A little while ago, a writer (Jaraslawa, an accomplished circus trick rider, a part-time intelligence officer, and a highly skilled swordswoman) wrote to me to with details of a rejection letter she’d had from an agent. That letter read, in part, as follows:
I love the way you write, I’m intrigued by the characters, but something isn’t hanging together for me and I’ve pored over it trying to see how I’d work with it to ‘fix’ it but it’s not coming to me.
I’ve taken on books I feel this way about before and it’s never been a good decision. I believe so strongly in agent-client fit and while I think we’re ALMOST there, I think the fact I don’t have a clear vision for the book means I’m just not the right agent for you.
Having said that, I think it’s an excellent novel, and I think you’ll have no trouble securing representation elsewhere.
Jaraslawa (whose name means fierce and glorious) smote the heads off a couple of cabbages with her swordstick and asked me what I thought she should do. Try more agents? Get a manuscript assessment? Or what?
And look. Aside from inactivity and despair, almost any option here is a good one. The right path for you really depends very much on your circumstances and priorities. I can advise, but only you can decide.
That said, this particular combination of agent enthusiasm with agent rejection is very often a sign that you have an excellent novel that doesn’t yet know quite what it is. So I wrote back to say, among other things:
What’s your elevator pitch? Very often a failure to get an agent comes from a core offer that isn’t quite strong enough. There are plenty of flawed books that did superbly, just because they nailed their pitch. (Hello, Dan Brown, and many others.) So: what’s the pitch? 12 words or less, please …
Jaraslawa rode out into the forest that spreads for thousands of hectares about her castle and slew a stag, two foxes, three promiscuous badgers, and an animal that possessed the head and body of a boar, but the tail of an ordinary woodland squirrel. She wrote back to me thus:
Arrgh I hate this. I’ve been tussling with an elevator pitch for 18 months and I’m useless at it. This is the best I have come up with:
Young man learns that sex and Beethoven are no cure for grief.
That sort of sounds like an elevator pitch ought to sound like, right? It has a certain salesiness to it. A certain spring.
But salesiness isn’t the point. Hard-hearted as I am, I said:
I have no idea why I’d want to pick up that book. But you’re trying too hard. You’re trying to encapsulate the whole book in a few words. You can’t, so don’t try. What’s the one single element of the book you’d pick out for a reader?
One element. You’re trying to tell me about the man (young), his issue (grief) and what doesn’t work (sex + music). Result is an incoherent pitch. Your book may be coherent enough, but why would I pick it up?
Jaroslawa uttered a great roar, the roar of a bull elk in fighting season. Saddling her best horse, she galloped east to the Ukrainian steppe, where, in a single day, she brought about the destruction of twelve Russian tanks, two self-propelled howitzers, one anti-aircraft battery and three slightly moth-eaten Cossack colonels. She wrote:
I know this is crucial but I actually think it would be easier to write an entire new book!
What I want to get across is that it’s a story about an immature young man in a casual relationship whose parents die horribly. His grief forces the relationship onto a more serious level than it was ever supposed to be and inevitably it cracks. He then spends the rest of the novel trying to win her back/not win her back/win her back, but it only comes together at the end when they’re both battle-hardened and ready for the full-on, proper serious thing. Lots of other stuff happens alongside, but this is the centre of the story.
But how to encapsulate that? Everything I try sounds either too convoluted or too bland. How about this:
Jamie and Zoe’s relationship is all about fun. But what happens when one of them suffers a terrible, life-altering loss?
I know it’s 20 words, but is it any better?
I wrote back – happily this time – to say:
Yep! That’s it, or roughly:
A man’s casual relationship gets rammed by the life-altering loss of both his parents.
You’re not looking for a shoutline or piece of blurb. This line is only really for you. It connects you to the heart of why people might want to read this thing. You don’t have to say how things finish (“orphan goes to wizard school” explains the first few chapters of the entire HP series and nothing else.) The pitch doesn’t have to bring out all the other elements – readers will encounter those in the book, or via the “tell me more” conversation with a friend, etc. You just want to understand the heart of the reader appeal: why people might pick up the book in the first place.
Then I think it’s worth you thinking about whether every page of your book and every significant development somehow honours that basic promise to the reader. It really may be that the answer is “yes” — in which case, it’s really quite likely that another agent will pick the book up. Or it may be – it quite often is – that the book’s premise gets a bit muddled through the course of the plot. So (for example) a musical subplot might take on a weight that it wouldn’t have if the “casual relationship rammed by tragedy” was always foremost in your mind. It’s those cases, I think, where an agent most often loves a book but can’t quite commit to taking it on. It’s there but not-there. If the actual book lines up perfectly with a pitch to the reader, that “how would I market this?” question is solved
As I say, all this MAY be helpful, but it also really might not be. I haven’t read your book and good books are rejected for more than one reason. But the one we’ve been talking about is, I think, usually the commonest [so far as good, well-written novels are concerned.]
Jaroslawa uprooted fourteen oak trees, tore the top off a mountain, hurled a cloud as far as Ireland, and quenched her thirst by swallowing a waterfall. She wrote:
I can’t thank you enough. Everything you say makes total sense and I can almost feel the path clearing before me. I shall leave you alone now and get to work.
It’s obviously nice to be of value, but – now that Jaroslawa has finally stopped throwing clouds around – a few sober reflections too:
- When you get the kind of rejection letter that Jaroslawa got – excited, positive, but still no – the answer is very often something to do with the basic sales pitch of the book.
- If that’s the case, then finding the one single thing you’d want to tell someone about the book is massively helpful. Forget about salesiness. Forget about encapsulating everything. You just want one thing. A casual relationship is struck by tragedy. What happens next? That may or may not be a book you’d want to pick up, but you know immediately what it’s offering.
- It’s not enough to know. You also have to deliver. Does every page of the book honour that basic promise? If it does, your agent knows how to sell the book. If it doesn’t, she doesn’t.
- And although the answer to this kind of conundrum often lies in understanding the book’s elevator pitch better, it doesn’t always. Sometimes an agent just doesn’t quite click. Sometimes the elevator pitch is fine, but the characters aren’t quite singing. And so on. I happen to have come out of this email exchange looking prescient, but quite often the issue lies elsewhere. In other words, if the elevator pitch line of attack delivers something for you, great. And if not, OK. Don’t worry about it. You’ll find the issue lies somewhere else.
That’s more or less it from me, except I did have to quote one more email from a reader who is sick the back teeth of everything to do with elevator pitches. Tuck into her rage in the PSes below.
PPPS: Emma wrote to me (in relation to last week’s “round and round, round and round” email.) She said:
Yes, I absolutely agree with you about the usefulness of repetition. Apart from one notable, infuriating exception.
The concept of the elevator pitch.
It is explained in detail (often giving the same ‘Aliens’ example) in practically every ****ing workshop/webinar/video on novel writing ever.
It is akin to the presenter holding up a biro and showing the pointy end.
And uh, yes. This is another email about the pointy end of the biro. To all the Emmas out there, I beg your pardon. By way of compensation, I shall get Jaroslawa to steal, flay and roast you a herd of bullocks.