Only last summer I regaled you with a series of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Perhaps you recall it, Dear Reader.
I clearly issued the following caveat:
“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.
In light of further experience scaling the slopes of Parnassus, today I offer Step 7 of 6:
Step Seven: Write (Same as Step Two)
Step Seven: Write (Same as Step Two)
In 2016 I started writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase—a historical epic featuring Norwegian immigrants involved in America’s struggle against slavery during the period of Abolition and the Civil War.
It took a couple of years to write the first draft. I thought the first draft was already pretty good. Several months were spent revising the book based on feedback I received from trusted beta readers. In February 2019 I began to query literary agents and publishers to get it published.
Many novelists today self-publish, with varying degrees of commercial success. But I aspired to be a writer, not a publisher. My aim was to write a book that one of the Big Five, or at least an established independent press, would want to publish. In other words, I would rely on the acquisition apparatus of the traditional book trade as my yardstick of literary merit.
Ups and Downs
It’s a tough way to go. You submit a query letter, usually with a brief plot synopsis, to many literary agents and publishers before you encounter even one who is willing to read your manuscript.
Last September I received a publication offer from a small publisher in the South. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet in October I declined the offer. It may seem a counter-intuitive move, but I had my reasons. (The whole sad tale is told here.)
I kept on querying publishers. I worked and re-worked my query letter and synopsis, honing them to perfection. Within a month, I got a request for a full manuscript read from a large and very active New York publisher. Their fiction editor read my book the very next weekend and sent me the following:
I really enjoyed the premise as well as the writing, and while I enjoyed the Norwegian hook, the plot didn’t always feel big or different enough to really stand out among the competition in the way I thought it would need to. The market is very competitive these days, so I feel we’d have a tough time getting this off the ground.
It was a rejection, but the kind of rejection you like to get. It included specific feedback, which is always encouraging to a writer. My plot wasn’t “big or different enough.” Hmm.
Then, in January, I queried a small, selective, high-quality independent press, and its owner/publisher requested a full manuscript read. His response came a month later:
I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.
Another rejection—again, a very nice one, and accompanied by even more specific feedback. He even made suggestions as to how my book could be improved.
What to Do?
A close friend and key advisor, who really knows her stuff, suggested I do a quick reshuffle of chapters and send it back to the owner/publisher. She said his feedback was virtually an invitation to resubmit. I agreed with her about that. But with the greatest respect for my trusted friend, I disagreed about the quick reshuffle.
My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. In some sense, they would rather read the promotional material than the book itself. This is not a good sign.
Considering their specific comments, I realized they tallied well with my own thoughts about the book. I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me.
The bright spot is that, having thought about it—a lot—I have some ideas. These ideas require a complete, tooth-to-tail rewrite that would substantially improve the plot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the least I can do to bring you, Dear Reader, a work that you will not just like but love.
So again I am doing the counterintuitive thing. At age 75 I embark on a quest which will add at least half a year, if not more, to my investment in Freedom’s Purchase. All while I have plenty of other projects to work on. But then, what else is there for a literary lion to do?
Writers read a lot of books. Some of the books we read are books about how to write books. One is Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I am only now getting to it, and I find it an interesting and useful read.
It probably will not tell me everything I need to know. None of them do. But Donald Maass is worth listening to. A top literary agent over four decades, he has seen everything, and he knows what can be sold and what can’t.
He also knows everything about how books are sold—all the tricks of editing, promotion, and clout. But he said one thing that stopped me in my tracks. A single sentence, almost hidden partway down a penultimate paragraph.
“At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”
He’s right, of course. Writers, for understandable reasons, get swept up in marketing and promotion, platform building and networking. But you and I would much rather read a book that’s riveting than one that’s not—riveting because it’s well-crafted, with appealing characters who undergo great moral and personal challenges in a plot with lots of twists and turns.
Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. I’m going back to the keyboard. I’ll let you know when something happens.
Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)