What to do about feedback; or, Another week, another writerly dilemma

Earlier this year I broke my contract with my agent, after about 12 years with the agency. It wasn’t an easy decision, since it took some time to decide that my odds of getting published again the traditional way had fallen far below my odds of success at going it alone. But now I’m in the position to remember another reason why I liked being agented: the agent takes care of all that tedious work of finding publishers, evaluating them, submitting to them, and getting hit with the rejections.

Finding publishers willing to work with unagented authors is a chore in itself, especially if you’re going to rule out those publishers who have only put out 2-3 books (ever – and there are some), those who have no distribution or marketing presence to speak of (and therefore don’t offer authors much more than self publishing does), those who have crappy cover art (ditto), and those owned by Random House (who have already made it clear that they don’t want to publish any more of my books). But last week I was hit in the face with something I’d totally forgotten about, mostly because my agent had such an overwhelming workload that she would only notify me of acceptances – what it’s like to get a rejection letter.

This one was very helpful, as rejections go. I sent my new crossover romance/adventure manuscript to an online publisher, and the editor gave me some details about why she didn’t like it. I open this book with a flash-forward: “I wasn’t really expecting him to shoot me.” Then I go back and cover how the narrator meets the shooter, and everything that leads up to that point, like the television convention of following a dramatic first scene with the caption, “Three months earlier.” I got a kick out of it, and at the time I was writing this project, it helped shake me out of a slump I’d fallen into, where I was having trouble getting started.

But apparently it didn’t work for the editor. She said that telling a scene before showing it dissipates the tension. This is a publisher that’s willing to look at a resubmitted, revised manuscript, and the editor invited me to make the changes and submit again in six months. And now for the writerly dilemma… Do I make the changes?

There was a second complaint, where the editor didn’t like the framing device I’d used. I’ve been on the fence about that framing device myself, and beta readers said they weren’t crazy about it, so I’m already considering taking it out. But what do I do about my opening? I like my opening – I think it’s a great opening. I’m not convinced that most readers are going to be bothered by the “Three months earlier” thing. And even if I take it out, there’s no guarantee that this publisher will accept the manuscript.

I posted this to my friends on Facebook and got the (paraphrased) response, “It’s your book, it’s your vision, don’t let anyone else tell you to change it.” And I agree with that – to some extent. Clearly I’m not the kind of writer who chases trends, and I don’t write that popular edge-of-your-seat style. I don’t stick to the conventions of any genre I write in, as you can see from the rather sad rating my books have on Goodreads and Amazon. Those readers who like to get what they expect don’t like my books. Those who do like my books tend to like things that are a little different (or as one reviewer said, “This is fantasy, but not elves and wizards, thank God”). I have a preference for books that challenge me, even upset me, and that’s how I write.

But at the same time, if you’re going to publish and expect people to buy your books, you can’t give them something so difficult, so out there, that they can’t relate. I have a vision, sure, but that’s only half of the picture. Art isn’t art until you have a viewer; the reader is going to bring his/her own interpretation to the vision that the writer puts forward. And if you’re asking a publisher to bankroll the production, editing, cover art, and distribution of your book, you’ve got to work with them to make a product that they think they can sell.

My plan, after self-publishing the Gbahn and Archipelago books, was to find a small press for the crossover romance/adventure books. This is partly to compare experiences – and sales – and partly to relieve myself of a little of the pressure of doing it all on my own. I’d also like an opportunity to work with an editor again, an incredibly valuable experience that I have to recommend to all self-publishers. I’m not yet willing to give up on the plan just because this publisher doesn’t like my opening. I’m having trouble finding another viable publisher. I’m uncertain whether the opening is really needed by the story, or whether it was just the spark that I needed to get me going, and now I can let it go. My head is in such a knot I feel like giving up and eating donuts instead.

Edit: Sometimes blogging or writing a diary is useful. A few hours after I wrote the draft for this post, I realized what I wanted to do. I did some more research and identified two more publishers to contact. Then I sat down with the manuscript and started making the changes that I really wanted to make – and left the opening the way I want it. I’ll send it to those two publishers, then if they still don’t like it, I’ll do the revisions the first publisher suggested and resubmit it. I’ll keep the donuts on hand in case none of this works out…

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