Thursday, 14 April 2011


A comment from a blog-reader recently needs answering. He said he'd been told during one-to-one feedback sessions (with an agent, I think), "No one can sell medical thrillers, so write something else." He went on to say that in some ways he preferred this to being told that his writing wasn't good enough and that he found it helpful because he had "a better idea of what I'm aiming at - something where they at least reject the genre rather than the writing."

Back to that in a moment.

This links to something else that happened recently. I was chatting with a senior commissioning editor at a major children's publisher and when she heard I was doing an event on how to write for children that day she said, "Tell them not to do anything with vampires. People are always sending us vampire stuff and we don't want any more."

So, obediently, I relayed this message during my talk. I thought I noticed one member of the audience blanche and when it came to Q&A she asked, "That editor who didn't want vampires - was that [name redacted]?" I replied that it was. She blanched further. She told me afterwards that she was actually seeing this same editor for a meeting later that day, AND it was a vampire story she was pitching. Anyway, when I saw her again later, she was beaming. "She's asked to see the whole thing," she said. "She's interested!" Yep, the editor who said she didn't want any more vampires was interested in a vampire story.

Which just goes to show a very important truth: publishers (and therefore agents) do not reject a genre, unless of course it's actually a genre they specifically don't handle. They reject the book or the writing. Almost always. You can overcome any amount of tiredness or disillusion with great, sparkling writing, a wonderful voice, a new take on an old theme. And the easiest way for an agent or publisher to reject a story they don't think has those elements is to say, "We're not publishing vampires any more," or "No one's selling medical thrillers."

They might mean it's difficult to sell more vampires or it's difficult to sell medical thrillers and that therefore the writing has to be even better, but if you get it right someone will buy it.

However, having your writing rejected does NOT necessarily mean that you're not a good enough writer, only that you didn't get it right this time.

It's all in the story.


Miriam Drori said...

It's like those replies to job applications: "Your talents don't fit are current requirements." Great post, as always.

rodgriff said...

OK I own up, it was me. In fact two agents said the same thing, both at the York writing conference, at which you spoke.
One actually emailed me afterwards as follows:
Dear Rod,

Thank you for taking the time to have a one-to-one with me on Saturday in York. The D.H.H. literary agency is very small agency and therefore I really have to love the work that I represent. As I explained, I don’t feel that there is a demand in the market for a medical thriller at the current time and that is why I was unable to look at your novel further.

I wish you the very best with your writing career.

With all best wishes
(Agent's name redacted)

You seem to imply that I should take this to mean that he didn't like the book and the bit about medical thrillers was intended to let me down lightly. Actually at the time I rather liked the guy, if he was speaking half truths he is wasted as an agent, he should be in Hollywood.

Let me be clear, I don't have any difficulty with anyone saying that my writing, whether this book or any other, can be improved. I paid for my place at the conference in order to get honest feedback, not coded messages. Should I ask for my money back?
You spoke at the conference, was your talk full of coded messages?
I suppose it is possible that you were the only honest person there - well you and me.
If anyone wants to read some or all of my book and decide for themselves, gmail me.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hello Rod and thanks for coming back! It's a very fine line because the thing is that whether an agent/publisher is going to take a book is a personal, subjective judgement, not a black and white, mathematical, tick-box thing. So, sometimes it *can* be a way of "letting you down gently" or a "coded message" but it's more likely not to be in this case. "No one's taking medical thrillers any more" is a loose way of saying "it's very hard to sell medical thrillers." It would be an exaggeration to say that *literally no one* is taking them - and we often say "no one2 or "everyone" when we don't literally mean that - but very possibly honest to say that it's so difficult to sell them that the work has got to be exceptional and stand out in some other way that transcends the apparent unpopularity of the genre.

So, it's most likely that no one was being dishonest at all - and I certainly wasn't! - just that you've written something which is everything the agents said but also still not quite tipping over into sellable in a difficult genre.

Does that make it clearer?

rodgriff said...

Sure. I guess, probably like many other people, what I wanted to know was should I write differently or write different.
I am writing a YA book, which is different, but I may also start calling my other books environmental, rather than medical.
One of the joys of having worked in public health is that you can come at things from a lot of angles. It's generic, rather than genre-ic. Oh that's awful, shall I leave it in? It was my birthday yesterday, I'm old and doddery, what the heck.

Nicola Morgan said...

Rod, I sense and completely identify with your frustration. I sensed it when I spoke to you at the conference, too. I suspect that you are at that deeply frustrating and tantalsing stage in which your writing and book are almost there but not quite. Of course, I can't tell you what aspects are preventing publication, because I haven't seen your writing (and I know you said we could gmail you to see, but the problem is that it takes many hours to give constructive feedback - usually two days for me to read and report on a novel) but I do very much sympathise with your situation. The thing is, too, that it's very difficult for an outsider to say what you need to do - and those 10 minute one-to-one sessions are good at saying when something is dramatically wrong but less good at getting at the nuance.

Sorry. :( Oh, happy birthday yesterday - you are allowed to make a terrible but clever wordplay!

Liz Harris said...

An intersting blog, and quite thought-provoking. Thank you for it.


Nicola said...

As always, an excellent post. I just love this blog!

Whirlochre said...

I wonder how things work if you're an actual vampire who can't spell?

catdownunder said...

I was told by a local children's librarian not to write "adventure stories because children do not read them any more". So, "What do they read?" I asked. I was told "Fantasy, vampires - that sort of thing and of course we make sure they get the other things they should be reading so that they learn about social issues like the environment and the war in Afghanistan."
My response to that was, "Then they need some straightforward adventure stories as well, just for the sheer pleasure of reading them."
I am never, I hope, going to forget the child who looked at me and said, "I'm sick of AIDS and death and divorce" - I would be too.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Another great post that has me thinking.

In an earlier post, you mentioned something like, when an agent picks up your manuscript, their first thought is 'can I sell this?'

If a genre is 'hot right now' they may be excited about it and might know exactly which editor at which house will love it.

But - like the vampire novels - if it's a crowded marketplace, or a genre on the wane (sci-fi is always quoted, even though I love sci-fi) the writing has to be absolutely insanely magically great. And it needs to bring something extra new and wonderful to the table on top of that.

I mean, every book should be like this anyway, but when there's a crowded market or a teensy tiny market, your book has to be a stand-out.

That's the advice I keep seeing on agent and editor blogs anyway. Which doesn't help at all when you feel like you're getting coded messages and polite refusals.

Jim Breslin said...

Good topic. Reminds me of this quote from Roger Ebert on films. You can substitute the word book for film or movie.

"A film is not about its subject. It’s about how its about its subject. A subject is neutral. People don’t understand that. When people say, whenever anybody makes a statement, I don’t like to go to movies about and then fill in the blank…my response is, anyone who makes that statement is an idiot."

I do believe agents and publishers are focused on what they believe will sell. They have to take a gamble and can only lay down so many bets. Sometimes they miss a great story because they don't believe the genre will sell. Wasn't JK Rowling passed up by eight publishers?

Here's the source for the Ebert quote.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

An interesting and thought provoking blog article. I too have been puzzled by the comments folks make about what is the best theme/topic to write about. Go for what interests YOU is probably the best advice I ever had. At least then you can put your heart and soul into it knowing you are familiar with your subject matter inside out! having said that, I'm still looking to find a home for my latest thriller...
Great post!

Unknown said...

I assumed that publishers didn't really want vampire stories to come in right now because it takes 2-3 years to get published, and since vampires are really popular right now, they'll be out of fashion by the time of publication and a lot of readers will be sick of them. This was disappointing for me, because all I've ever really written was vampire stories, but I've decided to hold onto them for a while, and work at make them as good as possible, since I can't really see anyone picking up vampire stories right now.

Anne A said...

My take on this has been along the lines of Ebony's -- I suspect that if somebody gets a fairly generic (lets use vampires) story they *think* they're rejecting it because vampires are overdone. But if they get something amazing written, or unique in some way, the fact that it's vampires may not even register -- or it might be a plus, because vampires are overdone, but this one is so different it would stand out...

There used to be a fantasy magazine whose editor said "no dragons or princesses", and yet half the published stories tended to have a dragon or a princess, or both.

My plan is to keep writing what I enjoy, and aim to make it the best it can be. If I pick a genre because that's what people are buying, not because it's what I want to write from my heart, then I probably won't do as good a job. Making something not of my interest "good enough" is probably just as much work as making my (overused) interest "better than anything", and a lot less fun...

Theresa Milstein said...

I'd rather have real reasons for rejection than vague ones.

Nicola Morgan said...

Theresa (and others) - ah, but there are very good reasons why you will usually only get vague reasons. I'm going to blog about this very soon, because some of the comments here really need to be addressed specifically and clearly and honestly. I promise I will do so!

thing is, we need to realise that agents and editors smiply can't (usually) take the many, many hours required to give very detailed feedback. When they try to give any concrete answers they lay themselves open to negative comeback from the writer. I know agents who have been told to rot in hell...

Also, we must never forget how subjective an agent's response is (and must be.) Anyway, let me come back to this another time.

Roxy Carmichael said...

Very interesting post! That BS about "No one's selling medical thrillers" etc is just a way of letting authors down gently! That said I'm amazed anyone's publishing more vampire books because the teen section at my local bookshelf has literally a hundred shelves full of this genre. How much blood sucking literature do teens need? lol

Sally Zigmond said...

When I was young and green I was determined only to marry a man who was an avid novel and poetry reader, had straight fair hair and was laid back (with a GSOH, of course.)

I've been married for over 3o years to a man who has dark curly hair (what's left of it) and who doesn't see the point of fiction, thinks all poetry is pretentious and is very very driven. (But he has a GSOH.)

Which goes to show that it's all about what's inside. So if the something about a manuscript grabs any agent, despite it being the 'wrong' genre or covers an overworked topic, they will grab it with both hands. As I did. Or not.

Don't angst about why you are rejected. There are no rules. It's all subjective, anyway. Sometimes the man you adore from afar is not in the least interested. That's life.

Kath McGurl said...

Sally, LOL - same here but I did slightly better than you. I wanted someone tall and blond who liked skiing. I ended up with someone tall and dark who likes skiing. Not bad.

Good post, Nicola, and chimes strongly with what I've seen and heard many times in the world of womag writing. One magazine often rejects stories with the words 'it's a well-worn theme'. I got that once when I'd submitted a story about Fermat's Last Theorem. Well, I have NEVER seen a story in any womag about Fermat's Last Theorem *rolls eyes*. That phrase is of course a coded way of saying 'we don't like this story enough to buy it'.

Scooter Carlyle said...

My understanding is that if one wants to write using very popular character types, such as vampires or zombie slayers, one needs to handle it in a new way to make it stand out from the rest of the pack.

Ebony McKenna. said...

Coming back for another bite.

Something else I've seen and heard many times. No matter what is written in the rejection letter, a rejection is a rejection.

They hurt like fury and make me weep and shake my fist at the sky, but it is what it is.

Linda Strachan said...

Yes, Ebony, a rejection letter is just that, but it should also be a nudge to go back and look again - an opportunity to challenge yourself to re evaluate your submission with fresh eyes and see what you can do to make it better, to check and see if you have sent it to the right person, that the subject is approached in a fresh and original manner and is exciting from the word go.

Yes, rejection is painful and can feel crushing but if you are determined to succeed you have to - in the words of the old song - Pick yourself up,
Dust yourself off,
Start all over again!

Kittie Howard said...

A very interesting post and comments. Thanks! I'm a bit confused as to why anyone would think a book didn't involve the bottom line. Shakespeare wrote to make money. He hadn't a clue English classes would follow suit.

If I get this right, what you're saying is if the writer has a better moustrap, the agents will follow?

Anonymous said...

I have a contract to write a series about, er, vampires. So they are not totally dead. But - I am *embarrassed* to admit I am writing vampire novels. Hence this comment is anonymous (but crabbit knows who I am!)

Anonymous said...

Great post, as always, Nicola. This is akin to writing in an impacted category - vampire romance, medical thrillers, women's books that deal with divorce/midlife crisis, nonfiction subjects such as Alzheimer's, bipolar disorder, death, etc.

At first blush, we see this genre/category and feel our fingers reaching for the rejection letter. However, those genres/categories are still seeing new works, so it boils down to a couple things - the unique qualities of the story and the quality of the writing.

If you want to write medical thrillers or vamp romance because they are burning a hole in your soul, then I think you should write them...UNDERSTANDING that you face stiff competition. To me, there's nothing worse than being told to write in another genre for which you have no affinity for.

Noree Cosper said...

This is reassuring. To me it means that the agent or editor will evaluate my writing instead of giving an offhand rejection due to genre. Even more I must rely on my own merit. Great post!

Unknown said...

Cool post. Having had my FIRST experience with an agent recently, I did realise at the time that what I wanted: "It's great send me the whole thing/It's pants don't ever write again." wasn't going to happen; that like me at a parent teacher conference, the language is cloaked and gentle. Thanks for uncovering the true meaning.