In some ways, this should be a very exciting time for me. At a one-on-one meeting at the Willamette Writers Conference in August, an editor (who shall for now remain nameless) at a major publishing house (also nameless for now) requested the full manuscript of my noir novel, The Lawn Man. After the conference, I sent it off per his request – the whole thing plus a short synopsis. He also wanted to hear about the next book I have in the works, so I wrote him a pitch for that as well.
Just telling you about my current situation, the thrill comes bubbling back up inside of me. An actual editor is looking at my novel. Wow! That’s amazing.
But, to tell you the truth, mostly I try not to think about it. After all, that novel is written and done – at least until somebody offers to publish it and asks for revisions. For now, there’s nothing more I can do to improve the chances of that novel seeing the light of day. And it’s been two months. The editor warned me up front that it would likely be as long as two or three months, so I’m practicing my patience, playing the waiting game. And of course there’s no way I can maintain such a high level of anxiousness anyway. I’d drive myself crazy for no good reason. Instead, I try not to think about it.
Fortunately, I’ve got plenty of other things to distract me. There’s this new blog for one thing. For another, I’ve always got a few short stories in the works. What can I say? I love the form, even though Lawrence Block convinced me in one of his excellent writing books that the early-career writer these days should focus his efforts on composing novels. Which brings us to my real work at the moment – I’ve got that new novel to write. And it’s coming along. Breaking new ground never happens as smoothly as I’d like, but I’m getting the new novel written. My goal is to complete the first draft before the end of December, and I’ll keep you posted on how that goes. So far, so good.
While the manuscript of The Lawn Man is with the editor, I’ve also been querying agents more actively than ever. I figure that whatever the publisher decides, this is my moment to be able to tell an agent my work is being actively considered. You’ve got to use whatever little trick you have to up the ante and make yourself seem more tantalizing to an agent. So far, no agents have signed on, though I’ve gotten some truly kind rejections. I’ve found that with most agents, you hear nothing from a query. A few, the polite ones, at least send you a “not for me-thanks anyway” (true quote, and yes, that was the entirety of the reply). The really wonderful ones give you a glimmer of hope even as they turn you down. You can tell they’ve actually read the query letter and the sample materials. They’ll say the story seems interesting or the writing is good, but that it’s just not for them. These are valuable responses because they keep your spirits up. Of course if you’re anything like me, you also comb through the few sentences of any scraps of added significance, but this activity is probably more the neurotic energy of a compulsive over-reader than any valuable lesson for an aspiring professional writer.
The real lesson, and the one that was driven home for me at the Willamette Writers Conference this year, remains: you can’t take rejection personally.
As an avid lifelong reader, a busy and prolific writer, a long-term bookstore employee, and a literary scholar, I’m used to hanging around readers and writers. We love books for the magic they contain, the power to connect you with another mind, transport you to another place, allow you live a strange and exotic life while you wander among the pages. Agents and editors are a different breed. I’m sure most of them came to their careers because from a deep love of reading, but for them books are a serious business. Yes, they can seem to make snap judgments, but in the business world time is money, and you can’t waste either on things that don’t serve you, things that don’t meet your immediate needs. It can sting to be on the receiving end of a quick brush-off, but ultimately everyone is better off. It’s like speed-dating. You can’t agree to see everyone again just to be polite. You need to focus on the one or two that seem like they might be what you’re looking for. That doesn’t mean the others aren’t perfectly wonderful, lovable people. But you can’t marry them all. Or to put it more directly and less metaphorically, when you go to a bookstore you look for something you want to read and you take a few things home, maybe half a dozen selections from a store full of thousands of books. That doesn’t mean all the other books at the store are worthless. It simply means you have limited time to read, and you want to read what strikes your own personal fancy. Same goes for agents and editors.
Ultimately, all you can do is get out of your own way and write the best novels and stories you can. That’s the best thing about playing this waiting game. It reminds me that being a professional writer boils down to one thing: writing. Not “being a writer” with whatever social cache you imagine that entails, but actually sitting down at your desk and doing the work, writing.