Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Thursday, May 06, 2010

slings & arrows

In the writing game, the risk of rejection is everywhere. And no threat of rejection is more daunting, more potentially lethal, than sending your work to an editor or agent who can dash your dreams with the stroke of a pen.

If you take this risk and send your manuscript, your baby, out into the world in hopes of being published, you are one of two types: naive and delusional (the grandmother who just knows Houghton Mifflin will be thrilled to give her a six-figure advance on her rhyming alphabet book because all of her grandchildren love it); or a bit like the Black Knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail movie - battle-weary and wounded, but still hopeful of victory. Yes, he's ridiculous, trying to fight without arms or legs. But I love his never-say-die spirit.

How can anyone be sure, though, whether they're more like the delusional grandma or the dauntless knight? As the tuneless-but-clueless people who audition for American Idol prove year after year, the utterly talentless are the last ones to know how truly bad they are. What if, despite dozens of classes, conferences, and retreats, and five years of twice-a-month critique group meetings, my work was as ghastly as their singing?

That's where total strangers come in handy: the total strangers who judge writing contests, to be precise. In the preliminary round, that mostly means other writers in your same genre. And, if you make it past them to the finals, editors and agents who actually know what they're talking about, if only because they make a living doing what you only dream of.

And so, with what I hoped to be my best effort to date, I entered contests. I expected to do this for a long time before even daring to think of submitting to an editor or agent. Surprise, surprise. In the very first contest I entered, I took third place. Encouraged but not convinced, I finished the manuscript and entered parts of it in six more contests. I just missed the cut in two, made the finals in four, and took first place in two of those. Even more amazing, an agent who judged the finals of one of those contests (not one of the ones I won, remarkably) asked to see more of my manuscript. And not just any agent. An established, well-respected, highly successful agent with a top New York agency.

To be frank, the invitation terrified me. Here was the acid test. Was my work up to the challenge? Weighed down by self-doubt (a common writer malady), it took two months to polish the first 50 pages and write a synopsis and cover letter. It took three more days to actually get up the courage to hit "send" on the email. And as I waited for a response, I tried to rein in my galloping hopes. I reminded myself that the agent wasn't a big fan of the time period I'd chosen for my novel and that she felt my contest entry might be a bit plot-heavy for a romance. I reminded myself that even J.K. Rowling submitted Harry Potter about 100 times before she found someone to publish The Sorcerer's Stone. In short, I prepared myself for disappointment.

But deep inside, a seed of longing had been planted.

The agent's email arrived two days ago. Yes, it was a rejection. But it was a good rejection. A great rejection, in fact. She praised my plot, my characters, my writing. She seemed genuinely sad to have to tell me no. But she didn't love the book with her whole heart, and an agent must love a book to be an effective advocate for it. She encouraged me to keep looking for someone who could love it the way it deserved to be loved. And then, miracle of miracles, she invited me to submit again when I have something else. Rumor has it this almost never happens. And that made it, in short, the gold medal of rejection letters.

Now, this agent is a superb professional, but I know from friends who have met her that she's also a lovely person. Is it possible she let me down easy? Of course. But in this, as in the contests, I have been extremely blessed. She could have shattered me with a form-letter response or a harsh comment. Instead, she inspired me. In fact, a new story is already percolating in my brain. One I think she just might love with all her heart. And, while I write it, I'll keep shopping the book she couldn't quite love to other agents and publishers. Because I'm the Black Knight. This is my quest, and now that I've dared to go for it, I'll never say 'die.'

1 comment:

  1. I first want to say that it encourages me in my work to know that someone with your writing talents experiences the same angst as I do. I can't even begin to imagine what the odds are for a story winning all the awards yours has already racked up. That's HUGE!! I'm sorry this agent wasn't the one but you're correct that this is a gold medal rejection. If she was "letting you down easy" there's no way she would have invited you to submit again. I'd count her as someone with faith in your work. If you like, I can extend her a formal invitation to join the "We want to write like Bernie" fan club. As president, I may hold some sway. =)