Friday, 28 August 2009

CERTIFYING THE DEATH OF YOUR BOOK

Recently I noticed that my blog has 222 followers (now increased, which slightly spoils the point but please don't go away). I noticed because it's a cute number but then it got me thinking. "Not for 222" is (apparently) the medical code for a hospital patient so close to death that he should not be resuscitated in the event of heart failure.

It got me wondering how a writer decides his beloved book is "not for 222". How many times can you allow it to be rejected? At what point do you decide there's no possibility of life? Is your unpublished book terminally unpublishable?

Strikes me there are two situations where you might have to make the dreaded 222 order on your book.
  1. Your Work in Progress (WIP) is not progressing. It's stuck. What started with an appealing idea and hook has ground to a halt. You have begun to force the plot-line; you know that it all now hangs on an episode which doesn't completely ring true, even to you, but you're determined to make it fit and you pile in more and more things to force the reader to believe in your story. You're starting to bite your nails in your sleep. There are bits of your book that you love and you keep reading them aloud to yourself, marvelling at the gorgeousness of your talent, but you know in a secret and painful part of your heart that your book has been built on sand.
  2. Your finished book has failed (and failed and failed and failed) to find an agent or publisher. Some have given glimmers of hope, which you have clutched at and possibly exaggerated in your mind; your friends and family love your book (duh) but no agent or publisher seems to care about that; your writing group keep telling you to carry on trying - they mop up your tears and tell you you are brilliant and that publishers don't know what they're talking about or are "only in it for the money". (Well, yes, actually, if you mean that they can't afford to make a loss on every book they take on and they do have to eat like the rest of us.)
In each of these cases, a brave decision must be made.

Situation One is an occupational hazard of writing. It's an often fatal illness that happens much more often to books written by inexperienced writers. As you become more experienced, you'll spot the symptoms earlier and treat the cause before it becomes terminal. I have just done this with an idea that I was utterly gripped by until I began to look ahead and think the plot through. I foresaw fundamental problems in motivation and development, so I killed my baby before I'd developed a relationship with it.

(Note: we talk about the importance of "killing our babies" in writing and it strikes me that killing babies is a lot easier than killing adults. Metaphorically, I hasten to add. If you let your book grow and invest huge amounts of time in it, it's much harder to let it go. Whereas, spectacularly unlike real babies, an idea being stillborn is just a pinprick, something you have to get used to. Apologies for the unpleasant analogy.)

Situation Two
"How many rejections should I accept before giving up?" I was recently asked after a talk on how to get published. It's not the first time I've been asked it. Obviously, there is no answer, or not in terms of a number. In theory, you could send it to every agent and publisher who takes that sort of book, which might only be 20 or it might be 100.

But there are two more useful questions you should ask:

1. How many rejections should I accept before doing some radical re-writing of my work?

Answer: not very many, frankly. IF you have submitted your book to the right people (ie you have researched carefully and only sent it to agents and publishers who handle this sort of work) and IF you have followed all the guidelines so far given in this blog and the submission guidelines of the agents and publishers you've approached, and IF your writing is good enough and IF your book is sellable, then it is likely either to have been accepted or to have attracted some specific feedback, even if not an acceptance yet. So, IF the feedback has alerted you to a problem, you should be re-writing now. IF the feedback has either been inconsistent or has suggested nothing, you should consider getting (perhaps paying for) a professional critique of your work. But be careful to research very carefully the "professionalism" of this critiquing ... (Future post topic.)

What do I mean by "not very many"? Well, you ask me for a figure and figures don't really figure in this game. But let's say, for the sake of argument, not more than ten. No, eight. Seven?

"Only seven? Or even ten?" I hear some of you say. Ah, I don't mean you'll only send it to 7-10 agents/publishers; I mean you'll only send it to that many before taking a long hard look at what you've written (another long hard look because of course you've already given it dozens of long hard looks - I mean a long, hard, critical and objective look). Somehow, you must get a good opinion as to what's wrong with your book which means that you haven't yet hooked anyone.

Thing is, if you send it to 25 and they all say "no way" and then you decide you could have written it better, that's 25 publishers you can't really send it to again when you've improved it ... Well, you can, but it's tricky and needs some careful handling.

But I said there were two more useful questions and the second one is even more useful:

2. What should I be doing while my book is out there being read by an agent / publisher / anyone?

And the answer to this is dead easy: you're a writer, aren't you? So you should be writing. You should be throwing yourself into your next idea. If you're not, you're no writer, just a one-book wannabe. And no agent or publisher wants a one-book wannabe. No reader wants a one-book wannabe.

So get writing. Be fickle - turn your back on your beautiful slaved-over book and fall into bed with a new lover.

When you do that, you learn several important things:
  • that your first book may not be as good as you thought it was
  • that you can fall in love again
  • that the death of a book is not the end of you as a writer
  • that being a writer is about striving to be better all the time and that this happens with practice
  • that if your first book is not good enough you actually don't want it to be published
  • that actually you can postpone the 222 decision and wait for new technology to come along (in the form of your new knowledge gleaned from writing the second book) which might cure the disease
  • that if at some point you decide to slap a "not for 222" on your first book, this will be a positive moment in your career as a real writer. And that you will (I promise) get over your apparently tragic loss.
Don't get me wrong: it's tough, it hurts, and even grown men cry. But if you have another WIP, it's not so bad. And you will not regret it. Ever. I don't know a published writer who hasn't got unpublished work in a drawer. And I don't know a published writer who really wishes that that unpublished work was published. God, I'm glad mine wasn't.

And a happy corollary that comes from all this is that resurrection and reincarnation both exist in a writer's world: it can sometimes happen that an idea or a book that died can rise again, later, when you are grown as a writer, and become something so much better and stronger and more beautiful than it first was.

We have to love our books with a passion but sometimes we have to let them die; or leave them lying in bed while we look ahead to the next one to love. Call yourself fickle, call yourself callous - it doesn't matter as long as you are writing.

If you have more than one book in you, let's see it. If you don't, give yourself a 222.

27 comments:

Caroline Dunford said...

I encourage participants in my workshop in dealing with rejection to see all rejection as information. It's a skill in itself learning to read a rejection and something sadly that new and aspiring authors really struggle to do.

janettecurrieconsultancy said...

The first thing I ask unpublished writers looking for a writing critique is whether they are willing to take constructive criticism. I tell them to grow a thick skin around their writing ambitions to prepare them for the harsh realities of publishing.
Sadly, too many people believe the lie that everyone has a book in them - they don't. Some can write and some can read and these are not the same things.

Nicola Morgan said...

caroline and Janette - two expert views - thank you!

It's about getting over that initial horrible disappointment that someone didn't love your work, and moving quickly towards a place of trusting the critic and working towards improvement. The "it's just one person's opinion" thing is something that has to be approached from several different angles, and the more honestly and informedly authors can do that the better for them. I agree - dealing with rejection (and in more ways than just shrugging it off) is a crucial skill.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I finished six manuscripts (and didn't finish others) before I found my groove with Ondine.

Two of those manuscripts *might* be fixable, but if they never see the light of day, that's fine with me.

They were not a waste of time because I learned so much in the process.

Book Maven said...

Congratulations on so many followers in such a short time, Nicola!

I do hope this blog will turn into a published book of the same title - you must have nearly enough material by now.

Juliet Boyd said...

Yes, I can see where the 222 comes from but I won't elaborate just in case there are some very silly people reading who might use the information in an appropriate way. I think the correct term is DNR (Do Not Resuscitate).

I haven't submitted anything to a publisher/agent, but have had rejections from other places, some with feedback. I find the best way to deal with it is to quickly open the envelope and see reject. Then put it away for a week to let yourself accept the rejection. After that, you can go back and read the feedback given with a rational mind and if you're honest with yourself, you will often agree with what is said.

Penny Dolan said...

Hi Nicola,
Have been lurking on this blog for quite a while, so thought today - when I've just sent a chunk of my latest idea to my agent, and before 222 strikes - might be a good moment to say MANY THANKS! Your brisk but friendly words have kept me positively on task (most days)and have even made some of the anxieties enjoyable. Agree with Book Maven's suggestion, though there's something very delightful about the blog format.
But maybe less about the shoes? Too much jealousy damages the writing soul!

Catherine Hughes said...

Ohhh, I think I'm going to cry. This post is right on the nose of my current dilemma.

My first novel - an expanded NaNoWriMo effort that got me started - is in a coma. I know some of it is good (one agent asked for a full but ultimately rejected it) but it needs a major revision that I am not ready to do yet. That's OK. I will make it work eventually (perhaps I need to learn more) and I also have some exciting ideas for sequels to it.

It will live again.

My second novel is a trickier proposition. I love it, adore it, live and breathe it at times. It's characters are real to me and the story could go in so many new directions (I have two concrete sequel ideas already).

I wrote it, revised it twice and sent it out. As the rejections (two fulls but no joy) came in, I was discovering a fatal flaw in my writing: It seems I am not good at finding the right starting point.

(Actually, I must search the blog for advice on where to begin - in the sense that I like to make a powerful opening but then find myself with too much backstory to integrate. Or I start too soon and quickly get boring!)

Anyway, I revised again and sent it out, to just a few agents. And one of the rejections that came back read as follows:

"You can definitely write, but..." followed by an explanation as to how this agent has two other authors on the books writing similar projects) and ending with "I'm sorry to disappoint you but do hope you will continue writing and looking for the right representation."

Now, I had (in my mind, there is one query yet outstanding) called a 222 on that novel. It's about vampires (I promise - swear, cross my heart and hope to die - that my vampires are different) and, no matter what the quality of my writing might be, I fear that the world of publishing is just about all-vamped-out!

And then I get that email! I can't imagine that it was a form reply, and so the fact that this lovely agent has bothered to send me some encouraging words is really screwing with my resolve. I am delighted beyond belief to have some feedback (yes, I know it's just a little bit but don't we authors clutch at every morsel of compliment that comes our way?) and I really appreciate those words.

But it makes me long to revoke my 222.

I don't think I should. I think the agent is referring to me writing something else. I think I have done the right thing in letting it go and moving on.

Nicola, I apologise for the length of my comment, but if you or any of your lovely followers have an opinion on this, I would love to hear it.

I don't want to believe it, but I think that calling a 222 may not always be about the writing but simply a question of the story.

And mine wouldn't sell, no matter how brilliantly I might execute it.

catdownunder said...

Ah yes, this is about getting my cat hair in order isn't it Nicola?
That is what can be good about a blog even when you feel you cannot write anything. You sit down and stare at the screen. You put your paws on the keyboard and tell yourself, "Write something, write anything, keep your claws clipped and get to work." When you have done something you can get back on with the other job. It doesn't matter if nobody else reads it although it is good if they do, even better genuinely decide they actually like it but - write. It will not always work but when it does it feels like a good back scratch.

Iain Broome - Write for Your Life said...

I've been lucky so far and managed to get an agent at the fourth or fifth attempt, but I know plenty of people who have struggled and struggled with their novel. I think it's made all the more difficult because our work came out of our time on a Masters programme (Sheffield Hallam), so the investment, in a sense, has been financial as well as emotional, time-related etc.

I came close to 222ing (?) my novel a couple of times, but stuck with it. It's a horrible decision to have to make.

Donna Gambale said...

Excellent post on a tough subject!

Thankfully, I haven't reached this point yet. I'm about five chapters from finishing my first novel, and then I'll feel the heart-wrenching anxiety that is sending it out into the world of agents.

BUT ... I do understand the reality that maybe, just maybe, this best book that's ever been written in the history of the world may not ever be published.

Do I have the strength to sign a DNR form? Probably not. But I think I could bring myself to sign divorce papers (citing irreconcilable differences, or course). That way, I can officially move on... but I can entertain the dream that maybe a long way down the road we can reunite. It's a slim-to-none chance, but I'm the kind of person that needs the "slim."

Andy Duggan said...

I've been through all this as well, but maybe I can give some figures that might help:

I've got a collection of approx 50 rejections from agents and publishers.

In spite of this, my novel 'Scars Beneath The Skin' was eventually published by Flambard Press.

There was a major rewrite somewhere amongst those 50 rejections, though - prompted by constructive criticism from a writing group.

Suzie F. said...

Hi Nicola,
I love your blog and have been lurking for months. Today's post hit home with me as I'm currently facing the fact that my current WIP isn't going anywhere. Well, maybe somewhere, like a deep, dark desk drawer.

This is actually the second time - my first attempt at a novel was dropped at approx. 10,000 words but I was heading into NaNoWriMo with a fresh idea. Like Catherine Hughs, my second novel was born there, and thriving until April. I was infatuated with my two MCs but got myself into a plot jam. I've been stuck ever since. Then the self-doubting voices began whispering in my ear and I struggled with whether or not I should continue writing at all. Instead, I decided to use this WIP as a learning experience. Editing, rewriting, tightening, researching and reading a ton of books in my genre (MG and YA). I love the process so much and am starting to develop two new ideas.

Thanks so much for your insight and sharing your experiences and knowledge with us.

David Griffin said...

Another excellent post, Nicola (well, they all are).

It must be a terrible sense of loss to finally let go of a novel you've worked on for years. But like all types of grieving, (and it can be that emotional, I'm certain) one can learn from it. Nothing has been wasted in a sense that if the author "picks themselves up, dusts themselves down" and eventually starts another, the new novel will be much stronger. (I think I've just paraphrased what you wrote!)

For interest, I belong to a smaller "club" than some: I had the services of an agent for just over a year, quite a while back now. And because the agency were unable to place my novels, we parted company. (I could mention a few mitigating circumstances here, but I won't bore you). Since then I've tried only a handful of agents over the years, in a sort of half-hearted fashion, really. (i.e if one reputable and well-known London agency didn't want to represent me anymore, why would any other? Silly, I know, but it's taken a long time to get over that thought).

So in a way, lacking confidence and motivation in trying other agents, I've attempted to "smother my children" by simply not getting them out there.

I'm developing habits of a writer who is committed to writing now, writing every day (my third novel), with skeleton outlines for a further two.

I'm going to try agents with determination and give it up to maybe 20 rejections. Only then will I occasionally read from the POD versions of my novels, with the odd sigh, knowing that not many other people will read them; and try the third one (when it's finished).

Grief, who would be a writer? (Millions of us, I know).

DanielB said...

How many people here have seen the X-Files episode "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man"? There is an amusing sub-plot in which the villainous Smoking Man is trying to get a thriller published and it gets rejected and rejected through the years. When he finally gets a "yes" in 1998, his cold persona falls away and he is reduced to naive, almost bumbling gratitude on the phone to the editor!... I mention this because I watched it yesterday and found it very funny.

I have had to "slap a 222" on a novel in the past when the publisher who I thought would be "my publisher" (a reasonable assumption, as they'd published two of my novels) turned it down. My agent tried it elsewhere, but half-heartedly - it was "shop-soiled", so everyone's first question was "So why aren't X & Co. doing this?" It's still in cryogenic suspension, awaiting that revolution in medical science. Parts of it have been siphoned off and used for stem cell research to grow bits of other novels.

That's the second situation Nicola mentions - and I am a little worried that I may also now be facing the first as well! Damn it, I'm supposed to be one of those "experienced writers". It isn't meant to happen to us...

Sue Hyams said...

Oh, how timely! Just yesterday I decided that 222 was the only way forward - only I didn't have a name for it then - for the novel I've been working and working and working on for the past 18 months. The decision had been whacking me on the back of the head for some time but I tried to ignore it. Now, it almost feels like a relief. Almost. Great post - thank you!

Rebecca Knight said...

This is a fantastic post :), especially for those writing/querying their first novels.

Being able to self-diagnose when you get a handful of rejections is so crucial, as well as being able to say "Maybe this isn't as great as I thought it was." It's absolutely how we grow as writers.

I've had to do this with my book, and it was all for the best :). I received two rejections that got me thinking, stopped querying immediately, and got to work! I can safely say that what I have now is 10 times better than my previous book, and all because of the criticism I received.

Thank God for rejection!

Keren David said...

Thanks for sensitivity re dead babies analogy. I can't be the only one who winces when I see words like stillborn used to mean 'something which never should have been born' which is so far from the truth. Fully grown babies - metaphorical or not - are always of value, dead or alive, and sometimes we learn more from those that die than those that live. It may just about be true of writing projects too.

Candy Gourlay said...

222! i learned something new! great post nicola ... i was going to say something intelligent, funny and witty and then realised that you had 18 comments and needed me like a hole in the head. so ... i'll keep it to myself or save it for facebook (which sucks wit like there's no tomorrow).

Nicola Morgan said...

Such wonderful and interesting comments from so many of you that I'm going to do a separate blog post ... Watch this space. Well, no, don't watch this space - watch the next post.

Meanwhile, thank you all very much for sharing your feelings about your dead or ill or comatose books

SleepyJohn said...

Two favourite books from my youth were 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' and 'Jonathan Livingston Seagull'. The first was apparently rejected 121 times and the second 140 times. Both went on to sell many millions. I think an important lesson from these two is that a book, particularly if it is unusual, can be very dependent on 'the mood of the time' - not an easy thing to foretell many months before publication. I suspect neither would have sold a single copy 20 years earlier, or maybe even 20 years later.

The editor whose company first turned down my fairy tale (although she loved it) suggested I leave it in the drawer 'until the times change'. I duly did, and I now duly hope, having recently published it myself, having neither the patience nor the postage (living in NZ) of those two authors.

Deciding whether half a dozen relatives will reluctantly buy your book or it strikes a resonating chord in millions is very far from being an exact science. Have a look here for more fascinating examples like these two - http://www.inkygirl.com/writers-and-rejection-dont-give-up/

BuffySquirrel said...

One of the reasons I grew disillusioned with critiquing was the repeated, "Well, nobody else saw that problem so I'm not going to worry about it." ie 'one person's opinion doesn't count'.

Maybe I saw the problem cos of my years of experience, or cos I actually READ what you wrote, or....

meh

I have many 222 novels. Bless them.

alexander... said...

A very wise and insightful post that I found helpful and useful.

How worrying is that to receive as a comment? :)

I '222ed' my first book and then discovered Harper Collins' authonomy and put it up there. Lo and behold it did well and got picked for a read by an HC editor. The resulting crit was totally useless, but the experience gave me enormous confidence in my writing and cemented my certain knowledge that this is something I will do in my life.

That experience, the feedback it brought and the results of working with other writers I met there on editing my second MS, has transformed my work and my 'writing life'.

I now recognise my first book is not in a publishable state and unlikely to be so without major reconstruction work.

I marvel sometimes at how I could have taken eight years to realise that...

Nicola Morgan said...

Alexander - it took me a lot longer than that ... I think you've done very well to take such strong and difficult but useful messages from your experiences. Good luck with your continued forward march!

BuffySquirrel - yes, I know the feeling. "It's only one opinion" - yes but it could be the right one.

Sleepyjohn - I agree: it can be an inexact science and success can depend on mood. That shouldn't blind us to the aspects which are a pretty exact science and rather predictable

Nicola Kim said...

Very useful information, Nicola and good tips from your followers too. Thanks.

Dark Angel said...

Great advice. I gave myself a year for my YA, and now I'm moving on. It hurts but I figure that those agents and editors that rejected my MS know something I don't.

It could because of the current trends in the market.

What publishers or agents are looking for at the moment.

My "hook" wasn't strong enough.

My MS needs more revision.

Whatever the reason, perhaps give yourself a deadline. Your first book may not be the one that launches your career. But don't give up...

Bob Noxious said...

Many thanks for this. Now halfway through my third novel, I can certainly relate to everything you've said. Made a downtrodden writer feel better this evening.