I got a writing/ publishing question from a reader and it was something I wondered myself when I got started, so I figured I’d answer it on the blog. Here ‘tis:
I've been trying to query for one of my novels for the past few months now, and already I'm racking up on my 17th rejection. However, three of those rejections the agents took some time away from their cookie-cutter mold to say that my story was "very interesting" but "They would have to pass..."
I'm really confused by this statement because it means my work caught their attention, but it is baffling me as to why they rejected it. Do you have any helpful hints in this department? Or even any hints on how to compose a knock out first chapter that could make agents stop say 'interesting, but no...' to 'interesting and yes!'
I should start out this post by mentioning that I've already written about query letters here. So if you want to read that, I’ll wait here.
Okay, we’re all back? Grand-o. Here is the thing you need to know about traditional publishing: it does not want to eat your heart. It doesn’t even want to wither your soul to nothing.
It just doesn’t care that you exist.
I’ve always been fine with that. I don’t need Publishing to be my friend. I don’t even need Publishing to like me. As a writer, I’ve just wanted Publishing to give me a career. And as a reader, I’ve just wanted Publishing to give me books I want to read.
That last sentence is going to be my thesis statement for this entire blog post, so maybe I should put it in bold.
Publishing tries to give people books they want to read.
Oh, no, I have one other thesis statement. It’s two pronged. Let’s put that one in bold, too.
Publishing is run by readers.
If you remember both these things as an aspiring writer, I reckon you’ll be okay.
Let’s go back to the response from the agents. “Very interesting” and “have to pass” are not opposites, though it might feel that way when you’re staring at a rejection letter.
Here is a list of things an agent must do if she agrees to represent a book:
-keep loving it after multiple reads while editing it for the new author
-love it enough to pitch it enthusiastically to very busy editors
-love it when it doesn’t sell right away and sits around for six months
-love it enough to argue with editors over bad cover choices/ contracts/ publicity
-love it enough to pitch it to foreign publishers months after signing the author
-love it enough to passionately advocate for a marketing plan for it
-love it enough that 5 years later they can still nod enthusiastically when people say “you agent that author?”
(an editor’s list looks a lot like this, only with even more passionate fist-pounding at editorial meetings)
An agent must love your book enough to be willing to spend hundreds of hours on it.
Imagine when you read a novel. I imagine you’re like me: you have novels you like, novels you love for a week and then forget, and novels that you hug to your chest for months afterward. For an agent to not despise her/ his job, she needs the last one: fiery passion that means she’ll still love your manuscript in a year. Moreover, she has be pretty sure that she'll love your next unwritten project as well. Because when an agent signs a client, she doesn’t sign just one book. She signs an author.
How many books do you read in a year that you love so much that you’ll absolutely pick up the author’s next work? For me, it’s less than five. How many books on your shelf would you advocate tirelessly for? For me, it's a handful.
I know what you’re thinking. “But if the projects sell, surely that is the point of all this! WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT?”
I would never go with an agent who signed me only because she thought I would sell. I want an agent who loves what I write, so she can tell me if I’m hitting the mark with my new projects. An agent who is going to pitch my novels to editors like there’s no tomorrow. An agent who advocates my case because she believes in my work, not because she’s supposed to. Contractual obligation gets the job done, I guess, but love burns hotter and longer.*
Moreover, Publishing, against all reason, is run on passion. Because it’s run by readers. Although the bottom line is still putting out books that will sell to as many people as possible, generally those books end up on the list because somewhere, someone in the industry was willing to stand on a chair and shout for them. And that love needs to start at the ground level. Me. Then my agent. Then my editor. Then my readers.
Back to this thing: “Very interesting” and “have to pass.” What this agent is doing is giving you a compliment. Instead of just giving you a form rejection, she or he is merely letting you know that you’re writing something promising. If I were to parse it, I reckon it means that the concept is appealing, but maybe the writing isn't there just yet. I wouldn’t sweat it. I’d take it for the affirmation it is and move on. Oh — I'd probably add that agent's name to my list to query for my next manuscript. But really, otherwise, I'd be pleased with the little head nod and I'd move on.
So how to move to “interesting and yes!”? I don't think rejections will give you insight here. I guess sometimes a pile of rejections will give you a hint — if you get four rejections that say they couldn’t connect with your main character, fix your main character. But usually they’re just too vague. Which means it is back to the old fashioned way: critique partners.
And the answer to how to write a compelling first chapter is sitting on your own shelf already. Good writers are analytical readers. Get your favorite novels off the shelf and dissect those first chapters. What pulled you in as a reader? What do they all have in common? Can you apply the broad techniques to your own manuscript?
I promise you that Publishing is actually pretty fair. A little mercenary in that it prefers novels that appeal to a wide group of readers rather than novels that appeal to only a few. But in my experience, it’s very rare that a great, commercial novel goes unnoticed during querying. As soon as I wrote something worth reading, I got published. Not a moment before (a fact for which I’m grateful, as my name would be on that first effort forever), not for lack of trying.
Publishing really doesn’t want to eat your heart. Publishing is run by readers. All they want is a good read. It’s your job to give it to them.