One for writers: How not to get a literary agent

This week is the first of my posts about writing (which I plan to make a regular monthly feature), but it is not the first post I intended to write.

I was all set to write a post about something I am struggling with, like over-writing or balancing show and tell (clicking on the links will take you to Emma Darwin’s marvellous blog about these ‘writerly’ issues).

Then, on Saturday morning (which happened to be my birthday), I got an email from an agent requesting a full MS. For my non-writing readers, this means that a literary agent (who is the gatekeeper between writers and publishers) liked the opening three chapters of my novel and would like to read the rest of  the manuscript (MS).

This has happened to me before. The first time, I’d already cast the film adaptation – I was thinking Nicole for the lead – before even sending the MS.

The me today, several rejections later, recognises this request is but a teeny, tiny step on the stairway to publication,  and that the majority of full request do not end up in anything other than, a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks.’

“Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.”  Isaac Asminov

For an agent to take on a novel, they have to really, really love it. After all, they are going to have to convince commissioning editors to throw money at it (printing, cover art, advertising, ISBN) before it makes a penny.

However, as this request is all that is on my mind at the moment (the writer portion of it at least), I decided I would write about the dilemma I now find myself in – purely self-inflicted, I’d like to add.

So, as you will have gathered, I sent the opening three chapters of my completed novel to some literary agents (three in total).

“Finishing a book is just like you took a child out in the back yard and shot it.” Truman Capote

This was mistake no.1 because although the novel was finished. It wasn’t finished.

“Manuscript: something submitted in haste and returned at leisure.”  Oliver Herford

I know why I did it, but psychological insight is of little use if it doesn’t actually alter behaviour. My daughter was about to launch herself into the world, leaving behind a gaping hole, shaped like me. At a subconscious level, I was feeling rejected by my daughter so thought I’d go the whole hog and have my heart stamped on as well.

“That’s the essential goal of the writer: you slice out a piece of yourself and slap it down on the desk in front of you. You try to put it on paper, try to describe it in a way that the reader can see and feel and touch. You paste all your nerve endings into it and then give it out to strangers who don’t know you or understand you.” Stephen Leigh

Almost immediately, I got a request for the full MS from one agent. This led to a mad panic of final editing for typos and punctuation. I also didn’t have any feedback on the plot from my trusted reader/writer friends (mainly because I hadn’t actually sent it to them). Finished and finished are not the same thing.

Too late now. I stalled for a week and then sent it. Those pesky day dreams started all over again. This time I chose Kiera as the lead, but made a note to remind her to pout a little less.

Three days later. REJECTION. 

“Engrave this in your brain: EVERY WRITER GETS REJECTED. You will be no different.” John Scalzi

In one line of type, the agent decimated my plot – though she liked the writing and the idea. Hmmm.

“There is no mistaking the dismay on the face of a writer who has just heard that his brain child is a deformed idiot.”  L. Sprague de Camp

I spent the rest of the day vowing I would never write again, chastising myself for my arrogance in thinking I could write a publishable novel, and general self-flagellation about the wasted years of my life.

That evening, I met up with a dear friend (who writes), who wisely moved our planned  get together from later in the week to ‘right then’. My anguished text: she rejected ME, may have had something to do with it. Three hours and a bottle of red (between us) later, I’d gone from devastation to inspiration. Although, I recognised it was only one agent’s opinion, I’d had a sneaking suspicion the plot was a little too quiet. I’d been toying with another way of telling the same story for months, but you get so far into the book that sometimes it is easier to ignore the ‘little voice’. Anyway, that ‘little voice’ is sometimes just plain nasty and if you listened to it all the time, you’d never write anything, ever.

“I love being a writer. What I can’t stand is the paperwork.” Peter de Vries

 I went home that night and wrote 10,000 words of the ‘new’ novel (now called version 2), and I haven’t stopped since. It’s a mess and will need rewriting and rewriting and… but it’s working. I am in love. 

“Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… ” Michael Crichton

I wish I’d done it months ago.

“If you write one story, it may be bad; if you write a hundred, you have the odds in your favor.” Edgar Rice Burroughs

However… Remember I said I’d sent it to three agents. Guess what? I got a second full request (the Saturday morning one), which leads me to mistake no. 2; maybe I should’ve waited a bit longer before deciding the novel, in its present state, was unpublishable. How many times was Harry Potter rejected? And how about Lord of the Flies and Catch 22?

Which brings me to the dilemma. What to do next?

Both novels are essentially the same idea told in a different way. It is either one or the other, there’s no way both could be published. They have the same characters doing different things. As of right now, most of version 2 is still in my head where, of course, it is perfect.

“The work never matches the dream of perfection the artist has to start with.” William Faulkner

Do I want to send the first novel, when I think I am writing something much better?

“The measure of artistic merit is the length to which a writer is willing to go in following his own compulsions.” John Updike

Or am I being blinded by new love and rejecting a perfectly publishable novel, which took years to get right?

“Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead.” Gene Fowler

In love with my new baby and contemptuous of my ugly older child, I replied to the agent by asking her to consider my second novel instead. As it isn’t written yet, I was only able to send her the briefest of pitches (like the blurb on the back of a book). I then went onto to explain that I didn’t want to send her the first novel (although I would if she insisted), which I had waxed lyrical about only two weeks before; and could she possibly wait until Christmas, when I promised her version 2 would be finished.

This leads me to mistake no. 3. I pressed SEND!

I await the inevitable reply, which I think will go something like this.

Dear Juliet,

If you don’t love your work, how can you expect me to? No, I do not want to the see the full of the novel, you are now disowning. And no, I do not want to see the full of the novel you haven’t even written yet, because:

1) it is not written yet; and,

2) who’s to say you won’t reject it like you did the first one.

I wish you luck in finding your misplaced sanity, please don’t contact me again.

Ms Literary Agent

Anyone else shot themselves in the foot recently? It doesn’t have to be writing related.

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14 thoughts on “One for writers: How not to get a literary agent”

  1. This is a really cool piece of writing, I especially enjoyed the quotes peppered through it. I think you were very honest to the agent.

    The whole idea of rewriting an entire novel is something that hugely turns me off.. and I know it’s something I will have to overcome at some point.

    Best of luck with your new novel as you progress through it.

  2. I loved/hated reading your very well-worded blog. You articulate our pain so well! I know you from authonomy and you are dead serious about writing and do the work. My little story involves sending a query to a wonderful and suitable agent. I edited the query (from an earlier one to someone else) to fit her. Two hours after pressing ‘Send’ I realized I had deleted and not re-written the sentence where I tell her my book is #1 of a trilogy and that book #2 is written through Ch. 11! I am my own biggest screw-up.

  3. thanks for sharing that Pat. You get so nervous when you are about to submit that you forget how to use a keyboard (or I do). I once sent half an email to an agent and no attachment (twice), though it was a new laptop, but still, how inept did I look. Needless to say he didn’t request the full.

  4. I too enjoy the way you broke up the flow with pithy quotes. (Too many of my own blog posts turn into long slogs, so I appreciate seeing examples of how to do it better.)

    The question of how many times classics were initially rejected has to be balanced against practical considerations such as how many years remain in our lives. I reached a point at which it became evident that agents did not merit the aggravation. (Making that decision might have been when I shot myself in the foot, but what’s done is done.) FWIW, here’s a website that helped greatly with identifying those likely to be most reasonable: http://querytracker.net/

  5. Hi Steve, you are doing very well without an agent. I absolutely love your book as you know. I didn’t know you were blogging,will add you to my blogroll and keep up with it what is happening next for ‘What about the Boy?’

  6. I too loved your essay. But, just because I can sometimes be annoying, I loved the quotes but found them distracting. Yours was a very personal story that, I guess, only a writer would understand. My first rejection came when I submitted a book (a how to or how not too) on a particularly difficult professional path. The publisher specialised in this type of book and I felt that my book was a fresh approach to the normally somewhat dry version. He didn’t agree. This was my ego, my personality, and the sum total of what I had learned in a profession where practically everybody fails and I had succeeded. Add to this my teaching background and I believed that anyone who read this book would be smarter and more able to succeed. He didn’t agree! I had been writing on forums for a number of years and I gathered together all the stuff that was very popular and built a book around it. Submitted it, even did the artwork. He didn’t agree. As a result of my badly bruised ego, I did not write another word for two years………. but I got over it and wrote another non fiction book which has done mildly well and now my fingers are sore because I love this infuriating thing called writing. Thank you for writing this essay. Your are very encouraging. Terry

  7. I like the valuable info you provide in your articles.
    I’ll bookmark your blog and check again here regularly. I am quite certain I’ll learn
    many new stuff right here! Best of luck for the next!

  8. Hi Louis, thanks for stopping by – this blog is a bit of a mish-mash, some posts are about writing, some about my family, lots about Agnus Castus, and some about education. Use the categories if you want to find all the writing related ones.

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