Why Didn’t I Say “Yes” to Your Submission?
When an agent or editor requests your partial or full manuscript, it’s nerve wracking to wait and wonder, day after day, if they’re reading it and whether they like it. If they finally decide not to offer representation, it hurts and you just want to know… why?
Most agents try to offer some kind of explanation if they’re saying no to a requested manuscript. But giving this kind of feedback is sometimes more difficult than you might think. Each manuscript usually has some good points, and some not-so-good. Often we agonize over our decision. It’s good, but is it good enough? I like it, but will others like it? Are the positives enough to overcome the negatives?
Before I try to analyze exactly what’s going on with a manuscript, I try to experience it as a reader would. I pay attention to my my gut as I’m reading.
You know how sometimes you’re reading a book and you don’t want to put it down, and you’re really frustrated that it’s time to go make dinner or put the kids to bed, and you just want everyone to leave you alone so you can read your book? And whenever you’re doing something else, you just want to be finished so you can get back to reading your book?
But other times you’re reading a book, and it’s easy to put down. You find yourself distracted. You go check your email, or see what’s on TV. Or fall asleep. Not that you can really define anything bad about the book, it’s simply not holding your attention. And when you have some time to read, you debate whether to go back to that book or not.
I have the same kinds of responses when I’m reading manuscripts, and I’m paying close attention to my responses. Do I want to keep reading? When I’m doing something else, am I eager to get back to reading the manuscript? If not, I will probably pass.
I can usually identify why the manuscript isn’t keeping my attention. Maybe it’s just plain boring or the writing isn’t good enough. Maybe it starts out strong but then falls apart. Maybe the characters aren’t well-developed. Or the dialogue isn’t working. Or it didn’t feel original. Or any number of other problems. But for me, the yes or no starts in my gut. It’s not scientific, but it’s what I’ve got.
How do YOU decide whether or not you like a book? Are there areas of your life or work in which you have to rely on your instincts?
“The yes or no starts in my gut.” Agent @RachelleGardner on evaluating submissions. Click to Tweet.
Giving feedback on manuscript submissions is more difficult than you think! Click to Tweet.
It’s good, but is it good enough? I like it, but will others? @RachelleGardner on incoming manuscripts. Click to Tweet.
In case you noticed my blog hiatus, I’m back! My new blogging schedule will be Mon-Weds-Fri. Thanks for reading!
I usually listen to books in my car these days, and I know a book is good when I keep listening after I arrive at my destination 🙂
[…] On her excellent blog, literary agent Rachelle Gardner authored a useful post ‘Why I didn’t say yes to your submission.’ […]
[…] Advice from literary agents: How to approach a literary agent: dos and don’ts; 13 ways to convince a literary agent to represent you; and Why didn’t I say “yes” to your submission? […]
If I add my A.D.D. tendencies with work and a large family it takes good writing to help me suspend life for a mini-vacation of reading. It often takes a relevant topic as well. I will look on my writing with my gut more and close my myopic subjective eye as much as possible. Thank you Rachelle.
[…] quotes are from her latest post, Why Didn’t I Say “Yes” to Your Submission? And in this piece, as in so many, she’s not an apologist for herself or other agents, but she […]
My response when I get to the end of the chapter is telling. If I want to read “just one more chapter,” that’s a good sign. The opposite is forcing myself to finish the chapter before I can go to sleep. The book in my first example will be read in a couple of days, while I may never return to the book in my second example.
It also may have nothing to do with the manuscript. They may LOVE the draft and the proposal, but have challenges with budget, timing or other operational issues that cause them to decline.
[…] From The Village Voice: I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script by Josh Olson From Rachelle Gardner: Why Didn’t I Say “Yes” to Your Submission? From Writer Unboxed: Dealing with a Bad Review by C.W. […]
I’ve read a number of your authors’ books. Some I absolutely love. Some just fall into the *shrug, it’s all right, I guess*. But there seems to be an underlying style you’re aiming for that I can’t quite put my finger on. I guess every agent has that underlying whats-it they’re looking for. So while it might be helpful to know why an agent has passed, it may not be helpful at all. The author may just not have the whats-it.
Sometimes whether or not I can’t put a book down has little to do with whether or not I like the book. I know that sounds weird 🙂 I guess it’s like picking up a celebrity gossip magazine at the doctor’s office just because it’s there and becoming so engrossed you get irritated when the nurse calls you back. But it’s easy to forget about after a minute, and you don’t care about the celebrities anyway.
I’ve actually done this with books. One sounds interesting and I start reading and just can’t seem to stop because I want to find out what happens . . . but if all that’s driving me through the book is curiosity I probably won’t read anything else by that author or talk about the book.
If I do like a book, it’s usually because it’s beautifully written (The English Patient, Atonement) or I absolutely love the characters (The World According to Garp). Those books are the ones I read over and over, and the ones I talk about, and share with others.
It depends on a couple of things, for me.
One is timing. I’ve started books, and just haven’t been able to get into them. But a month or two later, I wondered what my problem had been.
I think one factor that plays into this is what I’ve read immediately before. Reading a captivating book that takes one out of one’s own life is wonderful – but a bit of a letdown when one finishes. The next book one picks up can easily suffer in comparison.
The other major factor is quality and style of writing. It’s very hard to stay with a poorly-written book.
But style plays into it, as well. When “The Right Stuff” came out, it was stylistically fresh, treating its subject matter in a way that seemed, at least to the layman, fitting.
But later, I got to know people in the world Tom Wolfe described (and in similar occupations). The style that seemed so vivid was, on re-reading – embarrassingly cartoonish. The books that aped Wolfe’s style were likewise quickly consigned to my “No, thanks” pile.
Missed your insight. I’m glad you’re back.
I used to try to finish every book I spent my hard-earned money on, but life it too short and My TBR pile it too high to waste time on a book I’m not enjoying.
Why would you want to represent a book you can’t thoroughly put yourself behind 100 percent, especially when you’ll most likely have to read the manuscript several times?
Are there areas of my work where I rely on instinct? Yes, and thank goodness I do– otherwise my writing would be skewed towards what is selling, rather than what I’m best at telling.
Pacing and dialogue are key for me. If I feel the book is getting bogged down or the plot is not moving along I stop reading. There is plenty of room for both character and plot development even in a fairly fast-paced book. I particularly love it when I’m struck by the way dialogue or character rumination is handled. JD MacDonald, for example, has a way of starting a scene five minutes in and expecting you to catch up without added exposition. He and Elmore Leonard both excel at writing taut dialogue. It’s smart without trying to be.
When buying a book, I love at the cover. If it’s one of those cartoony things that seem to be popular now it will have to work to get me to buy it. I read the first couple of pages or more if it really has me captured, some random pages in the middle and possibly the last page.
If I’m reading and get easily distracted or frustrated, chances are I may not return to it. One very popular author is very fond of cliche descriptions and repeating what has happened to a character as if we need to be reminded every few pages. The last book of his I tried to read was also the first book I have ever thrown at a wall. Yet another “her titian tresses” caused the book tossing.
Fortunately, things like this are a lesson to me. I trust my readers were paying attention and don’t keep reminding them what has already happened. My characters have flaws. I try to make each page interesting because I know there are other readers out there who must choose like I do and sample random pages.
Even so, I do wonder, “is it good enough?”
“Before I try to analyze exactly what’s going on with a manuscript, I try to experience it as a reader would. I pay attention to my my gut as I’m reading.”
So, beyond the professional factor, you use the human factor:) I can totally relate to this. Thanks for the great post, Rachelle. How many books have we bought online at Amazon, or at B&N stores; GREAT cover, Fabulous title. Superb blurb, Wonderful opening…and then two chapters in we lay the book down and move on?
Glad you are back!
I’m always amazed when agents say they read the manuscript as a reader. I don’t know how you do that! It must take great discipline not to want to edit or judge from the eye of a professional. And I can’t imagine the joy at finally finding a manuscript you can’t put down. If only we as writers would take more care to polish before we waste someone’s time.
Jan, as an editor I can tell you I never “turn off” the editing vibe. It’s sort of like that line from The Avengers when the Hulk says the secret to controlling his anger is that he is “always angry.” I’m “always editing” but I don’t let that get in the way of the story.
Great analogy! I can relate.
When reading, I judge a good book by its pace and character development. I have to admit that there have been seasons in my life when reading has been difficult, or I pick up a recommended book and find it dull. Only to rediscover it a year later and LOVE it.
In my own life, I have relied on my gut/instincts when it comes to assessing a medical situation for my patients and frequently when it comes to raising my kiddos.
Interesting. But what if you don’t find the manuscript captivating, but 9 out of 10 others do? This is what I experience with feedback from my first two self-published books. Most people say that they can’t put it down, but the occasional reader can’t seem to keep interested and struggles to complete the stories.
That’s why there are so many great agents. Different strokes for different folks.
I submitted a manuscript on a publisher’s request and waited the required six months. When they did not respond, I reread my manuscript. The lesson: when you read your own manuscript after letting it sit for 6 months and find yourself mentally making substantive changes, it is not ready to be published. As I sat at the computer wondering how to withdraw my novel from consideration, I received a rejection email from the publisher. I responded by telling them I wouldn’t have considered it for publication either. Sometimes it’s good to separate yourself from your manuscript so you can see it in its true light.
AH! So true! Great reminder!
My gut sounds similar to yours, which is, do I want to set everything else aside so I can continue to read it? But sometimes, its just my mood. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a thriller. Sometimes dystopian. Sometimes, I just want a silly romance. So I try to go back later and see if it grabs my attention.
I just finished a (very famous) book that is excellent, by all kinds of objective measures. I could look at it from an English professor perspective as really appreciate the brilliance of the writer. But between reading page one and the last page, I completed reading about six other books. Frankly, the writer drew the world so convincingly that I felt I was in it while reading and…I couldn’t STAND that world. Didn’t want to be there.
just curious, what book was that?
I kinda hate to say, but Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula LeGuin. And I was really hoping to love it.
Glad you are back, Rachelle! But I’m also happy that you were able to take a break. I hope you were doing fun things and not just getting caught up with work!
I judge books the same way that you do. If I don’t want to put it down, I know it’s a winner.
When I’m editing my own manuscripts, that gut reaction is also something that I rely on. On about the 3rd draft, there will be some portions of the manuscript that I read fast and furious. That’s good news. Other parts that I drag through. I know those are places to cut completely or at least edit severely. Of course by the 5th draft or so, I can’t tell anymore if what I’ve written is good or drivel. And thus, my complete and total gratitude for agents and editors!
I just finished judging a great bunch of young writers on their 4-H prose writing entries for our county fair … looking at it from that direction gives any writer a whole different point of view.
As a reader, I’ve been noticing that same instinct in myself. Is this the kind of book I want to pick back up as soon as I get a chance, or is even that act a drag? And wondering why, exactly, it goes in one direction or the other. Super subjective, so maybe a disappointment for us as writers, and yet, I can’t imagine doing it any other way than you describe.
Excellent post–and thanks for sharing your perspective, process and observations! Now, back to editing…
Great post, reminds me of when I was still in the classroom and grading essays. There’s just an “it” factor that separates the good from the great.