Sarah Glenn Marsh

young adult
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On Why Passes in Publishing Don’t Always Mean “Not Good Enough”

A couple days ago, I tweeted a thing that seemed to resonate with a lot of people. In case you missed it, here it is:

Aug 18:

#PitchWars mentoring has already taught me so much about subjectivity. Passes do NOT always mean “not good enough.” Not by far. <3 <3

Naturally, since other people seemed to be paying attention to it, I’ve thought about these words a lot in the past few days. So now, I’m attempting to gather those thoughts into a (hopefully) coherent post–because there’s so much more I want to say on this topic than what will fit in a 140 character limit.

Here’s how what I observed and experienced while reading slush for Pitch Wars has changed my outlook on the passes I receive on my own work–and how it should change yours, too:

First, the obvious. There are a number of things outside of the writing itself that an agent (or editor…or in my case, Pitch Wars mentor) takes into account while reading a query/submission. Like word count. A book that’s 170K, for instance, isn’t going to sell in the current YA market. It could be full of voice and have the most beautiful, quotable phrases, but it’s not going to happen. Beyond word count, there’s genre. A strong voice can sometimes overcome a really unmarketable genre, but a query for a book in a desirable genre will often get requested first (at least, from my limited Pitch Wars mentoring experience!).

But the things above aren’t really what I want to talk about. Imagine: your inbox has almost 200 queries and first chapters waiting to be read. Out of them all, there are a hundred books that have appropriate word counts and seem highly marketable. All have great titles. And all have prose that’s strong. They start their stories in the right place. They maintain tension throughout their first chapters. There aren’t any grammar errors. Their plots seem clear, but also keep you guessing. Their pages drip with atmosphere and voice.

So what makes one stand out from all the others, when so many seem close to perfect as it gets? It’s so hard to describe, and it varies from person to person as much as what makes me smile or laugh differs from what makes you smile or laugh.

In Pitch Wars, I couldn’t request everything that was really strong; there wasn’t enough time. I also didn’t feel a pull to request everything that was really strong. The main character of one story, for instance, would resonate deeply with me for a number of reasons I can’t begin to list, yet other mentors would request something I’d passed over because the characters in that manuscript had resonated with them.

I used to get frustrated when I’d comb the internet trying to understand what makes an agent request a book beyond great writing. But in Pitch Wars, when I was the one making the requests, I found myself saying something I’d heard so many times while querying (and admittedly, it’s a phrase that’s made me roll my eyes a time or two): “I’m not connecting.” Or, “I just don’t feel that spark.” And I was saying it about wonderful, polished manuscripts–books I didn’t request despite their fabulous writing and tension and seemingly well-executed plots, just because I wasn’t feeling a strong pull to read more in the limited time I had for slush (I’m only one person, who gets to pick one mentee, much like agents and editors have limited time and client/author lists they have to keep small to preserve their sanity).  

And as I kept wading through the slush, it dawned on me: Being drawn to a voice or story that’s well-written is as complex as what makes us feel. It’s different for everyone.

I requested one book, for instance, because the voice felt like a blend of several of the fantasies I grew up reading. It pulled at my heartstrings, almost like it was an old friend. There, I had that “spark.” With another, I found myself smiling and actually laughing out loud–and making my husband listen to passages I’d read aloud. Something about the characters and setting felt familiar, yet exciting to me, and even managed to tackle humor (a tough thing to do in books), so I had to request.

But there were other books that had amazing premises, yet the writing or characters didn’t grab me. I admired them, but I didn’t feel that burst of excitement, for whatever reason. I can’t put into words what was missing, and while I don’t speak for any agents, I bet some of them would have a hard time saying why they don’t feel that “spark” with certain well-written manuscripts.

So the next time you hear the phrase “not for me” or “not connecting,” know that it’s not necessarily a reflection on the quality of your writing. None of us know what will make someone else feel that spark for a book. It’s a bit like falling in love that way–emotional and unpredictable, something that takes a good deal of searching to find!

But you want an agent or editor who will make that connection with you. Who feels strongly about your manuscript, because they’re going to spend so much time on it, fighting for it, and making it the best it can be. And after working so hard on your book, you deserve someone who will share your passion for your characters and world.

Too, your search for the perfect agent might be a frustrating process because, as I’ve just witnessed in Pitch Wars, there are just SO MANY amazing books out there! So many talented writers!! And not enough agents to sweep them all up at once and feel ALL THE FEELS for their books.

–But that just means you have to keep making stories you love, and polishing them, and seeking out agents until you find the one who absolutely loves your book the way you do.

Finding that right agent may be hard, but you should never give up. Once you have a well-written book, it’s down to timing, and making that connection.

And you know what? You so deserve it.

Good luck to everyone who’s been part of Pitch Wars! And to everyone who’s currently querying! Have patience and persevere; after reading so many wonderful stories these past few days, I believe in you all!

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