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7:06pm on Saturday, 27th February, 2010:

Rejection Patterns


I spent this afternoon making changes to my young adult novel, following comments from an agent. When I write to an agent myself, I get either no reply or a "like it but didn't love it" reply. However, when my work is forwarded on the recommendation of someone else, it's a little different. The agent will give a reply detailing four or five specific things that they didn't like, and then reject it.

The thing is, these four or five things they don't like are clearly not the real reason for the rejection, which is basically that they just weren't engaged by it (ie. what they'd normally say "like it but didn't love it" for). However, they feel obliged to comment so as not to be rude to whoever recommended me to them. If they really did reject the novel (well, the three chapters they were sent) on the basis of the four or five points they raised, then they would re-read it following corrections. However, they won't; as far as they are concerned, they are recommending changes so that the next agent to read it will like it more. This assumes that all agents have the same tastes, of course.

The recommendations I'm currently dealing with can be summarised as:

  1. Your lead character has a special power which you need to explain.
  2. Your lead character is better educated than she should be.
  3. Your lead character speaks in modern idiom and a secondary character speaks too precisely.
  4. Your second chapter is too long.
  5. Your main character doesn't like being a freak but starts off by doing a freaky think just for the hell of it.

OK, these sound fair enough, except:

  1. The special power is explained on the second-to-last page. It's the denoument of the book. If I explain it early on, it's bye bye plot.
  2. My lead character only needs to be able to read, write and point out countries on a map of Europe. I had specifically researched the educational provision of Hull (where she grew up) in the mid-1800s to check she could do this, and yes, she could, it was very well covered.
  3. My lead character uses no modern idioms, not even "hello". She does speak in a manner that young adults will find comfortable, though, as I want them to identify with her. The secondary character speaks precisely for a reason to do with his own special power; it's a feature, not a bug.
  4. My second chapter is 4 pages of A4 long.
  5. My main character doesn't like being called a freak. She doesn't actually mind having a special power because it's who she is.

Still, I made alterations to address all of these except the shortening of an already-short chapter. The next agent to see it will have to find something else to complain about (or perhaps not; as you can see, agents don't seem to care whether their complaints are entirely based in fact). Nevertheless, I'm sufficiently optimistic to believe that if the waters of agent opinion roll over my novel often enough, they'll take away all the sharp edges and be left with a smooth pebble. Then, they'll have to say "like it but didn't love it" just like they would if I submitted it myself.

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Copyright © 2010 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).