Friday, July 27, 2012

Being Simple Doesn't Mean It's Easy

Someone recently asked what it was that made my agent pluck me out of the slush and offer to represent me (beyond the obvious awesomeness—his words, not mine). I ventured that it was my high-concept hook that grabbed her attention, and then having a manuscript that lived up to the promise of the query. All it takes is an awesome, agent-baiting query and a manuscript that backs it up.

My agent happened to be present (thus the question), and while she agreed, she also laughed and said, "OH IS THAT ALL?"

Yes, if only it were as easily done as said. I certainly went through plenty of "Nope, not quite the right formulation" with prior novels.

But then I thought about it. Getting an agent obviously isn't easy. But it is simple.

Do you see the distinction?

It's like the game Operation. The directions aren't complicated. Get the tweezers in the opening, grab the little plastic piece, and pull it out without touching the edge of the hole. It's simple.

Does that make it easy? Not if you have unsteady hands like I do. It takes deftness and just the right touch. It's hard—some pieces harder than others, and some people struggle with it more than their friends.

Some may develop the skills quickly. Others may never be able to grab some of the pieces. The difficulty varies, but the simplicity of the process is the same for all.

I think sometimes we get frustrated in the query trenches by trying to unravel a magic formula, some secret complexity that only agented writers know about. Start with the title, genre and word count. No, those go at the end. Never use this phrase. Always close with that one.

Certain "rules" are handy for not giving agents headaches, but really, we don't need to expend energy worrying about that kind of stuff. It's simpler than that. Get the agent's attention so they're dying to read more. Once they start reading, make them fall in love.

It's also really hard. It takes work and research and even some luck.

If something's worth doing, it's worth working for.

What else in life have you found is simple, but not easy? How do you keep yourself motivated when the "hard" makes you feel like it's more complicated than it is?

ETA: It seems some felt this post was condescending, with me talking from my high post of now being agented and deigning to tell you all "how it's done."

I am truly sorry if it came across that way. It was not my intention. Those of you who are regulars on AQC know that I get asked for advice on querying all the time. Even before I was agented, but especially now. I am NOT AN EXPERT. Never have been. Yet I get asked. So I do my best to come up with advice that's universal enough, that's encouraging while still being realistic about how FREAKING HARD it is.

My only point in this post was to say, don't focus on the wrong stuff. Don't freak out over the minutiae. Remember the goal—the simple, but not easy goal—of getting the agent to read more, and then having the super-shiniest manuscript you're capable of to hand over.

Will the best you're capable always be enough? No. That's realistic. My best didn't get it done for years. I learned, I grew, I kept at it, I got lucky with some timing, and it happened. It can for you, too. I can't say it WILL happen for all of you. I won't lie.

But it certainly won't if you quit trying.


Anonymous said...

Your agent said exactly what I was thinking with the "Oh is that all?" comment. But I can see what you mean about it being simple. Definitely worth working for though. Nothing else is coming to mind that's like this right now (though I'm sure there's something, it's just too early in the morning), but the motivation for writing is loving the creative process and hoping someday, someone (hopefully lots of someones) will enjoy what I've made as much as I enjoyed making it.

callmebecks said...

On the one hand, I definitely see the point you're trying to make: there's no magic combination so don't stress the details. Just write your best and pitch your best.

On the other hand, I think this post ignores something that none of us really want to think about: the market. It's not enough to have a good book and a good pitch. You have to have a good book, a good pitch and the right timing. If you've written a good book in an oversaturated genre, than your odds of hooking an agent just tanked. It's not something any of us want to hear, but it's true. Publishing is a business; we can't ignore that aspect of it.

MarcyKate said...

This is a great post (says someone who was in the query trenches for 3 long years)! It's so easy to get wrapped up in the little things and lose sight of what really matters - doing the best you can and trying your hardest. Thinking like that was one of the only things that kept me sane - knowing that I was doing the best I could. Didn't always work, but that's just because I needed to grow as a writer more.

And to your point callmebecks - I don't think this is advocating ignoring the market (the post does after all mention that luck is involved too). Market definitely plays a HUGE role! (more than we may like :P)

callmebecks said...

Oh, yeah - no, I didn't think it was advocating ignoring the market. I was just pointing out that sometimes good books are ill-timed for the industry. Sometimes you write the story you love, you revise and work hard on it, and you get it polished just in time for no one to be looking for that kind of story at all. You have to do the work, but after that, I think it's a lot more luck and timing.

Just my perspective, though. :)

R.C. Lewis said...

janealfalor, definitely, you have to have the love and passion for what you're doing. If I didn't love the experience of creating worlds and characters, some roadblocks with my first ms probably would've broken me.

callmebecks, absolutely agree that the fickle market is a big part of the picture. The luck involved includes market trends as well as things we don't know on the agent side—like maybe one of their current clients is working on something very like our ms.

The reason I wanted to emphasize the work over the luck in this post, however, is because I know from experience that blaming the market is too easy. With my prior mss, I thought I'd done enough to make them awesome. My CPs thought they were awesome, couldn't understand why I wasn't getting an agent, etc. But looking back at my earlier work now, my CPs say, "This wasn't BAD by any means, but you're a noticeably stronger writer now."

I always tried to figure out what the weaknesses in my prior mss were and make sure I overcame them in the next story. Because market trends and luck are things I can't control.

Or in other words, what MarcyKate said. ;-)

MarcyKate said...

Totally agree, callmebecks! You can write the best vampire romance out there, but right now it's not likely to sell. I guess the question is - if you love the story and believe in it, is it worth it to make it as amazing as you can and still try? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. That's the kind of thing that will vary person to person.

Of course, if you have just the right idea that agents/editors want, if you don't put your best effort into it, it's not likely to sell either. It might, you never know, but I think the point is that it takes a ton of hard work to get to that point where you have the right idea, the right pitch, and you've learned your craft well enough to ensure the manuscript lives up to the promise of the query. It a whole slew of things combining, but the fine-tuning and hard work is one of the few we actually have control over! LOL

Revo said...

While I cerntainly believe everything said here is spot on, and during those stronger personal moments it is the path that I and (I assume) others follow, it is the pain during our weaker times that has us lash out.
It is a sad truth that sometimes your best is not good enough, and that can drive you to raise the bar. The real trick comes in that delicate balancing act, where perseverance can be eroded by the sting of coming to grips that you have fallen short of the mark...yet again.
We all strive to be that stronger person, to believe in ourselves strongly enough to carry on with faith in ourselves. That said, negative reenforcement has us occasionally feeling like a fool.
I know this post was meant as a hard truth, and I fully accept it as such. Hopefully my calluses and scars will hold my flesh together.
Regardless, and as agonizing as it can be, what was said here needed to be said, and more importantly, understood.
I could close with something trite like 'nice post', even though it isn't.
It is a 'true post', and that makes it all the more powerful.

callmebecks said...

Swinging back WAY late to say, RC and Marcy, you guys both make EXCELLENT points. Every step hopefully makes us a little bit stronger, a little bit better at our craft.

I loved all the comments that happened with this one. Good discussion FTW.

R.C. Lewis said...

Thanks, Becks! :-) Here's to getting stronger and better.