Monday, 2 July 2012

DEAR CRABBIT: encouragement from this rejection?

The latest question for Dear Crabbit is a tricky one:

Hi Nicola
I am currently submitting my first novel to literary agents and have had four standard rejections. The other day I received a personalised rejection from a prominent agent in one of the big agencies, enthusiastic about the premise of my book but briefly explaining why she didn't quite warm enough to the writing to represent me - and to quote her: 'I am sure another agent will feel differently, given how subjective reading is.' 
Am I right to take any encouragement from this, given that she did not ask to read the rest of the book? Or am I clutching at straws?
The unattractive core answer to this is: a) it depends what you mean by encouragement and b) it's impossible to say for sure.

On the one hand, certainly you should take encouragement from a personal rejection. It's good that the premise of your book is exciting, because that's a very important start. So, please do be encouraged by this.

On the other hand, "I am sure another agent will feel differently, given how subjective reading is" is somewhat trickier to take encouragement from, because it's too bland. It's also so common as almost to be a form rejection. Rather obviously, also, she can't really be sure another agent will feel differently enough to say yes; and rather obviously reading is subjective. You need to realise that this "reading is subjective" thing is one of the most common phrases used to soften a rejection. Yes, it does mean "I didn't like it enough" but it doesn't mean "I'm the only agent in the world who won't like it enough."

The real problem you have is that this answer cannot tell you whether the "didn't warm to the writing" bit is because it genuinely wasn't to her taste or because the writing simply and more profoundly doesn't do justice to the premise.

So, should you re-write or just submit to others?

Impossible to be sure. I think you need objective feedback as to what might be "wrong" with or lacking in the writing. You might consider paying for it - but be careful who you use. You might use your writing group of you have one - but be very careful who you ask to read it because you need to know what's wrong, not what's right. If you don't have a writing group, you could ask three friends for comments - but make sure they really do know what they're looking for and that they know you want to know what's wrong. And even then, you can only revise if you agree.

Or you might hope that another agent will tell you more. But, if it's the writing (as opposed to a character or plotline) then you need more than brief feedback from an agent.

I recommend you
a) send to two or three* more agents or publishers, in case it really was subjectivity that got you the rejection in the first place, and
b) get good quality feedback at least on the first three chapters and
c) see if you can work out for yourself where the writing might be lacking.

[*Edited to add: in response to a suggestion in the comments below of sending to many more agents, no, I don't advocate sending to too many all at the same time because what if the first three all give you the same piece of advice and you decide they are right and you want to make the suggested change? You've then got a problem because all the others have still got your first version. Yes, I certainly recommend sending your MS to loads of agents, but not all at the same time.]

I'm sorry that doesn't give you a yes or no answer - but I don't think you expected one, did you?!

Any more questions for Dear Crabbit? See here for details.


Anonymous said...

Dear Crabbit. I am going through the same process and have to say that this seems like a standard rejection where the agent had the time to look at it, rather than the intern. maybe the intern passed it to the agent, which is probably a good sign. Who knows? But only 4 agents? My approach has always been to shotgun the world; I send to at least 15 agents on the basis of Debi Alper's advice: 'If you get 15 rejections, there's probably something wrong with the ms.' I have blogged about all of this frustrating process ( but the bad news is that I have had such a rough ride that I've decided to take control of my own future and go the eBook route.

Thanks for your Twitter book, BTW. It was funny and very useful!

Aldrea Alien said...

Half of my rejections have that 'subjective' line. I tend to find them more in form letters as the personal-feeling ones tend not to have it.
I agree with Nicola, have some people go through the story. Then see if your query could be polished further.
I'd also suggest testing the first section, usually 250 words, in some free contests which offer feedback both from writers and agents.
Who knows, you may even get an agent that way.


My favourite (never had I thought I'd look fondly at a 'no'), and most personal, rejection has this finisher:
"Please do keep me in mind for future projects."

Nicola Morgan said...

Roger - I've added something to address your point about "only four". And yes, I agree it's a very standard rejection. Still better than "not right for our list" though!

Aldrea - yes, that finisher is heartening. They certainly wouldn't say that if there was no hope for you. :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Nicola
I've been offline due to telephone cables down - delighted to see my question in the last post - thank you so much for your very helpful and detailed answer, and to everyone for all their comments. Today's question is also very interesting - I wish the very best of luck to the recipient of the agent's letter. I hope, given the status of the agent and her enthusiasm for the premise of the book, there's some encouragement to be taken from it, even if it looks like a 'form letter' to the more experienced eye? Perhaps reading rejection letters can be a bit subjective, too :-)

Nick Green said...

Why do we call them 'rejections' when they are so much the norm? Really there are only two kinds of replies from agents and publishers: acceptance letters (exceedingly rare) and all the rest.

Thinking of all the rest as 'rejections' is unhelpful, and gets you into negative states of mind - 'Why am I always rejected?' Just accept that 'rejection' letters are the norm, file them and move on.

Anonymous said...

After how many rejection slips would you encourage a wannabe writer to follow the self-publishing root?

Alternatively, how many rejection slips should a wannabe writer get before admitting that he or she is a failure or loser? Not funny!!

Trying to get a publishing contract is like trying to conceive or have a baby. Those who were published without much effort may not know the value of their achievement.

Nicola Morgan said...

Anon - would you mind emailing me with those questions in a bit more detail? Your questions will be treated in complete confidence, I promise. Also, you do realise that I was rejected many many many times before I was published? And that published writers get rejections, too? I had one last week!

I have also blogged about this and such questions before but if you'd email a Dear Crabbit question to me I'd be happy to answer.