This business of writing is a subjective one. It’s not like say, accounting, where there’s a right answer—writers have to rely on arbiters of taste, namely agents and editors, to tell us if we will be successful.
To illustrate how powerfully the pendulum can swing between loving a manuscript and loathing a manuscript, I’ll tell you a writer’s conference tale. Pull up a chair, won't you?
A few years ago our ambitious writer’s group decided to go to a conference together. We chose the Whidbey Island Writer’s Conference because it was close enough to drive to and Marcia’s friend had a cottage near the conference that she’d let us use. We polished our work, had business cards printed, and ordered authentic manuscript boxes off the internet. (They tell you never to bring your manuscript because no one wants to lug them back to New York, but we were certain that ours would be the exception. They weren’t.)
The great thing about the Whidbey Conference, other than that it’s on an exquisite little island in the San Juans that you must ferry to, is that you can sign up for as many agent/editor meetings as you are willing to pay for. Plus, the people you sign up with read ten pages of your work the night before so you actually have stuff to talk about. I signed up for four 15-minute agent sessions. At that point I was shopping two manuscripts, a collection of memoir stories and the manuscript that is now The Prophecy of Days: The Daykeeper’s Grimoire. The adult-genre agents I met with, Jandi Nelson and Esmond Harmsworth, were both charming and complimentary and I walked away with business cards and offers to submit from both of them. Then I had a meeting with Jodi Reamer, who was a relatively new agent actively looking for YA clients. She had thoroughly read and made notes on my ten pages, asked great questions, and told me to definitely submit when I was ready. Not long later she signed a new writer named Stephenie Meyer—maybe you’ve heard of her?—and became a capital-a Agent.
My last meeting was with he-who-shall-remain-unnamed because I fear his wrath. But I’ll tell you this: his name rhymes with the animal pictured above. The minute I sat down with him he looked annoyed. He told me he hadn’t read the ten pages so I’d just need to pitch him. Caught off-guard, my pitch was probably not as polished as it could have been, but I was not ready for the full tongue lashing that followed. He told me, among other choice things, that the plot was too ambitious and I’d never be able to pull it off, that girls aren’t interested in science, and that I should give it up and try something else entirely. Honestly, this went on for the full fifteen minutes; I’d try to explain it another way and he’d find another way to shoot it down. He was relentless and I know this shouldn’t matter but I WAS EVEN PREGNANT! Have you no heart? No mercy at all?
When my 15 minutes of brutality were over, I went directly to a bathroom stall and cried my eyes out. My writing group came to the rescue—pugnacious Marcia wanted to kick his a**; Zen Julie wanted me to forget it ever happened, to remember that he is working out his own issues and that it has nothing to do with me; and tender Erin just cried along with me.
The next day at the closing ceremony I won awards in two categories, Young Adult Short Story and Nonfiction Essay. I’d hoped Mr. Molerat would be in the audience to see that I wasn’t the loser he’d told me I was, but of course, he’d done his damage and then taken the red-eye home the night before.
So, the moral. Treat agent/editor responses to your work like horoscopes: only believe the good stuff. Rely on your critique partners to tell you the truth. And walk softly around any agent whose name rhymes with the photo above.
1 month ago