12.15.2016

Reading Tea Leaves

The worst stage in a novelist’s career is selling the first book. The process is aggravated by the fact that, for any major house, you need first a literary agent to agree to represent the book and then have an acquisitions editor buy it. Many authors don’t even land an agent. The reasons for these rejections are varied, but the outsized reaction of a rejected author is frequently the same. Whatever they said in the rejection letter, I must fix the book accordingly.

Before you rush off to mend what another person might feel is a strength of the book, you first need to consider: what qualifications does the agent have to say that? Was the agent formerly an editor? How old is the agent—i.e., how much experience does he have? Is it even the agent that is sending the response? The submission may not have got past the assistant to the agent, who might be twenty-three and freshly armed with an English Lit degree.

You also have to consider the fact that a number of comments used in rejection letters are boilerplate. “I didn’t fall in love with the main character” is the most common, but a host of others are stock phrases pulled off the shelf. The entire letter may be boilerplate; you just haven’t received enough of them to know.

Even if you are lucky enough to receive a letter that directly addresses an issue in the novel, you have to be wary. How much advice is being offered? A single sentence may only address what the agent gleaned from the first 10 pages—the part she bothered to read before giving up. Do you want to rewrite the book for that reason?

If an agent recognizes that you have written a book that is promising, he will read far enough to make meaningful comments. You read them and you realize that they actually apply to the book. Often a thoughtful response echoes doubts you’ve had in your own mind. So, sit back and think about what changes you want to make. Keep returning to the letter over the course of a week and make sure you understand exactly what was written. Once you’ve done your due deliberation, go ahead and spend all that time.

Exercise: You may not want to jump at the first response. Just because one agent advises something doesn’t mean you should overhaul the book. You wouldn’t do that in your business. Oh, one customer doesn’t like the product, so let’s revamp the entire manufacturing process. It’s better to wait until you get several rejections that say roughly the same thing.

“I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.'”
—Saul Bellow

Copyright @ 2016, John Paine



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