Altered States

I had to disassociate money and art.

Altered States

Two days ago, I was riding in the car with Danny, running errands, and I said, “Oh my god. I just realized that I get paid to write. I’ll have money after I sell my book. I can pay for Chrissy’s college.”

            And he said, “Ha ha. You just realized that? What are you talking about?”

            I’m finishing book #5, GLOSS, and I’m very excited about it. It’s a fun book, a feminist manifesto of sorts, and structured like an accordion. I’ve been working on it every day for the past two years, and I’ve really enjoyed the process, but yes, I forgot that I would actually make money when I sold the book.

            Why?

When I wrote using a typewriter.

            Two-or-so years ago, I finished my fourth novel. After a few rewrites, it was accepted by my literary agent, and she’s a great agent. Very smart. (We had a bidding war for my first novel. We’ve been pals since 2008.) She sent it off to various editors and the waiting-game started.

When your book is sent out, it’s an anxious time when you wait and wait to hear which editors are interested. You think about bidding wars and working with editors and what the cover might look like. You think about readers turning pages and seeing it in bookstores and libraries.

Well, no one wanted to represent it. The feedback was non-specific, nothing I could fix, just the “I just don’t love it enough to represent it at this time,” and “I’m really looking for something else right now,” and “As much as I would like to represent this book, I feel someone with more passion for the characters would be a better advocate,” and all the “Michele writes beautifully, yada yada, but this just isn’t for me right now” stuff.

            We tried another round of editors and got the same response. Understand that agents do not take books out and submit them to editors if they don’t think they will sell. I had spent five years writing and revising this novel. It is in part about my son growing up and my dad dying and being caught in that middle spot in life. I am proud of the book, but it didn’t sell.

            I think all total, the book was submitted to sixty different editors. At one point, I took a few months and rewrote the novel from a new point of view. Again, I’m proud of the book. It still didn’t sell.

            So, in order to start writing something new during Covid and a deep depression and crippling anxiety about the book not selling and living during a pandemic (I mean deep and crippling), I started taking online writing workshops and teaching online writing workshops. I had to go back to basics. I had to rethink what I do and why I do it, and it isn’t about money. It’s about art and craft and making a world on the page. I made new, amazing writer friends and I started to think differently.

I had to remember what it was to write for me and not what I thought people might want to read or what might sell. I had to remember that writing stories is a gift. I had to be grateful and not bitter. According to my agent, it wasn’t that my book wasn’t good. It was just that what I was writing wasn’t what was selling or popular during that particular market. There is a business side to writing and then there is the artistic, creative side, and never the twain shall meet.

Fast-forward to 2022. I am revising my fifth novel. I work on it every day. I am excited to send it to my agent, and I hope she likes it, but I have preached to my students and myself so long and so hard about art and craft and letting the subconscious guide you, that I forgot about the money. I forgot that I get paid to do this. I am in no hurry to finish the book because I want it to be amazing. I had to disassociate money and art.

I got a job at a restaurant this year. It’s fun and interesting–seeing the inner workings. And my coworkers are cool.

I teach amazing, brilliant writers online. I adore them and their words.

If I never publish again, I’ll still write. But the thing is, I know I’ll publish. I don’t doubt it. I’ve done it before, and I’ll do it again. It’s just that my self-worth was so inextricably tied to publishing and book sales, I couldn’t see the worth of my craft. But the money is the business side, and I’m the artist side. I’m amazed that I was finally able to separate the two. I’m glad I got that shit straight in my head. It was a long time coming.

How to Find the Agent Who’s Right for You: How much rejection can you take?

I want to be published because I want the whole world to experience the world I’ve created, but that world isn’t any less “me”, it’s no less unique, it’s no less art, if it’s not published.

I recently taught my second seminar on how to find the literary agent who’s right for you at The Muse in Norfolk, Virginia.

Just thinking about looking for a literary agent makes me feel sick to my stomach. I always called that part of trying to get published “the business part,” something us creative types loathe. I would sit down and mark eight to ten agents to query. At the time, 2004 to 2008, they all wanted snail mail queries, so I would send my letters out with their SASE and wait for the rejections to arrive, hoping that one of the agents would ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. Then, I’d be off to Kinkos to make copies, and off to the post office to mail them.

I queried every New York City agency accepting unsolicited manuscripts A-Z, not once, but twice! I had close to 1,000 rejections. (I managed to query the agencies twice because I had rewritten the novel.) I would get excited over handwritten, as opposed to form-letter, rejections. Even a signature would shoot me to the moon. “Wow! He took the time to sign his name and write, ‘Best of luck.'” I was up and I was down more times than I can remember.

I also had a lot of close calls: one agent called to ask me not to accept any other offers, she was so in love with the book, then emailed me a day later to say, “Never mind.” She didn’t like the end.

I had another agent say that she wanted the book, only to tell me six months later that she hadn’t been able to find an editor who would take it, but that her husband was a book doctor if I wanted to hire him.

One of the greatest lessons I learned is that you have to find the agent who is really passionate about your work, who feels invested in what you have to say, and THIS IS NO EASY FEAT. (Yep, I’m shouting. It’s fucking hard, near impossible.)

This individual has to know deep down in her bones that she can sell what you’ve written. That’s the only way you’re going to get published. Find someone who can’t imagine the world without your book in it. Yes, the work has to be that good.

If an agent wants to represent your book, she should have a game plan. She should know where she’s going to take it, and how she’s going to produce buzz about the book.

After so many rejections, I would take anyone I could get. I am very fortunate that my agent had a game plan. She told me that in order to represent my first novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, she would need me to rewrite it. She gave me specific feedback on what was missing. I went to work. She gave me two weeks. She said that as long as she could get it into editors’ hands before Thanksgiving, she could sell it, and she did. We had two competing offers on November 8, 2008. Pinch me! It was an incredible day: the highest of all the high/up days.

Of course, since it’s a book about lightning strike survivors, and I am one, the day wouldn’t have been complete without a terrible storm, lightning splitting the sky in two, the hair on my arms standing up, and a near-death experience. I was on vacation in Hatteras. I knew that I was going to get struck: it was just my luck. Fortunately, I survived.

Later that day, my agent said, “It’s a good thing you weren’t struck. Publishers won’t publish first-time authors posthumously.”  She’s very funny!

To anyone who wants to publish traditionally, I say, Never give up. This means NEVER stop revising, never stop rethinking the structure, plot, characters, and momentum of what’s on the page. If you ever think that what you’ve written is perfect and deserves to be published, and there’s something wrong with the agents in the world, not you, not your book, because your friends like what you’ve written, well, you’re only fooling yourself. You’re delusional. Books are never “finished”. They’re never perfect. They are only set aside because the author can do no more at the time to make it any better. But, I guarantee, any author worth her salt will pick up a book she’s written months or years ago and find something to improve upon. We’re artists. We’ll see a new angle.

Be resilient. Persevere. Remember that the art, the gold, the manna, the life’s blood, all of it, is in the act itself. WRITE. Hell yes, I want to be published because I want the whole world to experience the world I’ve created, but that world isn’t any less “me”, it’s no less unique, it’s no less art, if it’s not published.

Go forth and be brave. You got this.

I’m speaking on “Balancing the Art and Business of Fiction Writing” Friday, May 15, 6 pm, at Christopher Newport University’s 39th Annual Writers Conference. The conference includes Agents, Fiction, Nonfiction, Music, Mystery, Poetry, all for adults and children: Virginia is for Writers.