Leave it to the Chinese to come up with a torture and execution technique that has served as a model for despots throughout modern history. The Chinese call it Lingchi and it can be translated “death by a thousand cuts”. Begun in approximately 900 A.D., the practice was carried on until 1905; when it was banned. I’m guessing in the one thousand years they practiced it, they eventually mastered the technique. For crimes of treason or killing one’s parents, a person was tied onto a wooden rack and a knife was used to methodically remove portions of the body over a period of time, eventually resulting in death. You don’t say? Sometimes—either out of mercy or to keep someone from fainting during the process—opium was administered. Well, that’s awful thoughtful. The whole thing sounds extremely cruel and I haven’t personally experienced it, but after my brief history with literary agents and subsequent rejections, I think I might prefer Lingchi.
The publishing industry has changed and is changing rapidly and with my first two books, Little Heathens and Always a Little Heathen, I chose to bypass the arduous process of approaching traditional mainline publishers via literary agents and instead went with what today is called a “partnership publisher”. Somewhere in between self- publishing and traditional publishing, partnership publishing allowed me to have my memoirs published rather quickly and I gained much experience in the process. What I didn’t get was exposure, and so for my first fiction project and third book I decided to go the traditional route; how hard could it be? I should have listened to the author’s webinar on submitting manuscripts before I plunged.
The process is simple; the first thing you do is find a literary agent. There are numerous agents on the internet practically begging for work. However, they are very specific in what they are looking for—if they are open to unsolicited submissions at all—and they expect you to match up your manuscript with their preferred interests. Otherwise, they throw your submission into a “slush pile”. It sounds easy, at least on the surface, but here’s an example of a literary agent’s “what I’m looking for”. The name has been left out to protect the innocent; me.
This agent loves character-driven, page-turning fiction that gives surprising insight into the complexities and contradictions of human nature. The common thread in the diverse range of projects they represent is a strong voice and the ability to make readers both feel and think. They have a special fondness for characters with an insider-outsider perspective; for narrative risk-takers; and for books that make them laugh out loud and sob into their tea. In the end though, they’re category-agnostic. They are drawn to effortlessly masterful novels, with idiosyncratic voices.
Confused? They aren’t finished.
Right now they are particularly seeking upper middle-grade and YA fiction. They are drawn to contemporary fiction, multi-cultural fiction; genre fiction with an emotional underpinning; speculative fiction and alternate histories/realities; fantasy and paranormal; thrillers, science fiction and horror; subversive fairy tales; and other genres that hark back to 19th century Brit Lit roots. They have a weakness for novels that turn they’re favorite classics or myths inside out, give them an intriguing new context, and bring something unexpected to the table. They’re drawn to works that tell a great story using words and images in unexpected ways, and would be thrilled to find an illustrated or mixed media novel for older readers. They love works that take highly commercial tropes and give them surprising depth and real emotional resonance.
And the author is supposed to figure out if their book is the right genre for this agent? Good luck. It reminds me of the carnival game where the man takes your money and you try to toss a ring and have it land around a wooden post. The differential between the diameter of the ring and the post is so insignificant that the only way it can be done is to drop it straight down from a height of no more than six inches. A sucker is born every minute it seems.
Once you’ve found your agent, you then have to submit the query letter. Whereas the agent can be as confusing and generic as humanly possible, the author, on the other hand, when submitting a query letter must be precise and to the point. Most agencies accepting queries state: The query letter must be addressed to a particular agent with a one paragraph “hook,” a one paragraph synopsis, and a brief biography. Many will ask for the first few pages of the manuscript. If you don’t excite their passions within that small window of opportunity; Rejection! And like Lingchi, rejection letters are extremely painful. It’s as if someone takes a dagger and carves out a piece of your heart. I wonder if within a paragraph and five pages Charles Dickens would have gotten a rise out of a literary agent with Great Expectations? Or how about Victor Hugo with Les Miserables?
Dear Mr. Hugo,
Thank you very much for sending me LES MISERABLES and thank you for your patience as I considered it.
While this is definitely the kind of project I am interested in, ultimately I wasn’t as taken with your manuscript as I need to be in order to fully get behind it, and so I’m going to pass. I must remain extremely careful to only acquire projects about which I am wildly passionate, and thus I feel it is in your best interest that I step aside and allow you to continue your search for representation elsewhere.
Please remember that this is only one opinion in what is a highly subjective business and another agency may very well feel differently. Thank you again for thinking of me and the very best of luck to you in your search for the right agent.
During the webinar I referenced earlier, the author mentioned that he has kept all of his rejection letters. Over a twenty year writing career, he has been rejected 21,000 times. And he’s still alive. I assume he counted the “no replies” in that total. So far I’ve only received fifteen rejection/no-replies. I wonder how many “cuts” I can endure before my heart gives out and I succumb?