartment building and who has to do a lot of cooking from scratch, laundry, and cleaning thanks to the family's allergies, I'm chronically short of time. But I can always squeeze at least a few minutes for writing out of any given day. That's how my sixth novel got written in the first place. I have strong words to say to anyone who waits for writing time to fall into her lap. Put your claws on and tear it out of the day, and don't be afraid of a little superficial bleeding. You were going to be tired at the end of the day anyway, remember? Now you'll be tired, plus you'll have gotten some writing done.
Now I noticed that every day was bringing something with it to eat up any potential writing time. Every day brought something perfectly urgent.
But that had always been true. I'd just managed to work around it before.
I couldn't now.
I'd been doing all right when I had specific, finite assignments for myself. Read the postings on one particular site. Then read the postings on another site. Write the words "Query Hell" in a decorative new way (stripes, polka dots, lightning bolts, ironic smiley faces) on the top of each page of my special designated query letter notebook.
But then the assignment became "Write the damned query letter, already." And suddenly I was busier than I'd ever been in my life.
No. That's not quite true.
An accident happened. In the course of my research, I stumbled across the names of two agents. I wasn't even at the point where I was making a list yet. These two fell into my lap in a sadly metaphorical fashion. Both of them represented writers whose work I love so much that if it weren't for my hatred of leaving the house, my dislike of going new places, and my tendency to get lost when I do, I'd have gone stalker on them years ago.
The writers in question do exactly the kind of work I hope to do. So approaching their agents was my natural next step.
Here's the thing about agents. Go ahead and write this one down in your own designated notebook. Ready? Here it is:
They're people with names and likes and dislikes. They have great days and crappy days. They have favorite outfits and comfort clothes. They have guilty-pleasure foods. They have that one word or phrase that drives them screaming out of their minds every time they hear it.
When I was sending my work to magazine editors and publishers, it felt completely impersonal. Even when I wrote someone's name on a submission envelope, I had no reason to believe that particular person would ever read my work. I had friends who worked as professional readers, making sure the really hideous stuff -- the "fiction novels" -- didn't hurt the eyes of the people whose names actually showed up in Writer's Market. Submitting my work to a magazine or publishing house felt reassuringly abstract.
I'm 44. I've been sending out my writing since my late teens. The game has changed a lot since then. Writers and wannabe-writers used to sit around griping about the fact that we only had one minute to impress an editor with our writing. Maybe even less than a minute.
We weren't talking about our carefully crafted cover letters, either. I had friends who were editors. Many of them flipped impatiently past cover letters as a matter of course and went right to the actual writing.
I remember my husband (who is a published horror writer) telling me a horror story about an editor who talked about rejecting entire books after only reading the first couple of pages.
My God, what I wouldn't give now to be able to send my work straight to an editor and know that I had one whole minute or two whole pages to wow her with my real-live actual writing.
Instead, I'm in Query Hell. I have to write a charming damned book report -- one that's catchy (but not gimmicky) and professional (but not dull). I have to boil down my 80,000-word YA urban fantasy novel into a few succinct paragraphs that touch on the important plot points without becoming a mess of people and events -- or, just as bad, a skeleton so bleached and bare no one wants to look at it.
I have to do all this, and then I have to take the finished product and send it out to a person. One whose name I'll know and whose opinion I'll care about.
And I'll have about five seconds to get and keep her interest.
Being a writer used to feel like applying for a job at a chain coffee shop. Now it's like asking the girl behind me in line out on a date.
I used to be so inured to rejection that I kept notes on where I'd be sending each short story after it was rejected by the magazine or anthology I'd just sent it to. My goal -- one I reached more often than not -- was to kick pieces back out the same day they got rejected. That's how I managed to sell a few.
This is so much harder.
Not just the letter itself, although I will go ahead and gripe for three seconds about how unfair it is that we stupid whiney wah-wah baby fiction writers are judged by our ability to write engaging works of the most calculated nonfiction. Yes, it's a drag. It's also the way it is now. So we deal.
But this rejection is really going to hurt. It's too damned personal now. It has to be. In order to have a chance with an agent, I have to learn everything possible about what she likes (and hates) in a query letter. Does she enjoy a little sweet-talk in the first paragraph, or does she growl at anyone who doesn't cut to the chase? Is she ready to be wowed by a letter that breaks some rules, or does she hit delete the second she sees the slightest departure from the three-paragraph template? Does she love it when a query letter reads like the back cover of a mass-market paperback, or is that the kind of thing that keeps her therapist on speed-dial?
How am I supposed to not feel like a stalker at this point?
And how am I supposed to not feel rejected when after all that work and hope, someone says just-plain no to just-plain me?
I'm still going to do it. Hammer out an actual query letter and send it out. Writing this is my last stall tactic. Posting it is my way of keeping myself honest.
But if I didn't acknowledge this entirely new terror, I wouldn't be able to fight past it.
That doesn't mean I'll succeed in becoming, at long last, a real live writer.
The only guarantee is that if I don't keep going, I'll be just one more old friend of Marti Noxon's who talked a great writing talk but never had the nerve to take it any further.