The Road to Revolutionary

Whenever I talk writing with folks, I find that there is as much interest in the process as there is in the product.  In other sections of this blog I've written about some of the process -- particularly the research -- but I want to write here about the progression from idea to draft to revision to manuscript and from there to agents and publishers and editors and so on... I can't pretend that I have general answers to questions such as "How do I find an Agent?"  But I can write about my own experiences and hope that they prove helpful (or at least entertaining) to others.

Section 1: Where it all began: VCFA

Section 2: Putting Pen to Paper

Section 3: The First Share

Section 4: What to do with those Notes?

Section 6: Sending out the Query Letter

Section 7: Signing with an Agent

Section 8: Now that I have an Agent, what happens?

Section 9: Selling to a Publisher

Section 10: Sold!

Where it all began: VCFA

Let me sing, for a moment, the praises of my MFA program, which is where Revolutionary began and without which Revolutionary would not have been possible.  Starting in the winter of 2009, I attended the low-residency MFA in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  For those not familiar with low-residency programs, this meant that I went to the campus (in lovely Montpelier) twice a year (July and December/January) for a residency of 11 days.  Between these visits, I worked one-on-one with a faculty member, going through a reading list, composing critical essays, and writing fiction.  The program is two years (four semesters, five residencies) long and for the first year I worked on short fiction with Chris Noel and Nance Van Winckel.  

To some, a low-residency program might sound a little rinky-dink.  I've had friends ask if it's like a correspondence course.  Well, I did send the packets of my writing in the mail, but the comparison ends there.  It was a real community of real writers, all the more real for the fact that we all had other jobs as well as MFA-work to contend with.  So, while I wasn't immersed in campus life all the time, I was immersed in the writing life (the real writing life, where reality intrudes often and inconveniently) all the time.  

To put it bluntly, I doubt I ever would have written a novel if I hadn't gone to VCFA.  And it wasn't just the craft that I learned that enabled me to write a novel -- it was the community.  At each residency, there were lectures and workshops and readings and time to relax and converse.  It was intense community.  More than any individual moment of learning or sharing, what I absorbed was the modeling of curiosity and courage.  People wanted to listen and talk about what you were writing and what they were writing; people wanted to give and receive feedback about their ideas.  My classmates and faculty were daring -- writing in multiple genres, taking on ambitious projects.  

After two semesters of writing short stories I felt that I understood the basics of how to do that (not that I claim to do it particularly well, but I felt competent) and what I had learned from my classmates was that writing wasn't about feeling comfortable and competent.  As I recall, I went out for an afternoon (frigid) walk in Montpelier on one of the first days of my third residency; later we would have conversations with potential faculty advisers, and I needed to come up with a plan of what I wanted to accomplish in my third semester.  More stories?  What sort?  With what goal in mind?  A little voice in my mind whispered: if I don't write a novel now, when will I next have the chance?  The chance to write it and get feedback, the chance to learn how to write as I write, the chance to try out a new style in a supportive community? 

I'd had the idea of writing about Deborah Samson in a distant mental recess for quite a while -- long enough that it had been down-graded from a potential topic to a remote possibility to a total pipe dream.  But as I walked around, I thought, why not?  In fact, what I thought was: no faculty would let me work on this project.  After all, by the third semester, a student should be showing some mastery, not looking to strike out in a totally new direction.  But, to my surprise, as I soon found myself sketching out a vague semester plan for writing a novel of historical fiction to faculty members, most of them said: great, give it a try, if you feel passionate about it, you should do it, and so on.  

I ended up working with Ellen Lesser that semester, who tirelessly read my first drafts.  From January to June, I churned out 250 pages (or so) for her to read; she was insightful, she was patient, she was instructive, she was always encouraging.  And then I had my final semester with Clint McCown, who read the entire manuscript (finished at 330 pages), critiqued it, and identified the top ten sections to change, which formed the basis of our semester's work.  (I'll go more into this process in later entries.)  During the residencies between these semesters, I shared sections of my work with my classmates and in workshop.  

It might have been easy to quit or to put the work aside for a while if I hadn't had such structure and support.  The MFA program taught me how to keep working, how to write consistently, and how to forge ahead through sticky spots.  My classmates and faculty mentors gave me that ultimate mixture of critique and encouragement.  Sometimes people say that writing is a lonely endeavor.  It can be, I guess, but it doesn't have to be.  Sure, you might write in solitude, but writing doesn't stop there.  Writing occurs in the community of fellow-writers and readers as well.  

Perhaps for you it isn't an MFA program, but a conference or two, or a writing group, but if you are wondering how to start your novel, I suggest you find some kindred spirits.  Go off on your own and write and then bring what you have to share.  
This post will likely strike some as mundane advice, but I would claim that it is the most important aspect of writing a novel.  That is, the writing itself.  One of my favorite professors put it this way: most of the folks how have problems writing have a problem with their butts, not with their brains.  In other words: put your butt in the chair and write.  

Everyone these days leads a busy life.  If you're going to write, you're going to need to find time to write.  For me, this meant establishing some time every single day. I am a schedule sort of guy, and I had already gotten in the habit of carving out pieces of time in this manner.  So, for instance, I get up and exercise first thing in the morning before work.  An hour, every day, whether I feel like it or not.  I took the same attitude with writing my novel.  With short fiction, I had slightly different habits, writing for longer stretches when I had the time and then letting it sit for a bit, then going back.  But with a novel, where I knew one session of writing might not generate much forward progress, I knew I would have to work more consistently.

Writing a bit of the novel every day lets me stay in the flow of the story, lets me keep in the voice of the characters, and hold the world I'm writing about in my imagination.  Not writing for too long every day is also profitable: I have time away from the draft to think about my next step or to reconsider what I have just written.  I also don't resent giving up the time so much if it isn't a huge chunk of hours.

Some days, a half hour or forty-five minutes is all that my schedule will allow.  Fine.  A little time spent writing every day is exponentially more beneficial than one long session a week.  

The specifics of writing Revolutionary... I began in January, in the midst of a season where I was coaching ice hockey.  There was a fifty minute window most days between the end of teaching classes and the start of my practice.  This became my writing time.  Home from school, into comfy clothes, and at my notebook.  I write my first drafts by hand, and as I was in the MFA program at the time, I had specific packet deadlines and goals to reach each month, which also helped to keep me on track.  Perhaps because of this, consistent practice has become very important to me.  With Revolutionary, I drafted by hand until I had reached the end of an episode (what might later become a chapter or two).  Then I would type this section up, which sometimes required going back to previous sections to revise and make sure everything lined up.  Once my typed version had caught up with my handwritten manuscript, I'd resume drafting new sections.  I allowed myself to do a little research on the fly as I typed (consulting internet sources) but no research when I was drafting by hand.  In between finishing one section and starting the next, I'd give myself a little time to research to prepare for what I was writing next.  But nothing got in the way of the daily writing time.  

I don't want to sound preachy, but, of all the steps, this is really the most crucial one.  To get an agent, to sell a novel, one first has to write a novel.  And writing doesn't just happen spontaneously... 

Through short daily sessions (and longer ones over my spring break) I wrote a full draft of the novel by the end of May.  It was rough, but -- because of the alternation between handwriting and typing -- it had already been through one round of revision. I told myself I wouldn't do any major overhauls until I had seen it through to the end (I feared that if I started tearing the opening or middle apart, I wouldn't ever reach the end).  

And that's the gist of what I think is the most important advice for those who want to write a novel.  Settle on an idea... and write.  Every day.  No matter what.  Draft and draft and draft.  Keep your forward momentum.  Don't seek an audience just yet, not until you have a sense of it in your mind.  Talking to others about ideas that you haven't yet written is, for me, a risky endeavor.  Speaking about scenes and plot and character can diffuse the energy that would have been better spent on writing.  Likewise, sharing a draft too early can allow someone else to squelch an idea that deserves exploration.  But mostly, write, consistently and persistently.

Section 3: The Time to Share

The question of what to share and when is a touchy one and one that is, I'm sure, highly individual.  But for me, the question isn't so much what or when, but WHY.  Why do you want to share your draft?  If you can't answer this question, then you aren't ready to share.  Once you begin to answer this question, you should be honest with yourself... really honest.  Do you just want someone to appreciate what you've done?  Do you want critical feedback?  Comments?  If so, do you want general comments or notes on the level of words?  

Ask yourself what you're ready to hear... and then admit: what do you want to hear and what would you be devastated to hear?  If there are comments (in general or coming from a specific person) that would make you abandon the draft then (unless you're looking for a reason to jump ship), then you want to proceed carefully.

Don't be afraid to tell the reader what you're looking for in the feedback.  When I share a draft with someone, I like to be clear.  First I just ask if they are willing to read something and then I'll say: could you tell me if the opening works?  Or, would you let me know if it holds your interest?  Or, does the dialogue seem realistic?  And so on.  Often, I find that receive more useful feedback if I point the reader to one area to focus on.  Of course, the risk is that they read with just this area in mind and don't give enough thought to other problems in the text.  But I feel that risk is worth it.  Too often, I've handed a draft to a reader and received feedback that just isn't helpful.  Maybe they are too nice.  Or perhaps they start picking on word choice when the draft is still really rough.  So, ask yourself what you want from the feedback and then ask your reader to give that to you.

I always like my earliest readers to be a friend, someone I know well, or someone I regularly exchange writing with.  For me, having a rapport with the person who does the first or an early read means that I know that they'll get back to me (or I can ask them about it) and that they'll tend to be kind but also honest.  Usually, in my first read I want to know whether things made sense, whether the reader felt that anything was missing (or belabored), and whether the story is interesting or compelling.

After this first share, it is often back to the drawing board for me.  But, if the first read went well, I will then shift up a notch and try to find someone to share with who will give more specific critical feedback.  At the second round of sharing, I want someone to pick out the trouble spots and identify 2-5 aspects I can improve on.  Sometimes these are global (make your minor characters more vivid) and sometimes they are specific (the opening scenes drag).  But what I'm looking for with this share is to get a sense of where to attack the draft next.

Only after I revise based on these comments do I feel ready to share with someone who is going to be more nitpicky.  I'll be honest.  The smaller comments are the ones that really bother me.  It is so easy to find a flaw in any given sentence... and those flaws just don't matter if the story as a whole doesn't work.  So I want to be sure to get that level of critique, but not at a point where the comments are irrelevant.

Again, as I said in my earlier post, this is the place where being in an MFA program was extremely helpful for me.  My faculty mentors were, needless to say, wonderful readers.  In the absence of this program, I've been lucky to have friends, family, and colleagues who are willing to step in and read.  I'm always aware that I'm asking a huge favor - a big time commitment - and I try to ask people for whom I'll be able (someday or in someway) to return the favor.

I've touched briefly on it in this post, but the goal of sharing is to get the notes so that I can revise.  And that's what I'll write about next... what to do with the feedback you get!

Section 4: What to do with those notes

It's one of those funny facts: I hand my manuscript over to someone else and then I both can't wait to hear what they have to say and simultaneously dread what they have to say.  In my MFA program, the notes came via the mail and could be absorbed in my own way and on my own time.  The same with notes from my editor after I had sold the manuscript.  I like this so much more than the oral critiques in workshop. Not that those aren't valuable, but I like to sit with the comments and consider them.

When I read notes, I remind myself of two things:  first, the comments are just the comments of one reader.  Second, the comments are from someone who read the manuscript.  Which means... sure, it is only one opinion, but its a valid opinion from a reader.  There's a fine line to be found between dismissing comments too readily (and being defensive about one's work) and taking every comment to heart (and making every change a person suggests).

Once I've gathered notes from folks (again, ideally from a couple of people), I read through and think about each one.  I never change anything right away.  I like to read notes while I'm taking time off from that particular manuscript, so that I already have some distance from it and start to think of it objectively.  I take notes on the notes. If something grabs me, I might sketch out some possibilities.  Say a person comments that a scene didn't seem realistic -- I might jot down some solutions and ways around that.  Mostly I imagine: what would that look like if I did that... How could I get the effect they want... Why did they miss the point of that chapter?  I try to take the comments and make them productive.

Sometimes comments strike me initially as unhelpful (i. e. "the middle is slow") because they are too vague.  But I've learned to recognize that this is me being lazy.  General and overview comments often point to larger issues, ones that are hard to find a quick fix for, but that require a real gutting of a section or a structure.  Of course a writer's initial reaction is going to be: it works fine the way it is.  But that's just laziness, at least in many cases.

My favorite next step - once I have gathered the notes, jotted some thoughts and comments, and sat with them for a while - is to pick the ones that strike me as most pressing or more interesting to work on.  Then I go back to drafting by hand but without looking at the previous draft.  If I open up what I'd written earlier, I feel as though it is "finished" and I tend to sway back to that version.  Instead, I like to start from scratch and keep my focus on the notes and comments I've compiled. It is actually pretty interesting to then take the new draft and compare it to the previous one... just to see how much of the original I (without trying) got exactly the same.  This might sound time intensive, but it is the only method I've found that keeps me from using the original version as a crutch or an excuse.

I have found that sometimes, in the process of revising and rewriting, even on notes that I'm not sure I agree with, I will write my way into an interesting new scene or find that the work branches out from the original goal to something else -- rewriting has a pace and focus all its own, and once I start to reimagine the story, even if I thought I was just working on a part, I find that I want to go and tweak other sections.  This almost never happens if I simply start re-reading the manuscript from the start and telling myself I'll make changes.  I have to step back and approach it anew.

This method means that I'll often end up with multiple versions of the same scene (or, if I am revising a shorter piece, multiple versions of the entire piece).  Sometimes the differences are significant; sometimes they are virtually the same except for addressing one or two small points.  When I get to this stage, I am reminded of a writing exercise I sometimes have my fiction writing class do if they are stuck with a scene they feel needs improvement.  I tell them to pick three ways to rewrite it significantly:  change the POV or change the setting... see if you can shake anything loose.  Often, I end up having inadvertently completed this exercise, and I can then combine the changes, or compare them and pick the best one.

Of course, it does happen that sometimes the revisions are worse than what I started with.  But that's not time wasted.  Trying a suggestion or pursuing an idea only to have it fail can make me feel more confident in the other version.  Or it can provide insight in how to rewrite (or not rewrite) another scene that suffers from a similar problem.

So, that's the gist of what I do with the comments I get.  It is a piecemeal approach, and once I've done all the rewriting and comparing, I then return to the original manuscript and go back to the start, stitching in the new stuff and, of course, changing even more aspects as I work along.  Just recently, I did veer away from this technique, having been handed a set of comments on a novel that made me realize I had to change so much of the trajectory that I would be better off starting the whole thing over from scratch.  It was a *gulp* sort of moment to open up a blank notebook, knowing that I had 300 pages on the computer and that, at one point, I had thought the draft was "done" (done as a draft, but still done).  But with such extensive changes to plot, theme, and character, there was no way to take it piece by piece.  I'm still waiting to encounter the other extreme: the draft I give to readers and get back only with the comments: change nothing... it's great!  Not going to happen (or, if it does, I'll just doubt my readers!).

Next up... the steps that follow revision (okay, more revision follows revision, but after that): sending it out to agents!

Section Five: The Hunt Is On... Finding an Agent

There are endless online and print sources for information on how to find an agent.  So, while I don’t expect I’ll write anything you can’t find somewhere else, I hope this tale is interesting.  Stories of finding an agent are their own sort of genre: a mix of the hero’s journey and a comedy with sometimes a little darkness thrown in there.

My quest began a little after the end of my MFA program.  Spurred by my awesome classmates and professors, I worked over the manuscript of Revolutionary one more time, trying to tighten and define the narrative.  When I felt it was good – when I started to feel that if I kept fiddling with it, I might make it worse – I turned to work on a much harder piece of writing: the query letter.

Again, internet advice abounds, and I’ll just add my two cents.  A query letter should be short.  As short as it can be.  It should be a mix of professional and personal.   Mostly professional: you want the agent to be interested in your novel.  But, personality sells too.  These days, a compelling author story can be pretty important.  However compelling your personal story might be, though, it won’t sell a novel alone... the novel has to be the most important thing.

So, after a super-short statement of purpose (I’m looking for an agent for my novel Revolutionary, which is complete at 100,000 words), I went straight to a synopsis.  Here’s what a synopsis isn’t: it isn’t a review.  It doesn’t say how great or thrilling your book is.  It doesn’t comment extensively on your style.  Here’s what a synopsis is: a brief, taut statement of what your novel is about, listing key details of character, setting, plot, and theme.  It is an overview; it should give the sense of the story, a feeling of the arc.  In terms of a useful comparison, it should be most like what you’d find on the back of a book (only better!). 

I found the synopsis quite tricky.  I kept getting too detailed, spelling out the twists and turns of the plot.  Or I’d be too vague and feel like I was misrepresenting the novel (it’s not really a love story... or an adventure story...).  It took multiple drafts (and a couple of friendly readers who had read the manuscript and so knew what I was trying to describe) before I felt settled in the synopsis.

From there, I followed with two short paragraphs about myself.  One was the personal – the reason why I was the writer to tell this particular story.  Here, I felt my connection merited a full paragraph; this might not be the case for other writers.  But, being that I was related to Deborah Sampson  and being that I had (in a very loose sense) gone through a similar transformation (from living as a woman to living as a man), I thought that my personal story might be a selling point for some agents.

The second paragraph was more on the professional side.  I presented myself as a writer.  I mentioned my MFA, I mentioned a few (and I emphasize a few) of my publication credits and the awards I’d won or been nominated for.  Friends of mine who have a more robust presence in blogs and other social media make mention of that in their query letters; this is part of your professional persona as a writer and might draw an agent in: you are person who can market yourself.

And that was it.  Short and sweet.  The next step was to figure out: who to send this to... (and that’s the next post’s topic).

Section 6: Sending out the Query Letter

In looking for an agent, I followed the tried and true method of finding books that were similar to my manuscript and looking into who had agented those manuscripts. As a backup to this method, I also used QueryTracker, an online database and resource center. It was all too easy to find agents who accepted manuscripts, who said they were looking for new voices, who even expressly wanted historical fiction manuscripts with strong female protagonists (done!). In fact, I ended up with so many places where I could send a query that it was overwhelming.

I did as much research as the internet would allow into how many manuscripts an agent had sold and of what type, what their acquiring tendencies were, and so on. And then, I started to take shots in the dark. As I do with submissions of short fiction, I decided I would send my query out to about a dozen agents, wait a month, and see what I heard. I’d start with the “top” – those who had sold well and represented big names – and go from there. After a month, I’d send out a dozen more.

First suggestion here: read directions carefully. Every agent wants something different. They usually, if they are actually interested in reading and receiving queries, state very explicitly what you should and should not send. Though this seems to be self-evident, I’ve heard that it is not: send what they ask for. It’s just like your second grade teacher said: follow directions.

So, what happened with me? Well, within days, then weeks, then months, I got almost every response that you could get: an almost immediate NO. A request for a partial manuscript, a request for a full manuscript, a polite and personal NO, suggestions for revision, no response at all. I heard everything except yes. So, what did this tell me? It told me that my query letter was good; it was piquing agents interest and getting them to request the manuscript. But my manuscript wasn’t there yet. At least not for the twenty-four or so agents that I’d sent to. As they said – interesting, good, but they hadn’t fallen in love.

I wondered whether the trick here was to find the proverbial needle in the haystack; whether I was searching for my manuscript’s soul mate. It seemed like I could go on querying forever, hoping that someone would fall in love. It was about at this point that I mentioned to my brother that I was sending my novel out to agents, and he said he had a friend with an agent, maybe I should send it there. He contacted the friend, who contacted the agent, who said, sure, send it along. I did. She sent it back after a while saying, as others had, I really liked it, but it needs revision.

At this point, I took a deep, nearly overwhelming breath. It was time to revise. I gathered the notes from the three or four agents who had taken the time to read and reply with suggestions. I emailed each of them to say: thank you for your notes, I intend to revise according to them, and I hope you’ll consider looking at the manuscript when I am done with this revision process. Two of them replied almost immediately saying they looked forward to it.

That was a hard step. It felt like regression. I had believed that my manuscript was ready, but the querying process told me otherwise. It said, close but not quite. So, for about four months, I hunkered down with the manuscript and set about rewriting it. Each agent’s notes suggested something different: shorter opening, more tense battle scenes, better definition of minor characters. I started over from a blank page for many scenes, a process that was at first frustrating but gradually became reassuring; I felt certain I was making it a better book.

Only after I was done – revisiting earlier stages in my blog posts! – did I decide to send it out to agents once again. The first four to whom I sent it (after confirming they’d be willing to look at it again), were the four who gave notes on the original draft. After them, I began my “dozen a month” method. And within six weeks or so, I got the reply that I had been waiting for... that yes... and that’s what I’ll blog about next.

Section 7: Signing With an Agent

It came in an email... about two months after I'd sent the revised manuscript out.  It remains one of the top ten emails I have ever received.  After sending and hearing a mix of no, not quite, not yet, not ever, and silence, I finally heard -- this manuscript is what I'm looking for.  Sure, I liked the praise the email offered, but the best part was the final line:  "I'd like to take you on as a client and sell your book."

I had been so focused on the process of revision, querying, more revision, more querying... that all my energy had been centered on acquiring an agent.  I hadn't even thought about (or researched) the next step.  But there was that magic word: sell!  As excited as I was, I also knew I had to take a step back and enter into this process rationally.

The agent who sent the email is the wonderful Alison Fargis of Stonesong.  She was the agent recommended by my brother's friend, one of the handful who, after requesting a partial manuscript and then a full manuscript had taken the time to offer rich and constructive comments to guide my revision, and then had taken even more time to read the revised manuscript.  Already, based on this interaction, I knew I wanted to work with this person: she was clear, she was direct, she was caring.

We set up a phone call and talked a little bit about the manuscript and a little bit about the business side.  I didn't have the full picture of what an agent did -- all I knew was that as an author I needed one -- so Alison filled me in about the process and what her role would be.  It was a great phone call; she fielded all my questions (patiently) and conveyed enthusiasm and faith in the manuscript. We talked about what the next steps would be and what further revisions would look like. In every aspect of the conversation, I felt that we had the same goals; I felt like she understood my novel. In short, I felt like I was in the hands of a pro.

I suppose this is the place where I should weigh in with some advice for others who are going through this process -- or who hope someday to go through the process.  I have heard tales of writers who query and query and query and then, when they get an offer from an agent, are so delighted, sign on without a second thought or careful consideration.  Needless to say, this is a big business decision and a personal one as well.  You are trusting your work, your artistry, your voice, with another person -- you want to make sure you share a vision.  So, though it is tempting to say yes! without taking time to consider all the dimensions, my best advice is to take several deep breaths and believe in yourself.  Ask to contact other clients of the agent; ask them about their experiences.  Take your time with email and phone calls (don't hound the agent, of course) to make sure the fit is a good one.

In my case, the fit was great... and following the phone call came the contract in the mail. I consulted with some friends from my MFA program who had agents just to make sure that everything was standard.  It was.  I signed.  And from there the journey has been wonderful.  But it has been a journey!  When I started the process of writing Revolutionary, I wasn't thinking about getting an agent... and when I started the process of getting an agent, I wasn't thinking about selling the novel.  Maybe I just need more foresight.  But really, I think that the world of publishing is rather opaque until an author gets on the inside.

For me, once signed, the next step of the journey was... you guessed it... more revision!

Section 8: Now that I have an Agent, what happens? 

The initial excitement of signing that contract hadn’t faded a bit... and I felt ready for the next step. But I had no idea what that was! My MFA program had talked a lot about writing, a fair amount about working for/with literary magazines and the submission process there, and very, very little about the business side of things after that. (For the record, I think that’s healthy; I liked that my MFA program was focused on the craft. That’s the main goal, after all. That’s what’s important.)

So, I peppered Alison with a million questions (and still had a million remaining) but the most pressing query was: what happens next? Answer: we get the manuscript ready to send out. And this didn’t mean stuffing it into envelopes. Instead, Alison sent me more notes with suggestions on how to revise and also got a couple of other agents to read it in order to get a few fresh perspectives in there. Her concern was, primarily, the opening, and I worked that sucker over and over. (Maybe at some point I’ll do a totally craft-oriented series of blog posts and share some of what I learned (and also what I still haven’t learned) about openings).

Alongside this revision, we got together a package of material to make potential publishers interested: a biography and resume and pitch letter. This is sort of like a query letter on steroids, from what I can tell. I also assembled some clips from my earlier media appearances and interviews, since that personal storyline relates in some way to the novel’s storyline.

I was dying to know what the submission process to publishers would be like, and as I asked around, I realized how different it is for everyone. It is, in some ways, similar to querying agents. You do your research (or in this case, your agent does your research) and find out who is looking for your sort of work, what they have bought in the past, and probably a hundred other factors that I know nothing about. So, while Alison put all this together, I revised. And then revised some more.

At this stage, I felt an odd mix of both lost and found. Found, because signing with an agent had boosted my confidence: someone else had liked my writing and felt it could be sold. And lost because the next level seemed so daunting – professional, big time publishers would be reading it. Also, I had revised the manuscript so intensely (and in such a short period of time) that I had lost some perspective on it. I made sure to ask a couple folks to read it who had never looked at it before.

And then... after one more read through, it was ready... and then it was sent. I heaved a sigh of relief (it always feels good to have something off my desk and onto someone else’s, even with the uncertainty) and told myself to be patient. I thought that the process might well take as long as querying agents had (months and months). Plus, I knew that sometimes no editor made an offer in the first round of submissions, or the offers wouldn’t be what you wanted. I was ready to wait. (Albeit waiting of the sort where I checked my email constantly.)

Luckily, I didn’t have to wait that long... and that’s the next entry I’ll add!

  Section 9: Selling to a Publisher

The much-revised (or so I thought at the time) manuscript, the biography,the pitch letter, the supporting materials... all this went out to the editors my agent had contacted and found interested.  I braced myself to wait a very long time to hear something, or to hear nothing at all.  But, within a week, I had an email from my agent saying that some editors were interested and wanted to talk with me.

Talk with me?!  I'm much more comfortable with the written word!  She scheduled a couple of conference calls with those who were interested and assured me that the phone conversations would be a chance for the editor to express what he or she liked about the manuscript, what would be points to work on, how the publishing house worked, and a moment for the editor to see how "promotable" I was.  It all sounded great until that last one.  Gulp.

But I geared myself up and had the calls -- as it turns out, they went fine.  I mean, conference calls are always a bit awkward with pauses and people talking over each other at times, but the substance was good. The editors gave me a sense of how they would work, what they might want to change about the manuscript, and what parts they liked.  We talked mostly about the writing and the business end, but there were exchanges about personal life, background, the process of writing the novel and so forth.  I was nervous about how I'd presented everything, but also heartened to hear that the editors all liked the general shape of the narrative (no one wanted massive changes to plot) and shared some common concerns -- about the opening (still?!) and minor characters and such.

IN the wake of those calls, I was dizzy - editors were interested! The manuscript was being seriously considered!  My agent set up an auction and asked for bids within a week.  She was great -- answering my questions and explaining how the process worked and keeping me in the loop.  In the grand scheme of things, a week is no time at all, but man, did that week seem long!  At the end of it, she took the top offer and gave editors a 24-hour window to change their bids in light of the high offer.

I distinctly remember getting her email when I checked at the end of the class day:  Call me!  I waited for the last student to leave the room (was it just me, or was he moving really slowly?) and then grabbed the phone. Alison explained the final offers... and I was floored.  Someone (someones, actually) really wanted to purchase my novel.  I took some calming breaths and we discussed things rationally.  Or as close to rationally as I could muster.

A few more phone calls to the editor, a flurry of emails, and that was that.  The book was sold.  The contract would be in the mail.  Of course, there were then lots of phone calls from my end... to my parents and friends and family to share the good news.  But, for a few weeks, anyway, it was calm from a writing end.  I waited for the contract to arrive and for the next stage to begin -- the editing process.

Section 10: Sold!

I recently had coffee with the editor, Anjali Singh, who purchased my novel.  Though we'd communicated over the phone, through email and even (gasp!) using the postal service, I hadn't met her in person.  By the time we sat down together, the manuscript was through copy-editing and Anjali had left S&S.  So, our conversation was quite retrospective, talking about the process and changes made, and how editing in general works.  Having come to the end of the editing process and feeling very good about the work I did with Anjali (she was fantastically clear, precise and insightful with her commentary), I offered the following analogy to her:

Editors are like the stereotypical girlfriend, who finds a guy and declares: I love you, you're perfect, now change.  

I didn't mean this to be insulting (and she didn't take it that way); I just meant to express some of my confusion at the start of the editing process.  This person had just bought my novel -- that meant she really liked it, right?  But then the editorial letter (ten single-spaced pages) arrived... listing all the things that had to go, that had to be altered, that needed to be fleshed out, that needed more research.  What exactly had she liked about it?

So this was point of confusion one.  It was, however, remedied fairly quickly through conversations with Anjali and through some self-coaching: psyching myself up to making these changes, to really and fully investing in not just "editing" but rewriting and completely re-envisioning parts of the novel.

The second point of confusion came from peers' perspective on editing (and, indeed, on publishing in general).  It was at this point -- either the moment of selling the manuscript or the start of working with an editor on revisions -- that I heard a lot of commentary from folks about "selling out" or putting "commerical before craft."  It would have been easy to dismiss these as sour grapes from folks who had written novels and not sold them (and maybe there were some sour grapes thrown in there) but many of the comments came from people I respect very much, and I had to take them as genuine points of consideration.  To what extent was I rewriting in order to make the book "saleable" as opposed to better?

I don't know that I reached any revolutionary (pun intended) conclusions on this, but I did give it a lot of thought.  And I decided two things:  first, if you are going to try to sell your novel, then, yes, you are saying that you have commercial interests.  You can't expect to sell it and then say: it's art, it's mine, nothing in it can change.  But... I also felt that commercial interests don't have to be at the cost of art or craft. Anjali (and other editors) aren't interested in taking the craft out of the manuscript!  Indeed, looking back over all the revisions, my craft has improved tremendously.  And not just in the revisions of the book itself but in general -- I learned a lot about how to write through the editorial process (Anjali was like having an MFA professor... on steroids! (I mean that in a good way.))

In a broader sense, I believe this is a question not so much of "selling out" but of audience.  Who are you writing for?  Who do you want to read your work?  And what do you want them to think of your writing?  The editorial process improves writing with a broad audience in mind.  To me, it's that simple.  It is about making the writing, the story, better.  It did feel different than revising within the confines of my MFA program, or even from getting a story read to send out to literary magazines.  But that's only because the editorial process seemed so much more defined: I knew more clearly what the end goal was.

To those who think that once you're writing with an editor, your writing becomes not your own, I'd disagree. At least in my case, I found the commentary constructive and inspiring, not confining and prohibitive.  So, yes, the manuscript was sold, but the writing wasn't sold out.

For the time being, I believe that wraps up the posting I want to do on the "Road to Revolutionary."  There were lots of other stages, including getting a historian to vet the manuscript, the copy-editing, the cover design, and so on.  I should also mention that after Anajli left S&S, the wonderful Millicent Bennett took over the editing of the manuscript.  I was nervous about having someone entirely new read through and offer comments, but it was amazing to get that fresh perspective, to hear a new voice on the writing, and to be able to refine the manuscript with this different point of view on the story.

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