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    Bridge Ladies Sometimes I think a meteor could strike the earth and wipe out mankind with the exception of my mother’s Bridge club — Roz, Bea, Bette, Rhoda, and Jackie — five Jewish octogenarians who continue to gather for lunch and Bridge on Mondays as they have for over fifty years. When I set out to learn about the women behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, and most of all the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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Will You Still Feed Me?

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,
Name Withheld

Dear Writer:
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.

18 Responses

  1. The grunt work. That’s precious.

  2. Mmm. Algonquin. I’ve never submitted directly to a publisher but my mind keep going back to Algonquin.

    Oh and thanks for the longer post. 🙂 I always burn through your posts so quickly – this one was great.

  3. Your book better be damned good if you send it to Algonquin. The editors there are some of the best in the business; the books Algonquin publishes are almost always topnotch.

  4. Not sure if I should tell this story, but here goes. Got such a beautiful email response from Chuck at Algonquin. He requested my ms, but sat on it for a while. Turns out, the reader report was not great. But an agent who read it (and knew Chuck had it) picked up the phone and recommended it to him. He read it in one night. (Shows the power you agents have!) Meanwhile, I was starting revisions with the agent, who invited me over the same day. What a week that was! Chuck’s letter was one of the most gorgeous I’ve received and I cherish the good things he said. But none of this panned out. I’m invited to submit future stuff to Algonquin, though. I love that guy.

  5. Betsy,

    What a great post – you answered all her questions and reminded the rest of us of some important points.

  6. An agent did say she loved my romantic comedy and praised very specific points about it, but in the end she didn’t represent it because she said she couldn’t think of whom to sell it to.

    I don’t think it’s impossible that she was telling the truth. My novel is quirky enough in some respects that it would be difficult to shelve, but the people who read it (and I’m not meaning my mom and my best friend) enjoy it. I’ve heard specifically from enough different agents that this is good (they didn’t use the word “love”) but it would be a tough sell that I do believe it to be the case.

    (My work-in-progress will be more easily shelved, I hope, and then this book can sit nicely beside it on the same shelf. That’s my plan.)

  7. once got an email from an agent who said she “loved your book, but my Readers thought it would be a hard sell.” Are these Readers professional readers, members of the reading public, ex-editors? Is a Reader better than an intern – especially one training to become an agent?

    • My latest rejection included the reader report, something I’ve never seen before. This was very instructive to me! The reader was obviously just out of college, if that, and trying to impress. He/she didn’t get what I was doing at all. I don’t think the agent ever read it. Chuck may never have read it either if it weren’t for the agent’s call. I now see just what I’m up against: if you’re trying to do something unusual, something that’s not your typical, safe, housewife’s read, they just don’t know what to make of it. They don’t know how to recognize something original.

  8. My paying gig is in the corporate world, and it always amazes me the amount of people who want to (or do) write for a living who send letters to professionals that sound as if their teenaged children wrote them. I may be just learning how to write fiction, but when the time comes that I’m ready to publish I will write to an agent in a professional, straightforward manner that speaks directly to the reasons why my piece is the right piece for that agent. Compared to learning how to write fiction that part seems really easy to me. Or is it just me?

  9. Algonquin/Water for Elephants

  10. Thanks for this, it was extremely helpful– and heartening. I feel so naive at this game but apparently I’m right where I should be.

    I know you’re not supposed to do this but I’ve sent out two rounds of queries now knowing pretty full well both times that my material wasn’t there yet– once a number of years ago and, again, quite recently. The first time I just so desperately needed to know that I was moving in the right direction. I got a couple close calls that time that were really encouraging and constructive– including a very lengthy, detailed rejection of the whole manuscript from the infamous Mr. Clegg (I had no idea who he was at the time). This last time, I was hoping for the same sort of constructive feedback. I ended up having an agent walk me through the process of writing a proposal. She really helped me to figure out what I was trying to accomplish. I might’ve blown my shot with these agents by querying too early (maybe not), but I don’t regret the decisions I’ve made. It’s gotten me to the place where I’m at today, on the verge of yet another rewrite.

    I can’t wait until my “publishing story” actually includes publication… but, actually, I can wait. You had better believe the next time I send my stuff around, it’s gonna be ready.

  11. Two agents have seen partials. Almost by mistake. An editor/writing coach I was working with showed my stuff to her agent. She wants the full ms whenever I’m ready. Then I shared the first 3 chapters with another agent because we happened to cross paths. She also told me she’ll be waiting when I’m ready. Apparently, she’s been approached about a specific market my work falls into. I was flattered as hell but am feeling skeptical now. On the bright side I didn’t receive form letters and the words didn’t sound generic to me. But it all sounds a bit too easy. Per your FTTT advice, I’ve decided to still do a blanket mailing the moment edits are complete. Guess time will tell.

  12. Oops, that’s me not nobody. Different computer.

  13. I sent my full to an agent who wrote back and said the assistant loved it and the agent was loving it as well and would get back to be in a few days. I didn’t hear anything for six weeks, but the agent offered representation after a small press expressed interest in my work–the small press found me after my previous book (also small press published) won an award. The agent felt that the small press interest could be parlayed into a more lucrative offer from a major publisher.

    I ended up signing with the agent due to the earlier profession of “love” though I realize “interest from a publisher” was what led to the agent’s interest in me.

  14. Is the post title a subtle warning about the age of the querier?

  15. “Literary history and the present are dark with silences: some the silences for years by our acknowledged great; some silences hidden; some the ceasing to publish after one work appears; some the never coming to book form at all. What is it that happens with the creator, to the creative process, in that time? ”
    Tillie Olsen’s “Silences.” 1962

    Indeed.

  16. Ouch!

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