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.
Or, in non-academic speak, the part where I haz all the feelz.
I haven’t done any serious agent-blog-stalking in about a year. Once I figured I had a good picture of the field, I hit Query Tracker to start my first round of letters. Since then I’ve been working on a separate manuscript and composing became more important than stalking. I lay all this out to indicate that I might be outdated in my perspective. Here’s a post from D.L. Orton in 2011 that estimates your chances in being offered representation by one given agent as 1/2000 assuming all things are equal (which, of course, they are not).
When I was in grad school, I ran into one of my profs in a coffee shop. “How’s it going, Gregg?” He gave a relieved chuckle (which, from a such a phlegmatic man, was rather out of character, I thought). He held up two fingers, indicating about a 2″ distance. “Great. I’ve only got about this much to grade left.” Given that something he was grading was mine, I was appalled. “You go by volume?” He shook his head. “It’s the only way you can.” Of course, after I started teaching, I knew exactly what he meant.
We are volume.
The whole process that agent-less writers are going through, as I explained to a friend is:
1) Write amazing manuscript, but now you need
2) An amazing query letter (different writing style) so that the agent in question will read
3) Your opening pages or chapters and be so wowed as to request
4) Your full manuscript, which is so amazing that said agent will
5) Offer representation
Orton guesses that her agent will consider representing about 1/15 of the full manuscripts that she has requested. That’s about 6.5%, and for all I know the agents who requested mine figured they should only do full requests – not every agent did, but I don’t want to assume that they’re not going to treat my first three chapters in the same way that they’d treat the three chapters that they requested from someone who straight up queried them. That is to say, if they’re not wowed after 3 chapters, and then after 4, and 5, they might not finish. And let’s say they do finish – is my writing a good fit?
I’m not trying to downplay the delight I feel in what’s gone on so far. I mean, come on, 1/15 is a lot better than 1/2000, and that’s what participation in PitchWars has meant. It’s also meant that my query letter has been dramatically improved and that puts me in a better position with this manuscript with other agents.
BECAUSE. 6.5% is not good odds. I am delighted at how far I’ve come and I’m battening my brain down for the storm that will be probable rejections. And I will be disappointed but disappointment doesn’t mean abject failure. It definitely means “not now” and “not this person,” but there are other agents and other times. Life after query.
This is how I keep myself sane. I try to balance hope and optimism, but I use different scales for each one. Hopeful? Damn straight. Super hopeful. Very excited. Optimistic? Not so much, because statistics and percentages.
So the next things to do:
1) Get that query letter out
2) Work on next manuscript.
What else is there?
I’ve been thinking about writing about #Pitchwars all morning – mostly as a way to process what’s going on online and in my head.
My day began at 3am, when I woke up from a dream in which I was talking to an agent. Not cool, brain. I try to think about other things. I think about other manuscripts and other story ideas I’m working on. I stare at the dark ceiling and try not to think of anything at all. The cat moves around on my legs. Two hours later I’m still awake, but five minutes after that the alarm is going off at 6am. #Pitchwars starts at 7am Central time.
This is going to be a long day.
I know myself well enough to anticipate my distraction, but putting a name to it, identifying it as such doesn’t really solve the problem. Don’t mind me, I’ll just be over here hitting REFRESH on Entry #8.
Okay, I’m back.
Today and tomorrow will be compulsive days of seeing-if-anyone-likes-me-do-they-really-really-like-me (no offense to Ms. Fields). The longer the time goes with no movement – i.e. no interest from agents – the lower my expectations go. Not hopes, not yet, and I certainly haven’t ventured into full on Disappointment yet, though I’m beginning to anticipate what I’m going to feel like at the end of the day tomorrow if there’s still nothing… And that gets me to think about Possibility.
My expectations were raised (though not my hopes, which remain the same: a) get a request for a full and b) get representation) because I made it this far in #PitchWars). Not coincidentally, my theoretical chances have been raised as well, because I’m one in a pack of 37 that have more or less been cherry-picked for the agents. Here’s where the “theoretical” part comes into play – maybe what I’ve written isn’t their bag. Maybe “magical realism” is a red flag. All of these maybe are just as true when I query agents cold, but it feels like I’m closer because of the contest and feelings are confusing.
That gets me to wondering if this isn’t all just an exercise in raised expectations and dashed hopes (let’s say I hit this phase around, oh, noon or so, or one, I don’t know).
Here’s the difference, at least in terms of this contest: having my coach Michelle write to me not to point out but to assert that the agents who will want my manuscript may not be participating in PitchWars. It was a great double-whammie – on the one hand counseling patience and on the other offering encouragement. “This may not be the contest that you’re looking for.” The Tao of the Force.
It was remarkable how much a difference hearing that made. Michelle isn’t quite a peer. She’s got a great agent already and a book deal with her title forthcoming in 2014. She’s a couple of steps (BIG steps) past me. And that helped, both her words and that those words came from beyond where I am. A ton. Which isn’t to disparage the support I’ve been getting from friends and family, except that you pretty much expect them to be supportive, plus they don’t really have the same perspective. Appreciated? Damn straight. Does it mean the same thing? Critique partners have a closer perspective and agented authors, well, damn, let me just say it’s different, qualitatively. That’s all.
So yeah, feeling better about missing out on any requests, either by This or That much. Feeling pretty good, in fact. Pretty cool. Pretty calm. And not resigned, either. I mean, Michelle beat my query letter into fighting shape so I’m already looking forward to Friday when I can start sending this manuscript out with 300 words to pitch it instead of 50 and 5 whole pages instead of only the first. Gonna get my game on.
At which point Michelle let me know we had a request.
Calm: gone. Perspective: re-wrangling.
In a zero-sum game, there are a finite number of pieces. You can’t win without me losing or tying and vice versa. It’s big in game theory, it’s big in political rhetoric (in such a way as to declare compromise impossible), it comes up in economics.
Let me give an example: there are 24 hours in a day. Let’s say I split my time between sleeping, eating, housework (including cooking), work, research, relaxing, spending time with my wife, and spending time with friends. I mean, let’s just say.
The more time I spend sleeping, the less time I have to do everything else. Yet at a certain optimized point, the amount of sleep that I get means that I perform the other time-events better. If I get less than six and a half hours of sleep over an extended period of time, I’ll slowly begin to fall apart. It’s something I test periodically (on purpose and by accident alike). Still holds true.
My work these days is writing. The whats and whys (maybe even the hows) will be for another post, but the reason it’s relevant here is that – as much as I want to be posting on here more – it’s more writing.
It’s not even that I’m sick of writing and once I’m done with one batch I don’t want to do another. It is that when I’m writing pretty much all I want to be doing is working on my stories. And that there are only so many hours in the day.
But here I am, trying again. Up and at’em.
And by the way, if you don’t know me on Facebook or follow me on Twitter – get ready for post on here regarding Motionary Comics 2.0 – April 29 at Moct Bar in Milwaukee. It will rock your world.
A moment of douch-baggery on my part.
I was reading a post from a friend about the trouble that transgender people run into in the health care system. There were a lot of problems with the writing and structure – using personal experience as the sole metric for evaluation being the primary. And I let that get in the way of the writer’s larger point.
To wit: a friend of mine goes in for chemo, and the nurse says, “So what did you used to be?”
Um. I’m sick. I’m not dead. I’m not in a halfway place. I’m not isolated. I’m just sick.
So here’s Anthony, lying in a hospital bed in his own room. The tumor has had some affect on his volume, so he always speaks in a whisper now. Sometimes he free-associates a bit, and between not hearing and not knowing the context, it can be hard to follow his thought process. But he’s still himself. On Saturday, my last day to see him, I walk in, “Your mom says you’re full of piss and vinegar.” Anthony: “Damn straight.”
He’s not the Anthony I grew up with – but realistically, he wasn’t that by the time he was 30, when we were seeing each other pretty sporadically. His wife speaks to his personality changes due to the tumor more eloquently than I can. All the same, I’d wager that while the majority of the changes are physiological in nature, some are contextual – how I reacted to getting cancer. How I’m reacting to still having cancer. And so on.
There’s the Anthony I do and don’t know lying in this bed, and here’s the line I’m trying to walk:
No kidding. You are sick. You are dying. I feel for you.
You’re not dead.
I think (I want to think?) that he doesn’t want pity. He wants sympathy. He wants his television (we moved it). And why wouldn’t he, trapped in a bed in a room? Visitors are exhausting.
Here’s the thing that the transgender writer was getting at, that my other friend articulated, that I want Anthony to feel: I’m still a person. Just treat me like a person.
A backward compliment to my friends’ kids: they’re too well-adjusted.
It’s not just Steph and Anthony, it’s Kurt and Maria, Marit and Kevin. They’ve got these kids that, for whatever combination of reasons (mommy and daddy are socialists social workers, mommy and daddy encourage dialogue and conversation, mommy and daddy engage regularly with them), are just a wee bit more articulate than I am comfortable with at their age.
“So,” says my niece to me, “about my dad.” I put my book down. Yes? “He really likes the hooch.”
This is not a conversational beginning I’m completely equipped to deal with.
So when Anthony’s son intentionally pushes Anthony’s buttons, part of me wants to yell EASE UP! WALK AWAY! LEAVE HIM ALONE! WOULD YOU FREAKING ACT YOUR AGE?
And then the saner part of my brain reminds me that, um, if you’ll take just a moment, he is acting his age. He just usually seems more together is all.
Anthony’s son is caught between wanting to be Just Like His Dad (this from my sporadic perspective) and wanting to be his own person. Part of being your own person is pushing boundaries, learning what you can do – hell, learning what you want to do. We do things we don’t want to do because sometimes we’re interested in finding out if we can get away with it. Rational inquiry? On one level. Dickish? One hundred percent. I’m still guilty of it and I’m thirty years older than this kid, so why am I throwing stones?
Because I’m playing defense on Anthony’s behalf. Anthony, who can discuss emotions and his own state (self-aware) but can’t do anything about his own critical reasoning (self control?). No, I’ve never yelled at his son. I’ve never yelled at my nieces or nephews. It’s a testament to the parenting that I’m annoyed sometimes. Why don’t you act your age?
Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of my brother’s death, and every year we mark the occasion with homemade tacos. My dad gets curry on his anniversary. Such is the luck of the draw and whims of family.
My mother looked a little beaten up yesterday from when she picked me up at the airport until bed. She told me that the day is hard, every year. She didn’t make a big deal of it – no rending of clothes, ashes on head, nothing dramatic. She just seemed a bit tired and fragile.
At dinner, my sister asked me if I was disappointed not to be a part of the Minnesota Fringe that’s going on right now. The vehemence of my “very much,” seemed to surprise her a bit.
The words are just information. I miss you. I’m upset. I love you. I care. They’re supported not just by everyday actions – a phone call, punching the wall, flowers – but by the conviction with which we perform our words. My mother doesn’t perform her grief over my brother’s death. I don’t perform my disappointment over The Heart of a Dog being done and not performing here. If we didn’t perform and denied our emotions, you’d say we were in denial. But we acknowledge, just don’t make a big deal.
So how do you know how big a deal it is? And how inappropriate is how big? The performance needs to be proportionate to the scale – somehow.
My mother did her dissertation research comparing widowhood between caucasian, Jewish, and African=American women. The period of mourning was a topic that arose in the course of her work. What used to be “wear black and be officially in mourning for a year” for the white community has become, after a year, “don’t you think you should move on with your life?”
So here’s a question. If performance makes such a big deal in our face to face communication, what is filling that gap when we’re reading these words and there’s no one to perform?