Web Analytics

Marginal Notes

Reading the Tea Leaves

Writing never feels more lonely than after you’ve sent your manuscript out to every agent and publisher you can think of and gotten nowhere. Of course, you can always take comfort in the long list of massively successful books that were initially rejected by nearly everyone who saw them. But for every brilliant book that gets rejected out of blindness or stupidity, there are thousands that get rejected because they’re just not very good. How can you tell which camp you fall into?

The quality of your rejections are a good sign. Granted, form rejections don’t tell you much, but if all of your rejections are form letters, it’s probably time to either start a major rewrite or put this manuscript in a drawer and start the next one. (If your manuscript is getting repeatedly turned down on the query alone, you might want to take a second look at your query letter.) If you’re getting glowing rejections (“I love the book, but it’s not right for our list.”) then you’re probably doing something right and should keep sending the manuscript out -- though you might want to refine your agent search to make it more likely it will hit the right desk. And it’s still a good sign even if you’re getting, “I love the book, but . . . “ If a publishing professional has taken time to give you free advice, then your manuscript is probably worth the effort.

You don’t have to rush to take the advice. Individual taste matters a lot in publishing, so don’t dive into a rewrite unless most of your feedback starts to agree. If three different professionals tell you your main character is off-putting, that’s the time to consider if you’d like to hang out with this person.

Independent readers may give you a fair assessment of your manuscript, though the quality of that assessment depends on the expertise of your reader. For ego support, there’s always your family and friends. Fellow writers in mutual critique groups offer a bit more know-how, since they’ve at least gone through the same struggles as you. But writers often help you by telling you how to write more like them, which isn’t much help to you. Realistically, the best way to get a detailed, expert assessment of your manuscript is to pay for it – to hire an independent editor. I know that, when I’m reading a client’s manuscript, I can’t cover more than 40 or 50 pages an hour, and it takes me at least three hours to write up an assessment. So if your manuscript is 300 pages long, you’re talking about an investment of ten or more hours’ work. If you hire and editor who’s thorough, expect to pay accordingly.

Be careful, though. There are plenty of scammers out there happy to give you the praise we all long for just to pry some money out of you. So be leery of praise from people with a vested interest -- agents who ask a modest up front investment to represent you, e-presses that will publish your book for a reasonable design and marketing fee, or small presses that promise to publish your book if you’re willing to have some editing done. Any one of these might steer you to you an in-house editorial “service” or a less than qualified editor who pays kickbacks.

Some years ago, two of my clients who’d had work done by one of these editorial mills were kind enough to send me copies of the critiques they’d gotten. When I compared the two, it was obvious the reports were at least half boilerplate – you could see where the blanks had been left for someone who had skimmed the manuscript to plug in a few individual details. Essentially, every manuscript got the same advice. It was the kind of “editing” that could have been done by a relatively bright high school freshman, and the authors were charged premium rates with the promise of publication dangled in front of them.

Then there’s Quoth the Cabbage.

I first read of this publishing experiment many years ago – long enough that some ghosts of it still survive on the internet, but I couldn’t locate the names of the original authors.

But three authors set out to write the worst manuscript they could and succeeded admirably. Quoth the Cabbage is the story of a poor cabbage farmer in Czarist Russia who is driven mad by his extreme poverty so that he, his wife, and his ten children abandon the farm. But when a group of escaped orphans hides in the cabbage patch, small dolls miraculously emerge from the cabbages to help them. Between them, the dolls and the orphans engineer the Russian Revolution. Later they are banished to Siberia, where they find the farmer and his wife have started a new life. The book ends with the farmer’s family and the orphans sitting around a table enjoying a warm bowl of sauerkraut.

This epic was written in four days, using voice recognition software that was set to only recognize every second or third word. To pad the manuscript out, the authors copied and pasted large chunks of information from Encarta (this was before Wikipedia) and simply repeated large blocks of text over and over. Then they developed a pseudonym (Richard Hulligan), an equally ridiculous query letter (“Several of the guys over here at the VFW think it is great.”), and sent it out to five legitimate and five suspect agents.

All five legitimate agents told Mr. Hulligan to find another hobby. Three of the five suspect agents referred them to an editorial mill that has since been closed down by the New York State Attorney General. But two of the agents asked to see the entire manuscript. And they loved it! One said it had “wit, and a charming style, and considerable and fascinating information. It is joyful and exciting reading.” And, of course, they asked for a pretty stiff copying fee so they could rush it out to publishers they were sure would be eager to read it. They even hinted at film rights.

Things have changed a little since the days of Quoth, but there are still plenty of people willing to make money on a writer’s false hopes. The internet offers many lists of who is and isn’t legit -- Preditors and Editors is one of the best. Googling prospective agents will probably trip red flags. And if five agents tell you not to give up your day job and the sixth thinks you’re brilliant, be careful.

Finally, don’t make the mistake of waiting until you’ve published your first book before you’ve started the second. Everyone’s writing skills build over time, so your second book is probably going to be better than your first, and your third better than your second. Keep writing, keep learning your craft, even as you send our earlier work out. That kind of persistence is the real key to eventually breaking into print.