Of Gates and Gatekeepers

A bird with yellow and black feathers and a blood-red beak rises into the air off the lawn. I have no idea what sort of bird it is, but its beauty is astonishing. I hold my breath; the sight makes three months of effort worth every minute (see previous blog-post Oh Interfering Life!).

As always, great things come at a price. And the price I have paid is that for three months, I took my eye off the publishing ball.

After sending parts of my manuscript to five literary agents in March, I’ve done nothing else with regard to getting my novel published. In case you’re wondering why I’m contacting agents, it’s because in most Western markets, it is virtually impossible for a novelist to approach a publisher without an agent. An agent’s job is to represent a novelist and to sell that writer’s work –  first and foremost to publishers, but also to film producers and others. Ergo, to get my novel published, I need an agent.

Like potential employers, every agent demands something different: some ask for the first 10,000 words, others the first three chapters; many accept electronic submissions but some still require manuscripts by post; yet others require that you upload material onto their private electronic platforms, accompanied by assorted information about yourself. Each is thus like a separate job application, and takes thought and care to prepare.

Unlike employers though, agents do not tend to reply. Of the five to whom I wrote, only one provided a personal letter of rejection. Another agent acknowledged receipt of material – for which I was immensely grateful – but sadly, this agency did not come back with anything else. As for the remaining three, I can only assume that they received my emails.

The experience has been educational. I’m assured by writer friends (including those already published) that not hearing back is the norm.

In this electronic age, I find that extraordinary. I don’t expect feedback (though that would be wonderful); what surprises me is not even receiving a simple automated reply to tell me that my material has reached its intended destination. That much, surely, should be possible?

In contrast, I’ve received an electronic acknowledgement of receipt – of the kind described above – for every short story submitted, whether to a journal or a competition. Short-story journals tend to be lean, so if they can acknowledge receipt and send messages of rejection, I see no reason why everyone else cannot.

Granted, this bold statement is based on the tiniest of samples (so small that it would not qualify statistically as a sample). I only began writing short stories in earnest last November after an Arvon course with the wonderful Tania Hershman and Adam Marek (see blog-post Trapped in Totleigh Barton! which describes my experience of writing in this pre-Domesday manor house). Between them, Tania and Adam and my fellow-participants managed to transform the way I felt about short fiction. And so far, my sojourn into their world has been thrilling.

From each of the four competitions and three journals to which I submitted, I received an acknowledgement which I could file. The seven emails thanking me for my submissions were heartwarming, following as they did on the heels of my first round with literary agents. Even the rejections were encouraging, since they showed at least that the stories had been read.

Of the competitions entered, I wasn’t placed in one, was long-listed in a second and am waiting to hear on another two. One of my journal submissions, Night of Falling Stars, was accepted by Litro Online and published on 21 June 2013. (Incidentally, the same story was rejected just days previously by another publication, which shows that there is always hope.) I never thought short stories could be so much fun! I even enjoy the submissions process.

What then, of my novel?

If I want to get it published conventionally in the West, I will need to contact more agents. But I may not restrict myself to conventional publishing. Or indeed, to the West.

Then, there is the lure of short fiction. And even a piece or two of non-fiction which, thanks to this blog, I’ve been invited to embark on. If I amass a collection of published short stories before I hear back from an agent, I may yet focus on the short, including the micro and the nano. Trying to construct a story in 140 Twitter characters is challenging and, would you believe, there is a home for them – One Forty Fiction – where a story cannot exceed 140 Twitter characters! For someone who not long ago was convinced of the impossibility of this genre, my change of heart has come as a surprise, especially to me.

12 Comments

Filed under Novel, Writing

12 responses to “Of Gates and Gatekeepers

  1. Sarah

    I feel your pain. I sent mine to an agent here. She wrote back a letter saying no and why. I sent it to a publisher and got a form rejection via email today. It’s a bit dispiriting! Sarah

    • Hello Sarah,

      Thanks for sharing this. You should not be disappointed – you received feedback! Rejection is part of the writing experience and I accept that. Being rejected is one thing; we can learn through it, especially if it comes with feedback. No one learns from being ignored however.

  2. Selina, I am so thrilled at all your short story successes and if we played a small part, that’s even more heart-warming! And sadly I echo your feelings about agents, I have had many non-responses, it seems so rude and uncivilized to not even acknowledge. Shame on them. Good luck in all your writing endeavours!

    • Hi Tania,

      Thanks so much for sharing your experience here. Non-acknowledgement is not only rude, it strikes me as simply unprofessional.

      But I’m sure someone out there may have an alternative view! In which case, I look forward to hearing from them.

  3. Nadine

    The feeling that you’re throwing your novel into The Publishing Pit without even hearing it hit the bottom is (alas) just part of the frustration. There are so many for a debut novelist …
    Actually, Selina, sending your novel to 5 agents can barely be considered a warm-up. For me, I didn’t give up at less than 50 — and many novelists would even consider that half-hearted. Even more disheartening is that landing an agent — even a big-name, New-York-City agent — does not guarantee anything. You know I was offered representation twice, and my novel is still unpublished.
    [As an aside: The first draft of the second novel is j-u-s-t about finished. Yay!]
    Besides the enjoyment you find in writing shorter fiction, getting publishing/contest credits under your belt can only help you when you draft your next query letter and start soliciting representation again.
    Good luck … to us all.
    😉

  4. darling, strength to you! I am prepared to be your PA and help you with preparations!

  5. Frieda Fuchs

    When did agents come into being as species? Am not quite sure why they exist in the first place–and to think that so much rubbish gets published b/c of market considerations…

    • Hi Frieda,

      I’m afraid I can’t tell you the history of agenting! There’s definitely a place for agents along the conventional value-chain, but perhaps the balance of power needs to shift even more towards writers and potential writers. The latter are, after all, their future clients.

      • frieda fuchs

        Perhaps I have a romanticized view of both artists and writers. To me, its not about dollars and cents, but a creative pursuit and vocation. There should be more public money spent on sponsoring young writers . The same goes for libraries. Think of the benefits society reaps from art and literature. Its a price above rubies. Have you ever tried your hand at non-fiction? Its a territory that I would love to venture in. By the way, have you checked out Rhys’ writings?

  6. G Chin

    A short story anthology (or shorts in general) are not a bad idea. Also: excerpt the novel and get the short story(ies) published – sometimes literary magazines or online publications will accept serialized work from writers, not just one-offs. That’s one way to establish cred and a following for your subject, and may put you in a better position for your next agent-hunting round. Just some thoughts 😉

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