Friday, May 25, 2012

Reject me if you will, but publish my novel

The vast majority of fiction writers, both actual and imaginary, have had to cope with the ineluctable, unequivocal, occasionally debilitating reality of rejection at the hands of literary agents. The old saying circulating around would-be writer's bars, usually late at night, after enough alcohol has been consumed to cauterize even the most glaring psychic wounds, is that if you're not rejected a lot - read as, A LOT - you can never fully appreciate the dedication, perseverance, intestinal grit and sheer masochistic obsessiveness required to eventually see your work in published book form.
Granted, the writers who say this have generally been rejected A LOT.

Literary agents, for those of you not familiar with the species, represent a kind of collective interface (some would say impenetrable barrier) between the writing and publishing worlds. They tend to be extremely picky, relentlessly subjective (i.e. arbitrarily fickle) and rarely amenable to clever counter-argument - a bit like children, but with a great deal more power. The agent interface is more accurately viewed as a very small aperture through which you must accurately project your manuscript in order to reach the promised land of barely mediocre book sales. Aim, needless to say, is critical. 

In all fairness, however, agents do not have it particularly easy. The average literary agency receives an enormous number of submissions; one agent confided to me that her agency gets "like a million a month." (Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration) Still, considering this sort of submission submersion, it's not so surprising that agents will typically spend no more than 30 seconds reading and evaluating the book proposal you've spent two agonizing weeks composing. A proposal, lest we forget, based on a novel it took you a year to write.
Does this seem fair, you may be inclined to ask?

Notwithstanding the fact that there is very little fair about life on Earth, even less within the publishing industry, try putting yourself in an agent's shoes. They might as well be working in a landfill for all the garbage that gets dumped on them every day. The simple, heartless truth of the matter is that the vast majority of people submitting book proposals can't write. They have no business even trying.  Despite utopian claims by fuzzy-minded utilitarians, we do not live in a world where everyone can do everything. Writing fiction is not the same as learning to ride a bicycle. And it's not as if agents don't warn the writing public upfront. Check out any literary agency website. Their current rejection rate is the first thing you notice, posted in bold face, sometimes flashing, highlighted by quivering lightening bolts, or skulls and crossbones. For "friendlier" agencies, the rejection percentage is usually around 95%. The more hardline, no nonsense pros proudly proclaim a rate of 99.9%. And yet hordes of would be novelists remain adamant that they undoubtedly belong in this one-tenth-of-one-percent elite. How hard can it be, they ask? It's just about words, sticking them into sentences, right? I know how to do that. 

Is it any wonder that literary agents are forced to pursue their profession with what can only be described as ruthless, totalitarian-like efficiency, that agency shredders are running 24 hours a day? But let's assume for the moment that the seemingly impossible does happen; something about your proposal causes a single neuron in an agent's brain to momentarily flicker. She may also experience a sub-sonic humming in one ear. You have passed the first hurdle and are due an actual reply.
Most likely something along the lines of ... "I am vaguely intrigued, in a clearly minimalist sort of way, by your proposal. Please send me the first 15 sentences of your manuscript."

And you're thinking ... huh? 15 sentences, did she say?  Your manuscript, after all, is 437 pages long. How can the sheer lugubrious brilliance of it be comprehended in a mere 15 sentences? In human terms, of course, it can't be. But these are literary agents. They have transcended the general human condition of befuddled indecisiveness, possess intuitive insight rivaling that of a Zen master, instantly know things with a quirky, eerie confidence that most of us can only fantasize about.

A real life example may suffice:  After submitting a proposal for a novel, I received a reply asking to see the first 2 pages of the manuscript. A short time after sending my 2 pages, I got an e-mail from the agent in question, stating that while she thought the book had potential, she was somewhat dismayed by my apparent inability to convey any sense of depth regarding the main character. Who is he really, she wanted to know? What makes him tick? ( true story)
I, of course, wrote back thanking her for her cogent comments - as a rule, agents don't do this - but also couldn't refrain from asking what seemed like the obvious question: "Are you willing to at least concede the possibility that the intricate and mysterious depths of my main character might be revealed somewhere beyond page 2?"

Still waiting on an answer to that.....

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