Looking for the ‘No’ to find the ‘Yes’-Part I

After last month’s flurry of literary activity here in Austin where publishers, agents, editors and authors convened, first, for the Texas Library Association’s Annual Conference and then the  Writer’s League of Texas’s A to Z YA Conference, I got to thinking about how writers, editors and agents want the very same thing and we go about it the very same way: We look for the no while we are looking for the yes.

Sounds strange, I know, but stick with me.

When we send out manuscripts, it seems like editors and agents are looking for any reason to say ‘no’ to our manuscripts: typos; illustrator notes on a picture book manuscript; the wrong font; a bad query letter.

It seems like that. And truthfully, it may be like that on a bad day. Editors and agents have them, you know. They may sit down, tired and frazzled, looking for any reason not to continue reading the first, second and third manuscript they pickup on the stack of fifty billion in their office. A typo (like their instead of there) may just send that manuscript into the ‘no thank you’ pile. But let’s not focus on the bad days. Let’s focus on the good days.

Let’s say, the agent or editor is well rested; the house is quiet; the dishes are done. “Wait, why aren’t they in their offices?” you ask. Well, you see they don’t read manuscripts at the office. They read them at home, on airplanes, on the subway. Reading new work is something they do outside the office. The office is filled with meetings and commitments to the work that is already in the pipeline.

Can you begin to see how editors and agents might pass on your beloved manuscript if it isn’t up to snuff? It has to shine in the limited time outside their 40-hour work-week. For them to put it aside and say, “This one has possibility,” it must grab them in the 59th hour of the 60-hour work week.

Do they want to find great new work? Absolutely, it’s their job.

Do they want to fall in love with a manuscript? Absolutely, that’s why they are in this crazy business. They love story. They love voice. They love character.

So why the no? Why the seemingly quick rejection? First of all, we don’t know how quick it is, so quit making up that movie. Second, they have to use some criteria to exercise their powers of discernment. If your manuscript is full of misspellings and looks sloppy, wouldn’t you wonder about the author’s attention to detail? If the query can’t describe the plot in a way that grabs the reader’s attention, wouldn’t you wonder if the writer has command of their story?

Rest assured: When they are looking for the no, they are looking for the yes. While they are exercising their powers of discernment and weeding out manuscripts that don’t sparkle, they are really looking for a manuscript that will carry them through the months and years to publication. Editor Arthur Levine asks his editors, “Are you madly in love with it (the manuscript)?” Agent Erin Murphy asks herself, “Can I let this manuscript go? Can I let it be represented by anyone but me?” Agent Michael Stearns tells writers, “My no is just one no. That’s all. The next editor or agent may want it. You cannot let it stop you from resubmitting, particularly if you believe in your manuscript and your rigorous critique group thinks it’s in excellent shape.”

Agents and editors want to find a great manuscript. They want to fall in love. They want to spot the next Newbery or Printz. But if you had a stack of 500 mss to read, what ‘no’ would you use, to find the yes?

Tune in tomorrow for Part II-How writers look for the ‘No’ to find the ‘Yes.’