What do Babies and Manuscripts Have in Common?

Baby gray flamingoes in a flock of pink adults.
Baby flamingoes are gray and wobbly. But then they grow up. Weltvogelpark Walsrode, Germany. ©Laurel Decher, 2015.

How is a manuscript like a baby? These baby flamingoes in Weltvogelpark Walsrode don’t look anything like their parents.

I’m thinking about the time when my mom came to visit and I had a new baby in the house. I was obsessed at the time with the number of errands I could accomplish before the baby put an end to them.

We lived in snowy Minnesota and doing errands with a new baby was a major expedition. It meant packing the snow-suited child in a thrift store perambulator with a down pillow as a blanket. The snowplows clear the streets, but they throw up snow walls on either side, blocking the sidewalks’ connection to the streets.

The snow is a mix of salt, sand, ice, and snow and, after a few wind-chilled days, settles into a concrete-like mass only accessible to goats. (No complaints, mind you, this sort of physical activity can help a new mother avoid depression and find her waistline.) The other advantage to packing up a child is that you don’t have to heave them in and out of the car and wake them up. I proved very early that three errands were the maximum allowed.

The other option was the car. It’s embarrassingly unenvironmental and wickedly convenient. I once took a visiting Dutch conservation biologist on a tour of all available drive-throughs in our neighborhood. We had a pay-at-the-pump gas station, and a drive-through drugstore, bank, and county library. That’s four.

My mom made a mild comment. “Babies grow up you know. One day, the baby will suddenly be able to do something she couldn’t.”

I didn’t know. Our children are now 21 and 14 and they do all the amazing things other peoples’ children do (and more 🙂 of course). You’d think I knew how this worked by now, but growth still takes me by surprise.

Right now, many #pitchwar contest hopefuls are waiting to see if their manuscripts have unexpectedly grown-up. Like any field of endeavor, writing fiction involves a long list of skills to practice. Maybe today, our strengths are dialogue, pacing, and persistence. Tomorrow, we may find a new vehicle for our story, and achieve a new high in plotting, humor, or voice. “No” doesn’t mean failure. It means “not yet.”

We may yet find a way to delight.

Good luck Pitch Warriors! Many thanks to Brenda Drake and the 108 Amazing Mentors! (They have to be capitalized because they are.)


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Pitches and Promises: making our writing visible

Cologne Botanical Garden Waterfall Fountain
Cologne Botanical Garden Waterfall Fountain ©Laurel Decher

Pitches and promises that align the story, the agent, the publisher, the reader and ourselves will make our work visible. Last year, I participated in some writing contests for queries and for pitches and for the first 250 words and 5-page excerpts. Agent feedback surprised me:

“If you use a comp title I love, I will request more, BUT you are more likely to disappoint me, unless you can DELIVER at the level of that comp title. A hook, a comp title, a pitch: these are all promises.”

Alignment seems to be the key to becoming visible. When I write a short story, revision is about combing the story from front to back, looking for unity and reinforcing it when I find it. Making metaphors match word choice match internal character change match story problem. The same process happens in a longer book on a slightly different scale.

“Be yourself,” someone told me when I was writing a query the other day. “It’s the only way to get the right agent.”

The trouble is: we are all writers of fiction. There are so many characters inside us to choose from. How do we choose the one we will still be in 10 years?

It’s not possible. The “marriage” with an agent will have to grow as we do. So, we choose one of the people we are now. Paul Tournier’s THE MEANING OF PERSONS writes about the different personas we all are capable of assuming. This is not lying. How many children know their parents as their peers do? Or vice versa?

So, the process to find the agent who can connect to the publisher who can connect to our ideal readers is not that different from the process we use to create and refine and align our work with itself. I think people used to call this integrity. It might be less intimidating to think of it as alignment. We will certainly fail. We will certainly present ourselves in ways that we regret or that will be misunderstood or both. This is the risk of art.

We can choose to be visible, but we can’t choose to be partially visible. I recently visited the picture book museum in Troisdorf and admired the wonderful paintings of the illustrator, Janosch. A beautifully imagined city street with cobblestones and lampposts and windows that rang delightfully true. Our tour guide pulled another sketch out of her bag that was much more controversial and—dare I say?—ugly. It revealed a side of Janosch’s character that was off-putting and it did it clearly.

If we try to cover up the ugly parts of ourselves, we become cloudy and confuse people. An artist’s talent is about communication and a good artist—like a good teacher—shows his or her quirks because it is unavoidable. In high school, my friends and I used to say that the best teachers were all a little odd. This is because excellence doesn’t come in beige.

This is why we hide, even though it is fruitless. The things that hurt us and keep us from growing are under wraps. If we let them out into the light, we may not conquer them at once. We can recognize them when they ambush us. We can call them by name. We can ask for help. And the people we are asking will be able to hear us because we are not hiding.

If we want to get something across, we have to become visible and risk showing what everyone else probably already knows about us. We think our foibles are hidden, but every child knows what his or her parents can’t quite do. Every spouse knows their partner’s blind spots.

Spending so much time with our work can blind us to its strengths. Alignment might help us find them again. Tracing the chain of related character motivations, images, plot points and our own original inspiration might make the strengths visible to us, and to agents, publishers, and readers. It’s re-vision–a process we all know well–only a little more challenging because we have to re-see ourselves as well as the work.

So what does this philosophy have to do with finding a publisher? It’s the same problem we have when we write a novel. First we set readers’ expectations with the opening hook. Then, after an enjoyable ride, we keep our original promise.

These common questions are about finding connection points for the agent, publisher and reader:
•    Why did you write this book?
•    Why are you the best person to write this book?
•    What inside of you drew you to this topic, this story problem, this main character?
[Thanks to the amazing literary agent, Marietta Zacker, for this insight!]

The connection points must be true of our story. Imagination is a way of knowing, but it needs a corrective. The things we dream at night don’t necessarily work in the world we live in during the day.

There is no one right way to describe a story. It is like choosing the scale for a map or unraveling the threads in a Turkish carpet. There are probably many solutions that work. I’m guessing that the ones that work best have resonance and unity. But maybe the contrast of dissonance makes it richer. We’re back in vulnerability territory.