Hey, it wasn't as if Mary didn't give it the ol' college try. According to the article she spent years writing it, got an agent . . .
Then had it rejected by publishers.
So she had a funeral for her book. At a funeral parlor, with guests, music, flowers, eulogies: the whole nine yards.
That got her book some press. Granted, it's not as big of a high as a book launch. But hey, at least now the public knows about it.
We've all been there, right? Who doesn't have a manuscript (or two, or four) that's been passed over: by your former agent, your current agent, and more than likely some future agent, too—
All because the timing is (was, and foever shall be) wrong for this kind of book.
Or maybe not.
I've got some advice for Mary:
Don't bury your career as a writer along with you novel.
1. Write the best story you can. Then re-write it. Now read it out loud, word for word. See any plot holes? Any typos? Any awkward phrases that make you sound as if you're tongue-tied? Time to do another rewrite.
2. At the same time, network with other writers. Go to writer's groups and professional writers' associations. Make friends with a couple of other authors whose writing voice you like, and who respect yours as well. Ask them to critque your manuscript. The best critique partners aren't there to tear you down or compete with you. They are there to help you get the most out of your plot, your characters and your voice. Why? Because they know that doing so means you'll owe them that same courtesy.
Now, listen to their critiques, and rewrite it again.
3. Go to writers conventions and workshops, where you'll network with agents, too. Publishing professionals are people, too. They like to see whose stuff they're reading, to put the name and voice and personality to the manuscript. In fact, it may be the deciding factor for an agent to take you on as a client.
4. Query MANY agents at once. The majority of agents now take queries online. DO YOUR HOMEWORK as to what they've rep'd in the past. Pick at least 10 to query whose past sales were made from align with your story. A subscription to www.publishersmarketplace.com is a great starting place. Address each agent by their name and correct gender. And make your query letter engaging, succinct in describing your plot, and typo-free.
5. Choose an agent who gets your writing voice—and who wants to hang in there for the long haul. Yea, you've picked up an agent, and she LOVES you! She really, really LOVES you!....
And will keep loving you even if it turns out she can't sell your manuscript.
A great agent won't let the book go out without feeling it's something that something she can get behind, wholeheartedly. That means doing her own homework as to who actively acquiring, that matches up with what you've written. She'll be a wonderful cheerleader for the project: on the phone and via emails with editors. And she'll try very hard to get one or more to come to the table with an offer.
And if it turns out that, for whatever reason, no one wants the manuscript, she'll show you their "pass" letters, so that the two of you can consider what might work better in your writing style and stories for the next go round. She'll also ask you about other projects that you may be considering, and discuss the viability of selling those as well.
Because if you aren't writing, she isn't selling. Remember, she makes 15 percent.
Now if she's a lousy agent, should the rejects come in, she'll no longer answer your emails or take your calls. And whatever you send her "just doesn't do it" for her. Take the hint and move on, hopefully to an agent whose client criteria aligns with yours for an agent: honesty thoughout your business relationship.
But yes, in any regard, you need an agent to sell to large publishing houses..
6. Network with editors, too. Yep, they, too, are human, not gods and goddesses. If you're at a writing convention and get a few minutes to pitch your story and they like what they hear, it's their job to acquire new books. Yours may fit the bill.
Like Babe Ruth said, "It's the number of times up to bat..." that make the difference as to whether you hit it out of the park, or strike out. Remember, during his long career he held the records for both.
A caveat here: It's rare that editors will pluck your manuscript out of the mountainous slush pile on their desks to read, then deem it a chosen one. Most would prefer their writers be vetted by agents. Some houses are adamant about this, for good reason: it's an agent's job to know what resonates with the many editors at the various houses, and to send manuscripts that match up with their aquisition needs—which makes them the first line of defense in the upstream spawning of the not-yet-extinct novel.
7. Don't just promote your book, or manuscript. Promote your career. Start by blogging. About anything. Pick topics that show your voice on the page, your humor, your knowledge, and your joy in sharing this with the world.
Oh yeah, and talk about your book or manuscript while your at it.
You see, agents and editors Google authors, too. Some even find manuscripts that way.
8. Know when to hold'em. And just as importantly, know when to fold'em. If you can't sell it, stick it in a drawer. As with most things in life, in publishing timing is everything. How long have we all heard now that vampires were hot, and historicals were dead? When it comes to book genres, the worm is always turning, even now. Trust that, when the time is right, you and your agent can repitch it.
9. Don't do it for Oprah and Ellen. Do it for YOU. Because it's a story you want to tell. Because it's a tale you love. Because you're willing to work to make it a success: for its life, for your career, and for your publisher. All the other great stuff will follow. Like respect from booksellers. And fans who clamor for your next book. And maybe some notable press.
10. Write another novel. Doing so shows that you're not a one-trick pony. The publishing industry is finally seeing authors as brands. And an author's books are the products of his/her brand.
Writing another manuscript also proves you that you're in it for the long haul; that you're a pro, not a hobbiest—
—And that your voice is good enough to get you published.
December 10, 2008
When Dreams Die:
The pews were packed last Saturday afternoon at Chapel of the Chimes, and people who couldn't find seats had to linger on the terrace, dangling cameras and video recorders. At 4 p.m. piano chords wafted into the room. Six pallbearers in black suits lugged a heavy casket up the aisle while at the pulpit, a man sang "The Impossible Dream" in a luxuriant tenor. Behind the large casket trudged several small children carrying something in a wagon — the "something" turned out to be three manuscripts, a copy of The Secret, a "vision board" inspired by The Secret with pictures of Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres cut out of magazines, the book How to Write a Damn Good Novel, several rejection letters, and a diploma for an MFA in creative writing. Behind them came a woman in dark glasses and a black cowl, dabbing her eyes with Kleenex. People in the audience snickered. Perhaps this amount of pomp and circumstance was a bit much for a writer mourning her rejected novel. But in a way, her grief seemed understandable.
The author, Mary Patrick Kavanaugh, had been working on her book Family Plots: Love, Death & Tax Evasion for roughly seven years. She began the first draft upon entering an MFA program at University of San Francisco in 2001. By then her husband had been dead for two years and then-forty-year-old Kavanaugh lived with her teenage daughter Ashley on the border of Oakland and Piedmont, just a stone's throw from the Mountain View Cemetery. For two years Kavanaugh went to school full time, and emerged with a six-hundred-page manuscript. "When you're dealing with your own life you don't know when to shut the hell up," the author explained. "Or I should say I don't know when to shut the hell up." Kavanaugh took another two years off to whittle the first draft down. She refinanced her house twice. In 2005 she began shopping for an agent, and last fall she pitched Family Plots to eight publishers. None of them bit. In the spring she courted eight more. No dice. Kavanaugh was flummoxed. "By late July it was fifteen 'nos,' and the last one was just ignoring me," she said.
It wasn't that Kavanaugh had written a crappy book. Quite the contrary, said people who read her rough drafts. In fact, Kavanaugh appended "praise from the rejecters" to the book jacket of what ultimately became a self-published novel. "Ms. Kavanaugh is a laugh-out-loud hilarious writer, one who uses cutting humor to get at the heart of a situation," wrote someone from Riverhead Books. "Great comic timing," said another from Penguin. "I found the narrative voice to be engaging, and the mystery pleasantly quirky," added a rep from St. Martin's Press. It wasn't hard to write a gushing encomium about Kavanaugh, who has a dark sense of humor and a way of manhandling her readers. Offering her a book deal was another story.
Several factors contributed to what was ultimately a wholesale rejection of Family Plots. Kavanaugh is an unknown novelist. She emerged at a time when book sales were down across the board, and few publishers were willing to take risks. ("It's a fear-based economy everywhere," said the author.) Moreover, the book defied categorization. It's a loosely autobiographical mystery novel inspired by Kavanaugh's relationship with her husband, a lawyer who dodged the IRS and always felt "like he'd been done wrong." (Kavanaugh describes him as a "pretty alternative," but not criminally-minded type of guy.) Kavanaugh coined a cute term for the genre she had created: She called it "autobiographical faction." The term was catchy, the story had juice, and the author knew how to create drama — editors took note. But they all came to the same conclusion: In this market, quirky and cute just won't cut it anymore.
By the time Kavanaugh received her fifteenth rejection letter, Family Plots looked like a pipe dream. "I listened to that author of Juno on NPR," Kavanaugh recalled. "She was saying it's so hard to crack publishing. ... You need to build a platform on the web." But it seemed impossible to create a viable Internet identity if Kavanaugh didn't already have name recognition. She had put all her faith in the top publishers in New York, planning every last detail from the book cover to the interview with Oprah. She wanted to hold a book launch at Chapel of the Chimes because the cemetery fit into her book's theme (she refers to it as "a character in the book"). "After the rejection I was walking through the cemetery and thinking, 'Oh, I don't get to do my book launch here.'" Then something clicked. "I said, 'Wait a minute, I'll have a funeral for my book here! I'll build a platform in the 'online dead dream cemetery.'" The resulting web site is riddled with hooky taglines.
Whether or not Kavanaugh wrote a commercially viable novel remains to be seen (she did manage to sell 91 copies at the book's funeral, and fifty prior to that). But there's no debating that she can throw a damn good funeral. Presented in a joyously over-the-top style that recalled the funeral in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life, Kavanaugh's event featured a eulogy from Pastor Rai Jordon, who had been her spiritual advisor through the whole process of writing Family Plots. Performances from fellow attendees of Kavanaugh's church, the East Bay Church of Religious Science, included a peppy rendition of the Monty Python tune "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life," an original rap from emcee Vivacious V, and the ever-inspiring Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune, "Climb Every Mountain." Ashley and her best friend came up to the pulpit twice with "a message from our sponsor," urging everyone to purchase a copy of Family Plots on the way out, for $21.75.
At the climax, Kavanaugh rushed to the coffin and threw in all the remnants of her dead dream — the manuscripts, the books, and the vision board ("I really wanted Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres to bolt into the chapel and say 'Nooooooo!'" she confessed in a subsequent interview). Jordon convinced her to keep the MFA degree, assuming it might come in handy some day. Guests were invited to approach the casket and toss in their own dead dreams, using two notes of "dead dream currency" that Kavanaugh provided in the program bills. One marked the death of Proposition 8. The other provided a list of suggested "dead dreams" for guests to choose from: failed relationships; bad marriages; abortive careers; the quixotic dream of finding a soul mate. (People were also invited to write in their own.) The idea, which is replicated on Kavanaugh's web site (MyDreamIsDeadButImNot.com), went over well. After all, most people know what it's like to get turned down.
Kavanaugh also sent invitations to her rejectors in New York City, asking them to be pallbearers. She provided three optional replies: 1) Unfortunately, I have to reject you again. 2) Absolutely, I'd love to help kill this project. 3) For the love of god, would you leave me alone? None of them came, but she did get a couple encouraging responses from people who thought it was an excellent marketing gimmick. One editor wasn't so kind, said Kavanaugh: She checked the first box.