The Big Brush-off

On paper, they were perfect for each other—so why couldn't this agent immediately recognize our writer's genius?
Publish date:

I've just been rejected. Rejected by a big New York agent who I thought had a connection to me, an inborn cosmic tilt toward my writing. If I had a journal and flowery handwriting, I would've confided on paper that we were literary soul mates and made a heart around the sentence.

We made sense on paper, him and me. I actually recognized books that he'd sold and had even read one of them. He was interested in memoirs, didn't want romance or Western novels and said he liked irreverence. "You, my friend, are perfect!" I shouted at my Writer's Market when I first came upon his name. I embody irreverence, I said to myself, looking up the word just to be sure. Yes, I'm irreverent.

That next morning, still excited, I told my roommate Ramsey that I'd found an agent. Ramsey looked up from tapping on his fish tank, his brow furrowed in confusion.

"What do you need an agent for? Are you trying to act?"

"No, for my book."

"What book?"

"The thing I've been working on for the past year."

"Those self-help essays?"

"It's a memoir."

"Oh," he said, returning his gaze to the fish tank. "Well, my friend Tom was in a Converse commercial, if that helps."

Later that day, I wrote a clever and informative query letter, praising the agent as an editorial sage, sounding confident yet self-deprecating, hard working yet laid-back. I didn't play by the rules. I was definitely irreverent. I e-mailed the query then went for a run, visions of literary grandeur dancing in my head.

The next day, an e-mail from his office appeared in my inbox. "Big agents don't usually respond personally," I explained to my cat, as he sat ripping the stuffing from my couch and hissing at a golf ball. The office—more specifically, an assistant named Shana—said the agent was interested in seeing the first two chapters of my manuscript. I called my girlfriend at work.

"Looks like that big New York agent wants me."

"That's great! Did you talk to him on the phone?"

"Well, no. But he e-mailed. And he wants to see my work."

Feeling like she wasn't appreciating the fact that my literary soul mate had practically signed me to a three-book deal, I embellished a little. "He gets 5,000 queries a day and responds to, like, no one. This is huge. I wonder if we'll go to Nobu for lunch when he invites me to New York."

Since it was impossible to get any work done, I spent the rest of the day looking at New York apartments online and calling people, trying to find different ways to talk about my good luck so friends and acquaintances would realize how fortunate they are to know me. Suddenly realizing I still had to submit the work, I rushed back to my computer, reread the e-mail and became conscious of the fact that I was unclear on what to do. I had a book proposal and sample chapters from the middle of the book, but I hadn't written anything before Chapter 20.

Should I e-mail the office and ask if the agent wants the proposal, too? Or tell them that my chapters are short, so was it OK to send more? Would they reject me immediately for being a pain? With questions swirling around, I finally picked some chapters and e-mailed them. Fifteen minutes later, Shana let me know they arrived and to expect a response in two or three weeks.

Twenty-four hours later, another e-mail from Shana arrived. It went something like this:

Dear Author,

We at the big New York agent's office regret to inform you that we have chosen not to work with you. We don't think we're the right fit for your material. We also don't believe you're worthy of a personal letter. That's how bad we think your writing is. I didn't even take the time to insert your name where it says "author." Now we're all going to Nobu for a three-hour lunch to make fun of your submission and speculate on the shortcomings of your personal life.

Wishing you great success,

Big New York Agent

After ordering $30 worth of take-out, I wrote a three-page response to the rejection, denouncing anything remotely connected with the agent or his family. Luckily for my police record, the computer sensed the lunacy and froze, forcing me to erase my diatribe. I spent the next two hours watching a TV documentary on bees.

My editor at Boston Magazine called during my pouting spell.

I told him about the agent's rejection. "Don't get down on yourself," he said. "After seven rejections, my friend just sold a book about sushi for $250,000."

"But my book's about middle school," I said, jealous of his stupid friend with his stupid agent and his stupid quarter of a million dollars.

"But that's the whole point," he said. "He had agents telling him it was terrible and boring and about sushi and then along comes this guy who thinks it's worth 250 grand. It just takes one, Kev. Remember that." He paused strategically before he spoke again. "And speaking of terrible, can you have the third draft of your article done by tonight? Great."

Feeling better, I looked down my list of all the agents who might have an interest in my writing. I wrote three new queries.

But I'm not going to rush it. I've got 30 more soul mates to go.

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Chasing Trends

Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Chasing Trends

The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many writing mistakes over the years, so this series helps identify them for other writers (along with correction strategies). This week's writing mistake is chasing trends in writing and publishing.

Lessons Learned From Self-Publishing My Picture Book

Lessons Learned From Self-Publishing My Picture Book

Author Dawn Secord shares her journey toward self-publishing a picture book featuring her Irish Setter named Bling.

Poetic Forms

Crown of Sonnets: Poetic Forms

Poetic Form Fridays are made to share various poetic forms. This week, we look at the crown of sonnets, a form that brings together seven sonnets in a special way.

25 Ways Reflective Writing Can Help You Grow as a Writer (and as a Person)

25 Ways Reflective Writing Can Help You Grow as a Writer (And as a Person)

Reflective writing—or journaling—is a helpful practice in helping understand ourselves, and by extensions, the stories we intend to write. Author Jeanne Baker Guy offers 25 ways reflective writing can help you grow as a writer (and as a person).

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Being Followed

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Being Followed

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let your character know they're being followed.

Amanda Jayatissa: On Spiraling Out in Suspense

Amanda Jayatissa: On Spiraling Out in Suspense

Author Amanda Jayatissa discusses the fun of writing "deliciously mean" characters in her psychological thriller, My Sweet Girl.

3 Tips for Writing a Memoir Everyone Wants to Read

3 Tips for Writing a Memoir Everyone Wants to Read

A memoir is an open window into another's life—and although the truth is of paramount importance, so too is grabbing hold of its reader. Writer Tasha Keeble offers 3 tips for writing a memoir everyone will want to read.

Zoe Whittall: On Personal Change in Literary Fiction

Zoe Whittall: On Personal Change in Literary Fiction

Bestselling and Giller Prize-shortlisted author Zoe Whittal discusses the complexity of big life decisions in her new novel, The Spectacular.

Poetry Prompt

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 582

Every Wednesday, Robert Lee Brewer shares a prompt and an example poem to get things started on the Poetic Asides blog. This week, write a transition poem.