Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Perseverance vs. insanity


The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Albert Einstein


On the one hand, you read about all the writers who counted dozens of rejections, hundreds of rejections, before their work was accepted and applauded. On the other hand, you’re told, “If you can’t get the book sold, put it aside and write another, better book.” So what should you do if you’ve received fifty rejections – forget about the book or keep querying? Which one is right?

I think both. Firstly, if a query letter has received fifty rejections, the problem may lie in the query rather than the book. My original query letter for Before the Storm received nearly thirty rejections. After that, I looked at the letter critically and realized that I hadn’t clarified either the romantic aspect of it or the most original part of the story, which was a battle fought with steam engines and cannons in a medieval world. I sent out twenty copies of my reworked query letter and got four requests for partials.

So it wasn’t the story that was the problem, it was the query letter. I believe the same thing applies for Dracolytes - nothing wrong with the novel per se, but I’d originally written a huge flashback into the first page (what was I thinking?). Similarly, a little rewriting may be all that’s necessary to raise both a writer’s spirits and a manuscript’s request rate.

Secondly, why not do both at once? Write another book while querying the first one, since you’ll have to write another one anyway. As Rachel Vater put it,

”I'm MUCH happier if the author has other material so I know they aren't just pinning all their hopes and dreams of huge success to that one novel/memoir/whatever. Because a writer's career is usually not comprised of just one book.”

That way, even if you have to reluctantly give up on or temporarily set aside an unaccepted manuscript, it’s not devastating. It’s also better to give such a manuscript a break than to pin so many hopes on it that rejection becomes unbearable.

Finally, with the new book, consider trying something different. I thought about the famous definition of insanity when I read a new short story that a writer had posted for critiques. It had the same problem as the stories she had written two years ago – an invulnerable character who was a huge stumbling block to plausibility – but the writer was so fond of this character that she wrote him into everything. Critiquers originally pointed out why they couldn’t get past this character to enjoy the rest of the story, but finally they just stopped reading.

That was quite a learning experience for me. I decided that once I finished Empire of Glass, that would be the last of my “scientist in a medieval fantasy” stories for a while, and the next one would be a quasi-urban fantasy. Doing something different doesn’t mean switching genres, but it does mean not telling the same story over and over again in the hopes that maybe this time it will work. Besides, part of the fun of writing, for me, is trying something new with the next book.

There’s intelligent persistence, where you do everything possible to maximize the chances of success. Then there’s blind repetition. And when writers get too caught up in their dreams, the line between the two isn’t all that difficult to cross.

6 comments:

GunnerJ said...

Finally, with the new book, consider trying something different.

But on the other hand, if an author does get published the opposite might happen: they end up writing book after book in a chain of sequels to their first with the same characters and setting.

I know sometimes authors plan series of books, but it seems like a lot of time they simply get drawn into it because that's what sells. Personally, I wouldn't want to write sequels to books, I would rather want to do something different each time.

Doug said...

I admire your tenacity in the face of rejection. I'm far too afraid of disappointment to ever share my work outside of anonymous internet settings. That and you know, effort.

Marian said...

But on the other hand, if an author does get published the opposite might happen: they end up writing book after book in a chain of sequels to their first with the same characters and setting.

True. So you might as well get as much fun as you can, writing different stories, before you get published and have to write the next fantasy trilogy... which becomes the next fantasy saga... etc.

Before you're published, though, you don't know which will be more successful - the medieval fantasy set in Africa, or the contemporary where the main character is a sentient cat, or the quasi-urban with the modern city in another world. So why not try them all?

Marian said...

Hey Doug, thanks for commenting. :)

I'm far too afraid of disappointment to ever share my work outside of anonymous internet settings.

Oh, there's plenty of disappointment there as well. The first time I ever critiqued GunnerJ's work I was really rough on him, poor guy.

GunnerJ said...

I don't think I can even read those stories anymore, I am overcome with shame each time I try. But this is probably only partially your fault, as I am basically ashamed of everything I did before three years ago (and this is a moving target as I get older).

On the plus side, I occasionally come across a scenario in your work where by all rights a man should die, yet does not, and so it falls to me to narrate the alternate and more likely outcome using carefully inserted bold text. :)

Doug said...

I want to just remove every other sentence whenever I read my old stories.

90% of the sentences in passive voice, lots of wordy and verbose descriptions of simple concepts, and adverbs like WHOOOOOAAAAa