So Many Novel Thoughts

I had not planned it this way. This turned into a long and in-depth post, and if you don’t want to stick around I fully understand. If you choose to do so, as you scroll down I hope you find parts interesting and maybe even offering some “advice” to you if you write too.

I was not going to post about Twitter’s #writingcommunity again today. However, when I saw this tweet I changed my mind. I see this all the time on social media, and I thought here I’d stick in my two cents/pence:

A rejection by a legacy publisher or an agent is almost never a verdict on the true quality of a book. It is an opinion on what they believe they can sell. That is a vital distinction every writer should appreciate.

[Copyright page of my uncle’s last book. Photo by me, 2019.]

I know I post about my uncle quite a bit. I do so because I wish to share with writers – who might not know an author published by a major company – at least some of what I heard from him over the years. He had begun his writing career in the early 1980s after he had been the “beneficiary” of some brief “media fame” that enabled him to pursue “his dream”: writing novels. He knew from the outset his writing experience in this sense was unlike that of MOST other writers: several agents and more than one publisher were after him.

So many writers dream of a similar major publishing deal with the likes of HarperCollins. They appear to think once they have that contract, they have “made it” at last. However, such a contract is not lifetime employment, he more than once told me. “Yes, ten years ago you wrote that good first novel,” your publisher tells you, “but since then you haven’t exactly set the world on fire…” Then you don’t get a contract renewal and you are basically back to “square one” – much like an unemployed actor.

And we wonder why F. Scott Fitzgerald drank heavily? A writer is ALWAYS proving him or herself and is forever feeling insecure. Unless you are, say, J. K. Rowling, we mere “muggle” writers eventually learn that we are only as “good” as our most recent book – especially in terms of its sales.

Years ago I had query experiences much like that Twitter children’s book writer above describes. Once as I recall I heard from an agent pretty much what she wrote there: 1) not ready for publication. My uncle said he had been out of the game for years, but laughed in pointing out that serious agents/publishers do not really expect a publish-ready manuscript; there are always changes and corrections to be made that a publisher insists upon and that he himself always had had to make alongside an editor. So to message a writer as I was, or as that writer above tweets, is merely an agent politely saying he/she just doesn’t want the book for some reason only the agent honestly knows.

I have also been told my book 2) just doesn’t “grab” them. That was another agent’s opinion. I shrugged. After all my own wife is not exactly “grabbed” by my novels either… because they are simply not to her reading taste. So hearing that from anyone else doesn’t much bother me. It is just one person’s viewpoint.

Ultimately it was this reason offered for a “Thanks, but no thanks,” that pushed me over the line into deciding to stay with indie publishing: 3) “Who is its audience?”

[Excerpt from Passports: Atlantic Lives, 1994-1995, Copyright, 2013. On Kindle for iPhone/iPad. Click to expand.]

My first novel (which was the one I had sent off mostly to test the waters) that is full of travel stories and university students in their twenties is plainly “new adult” and I wrote it deliberately to be “readable”; it is not meant to be “Shakespeare.” Its target audience is pretty obvious to anyone who can read English. Yet assuming that turn down reason was being in any way truthful, given that response it was not about the quality of it, but rather, for some reason, doubt about its sales potential.

Sales potential: remember that. I was learning through rejections as my uncle had told me: It is all about money, of course. Deep down I knew that of course – based on what I had seen of his career, and what I was seeing now from the very beginning of my writing own too.

With that I made a decision I would no longer chase agents/publishers. Nor was I going to write to try to appease some phantom potential agent/publisher out there because what I wrote might not appease them anyway (“It is about the Tangumba of the planet Errk, landing in France during the Revolution…”), and if it still did NOT I would almost certainly be left with a mess of a book of which I was NOT really proud. Not long before he died, my uncle agreed with that approach: I should just aim to write my way and the best that I can and as I see fit… and allow readers eventually to make the call.

That, he said, is what he had always tried to do insofar as he could, and was why, he believed, he had not been more sales successful. His agent, for example, to increase his sales, wanted him to write a continuing police character with whom readers would grow familiar. He resisted: he felt he could not do that, or at least not do it very well, and he knew if he failed in that direction that would have really been the end. If I also try to be what I am not, he told me, even if I got a big publisher’s deal someday I would be unable to keep up the charade and I would fall over eventually.

“Success” for an author in the writing business, he was forever implying, or even stating outright, requires some luck. It is often simply a matter of your book ending up in the front of the right person at the right moment. And that person believes your book will make THEM money.

Think about this too. “Not ready for publication?” What is considered by most critics to be not just average, or even just a bit below average, but one of the most poorly written books in recent memory, somehow got published by a major company. And why was that? It was simply because the publisher believed – based on its self-published, Kindle impact – that it would make the publishing company TONS of money… and, as we know, it sure as heck did.

If you are still with me… naturally, I couldn’t stop at just one tweet. How about a few more tweets, starting with a couple that are more “lighthearted.” First, speaking more of money:

LOL!!!! No, no, certainly I wouldn’t laugh. Definitely not so.

No, I cannot write by hand nearly quickly enough to keep up with what my brain is thinking. In fact I can barely do so by tapping away at speed on a PC keyboard. That said, my high school typing class has proven to have been indispensable.

A more serious tweet next – and again putting front and center an indie-publishing matter that we see mentioned all over the place:

That tweet brilliantly sums up why I consider the “beta reader” fixation a waste of time and even creatively dangerous.

Far better to have one or two trusted proofreaders combing it for errors and readability. You are the author of the book. Writing a novel is not a group project.

Nor does one write a book based on – good grief! – one person’s opinion!

Next, evidently an “editing” question:

If that is truly NOT meant as a joke, that is actually unnerving to read. His bio states he is an editor and a writer. I don’t state this sort of thing lightly: That question doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his literary knowledge base or his writing/editing skills.

That is someone who says he will improve my prose? In the words of many an agent, “Thanks, but I’ll pass.” In one of the dopiest questions I’ve seen on Twitter in a long time, he asks – again, he says seriously – how the British don’t confuse the ancient Egyptian method of wrapping dead bodies for their journey to the Afterlife with their own live mummy sitting across the kitchen table?

Head meet desk repeatedly.

Interestingly it is supposedly the class-obsessed British who all – rich or not so rich – tend use “mummy” for “mommy.” Often I had a terrible time in England over the years locating a Mother’s Day card for my mom. The British use “mother,” which is rather formal in a card as we know; but “mommy” is almost non-existent there and my very American mom was adamant she was not “mum” or “mummy.”

A word of writing advice: if you are an American and write British characters, do not use the word “mommy,” use “mum” or “mummy.” Unless you are in ancient Egypt or your character is investigating a murder in a London museum, I suspect MOST readers will understand the difference.

Curiously, it is in our supposedly more “equal” and less class-obsessed U.S. that we see “mummy” often employed… by our “upper strata”:

To the Kennedys, for instance, it is “mummy.” Regardless of class issue, mourners at Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s funeral evidently had no trouble understanding to whom her daughter Maria there was referring. It was not to “The Younger Lady.”

Just like – amazingly – the British also manage.

Most writers do hope their books will be adapted for film or TV – that is the quickest way most writers will ever make much money. But I don’t actually think much about my books as a film or as TV. I write my books with readers in mind.

Am I odd in that among fiction writers?

If any of my books are ever films, chances are I will have no say over their production anyhow. In selling your book for a film or TV, you the author are pretty much giving it to the producer(s). Few authors have the clout to demand much say in the production.

I might even be long dead also.

That was just a little something for you Harry Potter fans.

And I know there are lots of you.

I would say, regarding all social media, the writing always takes precedence.

The social media comes second.

I don’t know why we are supposed to put photos of ourselves on book covers. Who cares what a writer looks like? I’m not an actor.

Thank goodness the Kindle doesn’t demand an author photo.

How do you sci-fi/fantasy writers think of these things?

True, he isn’t fictional, but I will state here: Gouverneur Morris. Why? Well…

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris, Copyright 2017. On Kindle for iPhone/iPad. Click to expand.]

Born in New York in 1752, often Morris reads like he could have been a fictional character. His involvement in the drafting of the Constitution in 1787 is known to scholars mostly. Overall, though, he is little known today.

But if you think Alexander Hamilton was cool as a man? Ha! Morris really deserves a musical too.

Like Hamilton, he had served alongside Washington for a time during the Revolutionary War. In 1780 he had lost a leg, perhaps in a carriage accident (the reason is historically unsaid) and afterwards forever relied on a wooden one. But that missing limb did NOT seem to slow him down even in that era.

He was in France from 1790-1794, and was U.S. ambassador – they called them “minister” then – to the country from 1792. Adrienne Lafayette (the wife of the famous Marquis de Lafayette) did not like him very much and considered him “a monarchist” (and once called him that to his face); but when she was imprisoned by France’s “anti-monarchists” and was on the verge of being beheaded by them, he did everything he could to save her life and also gave her family thousands of dollars “survival money” out of his own pocket. The bachelor and forty-something Morris also had a long-running affair with a married thirty-something Comtesse Adélaïde-Emilie Filleul de Flauhaut; her much older husband was probably guillotined in late 1792, and she, while a revolution refugee in England in 1794, wrote Morris as a cameo character in her first “romance” novel. There was I recall also mentioned in his diary another – younger than Adélaïde – and single woman aristocrat whom he briefly romanced; but her name escapes me here. He may have also been involved with twenty-something Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland, the wife of the British ambassador to France in the early 1790s; while it is more likely that they were “just friends,” evidently he REALLY liked the Scottish countess. He had a weakness for younger (and often married) women, and particularly those in some “distress.” (For instance, violating diplomatic protocol the French revolutionaries nearly interned Elizabeth Sutherland, and her husband, when Britain and France went to war in early 1793.)

Among all else I learned about the personal side of Morris in writing Conventions, this may be tops – although it falls outside of the scope of that novel. After he returned to America, at age fifty-seven and living in Connecticut, he married (his political rival) Thomas Jefferson’s son’s-in-law’s sister, thirty-five year old Anne “Nancy” Cary Randolph. People – particularly a woman alone – didn’t usually relocate casually such a great distance in those days. So what was “Nancy” Randolph, a Virginia woman, then doing in Connecticut, you ask?

Speaking of a younger woman in “distress”… and, uh, lots more, here we go. In 1805 she had to leave Virginia after her older sister apparently told her to get off of the family’s plantation (which was named – I kid you not – Bizarre), where she had been living with her sister and her brother-in-law. Back in 1793 she had likely been party to the infanticide of her newborn who resulted from an affair she had with her brother-in-law. The brother-in-law was tried for the child’s murder, but for some reason she was not. He was acquitted. (One of the brother’s-in-law’s defending lawyers was none other than John Marshall – he of the coming new novel.)

But, wait, there’s even more. In 1796 the brother-in-law died in “mysterious” circumstances. Investigators believed she and her sister were probably to blame for his death. However, no charges were brought against either of them due to insufficient evidence. In the 1790s, remember, pre-fingerprinting, and certainly pre-DNA and pre-forensics, murder – particularly with, say, uh, poison? – without a believable eyewitness naturally could be extremely tough to prove in court.

Maybe something else prompted the sister to ask her to leave nine years after the brother’s-in-law’s death; but for whatever reason her sister did not want “Nancy” around any longer. She turned up in Connecticut at Morris’s, which may have been pre-planned as they had met some years earlier. She became his housekeeper. Four years later they were married – both for the first time. Subsequently, they had a son.

Being attracted to a younger woman needing help was by then pretty consistent with Morris’s track record and personality. Apparently the now in his later-fifties Morris considered “Nancy” so “hot” that he believed her alleged involvement in two murders was not really a big deal. Most likely given he had also personally seen guillotinings and witnessed other horrors during the Great Terror of 1793-94 in France as U.S. ambassador, a couple of rural killings for which there might have been “a reasonable explanation” about her alleged involvement(s) simply didn’t bother him all that much.

I suspect most men would like to know a man like that.

If you are STILL here, try to have a good Monday, wherever you are – and whatever you are reading and writing. 🙂