Anatomy of a Lengthy Rejection Letter, Part III

Dear James,

Thanks so much for sending me SWIRLS IN THE NEGATIVE SPACE and my apologies for the delay in responding. Your memoir is very well written and your story is quite gripping. However, I think that this story could benefit from a more traditional structure (with an opening, climax, and resolution) and perhaps less reminiscence. I also felt that while we got to know you very well, the secondary characters were a bit under-developed. Ultimately, I’ve decided to pass but I really enjoyed reading this and I’m grateful for the chance to consider.

All best,

[Name Redacted]

Okay, so this one’s not so lengthy.  But since I’d already set the franchise in motion with the previous post, I figured WTF.  Make it a trilogy.  Couldn’t resist.  (The length of these letters was never really the overriding factor anyway.  I took the title from Bukowski’s “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Letter”–Which, ironically, was the first story he ever published.)  Also I’ve been feeling a bit guilty that I haven’t posted in a while, which is absurd on its face because who gives a crap?  Not that I’m a lazy blogger per se.  (Scroll through and you’ll find many, many posts, close together, and most of them are, in my humble opinion, well composed.)  I’m simply not the type of person who’s eager to hawk his own web presence.  Honestly, I’ve only a vague idea about how to do it.  The sense I get is that by being a fastidious practitioner of social media, and by visiting and commenting on other people’s blogs and leaving links to your own, you might develop a following–assuming the content is any good.  But I’ve never had “a Facebook” or “a Twitter” or anything else and I’m certainly not going to spend my time trolling the “blogosphere.”  Not that I’m snobby about that stuff; it just doesn’t interest me.  Which is probably why I’ll never succeed.  At anything.

But I’ve gotten way off topic, haven’t I?  Let’s tackle this rejection letter line by line.  One last time, for posterity…

1. “Thanks so much for sending me SWIRLS IN THE NEGATIVE SPACE and my apologies for the delay in responding.”

–A thank you and an apology in the first sentence.  Agents are a polite breed in general, no doubt about that.  As I’m sure you realize, agents don’t–in most cases–do the approaching.  As the unrepresented writer, you reach out via a “query”–a standard letter that may only vaguely (and probably clumsily) let that agent know that you’ve researched her.  You look for the ones who seem most likely to be receptive to your genre, project, etc., but in the end, it’s basically a crapshoot.  So when an agent actually requests to see your manuscript, it’s always a surprise, and, depending on where you are in your “career,” kind of a big deal.  But a polite agent (and most are) will always thank you anyway for sending your work–which is sort of like a Wall Street banker thanking a panhandler for taking his change; it’s nice, but hardly necessary.  Now as for the apology part, yes, there was a “delay in responding.”  Seemingly.  Most of the agents who requested my ms got back to me pretty quickly–within a week or two, which is actually quite fast, but this one had been sitting on it for four months.  From the beginning I promised myself that I would be patient with this process.  That I wouldn’t be one of those itchy query people.  (You know, the ones who populate Absolute Write Water Cooler with their nerdy threads.  GOT A REQUEST TODAY FOR A PARTIAL!!!  YIPPIE!!!  FINGERS CROSSED!!!)  I told myself that I would just stay cool, with every submission I sent out, no matter how long it took each agent to respond.  But I couldn’t.  Stay cool, that is.  Last week I sent this:

Dear [Redacted],

My name is James Ferry.  On August 31 of last year I received, from [Redacted], a full request for my memoir, Swirls in the Negative Space.  I sent the ms the next day; your email was provided for tracking purposes.
I fully understand that these things take time and that priority lies with your current list, but having reached the four month mark, one wonders: Am I still in the running?  If so, great.  If not, I appreciate the opportunity.
All the best,
James Ferry


This is what they call a “friendly reminder.”  Supposedly they’re acceptable.  Thing is, when you think about it, it makes no difference.  Either the agent hasn’t gotten around to reading your work yet…or she hasn’t gotten around to rejecting you yet.  Because you can be sure that if she read your ms and loved it, you’d have definitely heard from her.  I have no idea whether or not this “friendly reminder” had anything to do with the timing of the rejection.  As you can see, it was not mentioned.

2. “Your memoir is very well written and your story is quite gripping.”

–A sentence like this, on its face, is very nice.  I wish I could say that I was flattered by it, but I’ve grown jaded.  It has “but”–or in this case, “however”–written all over it.  I’m so used to this by now that it leads me to wonder what an acceptance letter looks like.  Do they just compliment you the whole time?  Or is the BUT actually the acceptace part?  As you probably know, I typically take on new clients through referral only, and finding something in the slush pile that I love is extremely rare, BUT…

3. “However, I think that this story could benefit from a more traditional structure (with an opening, climax, and resolution) and perhaps less reminiscence.”

–Ah, the whole non-linear thing.  I have so many thoughts about this that I’m going to have to wrangle myself here, in order to keep from going on and on.  (If you want a detailed explanation of why I structured my book the way I did, simply go the top of the page and click on–you guessed it!–Structure.)  For the record, my story does have an opening, a climax, and a resolution.  And she knows that, so as far as what she’s actually suggesting, I can only speculate.  Bear in mind that memiors, by their very nature, are not suspenseful.  I’m the narrator, obviously, so there’s no point in pretending that I didn’t survive.  And you know that I’ve changed; why else would I have written a memoir?  So there’s never any question as to whether or not there’s resolution.  I suppose it could be argued that I “opened” with the “climax,” but that makes a limited amount of sense since no matter how you open your story, that’s your opening.  Bear in mind that this manuscript was my master’s thesis.  It was evaluated by three professional writers on the faculty at Goddard; it was workshopped extensively; and, post graduation, it went through two passes with a freelance editor (big bucks).  Nobody ever expressed doubt about the opening.  (Again, you can go to the top of the page and click First Chapter, and see for yourself.)  So right there, we establish a narrative that will be circuitous in nature, and by definition “non-chronological.”  That said, I agree with what I think this agent is trying to say, which is that chronology should not be played with willy-nilly.  But when it comes to memoir, it’s not the order of events that really matters–it’s the context in which they happened and the themes they represent.  For example, my father’s death, though it occurred after the main narrative events, hovers over the whole story.  We learn about it early on, and the popular notion that “everything happens for a reason” is a recurring theme in the book.  So while the reader might be moved by my depiction (many claim to have been), the death becomes thematically relevant only when we see that my downfall was a blessing in disguise.  Had it occurred at any other time, I would not have connected with my father so deeply, just prior to losing him.  But to have revealed his passing after that event would’ve robbed it of its thematic and contextual weight.  These are complex issues.  Had this agent agreed to rep me, I’d have been open to whatever suggestions she had, structural or othewise.  In terms of editing, structure is relatively easy to fix; it generally means a re-ordering of material.  But as a criticism, “more traditional structure” is too amorphous to work with.  And the last part, “perhaps less reminiscence” is too vague to even consider.  It’s a fucking memoir.

4. “I also felt that while we got to know you very well, the secondary characters were a bit under-developed.”

–Perhaps.  It sort of depends on which characters we’re talking about.  I’ve always maintained that my book has three central characters: cocaine, the city of Los Angeles, and myself–and if you ask me, they’re all fully developed.  Beyond that, the book is populated, mainly, with characters who weaved in and out of my life.  Needy cokeheads.  Crazy lovers.  Fairweather friends.  What defines a relationship is an underlying theme, and some of these “secondary” characters are drawn quite extensively.  Others not so much.  They’re all important; they’re there to help tell the story, but if the time you spend on them outweighs their worthiness, then you end up slowing things down.  My early drafts were sprawling–superflous characters and sub plots that didn’t really serve the narrative (once you have a workable draft, hopefully, these things become clear).  But editing your own work is always a struggle.  Your inner critic keeps telling you to cut anything “extraneous.”  But on your darkest days, the whole goddamn thing seems extraneous.  So you trust your gut, and go with what you feel serves the story, nothing more.  Now, did I cut too much?  Perhaps.  But what really irks me about this criticism is how fixable it would be, and how much I’d enjoy fixing it…if this agent had agreed to rep me, and provide me with concrete examples.  (Chances are, any missing “characterization” could easily be found among the many discarded pages currently sulking on my hard drive.)  See, a writer is used to being told to cut.  We love to ADD.  We want as much of our work out there as possible.

5. “Ultimately, I’ve decided to pass but I really enjoyed reading this and I’m grateful for the chance to consider.”

–Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I think the key word here is “ultimately.”  In the context of the letter, it sounds almost like “regardless,” or “all things considered.”  What I mean is that I don’t think this woman is rejecting the manuscript based on her criticisms per se.  First of all, lets assume that the criticisms are valid.  Based on the work as a whole, having access to my bio and everything else, I’m sure this agent realizes how capable I am.  (If she were to provide me with a comprehensive set of notes, I could have an entirely new draft within two weeks, if that.)  But she’s choosing–ultimately–to pass.  Which is fine.  Disappointing, of course, but fine.  It simply means that even if I addressed her criticisms directly, and rectified them, the project would still be too tough to sell.

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