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.


Severe writer’s apathy

For the past couple of months, I’ve taken a few tentative dips into the boiling acid oceans of literary agent querying. If I’m being honest though, it’s really more the equivalent of French-kissing a dementor and may very well be the reason boxed wine was invented in the first place. Unfortunately for me and my enormous hydrogen-filled ego, I haven’t even gotten into the meat of it yet, querying agents is just the first bit. Apparently, it gets a hell of a lot harder – the book still has to be picked up by a publisher! In any case, even from this point, I’ve still managed to collect a few observations.

First off, over the past couple of months I’ve spent all of what would normally be my writing time on rewriting synopsis, query letters, and researching agents. The ‘best’ advice I’ve received on this process is keep at it, someone will eventually be interested. In the mean time, keep writing. – What? Keep writing? With what time am I going to do this?!

Second, don’t ever tell a writer this: ‘Even J.K. Rowling was rejected 3.75 million times before finally getting published.’ THIS is supposed to make me feel better? The one thing I know for a fact about my book is that it’s not the next Harry Potter. If it practically took an act of god to get Harry Potter into print, there really isn’t any hope for me.

When I started this process, I loved Wine Bottles and Broomsticks. I enjoyed the characters, the writing of it didn’t take much time at all (comparatively), and I was chomping at the bit to start a sequel. It’s literally been a couple months and I’m starting to really hate the book. Not because I suddenly think it sucks (which it probably does by the way. See fig A.). No, it’s more like having been savagely attacked and left for dead by a beloved pet. The reason for this is that for each hand-crafted form rejection that comes through within minutes of having sent out the query, I am forced to face the real possibility that what I’ve written falls into one of a few categories:

  • This work is brilliant and nobody can see it
  • This book sucks
  • Nobody will ever buy this book
  • There is not, nor will there ever be a market for this story
  • I’m a terrible writer and should spend more time playing video games and programming

On the whole, the last category might be the easiest for me to take because I like programming and playing video games. Perhaps not as much as writing, but I will never be querying an agent for how well I cleared that dungeon.


Yet another observation is that many agents ask for a bio and past writing accomplishments. I don’t have any previous writing accomplishments. Loads of past writing, but nothing that could be called an accomplishment. As for the bio, someone very kindly informed me that the bio is more about you as a person, rather than your writing-specific experience. I tend to think this is, at best overly optimistic thinking, and at worst the equivalent of telling me that even J.K. Rowling was rejected so many times she had to be reincarnated before she could get published. Publishing is a business. What they want to know is: Will this book sell? and are you the sort of person to participate? My lovely bio is excellent for research or might be an asset if I were writing books about Alaska. I can not, however, bring myself to believe that it is helpful to point out that I have more hobbies than a craft-store and once seriously investigated cooperage as a hobby because it sounded interesting. As a hiring manager for a number of years, I didn’t care that much about someone’s history unless it told me something specific about how they were going to do the job. I’m (obviously) not an expert at publishing, but when it comes to business and making money, irrelevant skills are actually a huge distraction that tend to gloss over the fact that the applicant has no relevant skills. On the whole, I think my distinct lack of writing accomplishments seem to cover that ground pretty well. So, with all of that non-accomplishment burning a hole in my back pocket staring at an agent profile requesting a query letter, the first 7 ½ pages, a bio, and all past accomplishments along with the advisement that she only takes best-sellers, I’m really not super-motivated to continue.

So now, where does this leave me? We all know there’s a fine line between stupidity and stubbornness, though really it’s less of a line and more the phrase “well that didn’t go as expected” written in blood. As I haven’t discovered that point just yet (I think) and I haven’t yet spent half the life-age of the universe querying, I suppose I need to keep on it. Some folks say they get advice from agents, I have yet to get more than silence & form letters, but hey, even J.K. Rowling got published right?


Thoughts on finding an agent

I finished another (not the final) read-though and revision of Wine Bottles and Broomsticks yesterday, so naturally, I’ve started the process of researching agents and agencies who might be interested in what I’ve got. My first reaction of this process is that it’s a soul-crushing experience.

I’ve only gotten as far as starting a list of agents to query once I’m ready. The best thing I can say about it thus far is that every agent is pretty clear about the stuff they’re interested in. The less awesome part is that I don’t see how my particular book is going to fit in. Not only that, I anticipate being involved in the process of research, querying, not hearing back (standard procedure), and fretting for a good long while.

The query letter also has me worried. As a hiring manager for a number of years, I know that the cover letter makes all the difference in hiring and even a well-written one can suck. Furthermore, I also know that a generic cover-letter doesn’t do anyone any favors. I expect query letters more or less work the same. After all, the query letter is only an application to have your work looked at. Writing an individualized query to speak to the specific stated interests of various agents could take two or three days each. To put a cherry on that sundae, I’ve got no more than a handful of sentences to sell the idea of the book, so they go on to read the sample (assuming they’ve requested one), and then hope that all of those things get mefrom ‘nope, boring’ to ‘go on…’

The bottom line is that even though I’ve got quite enough work left to on the manuscript, there’s a lot more work to be done in trying to get the thing sold. A lot of work. I don’t mind work, but I have no idea what to expect or how best to approach this, so the mountain looks a lot higher. On the bright side, I’ve got a day-job, so yay for that.