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.
13 thoughts on “Writers, Beware of The Need for Safety!”
“…you have a great voice with which to tell it.”
It’s extremely rare to hear this from an editor or an agent. Some experts say that any part of writing can be taught except “the voice.” I know from reading your work that you have a rare and great voice, and I also know that you can put a scene together in a way that is unforgettable and deeply moving.
Reading only ten pages is a bad habit that professional editors and agents have been forced into by the nature of their “headhunting” work.
Their “show don’t tell” dogma has become a cliche that needs to be logically and inductively challenged. In my opinion, gatekeepers rather than readers are the ones demanding compliance with this homogenization of modern story. Some popular authors, like Lee Child, flatly disagree with it, saying that a story should be told, not shown.
In my opinion, the main thing that writers can do that can’t be easily outdone in other mediums such as movies is TELL the thoughts and opinions and feelings of the POV character. It seems counterproductive to me to try and make written stories (both true and fictional) as much like movies as possible where the audience can only speculate on the main character’s inner voice.
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Thank you, Talmage, I badly needed that tap on the shoulder.
I keep on having the feeling lately that I am competing with a symphony (excuse my hyperbola here) against the “catchy” pieces in the pop music category – no wonder this isn’t the way to pierce the ceiling. However I know that, one day, something’s gonna give. Wish you the greatest luck with your writing; unless you publish it, readership will always lose something of importance.
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I’m an Aquarian who thinks she’s a Cancer. All through school my report cards said “Jane needs to come out of her shell”. About four years ago I wrote a children’s book, and I plucked up the courage to contact a publisher by email. My daughter had to press send since I couldn’t pluck up the courage. I couldn’t even stay in the room while she did it. I got an automated reply: “we regret that we are not currently signing up new authors”. My rational mind understood they genuinely weren’t signing up new authors, but the insecure child inside me felt totally rejected. I haven’t sent a query letter since.
About your book – I’d say you have to look carefully for the right publisher. If it was just a shallow tale of heartbreak and grief it would probably be easy to sell; there’s a ready market of people who like to step into the pain of others for a moment (had it been that my response to your first chapter would have been different – I’d have suggested that your opening sentence would be emotive – with some cliched reference to tears, or dramatic – a bird smashing its skull against the window pane as you walked into the bedroom or some such nonsense) but your book is more than that. It needs to be directed toward a more connected audience.
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Hahaha, funny; yes, absolutely, it’s not meant to squeeze a tear or two, but to answer big questions of life, highlight meaning of existence, uplift.
I could have sensed the Aquarius in you; the strong, fast wit, the deeper layers of intelligence. About the shell, it may be your intuitive feeling of an important Cancer placement in your birthchart, like your ascending sign (donno how much of an astro-addict you are, but I know I am one); it could be your ascending sign, for instance (at the hour of your birth, your Sun – individual consciousness – was in Cancer). Oh, I so well know about moving around with that shell on the back… mine is rather invisible, as my ascending sign is Aries (water sizzling fire I am), so, I easily get heated, and generally send and image of a blazed up torch, rather than a watery creature – but this is my innate way of expressing defensiveness (isn’t the Universe amazing, in its way of creating such a variety of human personalities- expressions??)
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I took a quick look at a chart for my birth date, including the year. It only mentioned the sun sign. It made me want to crawl under the carpet and hide. According to that, my strongest personality traits are: solemnity, hot temperedness, and tolerance. On the opposite end of the scale, I am not AT ALL likeable – or confident!
On another site, I discovered that my ascendant is Gemini and my moon is in Libra. The descriptions on that site fitted well with my personality – and they didn’t mention me being un-likeable 🙂 The site didn’t take into account the hour of birth.
Two of siblings have a horror of astrology (and of the idea of a creator), saying it’s all rubbish, yet I see strong similarities between their birth signs and their personalities.
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Generally, the argument against astrology is that, the earth population being over 7 bill people, and the astrological signs just 12, with 365 possible days around the year, this would reduce human population to a relatively small number of perfectly similar profiles – say, destinies. Moreover, the argument goes that twins living together or separated at birth, in spite of having exactly the same astrological info, turn out having different lives. I find the argument very reductionist; variations are immense according to the complex composition of the influences – planetary, galactic energies, each in diverse angles and intensities at the birth moment, each depending on the birthplace, etc. But this all means not taking into account the individual factor, each individual consciousness. We come with a set of given data at birth, but we also have the power to alter and influence the given – that’s why all the show here on earth. Astrology can only give us very orientative ideas about who, or what we are, the rest is all ours, to change, or do nothing.
You have both your sun and your ascendant in powerful mental positions, so you have some tremendous brain there, Jane;
“Born with The Moon in Libra
At its best, Libra is an objective, sociably-oriented sign. Born with the Moon in Libra, you are likely to have an innate need to uphold justice in all concerns. Your sense of balance in social situations means you can easily relate to others through finding the middle-ground. Your sense of cooperation means that you need others in your life, and will feel as if nothing works as well for you if you do it on your own. This need also extends to the aesthetic side of life. You will have a natural sense of beauty and will thrive when surrounded by harmony in your environment. With a natural grace and charm, you will always find what you need when focussed on finding the beauty in life.” (more from starslikeyou.com.au/your-astrology-profile/moon-in-libra/)
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Thank you for that information.
I had a conversation with one of my atheist brothers today, concerning the Creator. It’s a subject that we’ve discussed several times recently, and I’ve noticed that his views are becoming less bull-headed (at age 68). Today he pointed out that the idea of a Creator is overwhelming. “It’s hard enough”, he said, to take on board the unquestionable fact that the Universe is endless. If there is a Creator, who created him? It’s impossible to imagine such a thing.” I replied “Exactly. It’s impossible to imagine, so I don’t try. I just accept that all things are possible, but our brains are too limited to take in such enormity.”
I think it is small-minded to refuse to accept that which is far beyond our understanding. An atheist makes the arrogant assumption that science has all the answers (even while many scientists have faith in a God). I consider that arrogant.
Getting to the point – in the same way, I consider that there is wisdom in astrology – though I’m not impressed with those ridiculous weekly predictions in magazines. I consider myself to be a fairly typical aquarian, and from what you’ve written about the moon in Libra, thats pretty accurate too – apart from the thing about not wanting to do anything alone, but as you say, there are more factors to consider.
Furthermore, you’re one of the most intelligent and enquiring people I’ve met on the internet (possibly the most), and if you say it makes sense, that adds extra credence to astrology.
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Thank you, Jane, you are an uplifter, as always; did I ever mention that you softened me (not particularly a poetry person), enough to let the beauty of your language and your wit enter my heart, so much as to make me run and buy my first poetry book in my life, if, and when you’ll publish one?
About Faith, I believe that what is happening right now – people stopped believing, started having doubts, asking questions – is quite in the right order of things. We have had enough with old blind faith, with believing because it’s been set in our hardware – which makes the right conditions for the fanatics to be manipulated to kill in the name of faith. People today need to discover God on their own, and, as you rightly noticed, it happens ever so insidiously, and in installments. What else would we expect, when it’s so hard on us to accept that our brain is smaller than needed to fathom All There Is (many don’t even care to know there is anything past the threshold of their home). Times are changing, tough… and fast.
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I’m truly honoured that my poetry has had that effect on you. I’m not sure that I’m a poetry person either – most of the poetry I love is connected to my mother. Although I don’t put this about, it’s not often I find a poem that really speaks to me, and even when I do I rarely go back and reread in at a later date. I write poetry because I love words passionately and the best shapes that can be made out of them is through rhythm, rhyme and alliteration. To me writing a poem is much like painting a picture, but more like solving a complex math problem – making a perfect pattern. Often there’s more than one way to solve a math problem, and I don’t do use the standard methods, which I find ugly.
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I think my notification button for your posts must be switched off.
I’m supposed to be somewhere other than sitting at my laptop right now (fortunately my long-suffering friend understands my inability to be on time for anything), but when I get back to it I’ll catch up on your posts – including this one.
As a Cancer as well, we Cancerians have the tendency to feel safer in our shells, but on the other end of the spectrum, we have too much to offer to do so. I wish you the best on your writing journey. May it lead you to a bold new beginning of flourishing into all you are capable of becoming. Just know, you have much to offer.
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Thanks for your comforting words; from time to time, you just need a pat of the shoulder. Related to “having much to offer”, I’m afraid I am framing myself too much in Bertrand Russel’s paradox: “The problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”
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Bertrand Russel’s paradox is a wise perspective.