Wednesday, October 29, 2008

An agent told me I'm not a great writer! How do I survive?

I got this email, which I wasn't going to share because I thought it was private. But then the author encouraged me to post it and my response. So all accomplished with permission.

Dear Moonie,

I've been querying agents the last couple of weeks and so far have received some polite and/or encouraging passes. Today, though, I got my first painful rejection. This was what the agent wrote:

Thanks for sending me [TITLE OF MY BOOK]. The premise and setting are exciting, but I didn't feel the writing was special enough. And while the main character's actions are understandable and realistic, I thought he was a little too unlikable to pull in readers.

My writing is not special enough and my MC is unlikeable. Not good, Moonie. I can fix my main character's likability, but my writing...? That's not really something I can fix. I'm very, very sad. What are your thoughts?



Oh, XXX, don't be sad. There are a couple of things to unpack here, but sadness shouldn't be one of them. I'll explain why.

I need to frame my argument with three important points.

1) taste in writing is subjective
We all know this. You've read one person's take in this letter--and let me go back to the earlier part of your note where you mentioned the constructive and helpful feedback you've heard from other people. I, for example, would have passed on Stephanie Meyer's TWILIGHT in half a second because the writing isn't to my taste... and I would have been out 8 bajillion dollars. You know? You absolutely cannot let one person tell you you can't write. However, there's one thing you can remember to make sure as few people as possible tell you can't write:

2) writing is an evolutionary process
One incorrect point in your letter to me is that your writing isn't really something you can fix. LIES. Writing is a growth process, and even if you were the best (or the worst) writer in the world, your natural instincts become better with every project you work on. I look back on blog posts from a year ago and wince at word choice; it's because (I hope) I'm a better writer now. You WILL develop as a writer, and it's important you keep that in mind, and that you also remember to focus on developing craft and reading other people's good writing as you go along to capitalize on natural growth. But regardless of natural growth, you have to remember the most important thing of all:

3) you wrote originally because you loved it, and you should keep writing for that reason and no other
Whether or not this agent or any other agent picks up this book or any other book you write, you're not in it for the agents or their opinions. Don't lose sight of this. And because you love it, try to let other people's opinions roll off of you. I know this is easier said than done, since it's hard when everyone else doesn't love what we love as much as we do. But remember that YOUR love is the most important and satisfying thing, and any other successes and rewards should be secondary. And, frankly, probably will end up being secondary. Regardless of what he thinks, for example, I don't think anyone loves Salman Rushdie's writing quite as much as he loves it himself.

I hope this made you feel a little better. Kudos to you for one really big thing--you aren't saying "Humph! This agent just doesn't get my book! What a jerk." Writing is subjective, and you're clearly open to doing your best in a subjective arena. Congratulations on your energy and flexibility, and my very best wishes for your future success!




David said...

That's a great response.

I get the expression that writers, by nature, either have very thick skins or very thin ones. One would think that the majority have normal skins, but that hasn't been my impression.

ChrisEldin said...

Great post, Moonie.

And author, I will say that the agent's writing wasn't 'special' enough. To say that in a rejection letter is heartless, in my opinion. The other point about the character being too unlikable may be something to look at, and again that is a matter of taste.

Writing does improve with practice. And as we all know tastes are subjective (I'm slogging through HP Chamber of Secrets for the first time. Dear God please let me make it to the end)

I just love what Moonie said here.

Charles Gramlich said...

Good advice. I can imagine being hurt if someone criticized my writing as not being special enough, though. That would hurt for sure.

Anonymous said...

You really do learn how subjective it is when you query-- I had so many different interpretations. It only takes one. And I got one.

QuietRebelWriter said...

Terrific and heartfelt response, one that I think all us aspiring writers appreciate!

Susan said...

That post hit my printer pretty quickly: I love it. It's one I wish I'd had handy to read, when the same type things happened to me!

I've gotten the opposite rejection: that the writing is engaging but the story (or character, whatever) fails for whatever reason. Honestly, that is no less painful.

And what did the agent mean by 'special' I wonder? Unique, or lyrical or funny or what?

Justus said...

You have given yet another author a virtual pat on the back.

Hats off to you, Moon(ie?).

Julie Weathers said...


Moonie is right. Reading is subjective.

I was in panic mode about a query letter. I posted it on Books and Writers and got some good advice. A multiple New York Times best-selling author even rewrote it for me and I gobbled it up, knowing I had the holy grail.

I posted it on Evil Editor's site and didn't get a really great response. I was crushed. If this person can't get the response I want, how can I?

Well, Evil Editor and the minions were right. It was her voice, but it wasn't mine. I just needed to work on my voice and write my own query.

These rejections of what we think are perfect writing are hard. Sometimes it's really just subjective. Other times it's an indication we need to work on something.

Either way, examine the information after you've slept on it. Then figure out what needs work.

The rejection was not of you as a writer, but your work where it is right now by this one agent.

Natalie said...

Great response, Moonie. As yet another writer in the query trenches, thanks for the encouragement. We all need a good reminder about subjectivity sometimes.

The Anti-Wife said...

Wonderful post, Moonie! Very well said.

Briane P said...

Excellent advice, Moonrat! I only can add this:

1. Everyone can publish their writing these days to both get positive comments and feedback -- try a blog or a site like "Gather" where people will give you both good and bad critique. You can even make (a little) money at it if you try.

Yeah, it's not in a bookstore, but like Moonrat says and we all know, we write because we love to write. And we love people to read what we write and say it was good. And if you have others read it, some will like it and say it's good and others will give you some negative feedback but you'll get better at it the same way you got better at riding a bike.

2. "Haroun and the Sea of Stories" was a very good book.

Crimogenic said...

Moonie, what a fantastic response. Thanks for sharing the motivation.... goodness knows, we all need it sometimes.

Zoe said...

Yay Moonie--- well said, but also yay for not loving Twilight. I finally consented to read it after being told by everyone I know that you can't put it down once you start, and that hasn't been my experience at all, so far. I'll keep going, but my gosh. And yay for Chris--- I also just finished slogging through Chamber of Secrets. For plot it was fine, but I like character-driven stuff, and for quality of writing and development and exploration of character, the HP books are not where you want to go.

Precie said...

Ah, moonie...yet another post that is going in my file. :)

The thing is...well, several things...

The agent didn't say the author can't write. The agent responded to a specific manuscript. Yes, reading is subjective. And so is the industry...which is the agent's job. To me, the rejection sounded a lot like "I liked it, but I just didn't love it." And lots of blogging agents have pointed out the difference. There are plenty of very good writers out there...but a particular manuscript just might not "fit."

Best of luck to the author with other queries and future projects!!

jjdebenedictis said...

Great answer, Moonrat!

...but I gotta say...

I think this agent is pretty awesome, and so is her/his rejection letter.

S/he said exactly what wasn't working, and thereby gave the writer means to improve her work. This is a big fat FAVOUR from a very busy person who didn't need to invest any time in giving the writer constructive feedback.

So let me be the lone voice saying "You rule!" to the agent. This is an awesome rejection letter.

I'd take a critique of "not special enough" any day over a form rejection letter that tells me nothing--after all, the writing is "not special enough" regardless of whether the agent takes the time to actually tell me that fact.

Julie Weathers said...

JJ, bingo!

I'm sorry, but having any kind of helpful advice is a gift from heaven these days. It isn't a rejection of you and the agent didn't say you stink. The advice gave you a direction to go in. I would love to know who the agent is and if they handle fantasy so I could submit to them.

Heather Wardell said...

Back in 2005, I had an agent tell me my writing wasn't polished and professional enough to sell, that she'd liked my story idea but my writing didn't live up to it.

She was right.

But it IS polished and professional enough to sell now, and I owe that to her, because I went looking to find out a) what I was doing wrong and b) how to fix it.

Use this rejection. Don't let it destroy you.

Heather (who had her first full manuscript request ever this week :)

Jessica said...

This is a great, very sweet post. Good luck to you, querier!

Whirlochre said...

Great post.

If I'd had a trumpet to hand, I'd have blown it — sadly, I inflated the cat.

Anonymous said...

I think this is the reason so many agents hesitate before giving feedback. And that's too bad.

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

I agree with others who think "not special enough" isn't such a stinging letter, though I'm sure it hurt at the time. My own skin seems to get thinner each day, rather than thicker, and I struggle with how to change that.

But think of it this way: imagine the day when your book is published and you get your reviews. Think of everything those reviews might say, from "brilliant" and "original" and "ambitious" to "hackneyed" or "amateur" or "atrociously bad." A lot of adjectives are going to come your way; that's just how it works. In the meanwhile, every agent/editor/writing group member gives us advance practice in how to deal with criticism, and how to listen better to our own gut response about whether something is working and how we fit into the big literary picture.

The worst thing is not to be criticized but to be ignored. The agent responded with feedback and that should be a positive sign, not an indictment of your writing future. Actually, you succeeded a long time ago when you completed a manuscript worth submitting...

Delta Dupree said...

Rejections can certainly sting, but the damage is never permanent.

Thanks, Moonrat, for reminding writers, including myself, that rejections aren't the end of the world. It's a new beginning to a new[er] story.

Anya said...

I like the agent's letter in that it does give feedback, though the feedback hurts (trust me, I've gotten the your hero sucks and your writing is blah, too (pause) *sniffle*).

But I also like Moonie's point: We write b/c we love it and we LOVE our own writing. I giggle my way through all my manuscripts b/c I think I'm hilarious. Now, no one else may think I'm funny, but at least I make myself happy for several hours every day.

Colorado Writer said...

Thanks Moonie for the kickass post. I sure needed it today.

Ello said...

Moonie So Rocks!

Anonymous said...

I think the only thing that would hurt me is a note telling me I have to settle for a million dollar advance instead of a ten million dollar advance. Crap sells. Vive la crap!

usman said...

Great reply by Moonie. It addresses all of us unpubs who get hurt quickly. Then learn there is no other way to go.
To The Author: Others have said it better, Go on writing. Perseverence pays off. Overnight success has years of toil behind it. Ask Stephanie Meyers.

freddie said...

Terrific post.

You have to decide for yourself whether you've said everything you can say in the story. Send it out again, and try not to let the rejections get you down.

Anonymous said...

Moonie: That was sweet and right on. Reading that writer's letter I can only tell him/her to shrug it off. I've written professionally for years (newspapers/magazines/agency copywriter). Written a number of fiction novels (none published/no current agent) and in my query wars I've had responses to my writing from: nothing special to flashes of brilliant narrative and everything in-between. It is, as you state, simply a matter of taste. So don't despair. Besides, the story is always (in my opinion) the key. Writing can be polished, edited, etc. But if that story doesn't work, you can be the finest writer alive and you've got nothing but pretty words. And, yes, writing proficiency/style does develop over time. First: Tell a compelling story. Get that part right and the writing will come along. So Moonie's letter writer: Don't despair. Just judging from your've got what it takes...

Anonymous said...

I may be booed off this page for this comment but here goes: When I first picked up a Stephen King novel, The Stand, I kept wanting to put it down because his writing style or lack thereof (my opinion, of course) bugged me. But what kept me reading was how compelling his story just moved. After a while I was so immersed in the story, the writing style I had found irritating was no longer an issue. And when I finished that tome I could only marvel at what a terrific story teller he is. The story is the thing. Tell a terrific story.

Anonymous said...

I only kept reading Twilight because my teenage daughter compelled me to. I didn't think it really got going until the end. I'm a guy and frankly it was too YA teenage girly girl for my taste (all the scenes where Bella is just ga-ga over Edward ad nauseum). However, as the books progress they do get more interesting and by the time you get to the last, she's got things moving for even a hard-core action guy reader like myself. Also, keep in mind this lady hadn't written a word until she wrote these. I'm pretty critical of writing style and I think she's damn good for such a novice. Damn good. Yeah, that first one is a slog, but they do get moving...if you can stomach the saccharine passages but that's her audience, isn't it?

slhastings said...


Thanks, for the post! I feel better already.

I think subjectivity is key. I'm in the query process myself right now, and here are two responses I received on two fulls sent out in September:

a) While the voice is distinct, I didn't connect to the material on the whole. Keep me in mind...


b) While the story is engaging, interesting, and original, I didn't connect to the protag's voice as the narrator. Keep me in mind...

Talk about confusing!

***bangs head on wall***

I know there has to be an agent out there that will champion, and most importantly, connect to my style. That goes for you too.

And so I forge on.

As for improving your writing, making it special, stronger even - yes! I say keep writing – the main reason I'm doing NaNoWriMo and trying something new – different genre, different POV, different everything. Daunting task, yes, but I'm up for the challenge.

So XXX, for the love of writing, keep at it! Make your protag more likable, if you agree. And don't be sad.

NerdSnark said...

That's great advice, Moonie.

I would also be crushed about the "not special enough" comment. It's one of those phrases that comes in later and repeats itself in your head.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

Heck, when I started, my writing sucked. It was far worse than "not special." Sucked. If someone had given me a "not special," had even bothered to clue me in to the idea that some writing could be special, it might not have taken me twelve novels to get one published.

WendyCinNYC said...

Thanks for the nice post. It gave me a much-needed boost.

Marie said...

Great advice. Note, too, that the agent said the writing was not "special" enough. She didn't say the writing was "bad." What on earth is "special" writing? That's clearly a subjective decision. You should read some of my rejections over the years. Grr. It's important to persist if you really love the story you have to tell.

Katrina Stonoff said...

Oh, this is beautiful! Your response, I mean. Thank you.

It's a good reminder to all of us. A rejection is only a rejection of that piece at that time by that person.

And we can all improve our writing.

Miladysa said...

Excellent and helpful advice.

I recently read a review of my web fiction - my first attempt at writing.

My heart was broken, I thought I would never write another word, I didn't want to write another word - I was doomed.

A few weeks later I think that it was a good review and realise that it is only one person's opinion.