Writing is a solitary, sometimes anguished-filled pursuit. You sit down, stare at the blank page, and have to figure a way to banish those demons and dark fears that show up even though no one summoned them by name. Do I really have talent, or am I just deluding myself? Why isn’t the text even remotely matching the idea I had in my head? Do I know where this story is going, or am I just hopelessly spinning in circles with one foot nailed to the floor?
The doubts can be legion, well-armed, and merciless. Whether you’re writing ornate, baroque literary fiction or a breakneck, visceral thriller, it’s going to be a slog. Sure, some magical moments, it almost seems effortless. But most days, it’s going to be a hard fought battle against those doubts, and you’re going to be fighting the good fight all by your lonesome.
But let’s say you are writing a novel, and you fully commit. You don’t allow yourself to leave the text until it’s as pristine as you can possibly make it. At long last, you emerge from your cave—pasty, exhausted, blinking at the harsh light of day, but also exhilarated. You did it. You finished your manuscript. And it’s good. Really good. You’ll have agents begging to sign you as a client, and your work will surely generate a bidding war for the ages with publishers.
And it might. It happens. And if you’re one of those meteoric talents, hats off to you. But if you go the traditional publishing route you’ll likely discover that those gatekeepers—agents, editors, marketing directors, and their overlords—don’t particularly care about how much sweat or blood you spilled, or what your anguish was like. They care about the final product. And they’re going to look at it with a fresh set of eyes and a new perspective. Where you see completion and fruition, they might see potential. That is sadly undermined by too many flaws. Or too close to another project they just picked up. Or too long. Or too short. Like doubts, the reasons they might have for passing are legion.
And, if you’re like most writers, you’ll be frustrated at the paucity of feedback you get when they reject you. More times than not, it’s a boilerplate form letter, or worse, cold silence. “But why,” you scream at the uncaring heavens, “why didn’t they LIKE it?!”
Well, they aren’t workshop members or lovers or good chums—they aren’t obligated to say, and they have enough on their plates, they probably won’t. Which is why when an agent or editor takes the time to give you some meaty feedback, you should really be open and pay attention.
When I finished my fantasy novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, I carefully researched and compiled a list of agents, crafted what I was sure was a killer query letter, and started soliciting, confident that my success was all but ordained. Of course, it didn’t turn out quite that way.
The rejection letters starting pouring in. I was braced for this. Sort of. But it still stung. And then I got my first manuscript request from Nathan Bransford (this was right before he stopped agenting to focus on his own writing career.) He was exceptionally generous with his time, and offered me some really substantial feedback about the direction he thought the manuscript should go in to be salable. While Nathan believed I was talented, and the manuscript polished, he suggested that it was being weighed down by a literary structure that muddled things and distanced the reader. That, and the manuscript was too long, nearly hitting the 200,000 word mark.
The problem was, of course, I wasn’t ready to hear any of this. This wasn’t in the grand plan. Where was the glowing praise, the universal adulation? More revisions? Seriously!? Hadn’t I revised enough already? I did make some efforts to address Nathan’s concerns, but hindered by pride and stubbornness, I only went half way, and he ultimately politely passed.
So I kept querying, sure that was an isolated response, a one-off. In the next six months, I got over 15 requests for the partial or full manuscript. Which all ultimately led to more rejection letters, most of which were perfunctory and completely unhelpful. But a handful of agents provided some brief commentary about why they were passing. And wouldn’t you know it, they largely echoed Nathan’s sentiments.
Having exhausted more than half my list of dream agents, I took a break from querying as I wrestled with the dilemma. Did I throw some blinders on, ignore the advice, and continue through the remainder of my list, sure that making large-scale changes would only compromise my vision for the book, or did I acknowledge that the common refrain in the critique might have some validity, really reevaluate the manuscript, and possibly resign myself to some serious (and torturous) revisions?
Publishing professionals aren’t always right—there are plenty of stories of agents and editors passing on a book that someone else snatches up and champions to the best seller list. They have bad days. They make mistakes. But they also aren’t professionals for nothing. And if they all seem to be saying basically the same thing. . .
The decision was incredibly difficult and involved crying into my beer more than one night, but my stubbornness ultimately gave way. I tore into the manuscript like a rabid wolverine, viciously revising style and narrative structure, gutting a huge back story that was slowing the thing down to a crawl, and ultimately ripping out 100,000 words. It was brutal, bloody, and whole villages of darlings were slaughtered in the process.
Several months later, emerging from my cave once more, I started querying again, got another batch of requests for the full manuscript, and not long after landed a wonderful agent. And not long after that, he landed a three-book deal with a publisher. (Of course, the revisions don’t end there—the publisher requested changes as well, but at least they weren’t gut-wrenching).
Writing is a solitary and sometimes lonely pursuit, and writers need to develop an ability to objectively critique their own work (which is far harder than it sounds). But sometimes, it really pays to be receptive to what other folks are telling you.
About Scourge of the Betrayer
Scourge of the BetrayerBloodsounder's Arc 1
Night Shade Books, May 2012
Hardcover and eBook, 320 pages
A gritty new fantasy saga begins . . .
Many tales are told of the Syldoon Empire and its fearsome soldiers, who are known throughout the world for their treachery and atrocities. Some say that the Syldoon eat virgins and babies--or perhaps their own mothers. Arkamondos, a bookish young scribe, suspects that the Syldoon's dire reputation may have grown in the retelling, but he's about to find out for himself.
Hired to chronicle the exploits of a band of rugged Syldoon warriors, Arki finds himself both frightened and fascinated by the men's enigmatic leader, Captain Braylar Killcoin. A secretive, mercurial figure haunted by the memories of those he's killed with his deadly flail, Braylar has already disposed of at least one impertinent scribe . . . and Arki might be next.
Archiving the mundane doings of millers and merchants was tedious, but at least it was safe. As Arki heads off on a mysterious mission into parts unknown, in the company of the coarse, bloody-minded Syldoon, he is promised a chance to finally record an historic adventure well worth the telling, but first he must survive the experience!
A gripping military fantasy in the tradition of Glen Cook, Scourge of the Betrayer explores the brutal politics of Empire--and the searing impact of violence and dark magic on a man's soul.
Royal Crown bag full of multi-sided dice? Check. Blood-red hooded cloak? Check. Annual pilgrimages to Renaissance Faires? Check. Whacking other (curiously athletic and gifted) dorks with rattan swords in the SCA? Check. Yes, I earned my badges, thank you very much.
My whole life, I’ve been fascinated by the fantastic, and of course this extended to speculative fiction of all kinds. Countless prepubescent evenings found me reading a worn, dog-eared copy of Thuvia, Maid of Mars (it sounded so much dirtier than it was!) or The Frost Giant’s Daughter (high hopes for that one too!) well past lights-out, flashlight in hand, ignoring the repeated calls to turn in. That’s as quiet and harmless a rebellion as you can have, and my parents mostly sighed and left me to it.
So, no one has ever been surprised to hear that I was working on (or at least talking about working on) some sci-fi or fantasy story or other. But it took years of flirting with various projects, flitting from one to the next without the hint of complete commitment, before I finally mastered myself enough to finish a novel. And longer still before I finished another one that was worthy of being published.
But wonders never cease. And here we are.
My debut novel, Scourge of the Betrayer, is a hard-boiled fantasy to be published by Night Shade Books in May 2012. It’s the first installment in a series called Bloodsounder’s Arc. I’m so excited I’m beginning to annoy myself. I am represented by Michael Harriot at Folio Literary Management, and couldn’t be happier. His savvy, smart advice has been invaluable on this journey. I suspect he has a secret stash of 20-siders somewhere in his desk.
I live with my lovely wife, Kris, and three daughters in a suburb west of Chicago. I am indebted to Kris in countless ways for her steadfast encouragement, support, and thick skin in dealing with a prickly, moody writer. I don’t always like living with me, but she has a choice and stays anyway.
And before you are tempted to mention it, I am fully aware that siring three daughters is certainly karmic retribution, particularly when they all transform into teenagers. I cling to the hope of discovering at least one of them reading covertly in the middle of the night. That kind of transgression I can handle.