QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Friday, March 13, 2015

The Query Process: laughably bad rejections

I've gotten some eyebrow-raising rejections, like the form that says (rough approximation) "This is nothing I would ever want to represent." But one personalized rejection stands out in mind whenever someone says, "What if a literary agent is just obnoxious?"

This agent had requested the full knowing the book had an angel in it. So imagine the fun when I got a rejection letter talking about how she knew my type and how people like me had to include "God on every page."

Based on her comments, I realized she stopped reading at page 30, and there hadn't been 30 mentions of God to that point. And this is even better: "I get that your main character is a religious fanatic."

My character was a Religious Fanatic because when the aforemention angel hassled her repeatedly, she hauled her butt out of bed and went to church to deliver brownies to a bake sale.

And then, when an extremely hot guy is at the bake sale, this happens:
He says, "Are you sticking around?"
I am not proud. Yes, I will find it in my heart to sit through church this morning.
Religious Fanaticism's bar is getting lower and lower. I read the rejection to my husband and said, "My main character also takes out the recycling. Does that make her an ecoterroist?"

I'm recounting this not just so you'll have a good laugh at this agent's expense (I certainly have -- and I've obfuscated/declarificated enough that she shouldn't recognize herself) but to show you sometimes agents are wrong. But even so, you may grant their wrongness authority because they're literary agents.

Think of them instead as just people. People with training and experience, but nevertheless, people.

Clearly because of her prejudices this agent wouldn't have been a good fit for me, and that's fine. But if I hadn't been able to go back through the manuscript and make sure her assertions weren't correct, I might have gotten discouraged. What if my main character really did drag herself to church under duress like all Religious Fanatics do? What if I really believed five equalled thirty?

In the end, this manuscript did net me a literary agent, although it didn't get us a Big 5 contract. It also placed second in 2013 Write Club and will be published by Philangelus Press in a few months. It's also got a sequel. Why? Because sometimes agents are wrong.

You're going to get nasty critiques. You may get them from members of your writing group (in which case, leave) or you may get them from agents, or you'll get them from editors, and eventually you'll get them from reviewers.

It's our responsibility as writers to make sure our writing is as good as we can get it, of course, and to do that we need to analyze others' comments. Some of the helpful rejections I've gotten were incredibly blunt: "This was confusing," "I hated your main character," and "Your book was boring." Sometimes a remark ("This was just a bunch of events strung together") pointed me toward the query as the problem rather than the manuscript, and then I could change the query to better fit the book.

The above were helpful because when I analyzed, the rejection-writers were absolutely, unequivocably right. The one who told me she hated my main character went on about it at length ("I wouldn't even accept a Twinkie from him!") and it was great because she totally nailed it; I revised and the story got bought by the next market I sent it to.

But we need to recognize that sometimes an agent or editor's comment is not right, and when it's not, we need to let it roll away.

Because rejections? Can be ridiculous. "The stakes are too high" was my favorite. But what do you do with "We just accepted a story with a main character that has the same name," or "When you said the relationship was platonic, I didn't realize it wouldn't be romantic"? What about an endless back-and-forth with a publisher where they insisted an adult novel must be midgrade because it had a child protagonist, and at the same time couldn't understand why the vocabulary, tone and themes (not to mention the length) were aimed at adults?

Laughter helps. Sometimes remembering how subjective it all is will help. So the agent writes a paragraph about how he doesn't connect with your main character? Awesome, but maybe you don't want to write a main character who's exactly like this agent. Shrug it off.

And think about what you do in a bookstore when you're selecting your next read. Do you take them all? No. Why? Sometimes, it's just not right. You may be wrong in your judgment call, but in the end, that's all it is: a judgment call.

Keep your head up. Analyze all comments to find the truth at their back. Use the true ones to improve. But the nasty ones? Laugh at them because doubtless that venom emerges from a place of overwork and burnout, jaded expectations and prejudices you had no hand in forming. Count them as victories because at least your work was notable enough that someone took the time to think of a cutting remark. (Incorrect, but cutting.)

And when you're done having a good laugh, go back to the main QueryTracker site and send another query. Send two for good measure. Let your persistence be the venom's legacy.


Ronald Gagnon said...

At least you kept up your courage anf faith to see it through all the difficulties. While going through a particularly stressful time, including extensive hospitalization, while going to University, I wrote a 400+ page manuscript which referred to actual happenings. It still sits in my bedroom, 35 years later. Good on you.

Jane Lebak said...

Ronald, take it out! Re-read it. Remember why you loved it. Rewrite it if necessary, but don't hide it. You had something to say, so it needs to be said. :-)

Lisa Amowitz said...

My favorite rejection was the form letter I got from one agent saying the MS was not a good fit for her. A month or so later, while scouring my inbox for an email I needed to find, I came upon another email from the same agent THREE DAYS LATER. It was a request to read the manuscript. The SAME manuscript she'd rejected three days before. I had mistakenly queried her twice. Since it was already under consideration by another agent--I never sent it to her. But can you see the pattern here? Agents are not only people with moods and such, sometimes it also depends on which assistant reads the query and what kind of mood they are in. If an agent rejects because of editorial issues, I have frequently revised and resubmitted a few months later. There are no rules accept, courtesy, professionalism and the best damn writing you can muster. I am on agent #3--and this one, I think, is the keeper. :)

Lisa Amowitz said...

typo--never have a typo in your query like I had in my comment--EXCEPT..not ACCEPT.

Kim English said...

Love this, Jane! I had a critique once from a contest where the judge disdainfully went on and on about the "endless descriptions of highways and roads." couldn't understand it until I realized he'd only read the first thirty pages... In which I mentioned two, you got it, two, locations that were germane to the story and I think location was mentioned twice more in the whole book.

Jane Lebak said...

Kim, you can totally see where the judge came from with that comment: how many towns do you know that have *two* roads in them? If it were that common, people would name their streets and we'd have words like "intersection" and "crossroads" in everyday life, and you just never hear that. ;-) ;-) ;-)

Jane Lebak said...

Lisa, sometimes I wonder when that happens if the agent doesn't have an assistant who works on the queries. Assistant didn't like it; agent did. Maybe?

(Although once I accidentally sent the same query to the same person twice, and the person wrote back scolding me for doing so. This person also had a no-response-means-no policy, so I'm not sure how I'd even have known it got rejected the first time.)

Normandie Fischer said...

Jane, as always a pithy, humorous post. I've seen my share of the humorous and the annoying when it comes to rejection letters, and now, two agents later, I'm winging it alone. Will this work for me? Who knows. But I do know that if we don't persevere in querying, in writing, and in life, we'll have nothing to show for it at the end of the day.

Ronald, I just resurrected a story I wrote back in the early 90s. Yes, it required an entire rewrite, but what fun to massage it into shape. I'm with Jane. Dig out your memoir and see where it takes you. Or take pieces of it and write something new around those. You never know what will happen next.

Ardenwolfe said...

I loved this. Thank you for keeping it in perspective. :)

nomoredeadparents said...

Since I write historical fiction, I've got a lovely collection of rejections writing off things that really happened as too improbable.

Jane Lebak said...

Reality is no excuse. ;-)