Why God...and Miss Snark...invented the CoM

To the wonderful Miss Snark,

I have written a first novel, a second, and am beginning a third. I'm gathering query rejections by the truckload: 38 rejections; 2 requests for partials, later rejected. 300 hours of rewriting and I am ready to try again. Four of the rejections said something like this: This theme is not something I would want to represent. This story is about a mother who causes an accident that claims the life of her child. She must find a path to return to emotional health. Included in the story are a few dream scenes and a few paranormal abilities. I know your feeling toward dreams. Is this pretty much the case throughout all literary agents of the upper class? Do dreams plus paranormal equal death? Or does my query suck?

Also, the name of my protagonist is Quenton. Is this bad? Too common? A shmuckster name?

I am a great writer, and this is a great story. Honest. My mother even likes it.

From, a guy who desperately needs Snarkoholics Anonymous, but is just too happy with his disease.

This is why Miss Snark invented the Crapometer.
It will rev up again after December 15.
Try not to run yourself ragged on that rodent wheel while you wait.

And dead kids are pretty much ZAP in my book.
You'll need to be Alice Sebold or better for that little hurdle.


Chumplet said...

Powells received only one comment on this book? And the comment SUCKED!

Kim said...

No offense to the writer, but as a mother of two young children, nothing is more depressing to me than the thought of reading about a mother responsible for the death of her child. I don't care about dream sequences (ugh) nor do I care about paranormal. I find the entire idea utterly morbid. I don't think any mother out there would ever find her way 'back to emotional health' after that. Her life would never, ever be the same and neither would her emotional anything.

And I also think that anyone who needs to tell (not show) that they are a great writer... well, I won't go there but it ranks right up there with 'you can trust me' (wink, wink, nduge, nudge, say no more).

Just my humble opinion, for what it's worth.

Christine said...

Ugh. I agree there are certain subject that people shy away from. I recently read a query for novel about kids taking over their high school at gunpoint.

Solid writing, but the subject nearly set my hair on fire. I rejected it solely on that principle. I think the news more than gives us enough of that - I don't want to read 'fiction' about it.

Anonymous said...

"My mother even likes it."

Please tell us this was intended as a wee joke.

Samus said...

I don't mind people writing about it, but I don't want to read it. I'm sure there's a market for it; the Lifetime channel is chock full of those kinds of stories. It's just one of those... easy writing subjects.

Sherry D said...

Oh dear, even if it's written really well I wouldn't want to read it. My life has had enough sadness in it. The name Quenton is curious, but not a death sentence; it's the depressing storyline that kills it for me.

Maya said...

Christine: I agree that the subject matter is not one I'm interested in. Interestingly enough, I believe Jodi Picoult has a book planned on the subject.

I've been a huge Picoult fan for the last ten years. Her books are always planned two years out.

My memory is that one of the next two books begins with a Columbine-type incident in a local high school.

The other is about a man on death row who found God and who is petitioning for the right to donate his heart instead of waiting for his execution.

If anyone hasn't read Jodi's books before, try "Keeping Faith." It's the story of a Jewish woman going through a painful divorce after finding her husband with another woman. In the middle of the mess, her 7-year-old daughter begins to talk to someone she calls her "Guard." The mother is struggling to decide whether this is just another imaginary friend, when the child--Faith--begins to perform miraculous healings and quoting passages from the Christian Bible, to which she has never been exposed.

Picoult is a superb writer.

Anonymous said...

From my How NOT to Get Published panel talk:

Be sure to proudly inform the agent and/or editor, "My writers' group/my mother loved this book!"

It'll make 'em feel all warm and fuzzy (as they're reaching for the return envelope or the shredder).

Just write well and let your words sell it.

PerpetualBeginner said...

I don't know why it would have to be a joke.

I used to put my summer job at my father's laboratory on my resume, thinking it was great experience to show - until I realized that people viewed it as useless. The people I was giving my resume to thought Dad hired me to give me money without having to work. I, on the other hand, knew I was working hard 80+ hours a week, and getting paid almost nothing.

If his mother is like my Dad, he may be serious and simply oblivious that most people's parents aren't like that.

shelby said...

In addition to Alice Sebold, I think Lionel Shriver did it well in We Need to Talk About Kevin (in which the mother of a teenager who orchestrates a school massacre looks back over her son's life trying to figure out where she went wrong). Kevin was rejected 30 times before publication. And I don't know if it makes a difference, but both Sebold and Shriver have MFAs (one from UC Irvine, the other Columbia).

But again, I think audience is very limited and this would have to be extremely well-done. If it were really well-presented, I might read it, as I'm very interested in the type of stories that tell us what happened next after a big tragedy. However, the paranormal part would turn me off completely.

Also, is Quenton the name of the woman? I wouldn't name a woman that.

writtenwyrdd said...

Why not run your query letter by Evil Editor's website? It can't hurt, Author.

And, no offense, but saying your Mom liked it is like saying the sky is blue. Friends and relatives gush and keep us encouraged; they don't usually provide really useful criticism.

Anonymous said...

A. Manette Ansay also wrote a wonderful novel (Blue Water) where the death of a child was central. Her writing trumped any "ick" feelings I had about the subject. I'll read anything by her.

Anonymous said...

If Author's mom is anything like my mom was, this might be high praise. Ya never know. My mom didn't like much of anything.

michaelgav said...

Dead children stories you may have missed . . .

"Rabbit Run" by John Updike (did not happen to the central character).

"Mom Kills Kids and Self" by Alan Saperstein, a terrific (and terrifically depressing) first novel from about 25 years ago.

michaelgav said...

"And dead kids are pretty much ZAP in my book."

This is another reason I keep coming here.

I once wrote 120,000 words in first-person present. The novel began that way, it moved pretty good that way, and after all, Carl Hiaasen had just done it that way in "Basket Case," so what was the big deal?

The big deal was, "Basket Case" wasn't Hiaasen's first book, and, um, I wasn't exactly Carl Friggin Hiaasen.

That wouldn't happen to me now. Miss Snark (and Evil Editor and a few others) help me understand how professionals look at that sort of thing.

A later story had a strong subplot involving clergy sexual abuse, which made it the 937th novel to feature this wonderful theme THAT MONTH. Maybe mine was better -- in fact, I'm pretty sure it was -- but nobody in the business was likely to care, or to stick around long enough to find out.

I don't need form rejections spilling out of my mailbox and blowing across the streets of my city like photocopied tubleweeds. I need people like Miss Snark and Pat Walsh to tell me how publishing people think.

And it's not so I can try "writing to the market." That's bullshit anyway. It's so I don't sandbag myself by making decisions like an amateur.

To me, that's the most valuable service Miss Snark provides.

amicietta said...

I second all the mommies who say they'd rather drink poison than read about dead babies.

Reading about the baby dying in "I Know this Much is True" gave me nightmares for months. That book should have come with a disclaimer.

And aren't most agents female? I wouldn't want to spend months of my life talking up a book about a dead kid and his/her emotionally destroyed mother, no matter how fantastic it is. My mommy hormones couldn't handle it. Just a thought.

Ryan Field said...

I can't believe someone actually counted the number of hours it took to revise.

Christine said...

I think most people read books to escape from the real world, not to read plots 'ripped from the headlines'.

Unless there's some really terrific twist behind it, it's all been overdone, because as soon as it's news, 650 writers have already started a manuscript about it.

Yeah, those queries make me queasy. And this particular one, with the school shooting, even mentioned trench coats in the title.

::shiver:: it was just too creepy. I'm for a good horror, love Stephen King, but at least SK's stuff is pretty much impossible.

koshereditor said...

It's usually spelled "Quentin" not "Quenton." If you're spelling it differently for a reason, be sure to make that clear. Otherwise we red-pencil types will get annoyed.

Anonymous said...

Apparently Beloved wouldn't have done too well with this crowd.

Stacy said...

I think that certain topics have to press through your natural queasiness. If the writing is good enough, then it happens. If it hits the queasiness barrier and stops, you know that it just wasn't good enough. I'm a big Stephen King fan for this very reason - he is usually able to keep me on board for the whole ride. I can't watch or read horror by anybody else, because I get to the sawing off of limbs or festering corpses and I just have to stop.

And TERRIFIC writing is key. Not just good, it has to AMAZE. I still regret reading Red Dragon; even if the writer meant to make me throw up in my mouth, the experience was unpleasant enough to turn me off his books for good.

Tattieheid said...

As far as I can see, the more painful/traumatic/risque the subject, the more incredible the writing has to be.

If all these personal views (incuding Miss Snarks) were applied to a large number of past classics, they might never have been published.

However there are few people that can take a really painful topic and write well about it. If you really believe you have written something special then stick with it. The number of rejections you have received might indicate that you haven't. Move on or re-appraise your work.

ophelia gone mad said...

Well writer, if you haven't been totally put off by the commenters who didn't get your very obvious joke about your mother liking your work, and the weaker vessels who CAN'T HANDLE dead children....just follow Miss S's advice and submit to the crapometer and fret no more. Miss S might zap dead kids but she's the agent and that's her perogative. She'd be the first one to tell you that any number of other agents might not have a problem with that theme.

Having said that, I read White Oleander recently and was so distressed by the 14 yr old's seduction of her 50 something foster dad, that I loathed the story. Anything with kids willingly fucking old men would be a not-in-this-lifetime with me.

Anonymous said...

Oh, hell. I have 6 dead kids in my story. And I can't change it, it's too important to the plot and why the Voodoo Killer is offing the kids.

Kim said...

I have to say, in response to Ophelia's vitriolic comment, how sad is it that you felt the need to name call and denigrate other commenters simply because a book about dead and/or dying children is something they'd rather not read? How is that any different from your not liking 'White Oleander'? Does that make you weak? Does that make you incapable of handling that subject?

No, there are some classics that I, and others, may not read because we dislike the subject or it simply doesn't interest us. That is hardly a reflection of our personalities or our emotional makeup. That doesn't mean we should be subjected to self-righteous individuals who are pots in disguise and calling the kettles black.

I hope labeling me and the others who prefer not to read such subjects as weak made you feel better. I'd like to know how you based your decision, what evidence led you to that conclusion when you don't know me from Adam, nor do you know what may have led me to my conclusion in total - but assume what you will. My comment was not made to discourage. Nor was it an attack on his manuscript. It was a personal preference - just as yours is a personal preference.

Anonymous said...

My first novel encompasseses a subject that is difficult for many agents. Oddly enough - considering the massive number of rejections, many of which stated they couldn't "deal" with the subject matter - it wasn't all that hard to option the film rights.

If the movie ever gets done, and I wouldn't hold my breath, I'm guessing it will be aired on something akin to Lifetime.

But I guess that's better than nothing?

GutterBall said...

You know, I'm not a mother, and I usually don't have a problem with dead children in books/movies, but it definitely depends on the circumstance. I mean, I turned off Trainspotting after they came down off a weekend bender and found the two-year-old dead in his/her crib. The stupid -bleep- of a mother had the audacity to throw a fit about it, too.

If she cared so much about the kid...ugh. Never mind. I never finished that movie, no matter how many people said "It's great!" and I never will.

That said, if the mother's accidentally causing her child's death is like in SK's Needful Things, where the sheriff's wife's undiagnosed brain tumor made her drive off the road, killing both her and their son, that's different. Sure, she should have gone to the doctor for the headaches, but I could understand her not going. It's a woman thing. We don't want to be accused of "having the vapors".

I mean, I get headaches all the time and don't go to the doctor.


donavon said...

Thank you, sir. May I please have another?

I tried to send a comment earlier, but think I goofed the attempt.

I am the guy who sent the original post; Miss Snark approved. I didn't fully appreciate the aspect of dead children. Holy polarizing affect, Batman! Hard-boiled, soft and mushy, I appreciate all the feedback. Every comment was well received. (Even though I don't understand the first one, but think I have a general idea.)

I, too, have two kidlets (my daughter and I are stuck together with superglue). I didn't even think that attacking children was a ZAP. In the back of my mind I had works like: Miss Snark's example, Jurassic Park, A Time to Kill, and Lolita. What I'll do is tweak the negatives out of my query and let the writing sell if it will.

The section about my mother liking my writing was indeed meant as a wee, little joke. I was trying to say: Let's assume that sucky writing wasn't what produced all the rejections.

Thank you, everybody, for all the help. I feel all warm and fuzzy, like a Snarkleupagus.

Want to see my trunk?

Anonymous said...

It's amazing that so many people are that furtive about literature. It's called fiction and it isn't that hard to deal with, then again people read for different reasons; I surely don't read to escape anything, I read to obtain greater knowledge of the human condition. I wonder how Jude the Obscure and Lolita would fare as manuscripts these days. Controversial subject matter, but excellent literature.

Anonymous said...


Words on paper. Black on white. No one can see your winces, hear your sighs or see your charming smile. There was something very unsettling when you wrote: "my daughter and I are stuck together with superglue" followed by comparisons to LOLITA.

I'm NOT ACCUSING. But dude, you're a WRITER. You should understand SUBTEXT. Stop the rationalizations, clean up your work and focus. And don't use dead kids as a hook. Good God.

michaelgav said...

Come on, I don't think the guy was using dead kids as a hook.

A novel takes a commitment worth thousands of hours, right? It shouldn't surprise us that the trigger point for a commitment on that scale is something that rips the shit out of a person. A dead kid qualifies.

I was pleased to discover that once I was several drafts into my story, I knew the characters so well, and their lives had become fucked up on so many different levels, that I no longer needed the situation that had been my own triggering device.

donavon said...

Subtext, perfect editing, in a blog comment? It's so funny what people come up with. That was my learning curve. I would've thought "Want to see my trunk" might have been more unsettling than referring to Lolita. I didn't even see this spin.

How does a writer defend against all the minds that read the work? Maybe one doesn't. Interesting material will be just that, interesting. Send out bunches of ideas, try to keep it organized and with purpose, and see what happens.

I need a reading group for my posts.

Kim said...

Ok - now we're getting a little TOO nitpicky where the superglue remark came from. I got a picture of him trying to walk around the house with this munchkin hanging onto his leg. Are you LOOKING for ick?

When done well, using the death of a child can be very powerful - but the key is that it's a very delicate balance and requires deftness that not every writer can pull off.

Before I had kids of my own, I could read about dying children. I would choke up, but I could get through the book. But not anymore. And I thought A Time To Kill was Grisham's best book. I still do. But since having kids, my perspective has changed. That's what happens. But just because it might not appeal to me doesn't mean there isn't an audience for it. Frankly I don't like the techno-thrillers ala Tom Clancy. But that doesn't mean they're bad books or they shouldn't have been published. I just don't like them.

Donovan, write from your heart. Write what moves you - not what you think will be the Next Big Thing. Somewhere there is an audience. You just might have to work a little harder. That's all.

ophelia gone mad said...

Dear Kim,

Vitriolic? Lady, you could teach a class.

You thought I was referring to you in my post? After reading your remarks, I had to scroll to the beginning of the comments to figure out who the hell you were!

Having said that—(oh, that’s right, I did write, “Having said that” in my earlier post, didn’t I? A term prefacing a statement that will contradict an earlier view, as in: "Weak vessels can’t handle dead kids. Having said that, I have my own prejudices against certain themes.")

Having said that, I know you now, and I'll know better than to comment when I see your name in the comments trail. God forbid I use “trembling vine” the next time and provoke another apoplectic rage.


Kim said...

Dearest O,

Hardly apoplectic. I thought I was quite polite. And I don't know if you meant me or anyone in particular, but I didn't think it was all that much of a stretch, seeing as how I (and a few others, wouldn't want to set you off again) commented on it. And I am terribly, terribly wounded that you had no idea who I was. Oh, the agony... the horror... how will I ever go on?

Silly me. Why would I think your comment meant those of us who commented? And did you think I was really wounded by your silly little words?

Comment away. Knock yourself out. Sounds like you could probably use the rest.

I think somebody's got issues....

You don't know me - not at all and don't think that because you can write a snippy comment that you do.

THAT'S apoplectic.

much love


Zany Mom said...

As a mother of a child who faced a life-threatening illness (and who, at the moment, appears to have won), I wouldn't be turned off by a book with this subject matter if the writing was compelling.

I love character-driven fiction, how one event can change things forever -- and how the characters deal with it (or not) over time.

If your book is truly well done, maybe there is an agent out there for it. While White Oleander was well written and a compelling story, for *me* it was too dark, and I hated seening this young girl's life go to the toilet because of psychotic foster parents and a luny mom. But that's me. It was hard to read. Which was its point.