Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Squeezing water from a stone

I belong to a couple of specialty chapters in RWA -- mostly because the women's fiction projects I've written fall outside the boundaries of the romance genre, yet I still love RWA and want to be part of the organization.

One of those chapters has started a very well-meaning initiative I think is fraught with problems at best, and is futile at worst. But in spite of several experienced and published members saying they think the project's a bad idea... many members (mostly newbies based on their posts) think it's an amazing one.

I started to write my third negative post about this idea on the loop and then thought the better of it, mostly because I've already said my piece there (as have several published authors including a NYT Bestselling one) and I think the overall message is worth saying more publicly and might generate some discussion if readers of this blog think I'm full of sh*t. (Which I often am.)

The project is to gather intel from rejection letters received by chapter members in order to determine agent/editor preferences. In particular, since this chapter is aimed at members with projects that aren't strictly romances, they want to identify agents/editors willing to look at stories that don't have a traditional HEA ending.

To me, the answer to that question is easy. If your book doesn’t have a HEA ending don’t submit it to a romance imprint, or to an agent who only reps romance. Your book isn’t a romance. There are plenty of houses and agents who rep commercial fiction that isn’t a romance. In fact, the pool is much, much bigger.

I think the most exciting thing for me when I started writing books that fell into the broad “romantic elements” category was that there were many more potential publishers and agents available to me. The number of agents who specifically do not rep romance is far greater than those who exclusively do. In fact, I'd wager there are less than a dozen who rep NOTHING but romance.

And as far as gleaning other insights based on rejection letters goes... I think it's hard to extrapolate much of anything based on comments an agent/editor made to a writer whose work you've never read. It's even hard with your own rejections or those of your critique partners. An agent might say, I don't like X, or there's no market for X, simply because it's the first thing or the easiest thing, or their standard thing to say when the real reason for rejection was "I didn't like it" or "it's not good enough to publish". The truth is sometimes harsh and agents in particular don't want to get a rep for being harsh, so they find nice ways to say things and often writers read too much into those nice things.

Also, agent's/editor's preferences can be a tad fickle and/or change over time. Fickle isn't fair. It's a subjective business and one that changes as the market ebbs and floes. Of course their preferences will vary and sometimes seem inconsistent. We've already had an example of this on the loop where one well-meaning member offered up that Agent X told her that she wouldn't ever rep paranormals at a conference... and another member piped up that Agent X had just signed her based on her paranormal. Things change. There are few absolutes.

On that note, I heard that Jennifer Enderlin told a crowd at some conference this winter she’d love to find a great western… So, I’ll bet that many agents who now say “no westerns”, mostly because they think no editors are buying them, will change soon their tune on that sub-genre. That certainly happened with paranormals over the past 3-4 years. And as someone who witnessed the chick lit boom... There were many agents who sent out rejection letters to some of the north american pioneers in this genre saying they hated books written in a first person voice, only to start signing a whole whack of authors who wrote in first person six months later.

I’ve heard an agent say at a conference that she’d never represent X, while knowing she’d just requested a full ms from a friend based on a partial that was full of X. (X in this case was graphic violence.) I also know an agent who turned down a now well-known author based on her less-than-sympathetic heroine, and then signed another based on a book with an even less sympathetic heroine.

My guess is agents/editors often state their preferences on panels, because they’re asked and have to say something, and to cut down on the volume of cr*p they get that contains X when X isn’t their favorite thing… But if they love a concept/hook and a writer’s writing, they will bend those preferences or discover they have new ones. Not that there isn't value to hearing them state their preferences... I just think those true preferences rarely show up in rejection letters.

I know it's frustrating for RWA members who aren't writing strictly romance to find agents/editors at RWA conferences who are interested in their work. But all it takes is five seconds on to learn that this is an advantage, not a disadvantage, in terms of the number of agents/editors willing to look at your work.

I’m sorry to the people who initiated this well-meaning project for sounding so negative. I laud the members who stepped forward to volunteer their time to do it. I just hate to see anyone waste their time trying to glean information from a source that has little reliable or objective info. I also hate to see newbies rely on unreliable information. As someone who has a stack of both, trying to ascertain agent/editor preferences from comments they made in rejection letters will simply never yield much. It’s like playing an old LP backwards in search of hidden meanings. Okay, not that bad… I’m getting carried away.

I might not have a contract yet, but I have been around the block a few times (a few more times than I’d like). And when I was starting out as a writer and submitting my first manuscripts, I was dying for the kind of information it sounds, on the surface, like this project could produce. I’ve simply come to believe that in a subjective business, such objective information simply does not exist.


Kimber Chin said...

Do you think this project will actually get off the ground?

I'm thinking, if it is like most projects, there will be a lot of talk and no action.

Especially as the action people are busy writing and submitting and, yes, getting rejected.

Maureen McGowan said...

You're probably right, Kimber. I'm probably making enemies and offending the people who had the idea for no reason.

I need to learn to keep my big mouth shut and my responding to posts fingers still.

Kimber Chin said...


Maureen, if you can offend them so easily then they don't have any right being in the business in the first place.

This industry must have the highest rejection rate going. I joke about getting my daily smack down.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Maureen. I love it when you think you're offending people, cause you never are. When can an opinion, and in your case, a well eduacated opinion,offend?

Besides, you're right. It's a waste of time, time that could be spent writing. And by the time they figure anything out, that information will be old and out of date anyway.

Its taken me a long time to realize it, but we're all best served just concentrating on the writing.

Molly O'Keefe said...

You know we get those sort of vague rejection letters in the mail and we are DYING to see something in them we can use. I've gotten rejection letters saying " well-written, but the plot is formulaic." And two days later get a rejection on the same project that says - "Excellent plot, the writing doesn't shine."

So, I think the real truth is - there's a line in those form rejection letters for the editor to say something personal and sometimes they are able to articulate what it is that turned them off, and sometimes they just didn't like it and they say something that fits in the alloted slot that may or may not really reflect what was wrong to them.

And trying to find a pattern in those letters is akin to that guy in hell pushing a rock up a hill. It's just work with no outcome.

Margaret Moore said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Laurie M. Rauch said...

I have to agree too. If you looked at my rejection letters, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a trend or insight into my likes and dislikes.

It comes down to the writing and how the author builds the story. I could read two interpretations of the same plot and love one and not the other, and it's all because of the execution.

Sinead has it right when she says time is better served concentrating on the writing...

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