More on #writing and #agents (#amwriting #ohwriting)

About fifteen years ago, the super agent Nat Sobel saw my first published story in Black Warrior Review and contacted me. The novel I had to show him at the time (because most agents aren’t interested in short story collections) was my first attempt, and not very good. He told me it was too slow and too artsy. I figured that was just my lot as a writer of fiction. I took my writing far too seriously.

Cut to fifteen years later. I queried Mr. Sobel again. I finally figured out how to write something I think a lot of people might be interested in reading–my novel manuscript Apocalypse Nation. It is neither slow nor artsy. It is solid, exciting, page turning, commercial fiction. He agreed to look at the first fifty pages. It turns out that his very nice and capable assistant Aida Wright was the one who read the pages. After nearly thirty days, she got back to me. It seems that for their purposes, I’d swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. Far from being too artsy or slow, I moved things along too quickly (I disagree, of course) and too much happens (wrong again…just the right amount happens). Slow down, seemed to be her recommendation. Agents can drive you crazy.

I worked very hard to make this story “right” on the page. It is not too slow. You get to know the characters as they move through the story. I’m not giving up on the traditional path from agent to publisher–not quite yet–but I have begun thinking of other ways to get my work into the hands of people who like good adventure stories, people who like their stories with a good dose of undead. I may decide to offer the story on Amazon as a Kindle download. Maybe for free. Maybe for .99 cents. Andy Weir’s excellent realistic sci-fi novel The Martian went that route. He sold so many copies (35,000 at .99 cents each, in three months) that the publisher same calling. Now it’s a more traditional best-seller.

I’m not suggesting the same thing would happen to my novel, but it’s worth a shot. Anyone up for a good, exciting, scary read?

Queries and Responses, #grr #arrgghh

In the old days–maybe 10, 15 years ago–when you queried an agent, one had to send a letter, sample, and SASE (self addressed stamped envelope, for the uninitiated) and wait a month or two or five for a response. Now, in the “future,” most of this is done via email in the digital realm.

Then, I rarely didn’t receive a reply. It might take a while, and the reply was nearly always a form rejection, but it was a reply. Now, it is common for agents not to respond at all, even though the mediums for queries and responses have vastly simplified the process. Many state on their websites that “no response means not interested.” At the same time, they say they can’t tell you how long a no response will take. How long should I wait before deciding that you’ve ignored my email long enough for me to consider myself rejected? This is, to put it mildly, maddening and thoroughly unprofessional (imagine if I took this approach at my job–sure, you can hand in your essay, but I can’t tell you when I’ll read it and if I don’t respond to it, that means it’s a failing grade…good luck!).

With that bit of background, I’d like to thank the astute and efficient readers of the Lippincott Massie McQuilkin Agency. Today, I queried one of their agents about my Apocalypse Nation manuscript. The time stamp on my email was Thu, Aug 8, 2013 at 1:11 PM. I expected the normal delay in response–a week, a month, a year–before realizing that they weren’t, in fact, going to respond at all. So imagine my surprise when I received a reply in a very short span of time (time stamp August 8, 2013 2:48:35 PM)–just a little over an hour and a half. Of course it was a rejection–that in itself isn’t surprising–but it was speed at which their dedicated readers and decision makers decided to look at my letter and decide against it that truly impressed me. Their form email informed me that they were thankful that I considered their agency, but after “careful consideration” they decided that my work wasn’t a fit for their team.

It’s the “careful consideration” that really earns my praise. I imagine a roomful of interns fighting over the incoming submissions, valiantly attempting to make their mark in the literary world, “carefully considering” the merits of each piece before copy/pasting a form letter and sending it back to the author. Some agencies wouldn’t even send that letter. Some agencies would have just ignored it. Deleted it. Pretended like it never happened, like some author whose been paying his dues for a long time hadn’t carefully considered their agency and studied their website and agent profiles seeking a good fit. But the Lippincott Massie McQuilkin Agency isn’t that kind of agency. They care. They consider your work carefully, for at least an hour. Maybe over lunch. Maybe while running on a treadmill at the gym. They work for you, even though you aren’t a part of their team, yet. Their consideration is all that really matters.

What really happened: Someone got my email query in a stack of other email queries, glanced at it for less than ten, fifteen seconds, and hit the automatic rejection reply email button. Seriously, dudes. If you’re going to send something back to me in the amount of time it takes for me to read a short story, you should take out the “carefully considered” line. It cheapens you.

That’s it! I quit! (#AWP13)


I quit writing at least once a week.

Last week, I went to the humongoloid AWP writer’s conference in Boston. I pretty much go every year. I never know what I’m going for. I always come back ready to write, feeling good about writing, charged up.

The good feeling about writing last four days this year. Today, I sent a query letter to an agent who represents some zombie book authors. I have a zombie book to sell. In about an hour, she wrote back saying “it wasn’t her sort of book.” Right. I must have been confused when I saw that she agented several zombie/supernatural type authors. My bad. The blind search for agents is awful and deadening. I quit. Again.

Tomorrow, I’ll quit all over again. And probably the day after that, too.

C’mon, Threepenny… give me a break…

I’ve had six stories accepted recently at good literary reviews, so it’s strange to have such a negative reaction to a form rejection letter–I feel like I should say, “C’est la vie” and let this one slide, but The Threepenny Review is a respected journal and I expected a little better from them. The rejection I received from them was a perfectly acceptable form email. It isn’t the content that I find objectionable. It’s not even the rejection that is objectionable! I don’t care about the rejection! So what’s eatin’ at me? Here’s what it says:

We have considered your submission carefully, and unfortunately we are not able to use it in The Threepenny Review.  Please do not take this as a comment on the quality of your writing; we receive so many submissions that we are able to accept only a small fraction of them.Thank you for sending your work to us, and please accept our apologies for the automated message system. We wish we had time to reply to everyone individually.

Nothing wrong there, right? Of course not…it’s pretty much the same rejection that thousands of writers receive everyday. It’s the process by which a writer toughens his or her skin and continues to write, despite it all, because a writer should not be defeated by rejection. It’s the general insincerity that bothers me. Let me explain further:

Here’s the time stamp of my online submission to TPR:  June 23, 2011 9:09:15 PM EDT

Here’s the time stamp of my rejection letter from TPR: June 25, 2011 9:16:31 AM EDT

For those of you keeping score, that’s about a 36 hour turnaround time. In the rejection notice, it says they’ve “considered the submission carefully.” Interesting. Maybe that’s true. Maybe someone received my submission Thursday night right after I sent it. Maybe someone was waiting at the computer totally anxious for a new submission to fly through the transom. Perhaps several dozen people awaited new submissions! A whole room full of careful readers waiting to read carefully on the late-night shift for TPR. Maybe that one reader did carefully read my story–it’d take maybe twenty minutes or so to read. Maybe I was lucky and got an upper level editor and that person felt qualified to reject my story right away because they had a good sense of the needs of the journal. Maybe that person waited a few moments for the story to sink in, pondered it over a refreshing Mountain Dew or herbal tea. Maybe that person mulled it over for the whole night, carefully considering whether or not my story “fit.”

But I highly doubt it. It also says in the email that “they receive so many submissions” that the idea that someone carefully reads them all is a joke. I have nothing against the person who rejected my story–probably a hard working editor or reader with fine taste in stories and essays, perhaps my rejector is a wonderful writer, too, also receiving rejections from literary journals. I understand the business side of things. Once I sent a story to Harpers and three days later I received (in my own SASE) a similar rejection. This was “snail mail,” which means that between the time my story was dropped into the mailbox and three days later when I received the rejection (which also stated my story had been carefully read) there was no possible way that anyone could have even glanced at my story. Someone had opened the envelope and removed my SASE and dropped a rejection slip into its prepaid slot and mailed it away. I can only hope that story was recycled.

Something similar happened at TPR. Sometime late last night, a dedicated editor skimmed through all the submissions that came in Friday. There’s no careful reading involved, or it would take weeks to get through each day’s submissions. He or she looked at the first sentences of each submission and decided it wasn’t up to snuff for TPR. Like I said, I’m fine with that–the reader most likely is well-versed in such affairs. But I wonder how many wonderful stories and essays are passed over in such a way? I’ll even take me out of the equation–how many hundreds of good stories and essays do editors miss while they wade their way through the slush piles? For some reason, my first sentence didn’t catch this reader’s eye:

Behind the Quinn City Recreation Center, down a muddy hill and through a clearing bordered by a slow moving creek and a line of young trees, Andrew Winton molested me in a tent we shared on a camping trip. ”

It’s okay, I believe in this story and think it will find a home at some point, but I have to admit to being slightly miffed at the insincerity of the statement “We have considered carefully.” I just don’t buy it. I don’t buy the “we” because it was most likely one person–no editorial roundtable–and don’t buy the “carefully” because it doesn’t seem like the time allowed for such care.

Still, it’s better than no response or a rejection that takes a year. People who don’t respond at all are at the bottom rung of the editorial ladder. TPR is somewhere in the middle. I don’t mean to criticize TPR unduly–they do put out consistently good product. And even if someone did get past my first sentence and into the story, they still might have felt it not a proper fit. I guess I’m speaking for all of the people who work really hard at their prose–weeks, months, or years getting a story just right–and feel that they never get half a shake at the reviews to whom they submit. I’ve been lucky recently–far more acceptances than rejections of late–but I know that for each of my stories that finds a home, dozens of equally worthy stories are sent back with similar rejections. Perhaps a simple rewording is in order?


Certainly acceptance is something that I need to practice in my life–in my writing life especially–but in everyday life, too. Have you ever seen those bumper stickers that say something along the lines of  “if you ain’t angry, you ain’t paying attention”? What an awful way to live, driving around being pissed off about everything you see, grinding your teeth when you see another bumper sticker that pisses you off, speeding up to see the jerk who so flagrantly flaunts his/her wrong-headed ideas, spending the rest of the day thinking about how much of a jerk that guy was?

Wait, am I writing about bumper stickers? What was it? Oh, right acceptance. What do I have to accept. Everything. Does this mean I’m the world’s doormat? Not at all. But when I’m practicing acceptance, I’m aware of the limitations of my actions, aware that I can only do certain things on this day and that the things I can do tomorrow are not a part of the equation, because no matter how much I plan, they do not exist yet. Likewise, the “certain things” I did yesterday no longer exist either. I accept that tonight, a few moments before I go to bed, things are the way they are. Seems rather elementary, really, but our whole culture is based, it seemed, on living without acceptance.

As a writer, I’ve often written about rejection and what that means. I’m sure I’ll write about rejection again. Understanding and accepting rejection has made me the writer I am today. Often, when people read my writing on rejection, they say things like: “don’t worry! Keep your chin up!” Or, “Think positive!” Aside from the fact that “think positive!” doesn’t make any sense (without the “ly”, positive is just a noun and one cannot “think” nounly. A little message from the Grammar Police, Adverb Division GPAD) I’m afraid my ramblings about rejection haven’t done what I thought they would. Like any writer, I hated rejection letters at first. Then I loathed them for a while. Then I hated them some more. Then I laughed at them, HA-HA, and tossed my hair about insouciantly. And then something strange happened. I stopped caring about them. I get them in the mail now and I don’t really think about them. The people that reject me are doing the hard work of putting out a literary magazine. I didn’t make the cut. I toss the envelope in the recycling been. Without even knowing it, I’d started practicing acceptance for the rejections. Does that mean I give up? Not at all. In fact, today, I searched for new places to send my work to and I’ll send it out, do all I can, make the stories as good as I’m capable of making them, drop them in the mail and then it’s out of my hands. Nothing to do but write more stories.

But what happens when I get accepted? That’s the new wrench in the cogs. Since February, I’ve had six stories accepted for publication. That is, quite literally, more stories than I’ve had accepted in the last decade. I’ve had stories accepted at Eclipse, Limestone, Nimrod, Conjunctions and two other places that I can’t mention yet because they are connected with contests that have not publicized their results. These are a mix of small and large literary magazines and such acceptances have left me feeling oddly confused. I never thought I’d struggle to accept acceptance on this scale. But like everything else, I suppose it takes practice. Of course, I can’t count on acceptance letters. I have to accept whatever comes my way.

Having six stories accepted feels like the roof of my writing life has been stripped. I’m exposed to the elements. Luckily for me, my house is currently in this state, so I can show you what it feels like. Here’s a picture of my attic without shingles. Metaphorically, it’s kind of cool.

Maybe I Should Write About Rejection More Often?

So, a couple of days after I write about rejection, an old story of mine called “Trephine” is accepted at Nimrod, a very fine literary review that I’ve been sending stuff to for years. They called today to let me know. Last summer, I reworked “Trephine” and really tried to shape the character’s experiences into a cohesive piece–cut a ton from the story–made it far more spare and concise. I ended up really liking the story and am grateful that someone else liked it too.

Whenever I write about rejection, people feel the need to pat me on the back and tell me things are going to be okay. My tone must be off. That’s not the reaction I’m going for. Rejection is a process. I don’t hate being rejected nor look forward to it. It’s just part of the writing business. What annoys me is inconsistency in the nature of rejection. Here are the types of rejection, rated from best to worst.

  1. I really like your story but a few people on our staff don’t feel as strongly as I do. I’m sorry because I think it’s very nice. (This rejection will often come with proof that someone has actually read the story and will often come in an official envelope rather than the standard SASE.
  2. Your story does not suit our current needs. (Love it, simple and to the point.)
  3. Your story is awesome and super great and we all love it. Unfortunately, we won’t be using it. We encourage you to send it to our contest, though, or to subscribe to our magazine.
  4. What did you send us? The file is corrupt. We don’t want it. Who are you?
  5. You can’t write your way out of a paper bag. What in the world are you thinking?
  6. The “three-day” turnaround. So I sent a story to Harpers. No real hope of getting into Harpers, mind you, just for the hell of it. Three days later I get my rejection. That means that someone in the mailroom opened the envelope, fished around for my SASE, and stuffed a rejection in there without even looking. There’s just no way that story got even a cursory glance.
  7. No response. (Unfortunately, this is becoming more and more common, especially among agents and even a number of independent publishers. They are understandably busy and receive all sorts of queries and submissions, but it still seems shabby to not respond at all and think that it is somehow okay. It’s as if I decided to just not grade some papers because I wasn’t interested. It’s my job to grade papers and an agent or editor’s job to say yes or no. Since so many places routinely take six months to a year to respond to queries, is it really unreasonable to expect someone to write and say no? Less than a decade ago, those same agents and publishers requested a SASE stamped envelope and would at least, usually, take the time to stuff a form letter in there and send it back to you. Now, in the digital age, sending a form email is too much work? I don’t buy it. It’s the decline of civility. I’d rather get the most nasty email rejection than no response at all. I might as well ball up my story and throw it outside to see if it’ll get to someone by catching a ride on a tumbleweed.

But this isn’t about rejection today. It’s about that illusive feeling of acceptance. It feels good, sure. But it doesn’t make me any different as a person than I was yesterday. And although I did revise the story, it’s essentially the same story that was rejected at least thirty times. At least. So I know not to get too high on acceptance or too low on rejection. As Chuck D. once rapped: “Don’t let a win go to your head or a loss to your heart.”

So if you aren’t too bummed by rejection nor uber-elated by acceptance, what is left? For me, the answer is simply: the work. That’s all there really is. Each day I’m trying to make the work the focus. Being in the creative moment is what changes my outlook on the world. By attempting to create, I become a better, more perceptive husband/father/ friend/teacher/citizen. By attempting to find my path in the paths of my characters, I access things in my own experience that are far more valuable to me than acceptance or rejection.

You can hear “Trephine” on this website. Just look under the Stories Out Loud tab above.

Who’s a Guy Gotta Sleep With to Get a Decent Read from a Publisher?

That’s the ten dollar question, I suspect.

Sure, maybe it’s just sour grapes. No one wants my book and I’m throwing a temper-tantrum. Boo-hoo and all that.

But c’mon. There must be a secret handshake, right? Some back room that I can get ushered into at some point? Look at all those books out there on the shelves. Do all of them have something no other book has? Are they all arriving published on their own merits?

Maybe. Maybe.

But you can’t convince me that all those books–literary, serious books–manage to find their way into attentive agent or publisher hands without a little grease. I’m a pretty serious reader and there are hundreds of contemporary writers doing good work. I’m not talking about them. Jennifer Egan, Bradford Morrow, Sarah Braunstein, Paul Harding–fantastic writers with excellent books to their names. But what about the massive mid-list of writers most people haven’t heard of? What about those books that you pick up in the bookstore and wonder how in the world it happened. How in the world did these words get through the gatekeeper? How in the world did this project/novel/hullabaloo get picked over something else?

I’ve written about rejection before. Why again? Well, today I recieved, in the mail, what many writers dream of: a real rejection letter from a good-sized publishing house. NOT a form letter. How wonderful! The editorial assistant at Boink&Boff actually sat down to write a rejection instead of just stuffing my self-addressed-stamped-envelope with a note from the form-letter-bin. Here’s what it says (italics mine):

“Dear Mr. Knowles (nice way to start…a little formal, but that’s okay),

Thank you for sending along your novel (little glitch, I only sent a sample section, but I’m still on board), THE AURORA PROJECT. You have an ambitious, provocative idea here (Wahoo! Lovely! I agree! Should I keep reading? I think I should!). I was particularly impressed with the structure and wide scope of your book (Sweet! It’s a complex book and I’m so glad you saw the big picture!); your attempt to capture the essence of humanity as it evolves through time is inspired (fucking-A! Inspired! Looks like I’m sitting in the front row!).

However (oh, man…I knew it was too good to be true. Like a cheap vacation rental scam on Craig’s list), I feel that the execution of your idea fell a bit short (strange, because this is a novel, not a thesis-driven research paper, so there was no idea, only fiction, and because I sent along only about a sixth of the whole book); the descriptions and setting were somewhat underdeveloped (wait, wasn’t it just a couple sentences ago that this thing was inspired? Or was that just blowing smoke up my ass to prep me for the rejection? I’m a big boy. You’re allowed to tell me it isn’t a good fit for you and leave it at that…) and as a result, I did not feel rooted in the fantastical scenes (What fantastical scenes? Can you be specific? At this point, I’m starting to wonder if the sample pages were even read. And if they were read, did the reader realize that it wasn’t the whole novel? That it was samples from several different sections of the book? How could anyone feel rooted in a sample? Aren’t the samples, in this case, ‘inspired’, supposed to whet your appetite for more?). For these reasons, I’m afraid [your manuscript] isn’t quite right for us. Best of luck finding… yadda yadda.

So what’s the big deal, right? A rejection, just another one. I didn’t even expect an answer from this particular publisher. Just sent it along because, what the hell, worst they can say is no, right? I guess the big deal is that it’s hard to hear, as I have, over and over and over, that your manuscript is inspired or amazing or thought-provoking…only to be told “sorry, try somewhere else.”

I pick up books all the time that are not “inspired” or “thought-provoking.” I guess I’m just wondering what the magic word is? Does anyone know? Is it all blind luck? To be fair, perhaps this assistant just didn’t connect with the material. This isn’t really about her or one particular letter, but she’s the one who sparked the post, so I thought I’d see if I could find out who she was. It’s easy to find people these days. I did a little cyber-stalking (or, “a search on facebook”) and found my letter writer in under fifteen seconds. She seems to be quite nice, relatively young (I’d say mid-twenties, closer to twenty than thirty) went to a more prestigious school than I, probably got better grades, no doubt is smarter than me in many ways, and is most likely someone who loves books and has good friends and a fulfilling life. I don’t mean this to sound like I’m angry in any way, not at her at least. I’m sure we’d get along famously if we met each other at a writing conference.

I am frustrated, though. Frustrated that this book I really enjoyed writing (indeed, even as I wrote it, I knew it would be a tough book to sell, I wrote it only because I was jazzed by the whole strange idea) and that people routinely describe with adjectives like “inspired” has such a hard time getting past the gatekeepers.

Perhaps it’s simply a case of people trying to be too nice. Or a case of forgetting how to us the proper adjective. Let’s make a deal, okay? Next time you want to reject my novel, just keep it simple. “Not for us, thanks” will do fine. That’s all I need.

But would you like to see my new work? I’ve been working hard on it and I’m told that it’s inspired. I’d be happy to send you some sample pages. You’ll get back to me? Great, great…looking forward to hearing from you!

Does it get more discouraging than an auto-corrected rejection?

Hey, Rejection, I understand. Life is tough. It’s been hard for you, too. Having to send all those form letters informing the writers that you appreciate them choosing to submit, but that their story/poem/essay/art isn’t a good fit for the magazine/review/journal. Printing those rejections and cutting the paper into little strips…that takes a lot of time. And the paper cuts! Let me just say that I feel your pain. You at least have the courtesy to reply, right? A little form letter is better than nothing, right? You’re a prince compared to the ignored submission. Oh, sorry, I don’t have time to tell you that your story isn’t good enough. You’ll just have to wonder. What’s up with that guy? I’m taking him off the Christmas card list.

I have to say that I respect the work you do, Rejection. As the world of letters begins to go digital, you’re keeping up with the times. People no longer work just from their offices. They’re taking their jobs with them to the beaches and subways and Popeye’s franchises that they love. They’re working from free wi-fi hotspots and from cell phones with unlimited data plans. You’ve had to keep up too! Don’t think I haven’t noticed. Take today, for instance. You came via email. It looked something like this:

Dear Clark,
Apologies for not reverting sooner.
I’m afraid the _________ Press list is filled.

Two points to make here, Rejection, and I offer them as humbly as I can. 1) I applaud your move to the ‘green’ side of things. No wasted stamps or envelopes or printed materials. A sharp, crisp email is fine by me. It makes me feel good that you aren’t killing trees to get the message across. Together we can save the planet! And 2). I feel funny about mentioning this because you’ve been doing such a good job for so long and it’s really such a minor thing, but this note kind of shows your age. Are you losing a step? See that ‘reverting‘ in there? What’s that doing? It’s not doing anything. It’s all wrong. Why?

Here’s my theory: you wrote your rejection from your iPhone. I’m all for it. I use my iPhone like I was born with it. It’s an amazing device, no? It has a helpful auto-correct function that fixes things our fat thumbs mess up. Usually, I find it quite handy. Sometimes, it fixes stuff I didn’t know was wrong. And it fixes them to yet another wrong word. Now I’m three spaces removed from the word I wanted in the first place. See, I have a feeling that ‘reverted’ was supposed to be a ‘replied’ or perhaps even an ’emailed’ but got mixed up along the way. I’m happy to get the message, Rejection, but that sloppiness sends a pretty sad message, right? I mean, if you aren’t up to the task, who is? In the past, I’ve been comforted by your terse, purposeful prose. You were always on task. Some might believe the wrong word to be a slap in the face of the rejectee. I don’t think so. I refuse to think that way about you. I refuse to believe that you typed the message, saw the auto-corrected word, and decided ‘The heck with it…he’ll get the gist” and pressed send anyway. You wouldn’t do that, would you? I hope not. That’d just be sad, Rejection, sad on so many levels. No, I believe it was an honest mistake. I’m counting on you to pull yourself together. For the sake of the next email or letter you have to send my way, I hope that you’ll proofread and get us all back on our agenda. We need you now more than ever. We need you focused and strong. We need you clear and concise. Stay gold, ponyboy, stay gold.

Thanks, Rejection, for all you’ve done. If you ever need help, or need me to write my own rejection letter to help unburden your tired shoulders, just let me know. Send me a note that say, ‘you’ll have to handle this one on your own.’ I’ll undersand. It’s the least I could do, I think, after all that you’ve done for me.