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Saturday, June 18, 2011

When Good Isn't Good Enough

One of the most frustrating parts of searching for an agent is you will quickly learn that talent has very little to do with landing one. Sure, you have to have a little talent. Your writing has to meet some minimum standard of readability. But overall, whether or not you’re a good writer doesn’t mean as much as you might think. To get an agent, someone has to love your book. Really love it. Love it so much that it takes their breath away, that they can’t put it down. That they want to tell everyone they know how great it is. That they’d buy it for a friend or give it as a gift. Someone has to love it.

When I started out I felt that my writing was good. I’m not saying that to toot my own horn. Certainly I’m no literary genius. But if I didn’t have some confidence in my work, I certainly wouldn’t be asking literary agents to read it! This was quickly confirmed for me by several agents who read the full manuscript and later passed.

I love your writing.

You’re a great writer.

Your work is compelling and gripping.

This is a home run.

Pass. Pass. Pass. Pass. That line about how this is a subjective business—the one that makes the agentless, pre-published writer sigh heavily and roll their eyes skyward?—it’s not bullsh*t. It’s true. Publishing is a subjective business. Not everyone likes everything. Not every project, no matter how well written, is going to speak to every agent or editor.

I never understood this better than after I read Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects. Now that book took my breath away. That was one of the most incredible, amazing literary feats I’ve ever read. I’m not kidding. When I got to the last page, I was literally out of breath, the suspense oozing from its pages was so palpable. I had a physiological reaction to that book. I was out of breath and my heart was racing. Reading Sharp Objects was like doing a really awesome drug.

I gave it to my mom to read. She never even finished it. She didn’t like it. Later I went on Amazon and read the reader reviews of it. They were crappy. How could people not be passionately, insanely in love with this book? I read many, many other great reviews of it but you see my point. Not everyone likes everything. Not everything is for everyone. That was kind of the moment I realized what agents were talking about when they say “it just wasn’t for me” or “this is a subjective business”. I wanted an agent to feel about my book the way I felt about Flynn’s book. It made sense. I’d read a ton of books that I thoroughly enjoyed in that same year but I didn’t enjoy any of them quite the way I did that one. Just like agents read lots and lots of partials and fulls but only choose a few to represent. Suddenly all those it-just-wasn’t-for-me-this-is-a-subjective-business rejections didn’t seem so bad.

Also I don’t think many people who didn’t like Flynn’s book could argue that her writing was bad. Her writing is quite good, excellent I think, but good doesn’t mean everyone will like it. I’ve read plenty of books wherein the writing was indisputably good. But I didn’t like the books. I’ve read books by authors who are literary geniuses and not liked their books. Not because the writing stunk. I appreciate good writing, even when I’m bored to tears but again, not everything is for everyone. Tastes are different. People enjoy different styles, different subject matters, different perspectives.

So you should be good at writing, for sure. I’m not saying write the worst crap you can think of and try to pass it off as the next multi-million dollar best seller. I’m just saying that you should understand that being a good writer does not instantly guarantee publishing success. Don’t be discouraged by the this-just-isn’t-for-me rejections because they are not necessarily a reflection on your talent. The publishing industry is made up of people with different tastes and different interests. You just have to find one or two who really, really love your book.

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