Should I Regift This?

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I always felt, from the moment the initial idea hit me, that Alex Bullied was a gift. I often feel this way when the lightning bolt of creativity crashes into me, but this time, with Alex Bullied, it was like a Christmas gift I didn’t know I wanted until I held it in my hands.

I was working on another book at the time and for almost a year, as more and more of Alex’s story revealed itself with characters, plot points, scenes, and dialogue, I wrote them down and deposited them in a basket.

Facing another revision of that other, defiantly stubborn novel, I put it aside and pulled out the note basket.

Alex Bullied was conceived as a boy’s book, full of humor, middle grade high jinks and fart jokes. But it’s about a bully, from his point of view.

People get very serious about bullying, as they should. I am certainly not in favor of bullying. I just had a different take on it. I played it for humor, yes, but in my book the bully has the tables turned on him. He experiences what he’s dealt out. He learns. He grows. With high jinks and fart jokes.

Apparently, though, my story is one-dimensional. Critique groups and agents question Alex’s personality and his tendency towards name calling and physical intimidation. They also question Alex’s tormentors, the Mathia’s motives. Are they just nerds turned into bullies?

Revise. Revise. Revise.

I am softening Alex, who wants to turn over a new leaf in this school but, as he’s done so many times, he is judged on his looks. To the Mathia, he looks like the poster boy for bullying. They don’t try to get to know him, instead begin to pick on him. And Alex, mystified and then angry, does the only thing he know to do, fight back.

I’m wondering if I’ve dulled the edges of my story, if I’ve compromised my original idea. I started out writing for middle grade boys, reluctant readers, even. Now I feel I might be writing for agents. The agents point out books like Wonder and Okay for Now, both of which I loved. But I doubt I will ever write those kinds of books. I don’t know that I have the chops. I do, however, want to make Alex Bullied the most amazing book of which I am capable. I hope it’s a fun read for anyone.

So how do I please both middle graders and agents? I’m making changes as best I can and, hopefully, changes that are best for the book, while trying to maintain the original flavor of the story.

Will I be successful? Who the heck knows. I suspect, time will tell.

Stay tuned.

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Journey Towards Publication Update

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One day back in October 2014, I sent three queries. The following morning a reply from one of the literary agents awaited me. It read:

“I enjoyed reading these opening chapters a lot. Funny and turning a bully on its head this way is great and refreshing. I’d love to keep reading — can you send me the full MS? I aim to read all full MSs within eight weeks of receiving them, if possible, but please let me know if the status of  ALEX BULLIED changes with another agent such that you should need a more immediate reply. Thanks so much!”

He wanted the full manuscript. The full manuscript! And he’d asked for it the day after I sent the query! This was a new experience for me. I enjoyed the feeling of validation and being wanted all day. I sent the manuscript, called and emailed people and celebrated with Husband.

The wait began. I continued to send out queries, even though I thought getting an agent was a done deal. Twelve queries in all. October and November came and went. The eight weeks passed. I decided after ten weeks to give the agent a little nudge.

He replied to my email with this:

“I haven’t had a chance to look yet, I’m afraid — it’s been a very busy fall, but I am still looking forward to reading. Thanks for your patience, and more soon!”

Still encouraging, could still happen.

Then came this, on February ninth:

“Thank you for the chance to read ALEX BULLIED and for your patience in awaiting my reply. I have had a chance to carefully consider it now, and though I continued to enjoy your writing, I am afraid the plot at times lost my interest — many of the secondary characters felt too flat for me, so even though the writing and voice were strong, I wasn’t as fully immersed in the story as I’d  hoped. I’m sorry to not have better news for you, but this is, of course, such a subjective business, and so hope you’ll continue querying until you find the right agent for ALEX BULLIED. With warm regards, blah blah blah.”

I knew it was a rejection when I saw the email in my box. If it were an acceptance, it would be by phone. Bad news is always in the mail. But, I learned a couple of important things from this letter; I need to take a look at those secondary characters and he thought my writing and voice were strong and I appreciated that slight ego boost.

Since June of 2014 I’ve received about twenty rejections. I have another twenty-two or so queries still out. Of those it’s probably been long enough to assume half of them are a No. So that leaves maybe ten that are still in the maybe zone.

This probably sounds depressing to you and you may be feeling sorry for me. But don’t, this is typical. I know a writer who sent over three hundred queries before giving up and self-publishing. And remember, The Help wasn’t accepted until query number sixty-one.

I recently read a young adult novel called Vivian Apple at the End of the World, by Katie Coyle, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It is her debut novel and I loved it. It has a great hook — about a teenage girl after what is assumed to be The Rapture and her quest, not for faith, but the truth. The writing, I thought, was wonderful. I could hardly put it down. I took it to my middle grade/young adult critique group and it’s being passed around and read by each. I wanted them to see what we need to aspire to.

I’ve also just finished a middle grade novel called Okay For Now, by Gary Schmidt that I thought was incredible. The story follows Doug, whose family moves to a new town just before he enters eighth grade. He hates the town, has a dodgy home life and school is not his thing. What does become his thing is the Audubon’s Birds of America book on display at the local library.

He begins to draw the birds in the book and each picture has an emotional impact on him The story is set in 1968 and told by twelve-year-old Doug and his voice is unique and compelling. He leaves information hanging, but as the reader, you don’t care. He dares you to guess what he means. I was willing to not know everything at the moment. It would all be clear soon enough and the pleasure of getting there was worth it. I highly recommend this book to anyone, adults included.

In the book Doug is shown how the birds are drawn by a library employee. He is taught how to take the drawing apart, shown how Audubon created the feeling of wind under a wing or the bird’s distress. After I finished the book and wiped by eyes and blew my nose — it had me almost weeping — I realized I needed to do with my next book what Doug did with those birds. So I have begun to reread it, to analyze how Schimdt created this story, to tear it apart and put it back together. And how I can apply all that to my next book, the one that no agent will be able to reject.

Stay tuned.