I just re-read Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. It was my third reading.
Although published in 2008, intended (I believe) to look back on the heightened security and information-gathering by the Department of Homeland Security, the book is becoming more applicable to the current administration. Every day a new order is passed or legislation proposed that limits the freedoms of at least one segment of the population: women, Latinos, Muslims, LGBT people, etc. Every day we read another example of the current administration trying to subvert the Constitution.
Before the recent presidential election, I thought of DHS as a bloated, ineffective, bureaucratic agency. Yes, DHS, or Big Brother if you will, is watching but not an imminent threat. In my Sue series, I use DHS as the overseers of the clones. Ted Stevens is the level-headed DHS Director with the best interest of clones in mind; he releases the clones and protects their individual liberties. Whereas the special DHS committee is the xenophobic “protector” of American citizens against the “aliens” and their “conspirators”. Of course civil liberty wins in my books as Ted fights for the clones. To me, it was obvious. Up until now, I didn’t think the opposite was plausible this day in American society, with as much transparency as the internet offers.
But now I’m not so sure. Every day we learn of violations and abuse of power, which gets us back to Little Brother. As I read the book this past week, I didn’t think back to 9/11, I thought about current events in American politics. How long will it be before DHS starts invading the freedoms of Americans? As long as the administration finds a reason to marginalize a segment of society, there’s no telling what the DHS, Department of Justice, Department of Health and Human Services, etc. will do. Look at what has already been attempted or floated in barely two months! Proposing to eliminate funding for Planned Parenthood, repeal of parts or all of Roe v. Wade, eliminating pregnancy care from Trumpcare, building “The Wall”, mass deportation of “illegals”, prohibiting suspected Muslims from entering the country, and repealing LGBT equality laws are just some of the few ideas/legislation already being discussed. What is going on? Are we going to allow this to occur?
At the end of Little Brother, Marcus makes a video to show the imprisonment and torture he experienced at the hand of DHS and, more importantly, he gives advice. His advice is completely applicable to right now. “We elected these people. We pay their salaries. They’re supposed to be on our side. They’re supposed to defend our freedoms. But these people betrayed our trust. …Find five of your neighbors—five people who’ve given up on voting because their choice is ‘none of the above.’ Talk to your neighbors. Make them promise to vote. Make them promise to take the country back from the torturers and thugs. Make them promise to talk to their neighbors. Most of us choose none of the above. It’s not working. You have to choose—choose freedom.”
One last thing; open this tweet and look at the books assembled on the table at this bookstore. It’s a commentary on the times.
Please allow me to rant.
A while back I read Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. Many reviews lauded the story, but I gave it one star. You can read my review here. Why so harsh? I read this “cancer book” expecting a story about the cancer patient, her emotions and experiences. I got none of that. In fact, Rachel is a minor character who has simply given up. I could not accept that she, at her age, would not fight her leukemia, a treatment that has a high success rate these days. I was generous to give the book one star.
Why the rant? I am a cancer survivor–acute lymphoblastic leukemia, diagnosed in 1972 when I was three years old. When I read a book about a cancer patient, I expect to learn about the character’s emotions and experiences. I want to see the ups and downs, the denial, the fear, the strength to fight. When an author writes a book to tell the story of a cancer patient, I expect to read about the patient.
I just finished another book that fell short of meeting my expectations: Side Effects, by Amy Goldman Koss. You can read my review here. The book tells the diagnosis and treatment of a 14 y/o girl and her reaction to it. But because the author is not the patient–she’s actually the mother of the cancer patient, the true emotions and experiences of the patient do not come through. The book is more about snarky dialogue between a girl and her family/friends.
Bottom line; if you write a cancer book, either (1) be a patient yourself and tell your story with your own emotions, or (2) be intimately involved with the patient and share the patients emotions–all of them–with your readers. Readers want to feel the emotions of the main character.
A mainstream book that hits the mark is The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. You can read my review here. I liked this book because we saw the emotions the main characters go through. I wasn’t happy as I read, but that’s because I could feel the same emotions they experienced.
Two lesser known books that I think are worthy of high praise are Touched by Cancer, by Teri Rose and Radiate by Marley Gibson (related post). These stories pull the reader in and share the main character’s emotions and their experiences. If you’re looking for two good (real) cancer stories to read, I suggest both of these.
Please feel free to share your favorite “cancer books” and why you recommend them!
I reviewed my original character arc and you know what? It still holds true.
When I originally drafted the outline for my YA story, Alone, I made a plot of my protagonist’s character arc. And after two and a half(ish) years of writing, editing, critiquing, more editing, more critiquing, further editing, and tightening, the character arc remains the same. It’s a bit of a surprise that the original story line still applies in the final (or near-final) version considering all the hacking and slashing. I’m pleased.
Now, by the seventh version, the novel starts at #2 when Alex wakes in the hospital after the accident in which his parents died. There is no description of Alex’s pre-accident life with his parents, but the height of point 1, the starting positivity if you will, can be inferred by Alex’s reactions and inner dialogue from point 2 through recovery at 3 to relative normalcy at 4 (and beyond).
The rest of the arc remains as originally mapped. The sudden drop at 5 when Alex is diagnosed with Leukemia reaches the lowest depth in his arc (6). He battles the disease and the treatment with the help of his support team (7), overcoming the pain as the disease is contained and looking forward to his future with his girlfriend and friends, but is then exposed to the negative effects of his resentful aunt that causes anxiety and depression (8–9), and finally lashes out when he challenges Aunt Eve’s beliefs and behavior (10). At the end of the story, when Alex learns of his family’s history and successfully convinces his aunt to change (11), he reaches the same height as before the diagnosis. He never reaches the same height he was at before his parent’s death, and no one should expect him to, but after beating the cancer and his aunt, he achieves a relatively high level of happiness. That’s the best that can be hoped for.
I haven’t written many novels, so the number of points in my personal data set isn’t large, but I would not have guessed the character arc envisioned before the novel was written would survive as is after editing. I’d like to think that it’s the sign of a skilled author and a solid story well executed, but I don’t think I can say that, nor am I probably allowed to. Oh well, I’m still pleased.
I received another rejection letter today. But this one was different. It actually contained feedback!
It’s true. And I was stunned… pleasantly surprised, but stunned.
In my recent daily posts, I’ve been complaining about not receiving feedback in rejections, which is no fault of the agents, it’s just a result of reality. So when I received the rejection today, I was thrilled; not about the rejection, but there were two entire sentences of feedback. And it was constructive feedback. The comment from the agent was directed at a weakness in the query letter and suggested a way to strengthen the pitch. I was able to take the feedback and adjust my query letter accordingly. I think the pitch is now better and hopefully it will actually hook an agent.
I want to thank Talcott Notch Literary Services. I’m sorry they passed on my manuscript, but those two sentences are extremely valuable to me, as a debut author trying to find representation. My story won’t change because of the feedback, but if I can tweak my query letter based on the suggestions of a literary agent, I will, hopefully, be better describing my project to other agents, making it more appealing.
A literary agent just made a good point.
Kristen Nelson, an agent who, coincidentally, rejected my project, wrote a post on her agency website in which she describes her feelings when she sends rejection letters. I found it to be enlightening and I’m glad she posted that article for authors to read.
I have the impression that, like me, most authors are frustrated with the number of rejections received when trying to find representation and believe that agents are cold and heartless, “chuckling maniacally with glee at every rejection [they] send.” But as Ms. Nelson writes, most agents hate to send rejection letters. They actually want to find new projects and want to see authors, whether established or debut, succeed. She makes several good points in her article which remind me that agents have authors’ interests in mind. They are not cold and heartless.
However, there is an element of reality that cannot ease the frustration of authors. If an agent completely had authors’ best interests in mind, they would read each manuscript in full, to find the potential in every novel. The agents would seek out the golden nuggets and assist the author to refine and grow those into a sell-able manuscript. But because agents receive hundreds of queries each month (or each week, or maybe even each day), there just isn’t enough time to devote to every prospective project. The agent is forced to quickly screen queries. And only if something catches the agent’s attention will that agent move past the letter or first ten pages to ask for a partial or full manuscript. That is the reality. The frustration comes into play because the author doesn’t know why he/she was rejected. Was it the query letter? Synopsis? Manuscript? Concept? Why? How can I fix it?
Authors think their manuscript is awesome, a best-seller. Agents want authors to succeed. But the bottom line is this: Most manuscripts (or the associated pitches) aren’t perfect and no agent can devote the time to fully read the manuscript or pitch and respond with constructive feedback in a rejection letter.
So, how can this conundrum be fixed? We can have fewer authors. That would mean less queries received, allowing more time to review and provide feedback. So, all you authors out there need to stop writing. Publishers only need a few ideas for novels. Publishers don’t need a zillion concepts to choose from, right? Wrong. Okay, so we need more agents then, right? Let’s double, triple, quadruple the number of agents. Finding that many qualified agents is easy. And there are so many books traditionally published that there’s plenty of work for a lot more agents, right? Again, wrong.
As much as everyone would like everyone to succeed, it’s not possible. Only a handful of novels, relative to the number of pitched projects, ever get published. It’s a cutthroat business. Agents have to write rejections and authors have to accept them. But neither have to be happy about it.
Okay… I know, I know… I’m bad.
I know I have not been writing daily. I try, but it’s not always possible due to things outside of my control (e.g. travel). Okay, yes, there’s also the whole self-motivation thing that sometimes results in a day of no posts.
I realize that once I get started, it’s easy to write. And writing is the purpose of the exercise. The more often an author writes, the better he or she gets. “So,” you ask, “why don’t you just sit down and write something?” Well, I tell you, it’s not that easy to find topics every day.
Yes, I could write about politics every day, but that gets old fast. And I’m not that into politics. The current presidential race offends and infuriates me ten times more than it excites and encourages me. I can try to bring about change by motivating young people to vote–they’re the only ones that can truly bring about a change, but beyond that I’m simply shouting into the wind.
I could write about random stuff that no one would be interested in, but then no one would want to read what I write.
I could write about writing, about being an author, but I’m not an official author yet. I’m just a hack who thinks he has a good story. And, to date, no one wants to read it. So maybe I will write about writing when I’m actually a recognized writer. Until then, I’m just complaining when I write about writing.
So… What else should I write about?
I think I have a higher probability of winning money in Las Vegas.
So far I have a 0% success rate (0 out of 19) for my agent queries. I know that the odds in Vegas aren’t very high, but they have to higher than 0%. And yes, all it takes is one successful agent query, but it gets very frustrating. Gamblers would stop gambling of they won less than 5% of the time.
Why am I so unsuccessful?
Is it my writing? I don’t think so. My novel is first-person narrated in a voice that is authentic. My story is semi-autobiographical, so I’m speaking from my own experiences. And I was a teen once, and I have a teen now. I know how I spoke and reacted, and things aren’t much different today, so I got the dialogue down. I’d like to think I grasp the concept of the comma and semi-colon, so I don’t think I’m writing gibberish.
Is it the story? No. I’ll admit, my story is a little complex–not simply a boy-meets-girl, or teen goes over the deep end and does something crazy that freaks out her friends–but it falls together and seamlessly flows from conflict to resolution. It’s factual, contemporary, and believable. It’s been critique-reviewed twice and edited based on these reviews. It was once 500 pages, but has been trimmed down to something like 360, so I’ve slashed and burned and edited and tightened.
Is it my query letter? This is where I get most frustrated. Why? Because there is so much subjectivity in the querying process and so little feedback that it’s hard to tell if a pitch letter is ideal for the target agent. The same letter may pique one agent’s interest while turning another off. Or it could not be right for either. I only have a handful of queries out at a time. When I send another (after a rejection or two), I usually tweak the letter and the synopsis, hoping the small change will be the few words that the agent wants to read. But since there is NO constructive feedback in a rejection, the author has no idea why the agent passed. Yes, I can pay to have my query letters critiqued, and I have–so I know it’s pretty good, but every agent is different. There is no one single query that will hook every agent.
So that leaves the cumulative pitch: the writing, the story, and the query. There are at least three variables that have to spark interest for an agent within the few minutes they sit down and read the query, synopsis and sample pages. And every agent is different. Not every agent is going to be inspired by a pitch, even if there are no typos, the synopsis is succinct, and the writing is tight. The concept just may not be right for most agents.
I have control over the variables that go into a query and can understand why there’s a query success rate of less than 5%–which is probably high even for accepted authors/novels–but the lack of feedback from agents doesn’t help me know which of the variables to adjust after each rejection. That is what is most frustrating.
Oh well, I’ll keep querying until either (a) I get so fed up that I lose interest or (b) I run out of agents to query.