Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Agent disappointment

Trying to get something you've written and care about published has some incredible lows. Last weekend, I decided to quit messing around and send query letters out to agents for my novel. I've sent some, but got discouraged and sort of used "waiting to hear back" as a reason to quit writing. Thirty minutes after writing one, an agent responded with "You have my attention," and asking for a PDF of the novel. That was pretty exciting.

The idea often strikes me that this novel is the main reason I was put on Earth, and that I have a responsibility to try to get it out there. (I also often dismiss this as magical thinking and tell myself I should grow up, suck up more at work, and then go fix the weed whacker.)

I got this response today from that agent:

Jake, I’ve read half your novel, and there’s so much to love. You’re really funny, and I’m fascinated by this look into ((the)) culture ((of the place where I work)). And what you’ve done with the...worldbuilding (I HATE that word but I’m using it anyway) is rather impressive. However, I’m struggling to find the takeaway. It’s clever and you’re obviously talented, but I’m not finding the depth or layers necessary needed for me to feel the satire is working at the level it has to in order succeed in this tough literary fiction arena.

Thanks for sharing this with me, Jake. I appreciated the chance to consider. Best of luck to you!

For like thirty seconds, I thought I'd found an agent, and was on my way to getting this book published.  Getting the agent seems to be the biggest of the hurdles. This was the first time I'd even gotten one to pay attention enough to ask for the manuscript, although I felt like the premise was at least compelling enough I thought I'd get a lot more knee-jerk interest. 

It's a really kind, decent email, and I can't say a thing bad about the agent. He was incredibly fast and sympathetic and seemed to get it. He's in a tough business where you have to make quick decisions about what you think you can sell. I get it. I make quick decisions all the time at the magazine about what I think we should publish and what we shouldn't. I totally understand. Still sucks for me.

I'm really not the kind of person who just brushes off setbacks. I can't even think about another query letter right now. There was a time in my life when I had put writing away, embraced bourgeois normalcy, and felt rather content. Why did I ever start writing again and ruin that tenuous balance that only holds if you don't ask questions of it? I'm much less happy now than I was five years ago. Common sense would seem to dictate that if something is making you unhappy, you should quit doing it, but every time I try, I end up back at the computer trying to write that one more story or try one last place to submit something. 

I am so tired of being good but not good enough. 



  1. I can't really offer anything that won't sound ridiculous, or that you haven't heard before from far better sources than me. You've probably given the speeches to someone else in fact: the lists of novels now firmly ensconced in the Western Canon that were rejected many times around, the idiosyncracies of taste inherent in every agent/editor/reader, the painful truth that the only thing that really hurts more than rejection is looking back five/ten/twenty years from now and wondering what if you'd just kept trying - and then there's your novel, the one you were put here to share with the world. Yeah, you know all this stuff.

    Are you familiar with the "What color is your parachute" books? They were very popular back in the 70s. The one truly meaningful thing I got out of them was the path to YES goes through a few hundred NOs, so your job isn't to get the job offer (or book contract) but to brush the others out of the way, and the only way to do that is to let them say NO to you.

    Take a couple of days. Forget what's good and what isn't -- no agent is judging good, they're judging what they want to represent. Remember the stuff like how clear your talent is, how well your humor worked. Then start sending out queries again, with the goal of collecting 50 rejections. Or just send out a couple, and then a couple more. I don't know, whatever works for you. And if you still want to quit, then you can quit.

    See, nothing you haven't heard before. But it sounds like you needed to hear it, even if right now it all sounds like total crap.

  2. Thanks, Karen. Yes, those are all the right things to say, and even if they bounce off of me right now, I still thank you for saying them.

    I've heard that number of 50 before as a magic number for agent rejections. What happens when you get to that number? You stop and go study HVAC repair? Because it's totally possible I might get to that number. I don't know where I am right now, but I think it's around twelve. Almost nobody has even taken the time to say no.

  3. I don't know where most people get it, but I got it from - I'm almost afraid to tell you this - a biography of Sylvia Plath. Her high school English teacher required everyone to turn in 50 rejection letters by the end of the year. The idea was not to get to YES but to learn how to get better at letting them bounce off. I would guess it's that skill, not writing skill, that determines who gets published and who doesn't, more now than ever. To be honest, I don't even know if 50 was the number; I have the book around here somewhere, I'll have to see if I can find the story.

    I really wish I could say something that would help, but I don't think such a thing exists. So we send platitudes and anecdotes and hope it's better than saying nothing.

  4. Tell him it's about nothing. Well, maybe that works better on TV.

    What I do wonder is whether or not you can do anything with his comments about "takeaway." Was there insufficient foregrounding for him to know what it was really going to be about? And, of course, maybe he's just not your audience. But what if he has a point? What if some restructuring or some further work on that very point, the what's it about part, would make the difference?

    1. This is why I go crazy with writing, and also why I'm kind of critical of the workshop format. How do I know someone is giving me good advice? And this feedback isn't really advice, it's just a quick explanation of why he doesn't want to represent it. Doesn't really offer any ideas for what to change. So even if he has a point, I wouldn't know what to do with it. The only thing I know for sure is that I'm going to keep trying with other agents.

    2. If some guy says, "I don't really know what the point of this story is," it may not be advice, but it's potentially a very concrete bit of feedback. I mean, if my advisor had said that about one of my chapters, I would have had to go back with that comment alone and figure out a way to make my point clearer.