the particular taste of silver

A couple of years back, I had a story do well enough at tor.com that it was hung up in submission for almost a year. Ultimately, the editor sent me some very thoughtful, smart feedback, but rejected the story.

A week or so ago, I got through a few phone interviews and up to an on-site interview at a very cool company in New York City. We’re developing a theme here, so: Rejected.

Just today, I got a reply from an agent who’d asked me for a full manuscript of The Eighth King. It was a hugely complimentary letter, honestly some of the nicest feedback I’ve ever gotten on my writing. But: Rejected.

Everyone makes the best decision they can for their business. I don’t begrudge any of these parties one iota, either for “leading me on” (scare quotes because business ≠ flirtation) in the early going or for taking a pass later. And the almost-success I’ve achieved in those three cases really does help encourage me to keep going, so I’m certainly not here to say that getting rejected with compliments after a lengthy engagement is worse in some plain, objective way than a quick form rejection.

But it does have its own particular flavor. For one thing, you can’t console yourself with “They just didn’t look quite hard enough”; this is my typical psychological self-defense against most query rejections, which are typically form letters or non-responses. When you’re the runner-up, the agent or editor definitely put a lot of time and thought into stacking you up against a very concrete, very Googleable set of competitors and found you wanting. For another, when you have gotten close enough to what everyone acknowledges is a very high bar, you can’t help but wonder about the “real” reason you fell short — if your story or your CV was in fact as badass as the agent or editor or recruiter led you to believe, or if you haven’t in fact given off some emanation of unpleasantness or unreliability that the person in charge of your fate has picked up on.

Let me emphasize that rationally, this is crazy: a very high bar is by definition hard to clear even for very strong contenders, and in the face of close competition, the reasons for rejection are going to start getting a lot less hard-edged, which is typically reflected in vague language in the feedback (although the tor.com feedback had some concrete reasons why the story fell just short — which, though I wouldn’t dream of insisting on, I hugely appreciated). But, you know, I am a pattern-matching ape just like everybody else, and when my brain can’t match a pattern, it’ll create one.

Luckily, I am also an ape that is set in its ways. Wherefore the queries will continue until morale improves. Or that’s the plan.

So this is where I am today. How are you?

3 Comments

  1. This is what I call ‘angst’ or ‘publisher-induced angst.’

    That’s exactly why I self-published. I may not do very well there, especially in the first year(s), but the results are already non-zero. And I have the ebook and print versions available, and I’ve had people approach me for an autograph. Okay, one was my writing partner, and I kind of expected it – but the other one was a friend from my folk music group I never even thought might buy and read (she was looking my epigraphs up online!).

    It was hard work. Writing was hard work. Self-editing was excruciatingly hard work. And no one has yet reported a typo – no, that’s not a challenge – in the text (167K words). Just so the book’s not perfect, I found a tiny typo on the page that says what to do next after reading the book. Phew! Perfection isn’t attainable.

    But no agent-submission angst, no publisher-rejection angst, no book-removed-from-shelves-after-six-weeks angst, no horrible-cover-provided-by-publisher angst, no bad-contract angst, no… you get the picture.

    You can do whatever you like, but it seems to me you got what I didn’t even seek: validation that you were as good as the selected manuscripts.

    It reminds me of the heavy woman who watched the beauty pageant with a smile, and when asked, mentioned that she like watching, knowing that, “All but one of them are losers.” Twisted, but true.

    Traditional publishing success has few slots, and they are jealously guarded. I like the odds out here better. We’ll see if I get anywhere.

    If that is what you want, go for it. My writing partner and very good friend got her publishing deal after removing 37,000 words from her thriller (non-trivial); her book was supposed to come out in March. It’s already been moved to September – and the company is not longer going to publish that kind of book; don’t know what that does to HER second book deal. She is still defending the whole system – and I’m hoping she gets what she’s always wanted. No skin off my back. But I hope she makes it.

    1. There are a few factors that keep me interested in the traditional route. There’s of course the usual constellation of emotional factors: It feels more “real,” it’s what I’ve been dreaming about for several decades now, &c. Those are what they are, and I try to give them their due without becoming their slave.

      But my big theory, which is in no way proven, is that a traditional deal can act as a force multiplier on indie work. The trade-offs between traditional and indie publishing are pretty complicated, but a lot of it boils down to discoverability vs. ownership. As a traditional author, you’re more discoverable due to bookstores, publicists, your agent and publisher tweeting about you, access to people who are still skeptical about self-published work, &c…. and you pay for it by inviting a bunch of other people in to share the spoils. (Which they work hard to earn.) As an indie, you get most of the spoils, but you have to secure them with your own wits and not much else.

      So you can see the thought — why not use a traditional deal as a way to drive traffic to the indie work?

      There are lots of good answers to this, of course; you’ve written a few above, and the other obvious one is, if the book is good, why tie it up in agent/publisher hell for months or years? Which is fair. But I’ve been adding to my indie work as I’ve been querying The Eighth King, and realistically… I’m probably not going to pound out a trilogy of best-selling thrillers in a handful of months. My novels are complicated, slow to build, and tricky to edit. I’m just not that good a bet for achieving pro-level success quickly. So it seems like it’s worth keeping the traditional option open, while continuing to build a body of indie work that pays well…

      … if I can figure out how to drive traffic to it. :/

      Congratulations on publishing PRIDE’S CHILDREN, by the way! I know that’s been a long journey for you. Best of luck with the next installment!

  2. Look up Ron Clarke. In particular, perhaps Google that name in combination with “Emil Zatopek”. And consider in the context of non-gold medals.

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