When the Truth Hurts

You didn’t think you’d avoid an American Idol post, did you? (Serves you right for showing up here the day after the premiere!)

Can I just tell you how much fun I have with this show? It’s always such a terrific metaphor for the publishing business, and in many ways, life itself. I can’t help comparing this phase of the show—the initial auditions—to my box of unsolicited queries. Brave people showing up to show their stuff. They’re taking their courageous leap of faith, and they have such a brief moment of time to either impress—or not.

What I find interesting is some of the things the judges say to the contestants who aren’t ready for the big time. Their comments often sound exactly like what goes through my head when I read queries. I wrote some of them down during the show:

“Very clichéd.”

“I don’t think you’ve got star quality and I don’t think you ever will.”

“You want to be a rock star, but you’re not going to be a rock star.”

“Some of the greatest experiences come from the blood, sweat and tears… “

“To get to be big in this industry, it takes a lot of hard work, and you haven’t put that hard work in to be here today.”

“I don’t think you’re quite ready for this yet.”

“The reality is you’re not at that level.”

“Either you’re born with it or you ain’t.”

“What are you going to do to make us jump out of our seat?”

This kind of criticism is hard to hear, but as AI clearly illustrates, the judges wouldn’t be doing anyone any favors if they failed to tell the truth. Think about that when you get rejection letters, criticisms, or even edits on your contracted book that feel harsh to you. Yes, it hurts. But the only way to move to the next level, to get better, is to pay attention to the things you’re being told by people who have educated opinions, learn from them when you can, and keep going.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Matthew C. Kriner on March 26, 2012 at 2:01 AM

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  2. Kim Kasch on January 15, 2009 at 12:39 AM

    >I would love to “see” books dramatized on mp3 files. So, I could listen to them, when I’m riding my bike to work.

    Kinda like books on tape – oh wait, maybe they already exist.

  3. Anonymous on January 14, 2009 at 8:25 PM

    >Great analogy–sad to see how clueless some people are and how shocked they are by rejection.
    Re: Kindle: It may be great for publishing pros, but for most writers and readers, a real book can’t be replaced by a machine, no matter how small!

  4. Rachel on January 14, 2009 at 8:12 PM

    >Yeah, Rachelle. Which judge are you? (don’t say Simon…)

  5. Anonymous on January 14, 2009 at 3:35 PM

    >Writers can atlesat be rejected in private AI contestants have guts

  6. Avily Jerome on January 14, 2009 at 3:00 PM

    >I don’t watch TV, so I missed it. But I can’t say I’m sorry to have missed people getting slammed to the ground.

    I am very sensitive to rejection. I cry every time I get a rejection letter. Well, ok, not EVERY time anymore, but still…

    I do use rejection to motivate me to improve, but I don’t see why rejections have to be brutal. You can learn just as well- possibly better- from a nicely put rejection.

  7. Doug on January 14, 2009 at 2:26 PM

    >While I totally agree with your point that the judges on AI should be truthful, I feel that Simon in particular goes out of his way to be extra annoying. I feel he does this to create more conflict and entice more viewers to watch. I typically agree with what he says, but not the way he says it. Simon is the antithesis of your friends and relatives though. And that’s what you need when you are trying to get truthful opinions on whether your work is “good enough” or not.

  8. Dal Jeanis on January 14, 2009 at 1:07 PM

    >Rejection Queen – any franchise will continue until the money stops flowing, or until the author stops creating or dies (and constrains the rights so that no one else can create).

    All – “You haven’t got what it takes and you never will” is something that no human being can accurately evaluate. On the other hand, people confronted with that statement have two choices – (1) quit, which they should do if they can anyway, or (2) prove him wrong, which they should do if they can, anyway.

    So it’s just an unkind way of saying “not for me”.

    Dara – that’s exactly the line I thought the most of. “You haven’t done the work yet to be here.” Obviously truthful, in many cases.

  9. Chatty Kelly on January 14, 2009 at 12:49 PM

    >I usually don’t start watching until the top 24, because I don’t like the whole pick through the bad process. I guess I’d be a bad editor. I only want to watch once the good ones are on.

    Great analogy. So wondering who you most relate to, Randy, Paula, Simon or the new girl.

  10. Dara on January 14, 2009 at 12:08 PM

    >I don’t watch AI–it hurts too much to watch how some of the judges seem to revel in their cruel statements.

    I think there’s a fine line between constructive criticism and just plain being mean. For example, something like this:

    “To get to be big in this industry, it takes a lot of hard work, and you haven’t put that hard work in to be here today.”

    That’s constructive. But saying your voice–or your writing–is horrible and there’s no chance for improvement is not only mean but also egotistical, IMHO. Sure, there are some people who shouldn’t be singers or writers (though somehow there are a number of both that managed to succeed) but there’s a way to nicely tell them such.

    From what I’ve seen, literary agents can vary too, just like the judges on AI. For the most part, they are professional in their rejection but there have also been those stories of agents who have been downright cruel in their rejection letters.

    Anyway, I believe I rambled on enough 😛

  11. The Rejection Queen on January 14, 2009 at 11:50 AM

    >I’m sorry, but I am completely over this whole thing. One season was enough. Why does American like to milk everything to it’s death?

  12. Lea Ann McCombs on January 14, 2009 at 11:18 AM

    >Did David actually ask if AI was essential? OF COURSE it is! How else do you get through the dreary, cold winter months? My kids plan their schedules around it!

    We actually like the early rounds the best and have an ongoing arguement on whether or not some of those wackos are paid entertainers. What do you think?

    I too was struck by the similarities between the AI hopefuls and the writing business. Fortunatey, Rachelle is a “Paula” and not a “Simon”, although I’m sure there are many times she’d love to say, “Don’t quit your day job.”

  13. Janet on January 14, 2009 at 11:13 AM

    >I see a lot of parallels between AI and publishing too.

    Where it troubles me is in my relationships with other aspiring writers. I really don’t want to be the one saying, “You haven’t got what it takes and you never will.” Partly because that takes guts and partly because I could be wrong. I mean, I would say that to some published novelists too. So who am I to say?

    I do, when asked, try to point out where improvements can be made, but I hesitate to join the chorus of friends saying, “They’ll recognize your talent some day.” I’d only do that for someone who really sparkled.

    Trying to find the sweet spot between being too harsh and feeding delusions is tricky.

    I sure hope the people encouraging me are not just feeding my delusions.

  14. Lady Glamis on January 14, 2009 at 10:45 AM

    >So true! Constructive criticism might hurt, but in the end, it is always helpful if the person will let it be. What good is constant praise when it won’t help you grow!? And especially if it’s a lie!

  15. Rosslyn Elliott on January 14, 2009 at 10:35 AM

    >Like Lynn and Courtney, I no longer watch the early rounds.

    I can take the judges’ comments: most of the time, I think the judges are reasonably kind and straightforward.

    No, what bugs me about the early rounds is what Cathy observed. Too many contestants think they’re the best thing since sliced bread. I have a really hard time watching people who don’t have any ability to self-criticize, and/or have an outsized sense of entitlement. I’m too conscious that this sense of entitlement is running rampant through our culture. As a result, watching the early rounds takes me too far from Phil. 4:8. The later rounds, by contrast, tend to be dominated by people who are more honest with themselves. That ability to be humble and see one’s shortcomings is the key to learning, so it makes sense that the better singers are those who understand how difficult singing actually is, and how easy it is to fall short and underperform. The parallel to writing is pretty clear. I find that good writers are very self-critical, and their struggle is usually to overcome their sense of inadequacy and keep writing!

  16. Anonymous on January 14, 2009 at 10:23 AM

    >Haha Katy I was just about to say: On the plus side for female writers, all you need is a bikini.

  17. Heidi on January 14, 2009 at 10:09 AM

    >I was thinking the same thing as I watched last night!

    That golden ticket – it’s like getting an agent. For most of them, it’s as far as they’ve thought. It’s huge. It’s the passport to their dreams.

    BUT it’s still a long way from being the dream, like getting an agent doesn’t mean you will automatically get a publisher and land on the bestseller list.

    It’s a step. Worth celebrating, for sure, but still just the beginning of a lot of more hard work!

  18. Pam Halter on January 14, 2009 at 9:41 AM

    >What gets me is when people argue with the judges! Good heavens!! I can’t imagine arguing to an editor’s face about a rejection.

    I’m sure the lesson here is that we need to learn from rejection, especially if there is a specific reason.

  19. Courtney Walsh on January 14, 2009 at 9:23 AM

    >I’m with Lynn. At least this year. These initial rounds always have me cringing and holding my breath… and I HATE watching other people get let down or made fun of. I’ve always watched it in the past, but this year I’m going to wait til Hollywood week I think.

    I do agree with you though–completely right about the way it parallels the writing world.

  20. lynnrush on January 14, 2009 at 8:58 AM

    >I’m not a big fan of AI until it’s dow to the final rounds. I just can’t bring myself to watch much before then.

    I’m a wimp though.

    But you’re right, I imagine it’s comparable to what you experience as an agent.


  21. Katy McKenna on January 14, 2009 at 8:54 AM

    >I’m always interested, too, in the ones who make it through to Hollywood for some “it” factor other than simply, “You can sing, baby!”

    Bikini girl made it through, in spite of being completely obnoxious. Unless she appears in a bikini going forward, can she really hold onto a spot?

    And then there was the girl who kept her fellow contestants entertained and pumped learning new dances while they waited for their auditions. She was an OK singer, but not fantastic. But all the judges LOVED her personality. They perceived her as a joy to be around, and they couldn’t help but put her through—at least, for one more round.

    At this stage in my wanna-be-pubbed career, I am trying to make my novel the best it can be, and polishing up my personality, too.

    The bikini, however, is history.

  22. David A. Todd on January 14, 2009 at 8:39 AM

    >I have never watched American Idol. Is it really all that essential?

  23. Catherine West on January 14, 2009 at 8:28 AM

    >You either have it or you don’t – I’m not sure most of those contestants will buy that one. I mean, who can fault them for having a dream? We all have dreams, right? I do agree there must be some inborn talent for whatever you are going after, be it singing, dancing, writing, but if you really want it, if you’re willing to work for it, your chances of seeing your dreams come true are greater. I have fortunately never had anyone tell me that my writing was so bad I should give it up or write Tide commercials. I think what always surprises me the most about the first few weeks of AI is that these people really think they’re it. Even when the only person who tells them they can sing well is their mother, they still put themselves out there.
    It’s interesting, isn’t it? After all, if you don’t have faith in yourself, how can you possibly expect anyone else to? I hope all the ones who are being rejected and laughed at will continue to chase after their dreams. We can certainly learn from watching them. And as my dad likes to say, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.”

  24. Susan on January 14, 2009 at 7:56 AM

    >I always like the initial rounds the best, just for the sympathy in rejection or elation of acceptance: it does seem like a big human slushpile.

    What I like to is being able to view the process: the huge crowd of candidates, the very few seconds each one gets, and the reaction of the judges. One of the difficult things about sending out queries and manuscripts is being in the dark for so long while it all happens somewhere else…but watching AI again, I can almost be thankful for that!

  25. Timothy Fish on January 14, 2009 at 6:33 AM

    >”you should do voice-overs, like for a cartoon with a monster…” That sounds an awful lot like, “write what you know.” If the deep voice guy had come out singing a song that fit his voice and had done so on key then I think they would have wanted to put him through. I don’t care how distinctive your voice is, I don’t think you’re going to do well on American Idol if you sing no more than three notes.

  26. Gwen Stewart on January 14, 2009 at 4:39 AM

    >I thought of your words of wisdom last night, Rachelle: beware overwriting. The “real deals” seem unassuming. Surprisingly, the singers they pass miss sections IMHO. But when they miss it’s a glitch in an otherwise solid, promising voice. Others give a technically flawless performance, but it’s over-rehearsed, unnatural and not heartfelt. There’s something forced and fake about the voice–even though it sounds good, it doesn’t resonate or “ring true”.

    I bet there’s similarities between Idol and writing there too.

    Also, just once I think you need a stretch black limo to approach your query inbox. Or at least an in-house sylist to save you the trouble of doing your own hair. 🙂

  27. Camille Cannon Eide on January 14, 2009 at 2:20 AM

    >Ooo, the one that hurt the most, I thought, came surprisingly from Paula. I know she meant to be encouraging, but “you should do voice-overs, like for a cartoon with a monster…” to the guy with the deep voice was cruel. I already felt bad for him after they welcomed him by laughing at the way he sounded. He can’t help it. OMG. My jaw cracked the floor. I couldn’t believe Paula said that.

    The first weeks of AI are painful to watch. Painful to see how many self-deluded people are out there. Not like here—no one like that in the writing world, eh Rachelle?