I first discovered my writer’s muse in the shower. Seeking a humid, sheltered environment, it had been nesting in the drain. When it saw me, the muse didn’t shy away. In fact, it was friendly. “Write a novel,” it said. “I’ll help you.” So I did what any aspiring writer would do- I threw on a pair of sweats, ran to Petsmart, and bought 50 jerky strips and a chew toy. I needed that little critter to stick around. And it did, twittering all sorts of ideas into my ear as I wrote and wrote. The novel writing thing lasted for three years (or was it four?) But everything came to a screeching halt once I decided to find an agent.
Ah, querying agents… Let me start by saying that nothing prepares a writer better for this process than watching American Idol. See that skinny guy with the prominent adam’s apple? The guy who sounds like he should be doing anything but sing? Now look at his face. He has no idea how bad he is. Meanwhile the judges are having small seizures in their seats, eyes rolling back into their heads, hoping the noise will stop. “Do you have any other skills?” one judge asks, regaining his composure. The other judge is more blunt. “You were bad, man. Really bad.”
This is what the querying and publishing processes involve. Risk. The new writer must make a choice: whether to open her work to public criticism and rejection, or not. The singer on American Idol may have been tone deaf, frighteningly so, but he had courage. And as I begin the querying process, I more fully understand just how much courage he needed to get on that stage.
Deep down, the writer may believe her novel is the greatest story ever told, and maybe it is. I mean, it has to be, right? Her mother loved it. Her writing group loved it. And the dog… well, he howls whenever she reads the ending aloud. Clearly, he finds her writing to be deeply moving. He also howls whenever a fire truck drives by, or when the seven year-old plays the recorder. But we won’t focus on such coincidences.
I attended my first SCBWI writers’ conference in Oakland last October. There, a published author critiqued the beginning of my manuscript, giving it an enthusiastic thumbs up. “You’re ready to query,” she said to my dismay. Then she gave me a reassuring hug, like she knew what I was in for.
The initial part of querying is not so bad. Yes, writing a query letter feels arduous. But it’s cake next to writing the synopsis. Distilling 87,000 words and multiple subplots into a mere five-paragraph synopsis is quite the task. Like plucking nose hairs, it hurts. And you may need to cry a few tears to get it done.
Sending out my first query letter left me feeling a little hopeful, a little frightened, and a lot like I was going to puke. I did everything I read I was supposed to do. I researched agents to find the right ones for my story, and started to follow some of them on Twitter. Now that’s a surreal experience in itself. Suddenly I’m reading a bunch of random facts about complete strangers I’ll likely never meet. One agent tweets regularly about her aardvark obsession, while three other people tweet about their favorite TV shows. But I have learned some important things from Twitter, like how many lattes a caffeine-addicted literary agent can consume in a day. (Four. After that, things get dicey.)
What do aardvarks and lattes have to do with writing and publishing? I have no idea.
It’s time to switch gears. I need to write something for my blog, but my mind is blank. Actually, it’s not completely blank. It’s filled with aardvarks drinking lattes. Then I remember my muse, my secret weapon. It’s never let me down before, and boy, do I need it now. So I start searching for it in all its old hiding places. But the dishwasher soap dispenser is empty. So is the Laundry hamper. Hmm… Something darts across the living room. It’s my muse. The phone rings, but I can’t answer. I’m busy hiding behind the couch holding a shoebox, waiting to catch the wily varmint.
My computer dings with the arrival of a new email so I put the box down and the muse runs to the other side of the room. I click open the email. It’s a rejection letter from Agent X, the aardvark lover. I sit down and stare at the screen. My muse tinkles on the rug and hides. Then with a boom something crashes beside me. It’s my ego, which has just fallen to pieces. Damn it. I go into the garage and grab a roll of duct tape.
They say you need to develop thick skin for this business. My skin is thin. That’s why I cry while watching dumb TV shows and why I had to hide in the bathroom late at night to finish reading THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE, so my sobs wouldn’t wake the whole house.
Instead I use duct tape. You can fix anything with duct tape, you know, even your ego. And ever since I mummified my ego, it’s been feeling pretty darn solid. Now for that next query letter…