Monday, November 5, 2007

Editors Q & A: Literary Genre Toughest To Write? Rejection slips?

Q. Do most publishers still send rejection slips? I've sent a ms. to a house, followed all of its submission rules, and despite making two polite queries concerning whether the ms. had been received, have heard not a word--and it's been over three months. What's up? - Anon.

The Editors:

We're glad you asked. We always enjoy getting into the heads, hearts, and souls of publishers. (Hold the smart remarks, please). In short, yes, nearly all publishers still send rejection slips. Although three months may seem like an inordinately long time to you, it often seems like the flash of an eye to an overworked or under-achieving editor. Several reasons could be behind the delay. The worst possible: the publisher didn't get your submission. Fortunately, this happens so rarely that we wouldn't even consider the possibility. More likely: your ms. has gotten bogged down somewhere on some editor's desk. Sooner or later he/she will be struck by pangs of guilt (or at least a desire to see what color the desktop is), and several months' worth of manuscripts will be unveiled and rejected within a matter of hours (maybe even minutes). Hey, we wish life weren't like that, but it is.

Still another possibility: some editor there liked your ms. and kept it aside to bring up at an editorial board meeting, where its merits will be hotly debated before it's either accepted for publication or, ultimately, rejected for any one of a variety of reasons.

The fact that your two follow-up queries on the status of your ms. have been ignored doesn't surprise us. After all, if an editor can't get around to responding to a ms. in three months, why would he have a better track record in responding to a letter?

All of this is sad news for writers, we know. But it brings up one important point: Don't sit around waiting for one publisher to pass judgment on your work.

One last point. We hope (although you didn't say for sure) that you didn't send your ms. to the publisher unsolicited. We'd like to think you first queried them and they responded with a request to see your work. If you did send the completed ms. out unsolicited, our guess is that it's been relegated to the notorious "slush pile" where few people--editors, most of all--dare to tread.

We hope this information helps some, and we'd enjoy hearing the outcome of this tale when it finally plays through. - The Editors

Q. I was wondering if it's common practice for a novelist to begin writing fiction with shorter pieces, such as short stories and novellas. Or is it possible to be a good novelist without having written any other form of fiction. I haven't had much success with short stories, but I feel like my novels are my real strength. - Anon.

The Editors:

We think it's a fairly widely held belief that, in writing fiction, you have to learn to crawl before you can walk. Crawling, of course, is the short story. Walking is the novella. Running--well, that would be the novel. It's a widely held belief, but it's false. Few successful novel writers working today can turn out a good short story, and few have ever tried. In a nutshell, the belief that fiction is fiction is a fallacy. Short-story writing is completely different from novel-writing, and the one does not necessarily make for success with the other. In short-story writing, the writer has to be able to develop a story line (or plot), characterization, and description within a very short space. That's a restriction the novelist doesn't need to worry about.

On the other hand, a good short-story writer isn't necessarily able to string together enough material to crank out a good novel and still have the entire project coherent enough to work. Bottom line: we think a writer should stick with what he feels most comfortable. That said, we also think it's imperative for a writer to experiment with enough different genres to know just exactly where his strengths--and weaknesses--lie. - The Editors

Q. In your vast experiences as editors and writers, what literary genre do you think is the toughest to write? I'm not being flip here. I've written in several different areas and am struggling with a new genre like I've never struggled before. I just can't seem to get the hang of it. Yet, I keep telling myself that writing in one genre is just like writing in another--in the end, it's all writing. What do you think? The genre I'm having so much trouble with, by the way, is literary. - Jake

The Editors:

Well, thanks for clueing us in, but we had a hunch that was the genre you were talking about. And, no, it's not just you. Many people have trouble writing literary fiction because it is, technically, the most complicated. Why? For starters, there's more character development involved in literary fiction than there is in a contemporary genre pieces, such as detective, mystery, and romance. There's more internal development, as well--more getting into the head and defining the motivation of each character. Beyond that, the plot for a literary novel, especially, is often more convoluted than a simple boy-meets-girl story line in a romance novel or a boy-saves-girl story line in action-adventure.

Does all this justify the difficulty you're having with the literary genre? For the answer to that question, we turned to our own writer-in-residence, who has been known to write in just about every genre there is, including literary.

"Writers write best where they're most comfortable," according to him. "I spent a good deal of my youth experimenting with everything from the literary novel to the period piece, mystery, detective story, erotica, even poetry--beat poetry, mostly, but some conventional and contemporary forms, as well. If you don't practice what you set out to write, you're going to have some problems, pure and simple. My guess is that, if you study enough good examples of literary fiction and spend enough time working within the framework of that genre, sooner or later, you'll be as comfortable in writing literary fiction as anything."

Q. I have a question about getting a literary agency to represent you. I have been toying with the idea for some time, but I'm not sure if it's the right thing for me to do. I have to tell you that I'm not nuts about giving someone 15 or 20 percent of my money to handle my work and act as a bridge between writer and publisher. Is a literary agent really worth that much, or can a writer who puts his or her shoulder to the task do just as well? - Anon

The Editors:

Jeez, we thought you'd never ask! There are lots of thoughts on this subject, so let's cut right to the chase. Although many publishers still say publicly that they welcome un-agented submissions, in private everyone in the publishing industry knows that un-agented writers are usually that way because they can't find an agent to represent them. Why not? Because they're not good enough or they don't have "what it takes" to become a writer. Thus, in most editors' minds, an agent acts as something of a filter, screening out the chafe while letting the wheat flow through. Hey, that's how they feel; don't blame us!

In reality, there's something to be said for that rather narrow-minded viewpoint. Some people feel (and rightly so) that finding a good agent who will agree to represent you is tougher by far than finding a good publisher who agrees to produce your book. The reason is simply one of numbers. There are far fewer agents out there than there are working editors; therefore, the competition for an agent's services is keener.

That said, we feel it's our responsibility here to point out that a good agent does more than sit around all day, making a few telephone calls and asking if someone wants to publish your book. It starts with market research. Who's publishing what, when, and for how much money? What editors are working for XYZ Publishing House this week? Who replaced them at ABC Books last week? What genres do different editors specialize in? What is the current reader trend in literature? Which publishers are flush with money, and which are watching their purse strings? And then there's a whole new can of worms about Hollywood, book options, and publisher-producer tie-ins.

All of this might point up one more important fact: due to the increased technological strains placed on business relationships these days, a good agent has to know the difference between a good and a bad contract. If legal representation or advice is called for, the agent must know whom to ask and how much to pay for consultation or document preparation. And that's just before the agent's real work begins. Still to come: packaging up your proposal or manuscript, addressing and stamping it, sending it out, tracking its progress, evaluating any editorial correspondence upon its return, and then starting all over again.

Now, a writer certainly can do all of that himself. It's been done before, and it will be done again. The question is: can a writer do it so efficiently as an agent? And, even more importantly, does he want to? That's something every writer must answer for himself.

For a listing of literary agents openly receptive to new clients, check out the SCRIBE! Media Magazine of the American Society of Authors and Writers (, which carries featured agents each month and provides an archives of several years' worth of formerly featured agents. To learn more about the non-profit media organization dedicated to bringing writers and other members of the production team together, check out - The Editors

Q. I knew I had written a fantastic novel. The story was different, exotic, interesting... Friends who read the manuscript told me how beautiful it was. That is why with the encouragements I took the chance to send it to the writing contest. Many months went by without ever hearing about it ... almost a year. My second novel was already half way through, until one morning I heard the great news: My name was in the paper. All this is to tell all fellow unknown writers in hope to be published to keep on writing, harder and harder, sooner or later, your work will be recognized. It takes time, but most of all, patience. Until the words you wrote are repeated, remembered by many. Since half of my story is happening in Spain, my novel has also been generously translated into spanish. I strongly believe now that it will go beyond boarders. - Geneviève Gaillard-Vanté author of Ombres du temps,(Sombras del tiempo, Shadows of Time) Prix Deschamps 2001, special 25th anniversary.

The Editors:

How right you are. Each and every day, we see signs of writers getting published, of good books going unnoticed. It all boils down to timing and marketing. If you write a quality product and keep it in circulation, sooner or later something good is bound to happen. Unfortunately, editors are not necessarily looking for the best writing or even the most inspired work. They're looking for what they think will sell six months to a year down the road, when their current "list" leaves the bindery headed for the warehouse. Perseverance pays.

Congratulations, Genevieve, and thanks for sharing. - The Editors

Q. So many writers around the world have talents and are waiting to be discovered. The sad news is that most editors won't take any risk to promote a new author. Which is perfectly understandable, especially in these so terrifying days. Best-sellers fly away at three digit copies in a few weeks too with contracts in Hollywood awaiting in line... The law of the offer and of the request. Now, for new authors, any solution? Keep up the good work all the way! And stay convinced of the good work! But most of all, it's time too for new editors experienced both in literature but especially in marketing to start taking interest in new talented authors. With a great strategy, just like promoting commercial brands, the magic will occur!

The Editors:
We couldn't have said it better, ourselves. We think. - The Editors

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