Are You Publishable or Not? Reading the Tea Leaves.

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Writing never feels more lonely than after you’ve sent your manuscript out to every agent and publisher you can think of and gotten nowhere.  Of course, you can always take comfort in the long list of massively successful books that were initially rejected by nearly everyone who saw them.  But for every brilliant book that gets rejected out of blindness or stupidity, there are thousands that get rejected because they’re just not very good.  How can you tell which camp you fall into?

The quality of your rejections are a good sign.  Granted, form rejections don’t tell you much, but if all of your rejections are form letters, it’s probably time to either start a major rewrite or put this manuscript in a drawer and start the next one.  (If your manuscript is getting repeatedly turned down on the query alone, you might want to take a second look at your query letter.)  If you’re getting glowing rejections (“I love the book, but it’s not right for our list.”) then you’re probably doing something right and should keep sending the manuscript out — though you might want to refine your agent search to make it more likely it will hit the right desk.  And it’s still a good sign even if you’re getting, “I love the book, but . . .  “  If a publishing professional has taken time to give you free advice, then your manuscript is probably worth the effort.

You don’t have to rush to take the advice.  Individual taste matters a lot in publishing, so don’t rip into your manuscript unless most of your feedback starts to agree.  If three different professionals tell you your main character is off-putting, that’s the time to consider if you’d like to hang out with this person.

Independent readers may give you a fair assessment of your manuscript, though the quality of that assessment depends on the expertise of your reader.  For ego support, there’s always your family and friends.  Fellow writers in mutual critique groups offer a bit more know-how, since they’ve at least gone through the same struggles as you.  But writers often help you by telling you how to write more like them, which isn’t much help to you.    Realistically, the best way to get a detailed, expert assessment of your manuscript is to pay for it – to hire an independent editor.  I know that, when I’m reading a client’s manuscript, I can’t cover more than 40 or 50 pages an hour, and it takes me at least three hours to write up an assessment.  So if your manuscript is 300 pages long, you’re talking about an investment of ten or more hours’ work.  If you hire an editor who’s thorough, expect to pay accordingly.

Be careful, though.  There are plenty of scammers out there happy to give you the praise we all long for just to pry some money out of you.  So be leery of praise from people with a vested interest — agents who ask a modest up-front investment to represent you, e-presses that will publish your book for a reasonable design and marketing fee, or small presses that promise to publish your book if you’re willing to have some editing done.  Any one of these might steer you to you an in-house editorial “service” or a less than qualified editor who pays kickbacks.

Some years ago, two of my clients who’d had work done by one of these editorial mills were kind enough to send me copies of the critiques they’d gotten.  When I compared the two, it was obvious the reports were at least half boilerplate – you could see where the blanks had been left for someone who had skimmed the manuscript to plug in a few individual details.  Essentially, every manuscript got the same advice.  It was the kind of “editing” that could have been done by a relatively bright high school freshman, and the authors were charged premium rates with the promise of publication dangled in front of them.

Then there’s Quoth the Cabbage.

I first read of this publishing experiment many years ago – long enough that some ghosts of it still survive on the internet, but I couldn’t locate the names of the original authors.

But three authors set out to write the worst manuscript they could and succeeded admirably.  Quoth the Cabbage is the story of a poor cabbage farmer in Czarist Russia who is driven mad by his extreme poverty so that he, his wife, and his ten children abandon the farm. But when a group of escaped orphans hides in the cabbage patch, small dolls miraculously emerge from the cabbages to help them.  Between them, the dolls and the orphans engineer the Russian Revolution.  Later they are banished to Siberia, where they find the farmer and his wife have started a new life.  The book ends with the farmer’s family and the orphans sitting around a table enjoying a warm bowl of sauerkraut.

This epic was written in four days, using voice recognition software that was set to only recognize every second or third word.  To pad the manuscript out, the authors copied and pasted large chunks of information from Encarta (this was before Wikipedia) and simply repeated large blocks of text over and over.  Then they developed a pseudonym (Richard Hulligan), an equally ridiculous query letter (“Several of the guys over here at the VFW think it is great.”), and sent it out to five legitimate and five suspect agents.

All five legitimate agents told Mr. Hulligan to find another hobby.  Three of the five suspect agents referred them to an editorial mill that has since been closed down by the New York State Attorney General.  But two of the agents asked to see the entire manuscript.  And they loved it!  One said it had “wit, and a charming style, and considerable and fascinating information.  It is joyful and exciting reading.”  And, of course, they asked for a pretty stiff copying fee so they could rush it out to publishers they were sure would be eager to read it.  They even hinted at film rights.

Things have changed a little since the days of Quoth, but there are still plenty of people willing to make money on a writer’s false hopes.  The internet offers many lists of who is and isn’t legit — Preditors and Editors is one of the best.  Googling prospective agents will probably trip red flags as well. And if five agents tell you not to give up your day job and the sixth thinks you’re brilliant, be careful.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of waiting until you’ve published your first book before you start the second.  Everyone’s writing skills build over time, so your second book is probably going to be better than your first, and your third better than your second. Keep writing, keep learning your craft, even as you send our earlier work out. That kind of persistence is the real key to eventually breaking into print.

Tell us about your experiences with the Tea Leaves.  If you’ve sold a manuscript, how many rejections did you accumulate before you did?  What did you learn from your rejections?  From critique groups?  From a professional editor?

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About Dave King

Dave King is the co-author of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, a best-seller among writing books. An independent editor since 1987, he is also a former contributing editor at Writer's Digest. Many of his magazine pieces on the art of writing have been anthologized in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing and in The Writer's Digest Writing Clinic. You can check out several of his articles and get other writing tips on his website.

Comments

  1. says

    *What did you learn from your rejections?*

    There is one piece of criticism I received a few years back – after posting a short story on an online critique group – that has stuck with me ever since. I was simply asked, “Your main character is so stiff. What is she doing? How does she move?”.

    Ever since then, I have always worked hard at infusing body language into my stories, to help flesh out the action in a scene or to add depth to my characters conversations.

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    • says

      Nice example, Katherine. That’s exactly the kind of thing a writer is likely to overlook in their own work but that outside feedback can point out.

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  2. says

    Hehe … why Quoth sounds like it would make a delightful children’s book :)

    The first thing I ever submitted was to poetry.com ten years ago. I knew I’d been had when I rec’d the opportunity to buy the anthology for $50. I read some of the samples and thought, these are really bad poems. That was a light bulb moment. Since then I rec’d about 15 rejections before my first children’s story was accepted. And what a lovely letter that was.

    I’ve been very lucky to have wonderful editors who gave me very specific feedback in the rejection letter. Even if it wasn’t their cup of tea, their advice helped me to make the story stronger, and publishable. Alas, I’m not immune … the ones that come close hurt the most.

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    • says

      I thought the story of Quoth deserved to get out there again.

      I suspect that a lot of agents and editors get into the business because they love good books, and because it’s a labor of love, they tend to be generous with their time. After all, they’ve already read your book, and it doesn’t cost them much to write you a paragraph or two on the problems that kept them from buying it.

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    • says

      Hey Vijaya, I had the same experience with poetry.com. The
      funny thing was my mom believed the hype. It didn’t take long for
      me to figure out that poetry.com was a vanity press of the worse
      kind. I began sending them throwaway poems, just to see if they
      would accept them all. They accepted most of the poems, but I
      finally wrote a poem that they rejected… It was about a vanity
      press that the poet got wise to! I never got another email from
      them.

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  3. says

    Thanks for the insights, Dave. I love the Quoth the Cabbage story. Another sound strategy is to attend writers conferences and meet face to face with reputable agents. Most will ask you to send the first chapter of your MS and I have always received helpful feedback. As for editors join your local or statewide agents and publishers group and always ask for references. Well done, Dave.

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    • says

      Thanks, CG. I’d left out writers’ conferences.

      A few years ago, I gave a workshop at the Write Angles conference here in Western Massachusetts. One of the presentations was a panel of three agents. Writers would stand up and read their first page, and the agents would hold up their hands at the point they would have decided to reject it — kind of like The Voice in reverse. Then they’d explain why the manuscript went to the slush pile. It was a little brutal, but it was very informative.

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  4. says

    Enjoyed this post, Dave! Many useful points and affirming details.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of rejection before, though I was in the wrong. So, even though I have a “finished” novel, I’m not submitting yet.

    We spend so long on a novel and sometimes it’s that novel on which we stake our identity. I think this is a mistake. Yes, get attached, love it, pour in all your passion, but rather than needing to get it out and published right away, expend your energy on making it better. Have fun as you peel back more layers of the onion. Like you’ve suggested, I’m hiring an independent editor—because the stakes are that high, I think—and I look forward to how my novel will grow in the process.

    I think my biggest challenge, though, is not to throw my hands up and put my novel away without giving it a chance. Having experienced rejection in past, I have become so critical of my novel and what tests I think it must pass before I send it out. Especially with feats like writing the query letter—a procedure for which there is no anesthetic—I’m driven to the brink of despair sometimes several times a week.

    But, oh heck, I guess that’s a good thing. It means the writing will keep getting better.

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    • says

      Good points, Graeme.

      One reason I wrote this post — and last month’s (http://writerunboxed.com/2014/02/18/after-you-publish/) — is to keep writers from getting discouraged when their first novel doesn’t publish — or publishes and doesn’t sell. You’re right, writing an entire novel is a huge undertaking, like building a house from scratch. It can take years of effort, and you can’t help but feel an immense pride in what you’ve done. So it’s very hard to let it go and move on to the next one.

      I mentioned this example over on the WU Facebook page, but it bears repeating here. Ruth and I were watching reruns of Rhoda, the sitcom from the seventies (thank you, Netflix). The writer on one of the episodes was one Sue Grafton. So I checked her Wikipedia page, and it turns out Sue Grafton started her writing career by writing seven novels and selling two of them. She then spent fifteen years writing screenplays for movies and television before she sat down and penned A is for Alibi. She’s a brilliant writer, with a facile way with language and sharp eye for character, yet she had to pay some serious dues before she really found her voice.

      That’s what writing is like.

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      • says

        Thanks for this follow-up, Dave! I’ll add to your example one of my favorite novelists, Brandon Sanderson, who I think wrote thirteen novels and sold the sixth of them as his debut. It’s so true that we need to focus on always improving and growing through the projects that unfold before us, and our writing history will sculpt itself as a result.
        :)

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  5. Densie says

    I’m going through the “glowing rejections” experience right now with mixed feelings. It feels like validation of my writing, yes, but it’s still a “thanks, but no thanks.” My favorite response that I’ve received more than once, is along the lines of, “I’m sure you’ll find representation elsewhere.” “Elsewhere” being the key word.

    Thank you for the reminder of the sharks out there (not Janet Reid, of course). I don’t want to reach the point where I’m so anxious to be published that I dive in without checking the waters first.

    Love, love the “Quoth the Cabbage” tale. A real eye opener.

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    • says

      You’re right, Denise, glowing rejections are a validation of your writing.

      As I understand it, (Donald Maass may want to comment as well), most agents need to really fall in love with a book in order to sell it effectively. I know that, for every book (published book — not clients’ manuscripts) that I fall in love with, there are probably ten or twenty that I simply like. They’re all well written and enjoyable, but they don’t grab me.

      This is why I believe the “I’m sure you’ll find representation elsewhere” rejections are sincere.

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      • says

        Okay, I’ll jump in.

        The reason agents, and editors too, must “love” a manuscript is not to sell it effectively. A great novel sells itself. Rather, it’s because most novels worth representing are not absolutely great, just really, really good.

        That probably sounds like gibberish but stick with me. A really, really good novel is going to get bounced. It’s shortcomings (it will have few flaws) are going to bother editors but not in ways clear enough to articulate. There are going to be a lot of rave rejections along the lines of “Loved it but it’s not right for my list.”

        It takes a lot of faith to persist. I mean, *you* hate rejection? Imagine how it feels to get rave rejections day after day, year after year, project after project. Imagine your daily bread is rejection.

        It takes a lot of faith to keep going. You have to love the writing.
        This is good advice today, Dave, basic but worth repeating. many thanks.

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        • says

          You know, I had never though of rejection from the agent’s point of view. But you’re right. A writer has one or two manuscripts getting rejected. An agent has dozens. It can’t be easy.

          I think you’re on to something with the subconscious flaws — the ones readers are aware of but can’t articulate. In fact, developing a feel for those subconscious flaws in your own work might be the key to pushing from good to great.

          Hmmmm. There may be another post here.

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          • says

            Thank you for this great post, and thanks to Donald too. That answers a question for me. I am working on my debut novel now. I have a review blog for aspiring and debut authors. I am reviewing a mystery written by an international author at the request of the editor of a small press. I have a hard time staying interested in it and I wondered if maybe it was something lost in the translation. After this post, it makes me wonder if it is that little “something” that the reader can’t pinpoint. I’ve agreed to read two books in the beginning of the series, but I’m not sure I will be able to even get through the first one. So thank you for an eyeopener for me, as both a reader and a writer.

            Now I have a question a bit off the subject, but still relevant. My WIP is a story that has 3 different time periods. I am wondering at what point would it need to be split into a trilogy or a series as opposed to one book? Since the other two time periods are in the past, I don’t want to have an information dump, so I was wondering if I should separate them or, if I keep them as a single unit, how can I avoid this? Thanks again!

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  6. says

    Thanks for the helpful advice and more reasons to be careful when querying! I think the querying tide is turning for me, as I received some helpful feedback (“it’s good but…”) from an agent who read not just the query but sample pages and a synopsis. Because of this advice, I’m getting ready to go back into my manuscript and tighten up a plethora of loose ends and make it better. I think I’d be highly suspicious if someone decided my novel was awesome the way it was. There seems to be no end to the ways in which some sneaks take advantage of other people.

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    • says

      And you would be right to be suspicious, Jillian.

      Some years ago, I heard of an editorial mill that advertised, “More than half the writers who work with us to completion eventually get published.” Of course, the mill had several editors on the payroll. So if you worked with one of them (paying big bucks) and didn’t publish, they’d suggest, “Well maybe you need fresh eyes on the manuscript.” Then you’d work with another of their editors (paying big bucks again). If you still didn’t publish, they’d keep running you through their stable of editors until you either published or (more likely) gave up. In which case, you didn’t work with them until completion.

      Oh, yes, the sharks are out there.

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  7. says

    It’s not so much the obvious scams I worry about. After my third attempt at getting that $1.3trillion Nigerian Doogies from that ousted prince, I’ve gotten a bit streetwise. My concern is with the well-intentioned folks who start an editing service based on their education degree and critique experience. There’s a big difference between finding grammar errors and finding story structure problems. Before I plunk down a day’s wages for editing, I want to know this person is not just some guy with a website. But neither can I afford the “super” editors who work for best-selling authors. Where does one go to find those not-yet-superstar editors who can help those of us who have to explain the expendature to an increasingly impatient spouse?

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    • says

      It’s always hard for me to talk about independent editing because of WU’s (quite sensible!) prohibition on self-promotion. This is a good question, though. I’ve thought of writing a complete post on how to pick a skilled editor, but here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed version.

      Look for samples. Most editors can’t take the time to edit your work for free in hopes of winning you as a client, but I post samples of my work on my website, so prospective clients can get some idea of what I can offer.

      Look for an introductory package — something that will establish a relationship with the editor without requiring you to cash out your child’s college fund. I always start with a diagnostic reading report — a two or three page critique — for $2 per page.

      Experience counts, though remember that even newly-established editors may have trained elsewhere. My old editor at Writer’s Digest is now working as an independent, and I can vouch for her skill.

      Finally, look at the price. When I’m at my best, I can’t edit more than eight or ten pages an hour. So if someone is offering to edit your manuscript at $2 per page (rather than simply read and critique it), you’re probably not going to get more than a few corrections to your grammar and punctuation.

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  8. says

    A woman approached me at a local author’s group meeting and asked if I’d take a look at her finished novel. (I’m a developmental editor.) She went on to explain that she’d already had three editors work on it, including a former Big 5 editor now gone freelance.

    “What do you think is missing?” I asked her, wondering what she thought I could do that the other editors had missed.

    She replied, “No matter how much work I put into it, when people read it and I ask them to rate it on a scale of 1-10, it never gets higher than a seven.”

    The hard thing for authors to face and accept: Sometimes, no matter what you do, the story is just NOT THAT GOOD.

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    • says

      Sad but true, Leslie. There are a lot of stories out there that editing can make better. But that last move from seven to nine or ten requires creativity on the part of the writer, and that sometimes just has to develop over time.

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  9. says

    I love sauerkraut, but as a final image in a resolution scene? Interesting, to say the least. Hadn’t heard that story, Dave. Thanks.

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    • says

      I know. I read the story back in the nineties and still hadn’t forgotten it.

      I scoured the internet looking for it, though, and only found a ghost of it living on a now-defunct writing blog that I dug out of Google Cache. (Not even the Wayback Machine had it.) Unfortunately, a lot of the original page didn’t make it into Cache, including the writer of the blog or the original writers of Quoth.

      But I thought I owed it to the next generation of writers to pass it on.

      By the way, here’s a passage from the original Quoth. Leopold is the poor farmer.

      “Ahh, but then the rotten colder to draw the snow in the Russian winter wheat went by the wayside. He would recall. Leopold with that lot of vegetables; and ten markets expect to win the cabbage. Are cabbage happily for him was not to meet all was nine and the cabbage can Play a news didn’t a vegetable ago at the wheel lock and Leopold would be quite happy but never to retire the vegetables rate it seemed to want to Wall replies maybe they went to a better, his colleagues cabbage tempo toward new pair to cabbage wanted to use, vegetables perhaps weeks Jacobs also lives. Then what’s the word. It was beaten disappear insulted a clever in its ability to help the czar.”

      I think I’ll wait for the movie.

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      • says

        I’ve just spent the last fifteen minutes unsuccessfully trying to find a story I recall hearing years ago, when I first queried (way too early – lesson learned). The story was something along the lines of taking an obscure but well-loved and award-winning literary novel from the late sixties, changing the title, and re-submitting it to agents and publishers… To absolute and total rejection.

        I think the perpetrator(s) were trying to prove how much tougher it has gotten to get–even great work–past “the gate-keepers.” I wasn’t buying then, and I still don’t. Your post and the comments illustrate what the futility of the exercise. Thanks, Dave!

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  10. says

    I received both types of rejection letter on my first novel and have to say, in my experience, the search for an agent was just as exacerbating as querying publishers directly. After two years of knocking on the wrong doors, a well-connected author friend managed – with one phone call! – to get someone to actually look at my manuscript. She was reputable and highly interested in representing me, but a series of personal crises over the time that followed kept her from truly giving it her all. Rather than throw myself on the mercy of a hostile market again, I chose to self publish. Was it the right choice? Who knows? But now I have a published novel, and a little more confidence as I learn the ropes of marketing. My second novel will be self published as well. I’d love to be picked up by one of the big houses, but I’m not going to sit on my dream, or leave it dangling on the subjective whims of strangers. Writer Unboxed is a balm as well as a wonderful resource, and I’m very thankful for this community – it makes the road less traveled a little less lonely.

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    • says

      Hey, Cynthia.

      I’ve known quite a few people who have taken the self-published route, and I hope it works out well for you.

      Many, though, have found that self-publishing doesn’t get them a readership. They wind up working as hard to win over readers as they had to win over an agent.

      Either way, finding a readership is tough.

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  11. says

    Thanks, Dave, for your advice. It’s very hard to figure out when to stop querying agents and go on to the next book. At this point with my fifth novel I have two agents very interested in it along with a slew of rejections. If both agents end up not wanting it because they feel they can’t “sell it”, I guess I’ll put it in a drawer but I’m so bummed about that. I hired two reputable editors who helped me immensely with some problems with the characters and then I found the two interested agents. I guess, though, that sometimes if it’s not the “time” for this book, maybe I’ll find an agent for it some other year. I’m still in a quandary.

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    • says

      Again, I’ve got to be careful of the prohibition on self-promotion, but a good independent editor will not only teach you how to fix the work in progress, they’ll teach you how to write more effectively. That’s why it’s often worth the money to have a manuscript edited, even though it never pushes past the 70% mark mentioned earlier. I’ve had several clients who have failed to publish the manuscript we worked on, but then went on to publish subsequent novels.

      Besides, you can always put your current novel in a drawer, then take it out again after a couple of months and see if you can spot what you need to do to push it over the top. It does sound like you’re getting close.

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      • says

        Hi Dave! Thanks for the reply. You know, my first (and I still have her) editor taught me how to write and I will be forever in her debt. I would go back to her in a heartbeat. I hired the other two because they came well-recommended (one through WU!) and both helped me out as well. Yes, I think it’s almost time to put it in a drawer for “later” and go on to the next one. It’s so hard to not get discouraged as I’m sure you understand. But I forge on, as we all do!
        Thank you for a very helpful post.
        Patti

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  12. says

    Good advice, Dave. Persistence is certainly one of the keys and to keep writing. And I agree it is a consensus of comments by readers/editors that is probably the most accurate advice. Agents are a tricky sort though. For a long time I got the standard flat “not for us” rejections from a long list of lit agents. Then one agent took the time to comment about my writing, even though she couldn’t take the novel on due to her overload. Her praise and encouragement (2 pages) gave me a boost (and a perspective), and I’m glad I listened to that one agent to keep going because success was ahead for me.

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    • says

      I do think a lot of agents are in it for the love of writing. If they can encourage a promising beginner, they’re happy to do it.

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  13. Marcy McKay says

    Well, you’ve given me hope, Dave. My agent left the biz this fall, so I’m back in Query Land. I’m receiving GREAT rejections for my novel, but still rejections. I keep thinking I found someone who loved it enough to sign me on as client once and I will again. If. I. Don’. Quit.

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    • says

      You’re right. If you have been signed up once by a professional who makes their money selling books, then you must be doing something right.

      Good luck with the agent search.

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  14. Marcy McKay says

    Thanks, Dave. It feels like searching for a needle in a haystack, but by GAWD, I’m going to do it!

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  15. says

    I haven’t finished my first novel, so we’ll see how it goes once I do. However, I have some stories churning through the rejection mill at the moment, one of which I’m going to perform an edit on, in part to make it fit a new set of markets.

    I feel like it’s ready to be published, even with the rejections piling up. I try to trust my gut on that, but listen for feedback when I get it, too.

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  16. Cal Rogers says

    Dave,

    I always find your wisdom to be spot on.

    Please tell me what you think of these tea leaves.

    I finished a novel that I had worked on for a year, had it professionally edited and workshopped, then spent another two years rewriting it based on that feedback and various critiques. When all of that was done, I began to query agents, starting with the very top agent per some list I found.

    The first agent I queried (at the very top of the list) via an online form asked to see the full manuscript within two hours of my submission. I sent it to his assistant per her instructions. That was ten months ago, and after a couple of e-mails asking how’s it going, spaced months apart, I have not heard a word back.

    A second prominent agent also asked to see the full manuscript, based on query, synopsis and first three chapters, and it has now been six months with no response.

    Of the twenty or so other agents I’ve queried, about half have sent rejections and half have ignored me altogether. The rejections have consistently complimented me on the premise and the writing but have regretted to not fall in love with the voice as much as they would have liked so had to pass.

    How would you advise me to proceed at this point?

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  17. Priya Gill says

    Dave, thanks for your post. Very enlightening.

    I’ve had both kinds rejections. The kinds that basically were a single line “not for me. Good luck elsewhere” were disheartening but… I didn’t know what to do make of them. They were all based on the first few chapters. The only agent who asked for and read the whole manuscript gave me very specific comments. She found a lot that she liked, plot, character, relationships, etc. but… She didn’t connect with the narrative voice and story telling. When I received the email, I was crushed. What kind of a storyteller was I if she couldn’t connect with the storytelling? After all my husband had read it and loved it. What did it mean? And what is narrative voice? So then I did what every sensible person living in Circa 2013 does. Googled it. After reading over a 100 hits, I still wasn’t sure what she had not liked. There it was the end of my writing career.

    Then fate intervened. I made a new friend at a mommy event, who incidentally is writing a thriller herself. With some embarrassment, I confided in her. She said she had no idea what it meant, but it might be good to read a few writers digests. They might provide a clue. So I subscribed. Next thing I signed up for a class. And then I understood. My novel was just a mass of head bops. No narrative voice. No craft. So I trashed my MS and started all over. Same story, same level of subplots/ plots, same characters, just telling it in a better way…. Even I can see the difference. I am sad that I missed an opportunity to maybe sign up with an agent (and I really like her) by sending my manuscript before it was ready. Will not make that mistake again.

    And that’s my lesson from this. When an agent takes the time to completely read you MS and comment – listen….and act. Because this is a business for them too. They don’t want to sign you on and watch you fail. They have the experience. Maybe my perception is colored by the fact that she was so nice about it and yet bang on with her assessment.

    But a well explained rejection is but a stepping stone. And for the “not for me” kinds… We do have the tea leaves.

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    • says

      You’re absolutely right, Priya. And God bless that agent who gave you the advice. I think you did exactly what she wanted you to do with it.

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  18. says

    Dave, re the comment about a “well-connected” writer friend who got her a read with an agent who was enthusiastic about her work: I wish you would comment on the idea (myth?) that about the only way to get an agent these days is to *know* somebody who knows somebody, or to get lucky (with a polished manuscript, obviously) at a conference. I’ve gotten those glowing rejections: “I loved the book, but I don’t think I can sell it,” or “You’re a lovely writer, but this isn’t for me,” or “I didn’t fall in love with it.” I’ve gotten plenty of form rejections and also some none-answers; the queries I’ve never heard back from. Bummers, all. But I appreciate the encouragement here! Thanks for this great post.

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  19. says

    I really enjoyed this piece. At one point I almost fell for those “editors” but thankfully I met a real one in person during a seminar who I was able to hire. He gave me really good advice and I was able to grow from that. Now I kinda make it a point not to hire editors unless I’ve met them or someone close to me knows them (like my current editor).

    As for the rejections, after getting some standard answers I decided to hire an editor to polish my work. I wrote my second book while my first book was being assessed by an editor. I don’t wait for my first book to be published before I start a new project. I love writing. I want to keep writing. While waiting, I’m also polishing my work and learning from others. I reckon that’s the way to go.

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  20. says

    Thank you dave. articles like this are so helpful. I always say to anyone who is writing, Never Give Up. I was an unknown author and everyone told me that I couldn’t get my book published, especially as it was a book of individual stories about how ordinary people met a Tibetan Buddhist teacher.
    I sent it out to 30 publishers. I was published in paperback by Simon and Schuster. Amazing but true. You just need the right person in the right position who is interested in the topic of the book! They gave me a great editor, (essential) who had worked alot with Aboriginal verbal stories and they thought she would suit me and my book. She did. So, it is possible.
    I have now published it myself as an E. book on Amazon and Apple etc. as it was only available originally in Australia and England. Seems alot harder now learning about how to ‘market it’!
    I am now writing a romance novel and a fiction book about dogs!
    Please recommend a good editor and experienced E. book ‘marketer’ if you could. Also some advice on who is good to approach to offer guest blogging? That would be so useful.
    Thank you again

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    • says

      Sherry, do you mean it was published by S&S in England and Australia, and you’ve now brought it out as an e-book on the worldwide market?

      If so, I’ve gotten the impression from clients who have published overseas that presses outside of America are more receptive to new voices. Does your own experience tally with that?

      As to recommending an editor, I would, but modesty forbids . . .

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      • says

        Hi Dave,
        My book was published by Simon and Shuster in Australia. I then arranged distribution in England. I have recently republished it (checked that the rights have returned to me) as an E.book with worldwide audience with a more mainstream title. ‘A Serach for Meaning. Connecting with Buddhist teachers.’ I am finding it more difficult to reach the worldwide audience though, as I am really new at all of this! I am reading blogs, articles etc but find the social media technology daunting!
        As my new book is a love story set in the Himalayas, still writing this one! I would like to learn more so this world wide audience, as you say, can be reached!
        Thanks for all the time, effort and energy you put into us all.

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  21. says

    It was very difficult for me to move on from my first book and write a second one. I think it was because I didn’t have the confidence. I have just finished the second, and the feeling of satisfaction is inspiring. And, you are right – it is amazing how much I have learned from writing and more writing. I don’t know what I will end up doing with that first book, if I will keep querying it or not. But, I do know I will query the second and begin writing my third.

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    • says

      Excellent, 4 (may I call you 4?).

      Mastering any art requires a lot of false starts and practice pieces — there’s a reason many writer specify in their wills that their early work be burned. In order to succeed, you really have to stick with it.

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  22. says

    In the back and forth above, a couple of things have come up that should be out here in the general discussion rather than buried in the middle of the comments.

    Rebecca and Helen asked for a post on the subtle qualities that keep a manuscript from being a winner. And I’m not sure such a post would be possible. To paraphrase Tolstoi, all happy manuscripts are alike. Each unhappy manuscript is unhappy in its own way. A manuscript might be getting rejections because of problems in plot structure, in character development, in plausibility, in writing style. Some have character voices who all sound alike. Others mismanage the pace so that there are long stretches in which nothing happens. It’s possible to do a post on each of these problems, but you as a writer have to decide whether the post applies to your own work.

    This is why an independent assessment of your work is so important, whether it comes from kind agents, critique groups, workshops, or independent editors. If you’re first starting out, your manuscript probably has flaws that you cannot see. Having others look it over is often the only way to discover them.

    Jerry asked about the idea (myth?) that you need to be connected in order to get an agent. Again, Donald may know more than me on this, but my sense is that it’s not quite true but not quite a myth, either. Most agents are in it for the love of good books, and if they have one come across their desk that they love, they’re delighted. On the other hand, if a friend or colleague recommends that they read something, they probably will read it. But while connections might get you read, I don’ t think they’ll get you signed up or published. For that to happen, your manuscript needs to stand on its own.

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  23. says

    I read this with great interest. And I agree with you. HOWEVER (you know this was coming) SOMETIMES the so-called ‘experts get it so so wrong.
    My novel Diamonds&Dust (up for 3 major awards) was slagged off by my then agent ( A top London one) as being ‘un-publishable’ and ‘not worth sending out’.

    Yup, I parted company with my agent, submitted it to an up and coming Indie and the rest is history!! (Well, the CWA Historical Dagger). I agree that positive rejections are an indication of talent. But sometimes they are no more than one person’s view….

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    • says

      I absolutely agree that experts get it wrong, Carol. The list of agents and acquisitions editors who have rejected future bestsellers covers most of the industry. I’d even admit that independent editors sometimes get it wrong. That’s why I tell clients to only follow the suggestions that inspire them. I’ve found that my best editor/client relationships develop with the ones who take about 70% of what I suggest.

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  24. says

    I think I’m close.

    The last manuscript I sent in received 4 full requests and 8 partial requests. All were eventually rejected, however I did receive some specific examples as to why on a few of them.

    Whatcha gonna do. I learn from it and keep pluggin away.

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  25. says

    Ah, great. I have never received anything but a form rejection. In fact I’ve never even gotten a partial/full request. Maybe my queries suck that bad? Maybe I am just that terrible of a writer. I’m working on my fourth full manuscript right now. I tell myself that I’ve got a good feeling about it, that this could be The One, but let’s be honest. I just suck. Unpublishable drivel. Oh, well. The life of a hobbyist for me, I suppose.

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      • says

        Thanks for the link! I’ve definitely struggled a lot with constructing my queries, but I’ve read tons of advice about it and am not sure what I could be doing that is so egregiously wrong.

        I have had some experience with critique groups, but the feedback I got was not too helpful. It was usually positive (I even had one person convinced that I was already published and just trolling), but rarely constructive. Even the people who were more critical were usually offering more of a line edit than a “this whole character is dragging down the story and needs to go” type of structure edit.

        All of which leaves me feeling very unsure. Sometimes I feel like I am writing into a vacuum.

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