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Tag: agent

The Good News

When I was young, my mother told me I’d gotten a phone call. I was whining about what terrible news it was certain to be, and she said, “How can it be good news if you don’t leave room for it to be good?”

I think of this every time I’m about to open a SASE. You know, the letter that, incredibly, some very high-end literary agents still use—no internet for them. My natural pessimism kicks in until I remember my mom, and I think, Ellen, you need to leave room for it to be good.

Today as I slit open the letter, I took it one step further. I said, whatever is in this envelope is good news. There’s lots of ways to spin this into truth, the primary one being he or she wouldn’t have been the right agent for me anyway. More importantly, it makes me read the letter looking for the good in it, which might otherwise slip by unnoticed.

I’m not going to identify the agent—she probably didn’t expect to be quoted, and I also don’t want anyone to be negative about her. To be clear, she did NOT offer representation. What she offered was hope.

She praised my characters, my writing, my keen observations, and my publishing credentials. I don’t mean to be blasé, but she is not the first agent to do so. What she did that hasn’t been done until this draft of the manuscript was to praise the storyline.

I have worked so hard on the story. I poured my heart into fixing the plot, making it work, pulling it into something desirable in a process that reminds me of my grandmother hand-pulling old-fashioned taffy, the taffy searing to the touch, Mamo working it into ropes before it cooled too much to be formed. To have someone say the narrative promises to be unique and entertaining is balm to my soul.

That’s good news.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

As It Is Written

I have failed, utterly and totally. Yet I feel irrationally exhilarated.

The agent I’ve been trying to please with a rewrite for the last year and a half (!), just sent me a final rejection, door shut, not even opened a crack. Instead of feeling stomped on, I feel relief.

This is so strange.

As a result of the revision process she triggered, I have a better manuscript. She wanted a more commercial book; I added more commercial focus by bringing the plot front and center, cutting literary flourishes, adding a “ticking clock” feature for urgency, etc. I didn’t add enough for her (or maybe subtract enough for her), but I like this version of the story. I like it a lot.

This saga could read like this:
Agent discovers stand-out writer (“gifted” “literary star” “master of detail and description”), but writer is unable to produce marketable book.
Or like this:
Agent flatters writer (“gifted” “literary star” “master of detail and description”), causing writer to strive for too long to turn a manuscript into something it was never going to be.

In all honesty, I think it’s the latter.

Either way, I sally forth to discover a new agent, carrying with me the benefit of the paces she put me through, but hoping to find an agent who reads the book as it is written and sees the beauty of the story as it is written and takes on representation of the project as it is written.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

Editing on the Moon

I gave the words a last once-over, focusing on the new scenes designed to make the novel vibrate. Scrolling, I called it finished and exported the Apple Pages document to a Word document. Hitting “Send,” I sailed Train Trip: Lucinda Mae’s Quest for Love, Honor and the Chickens to the editor.

The editor, who lives in the Pacific Northwest, is eager to get started. Ready, she says, to “focus on Lucinda,” referring to the central character. This is our second go-round of edits, the editor and me. The first edit, she instructed me to “do this.” And I did it, revising a paragraph, tweaking a scene. We are now in a place so radically different it might as well be the far side of the moon.

This round of edits was launched by a “road-map” email from an interested agent. I took the email and broke it down into bullet points. The agent wanted a better outline, deeper character development, more urgent plot, tightening of the prose. When I read the list, a friend’s comment on rhubarb pie rose into my brain: You put enough sugar on anything, it’ll taste good, but why start with a rhubarb? Which is to say, with so much work to be done, why try to repair this novel? Why not start over with something more basically, functionally sound?

The bottom line: I am forging ahead because the agent saw enough in the story to generate the road-map email. A professional, she believed the novel worth revising. Plus, she was interested. To throw the novel back in the vast, deep ocean of potential rejection when I have received the elusive nibble of personal, dedicated interest—well, that takes more faith than I possess.

So I took the novel in hand. I turned a jaundiced eye on it. I outlined plot and emotional arcs. I revised into a more traditional structure; I abandoned a tone I had once found integral. I expanded characters; I added back story; I looped around and used what was already lurking in the story, unexploited. For better or worse, there are no more loose ends in the novel, no more vignettes designed purely for fun. Everything does service to the plot. I have, against all proscriptions I’ve ever read, written a novel that parallels my short stories: you think you’re reading color or detail or comedy. But it’s more.

Now I’m hoping my upcoming experience with the editor—who intends to lead me back through much of what I’ve described above—will educate me. I’ll learn the hardscape of writing a novel. I’ll be smarter about what I’m doing.

Right now, the editor is in Seattle or Portland, reading. Me, I’m on Train 58 bound for Mississippi. Rain trickles down the window. In the passing swamp, bent knees gather around cypress trees like young ‘uns at a mother’s skirt. I wait for word on how I did.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

A Novel I Love More than Christmas

At Beth’s Bookstore, I slipped a paperback from the shelf. I read the first line. That’s how I chose a book: the first line, then the first paragraph. Sometimes if I’m unsure, I continue further down the page. Then I either buy the book or I put it back.

I’ve been burned using this method—occasionally, a book doesn’t live up to the opening—but not often. This time, “The Revolution of Little Girls,” by Blanche Mccrary Boyd, proved to be a very funny, poignant read.

After I finished reading, I went on-line to learn more about the author and the book. Because the book was published in 1991—pre-on-line dominance—the Amazon reviews were sparse. Of the 9, 3 were negative. On Goodreads, the majority were 3 or below. The novel received enthusiastic reviews when it was released; it won awards. Many on-line commenters, however, did not like its “Southernism,” its structure (“jumps around too much”), its resolution. To me, the major flaw of the novel occurred about 2/3s of the way through, when it actually became too linear, after the author had taught us to expect discreet, non-linear chapters. Still, I thought it wonderful, as so many did not.

I am so glad I had this experience. As a woman on the verge of hiring an editor to get my Southern novel into the marketplace, I needed to see the negative reviews of a novel I thought was hilarious. Earlier, in the course of evaluating potential editors, I’d looked at Amazon reviews on work they’d edited. One author in particular had screechingly negative reviews. I thought that relevant. Now I’m not so sure.

More importantly, this experience has made me comfortable with something I knew intellectually but now embrace: some will like my novel, many will not.

The main thing, therefore, is for ME to like it.

So, in choosing an editor, the determinative question is, which one will help me create a novel I love more than Christmas? Which editor can take this work—which many will not care for—and make it the best the work can be? If I accomplish that, wedging my work into the cadre of writers whom I love, appealing to the readers who like what I like, then I will have been successful.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

In filing new query letters for my short story collection, I came across an old document. The year was 2007. The list identified agents who asked for stories or the entire manuscript. There were many. I chose one.

The agent I picked was not good for me.

I piddled around with him for four years, only to ultimately part ways, my fiction unsold.

I’m not saying I made a mistake—in the interim, the cross book was published and the Door of Hope Writing Group came into being. Knowing me, neither of those things would’ve happened if I’d had a Literary Book—capital L, capital B—on the table.


Changes have occurred during these years that cause a problem, and I’m not talking about changes in the publishing world. I’m talking about changes in me.

I’ve never been a naturally competitive person. “I don’t care anything about beating those girls,” I’d say to my mother in tennis tournaments. What I liked, what got me to the finals, was the beauty of the swing, the well-placed shot . . .  the silver trophy.

Nor have I easily followed someone else’s path. I am arrogant enough to think I can do it a better way. And—here’s the real kicker—I don’t like repeating myself.

So when it comes to getting the short stories into the world, I’ve already done the “send out query letters, get an agent, jump up and down when the agent calls,” thing. That makes it boring, boring, boring.

So . . . .

How to achieve my goal—getting the stories into the world, encouraging people to experience them, maybe even inducing an aha! moment: short stories can be FUN!—while at the same time enjoying myself?

Answer: Podcasts.

Only problem: when I practice reading the stories, timing myself, I start laughing, thinking, this is the funniest story.

I gotta buck up here. Get serious.

Or not.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .



As irrefutable proof of my ingrained belief that the problem must be mine, I retained the title, description, and target audience given to me by a former agent whom an editor said was not marketing my novel correctly. That period is over.

Old Title: Trouble at Big Daddy’s Chicken Palace Emporium

New title: Don Chickote: Or the Strange Adventures of Lucinda Mae Watkins on the Train 

Old Description: a Southern “train trip” novel

New description: The daughter of a fast food chicken magnate hits the rails in a wild ride across America to restore her dead daddy’s rightful place in fried chicken lore.

Old Audience: Fannie Flagg lovers

New audience: Those who mourn the demise of “The Flight of the Conchords.” Who think Darnell was the funniest character on “My Name is Earl.” Who follow Bubbles on “Trailer Park Boys,” who sing along to Beck’s “I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me?”  Anyone who thinks the funniest movie ever made was the one where Johnny Depp wore the fake arm. Readers whose favorite hardback is, “All My Friends are Dead,” who can quote Douglas Adams by heart. Those who don’t understand when you call it “quirky”—it’s just funny.

New secondary audience: devotees of all things chicken

OK. I”m still working on it. The point is, it will be mine this time. Rise or fall, sink or swim, give or take—it will be my sensibilities. Such as they are.

here’s to creative synthesis . . .

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