And I Can’t Blame Them
My friend called me after the writing seminar, on the verge of tears: “You won’t believe what happened at Words in the Woods!”
“What?” I gasped. I dunno–when I hear “the woods” I automatically think of I Know What You Did Last Summer or Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
“She suggested I use GoFundMe to get money, and self-publish!” she cried.
That was horror enough for me. But I didn’t get it.
“Wait,” I said, “this was that agent you targeted?”
Yes. There were two agents at this particular conference that year, and she didn’t think she could get the younger one because she herself was “older” (50s) and was not an established children’s author–despite years of trying. I knew she didn’t want self-publishing, busking on GoFundMe or such. She was doing the work, writing writing writing, attending workshops and conferences, and truly had some talent.
Her story of What Happened in the Woods unraveled: they had “story tables” where one of each of the speakers headed a table filled with writers at the conference. She landed at her targeted agent’s table. She read her “first page.” It fell flat.
No surprise. Her type of writing unravels, winding itself into your heart by the end of the first chapter–but not on the first page.
I told her not to let it get to her. But it hurt me, too. She couldn’t “hear” me, despite my many iterations of her past positive comments and near-misses with agents. She was crushed anyway.
I was reminded of that event from a couple of years ago when I got an email recently from a friend. He’d written a novel set in the 70s. He had a strong social media presence, so there’s no hiding his age. “She suggested that if I want to wax nostalgic, I might consider a first-person nonfiction narrative of the 1970s, ‘your own story,’ rather than this,” he lamented. He was hurt because his previous YA manuscript, set in the hippie era of the 1960s, was soundly rejected–with remarks about “that era is overdone,” and “kids want only contemporary stories.” He couldn’t make the novel contemporary; the theme called for the motif he chose. And I thought his manuscript was excellent.
When you get remarks like that, you have gotten an agent’s attention. Most rejection letters from agents don’t make pointed comments. They are too busy. If they write details in a way that let you know it’s a personal reply, that alone should be astonishing.
But he didn’t take it that way.
“That’s it?” he said. “I have to write a contemporary novel or else, I guess,” he said.
That was sad. I’d worked with him on several revisions to really hit the voice, get pivot points in, and draw out emotion. He’d done a masterful job. It was hard for me to see all the rejections he got. I didn’t want to agree with him, that all editors had a big poster in their offices that said, “No 1960s!” or “No 1970s!”
In 2000, I worked for a literary agent. She knew I was a writer but she didn’t do kidlit. That’s why it worked. I was shocked, though, at the number of queries she received. Even the number of manuscripts she agreed to see was mountainous. As the front person, I was startled at the calls–and the desperation. One woman called me crying and screaming after her rejection, which was personal, gentle, and attempted to redirect her to a different genre. I did my best to calm her down but never knew what became of her.
The desperation eventually made me so sad, I left the job. I’ve had rejections, too, but like any position that relates to possible widespread attention, I knew that it’s a rocky road, and to learn to listen and to whom. And to bolster your spirit along the way. If you love it, you’ll stick with it. If you don’t make it, you tried like hell. But if you do give up, you cancelled yourself.
After the agent, I got a job leasing apartments in the big city, no kidding, because it was easy for me to get a real estate license (I’m a good student) and the work was so away from writing.
I’ve called my friend who went to Words in the Woods and informed her that she need not worry about that agent–that particular agent is considered a has-been in the kidlit industry and leeches on writers’ conferences to stay relevant. (I would not say this lightly unless I heard it from a good source. Hey, my blog isn’t the National Enquirer.)
Assuming you’re a person trying the right way, through writing steadily, studying, heavily reading your genre, belonging to SCBWI, doing the work: never worry about those impersonal rejection letters. If I were an agent, I would give one every time for rejections.
Hopes are so fragile–and even a few well-meaning words from a person in a position of power (even if the “power” is not really that much in New York) can be like a road paver going over a butterfly.
So don’t blame the agent. They have to take a step back and self-protect. Self-protection is not just okay–it’s necessary.