A HESITANT look at the balance of respect within the agent/potential author relationship

I am quite nervous about this post. I apologise in advance if everything you’re about to read is so lampshaded and contradicted that it makes no sense. But…

poncey-scared

…here goes.

I don’t think the level of respect submitting authors are expected to show agents is reflected or balanced in the way agents can treat submitting authors. And I think that is unfair.

Now unless your response to that was ‘well, duh’ (which is entirely reasonable), bear with me. I noticed right at the beginning of this process that there was a particular ‘tone’ to the submissions information on most agency websites. Most of the instructions given are extremely specific  – save your document with the name in this template, include all of these things within one attachment only, give us all of this information in the top line of your email. The implication – if not outright stated – is that if you don’t abide by these exact rules then your submission will receive a one-way ticket to the recycling, without passing Go.

And I think that’s fair enough. I get it, agents are very busy people; they don’t have time to fanny on with formatting  and digging for relevant information when they only have ten minutes today to dig into the slush pile anyway. Quite apart from which, the agent is in the position of power here; as a potential author you are asking them for their highly prized, hard-won and much-coveted help. They won’t get paid unless you do a good job – it’s entirely fair for them to be extremely particular about how you approach them.

So far, so reasonable.

On top of this, agents expect prospective authors to treat them with an individuality, and a personal touch. Whilst most agencies understand and expect you as an author to be making multiple submissions at once (in the interest of not withering into old age by the time you reach the promised land of Publishedom), they also expect you to have approached their agency for a reason, and for your approach to be personalised and well-researched for their particular agency.

This too, seems legit.

So you follow all the rules, you read the bio for every single author on their client list, you rewrite your cover letter to include everything you’ve researched, reformat your opening chapters to fit their specifications, write a new synopsis of the length they requested, save it all in a document precisely labelled ‘dd.mm.yyy_Name_Book Title_ohpleaseohplease_I’ll send you cake’, and email it to them with a metaphorical packaging of all your hopes and dreams since you were twelve.

At which point, you wait twelve weeks and eventually realise they’re never going to respond.

Now here’s where I’m like:

not-okay

I think it’s really important in this age of Twitter and YouTube to always try and speak to people via typing the same way you would talk to them if they were sat in front of you. I get that this is not how the rest of the internet operates, and most people who are arsewipes online will be arsewipes in real life, but I still think it’s an idealistically decent attitude to live by.

So imagine this IRL. Our budding young author has followed the agency’s instructions to the letter and lovingly packaged their submission to meet all requirements. S/he holds it in her/his sweaty hand and waits in a queue of other dream-fuelled masochists for literal weeks. Eventually s/he reaches the agent, who at least in my head sits bathed in a bright glowing light á la Obi Wan Kenobi at the end of Return of the Jedi. S/he places the submission on the table between them, and waits with baited breath as the agent flicks casually through the pages. Minutes pass. Then, all at once, the agent swipes the submission sideways into an overflowing bin, stands up and walks off without a single word.

In the words of that really scary dude from Firefly, does that seem right to you?

Now don’t get me wrong, I know that agents have other peoples’ hopes and dreams up the wazoo, and they literally can’t take the time to send a gentle, supportive reply to each and every one. But if all it took was a blanket bcc at the end of the day to every author whose submission they had decided not to take further – even just addressed to ‘Author’ – I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a reply.

It must be a very strange thing, to have to squash a stranger’s hope with every submission that doesn’t interest you – and I don’t envy agents that. Every rejection I’ve ever received has included a line wishing me ‘the best of luck with another agent’. Generic or not, I still think this is a very kind sentiment. But I imagine it also helps agents cope with the way they have to treat others’ aspirations as part of their job.

I imagine that, because I like to think that agents are aware of how important every submission is to its writer. As a writer myself, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect reams of feedback, or breathless encouragement, or even a vaguely personalised rejection letter from an agent. But I do think that whoever you are, if you’re dealing with something that is – in all likelihood – indescribably important to anyone, anywhere, and you’re aware of that…

The decent thing to do is to treat it, and them, with respect.

(Though if an agent is reading this then I don’t mean a word of it I’m sorry please excuse my principles I’ll get rid of them sorry sorry please don’t hate me.)

Next Post: The yin to my Good News post‘s yang, I’m afraid. On picking yourself up when you find you’ve been given a good solid kick back to square one. (I swear every other post will not always be about reactions to the many and varied forms of rejection…)

Submissions Last Week

Just three this week, having resumed our regular programming. One I had to preface with a phone call, which I’m gonna say was one of the Top Five Most Nerve-Wracking Moments Of My Life.

Current Rejection Tally: 5

 

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The Dream Backup

So in my Rejection post a few weeks ago I mentioned how helpful I think it can be to start working on a new project as soon as the old one is in the submissions stage. I say this having never actually successfully achieved it – but the theory is stellar. And here’s why:

  1. It’s fun

Really though. I’ve always found the range of attitudes writers have to writing frankly hilarious. You have everything, from the people surrounding you telling you that if you don’t enjoy writing then you shouldn’t bother, to George RR Martin telling you he enjoys ‘having written’, to Hemingway saying you ‘sit at a typewriter and bleed’. And I have definitely experienced every one of those emotions whilst 50,000 words into a story I’m suddenly not sure is any good.

But, that’s a few months down the line. The start of a new project is like:

this is the best.gif

Because it’s all the good bits! For me at least, the best thing about writing is the story – and the start of a new project is all about the story. You can sit around in your pants (optional) and think about why your favourite Joss Whedon characters are your favourites, or what it is about the relationship between the kids in Stranger Things that works so well, or how cool it was in that book when all those characters who hated each other had to work together. You can weave whole new characters and plots and make them all the things you’ve loved in the last couple of years. And if you have a sudden doubt that actually maybe that thing in the middle needs to happen nearer the end, you don’t have to have a week-long crisis of debating whether this is enough of a problem to require four months of rewrites. You just draw some squiggly arrows and big crosses in a notebook and it’s sorted.

The fun of starting a new project, to my mind, is the perfect antidote to the soul-crushing cycle of expectation and disappointment that has certainly characterised my submission process. Remind yourself why you’re actually doing this – because, really, it’s worth it.

  1. It’s productive

I’m here to tell you that however rigidly you stick to a submissions timetable, you will still feel like those bits of food that go gunky and block the sink (wilted and gross? …no?) when an agent responds to the submission that collectively took you about three hours (not to mention the months of work on the novel itself) with a two-line, standard rejection email that doesn’t even have your name at the top. If they respond at all, that is. It’s extremely easy to feel like you are just wasting your time, to which the best solution, I reckon, is to use some of your other time really, really well. And what could be more productive than getting started on a whole new project?

  1. It’s distracting

So thirty or forty times a day I have a conversation with myself, which goes a bit like this:
The ‘Eat The Chocolate, Stay In Bed, You Can Exercise Tomorrow’ Voice: Check your emails.
The Sensible Voice: But I checked them eighteen seconds ago.
The ETCSIBYCET Voice: An agent could have replied in those eighteen seconds. It’s been twenty seconds now.
Sensible: Probably not though…
ETCSIBYCET: You won’t know unless you check.
Sensible: True…
ETCSIBYCET: Dooooo it…
*checks emails*
Sensible, now downhearted: Nope, just that Travelzoo promotion full of holidays I can’t afford…
ETCSIBYCET: I mean you could always have a look at them, though…

Clicking ‘refresh’ on your emails is not a good use of your time. Do anything else. Better yet – do something productive.

  1. It’s like Dream Backup

So just for a minute, let’s consider the worst possible outcome. It’s been months. You’ve (I’m using the second person here mostly for peace of mind) sent the book off to literally every relevant agent, publisher and competition in the country and they have all said no. Everything, without question, sucks.

But do you know what I’m betting makes it worse? If you then have to muster up the phenomenal amount of willpower, bravery and sheer bloody-mindedness to start again, from scratch. I imagine for myself at least, that every time anyone made a casual, gentle enquiry after that writing thing I used to be interested in, I’d just be like:

don't ask me.gif

That, surely, is the moment in which you are most likely to give up.

UNLESS, that is, you already have a plot outline and a few thousand words under your belt! Don’t get me wrong, that’s not going to wave a magic wand and cure the open, bleeding rejection wound – but it might at least disinfect it a bit.

So yes, I think the best thing you can do to keep yourself motivated and reasonably sane is to start a new book as soon as you send off that first submission. Even if you can’t or don’t devote loads of time to it – it will help. It’s helping me.

That, and the occasional cheese binge.

Next Post: A very, very carefully worded and much-debated-over attempt to not shoot myself in the foot whilst discussing the contradictions of the agency/submitting author relationship, and the respect (or lack thereof) that goes in both directions. Literally everyone is going to tell me not to write this post, so I’m probably going to fumble over the words so much it’ll come out more or less meaningless. Stay tuned!!!

Submissions Last Week

None, as explained in my last post. (Though actually I did send a cheeky one off over the weekend to an agent who was only opening for submission until Monday…shhhh…)

Current Rejection Tally: 3

 

 

Holding good news at arm’s length like it’s about to explode…

So in a truly surprising twist – I have some good news. And even before I type I’m wondering how best to downplay it, but we’ll get to that later, so here it is:

An agent has asked for my full manuscript.

For those who are like, ‘…what?’, I’m sorry to say that an agent asking for my full manuscript does not mean my book will be available in Waterstones by next Tuesday. BUT, it is a very hard to achieve first step down a road I have been trying to throw myself onto for ten years – so this is, without question, a VERY GOOD THING.

My initial reaction, in fact, was to click on the email I was fully expecting to be Rejection #2, see the words ‘full manuscript’ and be like:

oh my god (2).gif

I called my boyfriend and shrieked down the phone, realising when he asked me what the email said that I was so overcome with manic excitement I hadn’t even read it yet. I then called and sent messages to a motley collection of other people, and about two hours after I’d seen the email, suddenly had a thought:

‘What if I have to call all these people back in two weeks and tell them nothing came of it?’

And that – after a very ramble-y introduction – is the theme of this week’s post. How do you balance feeling overwhelmingly excited, self-satisfied, expectant and immensely hopeful with the knowledge that there is a very good chance this agent will email me back with the rejection I was expecting the first time?

If you’ve continued reading for an answer to that question, I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you. I am treading new and volatile ground over a mental cesspit I’ve only just crawled out of, and my instinct is telling me to jump up and down.

So far my reaction to the news (which I received just under a week ago, at the time of writing) has been – shall we say – mixed. I spent a not-insignificant part of the evening following the email hysterically weeping for literally no reason, as if my body had released ten years worth of ‘mild success’ hormones.

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Since then I’ve just sort of…carried on. It’s in the back of my mind all the time, but in the meanwhile there’s not much I can do except continue, and hope. And I don’t even know how much hope is good for me! Whenever I’ve told someone what’s happened and they’ve been kind and happy and excited back at me, my reflex is to tell them that this might mean nothing. But then I stomped to work, furious that I hadn’t been able to immediately quit and embark on the lifestyle to which I would like to become accustomed.

I imagine this post itself reads like the wordy ramblings of the Hulk. Are you angry / happy or not?!

And I really, really hope this post hasn’t sounded ungrateful. I am very happy – but I’m also acutely aware of the fact that my happiness on this matter is totally and completely outside of my control. I know that by the time you’re even reading this post, I could have taken another enormous step down that road I’ve so coveted – or I could be back at square one. I have no way of knowing, and I’m so scared of this ray of hope being snatched away from me that I’m kind of hiding it from myself; like if I don’t look at it too hard, maybe nobody will notice I have it and just leave it with me.

So, yeah. Apologies for the rambling this week – as I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’ve been having a hard enough time trying to corral my thoughts into any kind of sensible formation, never mind structuring a blog post around them! Ultimately what I’m trying to focus on is that even if I do end up back at square one, at least I know now that I’m not wasting my time. Even if only one agent at one time thought my story might be worth looking into – that is definitely progress, whatever the outcome, and I’m incredibly grateful for that.

So after all that, I will leave you with an elegant explanation of my hope for the future:

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Next Week’s Post: Backing gently away from unchecked emotion and towards actual productivity and usefulness, I’m going to expand on something I mentioned in my Rejection post and explain why I think working on something new at the same time as submitting something old is a top-notch way to cling grimly onto that sanity you’re so precious about.

Submissions Last Week

None at all, as I’ve given the agent who asked for my manuscript an exclusive look for a couple of weeks! And if you think I’m horrifically lazy enough to be thrilled at this accidental break…you would be exactly right.

Current Rejection Tally: 1

Hating successful writers will not make you a successful writer…apparently.

I don’t like to think of myself as a jealous person, but unfortunately there is a not insignificant amount of evidence to the contrary.

To conjure a little mental image for you, three and a half years ago I was interrailling in Europe with two friends. We were reaching the end of our trip and duly knackered – so the three of us were lounging around in our hostel, scrolling through our phones. I came across an article about a young writer – who shall remain nameless for the sake of my own embarrassment as much as anything else – who had just signed something like a seven-book contract with a major publisher. She was maybe a year or so older than I was at the time, still in university, and the first book of her fantasy series was being published. These are all quite innocent facts, and yet – and I’m sure my friends can attest to this – I was a little bit:

losing-temper

Now, in my defence, this article was truly sickly – it could have been written by the writer’s mum, it was so fawning. (I actually just read it again to see if my memory had blown it out of proportion. I hadn’t.) The story itself – if I’m honest – would probably have sounded interesting to me under different circumstances, but as it was I was all, “What kind of a stupid character name is that?! What does that even mean?! That is so unoriginal…” I’m sure you can imagine the pettiness for yourself.

I’d like to say this was an isolated incident, brought on by tiredness, lack of self-confidence or the sickening tone of the article. However…

There does seem to be specific criteria for this horrible streak of jealousy. A writer of my own age, typically another woman, writing in a genre I’m very familiar with – fantasy, dystopia, sci-fi – but using characters or plot devices I find hackneyed and cliché (i.e. a love triangle that for some reason eclipses the literal fate of the world, a troubled female protagonist claiming altruism but always behaving selfishly, a roguish love interest with green eyes and a lopsided smile…the list, I’m afraid, goes on). Even typing that has made me feel snobbish and judgemental, but I can’t pretend that it isn’t exactly the truth.

But then I wonder if the content of these books actually matters at all. I really like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series – which you could argue contains several of the elements I’ve just complained about. Would I hate it if Scott Westerfeld was a woman in her mid-twenties? I hope not. But maybe?

I’ve tried to figure out a logical explanation for these ugly feelings, but what I’ve realised is that you can’t really apply logic to feelings this irrational. I think my subconscious is under the impression that there are only so many spots available for young, female fantasy writers – so every time I found out about another one, that’s somehow damaging my already-stunted chances of success. This – clearly – is not the case. But that does seem to be how it feels. And I’m not rightly sure whether this is down to overconfidence – am I conceited enough to really think I had a chance at this writer’s success? – or…erm, under-confidence? Certainly the end result of one of these spiralling rages tends to be:

im-fine-because-i-know-who-i-am

My hope in sharing this strange ramble on The Rejection Box is that I’m not alone in this. If you are also a writer who experiences similar bouts of irrational fury at perfectly innocent writers you’ve never met – at least by reading this you can know you’re not alone. If there are enough of us, maybe we can even claim that this is just some weird, unfortunate side effect of wanting to be a writer?

…probably not.

At the end of the day, though, this is a horribly unproductive attitude. I don’t want to be the sort of person who actually seeks out things I know will bother me just to be angry about them. I’m not going to pretend I’ll stop doing it after this outpouring of a blog post, but I do wish I would. There are many more useful things I could be doing with that time – writing, for a start.

So after all of that, this is the closest I can get to some ‘advice’ for this week:

Don’t do that. It ain’t healthy.

Next Week’s Post: Having received some good news from my many submissions, I’m going to mediate the post I would like to write (‘GUYS GUYS IT’S HAPPENING I’M GOING TO BE JK ROWLING) with some actual realism. How is a person supposed to cope with taking a step closer to their dream, knowing full well that the rug could very well be about to be ripped from under you? This is not a rhetorical question.

Submissions Last Week

Only two actually – for reasons that will be explained in next week’s post!

Current Rejection Tally: 1