Friday, December 23, 2016

Rules for Writers: Be Rational

 Some time ago a colleague forwarded a query to me with a "is this for you?" message.

I read it, and yes indeed it was for me. It practically had my name in lights at the top of the query.

As usual when I get something I think is yummy, and might have already been snapped up by any of my more slithery colleagues, I give the prospect a ring on the phone.

"Hello, this is Janet Reid," I chirp with a smile (a sharkly one of course!) "You sent a query on such and such a date and it was forwarded to me since my list is a good fit for what you write."

Hot Prospect: Hello, nice to meet you.

Me: I'm calling to make sure you haven't signed yet with any of my slithery competitors colleagues whom I'm sure have been chasing after you.

Hot Prosp: No, no I haven't.

Me: Great, well, I hope you'll be ok with me reading your book then. I'm eager to get the pages.

HP: Well, no. I don't want you to read it.

Me: stunned, incredulous silence.

I'd NEVER had someone refuse to let me read something. As you can well imagine, it's 100% the other way around, I'm refusing to read stuff left and right.

To say I'm stunned is to say Lee Child sold a few books last year.

In the next five nano-seconds I think the following things:

1. He's read my blog and he thinks I'm a foul mouthed bitch.
2. He's read my blog and he thinks I'm incompetent.

3. He knows me and doesn't like me.
4. He's heard of me and doesn't like me.

Now, these thoughts aren't as lucid as this list. It's mostly just an overwhelming feeling of self doubt and the instant assumption his refusal was about ME.

In the next moment, I have a blinding, and I mean BLINDING, realization that this is how some people who query me react to form rejections. I think the last time there was a bolt like this Saul might have been on the road to Damascus.

Then Mr. Prospect elaborates: "I've decided to re-work the novel and I'm several weeks from having it done. I'd rather send you the revised and polished up version."

Me: Sure, no problem. Glad to get it then.

I tell you this to illustrate one more time that when you query agents and you get a form rejection, it's not always about YOU. It could be about ME.

It's ME if I'm not enamored of the topic no matter how well written;

it's ME if I'm overwhelmed with work this week, and just can't read one more partial;

it's ME if I've got a project very similar to yours and can't sell it for spit;

it's ME if I can't think of an editor who would buy this book and have no idea where to even start;

it's ME if a colleague handles this genre and I don't want to encroach on his/her turf.

I don't tell you any of this, and I don't apologize for using a form rejection in these cases. I do, and you'll just have to know that.

Sometimes of course it is the writing. But not always. And if you've been paying attention to this blog and others, you've avoided some of the classic mistakes (glitter! photos! fiction novels!) If you've availed yourself of QueryShark or Evil Editor or any of the other critique sites, you've probably got a decent query.

That means you press ahead. Don't dog paddle around the slough of Despond. Climb out, hose yourself off, and get back to work.

Thus this Rule For Writers: Be rational. Understand that your first response comes from the reptilian base of your brain. Engage your thinking brain.

This post appeared in a somewhat different form and header on April 12, 2009


Michael Seese said...

"slough of Despond."

There's two words right there that belong in a future 100-word contest. "Dog paddle" would fit pretty well, too.

Kitty said...

Recycling a post when appropriate; my grandmama would approve. And, yes, she would have really liked you, too.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

If I got a call from our sharkly queen, I would faint dead away. Hoping to be on query train in 2017. I am really excited about my new book which makes the prospect of rejection even more daunting. So glad the Reef is here to see me through all the rejection that comes with this long slong toward traditional publish.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Holy smokes, it isn't often somebody flummoxes the shark! I do wish Mr. Prospect the best of luck reworking his novel, and hope you enjoy it, when you get it!

The Slough of Despond is hard to not sink into, once you've put your toes in. I'd be lying if I said I didn't do the occasional wallow. But at this point, it takes more than a form to do it, necessarily. It's a form that doesn't even have my name or the novel's name on it. Nobody's names. Or it's a NORMAN. I still get disappointed with rejections, though typically not thoroughly despondent.

Lennon Faris said...

Ah, thanks, Janet.

When people are in bad moods around me, I used to assume it was something awful I'd done. Took me almost a third of a decade to realize that it's almost always about them. Knowing that has made life a lot happier for me and them :)

OK that was totally unrelated to writing, but still...

Amy Johnson said...

Good advice, good timing. Thank you, Janet.

CynthiaMc said...

One good thing about getting older - no time to pout or torture myself (well, less time).

Would love to get one of those calls (maybe I should turn on my ringer).

RachelErin said...

I always try my best to take your advice, but what with my day job I've been reading a lot of psychology and economic behavioral theory. May I suggest a rephrase, to bring your rule in line with 2016 research on decision making?

"Be aware (and wary!) of your cognitive biases"

If that's not pithy enough, you could try "Be behavioral", but only a certain kind of geek will get it.

In all seriousness, thanks for reposting a classic. It helps me gird my loins as I prepare for the Q-trenches.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Thanks for being nice but really, you and I know the's me.

Also if you called it would be because your limo broke down on I95 and you need a ride. Anywhere from Florida to the Canadian border and I've got you covered babe. Just give me a few seconds to clean out the empty to-go cups that are rolling around on the floor.

Julie Weathers said...

This was a great choice to recycle.

We never know why an agent sends a form rejection. Anything we try to read into beyond it wasn't right for the agent at that time will drive us nuttier than a peach orchard boar. I had three rejections on Far Rider that were too close to something they already repped. If the agents had just sent a form rejection I could have well assumed it was the writing.

A few had decided they were focusing on other genres even though their listings still showed them as epic fantasy.

Laura Bradford got a response on a form rejection yesterday, "F*** you and your objectivity." I guess the author thought any objective person would automatically love their work. Said author has just blacklisted themself with Laura and probably quite a few other agents. Good job, Einstein.

The only way to respond to a rejection is either no response or a polite thank you.

Wouldn't it be nice if all those hamster wheels we run actually translated to burning physical calories? Oh my gosh, would I be svelt.

Dena Pawling said...

Objection, Your Honor, this message assumes facts not in evidence.

Entirely way too much not in evidence. Right at the subject header, which assumes erroneously that anyone wanting to be a published author is rational in the first place.

On cross examination, it is revealed that below is how the exchange actually transpired –

>>"Hello, this is Janet Reid," I chirp with a smile (a sharkly one of course!) "You sent a query on such and such a date and it was forwarded to me since my list is a good fit for what you write."

Hot Prospect: [brain freeze. Is this who I think it is???? Drops phone. Hurriedly retrieves phone.] Um.... Uh.... [grabs tissue to wipe drool from chin]

>>Me: I'm calling to make sure you haven't signed yet with any of my slithery competitors whom I'm sure have been chasing after you.

Hot Prosp: Um. Who are you again? [that was a stupid question. Why are you always asking stupid questions? She said Janet Reid. JANET REID. Retrieves phone again. Get a grip. BREATHE]

>>Me: Great, well, I hope you'll be ok with me reading your book then. I'm eager to get the pages.

HP: [she wants to read my book? She wants to read my book??????? MY BOOK????????] Um. It's not ready. [an agent wants to read my book and it's not ready. My life is over. I'm doomed. DOOMED. Terminates call.]

Donnaeve said...

I'm picturing the reptilian brain. Particularly dinosaurs.

But, yes. This is exactly what I do - when I get a different result other than expected. I begin to backtrack, trying to figure out when things went wrong.

I drive myself nuts.

Kregger said...

Wait...I use my reptilian brain to write...

Oh, crap!

No wonder...

Okay...unicorns and rainbow poop...

here I come...yuck, it's multicolored.

Word refused to save.

Claire Bobrow said...

The dinosaurs, apparently, had feathers. In Emily Dickinson's immortal words, "Hope is the thing with feathers...," so that reptilian brain thing could be an asset!

And Julie, peach orchard boar? Somehow that sounds so charming, but I suspect it's not...

Colin Smith said...

This was a nice blast from the past, or a gentle reminder to not make assumptions about, as Dena put it, facts not in evidence.

The thought crossed my mind to mention that should I receive an agent call, my first assumption would be that it's to offer representation. But then I realized Janet might use that information to torment me, so forget I said anything.

Me: Hello?
JR: Hello, Colin? It's Janet.
Me: Janet! Well, hello! So...?
JR: So...?
Me: What exactly of mine did you read?
JR: Read? You've written stuff?
Me: I just don't recall what I sent you.
JR: Hold on...
*Waits five minutes*
JR: Hello, Colin?
Me: Yes? Yes?
JR: Sorry, Gary Corby was just texting me the premise to the next Athenian Mystery. You're going to love it!
Me: Oh cool! What's it about?
JR: Diotima... no, wait *laughs* Nico... no, sorry, you'll have to wait until it's published.
Me: You mean DEATH ON DELOS, which comes out on July 11th?
JR: No, the NEXT one... probably released in 2018. You're a writer, so I'm told. You have patience.
Me: So you're told?
JR: Oh, did I say that out loud? Ummm... anyway...
Me: So, when are you sending the contract?
JR: Contract? Who did I want you to kill?
Me: No, no... I mean... you know...
JR: *silence*
Me: You know... representation?
JR: *laughs* Oh... no, I just wanted to say hello.
Me: Oh...
JR: Merry Christmas! *hangs up*

Julie Weathers said...


"And Julie, peach orchard boar? Somehow that sounds so charming, but I suspect it's not..."

Hogs foraging in peach orchards eat the fruit that's fallen to the ground and become fermented. They often become drunk and quite disorderly.

RosannaM said...

Oh, that reptilian brain that refuses to stay in its cage! Of course the first thing I would think is, "the book stinks, I shouldn't give up my day job, oh wait I already did, we're going to have to eat cat food in our old age, maybe I should get a new job, no, that sounds even worse than cat food, get back from the ledge, I like the ledge-the view is great, calm down, cat food probably tastes fine with enough mayonnaise, you'll be fine, just go write something else that doesn't stink, NOW!"

Or something like that.

Claire Bobrow said...

Rosanna, may I recommend drunken peach orchard boar? It sounds much nicer than cat food. You could have it as an appetizer at your book launch party, where'll you be toasting your success with a glass of Champagne while admiring the view. And I say this because your writing doesn't stink. That's the stupid hamster talking - send him on an extended vacation!!

RosannaM said...

Claire thank you for your kind words and party suggestions. I will have to write it on a 3X5 card:

Schedule book launch party
Send invites
order champagne
discuss menu with caterer
bourbon basted, slow roasted boar with peach chutney
(nix cat food)

That could be my new 2017 visualization. Thanks!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

You haven't lived until you've seen horses high on fermented persimmon.

Colin: Loved your "chat" with JR. HA!

Megan V said...


I cringed when I read your objection. If I have to hear the words "assumes facts not in evidence" or "best evidence rule" within the next couple of weeks, I will buy an elf on the shelf just to have the pesky thing haunt that person. Too drastic? Ah well. Blame it on the writer in me.

Panda in Chief said...

Going off topic here to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you all. I have been trying to stay off the internet and am out of the loop.

I hear some cookies calling my name!