Why I’ve gone indie, Part II

It really surprises me that so many writers are still trying to get agents in this day and age, automatically, immediately wanting traditional publishing instead of one of the many indie options now available. I can honestly say that I only spent so much time entering contests, querying, reading agent blogs, etc., because I was led to believe that was what I needed to do. For a long time, I didn’t have any real other avenues presented as viable.

As recently as a few decades ago, the typical writer didn’t have an agent. They submitted directly to editors or publishers, or published themselves. If a writer did have an agent, it wasn’t as a gatekeeper. The agent basically worked for the writer, instead of the other way around. It makes me sad to think about how many great books never would’ve been published if they’d been written in the era of the agent as gatekeeper. I can just think of the reasons agents would give for rejecting some truly classic literature.

I read some article which pointed out that a fairly recent list of the 100 greatest American novels of the 20th century had barely any books from the late Seventies/early Eighties onward. That’s about the time literary agents started gaining more prominence as gatekeepers, and writers gradually stopped being able to submit directly to editors and publishers. True, it takes some time for a book to become an established classic, but it does present a potential correlation between the rise of agents and the decline of great literature in abundance.

I’ve had some wonderful interactions with agents, in contests, behind the scenes, pitchfests, etc. I don’t want to paint them all as horrible. But it definitely seems like they’re becoming more and more obsolete, as indie publishing has become more viable and prominent. And it really doesn’t seem worth it to knock yourself out polishing a book to perfection, sending out a hundred or more queries over many years, constantly revising your queries, and have to smile and accept a parade of rejections and very disparate advice or opinions.

I’m acquainted with a lot of writers in the blogosphere who wrote their big “ZOMG I got an agent!” post quite some time ago, yet still haven’t been published. They’re made to rewrite a book for the mere sake of rewriting, might not have that particular book approved anyway, have to go on submission, and have to wait up to two years before finally getting in print. I’ve got too large of a back catalogue to be content with accepting a release date so far in future, and waiting perhaps two years between getting an agent and getting a publication date.

I’ve given up trying to figure out what exactly agents want. I’ve read so many recently-published books which go against the so-called rules and think it’s great such an old-fashioned writing style managed to get an agent. Then I happen upon books which wouldn’t have been published 30, 50, 100 years ago because they’re just not great literature. It’s not only about an agent’s personal taste, but also wanting commercial product. Funny how serious readers aren’t happy with a lot of what’s being published these days.

I feel bad for younger, newer writers who are led to believe it’s wrong to write anything above a certain length, use adverbs, directly tell the reader anything, use speaking verbs beyond “asked” or “said,” have an ensemble cast, or create slower-paced, character-driven stories over fast-paced and plot-centric. One agent blog had a query critique for a 110,000-word Civil War historical, and the agent wondered how such a sweeping story could take only 110,000 words. Someone in the comments rightly said that if the book were a more realistic saga length, it would be derided as way too long.

Just because many people these days have short attention spans doesn’t mean everyone does. I honestly don’t see anything over 100,000 words as “way too long” and in dire need of radical slashing and burning for no other reason than to make it shorter. A book of all of 300 pages is not an epic or saga.

I agree that when I was first querying, in 2000-01, one pretty much did need an agent to get noticed. But today, it’s much different. Agents seem to represent a dying breed and the status quo, as nice as some of them are.

IWSG and What’s Up Wednesday

My Horny Hump Day post is here.


The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of every month, and gives participants an opportunity to vent, share struggles and triumphs, and just commiserate in general.

I’ve finally decided indie publication is the right choice for me, and the underlying reason I passed up so many great contests and stopped querying. Something I couldn’t understand was holding me back. Sometimes your head knows something before you can admit it in your heart, and other times your heart knows something before you can get it through your head.

I’ve never been like most people, and amn’t about to start going along with the crowd now. I don’t want or need validation from some arbitrary gatekeeper. Writing isn’t a one size fits all assembly line. Creative control is very important to me. I’ll happily accept critiques and edits, but would never essentially rewrite an entire book in a style and voice that’s not mine, just to be more commercial, or take out important characters or subplots. I don’t write for people with short attention spans or trendy/commercial tastes.

I’ve given up trying to figure out what exactly agents want. Also, I’m still annoyed at how I was dogpiled by three agents in a pitchfest awhile ago, and told, based on two freaking six-line pitches, that I don’t know how to write or research historical properly, that my characters’ names weren’t accurate, that I was an ignorant idiot for saying Holland instead of The Netherlands, and that the pivotal midway point of Jakob’s story was historically inaccurate and never would’ve happened. I was also told I just inserted a romantic angle to try to make the book more YA (huh?).

The spelling Jakob actually is used in The Netherlands, though the Jacob spelling is more common. Take it up with Mike of Behind the Name if you don’t believe me. It also says in the book that his parents felt the less-common spelling gave him more personality and distinctiveness. And Katherine wouldn’t have been uncommon for a German Jewish girl born in 1930, particularly since she’s not Orthodox.

Also, there were instances of people escaping from death trains. If he’d stayed on that train, it would’ve been the same familiar Shoah story for the thousandth time, no original angle. The whole point of his character is that he wants to avenge his father’s murder and fight to free his country. The love story is also hardly conventional, given how Rachel doesn’t show up till over halfway through, doesn’t appear again until Part IV, and then is only heard from through her letters in America for the remainder of the book, after she and Jaap quickly marry while he’s still in the service.

I later found out one of these agents was involved in some rather high-profile online bullying of someone who gave a negative review to one of her clients’ books. These are not the kinds of gatekeepers I want to knock myself out to impress, though I must say I’ve had some wonderful interactions with other agents in contests, pitchfests, and e-mails.

WUW Winter

What I’m Writing

Working through edits for Jakob’s story before heading back into editing Adicia’s story. I’m painfully aware that I probably need to restyle the opening of Little Ragdoll a bit, though it’s inevitably going to be quiet and old-fashioned, given that this is a slower-paced, character-driven book with a large ensemble cast and more about growth, change, and the journey of coming of age and getting out of poverty. As I’ve said, Part IV is the most fast-paced, heavily plot-centric section, with the plots of Parts I-III being a lot slower to unfold, more peripheral to the characters’ journey and development.

What Inspires Me

Really, the fact that I’m so close to getting Little Ragdoll down to 380,000 words, after the completed first draft clocked in at 397K. It would be a bit shorter if I hadn’t written in left-handedness for 13 characters during my first round of edits awhile ago. It may very well be below 380K after I’m done with the last round of edits.

What Else I’m Up To

I’m slowly recovering from a very bad recent flare-up of my eczema. I’m also livening up my walls. Next to my poster of The Who is a still from my favourite Marx Brothers’ film, A Day at the Races, which I had in storage for awhile. I’m also getting some posters and photos from eBay, which I’ll showcase once they’re framed and in my hands.

Just a quick ROW80 Update

I’ve made some pretty good progress on Justine’s story, and decided yet again to split up what I thought was just one chapter. So now the events of what I’d planned as a Chapter 13 entitled “Crossing the Point of No Return” are going to be spread over three chapters. This works pretty well for me, since now that makes 60 chapters in the table of contents, and I’d wanted 60 to match Little Ragdoll, the first book in this contemporary historical family saga. (The second book is on hiatus.)

My main concern was that there was a lot more material than I’d envisioned to cover these few weeks leading up to Justine’s sexual debut. I’ve always been a wordy person, but even I didn’t want my chapters to be long even by my standards. The longest chapter I know I’ve written (not counting anything in my handwritten Cinnimin, where I obviously can’t count words easily) is Chapter 41, “Union with a Snake,” of my Russian novel sequel. That was a bit over 17,000 words written over about the span of three days.

So now Justine’s story is up to about 83,500 words. I’m loving the direction I’ve taken Chapter 14 in, when Justine unexpectedly gets some bad side effects during her first week on the Pill and therefore isn’t able to make out with David over the weekend at his place. Her best friend Aoife, David’s baby sister, comes over to help her out and have one of their increasingly rare girls’ nights. While David is driving back to campus to get some of Aoife’s things so she can sleep over Saturday night, the girls start talking about all sorts of girly, personal things. Justine’s sexual debut really deserves its own chapter, not coming at the tail end of an exceedingly long chapter that could be the length of a novella.

I also received a request for 50 pages from an agent who was judging a contest I recently participated in. I entered both Jakob’s story and The Very First, but I assumed she wanted Jakob’s story, based on her primary interests. It’s amazing how a couple of months away from a manuscript can enable you to make edits and rewrites, even if they’re minor and just a matter of something like taking out extra, unnecessary words to express something.

Though I’m taking my first graduate-level class this semester, a very reading-intensive class (Literature for Young Adults), I also need to make some time for querying again. I really had a special feeling when I decided to turn that long short story/piece of backstory about my established secondary character into a full-length novel. It turned out a bit longer than I’d envisioned (though 120,000 words is still really, really, really short by my standards), but it’s not excessively long for a historical. In spite of the negative reaction I got to it at an earlier pitch contest, many more people have said they really like the concept and the character.

This is obviously what I’m going to be using for GUTGAA, at least for the agent portion. I’m planning to use my Russian novel for the small press portion later on.

Writers Support 4U Progress Report and ROW80 Ninth Update

While I haven’t finished my postwar WIP as I’d hoped to by this date, I’m very close to the end and put in a ton of work over the last few days. Now that camp is over, I have so much more time to write. It’s now up to 98,000 words and on Chapter 17, “A Great Miracle Happened Here,” the penultimate chapter. Rachel is now starting active labor, and Vera will be born by the end of the chapter, on 6 April 1947, the second full day of Pesach.

Once I got through the big middle section, which I was largely filling in from scratch as I went along, I started soaring like I had during the first few chapters. Now I know exactly what to write. And since I’m such a birth junkie, I’m so in my element writing a birth chapter!

I’m also participating in Write On Con this year, after only lurking a bit last year. Even though I’m still in a minority of historical writers, I’m Magickally feeling so much more confident about still querying my non-adult books as YA. Yes, it’s not easy to find current YA historicals that are straight historical and not paranormal, fantasy, or Gossip Girl in period clothes, but they do exist. They’re being written and published, even if they don’t get as much attention as other genres. I’m finding people who have similar writing styles to mine, writing styles and subjects that are perfectly normal in the historical setting.

I also made up my mind to classify The Very First as upper MG, not lower YA or adult historical that just happens to have rather young characters. I worked too hard on the near-complete rewrite and restructuring over last year and early this year to just give up on classifying it as what it truly is. Also, what really swayed me was that the themes and focus really aren’t typical YA, and it would probably be an easier sell as MG. And though I deliberately made their ages ambiguous during the rewrite, it is known that they’re under 12.

Not only that, but now I’m looking at my first 5 pages for TVF, and thinking I really should do some more editing on them. There are still too many leftover traces of the junked Part I. I was too emotionally attached to it, and so tried to jam in as many bits and pieces as possible in the first few chapters. Now that I’ve had a little time away from my third draft, I realize these bits of dialogue and such come across as really infodumpy, and/or out of place. I won’t post my first 5 pages in the forum till I’ve cleaned them up yet again.

I haven’t been querying for too long, not only because I was so busy with camp, but also partly out of fear. I was letting trends get to me, and wondering if any agent would really want a serious historical novel for the YA crowd. But as long as I’ve been writing (28 years now, since I was 4 years old), everyone has always told me how much they love my stories and my writing style. Any agent who’d prefer a “sexy historical” like The Luxe or Gilt over something substantial, with history as more than just window-dressing, isn’t the agent for me anyway.

I didn’t learn to drive till I was 25 and didn’t get my car till a month before my 27th birthday. Why can’t I continue waiting to try to find an agent for my shorter books? I don’t want to be like Rustico in my favoritest Decameron story, shrugging his shoulders and surrendering without a battle.

Unexpected rejection

It seems like such an unfairly unequal relationship to be expected to do your homework on an agent, tailor a query letter to his or her tastes or to make some other connection as to why you’re contacting him or her, knock yourself out making your query as tight as it can be, and make the sample pages as good as possible, and then only get a form rejection that tells you absolutely nothing about why you were passed over. It especially makes no sense if you’re being rejected on something the agent has indicated s/he has an ongoing interest in.

I obviously knew what the odds are with just about any agent, but I thought I had a better chance with this particular agent whom I just got a rejection from today. When you’ve spoken about how you’re looking for historical fiction and are actually open to long, sweeping sagas instead of saying you’ll reject or laugh at something above a certain length, how can a book matching those criteria not be a good fit for your list at this time? I’m curious as to whether the included first chapter were even read, all the way through or not, since I got a form rejection and not something saying anything more personal about the included writing sample. Just that the book described doesn’t sound like a good fit for the current list.

Was it that a good half of the book isn’t set in America or another English-speaking country, and that the Russian setting and Russian names seem too foreign? Is the 1917-24 setting not considered historical enough or the era this agent is most interested in? I know books set outside of America can be a harder sell, but I’d really hoped this particular agent would at least ask for more sample pages instead of sending some form rejection. Oh well, it’s this agent’s loss.

I’m quite well aware of how I might have easier chances of finding an agent quicker were I to try querying one of my Atlantic City books. They’re all pretty short (with some exceptions) and are primarily unquestionably YA (albeit the less-trendy YA category of historical fiction). That’s a better sell than trying to pitch a sweeping historical saga or a long work of contemporary historical women’s fiction chronicling the life of a young girl from age five to twenty, and  also chronicling the growing-up of her sisters and friends. But as much as I love my Atlantic City people (my favorites from the original generation are spitfire sex addict Kit, bossy and easily-mocked Violet, my beloved Cinnimin, outspoken Elaine, and Max, a sensitive guy underneath his seemingly shallow and pompous exterior), and as much as I always enjoy writing the books, they’re just not what I want to build a literary reputation on. With perhaps the exception of Cinnimin, I never intended them as serious works of literature. They’re meant to be fun and lightweight, not what I’d consider strong debut manuscripts. There are serious issues in them (such as the European storylines following the characters who survive the Shoah and what happens to them after they leave Europe but are still scarred in ways normal people can’t understand), but they’re just books about preteen and teen characters, meant to be told one small portion at a time. Not telling the entire story over 800+ pages and deliberately creating it as a family/town saga in only one volume.

I’m going to continue trying to find an agent and pursue publication through the traditional means for now, but I’m very open to the idea of having to use a smaller publishing house or e-books for my debut. I understand there’s a prejudice against debut published writers who have very long books and books that don’t exactly fit into any of the current trends. Later, I can try again to find an agent when I’m ready to bring out my Atlantic City books and my soft sci-fi books. I know what it makes me happy to write, and I’m going to stay true to that even if it’s a longer, more uphill battle. It’s important enough to me to not compromise.

I love reading and writing extremely long books, and series books that might be short but which cover many years, feature many characters, and ultimately have multiple settings besides the original. I wouldn’t be happy chopping out huge portions of my books just to get them down to a more popular length. Writing a saga makes me happiest, as does following select sets of characters through the generations instead of constantly creating new characters for each and every book. I strongly dislike the modern trend for short books, cutting out a lot of what made so many bygone books so great, backstory, descriptive language, multiple subplots and secondary characters, extended character development, stories that couldn’t be resolved within all of 250-300 pages. I want to read and write more than just a fast-moving plot without anything slowing it down. I want to go back to the days when a book of 800 pages or more wasn’t treated like something so shocking and unusual, but rather the norm for a novel of a certain type.