Sold my first book directly to a publisher: Roger Mantis.
After 78 rejections.
Never give up.
Now and then someone holds a contest where you submit a pitch, and if you get far enough in the ranks, real agents will take a look at it. Here’s one of them, and I entered it (entries are closed now).
Rules vary, but all of these contests involve severe word limits, which is a challenge to a windy writer like me but very good practice. Some contests ask for 140-character Twitter pitches! This one had a 35-word pitch and a 250-word excerpt (you could extend the excerpt to the end of a sentence).
I entered Roger Mantis and Zorya. A lot of entrants are posting their pitches on their blogs now, so I will too.
Pitch, Roger Mantis: Roger McGillicutty, 12, wakes up one Saturday morning and finds out he’s turned into a five-foot praying mantis. And with school on Monday, and his baseball team playing their biggest rival next week!
Excerpt: As young Roger McGillicutty awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.
Aw, geeze! he thought.
There was no mistake about it. The drapes in Roger’s bedroom were closed, but the Saturday morning sun was shining brightly outside and the drapes glowed, illuminating the whole room.
Roger stared at his hands, which had been replaced by vicious yellowish claws at the end of spiked, emerald-green arms. Clumsily, he kicked off the covers using a lot more legs than he used to have, and looked down at himself. It was worse than he thought. He was lying on his back. Below his shoulders his middle was a narrow, hard, green cylinder leading down to where four long, spindly jointed legs wiggled aimlessly toward the ceiling. The legs were green too, except the ends, which were more yellowish.
Past his legs was a long, narrow, greenish-yellow wormy-looking thing that was apparently his butt. Roger remembered that this was called an “abdomen” on an insect, and his narrow middle part was called a “thorax.” That was all he could remember right now from that insect chapter last month in his hated seventh-grade biology class. Well, at least “abdomen” was a better word than “butt.” As he looked at his…abdomen, it squirmed and bent as though that end of him was waking up separately.
“Eww! Gross!” he said involuntarily. His own voice startled him. It was a little buzzy, like his art teacher Mrs. Clancy, who talked through her nose.
Pitch, Zorya: 17-year-old Zorya sneaks interested looks across her high-school classroom at David, the strange new boy, the only one in the school who can go out in the daytime…
My name’s Zorya. Mother says I’m named after Zorya Vechernyaya, goddess of the Evening Star. That’s sort of cool.
There were fifteen of us in my classroom that fall—the entire high school senior class population of the Northern California Enclave. And then there was David. Named after David, I guess.
He wasn’t one of us. He was one of them.
I propped an arm on my desk and casually leaned my head on my hand, turning my face a bit to the right. That way, I could look at him without…looking like I was looking at him. Up at the front of the room Madame Stefonia was writing something on the whiteboard, so she probably wouldn’t notice right away that I wasn’t paying attention.
The moonlamps were turned up high so David could see well enough to read and write. Their eyes are really bad—I don’t think they can even see colors at night. On the other hand, I could see him just fine. Unlike me, he was watching the teacher and busily taking notes.
He was blonde, which in a room full of black hair made him stick out like a snowball on an asphalt road. He was almost a year older than me, almost a foot taller, and even skinnier. His eyes were dark brown, which was as weird around here as the blonde hair. His voice had a twinge of accent, Texas I think, and my God, the tan. It was only the third week of school, and he hadn’t been here long enough to start losing it.
I have a third book that’s self-published, so it’s not eligible for a contest like this, but for editing practice I generated a pitch for it anyway:
Pitch, Castle Falcon: Two modern children exploring their ancient and mysterious castle home discover frightening secrets about their father’s history, along with strange creatures and dark forces that could be unleashed onto the world.
Once upon a time, there was an immense castle crouched near the base of a range of low, heavily-wooded mountains.
This was no elegant fairy-tale castle with flag-topped towers spiking into the sky. It was vast and sprawling, with massive turreted outer walls built of gigantic blocks of roughly-hewn stone, black with the patina of centuries and crusted with moss and lichens. Within those walls the castle’s grounds were covered with mansions, halls, outbuildings and scattered ruins, laid out in a maze with no pattern or architectural consistency. Inside these buildings were hundreds of rooms of all shapes and sizes. There were dark catacombs, airy parlors, hidden chambers, attics, quiet cloisters and expansive courtyards open to the sky. There were corridors and passages beyond counting, soaring stone buttresses, and worn slate roofs with brooding and broken gargoyles perched on their edges.
Two children had lived in this castle all their lives, and they loved their ancient home even more than they loved video games.
Katie Falcon and her brother Zach simply called it “the Castle.” In nearby Monte Vista, an isolated small town in the American Northwest, people called it “Castle Falcon” when they were talking to tourists but sometimes called it “The Wizard’s Place” when they were quietly talking to each other.
It was the first really warm day of spring. Katie, who was almost fourteen and eager to be sixteen, had kicked off her tennis shoes and was curled up in a nest of pillows on the cushioned platform of the big bay window in her room.
My wife (my best beta reader) is going to be proofing my second book, Roger Mantis, after I added new chapters. Now she’s gone all high-tech and everything and wants to proof it in Kindle format on her IPod. My Kindle InDesign plug-in gets crabby if you don’t include a cover image in the output so I whipped one up in Photoshop. The background is the school baseball field in my home town.
Yeah, it’s an obvious Photoshop. I didn’t want to pay for the mesh model to do a decent 3D rendering of Roger, and I haven’t figured out how to “rig” a figure in 3DS Max anyway.
Yeah, it’s a Minnesota Twins cap. I don’t have a photo for the fictional “Highland Falls Falcons.”
And yeah, the cars in the background aren’t from 1977, either (my eagle-eyed wife spotted that instantly in my first printout).
Geeze, it’s just a dang placeholder cover, okay?
I’ve been sending out queries for my second book, a middle-grade fantasy called Roger Mantis.
I’ve gotten a bunch of rejections so far. Usually these are very polite form rejections, or worse, no responses at all. But today a rejection came back that was different. The agent wrote a letter that actually explained why she didn’t think the book would work for her. I’ll quote from the letter:
The length of Roger Mantis was a major determining factor of this decision. These days middle grade novels must meet a minimum of 40,000 words for a publisher to consider accepting them. At 28,000 words, your submission is just not long enough for middle grade, which means it will be tough to find representation. Perhaps you mean it to be for younger children? Regardless, I strongly encourage you to work with an editor to find places where you can expand and flesh-out the story. It would be worth spending the time on revision to ensure that you’ve done everything you can to make your manuscript the best it can be before you submit it again.
As you look to revising and expanding your work, I suggest that you get your hands on a copy of Tracey E. Dils’ book You Can Write Children’s Books. In it, she explains the middle grade market and gives tips to writing for young readers that might help you add length and depth to your story.
Anybody who has been in this business knows that an agent who actually takes the time to personally respond to a cold query (and add valuable critical comments!) is a rare thing indeed, and in my case highly-appreciated.
I do wish I’d gotten this important feedback before I clocked in 48 other rejections, but now that I know about the length issue maybe I can expand the story and have a better shot next time around. Who knows…maybe some of those agents will be willing to take another look. Anyway, I’m putting this query round on hold for now.
To the agent who took the extra time to help me out? Thanks!
80,000 words is a lot of words. I’m up to 36,600 in Zorya now. My middle-grade book, Roger Mantis, is under 28,000 words in all, and had a much more linear plot structure. I finished that one in less than a month. I’ve been at Zorya since the middle of February, although to be sure there were a few long gaps where I didn’t get much done.
Writing for me is hard work (the term I usually use is “like crapping a pineapple.”) I envy authors who just seem to be able to pour it out on the page. For me, it’s more like jumping across a river on rocks, hoping that the next one I jump to doesn’t roll over on me (plot hole!) or turn out to be an alligator (book-busting plot hole!) Dialogue seems to come more easily, but keeping the storyline working doesn’t.
Well, back to it.
This is the second book I’ve finished, a middle-grade fantasy, currently being shopped around to agents.
Here’s the basic pitch:
Roger McGillicutty, 12, wakes up one Saturday morning and finds out he has unexpectedly transformed into a five-foot praying mantis. His parents seem to be coping with it fairly well, and his dog Lou is okay with it, but how will the rest of the town of Highland Falls handle it? Roger has school on Monday, the carnival’s coming to town next week, and his Little League team is playing their biggest rival Centerville next Saturday. Being a giant bug could seriously cramp his style!
Roger Mantis takes off from the famous beginning lines of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, and then flies in an entirely different direction. Roger’s problems with his town and his classmates are similar to the ones encountered by the hero of the movie “Teen Wolf,” with some echoes of the popular Animorphs series. Behind the adventures and the humor is a story about accepting who you are–your talents and limitations–and learning how to make the most of it.