Monday, March 27, 2006

Rejection Comments

First of all, thanks so much to everyone who has sent a question. We appreciate the enthusiastic response to our blog and want you to know we will answer the questions as time permits. Until then, remember you can also make comments if you like. Right now, here is our response to a question about rejection asked by several blogsters.

“Why do so many agents refuse to comment in their rejections? Form letters are so impersonal, and I need feedback to improve my work.”

The main reason agents don’t respond with comments used to be that they didn’t have time, and that is still true. We receive many queries a day, and it takes a great deal of time to read through them all.

However, now we find another reason that many agents have stopped commenting on writers’ submissions is that their rejections have been posted online without their permission on blogs, writer sites or forums. We have heard many of our friends in the business complain about this, and we happen to agree. The few manuscripts we did comment on now receive a standard rejection. This is as hard on us as it is on the writer, because there are times we really, really want to point out a weakness that can be easily fixed, but we refrain from this because we don’t want our correspondence posted or our words twisted and thrown back at us.

We are often challenged when we include observations along with our rejections, even though what we write is just the opinion of one agent among hundreds. Sometimes we receive an appreciative note in return, which is nice but not necessary, but others return nastiness for our efforts. Because of this, for the most part, we now respond with short, very neutral, one-line rejections. We tried to be helpful when we could, but it seemed like we got more harsh responses than anything when we wrote extra notes.

One last item: If you are in the stage of your career where you are querying agents, then you should be beyond needing their feedback to make your work publishable. If you are using agent or editor feedback for anything other than gauging the markets, it is time to consider whether your work is ready to submit.

Why Can't I Do That?

“Why is it that you say my opening is slow, when I can pick up ten books at just about any bookstore with slow openings?”

The answer to this one includes a real-life field trip we took to our local library. As we were leaving (okay, it was a short field trip), I picked up a new book by Elmore Leonard, read the first few lines, and said to Sharene, “Now this is how a novel should begin.” She, in turn, picked up the book right next to it, read for a few seconds, and said, “Read this opening.”

Even though it was by another well-known, multi-published author, it was awful. So if both books were written by famous authors, why did one opening wow its reader and the other ramble onward with paragraph after paragraph of nothingness? The answer is very simple: Multi-published authors do not have to write openings that hook readers in less than a minute. They have well-established audiences who buy their books on name recognition only. As an example, many people will buy James Frey’s new book, “My Friend Leonard,” even after all the controversy. Why? Because his first book sold over a million copies and even if half of its readers were turned off by the whole scandal, that’s still a 500,000-book sales potential and equals a well-established audience, not to mention a nice return for its publisher.

The bottom line is, name recognition sells books and because of this, those with names can take risks in their openings, can use any technique they wish, and take chances of all kinds.

Can a new author do this? The answer is usually no. An exception would be in creating something new and different that hits the market at exactly the right time. The DaVinci Code and Harry Potter are great examples of these successes. Is it wise and prudent to risk doing this? Of course it is—if you want to be rejected by everyone under the sun. Innovation always has risk. Good advice, however, is if you want to be published, stick to the tried and true at the beginning. Let the basic writing—characters, language, etc.—speak for itself. Keep your story and your technique simple. Risk should be reserved for that new twist you need to put on an old story. Save innovations in technique until you are an established author with a sizable following, then go for it and have fun with it.