Various Iterations of No

I’ve been sending around my YA novel to agents in the hopes of representation. While no one has yet expressed interest, I have received a handful of rejections. They all express the same sentiments: they are regretful, the book world is so subjective, I deserve an agent who is as passionate about my work as I am, I should continue.

I am delighted to know about this world of polite “no’s.” I’m not unperceptive and I know these are more or less form letters, but I enjoy their courteous encouragement. And for people as busy as agents—in this world of instant electronic submissions—just receiving a reply can be interpreted as a form of success. But having run the gamut of iterations of “no” for a while, I now want to know why. To that end I have an idea: How about a form rejection letter that would have suggestions or comments built in that the agent would underscore or make bold or put an X next to. It could look something like this.

Dear Deb,

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to review your work. However, I am not going to offer you representation based on this manuscript because:

X Your writing needs to be tightened up

   Your characters are flat/tropey

    Your plot lacks sufficient development

X This subject is not selling right now

Best regards, Agent

Does that seem too harsh? I think it would be helpful and I don’t think it would take up any more of the agent’s time than cutting and pasting a form letter. I know brusque is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I prefer it to bland vagaries. (Well, I like to think I do.) I belong to a writing group that gets straight to the point. I review books professionally and I’m a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Yes, I sometimes get that “ouch” feeling when I get critiqued, but I always, eventually, appreciate it because it always makes my work better.

Stephen King wrote that it was a game changer for him when an editor scrawled a note on his rejected manuscript that it was too puffy and that the second draft equals the first draft minus ten percent. He took that advice to heart, pared down his stories and started getting acceptances.

Agents want to get good books out to the marketplace, and what better way to help that process than to give serious writers a teeny signpost, included in a form letter, that reflects the agent’s perspective?

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8 thoughts on “Various Iterations of No

  1. I think the check box idea is a good one. It’s a quick way for an agent to offer a tiny bit of guidance. I’m like you – if I’ve failed to miss the mark, tell me where I went astray. Perhaps you could include a separate feedback page with a checkbox list that requests specific guidance with your next submission?

  2. I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t do the checkbox that requests specific guidance if they’re not interested at all…after all it’s a business. But I’m hoping that a check-box form rejection letter would give a bit more info than just an encouraging ‘no.”
    p.s. Good to hear from you!

  3. 50 different shades of no, indeed. I’ve been there with my work, but it takes courage and perseverance to keep going. I’ve finally published my two books and my journey on how I got there is on my blog home page. But best of luck for your success. 🙂

  4. Deb, wishing you huge success with this novel… agent or not.
    Believe me, not all of those letters are courteous. When I first started writing seriously I submitted short stories to many places. One sent a check box reply… but it wasn’t like your idea. It was a narrow slip of paper with a few non-informative box options. It was so poorly done I had to laugh.
    Hugs!

  5. We could actually have a lot of fun with check boxes. How about a blog post where we make up different check box replies for various form letters? It could be hilarious (and cathartic.) Anyone have ideas?

  6. Many agents say they generally don’t offer a “why” because that can bring about a flurry of argumentative emails – or worse. But when I refer a writer to an agent, I’ve found that agents often do respond with an explanation of why the book isn’t working for them. Moral: meet people who happen to know agents, or go to events where you might meet some, I suppose. Or consider joining an online critique group (check out Backspace) that can critique query and opening pages.

  7. It’s sad to me that those scribbled notes are becoming antique. I expect agents would be leery of even the checkbox as they might seem to invited questions. After all, a check would make a curious good author want to know, where exactly, in what way? And those letters are saying they’re done. But the one thing they get right is that good art is a matter of opinion or taste, and you have to keep going to land on that desk of the person who will love it. You probably have a better writing group than Stephen King had, so trust them — I know you do. And keep on. I know you will.

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