Why "No" Comes Quickly…

But “Yes” Seems to Take Forever

For the last couple of days we’ve been going over some basics of fiction writing – things that someone editing your book might be looking for in their efforts to help you produce the best book possible.

But acquisitions editors – and agents – won’t be spending time analyzing all those specifics. They’re going to to be assessing whether the book is right for them, and here’s how it works: If it’s a “no” they can discern it very quickly. Anything that isn’t a “no” becomes a “maybe” and is going to take a lot longer to make a decision.

Sometimes it’s difficult to accept that agents and acquisition editors can make decisions almost immediately, after reading what seems like a very small portion of the work. You’ve worked long and hard on your manuscripts, and for someone to say “no” after what must seem like barely a glance can be crushing. But there is a ton of experience and knowledge behind a quick “no.” An editor or agent can discern a countless number of things about your writing from a very few paragraphs.

One of the best ways to see this illustrated is to attend a session at a writer’s conference where a panel of agents and editors reads the first page of a manuscript and gives immediate verbal feedback, finishing with a decision about whether the first page would compel them to keep reading. It’s a crash-course in how their minds work and how they’re able to make decisions quickly. You see how your writing style and level of expertise comes across loud and clear on that very first page.

Recently on my blog, a commenter mentioned it would be nice if agents and editors would actually read a manuscript before rejecting it. The truth is, we read exactly as much as we need to. It’s not necessary for an editor or agent to read more than a few pages to determine if it’s a “no.” It takes a lot longer to determine if it’s a “yes.” 

I apologize if you’ve  read this on my blog before, but I came up with this analogy to help explain how we’re able to recognize the “no” projects so quickly.

When shopping for clothes, I can browse through racks fairly quickly. “No, no, no, no… ” My eyes and hands can take in copious detailed information about each item of clothing. Color, style, size, texture, pattern, fabric… so many things register in my brain in a millisecond. I instantly reject the ones that clearly aren’t what I’m looking for – they don’t suit the occasion I’m shopping for, or they’re not “me” for whatever reason. Occasionally I stop at something. “Hmm. Maybe.” I grab that item to take to the fitting room and try on.

If something looks, in a glance, to have something I am looking for, I need to spend more time considering. It starts off as a maybe, and might progress to “yes” or it might not.

So that’s kind of how it is when we look at those queries and proposals and first pages, and listen to your verbal pitch at a conference. The thought process is something like, “No, no, no… hmmm, maybe,” based on our experience evaluating, acquiring, editing and selling books.

Your control comes in writing the best book you can, so that’s where I think you should keep your focus. You’ll never be able to get a handle on what everyone is looking for. You will not be able to identify the magic fairy dust that makes an agent or an editor say the “yes” you’ve been wanting.

So just keep writing. Keep learning in every way you can. Keep getting feedback on your work. It’s the only way!

© 2011 Rachelle Gardner, Literary Agent

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  • Sally Hepworth

    >Thanks Rachelle. Great analogy. Makes sense.

  • Anonymous

    >You're right–I know immediately when I don't like or want something, whether it's food or clothing or whatever, but when I'm open to trying something new or different, I tend to mull it over a bit. But it still stings to have your "labor of love" rejected so quickly!

  • Pia Newman

    >Great analogy, Rachelle. Every writer – and especially writeress – will understand this one! ;-)

  • catdownunder

    >Oh,so no news now might just be good news eventually? Someone might actually be reading more than first paragraph? Patience?
    Yes ma-am!

  • Kathryn Packer Roberts

    >Perfect analogy. I realized how easy it was for agents after reading a lot of other people's work. After a while you can train yourself to see what level a person's writing is after only a few sentences.

  • Tana Adams

    >I get this from a readers perspective. I know pretty quick if a book is going to resonate with me. Love this weeks posts. You're rocking the blog!

  • Anonymous

    >"An editor or agent can discern a countless number of things about your writing from a very few paragraphs."

    Yep did a great job with Amanda Hocking. Rush those decisions.

  • Aimee L Salter

    >Tana makes a great point re looking a this from a reader's perspective – I often don't even give them that first half-page.

    It saddens me, though, that there has to be friction withing writerly circles over issues like this.

    For those pursuing traditional, your advice is golden. Thanks for continuing to take the time.

  • Keli Gwyn

    >I've judged a number of contests, and I can tell from the first few paragraphs how far along the writer is in his or her journey. Certain things are immediate tips offs of a new writer. When those weaknesses are absent and I'm pulled into the entry, it takes longer for me to make my assessment.

    I can make it through a rack at T.J. Maxx pretty fast, too. =)

  • TravWise

    >Love the analogy; it makes perfect sense (even for a guy. I mean, I've shopped with my sisters. Sheww!)

    Keli, what would you say are the biggest indicators for you of a writer who just hasn't got his or her craft perfected yet? What pulls you out of the story?

  • Rosemary Gemmell

    >Another valuable post, Rachelle, thank you. Really like the analogy. At least a quick decision saves the author months of suspense. It's obviously the 'maybe' that teaches us a lesson in patience!

  • Melissa

    >I’ll be honest, Ms. Gardner, and please forgive me if I ruffle feathers. I don’t particularly want an agent who’s waiting for that novel that speaks to him or her personally. This is why I feel the publishing industry is floundering – it doesn’t know how to step into the shoes of Jane Q. Reader. I love a loquacious novel that reads like Calvino and tells a story like Marquez, but I’m also smart enough to know these are low-sells because … well, I acquired my tastes in literature in grad school. Jane and Joe Q. might not want haute literature.

    I wish I could find an agent who can look at my novel strictly from a marketing perspective and surmise that a certain percentage of the reading population will likely purchase it. I don’t think said agent exists. As Anonymous pointed out above, the publishing industry was wrong about Hocking. And it was egregiously, egg-on-face wrong. It doesn’t exactly give a gal a lot of faith in The Industry Powers That Be. When I hear that 9:10 books don’t recoup the advance (is this true?), this tells me that someone, at some point, picked a lot of unflattering dresses from the rack. :(

    I’ll duck flying tomatoes now.

  • Timothy Fish

    >The problem with that analogy is that when shopping for clothes it tends to be all or nothing. If you don't like how the sleeves are cut, you reject the whole thing, even if you love the rest of it. With a manuscript, there is the potential for the stuff you don't like to be changed.

    A better analogy would be of looking for a tailor to make your clothes. If you see one dress in the tailor's front window, that doesn't neccesarily mean that the tailor can't provide what you want. I don't think agents and editors need to read all of a manuscript to know whether they are interested or not, but if the clothes shopping analogy is the best argument against it, I think those who do have a case.

  • Tabitha Bird

    >I like the dress analogy. And I think agents are capable of making quick and right decisions. I think some of the people who disagree are confusing marketability with personal preference.

    An agent who says no to a book that goes on to sell millions of copies said no because the book wasn't right for THEM. It might have been a good book, might even have been a great book, but if the agent didn't love it then they passed. And frankly I want an agent who LOVES my work. No one can sell something they don't love even if it is marketable.

    That is my humble little take anyway.

  • Dustan

    >The other day I realized something simple. Everyone that I originally had read my book KNEW me. Now, not all of them LIKED me, but they KNEW me. The hard truth is that they will keep reading past page two because of your association alone; from curiosity.

    It's "I wanna read the book the guy I know wrote."

    Problem is you don't personally know millions of people.

    The next question I asked myself was: "How do I buy books?" Answer: "I see the cover, read the back, then the first page."

    Then it clicked. That's what agents do. They are shopping. Make them buy. :-)

    Just a few thoughts that helped me. I can honestly say that my book is MUCH better after the first agents responded. I really like the process now. I am learning more everyday.

  • Karyn

    >I agree with Tabitha and Dustan (comments right above this one) — it is a good analogy, heartbreaking as it may be. With all due respect Melissa, this is a business first, and so I can understand why agents (editors, publishers, etc.) won't invest in a book that they know from the get-go only a small percentage of the population will buy.

    But like I said, heartbreaking. And although I get the analogy and the necessity behind "shopping" this way (time), it puts HUGE pressure on the author to make that first page (hell, first sentence) jump-up-and-down fabulous. (But as other commenters mentioned, this is how readers shop too).

    I guess it's like running in a race. If you don't sprint off the starting line, you've already given up your trophy.

  • Graceful

    >I'm with Tana…I often pick up a book and read the first page, or even just the first paragraph. If it grabs me in that short space, I read it, otherwise it goes back on the shelf. I admit, it's close to judging a book by its cover… but it does work.

    Good analogy with the shopping…can certainly relate to that one!

  • Huntress

    >The analogy is great. I expect an agent does the same thing I do, read a few pages before deciding to ‘buy’ a book.

    The difference? I never read the first page. I always thumb half way into the book.

    But I digress. You gave three choices, yes, no, maybe. There is a fourth choice that I hate, the chirping crickets sound.

  • R.S. Bohn

    >I like the analogy, and I like what Tana had to say. The more I read online, the more I'm able to very quickly gauge a writer's writing level and whether or not they're someone I want to watch. And it's the same in a bookstore: I open the book to the middle, read a page. If it doesn't grab me, back on the shelf it goes. I don't have time to read the entirety of every book out there, only the ones that speak to me.

  • Joy Nicholas

    >Yep, this is one of those truly crazy-making facts about being a writer. The "No's" seem to come so fast, the "Yes's" take forEVER!! But your analogy makes perfect sense. Thanks!

  • julienilson

    >I think this makes perfect sense, especially with regard to your analogy. I do the same when I buy books for myself–read a couple of paragraphs or pages–so I can see how the same applies on a grander scale.

  • Anonymous

    >This snap judgement can work in your favour. I got an agent overnight on the strength of a single chapter.

  • Kristy K

    >I agree with Tana too. I can tell within the first few pages if a book is a good fit for me to READ. So it only makes sense that an agent can do the same.

  • Leesa Freeman

    >Trying to find an agent for my first book has been a… frustrating experience at times. Trying to not get my hopes up, only to have them dashed by another no, but I keep telling myself it has nothing to do with ME. I pick up a lot of books in bookstores or the library and MOST of them go back on the shelf after reading the jacket (query) or a page or two (writing sample) but SOMEONE liked them. Someone published them. So long as I keep working at creating the best story I can and searching out the right agent for ME, I know it will all come together.

  • Choices

    >I do the same when I read a book, I can read a few pages or even the summary and decide if I am going to like it or not. So, it does make perfect sense that is how an agent would do it. Lots of books that I read, I have had suggestions from others, and I have been very pleased with the reccomendation. So, a second opinion is always helpful in our writing before sending our prize to an agent.

  • Cynthia Herron

    >Rachelle,

    Such wonderful, enlightening info this wk! Your posts couldn't have come at a more appropriate time for me!

    Thank you!

  • Jenna

    >Awesome. Thanks for this.

  • Heather Webb

    >Great analogy. I feel the same way when picking up a book from the shelf in the library or at a bookstore. A few paragraphs or pages tells you a lot about the "fit" of a book for the reader. (Or the agent in this case)

  • Connie

    >Recently I went back to a novel that I wrote years ago, which I'd trunked. And one of the things that amazed me was that I realized if I was an agent I would have rejected the novel. Not because the story was bad or even poorly written. But because I didn't make an emotional connection with the reader in the first few chapters. I think that's a huge key–your readers (agents or otherwise) have to care about/identify with your main character right away.

  • Nicole Zoltack

    >I really like that analogy. It's simple and makes perfect sense.

  • Wendy Paine Miller

    >I want an agent to look at my novel, pluck it from the racks, try it on, and find it looks even better on than it did on the rack.

    Also, it’s slenderizing, fits perfectly, and goes with just about any outfit or accessory.
    :D

    ~ Wendy

  • S. Dionne Moore

    >I used to think editors and agents who said they can read the first sentence or paragraph and know if something is right for them was a myth. Now I can understand. Having judged and critiqued many first chapters, I can tell in paragraph or two whether the writer is polished with a good hold of writing rules and a broad sense of their own style, or whether they're still struggling with the basics or fall somewhere in the middle.

    Experience does bring perception.

  • lac582

    >Here's the thing – I don't think that the agents and traditional publishers were wrong about Amanda Hocking. Because I think a huge part of her ability to break out was pricing her e-books at $.99, which never would have happened if the price was set by a publisher.

    After all, Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer saw their success the traditional way, and despite their bestseller status the books are fairly polarizing. People love them or hate them, with little in between.

    I'm sure there are cases where agents take on works that they know they can sell and aren't personally passionate about, but if you're going to work for no compensation until the book sells to a publisher, you had better know it's a sure thing or else have the passion of your convictions behind it.

    Do you really want to be represented by an agent who doesn't love your book? Are they in it for the long haul for your career? Will they encourage your second work if the first doesn't sell?

  • Terri

    >I cannot tell you how helpful this post is to me. Thank you so much. You've given me hope while I wait.

  • Sarah Thomas

    >As a girl with, ahem, HIPS and a smaller waist, this analogy really speaks to me. Even when I like something well enough to take it into the dressing room it often doesn't quite work. I've gotten enough maybes to keep me optimistic–apparently I need to fine tune the tailoring . . .

  • Anonymous

    >Melissa: Excellent thoughts!

  • Anonymous

    >Do you think the closing of Borders bookstores has paralyzed the NY houses, like a deer in headlights, putting them into the Maybe zone?

  • Erin MacPherson

    >This is so helpful! It's also encouraging to know that if the wait is long, it means that the agent/editor is at least considering it.

  • David Jarrett

    >I pick the books I want to read the same way. First couple pages; then a couple toward the middle; then an immediate yes or no decision. While being rejected is no fun, I can understand the process.

  • Rachelle

    >Melissa 4:09: I hear you. It would certainly be frustrating for writers—IF the system actually worked the way you're portraying here.

    I've written entire blog posts about this before, but here's the thing: When, as an agent, I'm looking for a project "that's right for me," this is a phrase that carries a whole set of assumptions that makes it completely different from when a reader is looking for a book that's "right for them."

    Looking for a project that's right for me obviously includes everything I know about the market, what's saleable, what's readers like, what the editors are looking for… and many other considerations. This is such an integral part of the process that most of us don't even bother to mention it most of the time. It’s not all about MY tastes and what I’d choose to read in my spare time.

    "Right for me" means not only do I think I can sell it to a publisher, it also means I personally like the book and the author.

    Trust me, you don't want an agent who thinks your work is crap but takes you on anyway because they think you're saleable. That's not a relationship that can thrive in the long term. What happens when we shop your first book – the one I don't really like but I think is saleable – and we get "passes" from ten publishers? You get dropped from the agency is probably what happens.

    But if I am passionate about your work and I deeply believe in its quality and salability, then my response will be different. I may work with you on intensive rewriting. I'll definitely encourage you to get that next book done so we can shop it. I'll keep trying every idea I can think of to get you sold to a publisher, because I believe in you and I love your work.
    That kind of persistence simply isn't going to happen without your work being "right for me" on numerous levels. Remember, I don't get paid until I sell the book. How much work am I willing to do for free? A lot more if I have that deep connection to your work than if I'm being strictly mercenary and making a cold, calculating decision about its "salability." If I’m being strictly mercenary, then I’ll drop you like a hot potato the minute it looks like your project is going to be more work than it’s worth. After all, it’s just business, right?

    What people often fail to understand is that this is a business about taste and subjectivity and going with our gut. We spend years nurturing our "gut instincts" while also studying the market. Any decision we make takes all of that into consideration.

    It might be tempting to believe the whole entire industry was “wrong” about Amanda Hocking and other self-pub successes. But since when did a single exception—one that represents less than one-tenth of one percent of the self-pub market—suddenly become the “rule”? How much sense does it make to judge an entire industry based on a single example among hundreds of thousands of possible examples?

    The fact is, Hocking created her own success, which may not have happened if she’d been picked up by a traditional publisher. It’s likely readers would not have been willing to pay $15 for the books they gladly paid .99 for.

    In any case, we’re used to people being suspicious of the publishing industry. I’m used to people implying that as an agent, I’m not only stupid but a bad business person, choosing to work with books that only suit my personal taste. I can assure you, however—that’s not the way it works. And none of us would be making a living if it did work that way.

  • Patti

    >Loved your clothes shopping analogy, because that's definitely something I can relate to.

  • Casey

    >Excellent analogy. Thanks for the post and encouragement. I always am through these posts. And pushed to keep working (and writing) hard. :)

  • Jessica Nelson

    >Good points about Hocking, Rachelle. Also, as far as I know she hasn't shared what her query looked like, who she pubbed to, etc. Those are big factors in whether a story gets read. Not to mention conferences and developing relationships with other writers/industry professionals. For all we know, the industry didn't make a big mistake. Maybe no one ever even read the full? Anyway, good points in your post. Judging contests is a good way for writers to get into the shoes of an agent or editor and see how easy it is to know a story isn't working, for whatever reasons.

  • Pam Asberry

    >I get it now. Thanks! Now, back to work on making my manuscript the best it can be.

  • Charise

    >I think the clothes shopping is a great analogy. What struck me in this post though was what we, as the writer, can control. A writer friend and I were discussing our "bucket lists" and wanted to put being published on the list of must do's. But we can't control that (within traditional publishing). So, writing the best book(s) we can is the list item.

  • Anonymous

    >"Good points about Hocking, Rachelle. Also, as far as I know she hasn't shared what her query looked like, who she pubbed to, etc."

    Who cares? She's now a millionaire. The industry lost millions by not publishing Hocking from the start.

    One example does matter, when you're talking millions and bookstores are going out of business. This industry has no idea what it is doing. Gut instincts are a silly way to do business.

    Agents are prima donnas, and they will defend their "gut instincts" while the industry goes down in flames.

  • Anonymous

    >I have a problem with the "not for me" rejection. I think it translates to: "I don't have any contacts in that area and you're a newbie and I can't make much money off of you so it's not worth the trouble." Reality check!

  • Alexis Grant

    >I love this post, Rachelle! The clothing analogy is just perfect. And today, I felt like you wrote this one just for me :)

    I do the same when I'm considering pitches… Sometimes a "maybe" sits in my inbox for weeks before I get to it!

  • Rachelle

    >Anon 11:26: I use the "not for me" rejection a lot, and here's what it means:

    "There are specific reasons I'm choosing not to take on your project. It might be that your writing isn't good enough. It might be that your premise doesn't resonate with me or seem saleable. It might be that I don't know of any editors looking for this kind of work right now. Or it could be a number of other reasons. Whatever it is, it would take me far too long to explain it, and furthermore, my explanation probably wouldn't be helpful to you without you and I having a 30-minute conversation. Plus, whatever I say could easily be contradicted by the next agent who sees your work. Since my job is to find projects to shepherd through the publishing process, and not to give feedback and advice to every writer who queries me, I'm just going to say no and leave it at that."

  • MJR

    >When I read unsolicited mss I could usually tell after reading the first paragraph if I wanted to keep reading. But now that I'm submitting mss I feel so much pressure for that first para to be perfect that I've become almost paralyzed about it! So I hope agents maybe skim first two pages–just in case the first para isn't representative of the whole novel.

  • Anonymous

    >Anonymous 11:14: Your passion is admirable, but your claims are baseless. To assert that the industry lost millions because they didn't discover Amanda Hocking before she found success self-publishing is naive at best, idiotic at worst. She carved a new path from hard work and persistence, but might have gone unnoticed had the industry tried to introduce her through traditional methods. (Lots of great writers go unnoticed, despite the industry's best efforts.) However, thanks to her success self-publishing, the industry is going to make "millions" by publishing her now. (Re: her deal with St. Martin's Press.)

  • Nikole Hahn

    >I'm reading Donald Maas The Fire in Fiction right now. He says there are two types of writers: the status seeker and the story teller. Since I want to be a story teller, I am working on making sure my first page and all those following wrap up to be a great story.

    A quick no is quite disheartening, but that's okay. It's all part of the journey.

  • John Farrell

    >Very good post! My own experience, for some reason, has always been "no news is bad news delayed". Often when I make a sale it happens very quickly. But this is more for short stories and articles, not novels.

  • Loree Huebner

    >Love the clothes analogy! It's so true.

    When I pick up a book, I can basically tell if I will like it or not after reading the first few pages…BUT..I've had a few surprise me in the end. Just sayin'.

  • Jackie

    >With 'a definite maybe', does an agent ever try it out with an editor before signing a writer?

    Thanks for all the practical insights into the business.

  • Jackie

    >With 'a definite maybe', does an agent ever try it out with an editor before signing a writer?

    Thanks for all the practical insights into the business.

  • Andrew

    >That's a very useful insight into how an agent makes decisions, and I agree with everyone who said, "Thank You!"

    To those who would feel a bit slighted by the seemingly quick judgments – remember this: it's Rachelle's livelihood that's on the line, and she will eat – or not eat – based on her decision-making process and its success.

  • Anonymous

    >Anon 12:10:

    "She carved a new path from hard work and persistence".

    Hocking did not work harder than many other indie published authors who are also priced at 99 cents, but did not sell millions of books.

    "Lots of great writers go unnoticed, despite the industry's best efforts."

    Publishing offers no marketing support. The logical conclusion to your argument is that indie publishing is a better way to move your book.

    "However, thanks to her success self-publishing, the industry is going to make "millions" by publishing her now".

    For St. Martin's to give two million in advance now, but say she wasn't worth being discovered prior to publication is utter nonsense. Publishing lost millions on the books already sold.

  • Mark Browning

    >I completely understand this logic. As a teacher, I can generally assign a grade to a paper after looking at the first page. Yes, I'll read the entire work for fairness and to provide good comments. The quality or lack of it, however, will almost always show up very quickly. I'd say that 99 times out of a 100, that first grade inclination is what the paper earns after a full read.

  • Natalie

    >Donald Trump's catch phrase "It's nothing personal, just business." Came to mind when I read this.

  • Andrew

    >Re Natalie's comment about Donald Trump…

    My recollection is that he lifted that line from Al Capone.

    It's not just business…my guess is that representing an author is a little, just a little bit like…

    Marriage.

    Certainly one can't push the analogy too far, but some of the same elements have to be there. Mutual respect, trust, and a level of affection, enough to make each party want to believe in the other.

    If we look to the odious Mr. Trump for inspiration, who took his cue from the even more odious Capone, we set up a template for a working relationship that is heartless, and in the end empty.

    And if that's really what it is, I'll say my goodbyes now and take my inspiration for the late, great Rick Nelson:

    "I'd rather drive a truck."

  • Elaine AM Smith

    >That was a great analogy. I could see selection in action ;)

  • Kristie Jackson

    >I think the shopping analogy really works. Because I'm certain some books are just poorly written as some clothing is poorly made. Others are well-crafted, just the wrong style. This definitely motivates me to make sure my "dress" is tasteful, but daring in the right places, unique but also something that isn't going to look like Helena Bonham Carter would wear it. And just like the red carpet, you can have a beautifully crafted work that on its merits would be a standout, but unless you have a celeb to wear it, it'll never get the attention it may actually deserve. So, Rachelle, I think that makes you the star everyone wants to dress for the Oscars.

  • Melissa

    >Rachelle (I hope you don’t mind me calling you by your first name),

    Thank you so much for your well thought-out reply. And I would agree that the price point employed by successful indie writers is no doubt a huge factor in their success. Also, if this works anything like it does in website building, the number of eBooks they have for sale is another factor to consider. It will be very interesting to see if a successful indie writer translates into a successful writer who’s published in print.

    I see a lot of parallels between what happened in “old school” print journalism and book publishing. Huge shake-up in the former – my field. Nothing is like it was before, nor will it ever be again. Strangely, I have more (legitimate) opportunities than I ever did before. Will the same thing happen for fiction writers? It would be nice to think so. ☺

    Someone pointed out that entering contests is an excellent way to get feedback. I totally agree. I entered one a couple of nights ago and have several more on my “to do” list.

  • Rachel Hauck

    >Great post, Rachelle! As a therapist at My Book Therapy, I am able to recognize the strength of a manuscript by the synopsis, and if not the synopsis, by the first chapter.

    I look at the first 10K words and the synopsis. The journey of the story becomes apparent really quick.

    To all the writers reading here, you have to hint at, if not declare full on, the manuscripts story question and the journey we are going to take with the protagonist in those first pages.

    If we don't get an idea of what this book is about, it becomes hard to commit. It also is apparent all the good stuff, the hook, is buried to far into the book.

    When I started writing, I would've never imagine an editor could judge a book by the first page. But after 14 novels of my own and countless book therapies, I understand the reality.

    Just keep working! A story doesn't have to be technically perfect, but the voice, the heart, the "what is it about" must shine through.

    Let go and let the story tell itself. That's what usually hooks an editor or agent.

    Also, realize editor and agents come from various backgrounds and at any given moment, he or she may be going through something in their life that makes them love or hate a story.

    It's just the way it is. It happens to published authors too.

    Keep writing! For sure you can never publish what's not written.

    Rachel

  • Anonymous

    >Jackie wrote:

    "With 'a definite maybe', does an agent ever try it out with an editor before signing a writer?"

    That would be considered shopping a book behind a writer's back with no contract and no permission from the writer.

    I've heard a true horror story about an agent doing this secretly, then rejecting the writer, the writer went on to sign with a different agent, agent #2 sent the book out, only to receive rejections from disgruntled editors who'd already seen, and rejected, the ms, all to the surprise of the writer and agent #2.

    *shudder*

  • Lenore Buth at www.awomansview.typepad.com

    >Great anology, Rachelle. You make it crystal clear–and logical–how the process works.

  • Jami Gold

    >Great post! And I agree with Keli Gwyn, judging contests can be a great way to see things from the agent perspective.

    I've judged entries where the first sentence didn't make sense even after I read it 5 times. You better believe an agent could reject that one out of the gate. I've judged entries where the voice was so strong that slight overwriting and a lame synopsis didn't matter at all.

    I wrote a whole blog post about how much writing contests can help us as authors understand what goes through agents' heads as they read. I volunteer to judge contests out of selfishness for how much *I* learn. :)

  • June G

    >Writing conferences and agent/editor panels are excellent ways to learn how the literary mind works. It was a shock to see how quickly they make their decisions, but after listening to opening pages, I have to agree with them–most of the pages were quite boring. The overall story may have been good, but if your opening isn't fairly intriguing, it makes it very easy to say "no" and move on to the next one in the hopes of finding gold.

    Lesson here: for goodness sake, start your story with a passage that pulls the reader in and makes them want to continue. Don't be bland or mundane. You'll only do yourself a disservice. Make the reader think: what's THIS about?

  • Tara Tyler

    >Thanks for this post. It doesn't ease the sting of a "no" but it gives understanding. Same thing when we are choosing a book to read ourselves. Lots of no's, narrow down the maybe's and only one or two yes's. I just hope finding an agent isn't as hard as finding a soul mate!

  • Andrew

    >Actually, Tara, I think that finding an agent may be harder!

    I proposed to my wife within five hours of meeting her for the first time, but I rather doubt that any agent will give me five hours.

    (And yes, we're still married – much to her family's horrified surprise.)

  • Anonymous

    >Rachelle, you're a class act all the way! Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  • Jeanne T

    >Rachelle, I am new to your site, but I am learning a lot. Thank you for this post. In the early steps on a writing path, I have lots to learn. Gaining the perspective you shared helps me understand more about the publishing industry and the agent's role in it. Thanks!

  • Alan Murray Jones

    >Hi Rachelle,

    This has me curious, why do you not just take three (for example) pages of writing instead of query letters? i.e. what do the query letter offer you that isn't provided in a writing sample?

    It's not unreasonable at all to judge writing so quickly. We do so as readers. That's when investing just $10 and hours of reading, you're putting a lot more into a manuscript than a reader.

    Cheers,

    Alan.

  • Rachelle

    >Alan: My submission guidelines specify a query plus sample pages because I need both to make a decision.

    You have GOT to be able to write a query. If YOU can't pitch your book in a compelling way, how can you expect anyone else to?

    Writers often chafe at writing queries because they're hard. Fair enough – I think they're hard too. But this is a business we're in, and business is all about selling, and you had better be able to sell your work to me. I can't read your entire manuscript to find out what it's about. I need the query to give me the context, the overview. That way your sample pages will make more sense. And I'll have an idea of whether I will like the story beyond those first three pages.

  • James L. Rubart

    >At my first writing conference I had the chance to sit with Jeff Gerke. He spent twenty seconds with my query letter, then asked for my synopsis.

    After forty seconds he asked to see my first chapter. With that he took his time; probably a full minute and a half.

    Then he started asking questions about the story arc, characters, etc.

    I was stunned. In two and a half minutes he decided whether he liked my story and writing?

    Yep.

    But over the years I've realized, as Rachelle says, a good editor or agent CAN tell within minutes whether the writing and story works (for them) or not.

    If your job is designing Web sites, you know within seconds of looking at the home page if a site is well done.

    If you're a musician, you can hear thirty seconds of a song and know if the tune resonates.

    Yes, there's always the story that is the exception to the rule, but exception means rare.

    A high percentage of the time good editor's and agent's instincts are right.

  • Camille Eide

    >Well said and reinforced, Rachelle. Thank you for all your tireless hours giving out valuable *FREE* advice. Thank you for shedding light on the inner workings of Publand. For presenting hard to hear yet necessary truths. For exposing yourself to the darts of disgruntled ignorance lobbed from the safety of anonymity. And after all that, for taking time to explain and educate with grace and patience. If only more agents were like you.

  • Donna

    >Your clothes shopping analogy brought this whole concept to light for me. It also reinforced the importance of a strong hook and first chapter. Thanks!

  • Alan Murray Jones

    >Makes sense, Rachelle. Thanks for satiating my curiosity.

  • Cally Jackson

    >That's a fantastic analogy. Looking at rejection from that angle can also help to blunt the pain – the stitching and fabric may have been wonderful, but the garment just wasn't you. And for you to pitch it to publishers, it needs to be unequivocally you!

  • Emily Wenstrom

    >I am loving this series. It is so helpful to get this perspective. Thanks Rachelle.

  • Rachel

    >Great post!

  • Anonymous

    >If it's a "no" they can discern it very quickly. Anything that isn't a "no" becomes a "maybe" and is going to take a lot longer to make a decision.

    This is logically problematic.

    Let's suppose the second scenario is true. If it takes a lot longer to make a decision, and that decision is a no, then it took a long time to arrive at that no.

    Ergo, the first statement — "If it's a "no" they can discern it very quickly" — is not true.

    Let's rephrase this to get it right (which really shouldn't be necessary with someone who evaluates and sells writing for a living)…

    "It is sometimes possible to reject a submitted work very quickly."

  • Anonymous

    >You have GOT to be able to write a query. If YOU can't pitch your book in a compelling way, how can you expect anyone else to?

    This is also logically problematic.

    You imply that a compelling pitch is based on its content.

    Reality: The majority of closed deals happen not because of a pitch, but because of a brand.

    What fraction of published novels are from first-time, non-celebrity writers? The tiny minority. In every other case, it was the brand (and the expected future sales) that closed the deal.

    The agent closing that deal did not have to make any sort of pitch. The brand did all the work.

    This is also true of agents themselves. Because they are agents, and have connections, they have a certain brand strength. What they say to an editor they've known for years will carry far more weight than what an unknown writer could possibly say to an agent. They are also held to a far lower standard as a result of this.

    Here's a challenge, Ms. Agent — a way to prove you know what you're talking about.

    Pick any best-selling novel from the last 50 years.

    Write a query for it as well as YOU can, and send it — pretending to be a first-time non-celebrity novelist — to fifty agents.

    Then report back your results here.

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