The Other Side of the Screen

The Other Side of the Screen

My wife and I have run The Maine Review for the last three years and had a wonderful time doing it, publishing some great work and learning a ton. One of our editors has stepped up to take over the magazine, making it her own, and we’re thrilled for the transition.

I’m in the middle of querying my novel The Halting Problem right now, and while that is an epic lesson in patience as I wait for replies, my work on the magazine gives me a much better sense of what it’s like on the other side of the screen.

I acted as the publisher and first fiction reader for the The Maine Review. The last issue of the magazine we produced had over 1,000,000 words of fiction submitted for consideration. Thank goodness we’d brought on readers as we grew, because that was a monstrous pile of prose to get through.

I wanted to read every word, but it just wasn’t practical. And what I learned is that in the first paragraph or two, I knew if this work wasn’t for us. Multiple typos and grammatical errors, and the story was rejected. Same with clunky prose. A stilted voice? The same. All of these things kick me out of the narrative.

I’ve received a few rejections from agents already. One agent replied “I didn’t connect with the story strongly enough to feel I’d be the advocate the book deserves,” for example. Now that may be a form letter, but it’s the truth of the matter, and I appreciated it. She looked at my query letter, and the story just didn’t grab her. I was glad for the quick reply and queried the next agent on my list that day.

But it drove home a more critical point for me. One I knew intellectually, but now understand at a gut level. Agents receive a mountain of submissions. Their first impressions are immediately focused on whether the author did the work to be considered. Is the query letter in the standard format? Is it well written? Are the opening paragraphs of the sample pages tight and compelling? In short, do they want to keep reading?

As I’ve said previously, I’m a research nerd, and I put that to good use before I started querying, obsessively reading blog postings on query and manuscript format, on honing the query letter and those first couple of manuscript pages. Among the better advice I read, and now practice religiously, is that nothing I’m submitting–manuscript, query letter, synopsis–should go out the door without having been read aloud. I find typos and bad grammar but also get a feel for the cadence of the prose, something very important in a thriller.

So despite the huge ego investment in my writing, getting a query that says “I didn’t connect with the story” seems like more of a fact than a judgement, and stings a lot less than if I’d alienated the reader on the other side of the screen who has a million words to get through.

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