According to James Scott Bell in his book, Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between, every successful story contains what he calls a “magical midpoint moment” or “look in the mirror moment” where a single moment in the middle of the story pulls together the entire narrative.
The main character confronts a death of some kind in the story (physical, professional, or psychological), and this pivotal moment happens right in the middle of the novel.
At this point in the story, the character looks at himself. He takes stock of where he is in the conflict and—depending on the type of story—has either of two basic thoughts. In a character-driven story, he looks at himself and wonders what kind of person he is. What is he becoming? If he continues the fight of Act II, how will he be different? What will he have to do to overcome his inner challenges? How will he have to change in order to battle successfully?
The second type of look is more for plot-driven fiction. It’s where the character looks at himself and considers the odds against him. At this point the forces seem so vast that there is virtually no way to go on and not face certain death. That death can be physical, professional, or psychological.
I had previously associated this “mirror moment” with fiction, and only fiction–one of the many secret ingredients in a well-crafted story that engages an audience. Now I realize it also applies to me.
The first time I sent out queries for my first novel-length manuscript, I got a solid and unanimous round of rejections, and they were steady and swift. They were all variations of the same message, multiplied by 16, and looked something like this:
Thank you for your query. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m the right agent for your project. Best of luck in finding representation, and thanks again for the query.
For my next novel, I made an effort to appeal to a commercial market, deliberately choosing a teenage female protagonist and first person prose style common in YA fiction. The first ten pages of my final draft impressed an editor at the SDSU Writers’ Conference last year who asked for the full manuscript. Based on constructive feedback from two editors at Tor, I changed the title and re-wrote the first act to make the story more engaging. Then I re-wrote my pitch and began querying with my revised manuscript.
This second round of querying is different. I got two requests for the full. The rest—radio silence. I’m kind of a glass-is-half-empty sort of person, so every day that goes by without hearing from anyone is a confirmation that the answer is “no, thank you.” Strangely, I have not yet received a single definitive rejection for the revised version (though, so far I’ve queried only a handful of literary agents–I’m terrible at writing query letters so I’m taking a cautious approach). I can only speculate, but I’m wondering if my query and opening chapter are too good to reject, but not quite good enough to stand out from the slush pile.
In the meantime, I persevere. I found one literary agent who wanted: “novels that blur the distinction between literary and other genres” according to the agency website. He also mentioned he has “a soft spot for sci-fi, especially when it breaks the mold, and YA with an honest and compelling voice.”
I thought he might be a good agent match and looked up a few of his clients. What I found were authors with few published books (one or two), but an impressive list of published works. Jake Wolff, for example, author of A History of Living Forever (his only novel), lists thirteen published short stories on his website, seven works of creative nonfiction, and two published poems.
Another author this agent represents is a PhD researcher named Erik Hoel who studies “consciousness and emergence.” I looked through his publishing history–and felt utterly inadequate. His publishing credits are impressive: fourteen essays, five short stories, and a whole bunch of peer-reviewed scientific publications.
I don’t have access to sales figures, so I used Goodreads to get a sense of how popular these books are. The History of Living Forever has a total of 504 Goodreads ratings. Hoel’s only novel isn’t published yet. I looked up all ten novels repped by this agent that were listed on the website. Here are the number of Goodreads ratings (as of today, 6-27-2020) for each book:
Jake Wolff (THE HISTORY OF LIVING FOREVER) = 504
Julie Lekstrom Himes (MIKHAIL AND MARGARITA) = 288
Joseph Moldover (EVERY MOMENT AFTER) = 529
Adrianne Finlay (YOUR ONE AND ONLY) = 599
Andrew Battershill (MARRY, BANG, KILL) = 77
Jennie Yabroff (IF YOU WERE HERE) = 43
Sonya Terjanian (THE RUNAWAYS = 67, THE OBJECTS OF HER AFFECTION = 650)
Christian Schoon (ZENN SCARLETT = 333, UNDER NAMELESS STARS = 84)
- Number of ratings for each book: 504, 288, 529, 599, 77, 43, 67, 650, 333, 84
- Average number of ratings per book = 317.4
- Median (the number in the middle) = 310.5
I can’t imagine how this agent is making any money when so few people are buying these books. In comparison, Harry Potter has over six and a half million Goodreads ratings. Local YA author Kiersten White’s ratings for her books start at 7132, with Paranormalcy her most popular novel at 89,733 ratings.
I looked up another literary agent and found she reps an author whose only book is not yet out, but had previously published a half-dozen stories in sci-fi and fantasy magazines. I looked up other random SF/F writers and found the same pattern–a history of publishing in short story magazines.
That’s when it finally hit me, the difference between these writers with literary agents and me: short stories. They published a bunch. I have not.
Why haven’t I been writing short stories?
Two decades ago when I was actively trying to get my stories published (yeah I know, I’m dating myself), submitting stories to magazines was a pain. You had to print your story on paper, drop it in a 9×11 manila envelope, include a self-addressed stamped envelope, drive to the post office, ask to have the proper postage affixed to the self-addressed stamped envelope, lick the adhesive–yuck–seal it, pay for more postage to put on the outer envelope, and hand it over, only to get the story back three to six months later, rejected.
I tried writing literary stories based on what I thought literary journals wanted. I got one published (you can read it here), but all my other attempts were half-hearted and mediocre. I don’t particularly enjoy reading or writing literary fiction. I like speculative fiction with literary-quality prose. I submitted my stories to both literary journals and genre markets, and got rejected by both. The stories I wrote didn’t fit well in either genre.
Then I had a baby. This baby cried all the time. This baby did not care about my life dream of becoming a published writer, or the fact that his crying kept pulling me out of the “zone.” I couldn’t focus (I’m amazed that J.K. Rowling managed to write Harry Potter as a single mom). Then when baby #2 came along, it was over.
I couldn’t return to school for an MFA. I didn’t have the money, or help with childcare. I cobbled together my own DIY MFA program by listening to audiobooks and watching Great Courses lectures on literature and creative writing. Fast forward ten years when my oldest started middle school, and I finally found myself with more time. I thought I could skip the MFA program altogether, write a commercial novel, and publish it to help pay the bills.
I had no idea landing an agent would be more difficult and time consuming than writing the actual book. But I get it. They’re swamped. Maybe my novels aren’t as commercial as I thought they were. Maybe they’re afraid to take a chance on me. I’m a risk. An unknown quantity, x to the y-th power. If literary agents read my query and remain on the fence, unable to decide, then I need to win them over with treats and shiny sparkly things–a history of publishing in short story magazines.
Or maybe it’s not me. Maybe it’s a really bad time to be querying right now. COVID-19. A financial collapse. Layoffs. Massive unemployment. Protests. Rioting. Partisan rage. Ironically, my novel is perfect for these times. All but the coronavirus pandemic shows up in my novel. At the last PitMad (a day of pitching your book on Twitter), I got 14 retweets based on this pitch:
Short story magazines don’t use literary agents. I can skip the middleman and send my stories straight to the magazine. And unlike many literary agents I see on Twitter, most of the magazines I’m considering appear to be avoiding politics.
Here’s one example of what Clarksworld Magazine is not looking for: “where the Republicans, or Democrats, or Libertarians, or . . . (insert any established political party or religion here) take over the world and either save or ruin it.” I like that. I can do that, keep the politics out. I’ll happily do that in fact. I’m sick of politics. Fun escapist fiction, bring it on.
I’ve reassessed my goals. Regardless of whether an agent takes an interest in my latest manuscript, I’m switching to short stories. I’ve completed two novels that follow the three-act structure–I’m certain I’ve got that down. I feel like I know what I’m doing now. I’m almost finished writing my first sci-fi story in decades. I’m going to submit stories to magazines until I get one published. I’ll apply for an SFWA (Science Fiction Writers Association) membership if the magazine meets their criteria. Then I’ll switch back to writing a novel. If novel #3 fails to land an agent, I’ll go back to short stories.
Rinse. Repeat. Etc.
I’m tempted to write, “The End,” but I’m not there yet. My story is still in the middle of Act 2. Stay tuned to this blog to find out what happens in the next exciting episode of Adventures in Queryland !