Cut Off One Toe, or What I Learned at Writers’ Camp

I had lunch recently with Tom Young, a good novelist who lives in Alexandria and was gracious enough to meet with a fan.  Since I finished my novel I’ve learned that getting published no longer involves sending a full manuscript to publishing houses and waiting for their review and approval. It now requires sending “queries” to literary agents who act as the gatekeepers to the publishers, reviewing and vetting manuscripts and sending them on as they feel appropriate (read: profitable.) Young suggested a different path.

His advice on how to get an agent was to attend writers’ conferences and meet agents personally, rather than continue my so-far failed process of sending cold queries via email and hoping they rise to the top of the “slush pile,” the stack of hundreds of such queries agents receive every week.

Writers’ conferences? What manner of strange cult or coven could these be? Writing is a solitary sport, a narcissistic drive to pour your soul onto pages and force them on the purchasing public.  We writers hide in attics and lonely rooms while sticking pencils in our ears and stirring out words to be hammered into sentences and chapters and books. We do not have conferences.

Turns out we do.  So I attended a conference in Cleveland (Go Cavs!) on the topic of How to Get Published, part of which offered the opportunity to sit down with real, live agents and pitch my work.  A pitch is sometimes described as the “elevator talk.” It’s what you would say to an agent if they were trapped with you on a short elevator ride. (And, apparently, “Please, please, please help me sell my book, it’s the best you’ll ever read and we’ll make millions” is not proper form.) Prearranged, ten-minute agent talks.  Like speed dating.

The two I met with were most kind to this first-time pitcher, and their questions walked me through my awkward and shy stumbles trying to describe my 101,000-word masterpiece, er, manuscript in just a few sentences. I tried to tell the plot, themes and characters of a 400-page book in a paragraph or two. They nodded and smiled, their eyes didn’t glaze over and they asked me to send samples so I must not have failed.  But I learned, to my horror, that the rigid rules of the publishing houses decree that mysteries and thrillers are unsellable at lengths above 90,000 words. “They won’t even look at it, it won’t get on the shelves.”

“Go cut ten percent of your book.”

Sure, that’s easy. I’ll take my precious words, my blood poured out on the page and wipe it away.  I’ll delete the efforts of my intellect, my life’s work…to date.  I could easier cut off one of my ten toes.

Editing and cutting and the word count limits imposed by publishers were part of a lecture by Chuck Sambuchino, the god of agent issues who edits the annual Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents.  (Read him at  Main topics were: How to Get Published (my main target); Your Book Publishing Options Today (to include traditional paper and e-books); Everything You Need to Know About Agents (more on the inescapable need to query); and How To Market Your Books by, for example, hawking them in Facebook and blogs. (Do you feel hawked? You will.)  Or by linking your blog to others already well-established [see what I did with Sambuchino, above]).

More than 200 people just like me were at the conference – excited, wide-eyed and staring forward to absorb the expert advice that we pray will pull our works out of the pool of unpublished prose and slap it on the New York Times Bestseller List.  Some of us may get there, after we “murder our darlings.”  This is advice written by Arthur Quiller-Couch in 1916, a Britisher known, at least to me, less for his famous Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 than for being the namesake of novelist Adam Hall’s spy character Quiller. (If you’ve never read The Quiller Memorandum, you’ve never read.)   What he said was this:

“Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” (Emphasis his.)

I had five hours to consider this heinous process driving home from Cleveland, envisioning what scenes or characters would expire under my editors’s knife. Whom would I kill? What would go unsaid? What detail, description or drama would go away.

Turns out, maybe none. During my slash-and-burn editing sessions this week I am finding dozens of words, phrases and passages that are not necessary and even in the way. Sure, they looked cute when they fell on the page but with a mandate to kill, I can see they are chaff that covers the real wheat of the book. My goodness, I can writer flowery. I can use ten-dollar words where dimes would do. I can repeat a point like nails holding on a bootheel. And I can cut this dross without losing a line I need. Not themes, nor characters, nor plot. So far, six chapters edited, and 2,000 words cut. This is easier than I thought.

And somewhat embarrassing.

5 thoughts on “Cut Off One Toe, or What I Learned at Writers’ Camp

  1. I’m impressed that you continue to forge ahead. You have the talent. And I know it’s just a matter of time before a lucky agent signs you.


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