Rejection

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I speak and provide critiques at many conferences every year, and I also offer Writer’s Digest webinars that include critique. I work very hard on these critiques. Teaching writing is a passion for me (hence the blog). Most of the writers who get critique (at conferences, in critique groups, through the webinars, as a result of contests, etc.) approach it with the right attitude. Critiques are a learning opportunity. You submit your work, you hear feedback on it, and, eventually, you either incorporate the feedback or cast it aside. Sometimes a critique will completely click and validate your own instincts. Sometimes you won’t like it at all.

Let’s start by saying that, yes, some critique is just bad. It’s either totally off the mark (“Did they even read my story?”) or it feels mean-spirited (there’s a personal attack or they say something along the lines of “you will never ever ever ever publish”). Keep in mind, though, that telling you that your writing still needs work is not personally mean. It’s most likely honest. All writers, even published ones, strive to improve their writing, so “needs work” is not a bad thing. Just because someone doesn’t heap praise on you or call you “the next J.K. Rowling” in critique doesn’t mean it’s a bad critique. No professional critique would say such a thing, so if that’s what you’re expecting, you’re in for disappointment. Most critique may be hard to take but, if it’s honest and comes from an expert source, it will have at least one or two nuggets of truth or action items that you can implement in your writing. If you leave your emotions out of it, you’ll most likely find this to be the case.

Critique is a tool. It is given to you and you must use it how you see fit. Maybe not right away. Maybe you’ll put it aside for a bit and then use it to look at your manuscript afresh. But it is extremely valuable–it is another set of eyes on your work, which is a very rare thing for writers to receive. Let’s now go into what critique isn’t. Something goes on in critiques and at conferences that I call American Idol Syndrome. There seems to be a mentality in the creative arts right now (not helped by all the competition shows that have sprung up over the last decade) that all you need is your one shot at greatness and then you’re a star. Instead of doing the hard labor for years and years, instead of working your butt off, all you need is to be in the right place at the right time in front of the right gatekeeper.

Believe me, I love this dream. I remember being 12 or 13 and reading in Seventeen magazine that some model got discovered when a scout saw her at the mall, offered her a contract on the spot, whisked her away to a life of luxury in NYC, and then it rained unicorns and puppies on her forever and ever, etc. I won’t lie to you–I was much more self-conscious going to the mall after that. I always chose my outfit carefully and maybe even put on a little make-up, which, for me, is a huge effort. This fantasy is very appealing to humans. Work is hard. That’s why they call it “work,” instead of, you know “beach party.” We would rather have success tap us on the shoulder while we’re browsing Hot Topic and offer us the key to our dreams. But this happens much more rarely than you’d think in real life (that’s why we know the exceptions…they’re news). Especially in publishing, which isn’t as TV-ready-glamorous as fashion design, being a TV chef, modeling, singing, etc.

I know that when writers sign up for a conference or critique, there’s this little part of them that thinks, “Maybe I will meet my dream agent and we’ll ride off into the sunset together!” Heck, I met one of my now-colleagues at a writer’s conference. Writers connect with agents, editors, and other writers at conferences all the time. But those meetings are a lot less about luck than they are about hard work. The writers that do find their agents and editors at these things are the ones who have done years of work on their craft, who are coming to the conference savvy and informed, who have bought a critique that brings them to the right person’s attention, and who have done as much as possible so that they’re ready to be fallen in love with.

Louis Pasteur said: “Fortune favors the prepared mind.” The people who win Idol have, most likely, years and years of voice lessons and musical theatre and practice behind them. They look like they’re just randomly being “discovered” on TV, but their entire creative life has brought them to that moment. It’s the sweaty, repetitive part that the cameras don’t show you. This goes for any creative endeavor.

Now. There is a small set of writers who do not react well to constructive feedback. They are the ones bitterly disappointed that they were not “discovered” as a result of a conference meeting or critique. All they wanted to hear was, “This is a diamond in the rough and I will publish it right this minute!” Anything else, no matter how sound the feedback, is crushing. If you are pinning all your hopes and expectations on one conference or critique, and you feel like “this is it, or else…,” I would save yourself the trouble and stay away for now. It is very likely that your unrealistic expectations will be dashed.

Publishing is a tough business, and writing is, by its very nature, emotional. Writers, especially those striving to publish, need thick skins and heaps of resilience. I’d encourage everyone to adjust their expectations of mega-stardom and insta-fame now rather than be disappointed in the future. That’s not to say I’m thinking small. I would love for all of my clients to be #1 bestsellers! But you can’t go in expecting that to happen, or the journey will be very angsty for you. Hope for great things (every conference or critique is an opportunity to grow), but don’t require them. Screw your determination to its sticking place, and get into this game to learn and grow as a writer. That’s the good stuff right there. If you happen to take off, it will be that much more satisfying, and you will have a very strong craft foundation to bolster your success.

Until that happens, if you still want to play the one-in-a-million odds at instant stardom, line up to audition for the next season of Idol. I guarantee that you won’t be alone in pursuing this favorite of human fantasies.

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I’ve been doing a lot of critique recently and have been thinking a lot about first lines. Not just opening paragraphs and pages (we just did a workshop series on that, check it out by clicking on the workshop tag), but first lines in particular.

To drive the point home, I think I’m going to scout some killer first lines and make up some that don’t work so well next week. For the time being, here’s the note I’ve been giving out most often in my critiques, and it’s something for you to think about:

This could be the first line to any book.

When do I give this note? When I read a first line and don’t immediately understand something specific about a character or a world. When it really could go anywhere from the first line and make sense. This is a possibility when the first line is general enough, lacking detail, overly philosophical, or focused on description instead of character or action. The first line is, in a word, vague.

Here’s an example of a vague first line:

It was the summer before everything changed.

It’s a pretty okay line, by most standards. There’s tension implied — we are about to see a change, and change usually brings conflict with it. The reader also knows more than, we suppose, the characters, because we know there will be change, but it hasn’t happened in the plot yet. Not bad. I wouldn’t kick this first line out of slush.

But it could be stronger. For example, let’s give it the vague test. Could it be the opening to any story? Yes. Let’s take a look. It could be a…

Sci-fi story:

It was the summer before everything changed. Back when the Zorlots were still in control of the ship, and the clones had yet to run amok.

Western:

It was the summer before everything changed. Before that yeller-bellied Winchester rolled on into town.

Romance:

It was the summer before everything changed. The count hadn’t yet seduced Mistress Nancy and quite literally lost his head.

I think you get it. (And by “it,” here, I mean you get that I can’t really write genre to save my yeller-bellied hide.) It’s a strong line, but is it your first line? A distinctive, specific first line that can only be the first line to your book and no other? That’s what I think you should be shooting for.

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It has been a while since I’ve blogged about different kinds of responses to rejections (they’ll mostly pop up after this post in the Related Posts section). But I have a lot of new readers, and they may not have gone through my archives. So, for them, and for the world, I want to drive home a point that I first introduced in this post:

Don’t serial query.

When I pass on your work, I’m saying: this isn’t ready yet. You probably wrote that project during the current phase of your development as a writer. I’m saying you need to get to the next phase of your development, and possibly the phase after that, or the phase after that phase, before you’re ready.

So don’t send me something else, immediately, from the same phase of your development. Or, even worse, admit that you’re sending me something that’s even older than what you’re querying around now, that’s from an even earlier phase of your growth as a writer.

I want people who grow and develop their craft every time they sit down to write. I don’t want your old stuff. I want your new ideas, your new skills, your evolving talent…once you’ve given it time to evolve. My favorite Ben Folds quote is pertinent here, and I say it every time I speak to an audience: “Time takes time, you know?”

For some reason, I’ve been noticing a lot of serial queries lately. A query. A pass. Another query, almost instantly, for an old project you just happen to have lying around. That could possibly work if you had a blockbuster drawer manuscript, but if you do, why didn’t you start out by querying that one?

Send me your strongest work, the best example of where you are as a writer today, then, if you get a pass, go back and write some more. Evolve. Then try again. LATER. Take the time to learn from each submission process. You can’t possibly do that until you’ve gone through the entire submission process, though.

You really shouldn’t be one of those writers who’s like a log ride: manuscript after manuscript after manuscript coming down your query chute. I only want to work with thoughtful writers who deliberately learn from each craft experience and then strategically plan their next move. No mad grasping. No flinging stuff against the wall just for the hell of it. That’s just my opinion, though. Maybe other agents appreciate getting hit with query after query for all the stuff you have up your sleeves. Go serial query them, once they raise their hands and endorse this practice. :)

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Here’s a rather entertaining question that Jeff asked back in November, but one the deals with an all-too-common evergreen creative ailment:

Recently I was infected with what I call “the demon of self-doubt” and I couldn’t work on my WIP for a month. A snarky comment in my crit group triggered an intense period of insecurity for me, and destructive thoughts like “I’m just not a good enough writer” and “my voice is too bland” kept buzzing around my brain. These thoughts kept looping back and getting stronger, like a bad song you can’t get out of you head (for example, “skyrockets in flight, whoosh, afternoon delight”).

I wrote in my journal, and I started some new material, but every time I went back to my WIP, I threw my hands up in air and wailed, “I’m not worthy!” I wouldn’t call this a writer’s block; it was instead a crisis of confidence.

Eventually I forced myself to forge ahead and I got over it. Now I’m writing my WIP again, but what can I do to avoid this if it happens in the future? Does this happen to other writers, or is it just me and my incredibly thin skin? What if the demon of self doubt is right, and in the end, I’m not a good writer and all my effort and hard work will be for nothing? Or is that the chance we all take?

I like this question, and I’m pretty sure a lot of blog readers will recognize themselves in these sentences. Motivation and confidence come and go. The more motivated and confident you feel, the more you write. But if a seed is planted and you just can’t seem to get past a comment or a rejection (see my post on dealing with rejection), you tend to just cycle down and down and the doubt perpetuates even more doubt.

As Jeff says in his question, creativity is a chance we all take. So is any endeavor. You do it and then hope for the best. If the best doesn’t happen, you keep on doing it until you either reach your goal or you stop altogether. For some, rejection or creative block is cause enough to throw in the towel, but the urge to create and be creative will almost always remain.

I don’t have the magic words to help a writer out of a tough creative situation. Not only have I stopped writing because of time constraints, but I have my share of moments where I feel doubt and a lack of self-confidence. The thing I can say, though, is that those people who persevere through the “demon of self-doubt,” as Jeff calls it, are the only ones who will reach their creative goals. It’s a very obvious thought, but one that bears repeating.

Also, sometimes the pressure of wanting to achieve a goal a certain way or having an unrealistic time frame is enough to kill your creative spark. A lot of writers get despondent because an agent or publication hasn’t happened yet. They write and they write and they write and yet the professional world doesn’t seem to be recognizing (or appreciating) their efforts.

Well, life rarely happens exactly as you plan. And publishing is unpredictable, not to mention slow (like, really slow). If you set your hopes on getting published or agented in a certain way, you will tend to give yourself not only a crisis of self-confidence, but an unrealistic goal, since most outsiders are not intimately familiar with the industry and how it works and what it really takes to succeed.

So if you’re feeling really frustrated, about to give up, or that your work is not good enough, turn down the heat on chasing publication. What you write when you’re blocked and angry and doubtful will most likely not be a joy for others to read, and you’ll just be getting yourself further away from your goals instead of closer when you are in that mindset.

Sometimes frustration is a good thing — it spurns you on when you might otherwise quit — but I find that the specific frustration of not being published yet has one common cure: stop submitting and start nursing the writing.

Maybe it’s not time to submit yet. Maybe your writing craft or a particular project isn’t ready to go out into the world yet. Maybe you’ve recently gone on submission with something and it’s better to stop and see what you learned from that round instead of jumping right back into the ring.

Whatever the case, self-doubt tends to grow under scrutiny. If this is what you’re experiencing, it’s totally okay to pull back, rehabilitate your confidence and your creativity, and try to get published down the line. Publishers and agents will always be there (even in the digital future). Your excitement, positivity, and motivation may not, especially if you force it to take too many blows when it’s still growing. So focus on your inner creative assets when you’re feeling down, and the rest will come in time.

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Here’s a universal question from longtime reader and friend of kidlit, Siski:

How do you recommend getting over rejection? When it feels like you’ve exhausted all avenues? I know you took time out of writing…does that help bring back your enthusiasm to start over?

This is a great question, especially as we prepare to greet a new year. Of course, I hope 2011 is full of success and acceptance and the fulfillment of publishing dreams, but I know there will also be some rejection. So as we prepare to leap back at it come January 1st, I wanted to share some thoughts on this dreaded topic.

I was at Big Sur a few weeks ago and speaking with a lovely agency client. We were talking about writing journeys and she mentioned the idea of mastery. See, there is a scale of mastery that goes from Unconscious Incompetence to Unconscious Competence. If you’re thinking, “Say what?” I’ll explain:

Unconscious Incompetence: In other words, “ignorance is bliss.” You’ve just started writing and, wow, you’re really good. All your friends and family love your stuff. In fact, you have the makings of a J.K. Rowling or Dan Brown plot on your hands and you couldn’t be happier. You rush off your first draft to the industry’s top agents before revision — hey, that’s what the editor is for, right? — and then…the real world intrudes and gives you a spanking. This is your first taste of rejection, and it strikes you like a bolt from the blue.

Conscious Incompetence: You take a step back. Wow. This writing stuff is actually pretty hard. It turns out you were doing okay but now you’ve started reading a whole lot more and you’re seeing what other writers are doing. You didn’t even know some of it was possible. This is when you realize that you have a lot to learn before you’re “ready for prime time.” Some writers hold off on submitting when they reach this point, as it’s more a time of contemplation and study.

Conscious Competence: You’ve thrown out your first book idea — or five — and now you really think you have The One: the project that will get published. It’s still a bit of a struggle to sit down and write, and sometimes it takes many revisions to really nail something, but your language is working, the writing is clean, and you’re developing your voice. Now you’re ready to start querying again, and you’re energized and feeling good.

Let’s pause for a minute. This is actually the stage where most writers get frustrated. They’ve gotten over their first, ignorant efforts, they’ve done a lot of work on themselves and on their writing, and they finally feel pretty masterful. However, the rejections keep coming. And some of them are vague: the voice isn’t doing it for me, I liked it but didn’t love it, it doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi factor, it’s not competitive in today’s tough market…etc.

Meanwhile, writers at this stage have been reading a lot, are usually following the industry, and they feel like they get it at long last. So why are they still getting rejected? Why isn’t publication, finally, their reward after years of hard work in the trenches?

Because most writers who are functioning at the level of Conscious Competence haven’t reached mastery yet. There’s one more step, and this is the hardest to achieve:

Unconscious Competence: This is when you’re not really thinking…you’re doing. You don’t sit there breaking your brain for ideas. Your characters aren’t flat. You’re not struggling with voice. You’re not staring at the screen and waiting for the perfect image or metaphor or plot point or dialogue or characterizing detail to come to you. You’re just writing. And you’re writing well. Your craft level is on par with already-published writing. Everything just clicks, and you finally have the tools to elevate your stories to the publishable level, with enough authority and sophistication that your manuscripts demand publication. That’s not to say that masters don’t have tough days, but at least they’ve reached their cruising altitude and they don’t mind any slight turbulence along the way.

When I speak to writers at conferences, I talk about authority. Authors tell stories with authority, in an authoritative way. And those are the people I want to work with. If you’re not there yet — and 99.9% of people who contact me aren’t — don’t feel bad about it. In his book OUTLIERS: THE STORY OF SUCCESS, Malcolm Gladwell postulates that it takes about 10,000 hours, or 10 years, to achieve mastery in your chosen field or craft. Other writers say it takes 1,000,000 bad words. Most of the published writers I know say it took them about a decade to get their first book deal.

With publishing in a tailspin and fewer books achieving commercial success, agents and editors are really focusing their efforts on masterful writers. In terms of your own development as a person, you should strive to be the best you can possibly be. So if you are getting rejected, don’t let it crush you. You’re just not there yet. And you shouldn’t expect to be. Just because some people get published their first time out (ahem, Stephenie Meyer), doesn’t mean that’s the way your story will go. Are you really justified in your angst? Can you say that you’ve put a decade of solid work into your craft?

The enlightening — and scary in a this-is-your-mission-should-you-choose-to-accept-it way — thing is: you can’t control the publishing industry or the “gatekeepers,” but you are in full control of your creative work. So instead of sitting there and griping about rejection, the only empowering, right, and inspiring thing for you to do is to open up your Word doc and start reading, writing, and revising. The power to write something incredible lies in your hands. And if all that reading, writing, and revising sounds like too much work? Perhaps the path of being a writer isn’t the right one for you.

Keep going. The responsibility lies on your shoulders. And don’t be afraid to put down your old project and start a new one. You can’t cling to one idea in this or any other business. If you dig your claws in to something that has been rejected everywhere, of course you’re going to be miserable. Not to mention that if you’re already running out of ideas — and you’re not even published yet — you’re in deep trouble. So cast off your unsuccessful projects and work on something else. Focus on your craft. Plod along toward mastery. I send rejections every single day of my life, but I don’t do it to wound or hurt or ruin. All I’m thinking as I press “Send” is, and I’m very serious here: “Not yet”or “Not yet, but soon.”

Receive a rejection, learn from it if it has anything valuable or constructive to teach you, and move on as you stick with your trajectory toward Unconscious Competence. You shouldn’t view it as a negative thing, and never a personal thing. You should view it as encouragement to keep going and keep growing.

To top off this post, Siski also wanted me to ask: How do you deal with rejection? Post your thoughts in the comments!

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Every conference I go to, I’m asked about the Andrea Brown Literary Agency rules and policies about submissions. Even though I think it’s all very clearly spelled out on our website’s Submissions page, I’ll take a crack at clarifying our instructions. These are the questions we usually get:

“Is a ‘no’ from one really a ‘no’ from all? Can I send my project to another ABLA agent?”

At ABLA, a “no” from one of us on a project is indeed a “no” from all. If you have chosen one of us — and I know it can be hard, with nine such wonderful agents — and we reject you, don’t send to another one of us just to be sure you chose the right agent in the first place. We are all looking for talent, whether debut or well-published, but we tend to pick only the top caliber submissions out of our slush. If you get no response or a rejection, assume that none of us is interested in the project as is.

You are, of course, welcome to submit a new project to us, whether you send to the same agent or a different one. You can also resubmit your original project six months (or more) after your first rejection, to the original or a different agent, if you can honestly say you’ve revised it and the work is different and stronger than it was the last time one of us saw it (be honest).

“Do you share projects of merit with your colleagues if the project doesn’t happen to be right for you?”

Yes. If I get a submission of very high caliber but it happens to be not quite right for me, I often pass it off to my colleagues for an additional read. We all do this. If someone else is interested, we connect the author to the agent and let the new agent take over the submission, if the author likes the idea.

If we do share your work, whether it ends up a pass or an offer of representation, you will most likely know that this level of enthusiasm exists. The agent who passes it around or the agent who ends up liking it will usually fill you in on the situation.

“Does no response after 6 to 8 weeks really mean rejection? Do you write personalized rejections?”

Our official agency policy is that we do not respond to queries unless interested and that no word after 6 to 8 weeks means, unfortunately, a rejection. The only email you should expect to receive from some of us is an automatic auto-response to confirm receipt of your query, and then an email expressing enthusiasm if we think your project is a good fit. Some of my colleagues do stick by the above guidelines. At this time, several of us, myself included, do still respond personally to every submission that follows our guidelines.

“Does my submission have to follow guidelines?”

When a submission doesn’t follow guidelines (is sent to every agent at the agency, has no sample pages, has an attachment, etc.), we delete them and don’t respond.

There are lots of other questions that querying writers ask — “Will you give me feedback?” or “Will you refer me to another agency that might be a better fit?” (my answer, here) — but the above are the more ABLA-specific and seem to come up the most. If you have any ABLA submission questions, in particular, now is the time to ask!

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Today’s guest post comes from the fantastic Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest and Guide to Literary Agents blog and book fame. He’s celebrating the recent release of this fabulous book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK: DEFEND YOURSELF WHEN THE LAWN WARRIORS STRIKE (AND THEY WILL). Here, he shares the reason that your sample pages are getting rejected by agents, and I wholeheartedly agree. While I have posted on this topic a few times, maybe Chuck’s take will finally make folks listen. :)

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When agents review pages of your manuscript, they may reject you for one of three reasons. First, they may realize that the story they’re reading is in a genre or category outside of what they handle. Form rejection. The second reason they say no is because of poor writing skills: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Form rejection. The third and most common reason that good writers get rejected is that their story just plain isn’t ready yet. In other words, it’s good—but simply being good doesn’t cut it. A piece of fiction has to be great to catch an agent’s eye.

Writers are constantly rejected because they’ve turned in work too early. As a writer myself, this is a problem I sympathize with. We work on a story for what seems like an eternity and then you get to a point where you just say, “If I read this darn thing one more cotton-pickin’ time, I will KILL SOMEBODY. I am so sick of looking at this thing that my eyeballs hurt. I am going to send it out and take my chances.”

So you’ve decided to send it out. But is it ready?

When is your work really ready? By that, I mean: When is your manuscript edited enough and polished to the point where you can confidently submit it to agents? I used to think there was no answer to this question, and that each project was so vastly different that it would be misleading to address the subject. But I was wrong.

The best answer I can give on the subject is this: If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready. When I have edited full-length manuscripts (some for SCBWI friends and others on a freelance editor basis) and then met with the writers personally to discuss my thoughts, a strange thing happens. When I address a concern in the book, the writer will nod before I even finish the sentence. What this means is that they knew about the problem and suspected it was a weak point in the story. I have simply confirmed that which they already knew.

For example, some typical concerns were stuff like this:

  • “This part where he gets beat up—it doesn’t seem believable that so many kids just took off school like that.”
  • “If the main character is so stealth, then how come he gets caught by the bad guys here?”
  • “The story starts too slow. We need more action.”

In my experience, writers all seem to know many of their problematic issues before anyone even tells them. So all this brings me back to my main point: If you think your work has a problem, then it more than likely does—and any manuscript with a problem is not ready for agent eyes. If you find yourself saying, “Hmmm. I think the map just being there in the attic is kind of too lucky for the kids,” other readers will likely agree with you—and that is a great example of a typical problem. And every problem needs to be fixed before you submit to agents.

This shows the importance of beta readers—friends who will review the work once it’s written. They will come back to you with concerns, both big and small. You address the concerns in your next revision and send the work to more readers. Once readers stop coming back with concerns, you’re starting to get somewhere. If you think you have issues, or multiple critiquers agree on a problem, then you’re not ready for Querytime. When you and your readers can look at a book and say that all concerns are adequately addressed (and it therefore lacks any major problems), then and only then will you be ready.

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This is a common question I hear from writers. This version comes from Robert:

When an agent takes the time to write a personalized rejection (always nice of them) praising a manuscript, at least in part, how can a writer know if the agent might be interested in seeing a revision if offered or if the agent is just being kind? Is there a good way to offer a revision without risking annoying an agent who has already so politely declined?

Most writers know that there are several types of rejection (if this is news, click on the link for a post I’ve written on the subject to learn more and what they are). In terms of percentages, I’d say I give about 93% Form Rejections, 5% Personalized Rejections, and 2% Revision Rejections. What leads to a Personalized Rejection? If I’ve talked to you before, if I recognize your name from blog comments, if the writing is almost there, if something about the pitch or the project impressed me and made me sit up and take notice, you’ll get more than a Form Rejection from me. If I came really close to requesting the full but there was a deal breaker in terms of voice or writing or premise, I’ll send a Revision Rejection.

I have a really strict system in my head (if you have any doubt, see how I read slush and how I consider full manuscripts). For me, personally, if I don’t give you a Revision Rejection, it’s not because I didn’t think about it and not because I don’t know that you want one. I did think about it and I know that the Revision Rejection and the door it opens is something that writers want. That’s why I give it so deliberately. If I was giving everyone a Revision Rejection, that would decrease the importance of the RR and, honestly, give writers false hope.

It’s my job as an agent to spot dead-on potential in manuscripts. Am I sometimes wrong? Of course. Do I sometimes miss good stuff? Sure. But the only thing I really have going for me when I approach submissions is my judgment. Good or bad, wrong or right, I have to trust it. And when I ask for a revision from one writer and not from another, that’s me listening to my gut and making a choice.

So if I don’t ask you for a revision outright, what can you do? Emailing me immediately to ask if I’d be interested in seeing a revision down the line is probably not your best bet. Your manuscript in its current form, the form I rejected, is still fresh in my mind. I chose not to send you a Revision Rejection. I may not be feeling overly optimistic about the project. This doesn’t make me more receptive.

Your other option? Well, you can read a related post, here, for bigger manuscript questions after a rejection. Or you can just go ahead and do the revision — assuming that other agents felt similarly and you didn’t manage to land representation on this submission round — and then present me with a query for the revised manuscript months later, when it is new again. (A query, mind you, don’t just send the full, as before.) I much prefer that method of broaching a revision.

And do take your time. I firmly believe that revision doesn’t happen quickly. It can’t. So much of the revision process is subconscious, and you can’t rush your “back brain.” So make sure you disappear into your revision cave for months and months before trying to present the project as a revised version. Because if you’re getting rejected all over the place, you probably need to do some heavy revision. Something isn’t working. And if something isn’t working, you can’t address that in a week or two.

So if you still want to work with the agent who sent you something nice but that wasn’t an outright Revision Rejection, I suggest doing the revision and trying them again, but only after serious time has passed.

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Heidi recently wrote in to ask about the complexities of reading slush:

Before I started my YA novel, I learned about publishing, editing, agenting, etc., and was amazed at the examples of poorly written query letters making the rounds on the internet.Reading the examples of slush gave me hope – sort of a “what not to do” lesson in query writing, and I believed if I submitted a well crafted query it would naturally stand out among the rest. I imagined my letter receiving attention it might not have, if it weren’t for the dreck surrounding it.

But what if my query letter, well crafted or not, took on the qualities of the slush simply because it was part of it? Do agents find it easier to remember the delicious breadsticks they were served with dinner, despite the fact the rest of the meal was a disaster? Or because of it? I am sincerely not trying to trivialize agenting, I am just fascinated with how complex the process for selecting appropriate material is.

This is a really good question, and something I think about all the time. Literally, all the time. Writing and publishing are such human endeavors. There’s no way you can make a robot that creates great writing. In the same vein, you can’t really automate the process of submissions that feeds projects into traditional publishing. For everyone who writes, there are many readers who evaluate that piece of writing before it gets made into a published book.

As one of these people, I have to always keep my wits about me when I approach the slush. The slush is, indeed, a very peculiar thing to have in your inbox. It is made up of, alternately, people who’ve been querying for years, people who’ve been querying for minutes, published authors, unpublished writers, people who have no clue what they’re doing, experts, people who have never written before, people who can’t stop writing, really fantastic ideas, ideas I’d imagine were caused by some epic acid trip, future rejections, and future clients.

The nature of the slush is constantly shifting. One day, I can sit down and go through a skid of really great queries. The next, there’s a grouping of not-so-great ones. There’s no logic, rhyme, or reason to any of it. Rest assured, though, that good queries stand out. Even this, though, is problematic. And not in the way that Heidi is imagining.

There is one phenomenon that happens to anyone who reads slush. I call it, in jest, “slush psychosis.” After reading a lot of slush — and let’s face it, most slush tends to be pretty hard to read and pretty undesirable — I tend to latch on to the few queries that are actually well-written, that pitch projects with a clear premise, that, well, stick out from the rest.

And stick out they do, no worries there. But the “slush psychosis” part of it is…are these particular queries sticking out because they’re really good, like, going-to-be-a-book good, or just because they’re made better by the bad stuff around them? Well, I can’t always answer that question.

To avoid “slush psychosis” and to always be as keen and receptive as possible when I read slush, I try to stick to the following rules:

1. You gotta be in the mood. If I’m in a bad, bitchy, tired, or impatient place, I do not read submissions. The slush tends to magnify feelings like this, and it’s hard to give all of my submissions a fair look when I’m not feeling open. So I have to check in with myself before I sit down to slush.
2. Limit your slush time. After an hour, I pretty much lose my judgment, good or bad. Again, it’s not fair to the writers who query me if I’m not as receptive as possible, so I keep my slush runs short.
3. Put things in the Maybe Pile. If something catches my eye, rather than requesting it immediately (okay, so I’ve been known to request things immediately from time to time, but it’s rare), I flag it in my inbox as something for the Maybe Pile. This means I want to give it a second look. The Maybe Pile look doesn’t happen after I’ve spent my hour in the slush, though, because:
4. Come to the Maybe Pile with fresh eyes. If I’ve flagged submissions for a second look, I want to consider them carefully before requesting the full manuscript. This means I need to be sharp. I try to do a round of slush, then come back to the Maybe Pile from that round the next day. From there, I turn the Maybe Pile into rejections or requests.

As you can tell, I am pretty strict about how I handle my slush. I don’t want to miss out on anything awesome or be unfair to the writers who trust me and are putting their creative work in my hands. Looking through submissions is a very human business…and human often means flawed. And you can’t control it from your end, at the end of the day. So I try my best to control it from my end and make sure you’re getting the best read possible.

The other thing I do, religiously, if I find that I’ve been reading lots and lots of submissions in a row, is I “cleanse my palate” by reading published books. If I read too many submissions or too much slush, I find that my standards tend to dip a little and meet what’s in slush. To keep myself razor sharp, I recalibrate with published fiction and by rereading my favorite books.

Have I missed out on projects that went on to sell because I haven’t been in the mood to read slush that day and was quick to reject? Yes. We all have. Some days, my imagination stretches more than others. Have I requested projects because of “slush psychosis”? Sure. Again, we all have. And I don’t know if these are two situations that will ever go away. But this is a really good question, and I wanted to give you a peek into slush and its unique challenges here.

(Also, as much as I admit that this is an imperfect process, this isn’t an open invitation to requery me, just so see if perhaps I was having a bad day when I passed on your project. It’s the best system I have, I stand by my decisions, and it works for me.)

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Rosena wrote in with a very familiar question a few days ago:

I have a query regarding the never ending circular line I seem to have stepped on to! I have written several short stories (children’s picture book types) and just finished penning a child novel and I am stuck because if I write to a publisher they won’t read my manuscripts unless I have an agent and almost all of the agents will not read my manuscripts because I have not yet had anything published. Could you offer me any advice on securing a read by one or the other?

This is a perceived problem that some writers have. Let me explain why I say “perceived.” It’s understandable thinking but I’d love to put this “I can’t get published unless I’m published” thing to rest for good.

First things first: we need writers to do our jobs. Most agents, at my agency and at others, are constantly on the lookout for new talent. We read unsolicited submissions from rank amateurs, we go to conferences, we blog, we reach out, all in the hopes of getting quality material sent our way. There are agents who are not accepting submissions or only working with referrals, sure, but they are in the minority. My inbox is full of mail from writers at all stages of their journeys. I don’t really care if they’re unpublished or published in the Podunk Literary Journal that I’ve never heard of. I’ll maybe take notice if they’ve had previous books published by a traditional publisher (not self-published or published with a vanity press) but I’m really evaluating the submission, first and foremost. The writing and story premise are all that matter, and I think that the vast majority of agents will agree with me on that point.

In terms of publishers, most major houses will not accept unagented submissions, that’s true. There are, however, houses that still take submissions directly from writers. Each of these houses has bought at least one manuscript that came from the slush, guaranteed, just like every agent has taken on a successful client from the slush. Houses that accept unagented children’s books are easy to find online. In terms of agents, I vehemently disagree with the statement “almost all of the agents will not read my manuscripts because I have not yet had anything published.” It’s just not true.

Don’t believe me and want to see for yourself? There are many, many of ways to find agents online. My favorite is Agent Query. Head over to the site. Click “Full Search” in the left-hand toolbar. Check the genres you want to write in. When you scroll to the bottom, you’ll see one additional dropbox: “Are you looking for an agent who is actively seeking new clients?” Click the dropbox and select “Yes.” Click “Search.”

When I did this search for you just now, I checked the “Children’s” and “Middle Grade” boxes under the Fiction category. (I’m assuming middle grade is what you mean when you say “child novel.” You might want to find out what category you’re writing in, as “child novel” is not a widely-used term.) With those three criteria (1- Children’s fiction, 2-Middle Grade, 3-Yes, looking for new clients), I returned over ten pages of agents. That’s about a hundred agents who you can query and who will read your submission.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically offer representation, of course. The submission has to be excellent. If you’re reaching out to agents who are accepting new clients (most of us) and still getting form rejections or no responses at all, it isn’t your “unpublished” status that’s hurting you…it’s the quality of the submission. But keep trying. Every published author was unpublished at one point. Everyone has to start somewhere.

I’d love to stick a stake in this publishing myth and call it a day but writers are going to keep believing this anyway. Oh well. I just hope they stumble across this post at some point.

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