Anecdotal Evidence

On a whim, last night, I sent out a query to an agent.  First of all, I hate querying agents.  It’s not that they’re scary or mean, it’s just that I always feel like my letter is half-baked, no matter how many how-to sites I read or how many times I rewrite it.  And as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not someone who does very well with standing up and shouting “look at me, look at me!”  Not that that’s what you’re supposed to do in a query, but that’s the general underlying idea.

But I decided to do it anyway, because I’ve been sort of down this week and yesterday I had a string of unrelated setbacks that wasn’t helping matters.  Doing something bold and conquering my dislike of an activity usually helps perk me up, and sending out an email seemed like an easy way to accomplish that.

So I looked at my list of possible fantasy agents and picked one at random.  Agent X (hey, that sounds kind of cool, actually) asked for a query letter, the first ten pages, and a two page synopsis.  I had all of these prepared, of course, and sent out the package at 9:21 PM, not expecting to hear back for the standard 4-8 weeks.

At 9:44 PM, I get an email.  Thinking it was my sister, or something equally routine, I opened my Gmail and was shocked to see a reply from Agent X.

It was a rejection, of course.

Now, that on its own didn’t bother me.  I’ve sent out a handful of queries before, and I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about it if any of them had come back positive.  That’s fine.  Rejection is part of the process, and a familiar occurrence in my life.  And honestly, the promptness was remarkable and laudable, in a sense.  I’d rather wait twenty minutes than six weeks to hear back, no matter what the decision.

But X said the following in the two-paragraph form letter:

[Manuscripts]…must have stellar world building, characters that leap off the page, pacing that is relentless and a story that entices the reader to take its journey with the characters. I know that’s a tall order, but if your writing is lacking in any of those areas, I must pass on it.

I get it. I do.  That’s what I look for in a story, too.  But you don’t know that my book lacks any of those if you only take ten seconds to look at the first ten pages of a 145,000 word piece.  Say you want to pass on it – fine.  That’s absolutely within your rights, and I’ll move on and look for someone else who gets a good vibe from it.  Great.

But don’t tell me that my writing lacks any of those things if you haven’t even read it.  Don’t pretend to be giving me a legitimate reason when you can’t possibly have one.  That’s the part that annoyed me.  I feel like it’s disingenuous, and a little condescending.  “A tall order”?  Well, we won’t even go there.

Would it have bothered me so much if X had taken four weeks to send me that letter?  I don’t know.  Maybe not.  At least I might have gotten the impression that any care and attention had been given to my work at all.  But maybe that’s not really an agent’s job.

I know I’m probably getting myself in trouble by writing this.  No one wants to work with a whiny little girl who can’t handle being told “no”.  But that’s not what’s happening.  There’s no hard feelings about the “no”.  All I’m trying to say is that even though you’re an agent, even though you’re in a position of power and probably do deal with a hundred people a week who can’t take no for an answer, that doesn’t exempt you from being considerate to the pool of authors who are, after all, the way you make your money, whether you want to work with them or not.  I know there’s a million of us and you can afford to be picky.

But even authors are humans, and most of us have hearts and souls.  We’re giving you our babies to hold for a minute and asking if they’re worthy of notice, and that’s an emotional investment that sound be respected.

I’m probably being overly sensitive.  Me and my big mouth.  But I really felt nettled by that.  I’m not saying who Agent X is on purpose, and please don’t guess.  There’s no point.  What you should take away from this little rant is that yes, agents really do only spend a split-second looking at your materials, so make them better than mine.  The end.


Please don’t forget that there’s still time to win a paperback copy of my unpublishable, undesirable book!  (That’s a joke, guys.)


7 thoughts on “Anecdotal Evidence

  1. I know what you mean, but…

    I am an English teacher, so I read a LOT of writing. I can tell you in the first paragraph what score an essay or short story is likely to get (We grade out of 6 here on general skill criteria). I read/skim the rest of the paper, and only rarely need to adjust my initial impression. Writing skill is pretty clear in very short order, 95% of the time. The created world is only as good as the writer’s skill.

    I think Agent X has to sell to a certain market that requires IMMEDIATE capture. That’s the Big Publisher requirement. They presume that J. Q. Public is going to make a snap decision based on skimming 30 seconds of a book. They’re right. There are a million writers. Brilliance is a necessity, for better or worse. Taste is also a key here.

    I appreciate your frustration. I can see that you take your writing very seriously, and in the end it WILL pay off. (I know you know that, too).

    Have you workshopped your beginning to polish those first 10 pages until they’re a glistening star? There are quite a few online writing groups now that seem to have very devoted, happy members. (On the Compuserve Writers Forum, for example). Do you attend conferences where you get a chance to blue-pencil with a pro? (Surrey International is really great- that’s where I found my publisher. ). In Canada, we don’t have many agents, so we send directly to publishers, but the story is the same with them.

    I’ve been discussing the 10,000 rule lately with my students. They often think a first draft is perfect. They’re shocked when I tell them how many times my book was edited before going to press! (and even after my editor’s fine tooth comb, I discovered 2 copy errors in the published work). I suspect we can always improve. That’s what keeping a blog, and all the daily writing we do is about, right? We are constantly working on the craft.

    I’m also thankful that the publishing world is changing, and that as authors, we don’t necessarily have to go through the gates of publishing, getting past all the traditional gatekeepers. These days, it’s so easy to lob our work via indie-presses or self publishing right into the midst of the population and let them decide for themselves. Of course, sometimes it’s TOO easy, but again, the public decides. We can learn from that as well. I read Amanda Hocking’s first work. It’s full of errors, but she has character, pacing and plot down. She put 9 or 10 ebooks out in 2010. They sold like crazy, and the Big Publishers had to recognise a commodity that was selling. So, she got there in the end, but it wasn’t her first 10 pages that caught their interest, it was the 7 digits of her royalties. If you believe in your work, do you need the BP or an agent to tell you it’s good? Is it time to let the public decide?

    I enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing this moment of frustration with us!

  2. Well, like I said: an agent has every right to reject my work based on what they read. If it’s not up to their standards or it just doesn’t catch their fancy, that’s fine. I’m not saying my book is perfect or that everyone should automatically love it, because that would be silly.

    What they don’t have a right to do, however, is reject me based on those particular form letter criteria, because they can’t possibly know if my work meets them or not. Anyone who thinks world-building, character development, should be absolutely clear and complete in the first ten pages, or that every story has to have explosions and intrigue on page one, has never read a book. Or at least not a good one.

    I don’t write snappy, ADD fiction. You’re right in saying that’s what publishers are looking for, which is one of the reasons why I went the self-publishing route. Maybe X didn’t feel drawn in enough to continue. Okay, then X should tell me that. Dismiss me based on personal opinion, by all means, but don’t say my whole book is weak if you haven’t bothered to get past those first few paragraphs.

  3. Thanks for sharing. You made me laugh in the middle of my rejection haze.

    My fastest rejection came blazing back in under 2 hours. Ouch.

    I agree that sending out a query is like asking agents to hold our babies. Our babies are special and very loved. Makes any mom growl when her baby gets dropped on the head.

  4. I wouldn’t be too upset. Agent X uses this for all rejections. It is a form response. I got the same response after having full ms requested by this agent. No real reason was to given why the work didn’t connect with the agent, but it seems like common courtesy that if you request a full ms you don’t use the same form rejection email as those queries that you didn’t like in 10 seconds. I’d like to think that if you are willing to request a full, and devote ‘x’ amount of time to reading it, that you could spend an additional 1 minute (one more page of reading) mentioning which one of the areas you believe are lacking rather than shotgunning it with a form- world building, characters, pacing, etc. Obviously it’s one of those. But thanks for the four links at the bottom that have nothing to do with my ms.

    • Sorry to hear you got rejected. I definitely think there should be a different letter for the slush pile and for actual requests. But hopefully it’s onwards and upwards. There are always more agents!

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