by Karen Ball
There’s a secret agents and editors share. Something they seldom discuss with each other, and never with writers. It’s something they dislike. Intensely. It ties their hands when it comes to guiding writers guidance. It’s the #1 reason they turn down proposals, and the #2 (and sometimes #1) reason they’ve gone with form rejection letters. It’s something many inexperienced agents and editors try to change—I know I tried to change it, both as an editor and as an agent. I still try from time to time, but like most editors/agents, so far I’ve had to accept it’s inescapable. And trying to change it costs too much—in time, effort, and heartache.
It’s something we all know. And something we can never say to writers.
It’s something writers always tell us they want to know, but when we speak it, what we get in response, by more writers than you can imagine—and I’m talking about all levels of skill and experience and professionalism—is indignance. Outrage. Sometimes vitriol. About our knowledge, intelligence, and, believe it or not, salvation.
No, that’s not hyperbole. There have been times, when I’ve dared to utter The One Great Unspoken, that I’ve been told I’m stupid, insulting, arrogant, and, yes, unChristian.
But I’m going to try again. I’m going to speak it here, to you. Because I want you to know how we agonize over what we say to writers. How we wish we could just be up-front on this count and know that when we did so, writers would trust that we’re not trying to put them down or put on some false superiority. What we’re trying to do is help them. And be faithful to the task we’ve been given by our employers. Because when we accept a manuscript, we’re making a commitment on behalf of our employers to invest a major amount of money, time, and manpower.
So here it is, The One Great Unspoken. The tacit, time-tested truth many agents/editors hold to:
Thou shalt not comment on a person’s writing inability.
Notice that says inability, not ability. When someone’s writing is good, just not right for that editor or agent, it’s far easier to respond to that. And that’s far easier for a writer to hear than, “I’m sorry, but your writing just isn’t ready for publication.” Or, if we’re totally honest, “I’m sorry, but writing may not be the right career choice for you.”
Please note, I’d never tell someone not to write, period. But not all stories are meant for publication. That’s just one of the many reasons God gives people the task to write. But I also don’t want to give false encouragement. I think it’s wrong to do so.
Before I go on, I want to know what you think about that. You writers, be you new to the craft or someone who has been working hard at it for years—tell me: is saying that cruel, even if it’s the truth, even if it’s said with the utmost kindness? And please, don’t tell me: “You can’t make a statement like that.” Of course I can. It’s my job to decide whether or not someone is ready for publication. And in the process of doing this job, I’ve seen utterly beautiful writing. Writing that makes my heart ache because of truth and power it contains. And I’ve seen a lot of material that is not only not ready for publication, it’s flat-out awful. Painfully so. But do I think the writer of beautiful prose is better or smarter than the other writer? No. If I say someone can’t write professionally, it doesn’t mean I think the writer is awful or stupid or anything negative. I just think they can’t write. Not professionally. I’m not criticizing them personally or spiritually, I’m stating a professional opinion. One I’ve spent over 30 years developing.
But let me—or any agent or editor—dare to say that, and suddenly, no matter how kind we are in saying it, we’re terrible, mean-spirited, cruel, and arrogant. Hateful, even.
So you writers tell me, what are editors and agents to do?
One caveat: this is not the place to tell me what a terrible person I am, or what a bunch of meanies agents and editors are. This is your chance to give me—and the agents and editors out there—honest feedback on what has been a troublesome issue for years.