I never had the courage to pitch the book I have been writing for the past three years – I am a Cancer, and am afraid of hurts. Eventually, as reality would have it, by shaking and hitting me against the walls of my isolation, I got it: there is no way out of it for me, but write, distill, bring to its quintessence my best possible query letter; I did it, but still, I didn’t have the guts to send it. I just feel the need to be safe – Cancer fears: what if they rejected me?? My world, then, would shatter, collapse, crash, crumble to dust, be annihilated, then I would be worse than dead.
Recently, I got a call for a boot camp, where a well-seasoned literary agent from an important agency is offering to give a fair feedback on the first ten pages. I said to myself, well, if I have to pay for it, maybe they’d be nice enough as to wrap their deadly fists, deadly to the writers’ egos, in lots of bubble wrap, so, in I jumped. I sent my first ten pages. Upon reception, the boot camp agents are supposed to give you a first opinion, following which you have two days to re-send the revised pages.
Here’s her first revision (I haven’t got the second, yet):
“There’s a lot of great material here. You have a powerful father/daughter story everyone will be able to relate to, and you a great voice with which to tell it. The challenge for you is to shape this material into a compelling dramatic narrative. The following are suggestions to help you do just that:
1) As now written, it’s all telling and no showing. You need to fully dramatize your material, that is, write it in fully realized scenes. Right now it’s mostly exposition; it’s you talking and telling.
2) Because you are not writing in scenes, your story lacks narrative thrust. It’s like one very long opening shot. Narrative thrust is the taut building of story, beat by beat, scene by scene, chapter by chapter, propelling the narrative forward in a dramatic arc that peaks at the climax of the story. You must write each scene so that it leads logically to the next, as if you were connecting a model train, car by car, and presenting story questions as you proceed down the track, pushing the action forward to its inevitable if unpredictable ending. You need to make sure that each scene has a point; that in every scene it’s clear what your heroine wants/needs, and whether or not she gets it.
3) Stories like this often benefit from an organizing principle, which can help you differentiate your story from the others of its ilk. For example, in The Secret Life of Bees, each chapter begins with a snippet from various texts on beekeeping. Even the title, The Secret Life of Bees, speaks to this organizing principle—the metaphor of her novel. Other examples include:
- Eat Pray Love (three acts)
- Bridget Jones’s Diary (diary entries)
- The Know It All (the encyclopedia)
- Julie and Julia (blogs and recipes)
- Wild (the journey)
- My Horizontal Life (life as a series of one-night stands)
I don’t know what you might best use, because I don’t know your story, but think about it. You might consider doing it day by day for 30 days, since you say the story covers the last month of your father’s life.
4) You need to get to your father’s bedside sooner. That’s when your story really begins and you will find it easier to dramatize the interaction between the two of you and between you and the rest of your family. Try starting there.
Again, you have great material here. Now you just have to bring all that material to life by dramatizing your story.”
“Aha”, I said to myself: “great material”,””great voice”…hmm, it sounded good to my writer-to-be ego. But bad for my story. I have this devil in me that, although is terribly afraid of hurts – like every devil – doesn’t hesitate to use its horns and gore when it can (it’s my Aries rising sign). I felt that my agent here didn’t understand this thing (how can anyone get it, from reading the standardized “ten pages”??). My writing here isn’t about a daughter-father story, how I used to sit by my father’s bed and consume tissues by the dozen, not at all. It is about Existential Patterns, about archetypes that get and grab us within their absolute power … about the Journey we take, about Life and Death, and Meaning.
We live in chaotic times where there is no place for “standard”, for “safe”; however, what essentially agents want and look for, is a “safe story”, one that has proven itself, time and again saleable, entertaining. But what is “entertaining”?? It’s not only “delightful” and “amusing,” but it’s also “intriguing” and “compelling”, in the sense of The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, or The Power of Now. Agents don’t stop and think that “safe”, by force of repetition, can be a recipe for trite, for already consumed, for fast food, mass-consumption. The newest “invention” in “entertaining writing” is computer writing. Programmers identify the ingredients, the structure, the plot that make story telling compelling, then design algorithms for what makes successful stories – we can purchase now the genre on Amazon.
That agents feel the need to stay safe, is understandable. Flooded by hundreds, even thousands of queries a day, they don’t want any headache by taking risks – and I’m not far from this need for “safe” when I don’t dare to send that query letter. However, there is a chance in taking risks, one that is not possible when staying “safe”. Books like Eat Pray Love, Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Know It All, Julie and Julia (these have been mentioned by an agent), all like Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc, have all been seen as “un-safe”, rejected countless times by agents. However, these books are what they are because they didn’t follow the required publishing standards in their given time.
Well, this is it. And now, I’m waiting for her answer. I’m sure that it’s gonna hurt, ouch!!! But I’ll have to gather all my courage and send that query letter.
While you, other people keep on blogging, exchanging recipes and pictures, thoughts and musings, I just sank down to the bottom of my ocean, like the crab (read: Cancer) that I am. Why?? Because I had a final month with my father, with whom I used to have a stormy relationship. His passing away hit me in ways I would have never thought possible. After the shaking, deep to my roots, I had to write the story, in its reality, as well as in its “non-reality”. I did it to bring some order into my thoughts, my emotions, my new world without my father – but, ultimately, it can reveal unsuspected mechanisms at work in any family, anywhere around the world. I also wrote it because it is testifying on the greatness of existence.
This blog’s name is Patterns of Soul Development – beyond what our narrow reality there is a wider, deeper one that is full of meaning. Caught up in our everyday life turbulence we have the vision of the ant within a cup of water, unaware of the surrounding room, building, city, state, continent, planet, galaxy, Local Group (our galaxy cluster) part of the Virgo Supercluster, part of the Laniakea Supercluster, etc, part of a Universe within a Multiverse. We all get to follow, insignificant ants as we are, these same universal patterns incumbent on all kinds of systems within our universe – it’s not I who says it, it’s cosmology, System Sciences, Chaos Theory, etc.
It is this kind of pattern that this story is about: it reveals our personal and collective unconscious psyche, the patterns that we fall into. The chaos and the turbulence in our lives force us to develop and grow, according to archetypal patterns in the evolution in consciousness. I’ll have to pitch the story, send that query letter…
PS: The answer did come, in just ten words: “Ultimately it’s your story to tell. Tell it your way!” Hmm… thanks….
I felt is sharp and snappy – or is it just my sensitivity?? After I got over the pain, however, I sat down and crafted a better, more-in-the-line-with-her-recommendations hind of beginning. And I’m really happy with it. Thanks.