October, 2010. It had been three months since I started writing the story of a young boy’s search for his father. There wasn’t anything else left to do was there? I had already checked the grammar and spelling via Word. Yes, my story had become bulky and could probably be two stories but… between the moments of passing out candy on Halloween, I set my sights on getting it published. How naive could I be?
My brain must have been overwhelmed by the supposed completion of the manuscript or the candy sugar high because it would take me another 20 months until it truly was ready. I needed a few jolts of reality and this night of spooks and goblins started me off. With boxes of milk duds in front of me I jumped onto the Internet to search for publishers of middle grade fiction. I found many but most would not accept “unsolicited manuscripts.” How does one get in the door then?
I learned the publishing world feeds off people called agents, not in the “007” mode though some appear almost as mysterious. They are basically front line people who look at hundreds, maybe thousands, of submissions each year. It’s like an egg factory with only a few golden eggs getting through. I researched and took the first five agents who surfaced representing middle grade. I found them through the online database “Agent Query” .
Three of them used email as their contact while the other two used old-fashioned mail. No one wanted a full manuscript, but instead a query letter and a few pages of your story. I saw what was going on here. If they like what the read then they would ask for more. I researched the proper way to write a query letter, found a few online as examples, and wrote a dreadful one in my first attempt (mistake #23 but who’s counting?). I sent the five queries off the first week of November and sat back ready for my first response. It was a long wait as I heard nothing back for four weeks when the first reply came back via email: “This project is not right for our …” I got one more response by mail in January saying basically the same thing in a form letter. I never heard back from the other three submissions. Houston we have a problem… likely with my story or query letter, not the agents.
With the lack of an enthusiastic response I set my sights back on Hender’s story to see what could be done. The query rewrite could wait until I was ready with the manuscript again. Maybe the 78,000 words needed some more polishing beyond spelling and grammar. By this time I had discovered a book called The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide To Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, Google searched about novel writing until my eyes glazed over, and read a few new middle grade novels:The Strange Case of Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger andMilo: Sticky Notes and Brain Freeze by Alan Silberberg.
I also went back to my manuscript and read each page again. With the teacher coming out in me I gave it a C-. Too much drifting away from the plot, poor word choice or overused words, confusing dialog and subplots, and a slow first chapter. It was like being on the firing line for my own bullets. First Five Pages? I had not done my homework on the whole manuscript to make this a great story. Past students would be laughing at my ordeal so far but I did learn something: To become a good critic of your own work let it sit for a few days or even a few weeks before picking it up again. You won’t be so married to the words enabling you to give it a fresh perspective.
With new found information, I went back to the writing and editing mode and over the next several months I dumped 60% of my original story and replaced it with a much more focused plot. It had not gotten much smaller (76,000 words) but I thought it was ready for a new set of eyes. I asked two colleagues, two neighbors and one unsuspecting fifth grader for a critique and they accepted the challenge. I was encouraged they all liked the story and the characters though the fifth grader’s spot-on assessment was, “It was good but I only read shorter stuff like comic books. You should add pictures and a few more commas too.”
However, there was still something wrong. The story I wanted to write was not there yet. I was beginning to realize writing is a long process and not something you turn in on a due date. There was no “light at the end of the tunnel” but at least I could see the tunnel and it was to be my home for the next several months.
Don’t jump into the pool if you haven’t learned to swim yet.