Progress Report

For the past few weeks, I didn’t get a whole lot of substantial work done on either of my WIPs. I got a lot of great progress done on my second volume about Jakob and Rachel, but then felt the spark going out. To avoid forcing it when I just wasn’t feeling it, I went back to Justine Grown Up and got a good bit of ground covered in the chapter I’d been working on when I put that project on hiatus.

During that time, I decided to split what I’d planned as one chapter into two. I just felt it would be too long of a chapter, even by my standards, and so will leave Justine’s sexual debut (on her 21st birthday), and the sexy events in the weeks leading up to it, for its own separate chapter. (As I’ve said, I HATE the archaic, sexist, heterocentric, passive, misleading term “losing your virginity,” but that’s a subject for another post.)

Now I’m back to Jakob and Rachel’s story, which I’m hoping will only take a few weeks if I really concentrate. Then back to Justine, and perhaps I’ll be free to start my third Russian novel by the fall. That’ll need all my undivided time and attention, seeing as how I’m predicting it’s going to be the longest one yet, at least 450,000 words.

I’m rather offended at the feedback I got at a contest I recently took part in, not because the agents weren’t interested in the projects, but because they insinuated that I don’t know how to write a well-researched historical. Couldn’t be further from the truth. You can’t know from a six-line pitch what the contents of a book are like and how much research and time went into creating it!

Their biggest issues seemed to be that they didn’t like my characters’ names (which I always make sure are historically and linguistically accurate; you’ll never catch me, for example, using a name like Katelyn or Caden on someone born in the 1920s!) and that it wasn’t a common occurrence to escape from a death train. Yeah, well, some people DID jump from the trains. I’ve read Shoah memoirs where that happened, and heard accounts from survivors and about survivors who witnessed that or did it themselves.

Jakob jumps because he’s determined to fight back and be master of his own destiny, just like the Maccabees, in spite of everyone around him thinking it won’t get that bad. Without his escape, and his resulting injury, the story wouldn’t be the same. That’s a pivotal event, the event that occurs at roughly the midway point, the event that helps to change his destiny. If you want to talk inaccurate depictions of the Shoah, let’s talk about Roberto Benigni’s awful Life Is Beautiful, which makes the Shoah look like Ernest Goes to a Concentration-Camp!

I always make sure I get historical details and facts right. I was rather bad at that in my earliest days, and I would never want to be thought of as someone who doesn’t do the research. It’s bad enough there have been certain YA historicals recently that read like history lite, what with characters devoid of their era’s prevailing social and moral attitudes and stories that read like Gossip Girl in period clothes. Oh well, now I know who not to query. (And btw, who cares if you use the terms Holland and The Netherlands interchangeably? Doesn’t everyone understand they’re one and the same outside of Holland? Even Dutch people themselves often say Holland when speaking English!)

As for The Very First, it is what it is, just a sweet, simple, quiet story about two young girls and the interesting cast of characters who make up their unusual neighborhood in 1938. I’ve never purported it to be anything but a quiet, more literary, story about growth, change, and development, as Sparky learns how to be an American without compromising her Judaism, and Cinni learns there’s more than one way to be a real American. And yes, Katherine might not have been a common name for a European Jewish girl in that era, but she’s, you know, GERMAN. From a place where most people felt like they were Germans first, and so had more non-religious names than people in, say, Poland or Romania.

I did get a partial request from another agent based on one of the contests I took part in recently, so it just goes to show that what some agents dismiss or misjudge can be considered worthwhile by other agents.

Other progress reports:

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.

The wrong way to reject

I got my eleventh rejection yesterday, and I thought it was worse than agencies where no response by X weeks equals rejection. “No, thank you.” That seems kind of rude, brusque, and curt, and kind of unprofessional. Even a form rejection is more professional than that, as well as rejections that still manage to be positive and encouraging. How about thanking a writer for considering you or your agency, saying not to be discouraged, that it sounds like an interesting project but just isn’t the right fit, something like that? Three words do not a professional rejection make. You’d think that after you took the time to write a nice query, including mentioning that this agent handled some of the books and writers you enjoyed when you were younger, would have warranted a more professional response than “No, thank you.” That’s the kind of thing you say to a friend when s/he asks if you’d like something to drink, or something you say to a server when s/he asks if you’d like dessert after your meal. It’s not the kind of thing you say to a writer who was interested in being represented by you. A query is supposed to be a formal, professional, mature, business letter, and a rejection letter should be the same way.

Form rejection tells me nothing

I understand that rejection isn’t personal, and why many agents use a form rejection instead of making things more specific, but it’s very frustrating to only be told someone doesn’t feel s/he’s the right agent for your book at this time. What exactly does that mean, esp. if your agency’s own website said you supposedly are interested in, say, coming of age stories, historical fiction, and strong female characters? I would love to know the specific reasons, so that I can make my query and/or manuscript stronger. Reasons such as:

1.  “Too long” by the agent’s preferred standards (at least for newbies or books for and about young people). I really do hate this modern “word count” business, since it’s automatically discounting what could be many great books that committed the crime of running over 100,000 words (or 75,000 for a young person’s book).

2.  Query not compelling enough.

3.  Agent is more interested in this overdone fad of dystopias and paranormal romances than literary fiction, family sagas, historical fiction, or love stories where people grow instead of fall in love.

4.  Doesn’t like that I write in the present tense (at least for this particular book).

5.  “Too many” characters. I’m used to books with more than a handful of main characters, and I’m also used to books featuring large families. Cutting down my protagonist’s family from nine to three or four kids might make the book shorter, but it would cut out the heart of it, and many things would make no sense if I took away some of the siblings or their friends.

6.  Too dark and depressing (although isn’t that what the overdone dystopian trend is all about?). Not all stories have a neat, easy, quick happy ending, and real life isn’t always bunnies and flowers. Life is often more like a Grimm’s fairy tale than a Disney fairy tale.

7.  Main character is too young. The whole point of the book is that she’s growing up, going from five years old in 1959 to twenty in 1974, with all of the experiences that go along with growing up and coming of age. It’s definitely not written at a child’s reading level. People who refuse to read anything just because the characters aren’t within a few years of their own age are missing out on some great literature.

8.  There’s a slow build instead of dramatic things immediately starting to happen. Part I is mostly setup of the characters and their situation, with a dramatic event happening in the final chapter of Part I. Part II is where everything really starts happening. But of course, that means having to put up with a longer book and getting to know characters before the real meat of the story takes place. If you don’t know or care about characters, what impact will it have on you when dramatic things start happening to them?

9.  Who knows, maybe the names I use aren’t trendy or cutting-edge enough. I’d rather have characters with names like Ernestine, Emeline, and Adicia than McKynzie, Rayne, and Princessabella.

10.  The time period might be considered overdone (the Sixties), or they’re more interested in historical fiction that took place longer than a few decades ago.

11.  It is entirely possible that some of these agents have no idea what I’m talking about when I say that it’s my imagined telling of the growing-up story of a little girl who could have been the one who inspired the famous Four Seasons’ song “Rag Doll.” A number of people I’ve told about this book haven’t even heard of that song, let alone the story behind it, even my own boss, who was a kid in the Sixties herself. I assumed that at least the song was well-known because it was a #1 and The Four Seasons are a pretty famous band, esp. in the last few years with the success of the show Jersey Boys. Oh well.

The world’s loudest, most painful sound

I was checking back in my “Sent” mail folder to see the dates I sent queries to various agencies, just to gauge if I’m coming closer to their average timeline for responding, and discovered that it’s been a bit over four weeks since I queried one agency that apparently only responds if they’re interested. In better news, I discovered that another agency I queried two days later happened to lose about 5,000 e-queries on that very day, and that they’re asking anyone who hasn’t heard back within two to three weeks of that day to send it again in case it was one of the ones that accidentally got deleted.

I understand that some agencies are busier or more popular than others, and that they take longer to get back to people than other agencies which are smaller or more personalized. But the least they could do is to send a polite form rejection at the end of those four weeks. Silence is the world’s saddest, loudest, most painful sound. It is the resultant sound when people fail to communicate with one another. The least one could do is acknowledge the time and effort someone put in when s/he contacted an agency, even if the query didn’t interest the agent personally. Hearing nothing back is worse than a form rejection that doesn’t give specific, concrete reasons for the lack of interest in pursuing a project. It also seems kind of rude, like you can’t take one minute out of your day to at least say “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Perhaps I scared the agent away because this was one of my earliest queries, when I was still stating the 397,000 word count instead of giving the three separate word counts of Parts I and II combined, Part III, and Part IV plus the Epilogue, which may constitute three books of a trilogy instead of one separate but very long book. I did though say I was open to breaking it into several books, and noted that I’d seen that one of her interests was a series for young adults, not featuring the ubiquitous Vampyre trend. Oh well. I’m never gonna apologize for being a wordy writer when I need to be, since a book should be as long as it needs to be to tell a story properly all of the way through. Some books only need 150-300 pages; other books need 500-700 pages; and still other books are so epic they need up to a thousand pages or more. This means I’ve got six rejections down, with seven more responses to go from this first batch of queries (which I didn’t all send out on the same day; I’ve been sending them out over the course of about a month).

I’m certainly not expecting a personalized response when I’m a complete stranger to an agent and s/he hasn’t even taken the step of requesting a partial or full, but at least it’s basic good manners and politeness to let one know one has been declined as a potential client. Answering back with only silence is worse, no matter how busy you are. It’s a common courtesy, not a huge inconvenience in your busy day.