REALITY CHECK – Getting a one-on-one agent review

It’s no secret that writers have big egos. Even when invited to eviscerate someone’s work, I don’t want to do it because while I want to help them, I don’t want to hurt them. Usually, though, the worst ego-bruising events have to do with rejections. I mean, we all get to the point where we’ve finished something and send it off to an agent only to have a short, terse, message come back with some version of “no,” provided we get anything back at all. Normally, these things come without context or explanation. What you rarely get though, on an unsolicited query, is anything more than that. However, if you did, I promise, your ego would be harmed beyond merely ‘bruised’.

Personally, I look at a rejection and wonder, but why? What was the reason that this has been rejected? How can I improve if all I ever get is no?

This fall, I had the opportunity to get a one-on-one review of my work by a big-time New York agent with a big publishing house. To be clear, I paid for this. I thought that having this review would finally get me to the answer of “but why did you reject this?” The goal was to find a compass bearing on the improvement process. Maybe I’d even get a sense of whether or not I was writing things that could be marketable.

Spoiler alert: I didn’t come away with an improvement strategy as much as a recommendation to be a completely different writer. I also cried. And if you’re looking for a reason to ugly cry with sort of minimal collateral damage, this is a really good strategy.

The first piece we looked at was Deep Space. I read about half of the prologue in a group setting. At the time, and especially now, I regard this piece as thoroughly unfinished. Not ready for submission and not ready for beta-readers or in-depth critiques beyond perhaps that first bit. I received the very, very favorable feedback of “That’s fun, I’d read more of that” This comment was followed by some commentary on the contents and structure which I generally regard as productive, but indicates much re-writing. This was 100% in-line with expectations, except for the bit where he handed me his card and invited me to query him O_o. Best case scenario right? (well, yes, but there’s more). After having my ego so rapidly and enormously inflated, what came next was painful and, to be perfectly honest, a little bit humiliating.

The next day, at my appointed time, I went in for a one-on-one on Hexe – at the time, this one was drafted and out for early readers to come back and tell me what’s wrong. Most definitely ready for critique, in any case. I am (was) proud of this work, even after nearly trashing it this spring. It’s got some good humor, it’s got a light fun tone and the characters are memorable. So memorable that my daughter was trying to make Hexe’s castle in minecraft – high praise from her, I can tell you. So, what was my feedback do you think? I have to paraphrase this one, because we spent twenty minutes covering the same ground. “This is really, not very good. It’s solidly one-note and I couldn’t imagine reading this for… How long is it? 120K? no, cut that down to 75K, max…” and it went on. The bits of feedback can be summarized in the following bullets:

– It’s one-note

– Play it straight

– Get there faster, shorten it up

– Make the main character more likable

– and (INFURIATINGLY) The writing itself is pretty good, can’t fault that.

He then spent the last few minutes asking why the hell I hadn’t given him deep space. I told him it wasn’t ready yet, I really wanted the feedback on this one. After hearing the review of Hexe, I realized that even if I sent him Deep Space to have a look at, certainly as it was then, he was going to shake his head and say, ‘nope’. The humor and approach are really similar. I was so certain, actually, that I told him as much right there. He repeated his advice in the bullets above, and reiterated that he wanted to see more.

I feel like this is the worst spot to leave a writer. I don’t even know what to do with the comments. I mean, sure, shorten it up makes sense, but play it straight? That was a choice I made specifically to support the humor and, in fact, to give the satire a little more punch. And one-note? – I’ve been thinking about this for weeks now and still don’t know what it means or how to fix it. What’s more, I walked away with the idea that I’m not very good and that the writer’s voice I’ve finally found isn’t either. To be successful, I have to write like someone I’m not.

The same agent who’d reviewed my work pointed out that there are many millions of manuscripts written every year, and only a small percentage of those ever get to print with fewer yet making it into bookstores. Not only is this environment competitive, the odds of having a story, no matter how good, make it into print and even on to the shelf at the bookstore are a million to one against.

A rejection letter without context is a kindness. The reality is that if you knew the agent’s full reasons for not requesting more, there’s a very good chance you’d throw your laptop into the ocean and never think about writing again. So, next time you get a rejection and ask “but why?” just assume they didn’t like the concept, and keep going. If you hit the point where there is nobody else to query, maybe write something else or simply self-publish then write something else. The real, honest truth is, on average, becoming published traditionally is simply not going to happen. In a lot of ways, it’s the best and most compelling argument for self-publishing I’ve run across yet.

Anyhow, that’s what I’ve got. I’m headed back into my existential funk and clean the kitchen, which will also be critiqued and found wanting. Cheers.


11 thoughts on “REALITY CHECK – Getting a one-on-one agent review

  1. Erin McRay says:

    Man, I’ve re-read a lot of Dark Queen since the last time we discussed it, and I still can’t figure out what the hell “one-note” means. I’m hanging on to my original opinion. This guy is just one agent. He had a case of the ass because he didn’t get what he wanted (Help Desk), and he took it out on Hexe. Plus, everything I read of yours is better than the thing before, so keep plugging away. Afraid that’s all I’ve got

    Liked by 1 person

  2. vaniamargene says:

    I think one-note means you don’t have enough highs and lows. good things, bad things, good things, bad things. I read the Bestseller Code, and this is the one thing most bestsellers have. read this article in the Guardian:

    “In terms of plot, a bestseller has to have an “emotional beat”. “In certain bestsellers there is an emotional high followed by a low, then another high, then another low,” Archer says. “If you get that pattern symmetrical you will keep readers turning the pages.”

    What amazed Archer was how, when she used the algorithm to plot the emotional beat of Fifty Shades of Grey and The Da Vinci Code on a graph, the two plotlines were almost identical. “They were the only two out of the thousands of novels we studied that had this up and down plot at the right pace.”

    that’s an excerpt from the article.
    I wonder if you mapped Hexe what you would find in terms of good things/bad things.

    I am sorry you didn’t get the kind of feedback you wanted. And to be honest, yes, it is only one person. but he knows the market inside and out, so he’s going to know what sells. Definitely take what you can get out of it.

    I haven’t paid for professional opinion of my work, but after my trilogy is out, i want to work on something that I’ll consider querying. we’ll see how it goes.

    Don’t give up!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Interesting. I’ll check this out. Not sure how I can get high/low/high in a little less than a chapter, but…


      • vaniamargene says:

        maybe you’re thinking too broad? highs and lows don’t need to have chapters. like in a romance I read–she met a guy she liked. high. she realized he was going to be her boss. low. that happened in two sentences. take and give. of course you need to look at over all plot–a kid gets kidnapped, he’s found at the end. but don’t miss the trees because of the forest. and if you’re querying they want the first few pages, so you wanna make sure your hook and inciting event happen early on.

        Liked by 1 person

      • This is helpful. I’ve spent most of the day thinking about it already.


  3. I do like Vania’s idea of mapping, but I also agree with you that it takes more than one chapter to get this kind of arc.

    I’ve had reactions all over the map to the same manuscript. One agent said the MC needed to be more emotional. The next said she was too sorry for herself. What ya gonna do?

    Liked by 1 person

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