Monday, August 17, 2015

The End of Eternity

                Hundreds of millions of people have ideas for novels.  Millions make an attempt at writing one, and tens of thousands finish it every year.  By most industry estimates, about 1 in 200 completed and actively marketed novels make it into print with a mass-market publisher.  Some larger percentage are “self-published.”

                My first novel, Axis of Eternity, failed to make the cut.  The last reasonable prospect of publication died this week.  This brought an end to a 25-month process that included six full-draft revisions and over a dozen smaller iterations of the book, including a full switch from first to third person, 120 individually-researched queries to small publishers and literary agents, participation in four online twitter pitch events, and the creation of the author site you’re now reading.  It was a long and arduous journey that taught me a lot about what it means to be an author; specifically, it taught me that being an author in this era is a very different proposition than being a writer.


                I’ve discussed some of the marketing successes and failures of the book here before.  The final numbers bear out that I’m better at writing than I am at selling my writing.  Query letters are a weird beast.  The writer is expected to hook the agent/publisher in a quick pitch, which is essentially what would be on the back of the book jacket; on the basis of this and a couple of sample chapters, the agent or publisher either asks to see more, sends a polite form rejection, or pretends not to have read it (the industry standard is “no response means no”).  My 120 queries ended up producing 10 requests to read the full text.  This is a poor request rate by any standard, though it improved in the later stages of the process as I improved in the art of the query.  I recognize that the publishing industry needs gatekeepers, but I can’t say I enjoyed singing for my supper in this manner; it's a weird little game in which every agent wants something slightly different and pitched to their own personal quirks.  My recent forays into short fiction revealed that selling a short story is a far more direct process in which a universal standard predominates; it felt more professional.

                Ten industry professionals read either all or a substantial portion of Axis before rejecting it.  With the exception one highly respected agent who asked to see the whole thing and then never wrote back, everyone was a big fan of my line-by-line writing skills.  The virtually unanimous sentiment, however, was that the plot of the book was not sufficiently engaging, especially in the early chapters, to hold the readers' interest.  That’s a problem, and the consensus was too broad for me to dismiss it out of hand.  My book might be boring.

Even loving my work as I do, I think I can understand the complaint.  I’ve created an unusually complicated narrative in which the protagonist is effectively an amnesiac who’s searching for his identity, which can make him hard for readers to relate to.  The rules the book establishes for life and death in a postmortal world are complex and have to be established in detail in order for the plot to make sense, so the early chapters are heavy on world-building.  I struggled for a long time to create a character with whom female readers could identify, and even the much-improved Emily of my latest drafts doesn’t provide the romantic hook that’s become ubiquitous in modern teen fiction—her relationship with the (not terribly attractive) male lead is more of a study in how teen relationships fail than an escapist fantasy about how they might succeed.

                Axis of Eternity is a book that’s intended to make teen readers uncomfortable instead of comfortable, and it’s a book that takes the intelligence of its audience very seriously.  It is a book that rewards reflection and patience.  If a reader were to call it boring, I couldn’t say they were objectively wrong—and that’s a risk a YA author can’t run if they want to get published.  Make no mistake, I don’t find it boring.  15-year-old me would have loved it.  But 15-year-old me was a weird little dude, and I can’t fault publishers and agents for thinking there weren’t enough kids like him around to make this a project worth taking on.

                The closest I came to getting over the hump was an extended interaction with a small Texas publisher who’ve published some of my shorter work.  They offered two revise and resubmit requests with a number of specific tweaks, some of which greatly improved the novel and some of which I think it’s better off without.  I recrafted to their specifications in every instance.  Ultimately they couldn’t offer a contract because they feared a backlash by conservative Christians, whom they felt would find the book’s reformulation of Judeo-Christian mythology disconcerting.  This, they feared, would jeopardize the school outreach which was their principal sales vector.  I have to say that this is a rejection I was proud to read.  I don’t think any serious Christian is going to have much of a problem with the book, but if unserious Christians—which is to say, people who haven’t put some work into intellectual justification of their faith--find it challenges their dogma, then the book is doing what I want it to do.  I was pleased to work with this publisher, even if I couldn’t seal the deal, and I’m glad our relations remain cordial.


            So what did I learn from these two years of Eternity? 

I learned how much the hook matters—that being a good writer is not enough, that there’s got to be something in the first few pages that’s utterly extraordinary, something that makes teenagers feel compelled to take the plunge. 

I learned that it’s best to subvert only one trope at a time—that the reader will follow you to some strange places, but only if there’s a lifeline back to the familiar. 

I love complexity, but I learned that I need to use it sparingly, the way a cook uses spices, rather than to make it the main ingredient.

I learned that there’s a lot of difference in quality and professionalism among literary agents, and that the ones with the best reputations and client lists are not always the ones with whom a new author would want to work.  I learned that some of the best agents out there are the ones on their way up, and I suspect an up-and-coming writer would do well to hitch himself to one of their stars.

I learned that most successful literary agents treat online pitch events as a dumpster dive.  But I also learned that not every good agent is successful, and that there’s some quality stuff in dumpsters if you’re willing to dig for it.  I’m not above being part of that scene, not by a long shot.

I learned that I’m much more effective when my work is able to speak for itself—as is the case with my short stories--than when I’m trying to sell it by describing it.  I don’t suspect I’ll ever be a good enough marketer to be a really successful novelist.  A good novelist STARTS with a salable premise; I didn’t, and one never emerged.  I write out of passion for an idea.  My passions are different from those of the mass market.  That’s a problem.  Finding my niche will take some doing.

I learned to put the action up front in YA.  And in the middle as well.  And at the end.  And in the spaces in between.  More kissing and more impalements next time.

I learned just how thick a guy’s skin has to be to get anywhere as a writer.  I have never experienced serial rejection at this level before.

I learned that my talent is not incandescent—that I might be good, but I’m certainly not good enough to make it as a writer without outworking an awful lot of other people.  A writer has to be both lucky and good; I have to work to be good enough that when I become lucky, I can make it matter.

I learned a great deal about the manufacture of crossbows.

And I learned that failure can be fun.  I didn’t do as well with this novel as I thought I would, but I did have an exceedingly productive and enjoyable midlife crisis.  The hours (and hours and hours) that I poured into this escapade could have been (and would have been) spent on less worthwhile pursuits.  And I came away with some nice consolation prizes, including a number of published short stories and more in the works.  I’ve got a framework to work from should I decide to try again.  It could well be that next summer I’ll be putting you through all of this again with Silvertongue:  A Tale of Voluntary Human Extinction.


As for Axis of Eternity, well…I’ve put all of you through way too much blather about it not to let you read it at this point.  If you’ve been patient enough to bear with me through all of this, I’m certain you’re patient enough to handle the book itself.

So here’s how this will work.  This Sunday, I’ll post the first five chapters of Axis of Eternity.  Every Sunday following, I’ll add an installment, a chapter or two at a time.  If you like what you’re reading, tell a friend.  Preferably a young adult friend.  If you don’t like what you’re reading, tell a friend about something else.  We'll see what happens.  One way or another, the book will exist in a form that kids can read it.  One might even call it "published," for a given value of the word.

It’s THE BOOK THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY DOESN’T WANT YOU TO READ!  Soon, you’ll be able to decide for yourself whether you share their judgment.

          I am at peace with the outcome.  Because Axis of Eternity's major lesson was always that death, like life, is what you make of it.

         Sing it, Leonard.