Sunday, August 25, 2013

Snail Mail and E-Mail

Two Sundays ago, I wrote about my befuddlement over what to do with the manuscript for The Reluctant Spy—try to get it published or stuff it into the computer’s innards and let it molder for ages hence. Your responses helped greatly.
         Last Sunday, I shared with you the power of a single word—fascinating. Once again, your responses gave me the courage to make the decision detailed below.
         This Sunday I’d like to share with you what I’ve being doing in the past seven days. What I haven’t been doing is blogging. That is, reading and commenting on the seventy blogs I enjoy and try to follow.
         Because that word fascinating has impelled me to look for an agent . . . and to look in a new way.
         In the past few years, I’d done an agent search several times. That involves (1) going to a book such as 2013 Guide to Literary Agents or Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, & Literary Agents or (2) searching web sites that list agents such as Literary Rambles for children’s books or AgentQuery.Com.
         These books and lists may offer a little or a lot of information about a particular agent or agency: names, address, e-mail address, web site, genre represented. That last item is essential because some agencies represent only nonfiction. Other agencies may represent fiction but only a certain kind: literary, historical, fantasy, contemporary women’s, mystery, mainstream, young adult.
         Finding an agent takes time. Thought. Effort. Here’s what I’ve been doing in the past week instead of blogging:

·      I wrote a generic query letter for The Reluctant Spy. Crafting the first sentence and paragraph so as to entice an agent into reading the entire letter requires going over it repeatedly. When I begin to contact agencies and agents, I’ll modify that letter as necessary. That is, I’ll mention some book an agent has represented or the agency’s client list or an agent’s particular interest in some area. Finding out that info requires extensive research.
·      I studied the books and lists mentioned above to determine which agencies represent fiction, specifically, historical fiction.
·      I visited agency web sites to determine two things: the names of those agents in a particular agency who are interested in the type of fiction I have to offer and how they want someone to query them: electronically or by snail mail. Do they want only a letter? Or a letter plus the first five pages of the manuscript? 30 pages? 50 pages?

         Slowly, I’m beginning to develop a list of agents to contact.
         In the past few years when I’ve done an agent search I’ve taken the easy route—sending out only e-queries. That’s cheaper than snail mail and usually, if the agent does choose to respond, the response comes much quicker than through the mail.

          This time, I’m decided to do two things differently—bless that word fascinating! I’m going to send out snail queries and I’m going to send them not only to agencies that represent historical novels—which is what I’ve done in the past—but also to those agents that represent “mainstream” fiction. That’s a breakthrough for me. I believe that in the past I’ve been too narrow in my vision. I’m going to cast a wide net this time.
         In this coming week, I hope to continue my search and also to visit each of your blogs at least once. How can I expect you to offer your thoughtful suggestions if I don’t follow your postings? And I so enjoy discovering what you are all doing and thinking.
         I’d appreciate any thoughts you have on the process I’ve detailed. I plan to spend the month of September searching lists and sending out queries. I’ll keep you posted. Lots to do . . . and I love it!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Free at Last!

Last week I bemoaned my inability to decide if the manuscript for The Reluctant Spy was ready for publication despite the email from a friend who’d read the story and found it “fascinating.”
         This week, while tracing the arc of my writing life, I’ve pondered that word. In 7th grade I won first place in the Kansas City diocesan essay contest. I can remember Mom’s broad smile as I returned from the podium with my prize—a prayer book.
         In college I was one of twenty finalists in the prestigious 1958 Atlantic Monthly essay contest. At the time, my writing mentor, Sister Scholastica, tried to impress on me that in this nationwide contest I’d excelled among thousands of entries. But I, preparing to enter the convent, had little time for such foolishness.
         During the next twenty-seven years I became a nun, taught, and found a new life after leaving the monastery. Then, in 1985, I became a freelance editor, copyeditor, and curriculum developer. Suddenly writing became important again.  
         Four years later, the cat I’d loved for nearly two decades died. Dulcy immediately began to channel through me the story of our life together.

         Late that summer, I told a friend about this strange phenomenon. “Well, it’ll all be trash,” she said with surety. “You’ll just have to throw it away.” Her words stunned me.
         A few weeks later another friend, a published writer, read the first draft of Dulcy’s story. “Put this in a safety deposit box,” he recommended, “and don’t look at it for five years. Then maybe you’ll find something worth keeping.”
         His wife’s take on the book? “Bor-ing! Bor-ing!”
         When I expressed doubts about my writing ability to an acquaintance, she said, “Well, Dee, maybe you can’t write. Maybe you just don’t have the gift.”
         With that, my thoughts jelled: I wasn’t a writer. I couldn’t write well. I was a hack. Dulcy’s book being published made no difference. After all, she wrote the book; I simply edited it.
         I knew two things: I could edit; I couldn’t write.

         The years passed with me crafting sentences, seeking to find the cadence of words. Because no agent was interested in representing my writing, the belief that I was a word-dabbler rooted deeper and deeper into my psyche.
         Then in 2011, I began to blog. Several readers commented that my writing was good and so I’ve come to believe that I can write a 600-word story. Yet that realization hasn’t expunged my belief that I’m a rank amateur with regard to writing longer stories that demand well-drawn characters and extended suspense.  
         Recently a psychic told me that in this life I was meant “to let go.” Not of specific things—like the convent or a dysfunctional relationship with a couple who’d been friends for years or a home in Stillwater. No. She meant the mega things—those beliefs that arc my life from beginning to now. During this past week I’ve examined the belief that I’m a charlatan.  

         Now here we are today. I’ve mulled the past, recognized the belief, and read that wonderful word fascinating. It has broken through the bars of my conviction that I can’t write a novel.

         Fran’s word has, literally, freed me from a way of thinking about myself that has shackled me for years. Today I want to thank her for helping me let go of that old belief about myself and my writing. I can write. I can write a novel that will, perhaps, be published. But whatever happens, I will be grateful to this friend for freeing me.
         Peace. And Hallelujah!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

When's a Manuscript Ready to Publish?

In early June, I posted that Judy Healey—a friend and published author of historical fiction—was reading “The Reluctant Spy,” a novel I’ve written that takes place in first-century Palestine. Judy suggested that I explain unfamiliar words, such as jasper ring and tamarisk, and clarify the difference between the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Responding to these suggestions will take little time or effort.
         Her bigger concern—one demanding a restructuring of the first third of the novel—was the dynamic between two of its characters: Ephraim and Daniel. She wanted to know the background of their dissension much earlier than I provided in the novel. I had presented their past in several scenes sprinkled throughout the first third of the manuscript. I hoped this would intensify tension and suspense. That didn’t work for Judy.
         While in Minnesota recently, I enjoyed a working lunch with her. Having read only the first third of the novel, Judy believes its main thrust is the story between Daniel and Ephraim.
         For me, as the author, that thrust is between Ephraim and Yeshua. That’s why I began the novel with a scene between the two of them. However, Yeshua does not appear again with Ephraim until nearly a third of the way through the book, when Part II begins in the Galilee. Then the story line becomes theirs. In the latter part of the manuscript, Daniel re-emerges several times. He’s the catalyst of the ongoing need for Ephraim to attach himself to Yeshua, a man for whom he has only contempt.

Orchards in the Upper Galilee.

         Back in January an editor read the manuscript and made suggestions that led to the deletion of 9,000 words. She thought the novel was ready for publication. So after returning from Minnesota, I was left with a conundrum: to publish the novel as is per the editor’s counsel or to change the first third per Judy’s recommendation.
         Unable to untie this Gordian knot, I asked a friend, who’s a prolific reader although not of historical novels, if she would read the manuscript. I gave her a series of questions to consider in her reading. She’s now gotten back to me. Here’s her e-mail response:

I just finished "The Reluctant Spy" and found it fascinating! I don't usually (almost never) read historical novels because I generally find them to be slow.  I tend to skim through the descriptive parts and to read only the narratives thoroughly.  I determined to read every word of your book and I'm glad I did. Yours required a lot of description in the beginning, but the pace picked up at about page 20 and stayed strong throughout.  
         There are quite a few instances of incorrect punctuation and random typos and spaces that need to be corrected.  
         I loved Ephraim’s conversations with God/Hashem.  
         I felt I got a true understanding on why the characters, especially Ephraim and Yeshua, acted as they did.  
         The only suggestion I can make is to make sure you get it published!

Model of Herod’s Temple at the Israel Museum.

While my friend’s response delights me, I’m still perplexed.  Judy is a published author so her opinion sways me. And yet I know that any reading of a third of a novel over a three-month period needs to be taken with a grain of salt. We seldom hold the intricacies of a book in our heads for three months when we do sporadic reading.
         On the other hand, a friend often cannot be objective even when trying hard to be. Still, this friend has been honest with me before when something I wrote didn’t work for her. Perhaps only those first twenty pages of the novel need recasting.
         Given these three responses, I’m befuddled, wondering if I need to hire another professional editor—Judy gave me the names of two who have helped her—or if I need simply to go for publication.
         As you read this posting—in the United States or Great Britain or Australia or wherever you are—please send me your best thoughts about this manuscript. The truth is I’m confused, wondering if I need to continue to fish or if I should cut bait!