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Writer’s Craft #105

December 31, 2012
J Graykin

J Graykin

Justine Graykin is a writer and free-lance philosopher sustained by her deep, abiding faith in Science and Humanity — well, Science, anyway –- and the belief that humor is the best anti-gravity device. Find her work and bloggings at justinegraykin.com


This agent loved the samples I’d sent, read through one manuscript and praised it to the skies (“You have penned a wonderful, magical tale that will stay with me for a long time. I read it in one sitting, the writing was that strong.”) but ultimately rejected it because of some structural flaws (over which I labored long and mightily, and lo, Archimedes Nesselrode will be released as an eBook by DoubleDragon Publishing in 2013). Plus it wasn’t really her genre, and she asked me to send her something more skiffy, if I had it.

So I did. Sent her the requisite samples. She asked for the whole manuscript. In response I got what has to be one of the oddest and most frustrating rejections I’ve ever received:

“I read quite a ways into Tristramacus and while I love your writing (it’s quite beautiful and lyrical), I found myself noticing the words rather than the story and that for me is a show-stopper. … I hope you find an agent or an editor who loves your style and can guide you towards that last edit to make the story zing.”

I was so baffled by this I shared it with some of my associates to see what their take might be. One suggested that perhaps this might be code for “the vocabulary is distracting”, possibly that the words I’m using are slightly inappropriate and draw attention to themselves. Or maybe she had to read the thing with a dictionary. If so, then I’d really rather she had said so, rather than damning me with rich praise.

But another writer pointed out that she misuses the term “show-stopper”, which is actually an expression for a performance so spectacular that the volume of applause temporarily keeps the show from continuing. This could be a clue that perhaps she isn’t as erudite as one might hope for, and I may just be writing over her head.

There are a number of very popular, best-selling authors who have been accused of being unexceptional, even downright lousy, writers. Their books fly off the shelves. Yet certainly there is an audience out there who, as another commenter put it, “devour China Mieville’s stuff precisely because he uses words I have never seen used before – but they are perfect words, and they fit exactly where they should and say exactly what he needs them to say, and I come out of the experience the richer for it.” I may not be in China’s league, but I certainly shoot for something somewhere above Fifty Shades of Gray.

What is your take on this, Dear Reader (and presumably Writer)? Am I too damn lyrical and beautiful for my own good? Should I shovel a bit more grit, thrills, smut and cuss into the mix? Or try to find out who China Mieville’s agent is?

10 Comments leave one →
  1. tylertork permalink
    December 31, 2012 7:09 am

    I’m not familiar with your work, so I’m commenting in the abstract here.

    It’s impossible to please everyone. I admire China’s skill, but I’m more focused on story and find his writing a bit of a slog. I know a lot of words too, but there are many I will probably never use in fiction. Words are a vehicle for getting the meaning across, so if a lot of readers won’t know their meanings, they’re not doing their job. Obviously it depends on your intended audience. But it’s also a matter of personal preference. For me, a MS that’s lyrical straight through is like pecan pie. A little piece is nice, in its proper place, but a lot gets cloying, and I want some real food along with it.

    Agents are human, despite the evidence, and have their preferences too. They want to represent things they love, and who can blame them? Whether it will sell a lot of copies also is a consideration, since this is their business. It has to be something they know how to sell. It doesn’t mean the agent is stupid. Nor does it mean your writing is poor. It does mean that you and that agent aren’t a match. And there are enough different preferences out there that, if you feel your work has a potential audience, I see no reason to worry about whether a particular agent likes it. Try the agents who have sold things that are sort of similar to yours.

    However, if someone who’s a professional in the field has taken the read my MS and comment on it, I certainly would (1) thank them, and (2) think about whether they have a point in any criticisms. Ultimately, it’s your call. But I would give more weight to commentators who like the sort of stuff you write.

  2. December 31, 2012 9:14 am

    If you aren’t needing to look up the words you use before you write them, then this is your voice, and I say go with it!

    I think this is a single reader’s opinion, and unless you’ve had other readers make the same type of comment, move on; she’s not the agent for you.

  3. Justina Robson permalink
    December 31, 2012 9:19 am

    I used to get reactions like that. I realise now that the person saying that to me was right. I could write a sentence. I couldn’t write a story.

    The reason was that the work was structured so that that narrative threads of the main and side plots were completely unclear: obviously I was on about something, but nobody really knew what that was. Including me, as it turns out. I never simply said what was happening or why. I got bogged down in the details of the moments. I didn’t string those moments into a bigger meaningful whole. You may or may not do that, I don’t know.

    China Mieville does write with a massive vocabulary and well judged wording. He also tells stories. I don’t say that you aren’t doing that, but it’s not working out for you with that particular person you sent it to so it would be worth getting a few more professional eyes to look it over and tell you. If they all say similar things, you need to go back and figure out how to do that thing you’re not doing.

  4. December 31, 2012 11:46 am

    We can try and fit into what someone else might want, but ultimately we have to go with what makes our heart sing … otherwise, what’s the point?

  5. December 31, 2012 12:32 pm

    I wouldn’t change a thing–your voice is your voice and one person’s opinion is hardly a reason to give up on that. Obviously you are a good writer since she had high praise for it–it irks me when I read these sorts of accounts about agents–what the hell do they want? it’s why I self-published my fantasy after sending it to over fifty of these never-satisfied nay sayers.

  6. December 31, 2012 3:28 pm

    I completely understand your frustrations, but I’ll also agree with my fellow commentators. Don’t change your approach. You have to stick with the story how you feel it should be told. Just keep putting it out there. Good luck!

  7. December 31, 2012 7:23 pm

    The best way to answer questions like this is to write fan-fiction. That’s the only way you can find out what fraction of readers like what kind of style.

    There is definitely a set of people who enjoy writing style, and a larger set of people who care about content, not style. Usually, the problem with stories with great style is that the writer sacrificed clarity for style.

  8. Mary permalink
    January 1, 2013 5:41 am

    Great language does not make a great story. Great language does not creat a great character.

  9. January 2, 2013 7:04 am

    I’ve looked into self-pubbing and decided it wasn’t for me. So I continue to slog away on the more traditional route. I expect the best thing to do is to cultivate connections among writers of a like mind/style and try to access their audience and the agents/publishers who are interested in reaching it. Yes, I stubbornly continue to write from the heart because dammit, that’s why I became a writer. I write the sort of thing I’d like to read, which I don’t find much of out there. Which, I suppose, ought to tell me something.

    Well, I’ve got something coming out this year, albeit with a small publisher. Maybe it’s the foot in the door I need to find my audience. Even if it’s just a niche I’ll be content.

  10. Rayna permalink
    January 2, 2013 8:21 pm

    I don’t think one person’s perspective is enough of a verdict to warrant changing your writing style. From her quote, it sounds like your writing is just not to her taste, even if she noted that it was beautiful. That doesn’t mean you need to change anything. Stay true to you. There are lots of readers who enjoy lyrical writing. you will find a place for this book.

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