Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Accepting When You're the Buck-Stopper

You know the saying—the buck stops here. A simple phrase, easily understood. It means recognizing when the responsibility for something lands squarely on ourselves.

In the realm of the aspiring writer, rejection is the norm. We'll all experience more rejection than acceptance (although hopefully, the magnitude of the acceptance makes up for the sheer number of rejections). There are also a lot of possible reasons for the rejections. Some are within our control. Some aren't.

When we're not getting any nibbles, we need to consider all the possible reasons. Here are some that we may like telling ourselves to feel better, and they may even be true.

It's all subjective. Yes, it is, to a large degree. What one person loves, another may hate. (Just ask my sister.) Maybe the agents you've tried so far just aren't into your premise, but if you keep trying, you'll find one who feels that resonance.

The agent's not really looking for new clients. Well, maybe. Kind of. Personally, I think most agents who are open to queries really are hoping to find new clients. BUT ... a modified version of this may apply if the agent already has a manuscript to shop that's in a similar vein to yours.

The agent was in a bad mood when going through hundreds of queries. Possible, I suppose. Call me an optimist, but I like to think most agents are professional enough to keep moods out of it. But they're human, they're not perfect, so it could happen. Perhaps more likely is unfortunate timing. If an agent is seeing several queries in a row with similar premises—most of them badly done—and then comes across your similarly-themed query, they might be too burned out on the concept to recognize your fresh take.

All those reasons shift the responsibility away from us. That's kind of appealing, right? "It's not MY fault I'm not getting nibbles." Appealing, but dangerous, because here's the thing:

The Buck Stops HERE.

Let's face it. It's WAY more likely that the reason we're not getting nibbles is our fault in some way. Here are a few candidates to consider:

The query sucks. This is even more basic than not finding that magical, evasive, perfect query. Glaring errors. Weak writing. Newbie mistakes. Do your homework, get your rear-end kicked by knowledgeable people (such as those over at AgentQuery Connect), and get the basics right.

The premise is stale. Maybe the actual premise isn't stale, but in the query, it might come across as a tired old rehash of something that's been done. The query needs to highlight what's fresh and awesome in your story.

The un-sucky query isn't doing its job. Getting a well-written query that follows the rules is only the baseline. A query's job is to COMPEL. It must compel the recipient to read more. That's probably what I see lacking most often in queries I critique. The writing and set-up are okay, but it leaves me flat. It doesn't grab me and say, "You must read this!"

The sample pages are letting you down. This is a tricky one, because it can overlap with the idea of subjectivity a LOT. But this is where it all has to come together. Your voice, your technique, your style, your plotting choices, your characters ... they all need to sing in gorgeous harmony. One piece off-key can mean a quick rejection.

That last one can be the hardest. It's easy to say queries are hard. Figuring them out is a whole new learning curve from writing a novel. But it can come down to something as simple and frightening as this:

It might be the writing.

Maybe we're not ready. Maybe our skills need a touch more development.

We have to be open to this. If we're not, we won't take the next step—working harder to improve.

Maybe it's one of the other reasons—the reasons that are out of our control. Personally, I choose to assume I need to make my work better, because in the end, that attitude will do my writing the most good.


Anonymous said...

'sniff'it hurts but its true, better to go over it very critically than moping around

Brent Stratford said...

One of the most common statements from agents is, "don't query us until the ms is as good as you can make it." Most people who have their query critiqued learn about their novel as well as their query. Then it's time to go back and revisit your novel. Once you have your novel critiqued (hopefully by more than one person so you get a range of opinions) you need to look inside and rewrite again. If you haven't done that, then you aren't serious about improving your craft. If you aren't serious about improving your craft then the reason you are getting rejected is that your writing simply is not good enough. It doesn't matter if your story is awesome, or if the characters are amazing, or if you have created an incredible alternate universe. If you can't write well enough to show us those things, no one will want to read your stuff.