About Rejections, Agents, and Dialogue vs. Narrative

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by Bobbie Christmas

Q: I received two more instant rejections from agents today. One said, “We’ve read your material, and I’m sorry to say we don’t think it is right for the specific talents of the people working at our company at this time.” Another rejection said, “Unfortunately we feel that your manuscript is not right for us.”

I am getting concerned. I researched agents who were accepting new clients and who were interested in the type of material I was submitting; however, already almost half have stated otherwise. Is my research model flawed?

A: Agents and publishers rarely give the full reason for rejecting a submission. “It is not right for us” does not necessarily mean the submission is the wrong genre. It could mean the agent’s interest is not piqued or the writing isn’t up to par or the agent is already handling a similar book. If I had to guess, I’d say that only one percent of fiction manuscripts get accepted for publication. It’s simply not easy to find an agent and sell a book. If it were easy, anyone could sell a book, and the success stories would have no meaning. The process is not so simple that you send out a few queries and find an agent. The process is slow, and it is not easy.

Rejection letters are generalized and worded in a vague way that appears to blame the agent or publisher. I’ve never seen a rejection letter that admitted, “We did not like your novel.” Instead letters say “It’s not right for us,” or “We’re not taking on new clients at this time.”

Instead of blindly mailing submissions or filling out online submission forms, a better way to find an agent is to meet with one at a writers conference. Agents who go to conferences are actively looking for new clients. You may have to pay a fee to meet with the agent, but after the agent reads or listens to your pitch, he or she may ask you to submit your full manuscript. In such a case, your chances of acceptance are higher. If the agent does not ask you to submit the manuscript, you might still get valuable feedback when you meet in person.

Believe me, if a manuscript touches a good nerve with an agent, he or she will take on the author, even if the agency is listed as not taking on new clients.

Q: You were a great editor for my manuscript, and I agree with almost all your suggested changes, deletions, and additions. Now I wish you were a literary agent too and would sell my book to a publisher.

A: I’m not an agent for several reasons. When I opened my editing service in 1992, a friend talked me into being an agent for her novel, to see if I enjoyed the work. I quickly learned how much scut work— researching, contacting, copying, e-mailing, and even traveling—an agent must undertake to be effective. After all that work with no pay, the agent faces long waits punctuated by a high degree of rejection. I also came to recognize that being both editor and agent created a conflict of interest. Prospective clients asked if I’d promise to represent their books if they paid me to edit them. One person even asked if I would guarantee to sell her book to a publisher if she paid me to edit it. I did not like the implication that I lured clients by promising such extra service, plus, no one can guarantee any book will sell to a publisher.

Quite frankly even after I evaluate and edit some manuscripts, they still are not ready for self-publishing or marketing to a publisher. Many need more work, and some manuscripts are good only as first-novel learning experiences.

After failing to sell that one manuscript—a well-written book I truly believed in—I dropped all interest in being an agent and concentrated on the part I know best: editing and consulting. I have a deep respect for everything that agents do, but I have no interest in being one.

Q: I am a statistician. Much of the software I work on is related to communications and statistics.

I was intrigued by your comment that seventy percent of novels should be dialogue. This figure seemed to be a lot of dialogue.

I took a random sample of pages from books by three authors, Patricia Cornwell, Jonathan Kellerman, and Clive Cussler. As a measure, I used the number of lines on the page that were part of dialogue. A more accurate measure would be to count the number of words, but this measure should favor dialogue, because a one-word comment, “Yes,” would count the same as a full line of non-dialogue.

The results ranged from forty-three to fifty-nine percent, with a mean of fifty-one percent dialogue.

Thought you might be interested.

A: You picked some popular current authors and undertook an interesting study. Thank you for your time, talents, and observation.

I did not pick the seventy-percent figure out of thin air, though. It was an answer agreed upon by a group of agents, publishers, and editors on a panel at a writers conference where I too sat on the panel. Maybe the information is idealistic, but in general publishers want more dialogue than narrative. Dialogue shows, whereas narrative often tells, and contemporary writing must show more than tell.

Which figure is right? The answer is not an absolute. Writers who strive for the seventy-percent figure can’t go wrong, even if their novels don’t quite reach that mark. Less than half dialogue, and the writing might be considered literary, but it may not appeal to contemporary readers.


For much more information on hundreds of subjects of vital importance to writers, order Purge Your Prose of Problems, a Book Doctor’s Desk Reference Book.

Send your questions to Bobbie@zebraeditor.com. Bobbie Christmas, book editor, owner of Zebra Communications, and author of seven-award-winning Write In Style: How to Use Your Computer to Improve Your Writing, will answer your questions quickly. Read more Ask the Book Doctor questions and answers at www.zebraeditor.com.

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