Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Next Step: Querying Quandaries

So, I'm continuing this whole more consistent blog updating thing. (Or so I claim, considering that the first part of this post dropped over two weeks ago now.) Since I finished Project 27 Days' final set of edits - at least before an agent tells me what else needs refining, and in order for that to happen, I first need an agent - I still get the daily writing itch without the constant novel/revision work. (This is probably a good thing for me to have developed as a writer-person. It would be worrisome if I weren't addicted to the whole constantly gushing words thing. Which is also funny because in real life, I constantly stumble over everything I say and am not so great at the whole speaking thing. My vocal cords and I have a hot-and-cold relationship. Someday we're going to split up completely and none will be the wiser.) So hey, what better way to scratch the writing itch than through more of this regular self-expression thing? I probably need to overhaul this blog's overall appearance is, and ideally keep producing readable enough content to see if I can drag some more people here. (LOOK, I DON'T MAKE THE RULES, YOU EITHER READ THE WORDS OR I CAVE IN THE BACK OF YOUR SKULL I DON'T LIKE THIS ANY MORE THAN YOU DO I'M NOT A VIOLENT PERSON) I don't know where that came from.

Besides, I did kinda say at the end of the last post that I was dividing it in half as so to write something readable in length. So here we are, at part two of my outpouring of querying/publishing anxiety. You guys like anxiety, right? It is 95.2% of the human experience, you know.

One of the hardest parts of facing the publishing process is second-guessing myself. Every time I read advice columns in The Writer magazine, which I've been reading for over a year now, I wonder if they'd think such and such terrible things they write not to do about my work. I start self-criticizing in excess, and then I want to go back and spend another couple of years rewriting and revising. Not being "good enough" is a constant worry of mine (A general hangup in life, probably.), and the more I read, the more I end up feeling like there's some insane, arbitrary standards - both abstract and subjective - that I'm expected to meet and realistically can't for everybody. All the while, I'd probably make the book longer if I went back, and in terms of word count, it's apparently "too long" by most genre length standards - something I'm hoping can be forgiven in being both a story in a fantastical setting and a work of literary fiction. Given the costs of printing longer novels, it can be harder to push them for most agents and publishers, especially as a first-time author - another big hurdle ahead.

To elaborate on not being "good enough" - it's my biggest fear in beginning this next phase, now: that I'll get a bunch of people to read sample chapters or the manuscript and they'll all completely hate it and tell me to either spend another year or two completely rewriting it or basically just say that it isn't good enough in any sense to be worth even considering. That no agent or publisher would have any faith in the story for what it is and want me to transform it into something that loses the thematic core of the original story. To essentially have one's story and novel taken away and demanded that you twist it into something an agent or editor or a particular individual at a publisher wants rather than the story that it is is pretty much any author's worst nightmare. And in such situations, your only other alternative could end up being to simply give up and write off several years as wasted, never getting to release the story or accomplish anything with it. There's a reason this phase of the process is known as being one of the most soul-crushing - you've worked incredibly hard and poured your heart and soul into something, but if everyone else rejects it and you don't stand a chance of actually accomplishing anything with it, it can hollow you out inside and take you to your lowest lows. Those of us who live to write can be completely deflated and destroyed in time if our passions amount to nothing but failure, after all. And the failing/failed writer who lives for the storytelling but ends up driven to serious substance abuse and young death isn't exactly a romantic cliche so much as something that has happened to some of the best writers the world's ever known. (Hell, they only just recently gave Edgar Allan Poe a more befitting funeral after he died miserably in squalor, his life uncelebrated while he lived.) And a recent story on the student newspaper for the University of Montana - where my younger brother's a pretty big fish in the system - mentioned that on average, UM Creative Writing MFA students tend to get their first books published at an average of ten years after graduation. So on one hand, this does make it clear that it probably wasn't such a big deal in the end that UMass Amherst rejected me earlier this year (Though I'm still utterly lost as to what half of that attempt represented - getting out of the south, as I absolutely need to if I'm going to have any shot at not being completely miserable in life.), but on the other, it's another discouraging smack to the face that reminds that - especially with everything else I'm trying to express with this first novel - odds of finding representation and getting this book published within the next decade are incredibly soul-crushingly low. (The solution? Obviously, not to end up like these average authors. I have no interest in being the average aspiring author, even if not very many people are aware of my existence and writing at this point. Though, granted, every aspiring author thinks this way. I just have to be one of the ones that doesn't fail.) Enough to make one feel incredibly discouraged and pessimistic about one's path in life - not that my intuition hasn't spent enough time telling me I'm going to die alone in the gutter at some point anyway. (Take note: my intuition hates me.)

At this point, I'm still figuring out how to best narrow down agents to send queries to, and I'd like to - ideally - send two or three queries out by sometime in November. (This whole process is taking longer than I expected, but this is nothing new. Everything is incredibly complex in the writing/publishing world - especially just trying to get your foot in the door so that you may someday have a shot at getting a paycheck for your writing. Ideally enough to build a life on. Your options are to roll with the punches or crumple. I've been doing the former consistently so far, hard to say if I'll ever succumb to the latter. I've likely got a lot of hell ahead that I can't even begin to convey at this point. It's pretty depressing to think about, really.) The query-writing process itself makes me quite anxious for several reasons. First off, I've never really liked formalities - any kind of human interaction dripping with artifice and inauthenticity makes my skin crawl. I much prefer to communicate casually and informally if I communicate with people at all - something obviously reflected in my writing style here, and something that has irked people in real life before.

Second, as an introvert, reaching out to and contacting other people has never been my forte. As such, when I do talk to other people I don't know, I'm extremely self-conscious and feel almost overwhemingly clumsy, however I express myself. Forcing a layer of formality onto these communications only makes things clumsier, I feel. And I've never actually been professionally employed and worked a paying job before, so interacting with others on a more professional level is entirely new terrain for me. Even more clumsiness, and so, additional anxiety.

Then, third, we come to the substance of the query letter itself. It seems apparent enough from the focus on formula in guides I've read on writing query letters that there's an exact precision on top of that formality expected by agents - and after reading quite a few blogs and #queryfail talk amongst literary agents on Twitter, it seems that at least one of two things is apparent. Either most people querying agents are going in with literally no idea what they're doing, flailing about with exactly the kind of clumsiness I'm set on trying to avoid - seeing as I want to actually get an agent, learn, and make it in this crazy literary world - or given the volume of queries they regularly receive, most agents are rather unforgiving of query letters that fail to deliver something and someone appealing with the very precision and exact information they demand. (And even then, there's still the question of whether or not you and what you write will fit in well with that particular agent's clientele.) That's a lot of pressure. (Yes, this statement is about as obvious as being run over by a bus.)

Not being a confident person by nature - leaning far more toward the neurotic - it's hard to do anything but second-guess myself and everything that goes into years of work (Even when the work itself feels done right to me.) when reading articles like this. I constantly ask myself, "Am I doing anything wrong here?" while writing, and feel like I can only dread agents and publishers telling me at some point that I'm doing everything wrong. I've read that I'm supposed to sell myself to potential agents on why I'm qualified to write a novel. This is something that strikes me as especially difficult. I don't have the education or degrees that say, "Hey, this guy's an English language expert and master storyteller!" I only took a couple of creative writing classes in college, while I focused my education elsewhere - on cultural and historical elements that appear in my novels in ways that you likely wouldn't see from people who haven't invested a lot of time in studying East Asia and Japan in particular. (Though I learned the importance of self criticism and second guessing after sitting through numerous tense workshops in one course, where people pretty much tore each other's work apart.) And I've only had one short story published after winning a contest back in summer '08. And on top of that, I've known since I first tried writing my own stories back in 4th grade that my calling was writing fiction. But somehow I doubt these things would impress any potential agent, with as many queries as they get on a regular basis.

In my head, I can only picture agents as wanting someone with actual credentials that say, "You want qualifications? All these English degrees guarantee absolute language proficiency and grammatical perfection! I DEFY YOU TO FIND A SINGLE DANGLING PARTICIPLE!" followed by a much better established publishing track record - "You want passion? This person's been entering and winning contests and finding publishing in smaller publications ever since they were a teenager! THEIR WORDS EXUDE PASSION SO INTENSE IT CAN GIVE YOU THIRD DEGREE BURNS IF YOU DON'T EXERCISE PROPER CAUTION!" And it's hard to compete with how many people like that there likely are out there, as this guy out of nowhere: "Hey, I haven't been published or recognized much, but I've been writing my whole life and pursuing all sorts of intellectual interests that enric- what, stop talking? Okay, uh, I'll shut up. Sorry to bother you." As a writer, I don't really have much that's concrete to boast about or show off by which to sell myself, and from most agents' perspectives, it probably would look like I was coming out of left field and trying to break into a world that I can't already outright prove my qualifications for by the merit of past accomplishments. (Kind of like how many workplaces refuse to hire you without experience, and won't even if you have experience if it isn't relevant, as most low skill/minimum wage jobs aren't. And they won't give you a shot at gaining experience, sticking the applicant in a real rough spot. You can't get hired if you don't have experience, but you can't get experience if no one's willing to take a chance with you.) I probably look like much more like a risk to shy away from than a "sure thing" author who's already more than proven themselves to the world.

So much of what magazines and advice books seem to do is lay down the beaten path as clearly as possible, though warning that there's no guarantee of anything if you follow it, and that any advice they have may or may not amount to anything too valuable after a certain point - there's so much that's subjective about writing (Especially fiction) and getting your writing recognized and published that's entirely subjective that you cannot objectively say much with absolute certainty. For me, the beaten path has never really appealed - or worked out too well. When I try to follow the beaten path rigidly, my efforts have an established track record of failure. My intuition tells me that attempting to rigidly take the beaten path in drawing the interest of agents will only end in failure since it's not an organic or natural process for me, but I'm not entirely sure how exactly to take my own path on query letter writing without just ending up #queryfail fodder on Twitter.

In the least, I've found some guides that simplify the query letter process some instead of spending 3-5 pages psyching the reader out about the volumes you're expected to be able to say across a few handfuls of sentences splattered across a single page. All I can really do is try to develop the fullest understanding of what it is that will get an agent to take your letter seriously and write my letters my own way.

It doesn't help that another writer friend I was talking to a couple of weeks back had been increasingly discouraging about how unlikely it is to ever make anything resembling a living on one's writing as well (The funk this put me into is part of the reason for the long gap between the last post and this one.), when I'm essentially unemployable at my age, no matter how you look at my resume. It doesn't exactly put me in an optimistic frame of mind about my future in any regard. Times like this remind me why it's a good thing that I don't drink.

Still, just a few weeks back now, I also had the pleasure of attending a Sarah Vowell reading of The Wordy Shipmates, and spoke to her briefly while getting a signed copy. It was only for a minute, but I mentioned that I was a writer myself and that I was beginning my hunt for an agent then, and she congratulated me on having finished the writing. I have no idea how many exchanges like that she and who knows how many other writers have had with aspiring authors who may or may not ever make anything of themselves, but in the least, it felt like a sort of validating moment, in having a really great author acknowledge my existence - even on some small level as a fellow writer - like that. I'm socially awkward enough around people I don't know, but I stumble even more when I'm starstruck, having met Vowell and had the opportunity to personally interview a fair number of Japanese animation industry celebrities, voice actors, and manga artists in the past. Like many people, I go in wanting to be comfortable and casual, and not some raving fanboy who goes on at length about how much you love their work. And I do manage to avoid the latter there - I just end up not being sure what to say. This probably comes from a lifetime dedicated more to observing and trying to understand other people from the periphery while keeping my interactions with my fellow human beings to a minimum. Valuable as a writer, but after spending an increasing majority of my youth on this, it's also not something I'm not entirely happy looking back on.

In the end, I at least have some idea of a formula and many of the details I'd want to include - while restricting my query letter to a single page, the exact formatting of which I'm not yet entirely clear on - and the more I understand what exactly it is that I need to do, the less imposing it will hopefully seem in time. I'll probably get rejected a lot - though the sooner I can find someone really interested in representing me, the better - but even rejection can at least be chalked up to experience. We'll see what happens.

The path of leading an authentic, substantive life with actual meaning is, obviously, not an easy one.

On which note, I also have to recommend Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York after finally watching it earlier. It was tough for him to follow Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but while I feel this isn't quite as good as Eternal Sunshine, it's still a stellar, deeply involving film. And one I can relate to, in its focus on an artist - in this case, a theater director - dedicating his chaotic, bleak life to the search for truth and meaning in life beyond the depressing inevitability of death through the creation of one of the craziest theatrical productions conceivable: a full scale recreation of New York in a warehouse, populated by actors playing "real" people, and essentially recreating the story of his own life down to the minutest detail as it continues to go horribly awry. Beautiful, powerful film - and accompanying its very bleak, heavily depressing story are a lot of laugh out loud funny moments. I may have to do a full blog post on this one, not having done a film blog in a while. Kaufman, in the surreality of his scripts, is one of my favorite film writers, after all. I'm hoping my work would appeal to fans of his work in cinema.

And to balance the sheer angst of these past two entries - and I'm planning on writing about writing more often from now on - the next two entries? Both coming within this week. You guys're getting a double the Halloween comedy posts this year.

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