Chutes and ladders, and book writing

Remember the board game Chutes and Ladders? Where landing on some squares whisked you up a ladder and toward the finish line, while landing on others sent you plummeting down a slide back toward the start? 

I feel like I’ve just gone down a chute back to start. That’s not terrible, and I’m not feeling bad about it. It’s just a way of visualizing where I am in this process. 

Down, down, down...

This is about the path to publication and finding a literary agent. When I began focusing full-time on fiction writing a year and a half ago, I assumed I was well along the road to publication. I had published one non-fiction book already, and I had an agent who had represented me on that book. 

Combine that with nearly 20 years of newspaper writing, and I felt miles ahead of all the poor souls who stumbled about sending cold queries and collecting boilerplate rejection letters from dozens upon dozens of agents.

Well, here we are 18 months later. After sharing a couple of versions of my manuscript with my prior agent, it became pretty clear to me that she wasn’t going to take on this project – at least not without changes that were bigger than I wanted to make. Last winter I approached a few more agents with whom I had some personal connection and got similar rejections. 

On the bright side, most were lovely rejections – personal, thoughtful, even offering some praise. On the not-so-bright side, there was always a “but.” (“Your writing is lovely and has a good voice BUT…”) 

My main conclusion was that I had some more rewriting to do. My secondary conclusion was that selling fiction is damn subjective – much more subjective than selling nonfiction. 

With nonfiction, there seems to be more of a logic to getting your book sold. Agents and editors ask: Is this an interesting and new idea? Who are the potential readers and how big is the market? Does this writer have the right background and “platform” for this project? These are all questions that can be anticipated and answered. 

With fiction, there’s some of that, but there is also this big subjective element: Does the agent or editor fall in love with it?  

Do they like your characters? Do they want to keep turning pages? Do they feel a burning need to tell their friends about it? Does it make them want to laugh/cry? Does it strike some chord with them personally? 

Do they like it enough to passionately fight for all the additional layers of approval – the senior editors, marketing mavens, finance folks – needed for publication? 

In short, do they love it? 

And love is so personal, so subjective. That’s daunting, but it’s also encouraging. It’s encouraging because it means that five rejections is not definitive. Even ten rejections is not definitive. All it takes is one person to say yes – so you can slog through 57 rejections and then find one person who falls in love with your book and then yeah! you’ve got your agent or editor. 

Now, with my latest round of revising pretty much done, I’m ready to send the manuscript out again. 

But this time I’m down the chute, back at “start” with all those zillions of wannabe authors sending out cold queries and hoping to be noticed in the slush pile. 

To put it in terms of my husband’s beloved Tour de France: I thought I was in the breakaway. 

But I’m really in the peleton

And that’s okay. I just have to keep pedaling.

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13 Responses to “Chutes and ladders, and book writing”

  1. Jeanne Alford Says:

    Illana, thank you sharing a slice of your journey. I can’t help but feel the optimism. With this positive outlook, you will break through the pack!

  2. hana Says:

    Ilana, I like your “Tour de France” analogy. You cannot expect me to say anything else: keep pedaling, even if this hill is not-so-friendly!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Yes! And it is only a matter of time until the “friendly hill” story turns up in this blog. :-)

      (FYI to other readers — Hana was our wonderful tour guide for biking in the Czech Republic! She is also a translator whose English-to-Czech books include “The World Without Us” by Alan Weisman.)

  3. judymintz Says:

    What a lovely post. Thanks for sharing that. I feel like I’m climbing a ladder myself, but that could be purely illusory.

  4. Elaine Says:

    Hi, you probably don’t remember me, but I’m Elaine Lies and I was at J-school with you. Now I work for Reuters in Tokyo and I’m exactly where you are, trying to find an agent with a novel I wrote in between earthquakes, hostage crises and trips with prime ministers. I’m starting absolutely cold, too. Good luck to both of us!

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Wow, Elaine, great to hear from you! It sounds like a wonderful gig and I’m impressed you managed to get a novel done. I could never work on mine while I had my reporting jobs — did the first draft on maternity leave, more work when the Sac Bee gave me a month off one summer, and then rewrote (and rewrote and rewrote) when I took a buyout from the Chronicle.

      Congrats. And yes, good luck to both of us!

  5. D. B. Dean Says:

    Ilana, I am not sure if your post gives me hope or has me scared worse!…if a published writer with years of experience cant get an agent I am not sure what i think i am doing! I look forward to this weekend. Thank you for sharing your journey with us all.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Hi Davida. Take it as a positive sign that it is a level playing field for both new and experienced writers. :-)

      Seriously, I think that a history of publication in other media can help validate a first-time novelist in the eyes of agents and maybe get their initial attention. But with fiction, it ultimately rests on the quality of the manuscript, whether it strikes a chord with a given agent or editor, and timing/luck.

      Look forward to meeting you!

  6. Elizabeth Stark Says:

    Ilana–You put this so well, so precisely. And perhaps it is your journalism background that allows you to retain a sense of rationality in the face of this situation, and to persist. Certainly all the success stories of novelists involve tons of rejection. Stephen King punched his rejections onto a thick nail. James Joyce famously papered his bathroom with his. I love the “Rotten Reviews and Rejections” books for reminding us that we are in excellent company when we pile up the heart-breaks, and that there is no other path to being a published writer. Most importantly, as you say, an accumulation of rejection does not equate to certain doom but is a necessity. Learning how to survive that is another story. But your balanced perspective helps. Thanks again.

  7. jenniferneri Says:

    The first non-fiction article I ever wrote, I sold with the first phone called I made. Ok, I know this is uncommon (I know this now, anw), but it just agrees with what you say it this post. I think the biggest thing a fiction writer needs is patience!

  8. erikamarks Says:

    Ilana, I love both analogies–the Tour is huge in our house too and I adored Chutes and Ladders as a kid, so that one certainly hit home. In my 20 years of this process, I couldn’t agree more that it is a one step forward, two steps back situation so much of the time. And yes, it does only take one agent/editor to love your work and push for it. Only one!

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