Friday, January 30, 2009

Dissecting the Form Rejection Letter

Agents are criticized regularly for the form rejection letters we write. We are told that if any material is requested, a partial or a full, we are obligated to give the writer feedback on why it didn’t work. I have even heard that I shouldn’t waste time on the blog if I’m not willing to give a writer feedback on requested material, and while I can certainly understand a writer’s frustration, what I don’t think many understand is that all too often there really isn’t much feedback to give.

So how can you dissect a form letter and what can you learn from it? Well, let’s look first at the events that got you to the form letter. Presumably before sending along any of your chapters to an agent you started with a query letter. Which means, if the agent requested a partial, the query letter is working for you. It’s well written and the idea is interesting enough to attract an agent’s attention. Good news! That means that step one of your entire submission process is in good shape.

Okay, the second step, you’ve submitted your requested partial and now you’ve gotten a form rejection letter. Since I just read through a stack of requested proposals, the reason I rejected them is fresh in my mind; I didn’t feel enough passion for any of them and that’s ultimately what I’m going to say. With some the writing was good and solid, but the story seemed to be all wrong. With one in particular I tried to think of what to say to the author, but honestly couldn’t come up with anything. The story just didn’t feel right to me. It was slow, but speeding it up wouldn’t be enough of a fix. I’m not sure honestly if it’s the right story. It seems to me that while the idea is interesting, the author went about it in all the wrong way. The characters don’t seem right and neither does the plot. Now of course another agent might love this and be able to sell it, but to me, ultimately, it was just completely off, and unless I have time to run a workshop with this author and shred the manuscript to create something different, I can’t say enough in a letter to give solid advice. All I would end up doing is giving bits and pieces that probably wouldn’t be all that useful.

With another of the proposals I just felt the writing was terrible. The idea had promise, but the writing felt childish and not even close to something that could be published. Is it really fair of me to say that in a letter? And how would I say that? I can say the writing didn’t feel strong enough, but you’ll tell me that’s a form letter. Sure, it sounds form, but it’s true and the letter will probably say that, but it’s not necessarily enough to tell the author how to fix the book because, frankly, I don’t think it’s fixable.

And with another it just fell flat. There was nothing inherently wrong with the book, there was just nothing really right either. In other words, it was boring and not special to me. Again, another agent might very well love it. There was nothing here to tell the author, nothing. The characters were good, the plotting was solid, and the writing was publishable. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t have passion for it.

For me personally, if I have requested a full manuscript I do always or almost always try to give some sort of concrete feedback. It’s easier. I’ve read the partial and know that I like what’s happening thus far, so if I’m rejecting it there are often more specific reasons for doing so. I’m sure that there have been requested fulls that have fallen through the cracks and not received the feedback they deserved, but for the most part you should learn something about why it didn’t work for me.

Giving an author real feedback on a submission is not only time-consuming for us but also can be a risky venture. I know when giving feedback to an author I am opening a dialogue with her, and many times that’s what I’m looking for. I see talent there and want the author to continue to keep me in mind. It also means that many authors will listen to us and only us, and that’s not always right because all agents do honestly have different tastes and opinions and there are many times when the very best thing I can do is just send you back out there to try and find another agent.