And then things started to blow up: how my friend getting an agent (on her first try) helped me write a darker novel

Gatekeeper's note: as my friend told me this story, it was all I could do to not grip my teacup and start thinking of how I would have felt in this situation. We've all had a friend succeed in a way that makes us wonder how we'll ever speak with them comfortably again--and it's all the worse when it seems their luck comes without our hard work and preparation. Here's how one writer transformed her friend's unlikely success--and the inherent unfairness of the publishing process--into a darker, more successful world for her characters. 

By: A friend of Gatekeeper

It wasn’t that her book was bad—the plot of my friend’s first novel was, actually, pretty great. But it was rough—extremely rough. She’d started it as a sort of, “Hey, I think I’ll write a novel!” project—a casual hobby—while I’d been writing short pieces professionally for years. (I even had an agent until my manuscripts didn’t sell, and he subsequently dropped me. I’ve been looking for a new one for a few months now.) She needed help with what I thought of as the beginner stuff—editing and character building and submitting—and I was happy to share what I’d learned.

Most first books need work, and I’d be embarrassed to read my first book now. Hers was filled with errors, and though I started making line edits, I gave up at about page 30. There were just too many. She wanted to send it out immediately, and though I cringed at the thought of sending it in that condition, I just didn’t feel like it was my place to discourage her.

And then she got an agent. On her first freaking try.

I wanted to be happy for her. But when I heard…well, I flipped out.

I started bawling. And not those tiny, silent tears, but big, fat, sobbing-so-hard-I-could-barely-see-through-my-eyes tears. My partner tried to console me, but I wasn’t even able to form words. Well, words that weren’t four letters long, anyway.

And that’s when I started to blow stuff up.

In my book, I mean. I started to blow stuff up in my book. There were bloody fights and my underage protagonist was drinking. Heavily.

I’d been playing it safe. My normal tone is wholesome (frankly, I was a little disturbed by The Hunger Games). But an agent had seen my newest project and told me—several times—that I needed to go darker. Edgier. Angrier. I knew she was right—but I needed that extra push.

And watching my friend get an agent so easily—well, it pissed me off enough that I could be that writer.

After I’d dried my eyes, I opened my computer and began to write. Unfortunately for the characters in my novel, I’d entered into full-on fury mode and the fates of everyone were suddenly up in the air. People were being blown away and beaten to a pulp. It was a serious change from where the book had started out.

I write about five pages a day, sometimes with my cats curled up beside me. My partner leaves me to my writing time, happy to get a little peace and quiet (when I’m not writing, I tend to get a little chatty).

I’m now about fifty pages from the end, and have added about a dozen scenes depicting some serious, but necessary, acts of violence to my manuscript. I should be finished with my first draft by the end of May and I still need to go back and make the first fifty pages match the rest. It’s easy to see the difference between the “before my friend got an agent” writing—and after.

I’m not completely over the fact that she got something I want so badly, and it’s still a little difficult to see her. The last time we met up, I even had to have another friend tell me exactly what to say if she brought up the agent stuff—that way I didn’t end up saying something along the lines of “How the hell did this happen!? And why didn’t it happen to me!?”

But the experience, frustrating as it was, has made me a better writer. If nothing else, I can tell the “go darker” agent that I’ve followed her advice. It’s opened up new worlds in my writing—some violent, some bloody, some explosive, all dark—that, before this, I would never would have thought possible.

So what’s next? I’ll go back to the agents (“go darker” agent first), back to the Jeff Herman, back to submitting, back to writing while I wait for rejections and requests. I’ll give it a few days, wish my friend congratulations—and actually mean it.

And if my friend gets a three-book deal, a six-figure advance, an auction?

Well, my characters had better watch out.

45 comments:

Yat-Yee said...

More power to your friend. Even though this story is twice-removed from me, I felt a shudder when I read it.

There will always be people for whom things come easily. I have two friends who seem to be that way: successful and happy without having paid their dues. On top of that, they don't seem to be sympathetic to people who try but haven't "succeeded" yet.

But I tell myself I don't really, really know what they've done. My jealousy is not helpful to me nor them. So I do the only thing I can do: move along my path, obstacles and all, and try to deal with the difficult feelings the best I can.

Or I can follow your friend's example and blow stuff up in my book.

Amanda J. said...

Sometimes life sucks in an epic way; this is one of those moments. I wanted to cry, and I haven't even gotten near the querying stages.

SJDuvall said...

I can definitely relate, but not on such an extreme scale. Thanks for sharing, it helps me feel better (and to know how to react if something like that happens to me anytime soon).

Agency Gatekeeper said...

I like the latter suggestion. But what should blow up in, say, the following genres?

Here are some thoughts:

Women's fiction featuring shoes...a stiletto, of course.

Picture books...a balloon. And though the characters are scared, the parents rush in with a lesson about fear and/or balloon fragility and/or safety.

Religious fiction...perhaps a herd of swine?

Self-help/how-to...it's metaphysical explosions. Explosions of thought, creativity, and inspiration.

Cookbooks: souffles. I was going to say "balloons" again, because if you paint them with chocolate to make dessert bowls, and the chocolate is warm, this is just what happens. I was scrubbing the ceiling for hours.

Romance...so not going there.

Anonymous said...

I love your anonymous writer's voice. It can only help to improve his/her all around writing. He/She sounds very interesting. The kind of person you would like to know.

Anonymous said...

I love your anonymous writer's voice. It can only help to improve his/her all around writing. He/She sounds very interesting. The kind of person you would like to know.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Anon, s/he is wonderful. And yes. S/he is great to know, always upbeat, helpful, fun--which makes all of this both more difficult and more interesting.

Lindsay said...

LOL what a great story. Based on the mystery writer's interview, I would be willing to bet that they are very talented and will have their own agent very soon. Funny and uplifting today:-)

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Thanks Lindsay! I think that's true, too. I sure hope so! S/he's awesome!

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Yat-Yee,
I'd be so mad at your friends, if they were my friends, for not appreciating their luck and success! Grrr! What do you say? What does one generally say?

I don't think Emily Post covers this, and I've wondered for years.

What's the best thing to say when a friend succeeds--and you can't help but be uncomfortable seeing them?

Yat-Yee said...

Gatekeeper: I have the world's slowest reaction time to words that I can't believe people can say, so I usually just react with an open mouth: and then think of the best come back line when I am having shower three days later.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I have distant myself from them. I've found that whenever I spend time with them, I am so spent, and I come home upset and moody. So for the sake of my mental health, and those of my family members, I've chosen to leave them alone. A more courageous and generous person would probably try to help them see how they can be more grateful, but I haven't found a way to do that yet.

I'd love to hear what other suggestions come from today's discussion.

As for blowing things up: I write contemporary MG, so... a can of foam in fire? Smelly socks?

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Yat-Yee,
There are so many choices! How about an exploding locker/textbook/gym bag/shower/bottle of perfume? Oh! There are so many choices! There are also clothes, pocket protectors, and whatever the chess club has built during science class... :)

Connie said...

I've had something very similar happen. And I've cried those big fat tears too. In the end, all you can do is try to be happy for them, write a better book, and not mutter too many imprecations. ;)

Lindsay said...

AG, now you know that we are all invested at this point so you will need to update us when said mystery writer gets their first book deal for their new dark YA:-)

Kerri said...

Dear Friend of Gatekeeper,

See, this is what makes you a REAL writer. You've taken your hardship and used it as fodder for your work. Your friend may get the six-figure deal, but it sounds like you're the one who will have a long, fruitful and edifying career as a writer. You rule.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

From my friend:

Hi everyone! It's the anonoblogger here, friend of the fabulous Gatekeeper!

Thank you all for your kind words...they're such a pick-me-up when so much of this industry is filled with painful rejection!

As for my reaction to my friend's news? Was it a little dramatic? Sure. But luckily, I had the peace of mind to keep my explosive emotional reactions targeted at the computer screen! I gave myself a little time to recover and reboot and then did what I would've wanted a friend to do for me: I congratulated her on her good fortune.

And in the end, I really think maybe it happened this way for a reason. The experience has empowered my writing. Made me more passionate. Lit a fire under my...well, you know.

I love all of your comments. They really feed my soul. Keep 'em coming!

Agency Gatekeeper said...

My friend will continue to send comments as you write in--so if you have any questions--ask!

S/he's really nice!

Rowenna said...

Thanks so much to anonymous writer-friend for sharing! It takes some serious character to be able to share honestly like that--thank you! I am so grateful that all of my writer-friends are talented, deserving people who have struggled. Some are finding success--and it honestly makes me happy. But if they were writing hot messes and finding agents I'd find it very hard not cry tears of seething jealousy.

And honestly--I think that the etiquette comes on the other side of this. If something came easily to you and a friend is struggling, it's on you not to beat him or her on the head with your good fortune! Of course, people can't always be trusted to be polite, so I think Emily Post would say to practice smiling and gracefully changing the subject. ("Six-figure book deal, how lovely...speaking of books, have you read the new novel by...")

Agency Gatekeeper said...

I completely agree, Rowenna. And I think Emily Post would agree, too. :)

Ally said...

I loved it. Learning how others find their motivation is always fascinating to me. And now I don't feel quite so shallow about my dirty little secret.

After I read a certain very popular novel a few years ago, I remember looking up and thinking,"THIS got published?" And the next thought I had was of a story that had been brewing in my mind for a couple of years. That poorly written book was the push I needed to get started on it.

Even now, when I hit a wall, I take it out. Read a few pages and then I hit my keyboard. It's not really jealousy that drives me - it's something akin to unfairness. When I read "that" book, I felt cheated. Like something important had been stolen from me, and the only way to get that back was to write my own book that didn't cheat.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Ally,
Was it Prep? That novel made me so angry...

But this is very cool.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

From my friend:
OMG! I know what you mean! I'm an editor for a magazine at my day job and I can't tell you how many books I'm sent where I think, "How does crap, (*ahem*), stuff like this get made and I'm still getting rejections!" It's beyond frustrating.

But Ally, you're so right! The anger can fuel your drive, so in a way it's good. Not that you have to be angry in your writing, just that it motivates you to put pen to paper—or fingers to keys.

Plus, people deserve to read awesome books, and if you're not writing them, then no one will be able to read them!

And personally—I know I'm going to be bludgeoned for saying this—my shoot-me-in-the-head author good fortune is Stephenie Meyer and the "Twilight" phenom. I just don't get what's unique about it...

I know I probably just lost my whole anono-fanbase here, but I had to say it!

Gwen Hayes said...

Interesting.
MY agent made me take out and explosive line just recently. I may put it back in and refer her to this post.

Exploding is a very good thing.

Agency Gatekeeper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yat-Yee said...

Dear Friend of Gatekeeper,
Your confession about it being Meyer has just given me a much better understanding now of the degree of your frustrations. Hang in there, and when you get published, let us know.

Colin said...

You are all so noble; I can't say the same. I've got a friend who Magoos his way through life. I mean, this guy trips and a pillow stuffed with money appears below him to break his fall.

To cope, I (saturate myself with scotch, but also) try to romanticize my martyrdom. Mantras like "What doesn't kill you. . ." echo through my brain. It's worked so far, but I still think of myself a bit like the late comedian Bill Hick's joke about moths:

"Moths love light. Are there moths on their way to the sun right now? Probably thinking to themselves, 'this had better be worth it when we get there.'"

I envy your collective poise.

Trisha L said...

Well my book can't get much darker; it’s pretty damn depressing the way it is.

That said, I'd like to chime in one the original comments about what to blow up. I know exactly what to blow up in a romance novel and I have no problem going there as I've just completed a horrendous, historical-based romance novel for my book club.

I'd blow up corsets! What sane, red-blooded women heads out into the sunset for a well-planned rendezvous tied into her dress with forty some-odd yards of string. Please!!!! She's the one I want to impale with a stiletto.

Oh yeah and pearl buttons -- Always amazed how a poor farmer's wife in the middle of Ireland can afford those!

As for advice for your friend:
~What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.

~An agent does not a published author make.

I have a whole litany of useless sayings, but no matter how you slice it, rejection just stings!

Agency Gatekeeper said...

From Friend of Gatekeeper

Yat-Yee...I will be singing from the rooftops (of my NYC apartment)when I finally have a book with my name on it in B&N! So trust that you will know when my fortune has turned!

Colin--Scotch isn't going to get you published...and it can get a little expensive! :) I see your "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger", and raise you a "What doesn't kill you makes you pissed off enough to fight like hell to get what you want." I'm also of the opinion that everyone has their ups and downs, so no one's lives are quite as perfect as we may think they are. It's good to be a little angry...now get writing and create a character in your book, give him your friend's name and blow him up. I promise, it'll be cathartic!

Trisha--I agree. Corsets suck and should DEFINITELY be blown up! Now what else could we blow up....

Lauren said...

Hey Friend of Gatekeeper, if you're still around, could you give me some etiquette advice? I, too, have a friend who got an agent really easily -- based on a blog entry she wrote about a bad date. (Nevermind that most of the details in said entry were completely fabricated. SIGH.) She hasn't even finished a novel, but Agent's promised to rep her YA fantasy when she finishes it. Argh! I wrote somewhere between 15 and 20 manuscripts before I even started thinking about publication, and now I'm on Serious Novel #3. Contest wins, short story publications, no agent.

But Friend thinks she's the more dedicated writer of the two of us, and is always giving me unsolicited critiques on my work. She knows I'm writing about a Latina protagonist in my current YA, so she tells me, I swear, to "maybe have her involved in a gang?" or "maybe have her boyfriend be a drug dealer?" How can I politely reject her "advice"? I feel like the next time she says something like this to me, I'm going to completely blow up at her. I've tried to keep some distance between us recently, but we have a lot of mutual friends, so I end up seeing her more often than I'd like. Help?

Lindsay said...

Friend of Gatekeeper, you've convinced me of the healing powers of fire and danger. I wonder if there is something in my current ms that I can blow up. I've already done some pretty awful things to my main character so a few explosions or maybe even a good carbon dioxide leak shouldn't be too problematic. . .you think?

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Lauren and Lindsay, I'm passing your comments on to my friend. :) S/he will respond shortly. :)

Agency Gatekeeper said...

From Friend of Gatekeeper

Lauren,

That really sucks about your friend...especially when you've put the time and dedication into honing your craft and this was just handed to her on a silver platter without her even asking for it. But just because an agent's offering to represent her doesn't mean that she's anymore worthy of being published than you. It just means that she got a lucky break...for now.

Ultimately, you need to remember this: There's nothing you can do about the fate of your friend and her writing career. We have no control over what others do, only what we do and how we react to the things around us. Keep working on your own projects, and find people you can talk to about what you're going through (Doing this blog has been so helpful to me in regards to moving on...and the people on here are an incredible sounding board! And more importantly, they don't know your friend, so no one will get hurt in your quest to vent!). And channel your frustrations and anger in a healthy way—like through a short story or new book, or a new character that's just plain evil.

As for the unsolicited advice, take what you want and leave the rest. Simply tell her that you appreciate her advice, but have a very clear outline for your book in mind, and if you want her advice she'll be the first person you ask. This way you're being clear and direct, but letting her know you've got it covered.

You don't need to fawn all over her about the fact that this crazy deal dropped into her lap, but you should remember to be respectful. Say congrats and leave it at that....and then get back to your own writing. Just because it hasn't happened for you yet doesn't mean it won't. It may just mean that you're on a different time schedule. Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries) has said that she received a rejection letter every day for several years except for on Sundays and that was only because they didn't deliver the mail that day, before she ever got published. And now she's one of the most successful YA authors out there!

Hang in there and know that I'm rooting for you!

Agency Gatekeeper said...

From Friend of Gatekeeper

Lindsay,
Just like the Gatekeeper suggested earlier...you can blow up just about anything. And if things are already a little bloody in your MS, there's always the option of having a situation or plan blow up in your character's face. Personally though, I've always been a fan of explosive fights. As for objects? Houses, boats, cars, even a toilet in a bathroom (cherry bombs anyone?). Think of what you'd like to blow up if you had the chance and go with that. Chances are others will connect with your need for a little fire, too.

:) said...

GKSF (Gatekeeper's Secret Friend) should totes add a dragon.

In lieu of that, take heart. The friend's book has not sold yet, yes? Maybe friend of GKSF will languish in submissionland for all eternity, having an agent (whose judgment is suspect at best) but never being able to zero in on a sale.

One can hope.

If GKSF's friend does land a six-book eight-figure deal, they say chocolate helps.

:)

just Joan said...

No respect has been lost for anonfriend of Gatekeeper. The revelation that "lucky" friend was SM only adds to my appreciation of your anguish. I cried tears of frustration when I read TWILIGHT.

The Twilight novels made me go, "This got published and I'm still struggling?"

*sigh*

I feel your pain, anonfriend of Gatekeeper.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

Hi Joan,
Just to clarify, my friend's friend was not Stephanie Meyer--but goodness! Had it been SM, there's no way we could have not written this column sooner. :)

Agency Gatekeeper said...

From Friend of Gatekeeper

Thanks :)

You're right. I think there are very few things that chocolate can't fix.

And honestly...it's not that I want my friend to fail. She IS my friend after-all. But to be honest, I was just hoping it would happen for me first...or at all.

In the meantime, I'm taking care of business, focusing on my own writing because that's all I can do to make my writing better.

Besides, when I finally do get an agent and publish my first book, I'll have a great story to share with other aspiring writers!

Ally said...

Dear Gatekeeper and Friend of Gatekeeper,

...it was Twilight.

I know, I'm awful, but it was. Nothing personal, just...well, um, taking Forrest Gump's approach - that's probably all I should say about that.

o.O

Anonymous said...

Ha! Ally, just know that you're in good company in feeling that way about the Twilight broo-haha. I think I like you even more now that you said that!

—Friend of Gatekeeper

Angela M. said...

LOL! The Twilight books are also what got me back on the writing path again, too! My friends and I couldn't believe they were getting so much attention when they really were just rather ordinary. Wow, I guess those books are good for something.

Nichole Giles said...

Ouch. I understand that feeling, and it's definitely hard to get over. Your poor characters. But hey, if it makes your writing better, soak it up.

verorossi said...

In regards to some of the Twilight comments, I totally agree it wasn't the most exquisitely crafted piece of literature. But can you deny that millions upon millions have derived tremendous enjoyment from the story?

This is a larger issue, in my opinion, about what gives a piece of writing, or any form of art, merit.

Take a pop song, for example. Let's call it... a Taylor Swift song. Maybe Ms. Swift doesn't have the greatest vocal range, or even the most profound lyrics, but she's doing something that appeals to a huge amount of people.

Or how about Diary of a Wimpy Kid? That, I assure you, is not literature. But it's the series of books that got my son loving to read...

I think art can serves many different purposes. It can enlighten, inspire, offend. But can't it just flat-out entertain?

Honestly, Twilight-bashing scares me. I work very hard at my craft. I'm trying to write a great book, with solid well-rounded characters, a fast-paced plot, a unique concept, snappy dialogue... you know the list. But at the end of the day, I won't write something perfect. If I'm lucky enough and good enough to get published, I can very easily imagine receiving reader-criticism for one thing or another. And you know what? I don't care.

We should write the stories we want to write. As artists. We should write stories that move US. That's art. That has merit, no matter how flawed the execution.

Julie Musil said...

A very honest post. Thank you.

Agency Gatekeeper said...

From Friend of Gatekeeper

Verorosi--

I understand what you're saying, and luckily writing is so subjective, because what's one person's junk is another's treasure. Of course, every book has merit and surely for "Twilight" fans, the book has meant a lot.

I think where my frustration comes into play with books like this is that for me, I felt like the book wasn't anything special. I didn't even find it all that entertaining. And this is okay, because not everyone's going to love every book that's made. I'm sure there are even a few people who weren't "Harry Potter" fans (crazy people, but still). And that's okay, too.

I believe the annoyance behind the "Twilight" phenom isn't that it shouldn't have been published in the first place, but that so many deserving books aren't.

I appreciate that a lot of people love the "Twilight" books, and if it makes a person feel something, then of course it has merit. But does it have any more merit than those books that aren't at the right place, at the right time, with the right agent, etc., and weren't lucky enough to get theirs published?

I'm all for fluff...I'm not a literature snob at all. It's just hard when, as an writer, you create something that people love to read, and don't have the same luck in getting it published as others...

verorossi said...

Ahhh.... Then we're on the same page. I've been writing for seven years, nearly full time. In that timeframe, I've seen friends get agented and published. I do believe luck is as much (if not more) a part of the process as talent. It is frustrating, and I didn't mean to diminish that aspect of it, and I do understand your point. Good writing does go ignored sometimes. Poor writing often sells. There's unfairness there, no question.

My advice (which you didn't ask for)? Put on a great song, pour a glass of wine and read a scene, one you like, hopefully one you haven't seen in a while so you can really see it, see how far your efforts have brought you, but even more, get sucked into that place... of your world, your characters.

Nothing like that place. I don't even think a publishing contract will feel that good... Maybe someday we'll both find out whether that's true or not...

Good luck to you, gatekeeper's friend. Keep at it. S'all you can do!