I’m teaching again. The University of Utah has again let me stand in classroom at night talking to adults about art. It’s heaven. This semester’s class is called Literary Querying, The Art of Rejection and it’s a class I can teach because I’m a self-taught expert. I learned it all the hard way because there was no other way to learn it. Classes like I’m giving should give new authors a head-start in this changing industry.
As I again go into the forms and chances of literary querying, I remember that there is one thing that does not change: the subjectiveness of it.
I spent the first half of my first class trying to discourage my students because, well, because this business is hard. Making a living as an artist is a long shot and I wanted them to know this. And what’s worse, success has little to do with how good you are or how great your writing is. It's about luck and...
IT’S ALL SUBJECTIVE.
I think writing has to be capable to be published, adequate to be a best-seller. It does not need to be great. In fact, that often works against it, in my experience. Novelty and approaching the borders are an unknown territory few agents and publishers are willing to explore. The biggest lie an agent will ever tell you is “I want something different.” They don’t—they want the same repackaged.
But I digress.
Big agents receive thousands of queries per week. Per week. Let that sink in Thousands per week. Usually, they’ll have a dozen or so active clients. Let’s say twenty-four to be kind. They’re not really looking for anyone new. They might have one opening a year and fifty-two thousand applicants.
Let’s say, because we’re charitable this morning, coffee is good and hot, the cat is playing with his tail—all’s as right in our writing world as it can be, that the agent or editor who reads our query reads it all, gives it the attention it deserves and doesn’t toss it away as fast as he/she can to get to the next one, after not being blown over by the first word of the letter. “Dear,” how cliche.
They read our letter and consider. It’s a great book, we're a decent writer. The market is clear, it’s not too weird, not too safe. It can coattail on another best-seller or maybe branch out enough to be its own. It’s right in the gatekeepers wheel house (gatekeeper meaning the agent/editor/publisher/judge/manager/reader—those people keeping us from the treasure of the publishing castle.) We're even in the gatekeeper's primary genre, their selected age group. It’s good. It's perfect.
But… their danish was a little stale this morning. They have rash on their ankle they can’t explain. They’re late for a dentist appointment. Their signifiant other has a new fetish involving Crisco and garage-door openers and Sis is calling for a family meeting about Dad’s World of WarCraft addiction. And let’s face it, if they don’t pick up their friend’s cousin’s girlfriend’s collection of Unicorn Haiku, the group will never be the same and they really need those Friday night drinking parties to let off steam.
Mood, weather, sunspots, fate—it doesn’t matter, they put it aside. It didn’t grab them just the way they needed to be grabbed that day. All was perfect except that one butterfly flapped its wings in Thailand the day before and off goes the form letter rejection: “I’m sorry to have to decline…. yadda yadda yadda, this is subjective business. Wishing you the best….”
The greatest authors, the ones who’ve shaped the tapestry of the art had to fight these same gatekeepers.
What is one man’s poison is another man's food. Such is taste, which the core of art.
Another agent has no problem with book as a whole but falls on a fatal detail they'd be hard put to explain. A gut twitch (a bit of undigested mustard?) a single scene or one word. We're tossed aside, because, say, I have a scene in it where a divorcing wife leaves her husband in jail while she finishes up the paper work. A vital scene for my story, funny and effective, character arc, plot point, local color, all good—but it triggered the agent to reject it. That book later goes on to be published and win awards, but only after going through hundreds of rejections like this.
This is my book, THE FINGER TRAP. In a perfect storm I found by not giving up, it found print. It’s now finding readers and most have been very positive. It won a Platinum Quill. These are wonderful, validating things, but still subjective. I got lucky.
It’s all subjective.
I recommend as an exercise for you, my self-doubting artist reader, to go to Amazon and research one of your favorite books or movies. A big one. One with thousands of reviews. Read the one-star reviews and cringe, but take strength in that. Those people see things differently. It did not speak to them and they rejected it, our masterpiece. In our righteous eyes, we see that they are wrong.
it’s all subjective.
That is the nature of art. If it were not so, it would not be art.