Late last night, my husband and I came home from a week-long trip to Austin, Texas. We drove there to visit Greg’s youngest son, Wesley, his wife, Brandi, and their four-year-old son, Gabriel. We also visited Greg’s nephew, Shane, who works for the current governor of Texas (Greg Abbott). The drive to Austin from Durango, Colorado took us two full days each way. So we spent four days on the road, and four days in Austin.
I took several pictures, and hopefully I’ll share those in a future post. But I have some writing-related news to share at the moment.
On Saturday, May 13, bestselling author Mindy McGinnis slashed (“critiqued” free of charge) my query letter for my current work-in-progress, a manuscript I decided to name after the villain of the story, The Shadowfall Witch.
A quick note on my use of the word “villain” — I do understand that it sounds more “humane” and “compassionate” (as well as “more educated”) to call the creator-of-conflict in a story the “antagonist,” but I prefer the word “villain.” Mostly because it’s such a cool word. Plus, it just seems more honest, given the moralizing that goes on in a story — any story, even the most highbrow literary novel.
I love the word villain so much. And I *do* humanize my story villains. As an author, I could put a bumper sticker on my car that reads I LOVE MY VILLAINS but that might freak people out. And other writerly types would accuse me of being a hack, because nowadays, only hacks still call their antagonists “villains.” If you suspect I am a hack, maybe unsubscribe to this blog and find a better writer to follow, preferably one who hears the word villain and squinches their face with a noxious expression, like someone just silent-farted in the room and the air smells like diarrhea now. Because there will be no face-squinching going on in this blog post. Not unless someone brings me a plate full of lemon bars, because I think those things are disgusting.
Ew. Lemon bars. Ew, ew, ew. This is what I imagine people are forced to eat in Hell. Just looking at that picture makes me queasy. So much ew.
Her comments are excellent, I emailed her as soon as I could to say thank you, and I can definitely put her feedback to use to write a better query.
But what caught my attention the most were her final thoughts on my letter: “Your word count raises questions about length. While your genre allows for such a hefty WC [word count], the fact that there are multiple examples of unnecessary wording in your query, I have to wonder if the same is true of the manuscript.”
Now, she is absolutely right to say I have redundancies in that letter, and to state I have a hefty word count. A novel of 100,000 words is the largest manuscript a literary agent will consider these days. (And if this had been a contemporary novel, I’d need to cut the book down to 80,000 words to be viable to an agent.)
And here is the cold hard truth: The Shadowfall Witch will be longer than 100,000 words. I was just using that number as a placeholder, so I could start querying agents and see if they like the idea of this project before I finish writing it. I knew I couldn’t put a larger number in the letter because agents would delete the letter immediately, if the word count was too high.
The reality is, no matter how artfully I pen this query letter, the manuscript itself will be unsuitable to an agent. Not only due to an undesirable word count, but because the book itself doesn’t fit a strict genre. As Ms. McGinnis pointed out in her feedback: “Right now it reads like a magical realism historical romance, which, while that’s really cool, you need to hint more about what exactly that is, without lengthening the query by much.”
First, I should make clear that The Shadowfall Witch is not a romance, and I do think I can adjust this query to make sure the story doesn’t sound like one.
Second, for Ms. McGinnis to call the book “magical realism” rather than “fantasy” is an upgrade. A big upgrade. Fantasy is genre fiction. Magical realism is literary fiction. To non-writers that might sound meaningless, but to me, it means my query letter sounded far more precise and rooted in reality than most genre fiction (generally) is.
But the mash-up “magical realism historical romance” is not a good thing. Literary agents do not like “blendy” books — books that blend multiple genres together — because they are difficult to market. Meaning, they are difficult to sell. And selling books is hard enough without adding more complications like a novel in a blendy genre no one knows how to talk about in a five-word sound bite.
I have written and self-published five novels, and my last two manuscripts were written with the specific hope that they would be attractive to a literary agent. Then I went to a writers conference in Denver last fall, and discovered some genres and subjects are “toxic” to agents, because acquiring editors (at publishing houses) won’t touch them. Some of the most toxic stories (right now) are urban fantasy and anything starring mermaids. So I had to give up my hope of ever successfully querying two books that took me a long time to write — but because I think they are great books, I made them available on Smashwords for free. If I couldn’t query an agent with them, maybe they could bring me new readers, or new blog followers, since both books will have sequels one day.
So far, that has not happened. My two free books are just — um, there — existing unread — on the internet. Like a lot of other self-published books.
I promised my husband that taking this risk — putting two ebooks up for free — would be a boon to my writing career, but the fact is, the whole experiment turned out to be fruitless, Greg wasted a lot of money paying my self-publishing costs (about $3,000.00 for the two covers and the formatting fees), and I have eaten a whole lot of crow.
Greg serves me plates of crow daily. I have eaten a LOT of crow since January, when I published Bloodshade of the Goddess, and even more crow since March, when I published Kinned to the Sea. One of the biggest humiliations of my life has been Kinned to the Sea, since I was so sure that book would find a niche readership, and I spent a lot of time on Goodreads telling mermaid-lovers about the book. I even convinced Greg to give me $400.00 so I could pay to format the book with CreateSpace, and make it available as a paperback, and all I can say is, nothing makes me feel more pathetic, or more of a super-failure, than looking at my first proof copy of Kinned to the Sea. The formatters did a horrible job with the font, so I have a lot of work to do to make this paperback formatting not-totally-suck, work that will be overall pointless for a non-selling book, and it depresses me to no end.
Look, I am not saying that I regret self-publishing my books — I am saying I regret that my hopes were so high that offering ebooks for free might have some kind of benefit to my readership. Hopes crushed by reality are brutal pills to swallow. Crow is not fun to eat.
The feedback Mindy McGinnis gave me — free criticism from a professional — is invaluable. Because here’s what I chose to do with that feedback: I immediately shelved my work-in-progress as another unsellable book, and decided to work on something an agent might want.
What do agents want? In the adult world, psychological thrillers are big. Mysteries are always big.
In the YA (Young Adult) world, contemporary YA and historical YA are both big.
So I’m going to work on a YA contemporary right now. I’m going to make sure the book isn’t blendy. I’m going to make sure the manuscript isn’t longer than 80,000 words.
I can’t keep publishing books the industry doesn’t want, and I can’t keep publishing books when I have no marketing budget for them. If one more person tells me I should “pay to advertise on Facebook” and that this will “solve all my problems,” I might scream. To the folks who have money to spend on advertising, all I can say is, “How awesome for you!” This is not my reality. I can’t advertise on Facebook when I don’t have the money to pay for the ads. I love knowing that Facebook ads have been successful for a great many people. But this avenue just isn’t one that is open to me.
For the time being, I need to get busy and work on something a literary agent might be able to sell.
And for anyone who hasn’t yet read a book by Mindy McGinnis, I **highly** recommend her YA contemporary, The Female of the Species. I devoured this book as soon as the novel debuted, and you can read my review on Goodreads here, if you want to hear me gush about how much I loved this book. The prose is amazing. And this is the first YA I’ve ever read that felt, in any way, like my own high school experience. Guhhhhh, this book is just so flipping good. (Even if the cover does squick me out a bit, since the color reminds me of one of my most-detested foods, the dread lemon bar. Food of Satan.) I’m sure whoever created this cover loves to eat lemon bars. ^.^