Monday, May 08, 2006


Bob, my kitten, and I are sitting here, sharing a buttered croissant and a cup of tea while we contemplate rejections. Actually, Bob's only interest is in the croissant--he's hanging over my laptop, inserting his head between me and the computer screen to get my attention. He's already had two little pieces, and I'm pacing him.

I belong to several writers' groups. On one of them this week, there was a lively discussion about rejected manuscripts. One writer had racked up almost 100 rejections of his suspense novel, but had also been given a number of thoughtful suggestions by some of the agents who'd responded. Chief among them was to cut his very long manuscript to a length more suitable for the genre.

The writer listened to what he had been told and reworked the entire manuscript, cutting it down to a reasonable length and incorporating the other suggestions he'd received. He then asked our group whether he could re-submit to some of the agents who had previously rejected him. The ensuing discussion was very interesting.

Reading his email, my initial thought was that he'd sent out an unripe manuscript, one that had not been sufficiently edited or critiqued. After two years of belonging to critique groups, I'm very familiar with writers who are convinced that their manuscripts are finished when they type "The End." Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. A big clue that this writer's manuscript was not ready was that he had begun marketing without having done any research into the appropriate number of words for a manuscript in his genre.

My advice was to make a prioritized list of the agents he was interested in, to start by sending to his second tier agents rather than to his top tier picks, to submit in groups of six at a time, and to wait at least six months before querying anyone he'd queried before. My assumption was that the query letter and manuscript probably still needed some work and that, if he was lucky, he might get more feedback that would help him further refine them before submitting to his top tier agents.

Most writers on the loop seemed to be of the opinion that, if the manuscript had been completely reworked, there was no harm in re-submitting it. One or two were adamant that a manuscript should NEVER be re-submitted. The argument raged on until someone brought up a recent interview with Miss Snark. The agent had said to go ahead and re-submit a previously rejected manuscript without making any mention of the fact that it had been sent before.

A thoughtful member of the loop reminded everyone of Madeleine L'Engle's struggles to get her novel, A Wrinkle in Time published.

For those of you not familiar with L'Engle, she is now 78 years old. At age 42, she completed her novel A Wrinkle in Time and began submitting it directly to publishers. Although many of them were complimentary of her work, they were also frank when rejecting it. Not only were they having difficulty identifying a genre for it, they weren't even certain whether it was an adult or a children's book. The manuscript was a mixture of science fiction, fantasy, magic, romance, Christian thought and physics. On top of that, L'Engle began the book with the line, "It was a dark and stormy night," a line made famous by Edward Bulwer-Lytton for whom the annual contest for worst first lines is named.

L'Engle is quoted on the Random House (RH) website saying, "Every major publisher turned it down. No one knew what to do with it." After two years and 26 rejections, Farrar, Strauss & Giroux (FSG) agreed to publish it although they didn't have high hopes. L'Engle insisted they publish it as a children's book and, according to RH, it was the beginning of the FSG children's list.

The book was a runaway success (the Harry Potter of its day) and won the coveted Newbery Medal in 1963.

I'm telling you all this just to underscore that you can do EVERYTHING right and still not get published or do EVERYTHING WRONG and be a success story. On March 27, I wrote a blog in which I quoted Joe Konrath, saying that--to be successful--you need talent, craft, persistence and luck.

Keep writing and keep submitting.

Thanks to Marie S. for directing us to L'Engle's story.


Kelvin said...
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Emjay said...

Very interesting subject, Maya, especially to me because I've been working on a young adult and had a few rejections--haven't submitted it that much, but must admit I submitted to the top YA agents.

I'm re-writing it, changing a major premise, but mostly it's gonna be the same book. I am changing the name, to what I think is a better name and may help with the re-submission problem.

I agree about the six month thing. Also working harder on a good query letter and synopsis.

My question--how do you discern second tier agents? None of their websites seem to say, "by the way, I'm way second tier, but that means I might be more interested in your second-tier mss."

Maya said...

Emjay: I can tell you what I did. I subscribed to Publishers Lunch (PL). I bought a package of 100 3x5 index cards. Every time I saw a deal listed on PL which was in my genre, I made an index card for that agent. Over time, it became clear who the agents were who were making the most deals at the most houses. Those became my top tier agents.

My second tier agents were those who had an occasional deal in my genre or only a few total deals.

I started by querying the second tier group and by refining my letter as a result of their feedback. It worked.

Good luck.