Some Thoughts on Rejection
I’ve been giving rejection a great deal of thought lately – for all of the obvious reasons in the world. I’ve got full manuscript requests out to three agents and in the meantime I’m querying the same. The odds are against me, sure. I am also a fairly reasonable person, I’d like to think, so I’ve been pondering what the various layers to this whole experience are. With footnotes!
This past weekend I was talking with a friend of mine who’s an actor. She goes on auditions and gets only a small fraction of the parts for which she tries – go figure. Doesn’t matter that she’s very good or that she’s very qualified (example of credentials: she’s currently doing the vocal coaching for a Shakespeare play at the Goodman Theater in Chciago – no slouch there). We agreed that querying and auditioning is basically the same thing. You put your best foot forward, you deliver a great monologue/query letter, and hope that the agent/director not only likes how you’ve executed it, but also thinks you’re a good fit for the rest of the cast/client list.
Coincidentally, there has been some Twitter discussion over the past two days by agents regarding talent and skill and subjectivity. One noted that Picasso and Dalí were both at the top of their game objectively speaking but that, subjectively, she’d never hang a Dalí in her house. Another, right around the time her PASS on my query landed in my inbox, was noting that there is no shame in trying to write, failing, and going on to do another thing. It’s hard not to internalize that sort of thing, based on the ego-centric rationale that makes us wear lucky socks, believe in conspiracy theories, and watch the stars for clues to our fates.(1)
I came up with four categories for agent-y rejection of manuscripts: the story; the storytelling; subjectivity. The three S’s. And one C, commercial appeal.
Ess Number 1: The Story
Could be your story is no different than a hundred other stories. If you’re going with zombies, vampires, or werewolves, you’d better have a damn good idea to get it upstream these days.(2) Keeping a good eye on the field and reading absolutely everything out there that has to do with your topic is about the only way to approach this. You have to know that you’re different. You have to know how your story is different and make that be a key feature that sets your story apart.
If we don’t have the clear eyes to carry out these distinctions, we’re in trouble. We have to read, read widely, and take notes.
This does not help us with one great unknown, however: stuff that the agent has that’s not public. During a #tenqueries this past weekend, a third agent passed on a novel with a SEAL character because one of his clients already does that. Darwinism in action – it doesn’t matter if your writing is better, that evolutionary niche has already been filled. (3)
Ess Number 2: The Storytelling
Craft, straight up. If you start with the weather or waking from a dream or throwing up, if your dialog tags are too often “demand,” “said,” “acquiesce,” or other variants that aren’t just “say,” if your spelling is bad or your characters thin – basically, if you avoid absolutely every piece of advice floating out there on the internet, an agent is going to turn your story down.
Okay, I’m making a mountain out of a molehill here. We don’t have to do all of those things at once to be rejected by an agent. We might not have a good handle on our pacing or worldbuilding, in spite of dynamite dialogue.
The thing about these first two categorical Esses is that these are the factors within our control. We get our beta readers lined up and our critique partners and hash out our manuscripts within an inch of their lives, until the differences are down to matters of opinion (and inconsistently at that). We believe in our story. We believe in our storytelling. By the time we’re querying, anyway, we have to believe in it. Our friends believe in it, too! Everyone likes it! Even our query letter is good! (4) And yet!
More rejection. Why could this be?
Ess Number 3: Subjectivity
That anecdote above about the agent not liking Dalí? How is she going to get enthusiastic about something she loathes, even if she can appreciate its better qualities? Look at how beautifully that watch is melting…
There’s a little bit of control on our end here. Agents often post wish-lists. Many of them are on Twitter. We can read up on them at QueryTracker or Publishers Marketplace or at their agency website. It’s not like they’re hiding what they want to see from us, so if we send our dark literary fantasy to an agent who represents romance, we’re pretty much asking for a rejection, really.
Okay, so we do our homework and we target the agents that make the most sense. We still don’t know who’s in their stable of writers. We can’t be sure that this agent is going to click with our work, even though we’re checking every freaking box he’s published online. This is where we cross our fingers and this is where things tend to go wrong, I think. But I’ll come back to that.
Cee Number 1: Commercial Appeal
Agents will occasionally make note and emphasize that publishing is a business. For all the Stephen Kings and Amanda Hockings and J.K. Rowlings (there’s only one of each, I should note), there are a million readers. Publishing houses print books to make money. Agents sell books to make money. Authors might write books because of art, but there’s no bacon to be had (or vegan cupcakes, if that’s your bag) in art if no one’s paying for it. This is my personal worry, incidentally. I’m confident in my writing and my story, but commercial appeal? Uhh… Not so much.
How do we gauge this, anyway? We don’t have stats. We don’t get numbers from publishers and have databases of comparable titles. (5) The best we can say is well, I’d read it! And we’d better say that anyway, since another nugget I see all the time is that we should write what we love.
What kind of consolation is that? I’ve done everything I could that’s in my control. I’ve written an original story that is well paced and well crafted. It is a story I love and I’m taking a risk on the fact that it might not be quite commercial enough, but I believe in this story and I think it merits some attention. Damn it. I’ve done my homework and sent it off to likely agents and what? Nothing?
That nothing still stings. I did everything I was supposed to and where’s the reward?
Which is, I think, what the heart of the problem is with rejection, whether of the literary kind or anything else. We hand control over to someone else. Rejection means we don’t get our way.
The sting isn’t because we’re insulted – how could we be, if our work can stand on its own? The sting is because we asked for something and someone told us, “No.” Doing things right is the bare minimum. It’s not what puts us over the top.
(1) For reference, that is the thaumaturgic principle of contagion, by which proximity of objects or events is believed to influence one another. As suggested by its name, the theory is not baseless. Diseases are contagious after all. The refutation of said principle, however, is the overused “correlation does not entail causation.” For what it’s worth, the other thaumaturgic principle is that of similarity, by which resemblances are held to be key: mirrors, pictures, and so on. Something like a “voodoo doll” would embody both principles. The shape and dress of the doll is similar to its target, while the addition of toenails or hair clippings provides the contagious link. Magic! The more you know. You can thank James George Frazer for that formulation, I think, from The Golden Bough. Someone correct me if I’m wrong!
(2) Unless it’s about the fortuitously misspelled “wherewolves” I saw recently, which I can only imagine are teleporting animals that may or may not be intelligent, in which case, query away!
(3) “Survival of the fittest” is stuff and nonsense, by the way. Also, the publication of the Theory of Evolution shows exactly what I mean by niches being filled. Charles Darwin had been tinkering around with this idea of “evolution” for a while when a young chap by the name of Alfred Russel Wallace sent him a paper outlining a theory of said topic in great and gory detail and would the Hon. Mr. Darwin mind taking a look. No, he would not, and he would whip his own paper into shape and publish it first, which is why we know Darwin as the father of evolution and not Wallace. Darwinism, indeed.
(4) It’s worth noting that the “everyone” we invariably talk about are people who are predisposed to like us, even if they are notoriously difficult-to-please critics. Not that we shouldn’t appreciate their compliments, but they’re family and friends.
(5) If you are the kind of person who does have a database of comparable titles and you’re an unpublished author, I recommend you get back to writing and lay off the research.