Posted on May 21, 2003 Posted by John Scalzi 12 Comments
Because I don’t want you to think my life is entirely charmed, what with the fabulous wife and great kid and the job where I make stuff up from the comfort of my own home while the rest of you slave for the man in decapitation-height cubicles, here’s a recent disappointment: I’ve been turned down my (yet another) fiction agent.
No, no. I’m fine, really. To begin, it was a really nice rejection, so much so that I like to think that I’ve not so much lost agentorial representation as gained another random e-mail buddy. And you can never have too many of those. And there’s the fact that, since I actually have a two-novel deal, my absolute need for an agent at this moment is less than it might otherwise be. For all that, I do have foreign and film/tv rights to sell, and I know for sure that I don’t want to be the guy who has to slog through and do it. Not to mention selling the novels after these. Somebody save me from myself.
Being rejected is also an object lesson in a fact that when it comes to creative output it is exactly as screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood: Nobody Knows Anything. Ultimately, nearly all of it comes down to hunches and personal tastes. In this particular case, some of the reason for my rejection by the agent is rooted in the idiosyncrasies of my writing style, which is focused on dialogue and action, and not so much on introspection and internal conflict.
This is of course, a perfectly valid criticism, and one which I get a lot. Go back to my first year in college, when I rather presumptuously shouldered my way into an upper-level fiction writing course, and you’ll find my writing being taken apart by my classmates for being glib and unconvincing. And why not: They were nearly all writing heady stories about drugs and bisexual experiences in the dorms, while I wrote a story about a boy accidentally trapped by the garage door when his dad’s repair job of the garage door opener went awry. Everyone else was writing from what they knew (or, probably more accurately, what they wished they knew), while I was writing from what I thought was amusing. Kid trapped by the garage door? That’s comedy gold! The only thing my writing teacher liked of mine is a one-page vignette I wrote about a college-age kid trying to convince his grandfather that’s he’s not a disappointment, and the grandfather trying to communicate the idea (falsely) that he wasn’t disappointed in the kid. I didn’t like it much personally, but I figured my instructor would.
So, it’s true: I’m glib. But on the other hand, it’s this same style that actually helped sell Old Man’s War, and is implicitly the style the book I’m writing now is supposed to be in. I sold the book on the promise that there would be action and dialogue, and by God, action and dialogue it shall have. There might indeed be some personal introspection and even a couple of larger themes in there, too. So long as they don’t get in the way of action and the dialogue. Anyway, I can’t imagine the story getting too heavy, since as I’ve mentioned before, one of the major plot points involves sheep. Sheep! They’re comedy gold! Scribble, scribble.
So who’s right? The agent who rejected me? The editor who bought my book? Me, glibly writing about sheep? Well, this my point. We’re all right. The agent is perfectly right to reject the work of mine she’s seen — it doesn’t work for her, and that would make it harder for her to sell it. The editor was right to buy the book he bought, because it worked for him and he thinks it’ll work for his audience. I’m right to write what I do because I like what I write, and that fact has its effect on the quality of the writing. And we could also all be wrong, too: The agent might kick herself for letting me get away, the editor could seriously misjudge the market for the novels, and I may be seriously overestimating people’s tolerance for sheep in their science fiction. Nobody knows. We have to wait and see.
In the meantime, I’ve already sent a query off to another agent. You can’t sit around moping after a rejection, you have to rush into the arms of the next rejection. Because who knows? It might not be a rejection at all.
I’m right there with you, John! I’m in the middle of a three book deal for Berkley Books for a series of skating mysteries. I am currently writing book #2 and I am writing it like a reader. I want to get to the good parts and only the good parts and just GET ON WITH IT! I do not want to describe the weather. I do not want to describe what the characters are wearing or what they are eating, or even what they are thinking, really. I want dialogue and action and plot twist upon plot twist. It’s what I want as a reader, so… Glib is word!
(I too did not enjoy the collegiate writing experience. I don’t want to write about depressed people doing depressing things in overwritten prose. I want a story!) I am currently reading “White Oleander.” It was an Oprah “literary” book. IMHO, it is also the Perils of Pauline. Bad things keep happening to a girl who keeps describing it all in bad poetry metaphors. And no, this is not intended to be amusing. If this is “good” writing (and so many people love to tell me it is)… more glib, please.
The science fiction genre simply does not have enough sheep. They’re comedy gold, after all.
Thank you, Carlos. A gold star for you.
Comedy Gold? Hardly. Sheep-laden Sci-Fi puts me to sleep.
If you put the sheep on skates, the agent might have gone for that.
As a longtime hack, I agree with everything you’ve said about this. If the agent doesn’t feel confident enough to sell your work, you don’t want her. She showed some ethics in addition, rejecting you even though you already have a two-book head start.
And what’s wrong with action and dialog? That’s the basic element of pop fiction, its strength and purpose of being. After reading “Old Man” and spent this time at your site, I can’t imagine you writing something introspective that Oprah would like, unless she likes sheep.
Action and dialog, hmm? Ever considered writing screenplays? For me? For Free? :)
…just kidding. but not about the screenplay part… that’s right up the action + dialog alley. In fact, you CAN’T really have much more than that in a screenplay, unless you’re prepared to have a director crap all over your golden words.
Bill Peschel writes:
“I can’t imagine you writing something introspective that Oprah would like, unless she likes sheep.”
Heh. Well, I’ve already used up my “appearing on Oprah” quota for one lifetime. I don’t expect to appear on it again.
I would agree with your comments about the agent, Bill. She considered the two pieces of work I gave her very carefully and eventually decided it wasn’t for her. Which is fine. Aside from the part where she rejected me, I was entirely satisfied with her performance.
Somehow, someway, the world will survive without your nonpublished novel. For such is the way of all great authors until they receive their full recognition once they are tucked in at Poet’s Corner in Westminister. In the interim, strangers will stare at you and quickly glance away. Rejection has both genders. Women who have never read your manuscript will pass you by like plagiarized August rain. Seagulls and pigeons will mock you in their own dialects, for they know of your disgrace. Bad events in the world will conspire against you when in sooth they were only coincidence. Flop writers, in the days following their rejection, compensate by over eating until their tummies fall over their belts. They eat fava beans for comfort food and wish their critics could join them for brunch. Puppy chow when their funds run low, for the post-trauma of one rejection will syncronize another dark rejection somewhere between Poe and Nostradamus. They stay insides, only leaving their houses 20 years later to take a job shining shoes, mumbling how well they once applied polish to their writings. Now, what was I saying..
To hell with that agent; yesterday I purchased your Universe book to give to my girlfriend. She had never heard of you…
See, I have such faith in your writing that I risked my entire relationship (not to mention professional standing!) on that book. Her exact words were “you [meaning me] are the best boyfriend ever”…
… “and that’s why I forgive you for making me read that AWFUL book!”
(Sorry, Andrew, John, I just couldn’t let the line pass… I’m saving up and/or waiting for Australian edition of that now)
For comedy gold, nothing beats monkeys racing on greyhounds!
RE: sheep + sci-fi = brilliance: In my high-school sci-fi class, somebody’s story rotated around a career called “Sheep Shifting”, which involved shepards moving sheep around their pastures for some reason. Who cared about the details? We were all humored to no end with the mere phonetics of “Sheep Shifting” that it became a running gag in that class for years.