This past spring, I finished writing my first novel (technically it’s called a “project” until it’s published, but humor me here).
It’s a great novel. It’s an amazing novel. It’s a damn fine novel.
I love this novel. My beta-reader friends loved it (or they pretended to anyway). And I loved writing it. I laughed. I cried. I laughed some more. A quarter of the book came to me in manic moments of 2 a.m. insomnia where I simply copied down the voices in my head onto a pad of paper in the dim light of an LED candle. The characters I created feel more real and alive to me than many people I know in real life—and if I did my job right, reading my novel should make you feel the same way.
When I began querying literary agents this past spring, I believed they would fall in love with my awesome first chapter and my amazing writing (go ahead, laugh). They did not. After thirteen rejections, three no-replies, and an overpriced online Writers Digest course on what literary agents look for in a query, I think I know why.
My novel is a commodity. A product that must compete for your money and time in a fiercely competitive marketplace, not only with other novels, but also Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, Pokemon Go, Pandora, Spotify, Netflix, Sling TV, CNN, cute cat videos on YouTube, President Trump’s Twitter tantrums, and all those other time-consuming distractions keeping you away from books. I have to “move” at least 10,000 units of this commodity to make it worthwhile for a literary agent to take me on as a client and market this commodity to the public. Marketable debut novels have to follow certain rules to increase the chances of making a profit.
Let me fictionalize my point by utilizing what I shall call “Literary Agent Bot” or “LitBot” to go over some of these rules and illustrate why my query didn’t win over the hearts and minds of these sixteen literary agents.
Dear Ms. Literary Agent,
I am seeking representation for THE FOSTER KID, a 123,000-word literary fantasy novel for young adults.
LitBot: 123,000 words is too long.
LitBot: Literary novels are hard to sell.
LitBot: Your novel isn’t “literary” until someone in the literary community calls it “literary.” So drop the literary pretension why don’t you.
Let’s assume some agents kept reading beyond the first sentence of my query to see what else LitBot says.
Pitch (in a nutshell):
Fifteen-year-old Amber Chandler is a popular teen trying to keep up with her image-conscious friends in Bay View High’s hottest clique. When her widowed mother becomes a foster parent and brings home sixteen-year-old Cory McCormick, a mysterious orphan who can hear people think, Amber must confront her insecurities and her clique after they discover Cory playing augmented reality games with the most unpopular boy at school.
LitBot: The stakes aren’t high enough. Especially at 123,000 words. Go away.
Just for fun, let’s keep going with this.
…I believe my novel will appeal to readers who enjoy literary writing that grounds a speculative element in a realistic world, like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians.
LitBot: Remember what I said earlier about using the word “literary?” Of course you don't.
LitBot: The Magicians is an adult book. Because your manuscript has teenagers dealing with teen issues, you need to comp with another recently published YA novel. You clearly don’t understand your chosen genre so we don’t want you.
But here’s the problem: there’s no comparable YA title I can use. This is because I deliberately wrote a young adult novel for grownups.
I read all the must-read YA classics. Harry Potter. Twilight. Hunger Games. Divergent. And after reading every one, I thought, wouldn’t it be cool to read a YA novel that doesn’t hold anything back? A literary-fantasy mashup with nuanced teen characters and complex sentences that adults would enjoy?
I wrote a genre-bending YA novel for grown-ups who enjoy genre-bending speculative fiction. I wrote it to the best of my ability, inspired by the writing styles of my favorite literary authors. The best comparison I can make is that if T.C. Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jonathan Franzen got together with margaritas, corn chips, and a Ouija board to summon the spirit of David Foster Wallace to write a YA novel, I believe it would come out something like what I wrote (actually their version would probably be much better, but since that will never happen, my version is your best hope at literary quirkiness).
For the heck of it, here’s one more comment from LitBot. Assume the literary agent kept going and started reading my sample chapter.
CHAPTER 1: THE NEW KIDS
Loser. Words percolated into her mind like bubbles of mud. Drug addict. Street thug. Dumpster bum. She twisted a soft lock of hair around her finger.
LitBot: The protagonist is unlikable. Readers won’t read past page one if your novel opens with a snotty, unlikable teenage girl. Which means I can’t sell your book.
So long. Farewell. Go away. Try again with another project some other day.
I queried “only” sixteen agents, which in the grand scheme of things, isn’t a lot. But not a single one requested the full manuscript. Maybe if I queried a hundred more, one of them might ask for the manuscript, but I doubt it. I’ve now accepted that there’s no way this “project” will be my debut novel. It’s too long. It’s too weird. Too many points of view. It includes footnotes. It breaks too many rules. My popular teen characters quote the philosophers Nietzshe and Alasdair MacIntyre during a climatic fight in chapter 52. And unfortunately, I can't include the letters “MFA” in my bio. I’m not pen pals with Jonathan Franzen. I don’t know anyone willing to send a copy of my manuscript to Neil Gaiman.
If you want to read chapter one, you can click here. If I have time, I might go ahead and put my entire novel onto my website just in case. In case of what? In the unlikely event that I die in a car crash, or a plane crash, or I’m taken out with a semi-automatic by a mentally unstable angry male who should have channeled his alienation and rage into the more socially acceptable method of writing a novel, I want to make sure my baby is out there in the world in case I’m not.
So I’ve set aside my “project” and started over with a new novel. This time I will follow the rules.
And it will be awesome.