Friday, November 20, 2009

Quiet Progress

I was planning a companion post to the last one, but this time about things I (we, you) need to improve in our writing. You know how it is. If you can't name what's not working, then you can't fix it.

But I just ... couldn't. I couldn't bring myself to do it, because I discovered that I had no desire to rub my nose in my own problems like a bad doggy. Not right now. Anyway, I think I've covered that territory pretty well, so what's left to be said?

Instead, I'm going to write about querying and progress. It feels kind of odd, but I find myself querying again. I pretty much know which agents I'm interested in, and I've read widely enough in my genre to know who is repping the kinds of books I'm trying to sell. So I spent a little time this week whipping up a basic query and shipping it out, along with a few sample chapters. Naturally, I included in the query that this book has already been through revisions with a major house and they rejected it. You pretty much have to include that kind of thing.

But it got me thinking about how much has changed since last time I queried.

Early on in my career, I used to send out queries by the truckload. I was a master at querying ... for magazines and newspapers, literary agents, editing jobs, whatever. I was intent on building a career, even though it felt like every door was closed. I used to prepare queries by the batch and spend loads of money and time copying clips and putting together packages (remember those days)? Then the SASE rejections would roll in. And my, would they ever! I remember some days getting five or six rejections in a single day, for various projects and ideas.

For a long time, I kept all the rejections. I guess I thought it was some kind of record-keeping thing, so I'd know who I contacted. But my file grew into a box, which grew into a crate that I kept underneath the bed like some poisonous fungus. One day, when I was having a moment, I thought, "Why the hell am I keeping all these? Why am I building a monument to my own rejection?"

So I dragged the box out, and I threw them all away. I haven't kept a rejection since. And if that means I sometimes queried the same editor, so be it.

Fast forward ten years, and here I am, querying another novel (number six, hard to believe). And the response has been gratifying. So far, more than half of the agents who have replied have requested either a full or a partial. Ten years ago, I was lucky to get 1 out of 10 asking to see anything.

This doesn't mean I'll find representation, and even I do, it doesn't mean I'll find the right representation. But ... to me, it's a small sign that there is such a thing as progress, that you do move forward, even if it's slower than you like and even if it costs more than you expected.

Writing is truly a journey, with way stations and destinations and roundabouts and off-ramps. If nothing else, querying again has reminded me how far I've come, and it's nice to know that I've earned this kind of response. It's nice to know that, no matter how I feel about what's happened, I got more from the last two years than two books I can't sell. And I have to trust that, even if I can't really point to a tangible sign of progress in my fiction, there has been movement. And I bet the same is true for any writer who is actively working at it, who is putting in the time. That, despite the rejections and the scars, there is a quiet progress.

So you tell me: what progress have you made?


Melanie Avila said...

That must be so satisfying to see that progress in your career. I've got my fingers crossed for you.

Personally, I'm still early in the game so the biggest change I've seen is in my actual writing. Draft 2 of novel 2 is leaps and bounds ahead of draft 2 from novel 1. LEAPS AND BOUNDS. The fact that I can recognize it in my own work gives me hope.

I just submitted a bunch of short stories this morning (several from your blog, thank you very much) so I'll let you know in 4-8 weeks how much I've grown with flash fiction.

Mark Terry said...

I known what you mean. For my NF I still have things drop into a black hole, but not usually. And for fiction things, as I've noted when I went looking for a NF agent, I got responses and I got them fast. Some of that's track record, I'm sure, and some of it that I now know what I'm doing (more or less) in terms of a query letter.

LurkerMonkey said...


Good luck! Which ones did you submit?

And progress in the actual writing is the best kind, even if it's hard to quantify.

LurkerMonkey said...


Yeah. I didn't really include NF in this blog post, because at least for me, it's like a different world. This year, I've been turning work away ... I haven't seriously queried in nonfiction in a very long time. Actually, I kind of suspect the high response rate is at least somewhat connected to my nonfiction resume--between the online stuff, broadcast stuff and consumer print stuff, I have a pretty sizable audience.

Natasha Fondren said...

That's wonderful progress, Jon! And wow, over half is awesome.

By the end of the year I'll have one project to ship out to agents. We'll see what happens.

Merry Monteleone said...

Today's a bad writing day, and my view of my own progress sometimes has as much to do with my own disposition as it does with solid evidence.

I've improved since I first started. I'm still not where I want to be, but whenever I get there I'll have my sights set somewhere in the horizon...

Good luck on the submissions.

LurkerMonkey said...


Good luck with the submissions. I actually like querying ... it's kind of hopeful to imagine, "Yeah, so-and-so could be my agent."

LurkerMonkey said...


My sentiments exactly. My own disposition is key ... and it's taken a bit of a beating lately. But then, this afternoon, I wrote a scene I loved, loved, loved, so hopefully it'll all balance out in the end.

Melanie Avila said...

I've submitted all of them. It's been a busy day.

Amy Sue Nathan said...

I've come from never thinking I'd write except for myself, to publishing essays and articles, to thinking I was locked into pieces under 3000 words to coming to The End of my complete overhaul of my 300 page novel.

In and of itself, my beginning has been its own journey. The next chapter begins in January with querying.