Pub Rants

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I think this can be the most debilitating mistake an aspiring writer can make. There be dragons if you start down this mental path.

I recently gave a talk to Regis University’s MFA in Creative Writing students. In the fifteen-minute Q&A, one participant asked why it was so hard to get a literary agent to even look at her project. I could hear the frustration in her voice. I didn’t have a ready reply because the truth is that there is no good answer.

Writing is personal business. And any response and/or rejection can definitely feel like a commentary on your talent and who you are as a person.

But here is the reason you need to start thinking like an agent and less like a writer when it comes to submitting your material. If someone passes on your work, that rejection is not a commentary on your qualities as a human being. In a lot of instances, it’s not even a commentary on your ability or talent as a writer!

Let me repeat that: A rejection is often not a commentary on your writing talent.

I can cite a bundle of different reasons why an agent or publisher may pass on your work, reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with your writing ability. Don’t believe me? Here are a few (and in no particular order):

  • The agent/publisher has seen two-dozen concepts just like that one in the last four weeks.
  • That concept trend was hot, so now the Publisher has bought too many similar projects for their list and will not be acquiring any more.
  • The agent has an aversion to that type of story. I know a well-respected literary agent who personally cannot handle any story in which a child is in danger, and so will pass on any submission containing such scenes.
  • The editor could not get support in-house from the sales/marketing team to acquire the novel.
  • An agent read the story and thought the writer was talented, but for whatever reason, just didn’t connect with it enough to offer representation.
  • Bad timing. The agent was on vacation or at a conference, or just back to the office, and is simply swamped. It’s hard to be excited about taking on someone new if you are buried in work that can’t be accomplished in a 40-hour work week. And, LOL, no good agent works only 40 hours. It’s more like 60+ a week.
  • There’s talent on the page, but the editor or agent might think a significant revision is necessary, and taking the hour to write up an editorial letter isn’t going to happen.
  • The novel just has an element the agent is never enthusiastic about. For example, some agents are never going to take on a fairy-tale retelling or superhero story. It’s just not his or her thing.

I could go on. There are so many reasons that when I spoke at Regis, the best advice I could offer is this: Do not use writing as a means of validating who you are as a person.

No matter what an industry person’s response is to your written work, your writing is only one facet of who you are as a human being. Don’t make it everything, or you may lose your joy of writing and find the whole business very depressing indeed.

Photo Credit: BK

13 Responses

  1. Mel said:

    Wise words. Alas, it’s one of those “easier said than done” things…
    But I’ve learned patience. That’s at least something! 🙂

  2. Gabrielle said:

    Wise words indeed. I just blogged today in a similar vein but my gist was “have a good book” and “never give up”. For some writers not getting an agent to look at their work might mean that their query sucks. It’s as simple as that. So if you’re not getting nibbles after twenty or thirty queries, rewrite it. Same goes for your sample pages. Rewrite them if they’re not getting you looks. The flip side of not taking rejection personally is to take it professionally. It might mean that people just aren’t buying what you’re selling. So sell something else.

  3. Hillsy said:

    I’ve almost managed to quit writing (I’ve weened myself off the physical act – I’m just waiting for the cravings and spontaneous plotting to subside) I can’t endorse this enough. I wish I’d understood the importance of self-validation in the actual mechanics of writing, and taken the time to measure my own confidence against it.

    Which is why I would like to temper Gabrielle’s point with the fact that sometimes the right thing to do is stop. To be told to “keep going” and “write a good book” can be as destructive in their own way as the swamp or rejection they’re trying to guide you through (case in point: when you’re over-reliant on external validation, you don’t have your own measures of quality. Therefore trying to “just” write something “well” becomes a study in doubt and misery). If you only have one leg, the inference that if you just keeping going you’ll be able to ride a normal bike involves eating more pavement than in medically advised.

    There’s almost an unfathomable amount of writing advice about, both for the mechanics and business side. But I wish there was a bit more about how to assess whether or not you’re equipped to deal with the challenges you as a person – regardless of your skill level – will face. And then the support to quit….I think John Scalzi wrote a post on it entitled “It’s OK to not be a writer” – I’d prefer more posts out there like that to counterbalance the “You can do it!” cheerleading which only made me feel ashamed for not being able to.

  4. Liz Crowe said:

    This is very timely for me and I appreciate your honesty BUT mostly the fact that you are reminding us that there are other things in life more important than finding validation via seeing our books “out there.” I have several “out there” and still don’t feel validated by it most days! It’s a long game. And patience pays off. I feel confident that I’ll find someone who feels as passionately about my project that has received multiple rejections. I’m using it as an excuse to obtain some fresh critiques and do a bit of revision. Thanks again. Am sharing across my networks.

  5. Sheri said:

    I needed to hear this tonight–thank you! Having just received a rejection from another carefully vetted agent, I was feeling discouraged and this post helped.

  6. Pamela said:

    Thoughtful post listing good reasons for receiving rejection. I’e gone way past worrying about what agents or editors think of my books. I only care about my readers. I think that helps with my validation. That, and the fact that I write for the pure joy of creating stories, not for the chance to get a favorable letter from an agent.

  7. Madilyn Quinn said:

    Always good to hear this. I’ve started getting rejections pouring in and have to keep this in mind as it IS very discouraging. But just gotta keep swimming, you know. Thanks for the article!

  8. Maria said:

    Great advice. You are so down to earth, too. Sometimes writers also forget that agents are people too; they also have their preferences, and sometimes a writer’s manuscript may not be their cup of tea, regardless of the writer’s talent. And that is totally okay.
    Thanks for this article! 🙂 I’m gathering strength/courage to start querying soon. It’s pretty intimidating, but reading agents’ point of view is helping me get the courage to start, as I know what to expect, what they expect and want to read in a query, what not to write on my query, what is encouraged, etc.

  9. Rick George said:

    This reflection and the other piece you posted today demonstrate for aspiring writers that agents can maintain their empathy and humanity despite the enormous volume of pleas (er…queries…) flying at you every day. Thank you for not becoming jaded and for representing your profession well.