Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Comparison Devil

I read an article some time ago wherein the author said she knew she wouldn't be a bestseller as soon as the offer came in on her first novel. Because it wasn't a six-figure advance and she wasn't going to auction.

This bothered me a lot.

First, let's roll back to a not-so-happy place in my past, last spring. To be as brief and honest as possible, I'd let some things get out of control in my life and had lost all focus of the good things going on. I realized I was in a bad place. I sought the help of a counselor at work. And he tricked me.

In the best way, of course. During one session, he targeted my writing dream and made me list everything that was bothering me. Every fear. Every rejection. Every disappointment. Then he made me write down the good things that had happened. Actual words from people who had read and responded positively to my work. I tried to counter with, "Yeah, but if I was any good this wouldn't be so hard." He pointed to my fears, which were things like, I'll never get published. I'm not good enough. I don't know if I'm even supposed to be doing this. Then back to the Good Things list. "Which of these has actually happened?" he asked.

(See? Tricky.)

Which brings me back to the article about trying to read into your publishing future based on what's happening to other people. We're always wanting to compare our experiences to try and figure out what's normal. Is it supposed to take this long? What if I don't get multiple offers from agents? What does it mean if I didn't get a three-book deal? And I'm telling you (and also telling me):

STOP.

There is no magic formula. There is only one example I need to give here to prove it: J.K. Rowling received a £1500 advance (or about $2400) for Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. Couple that with her own editor's advice that she get a day job because she "had little chance of making money in children's books,"* I think you're starting to get my point. And for heaven's sake, if you're sitting there worrying your five/six-figure advance means they're overconfident and you're doomed not to sell because how could anyone really KNOW what the bestsellers will be, I'm shaking your shoulders right now. SHAKING THEM.

I don't know the future. But if you're in that place right now where the comparison devil is whispering in your ear, using all your "failures" and "shortcomings" to bury all sense of hope, trick yourself like my counselor tricked me. There are two sides to every story, and you are not allowed to block the good side out. "I'm getting a lot of rejections ... but I know so much more than last year." "A top-choice agent just told me my book made her cringe** ... but another just requested the full." Capiche?

If you're going to do any comparing, that should be it.

*These quotes/numbers pulled from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/J._K._Rowling
**Yes, this was an actual rejection I received.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Pitch Wars January 2014: The Aftermath

I briefly went over my Pitch Wars numbers before the finalists were announced in December, and have finally had the chance to post something a little more detailed. You might recall I got 88 lovely applications. Of those 88, I agreed to give feedback to anyone who was not chosen as someone else's mentee or alternate.

That meant I sent 70 responses. It took me an average of 30 minutes per entry to give feedback, meaning I spent 35 hours on rejections alone. (In case you were wondering why agents do form rejections. And why you should keep your critique partners close and keep entering contests like Pitch Wars if you're getting said form rejections.)

I had a few trends in my inbox:

Dystopian (or anything with a central government/entity that MC must join or fight against): 8
Post-apocalyptic or apocalyptic: 3
Peter Pan retellings: 3

And the reasons I passed:

Not right for current market: 11
Not right for me (was on my "Not a Best Match for..." list): 8
Started in the wrong place: 11
Writing not ready: 10
Liked it, but wasn't my perfect match: 22
Confusing pitch; stakes not clear and/or no stakes: 8

And just because:

Highest word count*: 103k
Lowest*: 24k
Coolest genre: YA Weird Western
Queries that mentioned chocolate: 19

I learned three major things from being in the slush.

  • Your query letter really is all about the story. Whether this is your tenth novel or your first, whether you have a hundred publishing awards or none at all, all that matters is your pitch and your writing. One of my favorite entries was just the pitch and a "thank you for your time" - no personalization, no credentials. So basically: don't stress over these. Your awesome story won't be overlooked if you haven't been published before. DO add personalization when possible - but it won't be the reason you're rejected/asked for sample pages, either. 
    • Fun fact: my mentee mentioned reality TV in her query, and I was thinking, "Girl, I don't know about this, I am a big NOT fan of reality TV..." - then BAM, her pages blew me away. In case you were wondering if personalization could ever hurt you.
  • Reader taste is ridiculously subjective. This is something I knew before, but I went in expecting epic battles over the top picks and that I'd have to defend my choices Zombieland-style. But everyone's tops were different, and something I passed on in my first cull got snatched up as someone else's first choice.
  • Ya'll eat a lot of chocolate.

I'm ready for a month-long nap now, but you can bet your Twinkies I'll be back again next year to see what crazy-creative things will fall into my inbox. I also can't wait to see which of you will be joining me on the mentor side, whether or not you were chosen for Pitch Wars. Remember, I didn't get picked as a mentee or alternate last year.

And last but certainly not least, please congratulate my mentee Alison Green Myers when you have a chance. She knocked off all kinds of agent socks in Pitch Wars, landing us in a tie for second place with nine full requests. She worked SO hard last month, and I'm excited to see where THAT NIGHT ON BLOSSOM HILL takes her. Keep an eye on that one.

*Word count alone is not a reason to reject unless it is way under or way over the expected averages here. However, it's always a good idea to check your word count against those expected averages before you query, and try your darndest to get inside them.
 

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