Welcome to "A Faster No"
An introductory post! In which writing and sports are the same
There is a thing you can do on ice skates where if you line your feet up just so, and use your back leg to push just so, you can propel yourself around the ice in a perfect concentric circle, balanced on the inside edge of your skate.
If you use enough power and have enough control over your feet, and your weight is balanced correctly over your skate, this circle makes a very satisfying crunch noise as the inside edge of your skate hugs the ice, keeping you upright through some combination of wizardry and physics. If you’re thinking “that sounds like witchcraft” let me assure you that not only is it not witchcraft, I have seen it done with my own two eyes. In person, even. You have too, probably, if you’ve ever watched the Winter Olympics; figure skaters and ice dancers pull this move all the time.
I’ve seen it done by coaches at the rink where I have been learning how to play hockey for the last four months. One coach in particular, Villiam, is big on precision and footwork, so our classes with him usually feature extended drills to teach us moves just like the concentric circle one- going in a half circle on one foot, making slow circuits around a cone, switching feet halfway through whatever you’re doing so that you’re using your other inside edge. Occasionally there is hopping involved.
Every so often I will feel as though I am getting the hang of it. That I have figured out how to place my feet just so, that I have found my edges, that I am two steps away from the NWHL. This is usually the point in class when Villiam (or Mike or Richie) says OK, do it again, only this time, push a puck out in front of you while you’re doing it. Do it again, only pass the puck to someone else while you’re doing it. Do it again, only carry the puck back and forth and shift your weight.
This is the point where I start to think that I’m an idiot for trying to pick up a sport at the age of 33. I’m not good at hockey by any standards, and it’s only by grimly hanging on to the memory of just how awful I was my first class- wobbly, sweaty, with my feet screaming in pain - that I’m able to convince myself to even try to do the thing again only this time make it harder.
What does this have to do with writing, you are well within your rights to ask. After all, I’m a literary agent, and I’m ostensibly luring you to pay to subscribe to this newsletter by offering insight and advice on writing and the publishing industry. What if I told you that writing a novel was exactly like learning how to play hockey?
OK, not exactly like learning how to play hockey. But the way I think about it, writing is like trying to get from a blank page to a beautiful concentric circle; you have an idea of what you’d like the end result to look like, but you have no idea how to make your feet - or words - get you there.
This somewhat ham-handed metaphor has been circling (heh) around in my mind recently, ever since I saw Villiam pull the circle move in class for the first time. He’s been skating since the dawn of time (he won World Juniors with then-Czechoslovakia) and doesn’t even wear protective gear in class; I’ve seen him fall down exactly once. It was like seeing a yeti, or Bill Murray in Central Park. No one would ever believe me.
But where guys like Villiam and writers like Helen Oyeyemi and Donna Tartt and all my favorites make it look effortless, those jerks, what we don’t see is the years of toil that it took to get to that point. I didn’t see him in Slovakia as a kid, endlessly trying to get his feet to cooperate with the rest of his body, doing the same drills in tiny skates that he now teaches to uncoordinated adults with time and a little money on their hands. I didn’t see the work that made him the hockey player he is today. And we usually don’t see the discarded drafts and the words these writers throw out and the endless revisions and rewrites that turned the writers we love into the writers we love. We don’t see all the times they fell on their asses along the way.
And that point that I mentioned earlier? Where I think hey, I’m getting the hang of this, and then am brought crashing back down to earth when I’m asked to incorporate in the top half of my body?
That’s writing, too. “Hey, I’m pretty good at this,” you might think, soaring right along in your word count. Your characters are cooperating, your world building is on point, you’re reaching a really dope point in the plot where something really cool is about to happen and -
Shit. How do I make my hands work with my feet again?
So yeah. Writing is exactly like playing hockey. Or learning how to knit, or training to run a marathon, or learning a language, or doing anything that you aren’t guaranteed to be super good at right off the bat, which let’s face it, is everything. And the industry into which you’re trying to get published is as bewildering as the rules of a sport played by people with knives strapped to their shoes. It’s confusing, and a little cold, and sometimes feels like the price of admission is too high.
My goal for this newsletter is to talk about all of this in a way that will hopefully be interesting to you. I already have a podcast in which I jabber on about the industry with my friend Bridget Smith of Jabberwocky; it’s called Shipping & Handling, and it’s free, and you can listen to it here. But this will be a little more meditative; a little less how-to and more how-to-get-through; how to keep going, even though your feet hurt and your stupid helmet is too tight and the words just won’t come, even though you know exactly how you want the story to end.
I’ll try to write 3-4 times a month, with at least one of those being a free newsletter, so if $5 a month doesn’t work for your finances I hope you subscribe anyway. It’ll come on Thursdays, except when it won’t. Is there something that you have a burning desire for me to natter on about? Please let me know, by leaving a comment on a post, or by going to my website and asking anonymously.
At this point I’m sure you’re wondering just WTF the title of this newsletter has to do with writing (or hockey, for that matter.)
There are many ways to get rejected, and I call some of the more boneheaded moves “ways to get a faster ‘no.’” Some of these are obvious - spelling the agent’s name wrong, not following submission guidelines, behaving belligerently or rudely in your query (or in person.) There’s only one surefire way to get to “yes,” and that’s to write a good book - and for every boneheaded move that takes you out of the race before you’ve even stepped up to the tape, there’s another, more insidious way of getting to “no;” usually, it’s the ways you tell yourself no, and count yourself out.
So this newsletter will be about all those ways to get to no, and how to get past them; how to avoid them, if possible, and go through them, if not. Hopefully some ways to help you get to “yes” as well.
And yeah, there will probably be more hockey talk. Sorry not sorry, if that’s not your thing.