I have been writing since I was fourteen.
But I did not start researching the literary industry or how to actually get my work out there until recently. Up until then, my work had focused purely on the craft. Publication, though, had always been on my mind.
Little did I know how spoiled I was by the first industry I became involved with in my life, as a child: the film industry. I landed my first movie role during my second film audition ever. This led to a second movie, a third, and a recurring role on a television show. On some level, I knew I was lucky. But I was also a kid. I thought, well, I wanted to be an actress, so I became one, and that’s how it works. I could not fully appreciate how lucky I had been until I became disillusioned with acting, dropped it to pursue my true passion of writing novels, and learned how painstakingly difficult it is to break into a creative business.
Someone told me my main character’s age didn’t fit comfortably into a category, and I took it to heart. My character is thirteen because that’s how I imagined her, I insisted. I didn’t want to shove her into an age box just to get my words in print.
Then one day, I discovered a novel-pitching contest online. Three writers hosted this contest on their respective blogs, each representing a different category (adult, young adult, and middle grade). I read the submission guidelines and thought, oh, what the heck—I’ll enter. I did not expect to make it into round two. When I made it into round three, the final round, I practically threw myself a party. Those who made it into round three got their loglines and first 250 words posted online, in front of real, live literary agents, who would be picking their favorites and requesting pages from the authors!
So I watched as agents commented on other pitches and gave out compliments, feverishly refreshing the page displaying my own work. I waited. And waited. And waited.
One of the hosts of the blog kindly e-mailed me to explain what had gone wrong. My word count was so high it probably scared agents off. Most agents noticed an important component to my plot showed up often in their query inboxes. The age category I’d selected didn’t make any sense to them. I was devastated.
Five months and a merciless editing session later, I sit here with an improved book. However, despite the editing, it is still, at its heart, the book I started so many years ago. The word count is still longer than the recommended limit, but would be more reasonable to an agent. So why not just cut it down to the recommended length? Because, even though I want my work published, I also want to stay true to it. Currently, I feel that if I cut any more, I will hurt the story and the reader’s understanding of the characters. Notice, however, that I say “currently.” If I send out a bunch of queries and multiple agents tell me my story seems weakened by its length, or if an agent suggests I cut it down, I will happily take their advice.
I made some other industry-friendly alterations. I changed my main character’s age, but not because it would be “easier to sell”—beta readers told me she sounded older, and that it made more sense with the story. This is what I must keep in mind.
If a change betters the story, change it. If I’m making a change purely to please agents, that’s disrespectful to my work and to myself.
For this reason, I did not remove the plot element that people have told me might be harder to sell. Who knows? Maybe the type of story I’m writing will make a comeback, or an agent will appreciate the twist I’ve put on it and take it on.
Don’t get me wrong—I am not saying to ignore the advice of agents. When on the set as a kid, did I refuse to listen to the director when they suggested I deliver a line in a different way? Of course not, and I would treat a literary agent in the same way. They are valuable for a reason.
It is okay to disagree with the director, or the agent, sometimes, as long as it is done in a reasonable and courteous way.
When slogging through the swamp-like world of rejections, I must trust myself. I must wriggle back into the mindset I maintained those years ago when publishing sat at the back of my brain.
Following the industry guidelines as closely as possible is smart and important, yes. But if it means making a change that goes completely against what I believe in, for the story or in general, I will stand my ground.