Dear Betsy Lerner, [This letter has been edited down and names removed.]
I’m a 67 yr old woman with a funny, “country” novel I wrote most of 20 or more years ago…I’ve had a career of near misses. Recognition, readings, but only a box of scenes. The divorce and recovery from abusive marriage, illness—there went 10 years or so.
Finally a year ago the MS was ready to send out—and so far, no takers. I should begin by saying I burned through two agents, in the ’90s, both of whom wanted massive changes. Agent X fell in love with the MS, she could even quote from Mama—the character who takes over the book, really—but didn’t want the work of trying to sell it. Literary fiction is a bummer to “package,” I guess. I also no longer have the smashing literary contacts I had twenty years ago. In fact, I’m pretty isolated. Queried 25 agents in the past year (I have an assistant to do the grunt work) — Agent Y and Agent Z requested a full, I gather that’s supposed to be encouraging. My question is, someone with work like this (sample below,) should I be approaching acquiring editors as well? I’m just hell bent on publishing this thing before I croak.
Thank you so much, and for your lovely book as well,
I’m posting your letter because it is similar to seventy-five percent of the letters I receive. I’m going to go through your letter point by point and I’m not going to sugar coat it.
1) You’re asking for advice about what to do, but you really want me to consider the novel. (She follows letter with a pitch and sample pages.) Fair enough. Except, I mostly handle non-fiction. And a “funny, country” novel is not an appealing way to pitch your book. Does country mean that it has a rural setting? Southern? Funny meaning it’s a comic? Like P.G. Wodehouse, or funny like Carl Hiassen? Or Fannie Flagg? If you want to interest me, or most agents, then you need to come up with a better opening line. We’ve talked about this on the blog and here is a perfect example. You could have interested me with a quirky and specific sentence, but instead, you lose me. You should have had me at hello.
2. The near misses we can all relate to. The difficulty in your life very real.
3. It’s not clear if you were writing all that time. Is the book is twenty years old or did it take twenty years to write? I am never eager to read a book that is twenty years old. It sounds stale. If anything say that you worked on it, on and off, for twenty years. We assume rightly or wrongly that an artist gets better over time. I don’t want to see your finger painting; I want to see your masterpiece.
4. Burning through agents makes you sound difficult even if that isn’t necessarily the case.
5.The agent who loved it but didn’t take it on sounds false to me. You might be misinterpreting her meaning because in my experience you take something on when you fall in love. And we’ve talked about this, too, the use of “in love” or “not in love” when talking to books. Some people here feel it’s unprofessional to cast responses in terms of love. Others like it. For me, passion drives everything so I’m okay with saying you love something. I think the real aggravation comes when someone praises a book and then says, but, um, no, not in love. The reason I don’t trust your reading of this agent’s response is because when you are in love, you want to take your clothes off. I know a lot of writers who read more into rejection letters (positively and negatively) than they should. In the end, what difference does it make; it was a no. This post is about getting to yes. People are not interested in close calls, per se, unless they are really exciting.
6. It’s awesome that you have an assistant do the grunt work. I know of a writer who had his assistant send his novel out over thirty times before it got accepted. Yes, it’s famous by now, Mr. John Grisham.
7. The two requests for full manuscripts are extremely encouraging. Is that two out of 25? I often tell people it’s a numbers game. If you get a 10-20% rate of request to send your full from your query: keep going. That’s really encouraging. If the rate is lower than that, work on your letter. If they read the full and pass, you need to get your ass into a writer’s workshop or hire an outside editor to critique and help you with a revision. Some writers don’t want to spend the money (it’s a lot less than an MFA, and it’s a professional investment is how I see it. Think of your writing as a business and make smart investments, and I’m not talking about your computer. Can you buy yourself some time, or feedback — and this can be free from a writer’s group, can you afford Breadloaf or another conference).
8. As for the bucket list: you can go to publishers directly, especially Southern presses might make sense such as Algonquin. You can self-publish. There is nothing to stop you.
Whoa, I apologize for long-winded post. Everyone has their writing and then they have their publishing story. I hope it’s helpful to hear about one case history. Of course, I’m dying to hear yours.