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True confessions of a girl who writes dirty books--and loves it!

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Decoding Disappointment: Accepting Rejection

Rejection sucks. Everyone knows this. It's hard to hear a 'no'. And when that 'no' is in response to a creative effort we've slaved over for months and months, at the expense of time with our families, exercising, Boston Legal, etc., it's particularly hard to hear. We tend to take it personally. Which is why I was so impressed with the selfless courage of the author who sent in this rejection letter from a literary agent. It actually needs no decoding--if every agent and editor were this transparent, there'd be no need for this little weekly series of mine. However, as you will see, there's a difference between being direct and to the point, and being rude.

The below letter is an example to all you junior agents/editors out there of what NOT to do. I'm going to let Unknown Agent (U.A.) here speak for him/herself. Well, sort of. I'm going to interject. And p.s., I double checked--the letter has been reproduced exactly as it was sent out by U.A.


Thank you so much for sending the me initial materials of your manuscript, XXXXXX.
[This is not a strong opening. Life is full of mistakes, but letters don't have to be. All it takes is a quick onceover before you hit print.] Although I thought that the premise was great and from the synopsis and your query, the characters sounded intriguing, I just felt that the voice of the story didn't fit. Needless to say, I am going to pass on this manuscript. [Needless to say? Really?]

When you described this story with a "chick-lit" tone to it, I was expecting something full of light and energetic dialogue and narration. Although the characters seem to be going through experiences that would normally be found in this style of writing, I felt that the voice was just too dry and sterile. In fact, as I read the story, the best analogy I could come up with was DRAGNET. [I'm not sure why U.A. feels the need to share the clever DRAGNET analogy with the author, in that I don't see what the author is supposed to take away from that. It's confusing because U.A. seems to be saying that the author's voice is "dry and sterile" rather than fun--but wasn't DRAGNET a comedy? In my opinion, comparisons are always tricky, and should be avoided by authors when pitching ("I'm the next Nora Roberts!") and by agents and editors when rejecting ("This reads like Robert Ludlum crossed with porn.")]

Lilly seemed to talk about everything like she was writing a catalogue or instructional manual. All of her descriptions of everything that went on around her just did not seem natural. [This is redundant. In place of this sentence, I might have tried to give the author a hint on how she could improve. By going to a restaurant and writing down the conversations of people at other tables, to get a feel for realistic dialogue, for example.] She describes her gun with the full description, her card down to the year and make? Just too much. [At last, a couple of specific examples of what U.A. is talking about. But this is also problematic, at least for me. Not being much of a gun person, I could be mistaken, but does U.A. perhaps mean that the author describes her car's make and model, rather than her card? Two typos in a letter this short speak of carelessness.]

I wish I had better news but the voice just got you!

Best of luck with your writing though!

["The voice just got you." Got her what? A snide, condescending rejection from an agent she's now regretting querying at all?]

The author realized immediately upon reading this letter that she was better off without U.A.'s representation. A good agent or editor understands that all of this creative stuff is subjective. It's in the eye of the reader. There are no absolutes, and no agent is such a big deal that his/her opinion is unassailable. The agent is, of course, perfectly within his/her rights to dislike a submission. It happens all the time. But the author has a right to expect to a modicum of professional courtesy. I suppose one could argue that at least U.A. sent a personalized rejection. However, I believe U.A. may have misunderstood, because this letter feels more personal than personalized. The generalizations in the third paragraph are almost gleeful, as U.A. expounds on the problems with the manuscript. Generalizations are ineviteble in anything but a ten page revision letter; again, it's the tone that gives U.A. away. Our intrepid author knew she'd had a lucky escape. The letter is so poorly written, so unprofessional in tone, she can feel free to ignore it. Why on earth would she care about U.A.'s opinion? In a way, U.A.'s writing style did her a favor, because it spared her any disappointment she might otherwise have felt.

Bottom line: when you query an agent, you're not begging for scraps. You are essentially interviewing someone who will one day be working for you. You, the author, deserve respect. Anyone who writes a letter this dismissive and mean isn't worth your time.


At 8:10 AM, Blogger Mel Francis said...

2 things really bothered me about this letter. (aside from the poor grammar and spelling, which just baffles me...this is supposed to be an agent, right?)

1: Needless to say... Wow, how infuriatingly condescending. It's like U.A. is slapping the author on the hand for having the nerve to query with such inadequate material. As if it should've been obvious that this would get rejected.

2: The voice just got you... I'm with you, Louisa. Got you what?

U.A. didn't connect with the voice or the characters. Why didn't U.A. just say that?

I didn't connect with your voice as I had hoped.

That says the same thing without being mean and hurtful. And, needless to say, that would be U.A. taking responsibility for not liking the story instead of making the author feel inadequate for having the nerve to query.

*grumble grumble*

At 8:18 AM, Blogger Gina Black said...

Actually, Dragnet was a drama. Even if it looks camp now, when it originally broadcast it wasn't.

who hopes she doesn't query that agent...

At 8:29 AM, Blogger Louisa Edwards said...

Good to know! Thanks, Gina. I think I was going off of the fact that the movie remake they did recently starred Dan Aykroyd.

So I guess this means U.A. was being intentionally insulting. Nice.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger Maureen McGowan said...

This is the sort of letter that can be crippling...

On the other hand (playing devil's advocate, here) it's the kind of letter that can cause a breakthrough for a writer... Tell her things even her closest friends are afraid to, make her push a little harder to make her prose zippier? (is that a word?)

My very first rejection came from an agent who said my writing was "flat in places". It was. And I've improved... I hope... Flat, dry writing is something I always watch for, now.

But you're right to point out that U.A. could have just said what the U.A. who rejected my first ms said -- "too dry" -- without going into all the gleeful, cutting detail intended more to hurt than to help...

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Kate Pearce said...


At 10:12 AM, Blogger Christine said...

It is hard to tell someone you don't connect with their writing. But it is a fine line between being constructive and being harsh. And that was harsh.

But as Maureen said, maybe it's a blessing in disguise. Plus I don't think you would want them as your agent anyway :).

At 11:22 AM, Blogger MariaGeraci said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:24 AM, Blogger MariaGeraci said...

Last comment deleted for expletive use...No, really, One can only wonder if UA corresponds in this same manner with editors. It's a scary thought if she/he has any clients.

At 1:22 PM, Blogger Debra Parmley said...

This agent took a superior tone with the author, which IMHO is a key indicator of what type of relationship the author would be getting into if he/she signed with the agent.

I sometimes ask myself if agents and editors realize we are also evaluating them? Is it any wonder authors change agents or houses?

This author is lucky to be turned down before it turned into a bad situation.

And very brave to be the first to volunteer! Bravo to you! Be as daring in your career and good things will happen!

At 3:21 PM, Blogger Louisa Edwards said...

Honesty is good. Even brutal honesty, as some have pointed out, can be a service to the author, forcing her to see something in her writing that she's never confronted before.

But it's all in the tone. Sugar-coating isn't necessary, but in my opinion, basic manners are.

At 4:09 PM, Blogger Mia Romano said...

I agree Louisa. Basic manners and professionalism go a long way!

At 5:07 PM, Blogger Ellen said...

Condescending is a great word for the letter, Mel. I agree.

I've never minded constructive criticism, even when it's painful, if delivered professionally and with courtesy. This letter fell short ("The voice just got you"). Blek.

Bravo to the writer who submitted the letter here. And, nice job decoding, Louisa!

At 5:03 PM, Blogger Diana Peterfreund said...

I wouldn't call the Dragnet movie "recent." Wasn't it from the early 80s? I remember Tom Hanks being Waaaaay young. Like "bachelor party" young. It was a comedy though. Very dumb. The TV show was heaps better. So was the radio show, which came before the TV show and is often replayed on NPR.

I agree that there were many things wrong with the letter, but if an editor told me to improve my dialogue by going to restaurants and listening in on people talking, I think I'd feel every bit as insulted. ;-)


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