Kameron Hurley of Brutal Women, guestblogging
Last night, I couldn't sleep.
For the last year and a half, I've been trying to get an agent for a book called The Dragon's Wall (yea, I'm bad at titles), the first book in a fantasy series. I've spent the last decade and change playing around in that world, building it up in other books and shorts. The last book I tried to sell got form rejected from every publisher I sent it to.
This time, I wanted to try the gatekeepers first. My downfall has been my query letter. I suck at writing them. Really, really suck at it. This has a lot to do with my incompentence in the plot department. It takes everything I've got to give you a plot over 600 pages. You want me to sum that up in a page? A paragraph??
HAHAAHhHAha ahahHhA HAHA HA AHHA ha
I've written the query letter for this book more than a dozen times. I could never quite pare it down to the sort of essentials that got anybody interested. I tended to blather.
I'm not well-known. I haven't won any awards. I haven't been published to great acclaim in Asimov's or The Magazine of SF & F or even SciFiction (though not for lack of trying), so all I really had to go on was the story. And boy am I bad at summarizing. It took me four weeks to write the abstract for my Master's thesis.
As a last ditch resort, after I'd gotten to the end of my agent list, I cut the query down to two and a half paragraphs that didn't say much about the book except that it had lots of bugs, giant dogs, warring priests, and a fiesty scullery maid. I mentioned Clarion and some writing sales and all the hard work I was doing on book 2 and my "other projects" and sent it off to the last agent on my list.
That one got a response.
So for the third or fourth time I sent out the first fifty pages and got to work on my next book, God's War (about a bisexual shapeshifting bounty hunter engaged in a high-risk contract on a bloody desert world locked in perpetual holy war. Try that one in a query letter!) while concurrently working on book 2 of the fantasy saga. I figured I could start shopping God's War in January, and keep the fantasy saga on the backburner in case God's War interested anybody enough to ask if I had anything else to show them.
It's been a couple of months since I sent out the 50 pages, and I'd pretty much figured they'd gone into somebody's round file.
Of course, that hadn't kept me from frantically checking the mail every day.
Last night I got my SASE back from said agent.
I sat down at the table in the reading room, books on Iranian history and Assyrian armies and Koranic laws and character lists and names and piles and piles of yellow notepads scrawled with cryptic notes about guerilla tactics and what to do with Muslim widows, while the first hundred pages of God's War were sliding off the desk with muddied line-edits crawling all over the text, and I stared at the letter.
It had been my last ditch effort, really. It was a shot in the dark, so it didn't matter if I got told to fuck off again. I'd just write another book. That's what I was doing. It's what I always do.
But, you know, you always hope. You have to hope.
The envelope had been sealed like it contained the Holy Grail, and I had trouble separating the envelope from the paper.
When I pulled it out, I recognized the familiar too-long response I'd seen before from another agent, who said I was very "professional" but the book needed a lot of rewriting, and if I was ever interested in rewriting, maybe she'd look at it again, but until then, good luck.
I had, in fact, since rewritten the whole book. I've been considering sending it back to her for some time, but I wanted to try this new one first. I wanted somebody who was in love with the project before I went begging.
I gritted my teeth and read the letter.
I skimmed past the "Oh, thanks for sending this, really nice," stuff to the middle, then the end.
I stopped reading. Did a double-take.
Went back and read it from the beginning.
She loved the story, she said. Could I just call or e-mail her and make some changes to the first 50 pages so some of the names and characters were clearer? Once that was done, she'd love to read the rest.
You know how you spend your whole life wanting something, and I mean wanting, desiring, sweating at and working over to the expense of all else, believing in something when the stats tell you it's improbable if not impossible, while everybody says, "You won't make money at it" (I'm not making money at it now), while you sit in front of your computer day after day, weekend after weekend, plugging away while the rejections for stories and books come back by the boatload, and you just keep doing it because at some base level, you desire this thing, to write, to be published, to be read, so very, very deeply that you can't tell anyone for fear of embarrassment at what a strong feeling it is?
And it feels so silly, to feel so strongly. It's just books. It's just business. I produce a product. The agent sells it. The publisher buys it. They make money. We do it again.
No big deal. Doesn't mean a thing.
I held that letter and I started shaking.
My whole body shook. I wanted this to work out so badly that all I could think of was, "Don't fuck this up. Don't fuck this up."
It really terrified me, actually, how much I wanted this. Desire, real, gut-churning, body-shaking desire, is something I've always seen as a weakness. And when you know somebody's weakness, you can hurt them.
Tears followed the shaking, even though it's not anything, really. It's a revise and request to read more. It's not an agent contract. It's certainly not a publisher's contract. It's not a three-book deal. It's not a check. It doesn't mean anything.
But it's another step forward. I feel like I've been banging my head against a wall for the last decade, and I just stumbled into the yard. There are more walls ahead of me, of course, but it's a nice yard.
There are a lot of things that have to happen to get me to where I want to be. I have to rewrite well. She has to like the rest. I'll likely then rewrite the rest. Then she'll have to risk signing me. Then a publisher has to like it. Then they have to risk signing me. Then I have to rewrite again. And again. And again. And then I have to make sure it doesn't just sink into oblivion, a one-book deal.
And while all that's going on, I have to keep to the strict schedule for these other projects, for God's War and for book 2, and for the projects I've got lined up after God's War (I have a terraforming bug-swarm novel, five more books in said fantasy series, and at least one more blood-and-sand novel).
This is my darkest secret: this is what I want to do. I want to write fantasy novels. I want to be one of those 500 writers who makes good money at it. I want my freedom.
I think that after a decade and change, you start to believe that it's not ever going to happen for you. Or, maybe, that you'll sell a book or two when you're 40 and they'll sink. Sure, you'll still write books, because you're insane, but it's not like anything's going to come of it.
I've been resigning myself to that for the last couple of years. It's like when I first applied to Clarion at 18 and got rejected. I just assumed it would be another decade before I tried again, before I was ready. I didn't mind a long timeline. I plan to live a long time.
The last couple of months, I've been pretty hard on myself about the writing. I've kept my mind-numbing admin job because it affords me so much writing time, though it means I can barely pay my student loan payments every month. And keeping this job to do something that wasn't getting me any positive feedback at all seemed crazy at best. I've been working so hard on novels that I haven't written a short story in over a year, and I've only got one out in circulation instead of my all-time high of 14.
Instead, I've got a book and a series that I'm passionate about and believe in but that nobody else could really get into. I started writing a stand-alone in the hopes of luring somebody in with it so I could pawn off the series.
They're good fucking books.
And maybe that's been the worst part about everything.
I'm not brilliant. I'm not a genius. I'm not a literary writer. But I read a lot of fucking books, and I know these are good books. Yea, The Dragon's Wall is going to get a lot more work. Yea, God's War is only in draft one. But I'm not writing absolute shit here.
But what gets you noticed is fame or brillance or both, and I'm certainly not famous and definately not brilliant. So the goal is to make the books go from good to brilliant without gaining said brillance through anything but hard fucking work, since I don't seem to have it naturaally. Nobody cares unless it's brillant. There's too much crap to contend with.
Sitting there, staring at that letter, shaking, there was another emotion that washed over me in a stark black wave:
Cause now I've gotta be brilliant. Now I have to pull out everything I have, because I want this so goddamn badly. And the fear, the real fear, the fear that wants to drag you down and swallow you up, is the fear that giving it all you have isn't going to be good enough.
I have a quote from Kevin J. Anderson (of all people) stuck up on my computer desk. When asked what the most important quality a writer should have was, he replied, "Persistence."
One of my writing buddies called last night with an offer to look over the first 50 pages again if I wanted some fresh eyes. "At this point," he said, "you just have to not be an asshole. Rewrite it, and don't be an asshole."
I heard a lot of shit from instructors at Clarion, but after getting reamed by Geoff Ryman, I got hauled into my meeting with him and got an apology and a surprised exclamation when he heard I was twenty years old.
"You're twenty? You're kidding?" he said, looking back at my story. "If you're writing this at twenty, I can't wait to see what you're doing at twenty-five."
I'm hoping everybody gets to find out.
- K Hurley