I thought I’d post some of the rejections I received for The Beggar’s Opera before it was shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award.
The first agent I queried asked for a two week exclusive. At the end of that reading period, this is what she had to say:
“I finished your book a few days ago and have been sitting on it, trying to puzzle out my reaction. I know there are certain things I LOVE about the book. The atmosphere, for one — it’s really fabulous. And the twists and turns that happen at the end of the book! They’re just what an editor wants to see — completely unexpected, yet totally believable. …
“So why did I not fall in love with the book? I think it comes down to the characters. The Canadians aren’t as strong as the Cubans. Mike is okay; Celia’s better. But the Cubans are great; I found my interest level always picked up when we came to them, especially the doctor.
“So, where does that leave us? I’ll be honest. The atmosphere in this book is so strong, I think you might keep trying elsewhere, to see if anyone will represent the book as it is. I have decided to pass on this version BUT, if you were willing to rewrite from the Cubans’ POV (maybe even just the doctor’s POV? He’s an UNFORGETTABLE character — he really stands out, he’s unique, who else is there in contemporary fiction like him? Whereas there are a million Mikes), I would be interested in reading that, and probably working with you. Let me know what you think.”
At this point, Hector Apiro, the pathologist, was a minor character. The book was written from Mike Ellis’s first person perspective, Ellis being the Canadian detective on holidays in Cuba when everything goes south. Agent A was suggesting a major re-write, but I was eager to please.
So I tried to rewrite the book from Apiro’s first person perspective; it didn’t work. Then I re-wrote it from Cuban Inspector Ramirez’s (third person) perspective and increased the number of chapters with Apiro in them. This took about three months working pretty much full-time. I sent the revised ms back to the agent. A few minutes later, I received this response:
“Thanks for sending me this, Peggy. I took a quick look at it and though it’s obvious you can write, I just wasn’t pulled into it. You’ve also contacted me at a time when I am simply overwhelmed with work. So I think I’m going to pass.”
Agent A, however, at least loved the twists and turns and found them believable. Agent B had this response: “I’m afraid I find all the connections de trop, as the French say. For me, these finally render the whole unconvincing and I don’t see how you could unscramble it to suit my particular taste.”
The third rejection came from Agent C who read the original manuscript as well as the revised one. He wrote: “I’m afraid I felt the pacing was rather slow for a thriller, and I’m concerned about the length of time it took to get to the heart of the plot. I was also a bit concerned about the effect of the shift in perspective, and throughout I found the narration a tad distant.”
Agent D’s issue was again with Mike Ellis and those boring Canadians: “Perhaps part of the problem is that, while Mike is certainly sympathetic, I’m afraid I found him to be a bit too overly familiar. I felt he lacked that extra spark, that extra development, that would distinguish him as a highly compelling, memorable protagonist, that would help this book stand out from the crowd.”
Agent E disagreed. She liked the book, just not enough to represent it. She wrote: “I wish I could offer constructive suggestions, but I thought the dialogue was fine, the characters well-crafted, and the plot well-conceived. I think it’s the kind of thing that really is subjective – why some people adore the book on the top of the NYTimes bestseller list, and others don’t.”
Of course there were many more rejections to follow. But post-Debut Dagger, here’s what UK agent Peter Robinson (now my agent) had to say about TBO:
“I read the novel over the weekend and quite literally couldn’t put it down. I love it and on the strength of this would love to represent the book and you. With its setting and characters, the book has enormous strengths and appeal…There’s much to talk about here, but I haven’t read anything so instantly compelling for some while and would relish the opportunity to work more closely on it with you.”
So there you go. Don’t take one agent’s word for it; keep on trying! You need an agent who is passionate about your book and willing to work with you on it to make it even better. (Although personally, I’d probably avoid one who describes your writing as “de trop.”)