New post this time, quite a bit different from what I normally write. This post is not about writing per se. It's about the submissions process. About putting your work out there, sending it off to agents, and then living in hope and fear as you wait for a response. It's about the myths and lies that authors believe about the submissions process. And mostly it's about not giving in to the dark demons that plague so many people and which can destroy an author.
Okay, submitting your work to an agent or a publisher is a difficult and sometimes harrowing process. In a very real way it's as though you are putting yourself out there, naked and in public, to be judged by others. And I would guess though as far as I know there are no statistics on it, it's the place where most authors give up and dreams die.
I can't stop that. I can't tell all you new and hopeful authors out there that you have a future. That your work is brilliant or terrible. But I can at least give you another perspective on the submissions process. A reality check if you like. And I'll do it by looking at the myths and lies that abound in people's thoughts about it. The ones that in one form or another seem to be rehashed on writing fora and elsewhere throughout the net.
So here it is - myth by myth.
Myth 1. If my work is good an agent will pick it up.
No. Absolutely do not ever believe this. This way lies the death of the soul. And it's a straight out lie. A big, fat porky. The truth is that your work might be picked up - but it is very unlikely. Agents are busy people. They are snowed under with manuscripts submitted to them. And they can only take a very few. Almost every author has a string of rejection letters for their work. I do. J.K. Rowling does. You are just one of five hundred others on their desks, and the chances are that at best they will read only a few paragraphs of your book before rejecting it.
Myth 2. If an agent doesn't pick up my book there must be a problem with it.
No! No! No! And a thousand times more, No! Do not ever assume this. We see this myth written in one form or another on every writing forum and in common conversation. And it usually goes something like - "well if I submitted my work to a dozen agents and heard nothing back, that tells me something."
No. It tells you precisely nothing. Your work could have a problem. It could be magnificent. You don't know. You have no way of knowing until someone gives you feedback. I mean if you played the same six numbers in a Lotto game all the time and won nothing would you assume that there was a problem with your numbers? No. You wouldn't I hope. Because if you did that would be a sign that you were a problem gambler.
The simple reality is as above. Agents are busy people. Maybe your work wasn't quite what they were looking for. Maybe they already had fifteen vampire romance novels on their desks. Maybe the writing style in the first two paragraphs simply didn't catch their interest. I don't know why they rejected your book. But the important thing is that you don't know either. You cannot assume that you do.
Myth 3. I know what's wrong with my book and why he rejected it.
No you don't. You might have an idea. But unless an agent actually took the trouble to send you a letter outlining what he thought any problems might be, then you are guessing. You don't know. You probably don't even have a clue. You are just guessing. And agents very rarely send these sorts of letters.
To give you my experience, when I was first doing the rounds in the early naughties with Thief I sent it off to maybe fifty agents. From them I would say I got perhaps twenty five rejections, and twenty five complete non answers. I did not get one single letter with words of advice. Now I don't blame agents for that. They're busy people and their job is not to be a writing coach. But it's important to realise that if they don't send you letters like that, you as the author are still sitting in the dark.
Myth 4. I can make my book better.
Maybe. But the one thing you can never do is make your book better so that it meets the expectations of an agent. Not when he didn't tell you what they were. Look you can join writing groups - I recommend it. You can discuss purple prose, passive voice, and the correct use of the apostrophe until you're blue in the face. And maybe you can improve the technical side of your writing. But you can't actually make you work so much better that the agent who rejected your book will say - that's what I want! Not when you don't know what he wanted.
Lets turn briefly from writing to acting for a second. And think about all those Hollywood actresses desperate for parts and willing to do anything. Willing to mutilate themselves with nose and boob jobs, oral surgery and whatever else, when they were all perfectly pretty to begin with. This is exactly the logic working through their minds when they go under the knife. I can make myself better. But there was never anything wrong with them to begin with. And it never seems to occur to them that the reason they didn't get the part wasn't because of them at all. It was because there were five hundred other actresses trying for the same part.
(Apologies here for perhaps being a little sexist in concentrating on women only. I'm sure men have exactly the same issues and do exactly the same stupid things.)
This of course leads us to the most damaging of all the myths. The one that destroys writers.
Myth 5. If I make my book better an agent will pick it up.
No! This is such bad thinking and on so many levels. First - see myth 4 - it assumes that you know why an agent didn't pick up your book in the first place, which unless he sent you a letter - you don't know. Second it assumes that there is a problem with your book - see myth 2. You don't know that either. And worst of all it contains the underlying assumption that you can make an agent do something. You can't. The power is not in your hands.
This is exactly the same poor logic that allows teenage girls to think "well maybe if I do my hair, smile a lot and stay close he'll love me." But they can't and their feelings get crushed. It's inevitable. Because it is completely out of anyones power to make a person love them. And it's completely out of anyones power to make an agent like your book. (Again apologies for the sexist stereotype. Boys do stupid things too to get girls to like them believing that the power is in their hands.)
Hugh Howey recently wrote that there is a false dichotomy between choosing to self publish and choosing to trade publish. And he's right. You as an author do not have that choice because you only have the power to do one of those things. Your choice is actually between choosing to self publish, and trying to get your work trade published.
Okay - enough ranting. My purpose in writing this post is to hopefully bring a little reality to the writing scene. To perhaps squash some of these myths a little. Because these myths are what destroy writers. They are what convince them to put away their books, lose confidence in their writing abilities and completely give up. And I don't know how many of those that do were brilliant writers who had a unique voice and a vision to share that would have enriched the world. Neither do they.