Sweet or Sour? Opinions Vary Widely

Post Date: September 21st, 2010

“Writing is a profession for talented, imaginative, sensitive Gila monsters (I say this because good writers don’t give up, and legend claims that when a Gila monster clamps its jaws on something it won’t let go.)”

— Mary Beth Parker, founder of the Dana Awards

So is that why my jaws are aching? I’ve clamped down pretty hard lately.

I have an email inbox full of rejections for various manuscripts. Because I’m a fanatical optimist, I’m determined to find the sweet in the sour (actually, sweet and sour is a GREAT combination, if you’ve ever been obsessed with sour gummy worms).

The sweet: in between ten rejections here, thirty there, I’ve had at least one publishing success every year for a while now.

The sour: the rejections still seem to pour in like lava.

In the sour moments, kind agents will speak with regret: “I regret to say that I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate agent for your work. However, opinions vary considerably in this business…”

Ah! The sweet! Let me cling to “opinions vary considerably.” So, is Agent X saying she could be wrong?

The sour side of my brain says, “Ha, keep deluding yourself.”

More sour comes with Agent A’s fear: “We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list.” I’m afraid, too: that my project ain’t right for anyone’s.

More regret: “…I regret I wouldn’t be the best match in this instance.” Oooh, flashbacks to online dating and Match.com. Ugh: fade to black. But wait, sweet: I met my fabulous husband online.

More on the fact that the agents could be wrong, which I’m not sure if is sweet or sour: “I regret to say that I don’t feel I am the most appropriate agent for your work. Considering the subjective nature of the business, I hope that you will find someone who feels differently, and I wish you the best of luck in your search for representation.”

Form, form, form letters: I’ve given them out many times too as I turn away applicants for employment. How’s it feel now, Hawks, huh? Sour, sour, sour.

You’ve got to appreciate when agents get terse to the point of not even punctuating the final sentence:

“Not for us, thanks. Better luck elsewhere”

I could bemoan the fact I’m not worth an additional period, or, I could look at the sweet fact that a) I got an answer (many agents don’t answer at all) and b) The note is concisely kind.

After a certain amount of rejections, one starts seeing things. “This certainly sounds like an original and compelling premise for a novel, but I’m sorry to say it’s just not quite the right match for my list at this time.” Wow! He said “original”! He said “compelling”! Wow!

Hahahhahahaha. Lyn, everyone says that. You have, too–you’ve seen brilliant ideas in many a student manuscript while knowing the piece was many moons from completion.

“Please do not take this rejection as a comment on your writing ability.” This is said while also saying, “Given the large amount of submissions I receive, I can only properly represent material that greatly excites or interests me.”

No great excitement or interest, then. I do understand.

I can’t help but end on sweet. It’s my nature, to cling to the candy moments.

“You write very well, and I’m intrigued by the concept, but–is the entire work told through journal entries? I confess that’s not a format I connect with; that said, it sounds like you have a lot of good material, and I do think you should continue writing and sending
this out.”

This one I will attach to my monitor.

Mary Beth Parker, Dana Awards founder, says in “How We Started”:

I’ve learned a heartening but frightening thing in managing the Dana Awards: that there are thousands of excellent writers out there…Which is heartening for the sake of literature, but frightening because of the sheer numbers of good writers looking for recognition–so much competition for each one of us, and so many people who deserve notice but aren’t getting it.

Now that’s a truth both sweet and sour. That’s my story for now, and I’m sticking to it.


  1. Thank you for this, Lyn. Makes me think about how life is sweet and sour–just like your work with the agents. It’s a good practice to keep looking for those glimmers and shimmers of possibility. I am not an agent, but I think your work is compelling, interesting, well-written, vivid and highly publishable. Keep sending them out and keep writing your way through it. Life’s better with flavor.

  2. bobmust says:

    I guess I tend to ignore the sweet when the sour comes around. The novel I just re-wrote? After a discriminating search, I found only 24 agents to send the m/s to. I’ve had four responses so far: 2 canned rejections. One “It sounds like a strong project,” but no. And one “I’d like to see more,” followed by thanks, anyway.
    I know that’s better than most: two strike-outs, one grounder to short, and a long fly to deep center field. “Hang in there with me, Coach. I’ll start hitting on the road trip.”
    It’s tough out there (and in here), as we both keep proving.

  3. Marcia and Bob: Just gained two mantras, thanks to you:

    Life’s better with flavor.

    Hang in there with me, Coach.

    Thank you!


  4. Anonymous says:

    The problem with trying your hardest is that people can sense a forced, frantic nature with what you do. People like that element of magic in life- when you listen to an amazing song you don’t think, “wow, this song sounds nice.” You think, “how the hell did someone come up with this?”. I think truly creative efforts need to be a passive process- the creator is along for the ride in the same way as the audience-to be.

    Stop hanging on all my grammar and punctuation mistakes and let go- you’ll have publishers chasing you around in no time.

  5. Hi, Anon,

    I’d agree that there is a certain element of passivity in some stages of drafting–the first draft. I rose and wrote in a dream state every morning before 6:00 AM with my latest novel, and that paid off, hugely. My editor brain turned off and my true thoughts (muse?) flowed. The manuscript is much more real, not forced, when writing in that state.

    And then there’s revision. That’s when you turn your X-ray eyes on, looking for the skeleton beneath the flesh (since I don’t outline first) and hacking at the body, hard as it might be. This is where the professional rises to the challenge. If it’s all fun and games and muse running amok, then you’re free writing just like you did in high school. While revision takes a lot out of me, I love this phase, too, and learn so much more by being honest with myself and listening hard to critics.

    Yes, grammar is last stage and not of our concern in the early drafts. I can’t figure out if you’re the agent who didn’t punctuate the response or a former student who got blasted with -50 points for grammar mistakes. (Don’t forget I let you revise to get those points back.) 😉