Yesterday, along with the other 125 mentors in Brenda Drake’s PitchWars event, I picked the one writer I decided to work with to present in the agent round. I had 134 submissions and got to pick one – which compared to the number of submissions a typical agent faces in a typical week, are actually pretty good odds.
So the one writer was very, very happy. She got picked. The other writers were not happy because they didn’t.
We all have memories of not being picked. My guess is that they never really go away; they haunt us all in some profound way. I recently heard Meryl Streeptalking to Terry Gross on NPR about how, as a child, Meryl was forced by her formidable grandmother to sing ‘O Holy Night’ in French at a family gathering, and how this is her touchstone for terror: “If I ever have to play a person who is overcome with fear and terror, I go back to that moment,” she said.
I think the same thing happens with experiences of not being chosen. We can go instantly back to them and call up that shame or embarrassment. It’s tantamount to not being known, to not being seen, to not being enough, to not being loved.
For me, I would go back to junior high dance class, where I stood in patent leather shoes and a yellow dress, hoping to be picked, but not being picked. My best friend, who was a strikingly beautiful girl, was always picked. She is still one of my dearest friends, and she is still beautiful. Someone recently unearthed an old picture of her one of those dances, and posted it on Facebook. One by one, a string of men leapt in to comment on how they had swooned over her – and almost forty years later, in a heartbeat, I felt exactly what it was like to stand by her and not get picked.
It didn’t feel good.
Being a writer is filled with instances of not being picked – and this is not something to take lightly. In Big Magic, Elizabeth talks about this precise reality, and quotes Mark Mason:
“What’s your favorite flavor of shit sandwich?” What Manson means is that every single pursuit—no matter how wonderful and exciting and glamorous it may initially seem—comes with its own brand of shit sandwich, its own lousy side effects. As Manson writes with profound wisdom: “Everything sucks, some of the time.” You just have to decide what sort of suckage you’re willing to deal with. So the question is not so much “What are you passionate about?” The question is “What are you passionate enough about that you can endure the most disagreeable aspects of the work?” Manson explains it this way: “If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands, of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the eighty-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.” Because if you love and want something enough—whatever it is—then you don’t really mind eating the shit sandwich that comes with it.”
For writers, not getting picked is the kind of suckage you have to deal with. To wit:
- I have a client who cannot seem to get an agent for her magnificent book, and we can’t figure out why. She has tried and tried, and she is just not getting picked.
- I have another client who landed a top agent – she was picked! Yay! -- whose book went out on submission to 25 great editors, and whose book has been rejected by every single one of them. She can’t understand why, can’t wrap her mind around why, simply can’t accept that the end result may simply be that she is not picked.
- I have another client who got the agent, got the book deal, got the second book deal – she was picked and picked and picked! Yay! -- and then she wasn’t picked to get the big marketing bucks on the publisher’s upcoming list. She feels left out, looked over, neglected and pissed off because… she was not picked.
The point is that it never ends – the hoping to be picked and the risk of not being picked. Dealing with that is part of being a writer.
But to make it a little easier for anyone who entered PitchWars and didn't get picked, or who is pitching right now and not getting picked, I thought I would try to explain a bit about how the picking worked for me.
The first thing to know is that out of the 134 submissions, I only seriously considered seven, and only really debated about three.
The reason for this is that it is much easier to say no than it is to say yes.
Here are some of the reasons that caused me to say no:
- A story that doesn’t even hang together in the pitch. If I am scratching my head to follow three paragraphs of a story summary, that’s a big red flag.
- A story with no point, no purpose, nothing but plot.
- A story that is trying to be too many things – space opera/dystopian/mystery /romance.
- Opening pages that have no tension, no urgency, no conflict
- Opening pages that are wooden and flat
Here are some of the reasons I said maybe:
- A story that appealed to me. This is so hard to predict or to explain, and has a lot to do with voice and vibe, and coming at an idea in a new way.
- A story that I believed would appeal to the panel of agents lined up to hear the final pitches. I needed to know the book was commercially viable -- or could get there. Bonus if the author demonstrated an understanding of the marketplace, through correct genre designation or by mentioning competitive titles.
- Writing that demonstrated a high level of mastery. I wasn’t looking for perfection, by any means, but an indication that the writer had worked hard to understand the craft.
- A manuscript I could help make pitch perfect in the short revision deadline (basically two months.) I saw a lot of stories that met the above criteria but had too many issues to resolve in such a short timeframe.
- A writer open to coaching and willing to work hard. (This can be assessed by asking a few simple questions.)
Here is the reason I said yes:
- The entry met most of the above criteria, but not all.
- The opening pages did not have tension, conflict or narrative drive (I believe the story needs to start much later than it does), but the voice was so strong and assured, and the idea so cool, and everything else was a big thumb’s up, so I forgave that sin. It is an easy fix.
- Oddly enough, it was not a genre I normally gravitate towards, but there was just something that kept drawing me back to this one entry. It is impossible to articulate, but it was there, in spades – and I took a chance on it.
When the writer and I finally got to exchange emails, and I sent my 6-page edit letter, and she wrote back answering some of the seminal questions I’d posed and explaining why the heck she’d sent me a book so outside my wheelhouse, we both cried – because for a whole host of reasons, it turns out that we are a mentor-writer match made in heaven. We both felt as though we’d won the lottery. She’d picked me and I’d picked her.
For a brief moment, anyway, we both felt the joy of being chosen.