The Ugliest Mona Lisa I’ve Ever Seen


mona lisa - ral

You know this lady.

Her name’s Mona. You can call her Mo for short. She’s kind of iconic.

She’s here today to help me illustrate this *thing* I’m going through which relates to the world of writing. No, it’s not about visualizing characters, painting a story landscape, or any such helpful advice from a novice. Sorry about that. There are plenty of other blogs with unpublished writers giving profound & sage wisdom…

The topic this blogger is tackling today is: [Well, shit, I can’t really sum it up in a single word. This isn’t Twitter; it’s a post. So eff it, I can ramble if I like.]

Let’s go with this freeform string of thoughts: I have multiple fulls out with agents, which have been out for a while. I recently nudged on one & the agent confessed that she hadn’t gotten to it yet. Cool. No big deal. Another one is past the 10 week mark, at which point I would normally nudge, but I have not because of [keep reading]. The third is in this nerve-wracking, string-a-long sort of web which doesn’t seem to have an end. I am hopeful that it will turn into an offer, but the more pages of the calendar I rip off, the less that feels like reality. So, I have just kind of turned off my wishfulness on this matter until such time as it needs to be either revived, or incinerated.

After all that, I guess what I’m trying to say is: I don’t like to feel like I’m begging.

To be candid, I totally get that agents are busy, clients come first, I’m swamped, it’s conference season–all that. And writers are always labeled “impatient”. “This is a slow process,” we tell each other. Agents say it, too. Yet, still, are we really impatient? 2 months? 4 months? 6 months? 12 months? How long is too long to wait to hear back on a full request? An R&R? At what point has the timing passed beyond simple impatience on the part of the writer?

What it boils down to is that I want an agent to *LOVE* my work. Like, SHAZAAAAM! BAM! YES I WANT IT GIVE IT TO ME RIGHT EFFIN NOW I CAN’T WAIT TO START WORKING WITH YOU AND GET THIS THING SUB-READY BECAUSE AWESOME IN MY FACE AND OMG HAVE YOU SIGNED THE AGENCY CONTRACT YET OR WHAT BECAUSE AHHHHHHH????!!!!!

Instead, thus far, I have felt less like Phreak Show is the real Mona Lisa, and that perhaps it is more like this:

mona lisa - bad

 

And, yes, my loverly invisible ink finders. I KNOW that Phreak Show looks/reads nothing like that horrid ol’ fake. I’m just sayin’ I want that acceptance, that go-get-it agent who believes in me & my story so much that s/he can’t get hold of it fast enough. A dream? Perhaps. But my life has been built on dreams such as this. And damn it, I’m not done believing in magick.

My, What a Big Tongue You Have


TonguePiercing

I imagine that whole tongue-piercing things hurts just a little.

My ears are pierced, and back in the day, so was my eyebrow. When I went in to get that piercing, a dude was getting his nipples done. He passed out.

I’m guessing that kind of hurt, too.

In the beginning, piercings are wet and raw and sore. They are, after all, wounds. Like most wounds, piercings heal over time. Scar tissue forms, the skin closes up around the opening, and the pain completely disappears.

Now it’s your job to transition from those thoughts, to this quote from Ira Glass.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

You’re smart. I’m sure you made the transition.

For the record, my gap is closing. I can feel it. There’s no telling how many canvases I’ve painted, waited a while to realize they were only ‘okay’, and painted over them. Multiple times. The same is true with words written. Millions have been set down, only to get digitally white-washed. Yes, the gap is definitely closing.

Because I have good fucking taste. And my ambition & striving won’t die.

I’m betting you have killer taste, too. Now, go lick some more stuff and discover what’s yummy.

I Like My Sleeves


PhreakShowSubmissionsChart

Because I love charts and data and spreadsheets.

Also because, why the hell not? Transparency is a trait of mine.

Sometimes that characteristic gets me in trouble, but it is an undeniable part of me. Often, I’m told, it is refreshing. Either way, it’s who I am. And I am a proud phreak who has learned to be comfortable in his own skin.

I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’ve thought of maybe changing to metaphorical tank tops—-or even going shirtless. Alas, I like my sleeves, and I like to leave my vulnerability dangling out there for everyone to see and prod. So, yeah. I feel better now. Huzzah for catharsis via confessional graphics.

If you’re feeling like, perhaps, there is more to the story, you are correct. Sometimes, even transparency has is limits, and a little opacity is required. If you’re reading this Invisible Ink, I ❤ your face. Wear your hearts on your sleeves, you bunch of phreaks. 

Bad News Is Better Than No News


I declare today my personal  ‘Submissions Follow-Up Day’.

Part 1: Send follow-up emails to agents who requested partials & fulls 2+ months ago. I certainly don’t mind doing this at all. While the pragmatic side of me tells me it’s useless–they would have jumped on it if they were interested–the hopeful side of me keeps the fire alive. Maybe lovely agent just hasn’t gotten to it yet…

Part 2: Decide whether to follow-up with agents who have not responded at all.

I record details for each query I send:
– Submission date
– Anticipated response date (based on agency websites, interviews & Query Tracker reports)
– Outcome
– Agent & Agency name
– Type of materials sent: query, synopsis, number of pages
– Notes: Any contact with agent, likes/dislikes, chances of a good fit, screw-ups/typos I caught in the submission after-the-fact, etc

The Query Tracker reports and User Comments have been great in discerning whether or not I should follow-up.

For instance, I currently have 3 outstanding queries which I should have heard back on prior to 7/25. Thanks to QT, I am chalking them up as ‘Closed/No Response’. The reason? Check out the reply % for each of these three agents.

Really? 78% – 83% non-response rate?

Maybe I’m daft. Perhaps I expect too much. But even a form rejection is better than no response at all. I picture the process as a simple one.

1. Agent reads sucky query & knows immediately it is not right for him/her.
2. Agent moves email into “Send Form Rejection” folder.
3. Once a week, Agent [or intern] replies to all the waiting writers who didn’t make the cut.

I get the whole hundreds-of-submissions-per-week argument. But I also know the meaning of the term “professional courtesy”. Honestly, it’s a pain in the ass to research and tailor a query to a specific agent using the posted guidelines. Each submission is different. Each requires its own set of materials. Surely that time and effort is worth [at least] the professional courtesy of some sort of reply–even if that response is a dry, form rejection.

So, on Submissions Follow-Up Day, I will mark these three queries as “No Response” on both my personal spreadsheet and on Query Tracker. I have 8 more responses due in the next week. Hopefully, these agents are professional and courteous. Hopefully, they understand that:

Bad news is better than no news.

Agents: How to Cut Your Slush Piles in Half


 
Maybe the title is a tad hyperbolic. Nevertheless, there is a useable nugget of truth here. I promise.
 
Sometimes, a writer has to take a chance on a query letter. I have tried a few things–nothing outlandish–but perhaps a little out of the tried-and-true norm. I know, I know. Gimmicks are almost always an instant turn off. I haven’t used dancing baby videos or written a query as though one of my characters was doing the pitching.  Confession: after a conversation regarding what makes Freeborn unique, I did use this subject line for a few queries:
 
Query – FREEBORN – YA Sci-Fi (With pregnant dudes? What!?)‏
 
Yeah, well, I recovered from that moment of lunacy.
 
Sometimes, writers don’t feel like they’re taking a chance; it just happens. An example of this is querying agents who may/may not rep the genre the writer is submitting. I thoroughly research each agent before querying: agency sites, interviews, twitter, random internet searches, client lists. No matter how in-depth this fact-finding mission, it is often hard to discern exactly what an agent is looking for. Some have a very quiet e-presence, while others throw themselves out there loud and proud.
 
When in doubt, I send the query out.
 
Much love to the agents who spell out their wants/likes/dislikes in crystal clear terms. Unfortunately for the slew of querying writers, there are plenty of agent profiles which merely provide the wide-open, vague “YA/MG” market with no specific genres noted. With these agents, I will take a chance and send a query anyway.
 
***Note to agents with vague ‘What I’m Interested In’ declarations: Want to cut the number of ‘Not Right For Me Queries’? Give us details of what IS right for you.***
 
Both you and your interns will thank me for it.
 
One of my best rejection letters came from an agent who simply listed the “YA/MG” market. This rejection is inserted below. With the Dear John opening address, it starts off sounding like my girl back home is breaking up with me while I’m crawling around in muddy, wartime trenches. After that, there are amazing statements every writer likes to hear. But then it hits–the dreaded asshole-of-a-word–however.
 
Dear John,
 
Thank you for your query. I thought this was a really creepy, interesting concept and that you executed it very well. The writing was super compelling and the pace was great. However, I’m afraid that I don’t do all that much with Sci-Fi, as I’m not a big sci-fi reader and don’t feel I know the market well enough. I wish you all the best and encourage you to submit your query to other agencies. Thank you for thinking of me!
 
Best,
Agent with Vague Profile
 
Let’s recap the key terms and play-by-play reactions:
“really creepy, interesting concept” – [Yay! It’s not a form letter! Perfect compliment. That’s my brand.]
“you executed it very well” – [:: Heart flutter :: We’re off to a great start here.]
“writing was super compelling” – [Wow! This is going really well! This agent ‘gets it’. :: heart rate increases ::]
“the pace was great” – [I agree. And thank you. I worked hard to make sure of it. Where is this email leading…? :: heart skips a beat ::]
– “However” – [F#^k!!! :: heart shrivels and dies ::]
 
After the however, my eyes glazed over. My blood pressure rose. My finger instinctually slid over the mousepad and selected the “Move To: Rejections” icon. Fantastic. Agent read at least part of my sample chapter, liked it, but rejected it.
 
I double-checked the agency website and online info for the agent. Yep. Just as I suspected. Vague market with no genres listed. Don’t get me wrong. I am very appreciative of the customized letter and feedback. I understand that the effort was a gift and took time for the agent to compose. The agent could have simply form-rejected Freeborn since my submission was not in a genre s/he represents. However…
 
 

Unsolicited Advice from an Undercover Agent #AGENTX


Being involved in multiple online writing communities means I get the pleasure of bumping into other writers’ ideas. A few absolutely blow my mind with their amazing, unique, fresh, must-read concepts. After reading hundreds of excerpts and pitches, I have quickly formed an aversion to certain topics. Yep. It’s a long list.

As a reader and writer myself–there are some ideas/concepts/characters I am totally sick of seeing. You know what I mean. Don’t you? If not in the arena of novels, then perhaps in the land of music? I bet you can think of at least three songs that have been so ‘radio-killed’ by stations playing them over and over and over and… When they pop on, do you snatch at the knob to turn the station because you have. heard. them. enough. already.?

I’m going to pretend like I’m a literary agent for a moment. [Wouldn’t it be cool if–secretly–I already am? This John Lucas Hargis cat is my alter-ego. Hiding behind it allows me to find potential authors without being stalked or hounded. You never know…] Since I’m an agent seeking fantasy and sci-fi, I can make a list of things I absolutely DO NOT want to see pitched to me. My opinions may or may not apply to every other agent in the galaxy.

Here is my Don’t Send Me This Crap List.

  • Vampires – Sparkly, evil, peace-loving, or otherwise. They make my eyes bleed. I’d rather drive a stake through my own heart than read one more query…
  • Werewolves – Calling them Lycanthropes, Lycaons, Were-cats, or Wericorns won’t change my mind.
  • Reapers – Grim, Happy, chasing or being chased by, becoming or assisting one = REJECTED
  • Wizards – I’ll give a little leeway here. But you better work your arse off to make the concept modern. It has to smack me in the face with your unbelievable take on this overplayed archetype. Your idea MUST make me spit out my coffee and scream, “Why hadn’t anyone thought of this before?!?!”
  • Portals to other worlds – Books, mirrors, amulets, maps, attics, closets, secret doors, a copse of trees, vomit, vomit, vomit
  • Dragons – I *might* let this one slip through IF a unique, fresh, wild, unexpected interpretation should appear. No scales, fangs, claws, or fire-breath allowed. 
  • Angels – Haven’t we seen enough Gabriels, seraphim, and nephalim in novels to last us through eternity? Come on. Think for yourself. (Spoiler alert: You won’t fool me by plucking off their wings or calling them ‘guardians’.)
  • Demons – With so much imagination at your disposal, why not create your own brand of bad guy? Why reinforce an ancient stereotype? Shame on you.
  • Magical Objects as the sole-means of an MC’s powers – UGH. Can’t your character find strength within his/her/itself? Empower him/her/it! Crush the unnecessary magical objects with a super-rare sword or something.
  • Powers which suddenly manifest when the MC hits ## years old – We get it–growing up, changes, new problems, moving out of ‘childhood’, learning to deal with adolescence analogy. We got it 5 gajillion books ago.
  • Rehashed Fairytales – Unless you (1) Change every name. [Tip: I know what “Ella” is short for. Same with “Red”. And don’t even include a “step” anything: mom, sister, dog, goldfish.] (2) Hide the tale under so many of your own original thoughts and ideas that the Grimm or Disney version is no longer recognizable.
  • Fey / Faeries / Fairies – This includes any and all versions of these folk. Avoid the words Seelie & Unseelie like the plague.
  • Protags who want to be authors – Wow. Who did you model that character after?

“Thanks a lot, Mr. Agent! You just wiped out my entire collection of queried and re-queried novels. All the trilogies I have written contain at least four of the items on your stupid list!”

Sorry about that. Not really, though. I’m only one little agent. These are merely my personal preferences based on the 100,000 ideas that beg for my attention every week. Feel free to shop your manuscript(s) elsewhere. No, I do not know any other agents that would be thrilled to look at your query-killed, played out–I mean–great idea. Don’t give up. Just don’t come back to me with it…

So, what does this AgentX want to see? That’s easy.

  • An idea that is uniquely yours.
  • A concept that has never graced the printed page before.
  • A premise that makes me wet my pants (just a little) due to it’s sheer originality, simplicity, and genius.

“But, Mr Agent, all the good stuff has already been taken.”

I’m not looking for good, honey. I’m looking for a m a z i n g. Give me something that’s haute couture écriture.

“What’s that?”

It’s my new catchphrase. Taken literally, it means “high fashion writing”. And that doesn’t translate to “write a book with the theme/elements currently in fashion”. In essence, it means I’m looking for one-of-a-kind, designer plotlines and characters.  As a literary agent (ahem), from now on, I am only accepting queries for  haute couture écriture.

[Say it with me.] Haute couture écriture. High fashion writing. One-of-a-kind.

Stop wasting my time–and yours–by submitting queries with any variation of the items on my “Don’t Send Me This Crap List”. Not only will I thank you for it, but so will every other agent I know. Not that I really know any… I’d have to be a ‘real’ agent for that to happen.

If you believe your novel has what I’m looking for, please, feel free to post your pitch in the Comments section.
Prize: You may make me spit out my coffee.

I’m also looking for your parodies. How many items from my “Don’t Send Me This Crap List” can you squeeze into one query of 10 sentences or less?
Prize: You might make me pee (just a little) in my pants.

::: BONUS FEATURE: Use the #AGENTX hashtag when referring to this post & challenge on Twitter :::

Publisher’s Feedback: Capritare


I haven’t sent out any queries for Capritare in over two months. In fact, with the new novel in the works, I haven’t referred back to my submission tracking sheet in a long while. Today, I received this unexpected letter from a publisher. It is–by far–the most indepth bit of feedback I have received.

Mr. Hargis,

Thank you very much for the chance to read CAPRITARE. We have reviewed the manuscript, and your story has promise, though could benefit from some additional work. I was very interested by the world you created and the core of the story. If you’re interested in revising the manuscript to resubmit, I’d be happy to reconsider it.

Some of the thoughts I had while reading:

  • By dropping us in the story with no lead-up, I was too fish-out-of-water in order to get a footing in the narrative. Since the story is about Capritare’s journey, start at the beginning and let us discover existence in this new world alongside him.
  • Too often I was confused by the names of people, places, and things, unsure of what was actually going on. You can smooth over the culture shock with a light description of things before naming them, so the reader has a more concrete idea of what the object is.
  • On the other hand, the lofty descriptions got away from me too easily. Your primary target audience for YA should be 15-20, with a secondary of 13-15 (20+ is good for YA, but something that comes naturally). I’m not saying to dumb down the narrative, but streamlining would go a long way to hitting the buttons you want with your intended audience. Try to strike a balance if at all possible.

While your submission isn’t quite right for [NAME] Publishing at the moment, you do have promising talent as a writer, and we would be interested to see more of your work in the future.

So, there are some good comments in there, as well as some great suggestions. These statements echo what many of my readers have noted. I want to keep the LitFic feel, so I believe that taking it out of the realm of teen readers is my best bet. Capritare was my first novel, and provided a huge amount of learning and experimentation for me. So, the question is: to do a major edit? Or lose the YA tag and self-publish?

FREEBORN is written in a much more ‘commercial’ style, so it has become my new arrow pointed at the mainstream market. Capritare may have to hang in the background and serve as my ‘loss-leader’.

Decisions, decisions…