Looking for a reason to say “No”

Day one of San Francisco Writer’s conference.

I took a long, deep breath when I left the last panel of the day, “Fiction First-Page-A-Thon,” where writers were given the chance to have the first page of their novel critiqued by a panel of editors and agents.

Actually, it took me the entirety of the walk down from the heights of Nob Hill to the grit of the Tenderloin to sort out how I felt about the experience of watching editors and agents do what they do every day–make snap judgments about a book based on a few hundred words.

I learned a lot, just not what I expected.

View from the Peacock Room at the Mark Hopkins

View from the Peacock Room at the Mark Hopkins hotel

Attendees put the first page of their novel into a pile and the moderator picked random sheets for critique.

I typed notes furiously when the session began, but as time wore on my fingers slowed and eventually I closed my computer and listened incredulously as first pages were rejected at a faster and faster rate. Oh my god, I thought, I’m getting a view behind the curtain into a typical day at the office and I’m not sure I like what I see.

Agents and editors made decisions based on personal taste and contradicted each other and themselves when discussing “good” and “bad” writing.

Yes, of course, we know this. How else to explain A Wrinkle in Time (and countless other books) being rejected 37 times? Despite that, probably because I was at an educational conference, I expected more consensus. Nuggets of wisdom I could take home with me to improve my novel. How naïve am I?

Many rejections were warranted and the errors would be flagged by any English teacher.

Other pages were rejected due to individual agents’ and editors’ pet peeves. “I never take anything that begins with a phone call.” “Don’t have anyone making coffee or cooking.” “I don’t want to be there.” “Too much detail.” “Not enough detail.” “Don’t begin in a classroom. I hated going to school and I don’t want to read about it now.” “Don’t have a character wake up in the first line.” “Don’t have anyone driving or riding in a plane. Start when you get there.” “I’ve seen this too many times.” “Never say ‘heart pounded.’”

Some pages were rejected by half the panel and championed by the other half.

One agent summed up all I was hearing in one depressing assertion. “We are looking for reasons to say no.” She is so “overworked” that being able to quickly say no means she can get through the pile faster. I was taken aback by this. While I’d love to be able to read the first line of my emails and then delete them, I can’t. Granted–I’m talking about clients and editors and agents are dealing with unsolicited emails from non-clients who aren’t paying them, so yeah, I get it. Harsh reality.

Hearing all this negative and contradictory information would definitely push some people to self publish.

While I wouldn’t feel comfortable using anything that I heard in this panel to revise my novel, I got valuable insights into editors’ and agents’ state of mind. I appreciated their candor and insights into the world of publishing.

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