I’ve received feedback from a big U.K. literary agency that I sent in my book for consideration.
They’ve very kindly come back to me with feedback. They’re not the first people I’ve sent in the book for consideration, but I found their response particularly interesting and I thought I would share it.
I’ve had a look at your submission and I’m afraid that it isn’t one for us. I found it very hard to engage with this piece, with it’s [sic] exotic, portentous sounding setting and names so strange that you felt the need to provide a pronunciation glossary. Readers tend not to want to work so hard, and I habitually question the need for invented names that have more punctuation in them than they ought.
The other main issue here is the fact that your novel is far too expeditionary and this, for me, means you fall at the first hurdle. First principle of writing fiction? Show Don’t Tell. My feeling is that you need to take a cold hard look at this work before you send it out for further consideration.
Sorry not to have better news. Best of luck in your search for representation.
Now, when one receives rejections like this about their work they need to keep two things in mind, I think.
First of all, you can’t get arrogant about it and claim that the editor doesn’t have a point. They view thousands of manuscripts and in this particular case the agency represents some prolific authors in the fantasy genre. So I need to take his comments seriously and not get overly defensive.
On the other hand, one must understand context – theirs and mine.
Firstly, the agency is looking for books that are more commercially viable for their market. This becomes evident in the comment about names above. I don’t really find the names in my book hard to pronounce (one name is actually an African name while some others I did make up). Seeing as the agency is based on the U.K. an African name might be hard to pronounce. But since my book is located in an exotic location (a middle-east kind of fantasy setting) I’ve tried to use more middle-eastern sounding names which could be ‘strange’ to a Western reader but are actually not so strange in the big wide non-western world.
This opens up some interesting conversations in that the agency is obviously limited by its own paradigm. Frodo and Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings etc. are not exactly ‘normal’ names but they are more pronounceable in the English language, I guess. But maybe my names, such as Sephobwe and Tarkanyon and Ah’Metein are not really that difficult for an African like me to comprehend. So is it fair to say the names are a bad thing, objectively? Surely not. It’s about context and audience. They are U.K. based and will market to a U.K. audience.
Should agencies / publishers be so narrow minded about the unfamiliar? Well, they need to make money, of course, and the only way of making money in this market is by volume, not so much by the merit of the artwork. So in general anything that’s too different is too much. They will say they want something different, but they in general won’t take on something that’s too different.
‘Portentous sounding setting’ I do take as a bit of a complement. The book is meant to be momentous and ominous. The fact that my writing projected exactly what I wanted is, for me, great.
I admit the novel is pretty expeditionary but so is The Lord of the Rings. I’m not quite sure why the agency views this as a problem. But he is linking that into the infamous ‘show don’t tell’ advice that is so often given to authors.
Show don’t tell is a difficult one. It means that audiences (according to publishers) prefer to be ‘shown’ an event rather than ‘told’ an event. For instance, if I was saying that Sizwe hung up the phone I could say, “Sizwe hung up” or I could say “Sizwe pushed the red button on the phone and moved it away from his face.” the former is ‘telling’ the latter is ‘showing’.
Now one can see from this example that it makes sense not always to be showing but also telling. Unless, of course, you’re looking to dramatise, but not everything should be dramatised to the nth degree. I find it laborious where, like in Robert Jordan’s later novels (for example) EVERYTHING is shown. A novel that could be exciting and could move quickly is bogged down by endless dribble to show us every grimace, every nuance, every second of every moment. It’s boring and pretentious.
I think there is more telling going on in big authors’ novels that publishers care to admit. A read through Robert Ludlum shows that he does a lot more telling than showing, at least in my opinion. Clive Cussler is sometimes so bad with it and his prejudice so clear (Sahara is so badly prejudiced against Africa it’s laughable) that I have no idea why he is rated as a good writer. By who, I ask? Yet they are selling books by the bucket load while new authors are told to ‘show don’t tell’? That doesn’t really compute.
Personally, I still do like to be told a story, and it’s in the telling of it that I like or don’t like a story. The Lord of the Rings has a heck of a lot of telling in it and this is one of the things I think I enjoy about it. I feel as if I’m listening to a storyteller, not a story shower. I admit that I need to write for a post-modern audience and not a modern one (The Lord of the Rings is a modern, not a post-modern, novel) but at the same time the world is also moving beyond post-modernism.
So I think the way in which ‘show don’t tell’ is drilled into authors, and the way a book is judged by it, is actually not fair on the author or the style they’re trying to go for. I wanted a classic style novel, but obviously the agency doesn’t. That’s OK, I don’t have an issue with that. But if I actually read authors on the shelves there’s a lot more telling than publishers admit, which is a little irritating.
So in the end of the day I’m not really disappointed. Sure, it would have been great for this agency to represent me, but actually I’m looking for someone to work with who will come alongside me and try to better my skills. They were obviously just looking for another author who they can represent, not worth with. That’s fine with me as I also need to find the right people who I trust and believe will get the best out of me and my work.
But in the greater scheme of things I think this review of my work opens up greater questions, such as the questions surrounding the names, Show Don’t Tell, and of course how creative one should get with their work and how much of the norm they should keep. Always a struggle, that.