Ask Daphne! What If I’m Not Well?

September 30th, 2009 • Kate

slippers_bowpink2_lgToo cute slippers for those days you’re not feeling well, and just want to stay in your pjs, for Georgiana, who writes:

Like the majority of people who contact you, I am a writer who is interested in being published. Some years ago, I had a story published by Word Riot and was writing regularly for various financial publications. Unfortunately I became very ill.

What this means for me is that I am essentially bedbound. But what’s worse for the writing is I sometimes have aphasia. I may get stuck saying the same word over and over again. I might stutter on the same sound. I may say completely the wrong word. I do much better when I’m actually writing but I do say the wrong thing and sometimes I can’t figure out what I meant later.

I spent the next few years writing every day as I was afraid my words would desert me. I’ve written two scripts, three short novels, one adult novel, a YA novel and I’m well into a zombie YA novel that’s the darkest thing I’ve done, I think.

Having proven to myself that I can continue to write under suboptimal conditions I decided to find an agent. Because I can get easily confused I sent only one query letter last year. I wanted to do one query at a time to keep my head straight. I sent it on February 15, 2008. On March 16, 2008 she asked for a partial, which I promptly sent. August 31, 2008 she asked for a full, which I sent right away. As of today I have not had any response, despite status checks.

Unfortunately I need a very patient person to work with and now that I’ve read more of her tweets and her blog, I’m sure the agent I queried is not that person.

How in the world do you find an agent who would like to represent you, enjoys your work, and can deal with a somewhat fragile psyche and some brain damage? As well as the infrequent aphasia? And should this stuff be mentioned in the query letter? And finally, and I admit this is a very cruel thing for me to say, I was at Balticon and I heard an agent with such a screechy voice that he triggered a headache and I had to lie down in the courtyard. It’s like a joke with a bad punch line. What if I end up with a great agent and can’t talk to them? How ridiculous would that be? Finding an agent may not be the hardest thing in the world but if I found one who then fired me because I was a maudlin, wrong word saying mess I’d be extremely upset.

Thanks for your question, Georgiana. You’re in a difficult situation, no doubt about it, but it can be saved.

First of all, I assume you’ve written off the agent who hasn’t responded to you since last August. On behalf of my profession, I apologize. Moving forward, I can understand you only want to send to one agent at a time, but I fear for you that you’ll have to deal with the same sort of long delays as you’ve experienced in the past.

Would a clear submission chart help you? I recommend something like it for all authors, but I think it would be especially beneficial in your case. You want to make sure that all the details of your agent search are in one easy to understand place. Each week, perhaps, you could send out one query, note when and to whom you sent it, and when you get a response, you can go to your chart and note it, sending more material as necessary.

At this stage of the game, no one expects instant responses, so you can feel free to take the time you need to craft a response to an agent requesting material, maybe composing it one day, and rereading it the next day to make sure it says what you want to convey.

When should you tell an agent about your illness? I don’t think you need to mention it until you get someone interested in your work — that means they’ve read your full and like it, and want to continue talking to you. Then I would describe your special circumstances and see how they feel that would affect your career and their relationship with you. At that time, you can also see how you feel about working with them — if their voice is soothing or not so, if you feel you can work well with them.

I think in this day and age, in our technology-driven world, its amazing what can be done from our homes — and to take that to the extreme — from our beds if necessary. If you sell your book, your editor and publicity person will need to know the special circumstances of your physical limitations in terms of tours, interviews, etc., but that’s something to worry about down the line, and it CAN be worked with.

I don’t know if you know this, but Laura Hillenbrand, the New York Times bestselling author of Seabiscuit, has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and writes her books from bed, when she feels well enough to do so. (Here’s a link to a very personal essay — originally from The New Yorker — in which she discusses her illness.) It can be done — and very successfully, too. Good luck.

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9 Responses to “Ask Daphne! What If I’m Not Well?”

  1. Ryan J. Van Seters Says:

    GREAT TOPIC!

    I myself also suffer from a few “biological constraints” – as I like to call them. Though, mine are not as difficult, it still greatly impinges on my work.

    My body doesn't produce Hormones or Dopamine. Which means – I’m always tired, and that rush of joy that you get from finishing a bit of writing…I don't get that anymore. I know that I love the craft, but I very rarely get the same feeling of love from my craft; nevertheless, I push on because to me it's a truth, I'm a writer, I must write.

    I, personally, have never mentioned my illness to any agent, publisher, or editor. In truth, this blog response is as close as I've ever come to letting that knowledge escape the boundaries of my "Secret Place." While it may affect quality of writing in my mind – because of course we're never good enough for ourselves – when I read my work I realize that, comparatively, it is still written well. I accept that much and continue on with my journey.

    As Daphne said, when it comes to marketing, then let it be known so they can work around your abilities and disabilities alike.

    There are a lot more of us "Biologically Challenged Writers" out there than anyone would suspect. I think, in large part, because we are away from work and bound to our houses for large periods of time we must do something, less we give in to the idle mind.

    Furthermore, way to stick to it! People who don't experience constant fatigue don't realize the toll it takes. Imagine your body being stripped of 75% of its muscle mass and having not eaten for a week – that's how it feels. To have the mental fortitude to push on and keep writing when your body is fighting every keystroke, well, that's speaks more about the passion you have for your craft than your writing ever could!

    Daphne – Thank you for answering this, it's not a common subject but nevertheless an important one.

  2. Sara Raasch Says:

    Query charts are an amazing help — I wouldn't have survived querying without them! There are a variety of ways to format them, but I know a lot of people use Excel spreadsheets. They're simple, user-friendly, and once you input the information, all you have to do is tweak a few boxes according to requests/rejections.

    A big kudos to you, Georgiana (and Ryan!), for pushing through your illness and not letting it prevent you from writing!

  3. Georgiana Says:

    Thanks very much for the terrific advice. It's very much appreciated. I can set something up in Google Docs and I've also ordered Small Beer Press' calender, which is meant to help with submissions.

    I'd read Seabiscuit but had no idea the author was ill. I'll take a look at the essay. I've been surprised by who went through long periods of illness – even Florence Nightingale was bedbound for a very long time, time which she used for hospital planning. I'm astonished by how humans can carry on with new activities when we can no longer do the old.

    Thank you Sara and Ryan for the kind words. Best to all.

  4. Tere Kirkland Says:

    Don't miss out on the great resources that can be found at Query Tracker and its forum. I use both to keep track of my queries and to find out information about agents. Keep writing, Georgiana, and best wishes.

    ~Tere

  5. Jean Says:

    Georgina, a few years back I was researching classic novelists and guess what? A pile of them went through periods of illness. Maybe long periods of illness makes for better writers? Possibly it lends a certain patience and introspection.

    My two cents,

    Jean

  6. Andrea Brokaw Says:

    Thanks for the post and the link. I have ADHD and Social Anxiety, both severe enough that anyone working with me will have to be able to handle it. When to tell is something I've been wondering about. Since my novel doesn't have anything to do with those conditions, I wasn't mentioning it in the query letter, but even if I never said anything about it an agent would have to be pretty clueless not to notice eventually…

  7. Matthew Says:

    I am a novice writer who just finished my first novel a few months ago. Before it I had not written anything creatively since High School and it took me almost a year of long hard days to complete. I'm proud of my what I've done but it was a grueling and drawn out process.

    So considering all of that I would just like to say that any of you who still stick with it even when the task is that much harder and or less gratifying should be very proud of yourselves. As writers we have a calling that is often thankless and sometimes leaves us poor and alone, but we do it because we love it and because it is what we are meant to do.

    Keep it up Georgiana, I hope someday to get to read some of your work.

  8. Sarah Frances hardy Says:

    Wow. Incredible article about Laura Hillenbrand.

    sf

  9. Georgiana Says:

    Thanks again for all of the kind thoughts and advice. It is much appreciated.