The First Fruits of the Submissions Drive

I got home last night to find a letter waiting for me on the stairs. I really wasn’t expecting to get anything back this quickly, and I assumed that a rapid response was not probably not a good sign.

I opened the envelope and found my cover letter with some notes written on it. That is unusual; most agents have a simple form letter they return. This saves the agent time, but more important it shields them from indignant rebuttals from would-be authors. So that was nice. Normally you have no idea why you’ve been rejected, and therefore you have no idea what to do about it.

I was rejected for two reasons, and both of them may be problematic. The manuscript is too long and i break a Rule. Cut 35% of the text, change it so there is no broken Rule and they would be interested in taking a closer look.

The note went on to say that judging by the opening few paragraphs I should have no trouble finding the words to eliminate. Ironically, those words are there more for the agent than for the story, setting the mood while I demonstrate my style. (Although I have tightened it up a bit since submitting to this agent.) Then it gets right down to the action and never stops. I’ve already gone through the manuscript a few times chopping out any deadwood I could find. (Well, OK, there is one action sequence that does not ultimately change the outcome of the story, but I like it. In a pinch, I have about 5,000 words to give. Only 35,000 more and I’m golden.)

There’s another way I could shorten the thing easily. I could just chop the damn thing in half, hang the reader out to dry when they thought they were buying an entire story only to get to the end and find out that they’ve bought the first of a series. I’ve read some books that make no pretense whatsoever at providing a satisfying ending, and it pisses me off. Some of them may as well break mid-sentence for all the concern they show for their readers. Still, it’s an option…

Then there’s the Rule. I’ll have to review how I present it in the cover letter; the response seemed to think I broke the Rule for humor, which can’t be farther from the truth. Breaking the Rule is intrinsic to the way the story works, and I’m certain that if someone would read the thing they would agree with me that it works pretty dang well.

So, naturally, my first impulse was to write the very sort of rebuttal that makes agents afraid to give me helpful information. The thing is, even once I get an agent, that person is going to have to turn around and defend the length and Rule-breaking to a publisher. These aren’t arbitrary biases on the part of the agent, they are things that will make selling the manuscript to a publisher more difficult.

Hm… chop it in half, then sell the second part first. No Rule-breaking there. I can just pick up mid-sentence and carry on!

9 thoughts on “The First Fruits of the Submissions Drive

  1. I kind of have the opposite problem, the flip-side of that Rule. I just found what looks like the perfect home for “Murder at the Community College” — a publisher looking for mysteries with series potential, with the sort of characters I have, and a whole lot of other qualifications that are just right. The problem is that the publisher wants a minimum word count that MatCC misses by about 3,000.

    I suppose I could go back and throw in an extra red herring somewhere …

    Or I could take over a few of your extra words?

  2. The word count and the Rule are separate issues. I avoid articulating the Rule I broke because it would be a spoiler.

    My suggestion is to sent MatCC to the publisher, and in your cover letter cite the word count at exactly their minimum. In the intervening months, go back, take a look (or, better, have a few trusted eyes take a look) with a mind to subplots, character-defining incidents, and whatnot. Even if you don’t find a happy way to expand the story (NOT pad it), don’t worry about it. 3,000 words is not going to be a deal breaker if they like the writing. If they like it, the worst that will happen is they will say, “We like it. More, please.”

  3. CA, have you seen this documentary on PBS called (something like) “Discounted Dreams: Communtiy colleges and their place in US Education”? (oooh, notice the ques mark outside the quotes. I lern’d dat from CA).
    It was pretty sobering. CCs are an invaluable source, but most students are not graduating due to a host of reasons including, but not limited to, lack of funding, lack of good teachers, and life demands on theh non-traditional population. It was a very good doc. THo it had no pirates.

  4. Ummm…I’m a bit confused. (shut up Bob). I can see a publisher having silly parameters. But an Agent? It doens’t matter if it is 900 page monograph on the life and times of one fruit fly from birth to day 27 (death), if the writing is good, then it is a binary option – the agent accepts it to try and sell, or she doesn’t. If it breaks publishers rule A, then she moves on to publisher B. But she should have no rules, right?

  5. Jesse, let’s say you have a dozen different things you could go and try to sell. You’re an honorable sort, so you’re you’re not going to say yes to all twelve. It’s time to start weeding. “I like this guy’s writing,” you might say, “but it’s a big-ass manuscript and it breaks a Rule. It’s going to be a tough sell.” Publishers have requirements, and an agent would be foolish not to take those into account before taking on a client. When an agent represents a manuscript to a publisher, it is a professional risk. If the publisher thinks she has presented unsellable work, that’s going to hamper her next pitch. Publishers rely on agents to help filter the unending river of crap that washes up on their doorsteps each day. The flipside is that if you get a reputable agent behind you, you get past the first few crap filters and you get a pro pitching your work. The only way that works is if the agents have high standards and understand what publishers are looking for.

    You got your seller’s markets, and you have your buyer’s markets, and then you have this market. Staggering supply, limited demand, risk-averse, but starved for quality.

  6. I can’t believe you are holding out on this “Rule” of yours (theirs). How are all of the young, aspiring authors who come to your blog going to learn? Or are you trying to keep the competition ignorant?

  7. Jesse, I haven’t seen that particular documentary, but what you said rings true. The community college where I teach has hired squadron of specially trained counselors — we call them “achievement coaches” — whose aim is to help students stay in school when life events would otherwise prevent them from doing so, by connecting them with school and community resources.

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