“If I’d known then what I know now….”
There’s this fable about boiling a frog which goes something like this: If you put a frog in boiling water, he will immediately jump out. However, if you put the frog in water that is comfortable and slowly bring it to a boil, the frog will happily stay in the water until he is well and truly cooked.
I’m the frog.
When I decided to write a novel* I went into it with the conviction that if I really gave it my all, I could probably finish a whole novel good enough to be published, and I could probably do it in a year. This was a real commitment, because I would have to do all of the writing between two jobs and three kids, after chores and after everyone else had gone to bed — and I am a big fan of sleeping. But with each chapter my confidence grew, which was good, because the job of writing the novel become more complicated, too. If I had known when I started just how much research and foreshadowing and weaving of complex plot points there was going to be, I might never have gotten up the nerve to climb into the water in the first place. But, really, the water was only slightly warm at that point.
A big part of my initial conviction was that I would not only write a novel, but get it published as well. And when I decided to turn up the heat, it seemed like just a little bit of heat. I mean, writing the novel was the hard part, right? Now I just needed to write a letter and send it out to a couple of dozen agents. I bought a copy of the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market and I was all set. Another couple of months and I would be Published.
The water was still pretty comfortable.
But I’ve since learned that writing an acceptable query letter is almost as much work as writing the novel. If every word in a novel counts, every word in a query counts about 200 times more; not only do you have to get across the setting, tone, characters, and stakes of your novel, but you have to make them so irresistible that an agent must want to see the whole manuscript based on just your query.
Little wisps of steam had begun to rise at this point, but I was happy where I was. I could keep this up for a good long while.
In an effort to improve my query and those ultra-important first pages I started entering pitch contests. This, naturally, turned the heat up even further, but I had been prepared for that — in fact I welcomed it. That’s why I entered the contests in the first place. I wanted to up my game, get more feedback, become more competitive. If I could perfect my pitch and query I was sure to get an agent sooner rather than later.
This is about the time I discovered a little-known (to me) fact, which is that 90% of writing a novel is re-writing the novel. As the rejections began to pile up, and more and more feedback came in (and as I slowly relaxed to the possibility that the feedback was correct and I had more work to do), I embarked on the first of a series of full-manuscript revisions. Each resulted in a new pitch and a new query letter, and a whole new round of rejections. The water began to swirl and bubble, but it felt good. Maybe I could get one of those drinks with the little umbrella in it.
The water is uncomfortably hot, now. But I’m not ready to get out — not after everything I’ve gone through. I’ve gotten too used to being in the thick of it. I’ve been here far too long to just get out and dry off with nothing to show for it. I’ve learned a tremendous amount since I started. And, of course, I firmly believe that this revision will be the one that lands me an agent. But, if I had known then what I know now….
*The second time. My first novel was utterly directionless and took about 18 years to finish writing the first draft.