A Bear and an Agent Walk into a Bar (Part 2 of 2)

So….last time, I posted about arriving at the Festival and seeing the first panel discussion.  Sometime during the panel, my sister had texted Dad and me, saying she was at the Festival.  We told her we would hook up with her after the panel and when it ended, and since there were a few hours before the next panel I wanted to see, we wandered over to the student union to meet her.

I chatted with her and my niece and nephews for a few moments before she introduced me to her friend.  Her friend – a nice woman named Kathryn – told me that she had a friend over in the Horror Writer’s Association tent, who had self-published a book and Kickstarter’d another.  She said I should go over and say hello, so I did.

Turned out to be a great move.  The author in question – John Mulhall – sat and talked to me for about twenty minutes about how he had launched his book and marketed it.  It was great information and I was happy that he was so willing to share.  In fact, the two ladies flanking him at the Horror Writers Association tent both joined in the conversation and offered tips and helpful advice.  They were both just as pleasant and friendly as could be, and I curse myself that I cannot remember their names.  I picked up John’s latest book, Dark and Broken Things.  I haven’t gotten too far into it but it’s pretty good.

I talked to John for a few moments before moving around the table and speaking to R.J. Cavender for a bit.  He’s the Editor-in-Chief over at Cutting Block Books and has been editing and promoting on the horror writing scene for some time.  Like the others at HWA, he was pleasant and helpful.  I came away from the discussions feeling pretty positive about having made some network connections.  While writing horror is not my favorite thing, I seem to sell more of it than anything else.  I wasn’t so dense, I guess I’d take the hint.

The second panel I sat on was called How to Score an Agent, which featured two literary agents (Arielle Ekstut and Michael Larsen), who, for 45 minutes, were peppered with questions from the audience.  Well, it was less than that; the moderator (who I think missed his calling as a prison warden, given his disposition) had a list of common questions that had been submitted in advance, which took up about 30 minutes. Many questions were pretty standard, such as asking what caught an agent’s eye, was it all right to deviate from the requested submission format (Arielle and Michael disagreed on that one a little), etc.  A lot of the information confirmed what I already knew.  Michael noted that agents often had two slush piles:  one for the the correct submissions and one for those that were not formatted correctly, did not give the right information, or those that did not research their agents (such as sending sci-fi to an agent seeking non-fiction).  Obviously, agents were only pulling from the former while the latter were automatic discards.  Both Michael and Arielle agreed that strong writing would always grab the attention of an agent, pretty much regardless of anything else.

I absorbed that one and leaned back in my chair.  I’ve been over some of my submissions with a fine-tooth comb.  I do everything “right.”  I give the agents that which they ask for, I format properly and research my agents quite a bit.  So why am I not getting any response?  Must be the writing.  Maybe I am just not good enough.

Well, that last thought cast a slight pall over my mood but I can’t complain.  The festival was a lot of fun and I learned a ton.  I am glad I went and plan on spending two full days there next year.

Maybe I’ll even remember to get some good pictures next time….

2014 – Year in Review and Where I Messed Up

Have you ever experienced that moment of trepidation, when a new fragment of information enters your perception, an you realize that no matter how excellent you thought you were doing, you are, in reality, fucking up quite badly?

(Muse:  Could you have worked any more commas in there?)

Maybe.  Don’t bother me.

I spent the better part of this morning reflecting on what I accomplished this year, writing-wise.  Not much, it seems.  Sure, I retired from the only career I’d had for twenty years, moved 1200 miles, dealt with a house burning down and a death in the family but that is just making excuses.  I didn’t get as much done as I wanted.  Let’s see:

– I wrote (I think) five short stories this year.  One was selected on Fantasy-Writers.org as the top entry in their monthly contest (October), and three others were well-received even though they did not win during their respective months.  Not bad but my volume needs to be higher.
– I submitted eighteen times.  With that, came one acceptance.  That’s around 5% success rate.  It’s better than zero, but still …. ouch.
– I put between 10 and 20K words into Princess of the North.  The story is shaping up nicely and I think will be a good lead-in for the series.  Still, if I am not going to write short stories, I need to get a move on with this.
– I blogged a little but not as much as I could have.

Lastly, I had my agent queries, the subject of which ties back to my opening statement.  I submitted seventeen queries to agents for Pilgrimage to Skara in 2014, from 1 Mar to the end of October.  Fourteen were rejections, with three still pending.  Of those fourteen, the last four are assumed rejections due to non-responses.

But here’s the problem.  Like any diligent writer, I toyed with my query letter again and again.  I mean, I went through countless iterations.  I scaled it down.  I added stuff back in.  I wrote a lengthy bio and took it back out.  I adopted a playful tone then straightened up.  Round and round and round, back and forth and back again.  Finally, after torturing that short letter until I thought my typing fingers would revolt, I thought I had it right.  I ran with it.

Well, the more I read, the more I realize I may not have gotten any of it correct, past spelling my name right.  I spent some time this morning reading Chuck Sambuchino’s series over on Writer’s Digest, on successful query letters.  Oy.  I think I was way off the mark.  I want to be more bothered by the advice given, as a lot of what I see the agents highlighting as “success” points are things that either wouldn’t have impacted me as a reader either way, or items I would have looked at as negatives.  (I wanted to give examples but I don’t want to call out specific authors or agents from the site.  Maybe if I can think of a generic example….)

(Muse:  Well, maybe that’s why they are agents and you aren’t.)

No doubt.  Besides, it would be the height of arrogance to discard the advice given in good faith by the agents.  After all, they are saying what influences them and makes them key in on a particular submission.  While I may not understand or agree with these choices, that’s besides the point.  If I want them to represent my work, the least I can do is pay attention to what they are telling me.  An obvious point, but someone as obtuse as me sometimes takes a while to get it.

Even with all that, this is a crushing realization, which leads to further self-questioning.  Of those fourteen agents I queried, how many might have been enthralled by my novel if I could have gotten them past that simple letter?  That question will probably haunt me for a long time, and I am sure I am only joining a host of writers with the same self-doubts.  If nothing else, this musing merely confirms to me that I have mountains to climb as a writer.  I can use the humbling.

The good news is that tomorrow starts a new year and the symbolic opportunity for a fresh start.  So … this first week of the new year, I’ll upload my plan and goals for 2015.

Thoughts on the “No-Response = No” Policy

So in following up with my last post, I read a little more about the idea that some literary agents have the posted policy that no response means an implied rejection.  I honestly don’t have any issue with this policy, as long as it is stated outright at the beginning.  One the agents I referenced did say it explicitly in their submission instructions.  I think is fair; I knew what I was getting into.  But what about when there is no policy and you just don’t hear back?  Awkward.  I am reminded of this post I made last year where the venue (for short stories) just said, “Oh yeah, if you didn’t hear back, we didn’t want you.”  In both cases, it would be nice to know that going in.

Anyway, here are some older blog posts from literary agents on the pro and con side of a no-response policy.  Makes for interesting reading.

Limbo of Agency


Pilgrimage has been out at agents for a bit now.  As is standard, I put it out to multiple agents – just as queries, mind you, since most of the agents I started with asked for samples vice the full manuscript.  I kicked it out there to see what would happen.  No expectations, just a first attempt.

Results have been mixed.  The first agent responded back with a polite rejection in 48 hours.  Fair enough.  Another responded back a few weeks later, with another declination.  One agent had a policy of “no response in two weeks means you should assume rejection.”  Again, since the standard was stated at the outset, that’s all good.  This means I have had a couple of responses which, if disappointing, were at least expected.

I also have two queries languishing.  Both had targeted response times (i.e., “we respond to queries within xx weeks”).  In both cases, I have exceeded the response times by at least 2 weeks and heard nothing.  This leads to uncertainty.  Did they receive my query?  Did they laugh and not bother to respond?  Did an intern forget to send the rejection?  Did they respond, mistype my email and assume I had received it?  Maybe they just haven’t gotten to it.  I understand that agents are busy, and that like anyone else, they don’t always meet response times.  Still, it is frustrating on the author’s end.

So I sent it out to another round of agents a week ago.  At one site, I kept getting my email kicked back, with a message stating that the agent’s server classified my submission as spam.  Even when I stripped out all attachments and went text only, same result.  I sent a very brief email to the agent (which got through), stating that I was having problems and that perhaps they were having some trouble on their end.  They responded, saying the message head been passed to their server administrator.  No further response, or invitation to re-submit my project.  Again, I get that they are busy.  Still felt like a unceremonious brush-off.

(Muse:  Are you not being oversensitive here?  You are the one trying to impress them, right?)

I dunno, I think that works both ways.  Aren’t agents supposed to put their best feet forward as well?  A good first impression should be everyone’s goal.  Perhaps I am mountain-izing my molehills and I am being over-sensitive.  I guess I just prefer the quick, terse, “No thanks,” so I can keep moving forward, instead of wondering what might be.

I read this entry on the blog Thoughts from a Literary Agent.  To sum up, it is another example of some ass-monkey making a fool of himself and torching the crap out of his career.  Ehh, as amusing as these things are, they aren’t really represenative.  But even this guy got a response.  I can’t seem to get that from all my queries and well, hell, I even followed their guidelines.

Yeah, I do scratch my head over these things.  A lot.

Ah well.

Neck Out, Ready to be Chopped

Well, I finally did it.

(Muse:  Learned to write?)

Not quite.  After finishing Pilgrimage and horsing it into a reasonable good shape, I started the submissions progress and began submitting to literary agents today.

This was a much more involved process than I would have believed.  I read an absolute ton of information on the process, polled author friends, read back over my copies of Writer’s Digest, and maybe forty or fifty examples of successful query letters.  E. L. Wagner (see links) was particularly helpful and offered up some good advice.  It’s amazing that despite all the conventional wisdom on what a query letter should look like, there are an infinite number of variables that go into it.  How do you know you gave yourself the best chance?  Hell, I have already gone back over what I sent out and started second-guessing myself.  Not that I misspelled a bunch of stuff or anything but minor stuff, like whether I should have put the word count towards the front instead of after the elevator pitch, or whether I should have said, “Dear Agent:” or “To Agent:” or “Attention Agent:”  Sounds silly but this is brought on by reading all these shades of query letters out there.  I am reminded of the old saying:  A man with one watch knows the time, but a man with two watches is never sure.  I am not sure.

I admit it:  this process left me shaking and a little nervous.  I don’t believe I was this nervous when I did my first short-story submission.  I’m not sure why.  Really What’s the worst that could happen?

(Muse:  The agents could use your letter and manuscript as an example of what not to do?  Set fire to your dreams and urinate on the ashes?)

Yeah the more I think about this, the more unsettled I am going to be.  But what’s done is done and I need to have a little optimism.  It’s the hands of fate now – fate, and some agents who I hope are having a good day and like my work.  And assuming I am offered nothing but polite rejections, this is not the end of journey for Pilgrimage.

We shall see.

Piercing the Veil

The query process is pretty important to professional submissions but it is something of a mystery to many starting (and veteran) writers.  So I always enjoy getting feedback on what the agents and publishers themselves see and – well, what they endure.

Fellow author Erik Larsen (his blog here) provided a link to a blurb by Carlie Webber of CK Webber Associates.  She reviewed 60 submissions in 60 minutes and provided feedback on each one.  I guess what shocked me about this is the sheer number of submissions that:

– did not meet the agency's genre interests
– were riddled with poor grammar
– did not describe anything about their story

Maybe a full third of the submissions never even got their sample pages read because of a very poor query letter.  That's unforgivable – not on the part of the agent but on the author.

Best efforts, people, every time.

(Muse:  That means you too, you know.)

Yes it does.