Agency Lessons: Translating rejection letters

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today I want to talk about rejection letters. The agency reopens to queries today and that means I'll be reading and responding to a ton of hopeful authors this week. As many of you know, I try to personalize all my rejections. As an author I can appreciate how frustrating it is to get a no without any reason attached to it.

But I'm a little concerned that for some writers, these lines of feedback might be more hurt than help. Let me lay out a scenario.

I read a query (including the pages and synopsis). The writing is just not there. The opening is lacking a direction, the dialogue feels stilted and the tone isn't age appropriate. I want to be helpful, but I can't give every query a detailed rundown of everything they need to fix. Plus, I'm only reading 5 pages here. I don't know what else needs work beyond that.

I send a pass letter praising a unique premise, but pointing out that the opening pages failed to draw me in and the dialogue needs work.

Most writers would see this and (after getting feedback from others) go back and do another round of edits on their manuscript, checking dialogue throughout.

But some will not. Some will add three lines to their opening in an attempt to draw in the reader and change a line or two of dialogue. Without looking at anything past those 5 pages, they resend it to me stating they edited based on my suggestions assuming that now I will request pages because I did exactly what they asked.

And that's where the problem is.

A query response is just that. A response to a query, not a critique of your query (or pages, or synopsis). An agent may offer a suggestion or two, and that can be a great nudge in the right direction. But those suggestions should not be taken as a substitute for a critique. And they can't be assumed to be a complete list of all an agent's thoughts.

So next time you get a query response, keep in mind that there is always more to the story than what's on the page.