Thursday, January 15, 2009

Be Careful of Assumptions

Regularly on the blog, in message boards, and even at conferences I hear similar complaints from authors, “that agents say they’re looking for something different, but really aren’t,” authors who feel the only reason their works are being rejected is because of the shortsightedness of agents. I hear other complaints as well, that a work is rejected because no one likes a tough female character or no one likes a soft-hearted hero. What I have always wanted to ask these authors is whether or not multiple agents have told them this specifically. In other words, do you know for a fact that your work is being rejected because of one character or because your idea is too different?

Be careful when looking at rejections that you aren’t putting words into an agent’s mouth. We reject things for many, many reasons and, as you well know, we don’t always share those reasons. Sometimes we don’t tell you because there are too many to share, sometimes because the answer is nothing more than that it felt ho-hum. Sometimes an idea that might seem very different to you is one we’ve seen hundreds of times, and know isn’t marketable (like cloning Jesus, Greek god romance heroes, or insurance adjustor sleuths). By making assumptions about the reasons your work might be getting rejections is only narrowing your own possibilities. Instead of taking a look at your query letter or work as a whole and seeing what might need to be fixed you’ve decided that it’s the fault of agents everywhere and clearly your work is perfect.

Sure there are times when we all might be shortsighted, but keep in mind we see and hear things every day that give us the opinions we have. Try not to assume that a form rejection is anything other than a form rejection. Getting published is a learning experience and a lot of trial and error, as well as luck and timing. There are enough people out in the publishing world who will gladly make it difficult for you, so don’t be one of those who makes it difficult for yourself. Keeping your mind open to change and all possibilities is what will also help you maintain a career.



Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, on a forum I belong to an author wished agents/editors would red line the point where someone lost interest in the story they've rejected.
Luckily, we have editors who will address these subjects. One said it would begin the process of "Why there?" LOL.
The hardest thing for me is not to read anything into a rejection. Form rejections are difficult because there's no feedback, no "fix" for me to tackle. And after editing something, sending it to crit partners and tweaking it, a form rejections sends me back to the drawing board.
But that's all part of being a writer. I've had nothing but form rejections, but I grit my teeth and get on with the next one.
I'm not complaining. Form rejections tell me I haven't rocked the writing yet. They tell me I still have work to do. They keep me striving.
I had an author friend remind me yesterday (I had two rejections in one day) that there's no way to know why I was rejected. I could ruminate on it for days and it would be any different in the end.
One thing I'm pretty sure of. It's going to take talent, hard work AND a little luck to get that little spot on a client's list.
This is timely for me. It's a waste of time to try and read into a form rejection.
Thanks Jessica.

Mark Terry said...

It's generally a mistake to read too much into the rejection comments by either editors or agents. They're not tea leaves, there are no mysteries there.

I didn't like your character, but liked the plot.
I didn't like the plot, but liked the character.
Doesn't seem commercial enough.
Seems too commercial.
Lacks tension.
Although very good, doesn't seem strong enough to stand out in a tough market.

I can go on and I've obviously received all these comments and more--often about the same manuscript.

For your sanity and because it's the most true, you need to interpret 99% of all rejections, no matter what they say as meaning:

On this given day, this particular editor or agent did not want to acquire your manuscript.

Suzan Harden said...

LOL - I think we're talking about something inbred into the human race. The "But WHY?"s start approximately when a human learns to speak. In some cases, they never stop...

Word Ver.: pauft-the sound a disgruntled writer makes when receiving a rejection

Kimber Li said...

Great points! I make assumptions like these all the time, but not because of rejections. Although, I've had my fair share. I make them based on what ends up in the new publishing deals, which clients are taken on by agents, and the New and Upcoming Releases. When I look at that, I see nothing like any of the stories I write. I sigh and conclude I either have to accept conforming to the formulas and trends or go back to writing only for my personal enjoyment. Short-sighted? Heck, yeah! But, it's difficult not to be short-sighted when I can only see a short distance in front of me.

Anonymous said...

Greaet post!

I think for some of us, though, it's not that we are blaming an agent or editor, it's that we have a publishable book, but no one agrees what is good/bad about it, so we wouldn't know how to go about a rewrite.

I've gotten rejection letters from EDITORS -- for the same agented book -- that were enough to make me crazy:

*This character's broken English was so well done. Really perfect.
*This character's broken English was really distracting.

*I loved the pace, but the characters fell a little flat.
*The characters were fresh and three dimensional, but the pace left me unengaged.

*I loved the voice, but not the ending.
*I don't care for the voice, but please tell the author that ending was fabulous.

Everything is subjective. The book isn't and will never be sold (agent stopped submitting it).

What can I take from this, when no one agrees in the way a book is good or bad? I've taken nothing from the whole experience, except that the only opinions that matter is the one rejecting you at the moment. Not blaming anyone, I'm just sayin'.

me said...

It's a general rule for me to blame other people for my mistakes and short-comings.

It's much easier to think everyone else in the world is an idiot for not liking my newest and greatest idea (damn, someone stole my cloning Jesus book idea) than to think that I'm an idiot for coming up with it.

But seriously, I think you make a valid point, but writers have to have a certain amount of (reasonable) confidence in their work to keep pushing it until it sells, as well as the ability to avoid assumptions.

Great post!

Author Kelly Moran said...

This is a really great post, Jessica. I always said the easiest part for a writer is writing, as there is a story in our heads constantly. It's the perfect synopsis and query and standing out from the rest that's tough. You live and learn. One agent may not like it...or ten agents... but there may just be one out there!

Anonymous said...

I was reading Miss Snarks critic session for opening pages of mss and you will find no one agrees on what they like and/or want to read. Some of the obvious mistakes people ignored, just like the query letters Jessica critiqued. Obviously, very few people agree on what they want to see in a book. So how are we supposed to know when to give up or what to change, or anything at all? I guess you just query away until your fingers fall off, or you get lucky? because honestly what an agent wants to see, may not be what the public wants. Jessica was talking about the things she has seen non stop; like cloning Jesus, Greek god romance heroes, or insurance adjustor sleuths. I haven't seen those on the market. So could it possibly be we as authors would like to read about those things that is why we write them? After all who reads what is actually on the market more than authors? If you know there is another book being published just like mine, please tell me. (Who knows mine might be a lot better!)

Anonymous said...

Yes, very frustrating not to have any idea why a ms. is rejected, esp when agents refuse to comment. All we need is a clue, and other writers or friends are often too polite to tell us.

To Anon: 9:49: Never say never. What's weird is that with enough time and practice, sometimss you can figure out what's wrong all by yourself. A light goes off and the problems suddenly become clear...

Michelle D. Argyle said...

Great post. As I head into the land of rejection, I'll remember to keep things simple and focused. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:13 --

(I'm anon 9:49)

Thank you for saying that. Except I'll need a whole other agent.

Which leads me to a great question for Jessica: How do you know when to leave your agent? How many books do you let an agent try to sell (that they, as a top agent think are publishable) before you jump ship? Have authors left you after not selling a number of books and gone on to sell with a different agent? Not that you were bad and the other agent was good, but their approach worked better for that author's books?

Anonymous said...

This is interesting and one of the paradoxes of publishing. Writers need feedback; we all (should) know this, so we give the manuscript to critic groups, writer friends, strangers, neighbors. They all love it, so we agonize over a query, synopsis, do hours of research and then send it to the appropriate agents only to hear some variant on, 'I'm not the right agent for this work'.
After awhile, yeah, you do, really, just want to know why. I can't speak for all writers, but I can speak for myself. This go around, I've received many hand written rejections. I’m calling it a step up. ; ) But none of them gave me anything to go on. If an agent or two would have said the main character was weak, she's axed or buffed up, but edited. The idea is over done? I'll put it on a cyber shelf and work on something else until the idea comes back around. Even ‘it’s ho-hum’ would have been welcome. I'm not afraid of rewrite. If it will sell, I'll do it. The problem is that I don't know why the manuscript is falling just short of ‘I want it”. I watch the market, I see trends, but only after they’ve started and by then, there are 50 books waiting in the publishing wings. I’m not complaining, and I understand with the stacks of queries or even partials an agent receives in a day, a critique is not possible. It is what it is. Sometimes I think the publishing world is set up, by necessity, to discourage anyone without the need to write hard coded into their DNA. Thanks Jessica, your posts are always wonderful, informative and encouraging. It’s agents like you that make the process worth it and keep hope alive. No, I haven’t submitted anything to you…genuine sentiment. : )

Kimber Li said...

In other words, it's difficult not to make assumptions when no other explanation is forthcoming.

Unless an aspiring author can pay for a professional critique, she's on her own. Even if she's lucky enough to have mentors, their time is extremely limited.

Kate Douglas said...

I know I've been guilty of this, wanting a reason I could pinpoint for the reason something didn't sell. It's always easier to say "They don't want" than "I didn't do..." I was in a chat last night with another author, Angela Knight, speaking to a group of writers, and the one thing we both agreed on was the fact that as authors we need to learn to leave our egos at the door and take responsibility for our work. Author JR Ward says it in her wonderful new book "The Black Dagger Brotherhood, An Insider's Guide," which is as much about the process of writing as her very popular series--she says "own your own work." You can't blame someone else for your success or lack of it. I highly recommend Ward's book, even if you're not into her paranormal romance series--her writing tips really resonated with me, but "own your own work" is one I've got on my bulletin board as a reminder that these are my words--not my editor's and not my agent's. I'm responsible for my stories and the reason they succeed or fail is on me.

Robena Grant said...

Whenever I get a rejection it makes me withdraw to lick my wounds, but I always come back to the manuscript with fresh eyes, tougher attitude, and ready to try again. I understand no means no. I never blame anyone, I just work harder at a rewrite, or start something new.

I watched the American Idol tryouts last night (flipped to other channels in the really embarrassing parts) and it's true, you can tell who has the chops by the first few notes. It's not about what they wear, or how they schmooze the judges, or how they look, it's all based on raw talent. Same with we writers. I learned recently, if the voice isn't there in the query how can the agent trust it will be in the manuscript?

Anonymous said...

I think I'm learning that a rejection also doesn't necessarily mean the book is no good. Part of getting pubbed (a huge part) is skill, but no one can deny that there must be a little luck on your side as well. Sometimes it's simply a matter of finding the perfect agent, for the right book, at the right time. Clearly the stars must it's happened to others, it can certainly happen to one of us.

Not to say that I couldn't stand to improve in my craft, to believe otherwise is shortsighted and asinine. I don't blame others for my rejections, I do wish sometimes I could learn why I got that rejection but in the end I'll just keep writing, keep learning, and hope that someday soon I'll finally figure it all out.

But I do gotta say a personal rejection can be priceless. I received one a few days ago that helped the proverbial lightbulb above my head go off and now I think the book is much more sturdy because of it. :)

Great post.

Anonymous said...

No point in parsing Jessica's comments. I prefer to use the KISS principal: Keep It Simple, Stupid.
In other words, don't blame agents for your rejections. Or read too much into a rejection. Just too many variables. Produce the best work you can from project to query to synopsis and go for it. And if you strike out, don't dwell on trying to read the tea leaves or angst ad infinitum. Just don't give up. Put that project aside and start another. Work on honing your skills. And keep writing. Almost every successful writer has at least one and many have much more than one project sitting in their footlocker before they finally hit.

Anonymous said...

I agree that the process we go through to try and get published is a difficult one, but one that makes us better. It also makes us more aware of our surroundings in that we understand a bit more about how the business side of all of this works.

As a writer you have to have two sides of your brain. The first is the writer side and the second is the business side. The writer side should be hopeful and filled with ideas and a love for literary creation. The business side needs to understand that quality counts, but so too does connections, luck and subjectivity. Every single best selling book by a new author has been rejected at least ten times.

Anonymous said...


I only have one side the writer's side. My business side is missing. That's why I thought you got an agent. I guess I need to get my other six rejections in. LOL Wow, did I have a lot to learn.

Kristan said...

"There are enough people out in the publishing world who will gladly make it difficult for you, so don’t be one of those who makes it difficult for yourself."

What a great reminder/piece of advice.

Also, really, you've seen cloning Jesus a hundred times?? Man, I'm thinking too inside the box!

Diana said...

I confess that until I'd received about a half dozen of them, I didn't recognize form letters for what they were - form letters. Some of them are written in such a way that they feel very kind and personal, and I found myself trying to interpret them (particularly the ones that say something about how the book seems like a neat idea, but isn't for that particular agent). These responses stressed me out, until I saw that twenty other writers posted that exact same letter from the exact same agent on

Now that I'm about 25 rejections deep on a particular manuscript, my greater fear is that the query isn't doing it justice, as opposed to the agents I'm sending it to.

Morgan Mandel said...

I welcome rejection letters with some kind of hint of where I went wrong. Though I wouldn't sent it back to the same person after revisions, at least I'd have a clue of what went wrong.

Morgan Mandel

Anonymous said...

Too many assumptions and you're sabotaging your career. Too few assumptions and you're sabotaging your career.

Anonymous said...

If you don't like the fact that writers make assumptions, maybe you can take a few seconds and tell them why you're rejecting them instead of complaining about it in a blog.

Anonymous said...

"If you don't like the fact that writers make assumptions, maybe you can take a few seconds and tell them why you're rejecting them instead of complaining about it in a blog."

I can't speak for Jessica, or for agents, but as an editorial assistant I can say that the vast majority of stuff that arrives in the slushpile is rejected because it's simply very badly written. Yes, it's a subjective game - but we're not talking subtle differences of taste here. We receive so many manuscripts that are crazy or subliterate or both. I know that if you haven't seen the slushpile, that sounds like sheer snobbery. But after half an hour with our unsolicited submissions, you'd believe me.
All of these writers believe that their work is brilliant and publishable. We don't have time to offer each one of them a detailed critique, especially if the problems seem fundamental - if a person can't string a readable sentence together, is it really very useful to suggest more superficial polishing? But no way are we going to tell someone directly that they just can't write - that would be cruel, it's likely to provoke abuse, and, as cavalierly as I've just dismissed so much of the slush, we are always aware that we might be wrong.
Hence the form letter. We're too busy to explain in more detail what's wrong with your manuscript. In many cases, we believe the problems are too big for us to fix (if we think a manuscript has the potential to work with some decent editing, we might acquire it). We're scared that if we offer you anything more specific, you'll turn out to be one of the crazy ones and we'll be sucked into an endless round of back-and-forth.
Lastly: I know this probably doesn't apply to people reading this blog - you're here because you're curious and questioning. But some writers don't really want to hear what you think is wrong with their manuscript. I've had several writers tell me that they know why we won't publish their book. Inevitably, their explanation has to do with our lack of courage, taste, insight, etc; their book is too original, daring, controversial, etc. The problem is invariably with us, the timid, short-sighted publishers, and never with their work.
When you encounter authors like this, attempting to explain yourself to someone with whom you don't want a working relationship anyway can seem futile.

So, you *can* read between the lines of the form letter - but the hidden message you'll find isn't for you specifically - it's for the mass of other writers whose potential craziness and/or sheer lack of talent makes sending anything else risky and/or a waste of time. I bet all editorial assistant have sent at least one well-intentioned personalized rejection letter early on in their careers. After a few bad responses, we all learn quickly that it's not a wise or a helpful thing to do.

Anonymous said...

To the last Anon: it would take the agent much more than a few seconds to tell each and every sub why they were rejected. Agents are not in the business of teaching writing. Or critiquing work. The sooner you get over that, the closer you'll be to becoming published -- instead of just coming off snarky and bitter.

The majority of us appreciate getting any insight to the agent's process. Thank you, Jessica, for taking the time to blog.

Anonymous said...

Well said, editorial assistant!

Anonymous said...


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I would like to present the Premio Dardos Award to you. This award acknowledges blogs that have cultural, ethical, literary and personal values.
Please accept this award by posting it on your blog along with the name of the person that has granted the award and a link to his/her blog. Pass the award along to other blogs that are worthy of this acknowledgement,remembering to contact each of them to let them know they have been selected for this award. Congratulations!

(If you want to see what I said about you--all good, I swear!--the post is at my LJ blog,

Thanks for everything these past few months AND for all the wonderful posts.