The Road to Publishing Godsend, Part 2
(you can read part 1 here)
Querying agencies is a little like applying to college--you send a few applications to schools that are probably out of your league, but most go to schools you have a better shot at. After nearly nine months of sending out queries, I got a call from an agent I considered to be a long shot. She was from an agency that specialized in more general fiction, so I was a little surprised to be hearing from her given that I write about a dude who hangs out with celestial beings.
Up to that point, an agent was no different than a unicorn to me, albeit a unicorn that replied in form letters. I had no idea what to expect. Thankfully, she was incredibly nice and easy to talk to, something a socially awkward penguin like myself requires when faced with the notion of non-internal dialog.
When we got around to the book, she said something right away I think I'd needed to hear all along, even if I didn't know I needed to hear it. She said the writing was good. No matter how many times you're published or how much positive feedback you get from people that read your work, there's still a nagging sense in the back of most writers' minds that they're posers, that they're not good enough to be doing what they're doing. To hear someone in the industry tell you that you're stuff is good is the kind of validation you live for, so at this point, I may have been floating. She then said that she really enjoyed the main character. Hooray! I don't think I was floating anymore after that, though, because it felt like a "but" situation was brewing.
"But," she said. "You lost me with the gods stuff."
I got the wind knocked out of me during a soccer game once. I caught a foot in the stomach and fell straight to the ground, wheezing like somebody had taken my lungs and shrunk them to the size of a gnat. That's kind of how I felt at that moment.
The problem, in her view, was that it was too much fantasy right up front. "Fantasy doesn't sell," she said. It's a niche market and unfriendly to new authors. If I wanted to sell the book, I would have to make wholesale changes to aim it at the general crowd, and that meant delaying the arrival of the gods to the last third of the book, if not the very end.
My first thought was, "Hell no." My second thought was, "Well...maybe it could work." My third thought was, "I bet she's wondering if I'm still on the phone."
The conversation didn't go on for too much longer after that. I thanked her for her time and told her I'd let her know my decision.
I spent the next day trying to figure out how I could shoehorn my story into a form that would appeal to a wider audience. Every time I thought I had something, I'd come back to my original fear with the changes, which was that I was only delaying the inevitable. When a story's main conflict revolves around gods and monsters, it's tough to take those out and still have a compelling story. Not only that, but they're going to make an appearance no matter what, so am I really telling a "general audience" story if the last third of my book and every book after it contains fantasy and sci-fi elements? Seemed to me like a bait and switch in the worst way.
In the end, I was staring down a choice I was hoping I'd never have to confront: Do I stick with the story I wanted to sell, or do I change it to a story agents think will sell? Ultimately, I decided to keep the fantasy front and center because that's the kind of story I most wanted to read. Needless to say, she didn't return my email after I proposed some less-than-drastic changes to the structure.
So there I was in possession of a story that was apparently good enough to publish, but not good enough to sell. Being the stubborn individual I am, I knew I didn't want to give up on acquiring an agent, but I no longer saw it as the most likely publishing scenario. Instead, I turned my attention to the indie world--but not before sending the manuscript off to one of the big, faceless publishing houses on a whim, because...well why the hell not?
Five months later, that faceless whim got back in touch with me.
(to be continued in Part 3)