Monday, March 22, 2010

Novels, MFA Programs, and Other Troublesome Things

I have been working with two famous and critically respected authors in my MFA program who have been more than enthusiastic about my quirky literary manuscript. One of them said that "it was simply amazing and I need to find an agent immediately and get this thing published!" The other teacher says he has no doubt that this will be on the shelf. Should I mention this in my query letter? I must say that I am not confident about the this book being marketable as it is basically a novella at 40,000 words, although my teacher calls it a novel and it is a bit unusual with regards to language and form. I wrote it because it was what I needed to write and when I began I wasn't thinking about publication although now I am very excited about the prospect! Should I send it out as is or try to make it longer or a bit more traditional?

Addressing the issues one-by-one:

(1) You have two famous and critically-respected authors in your MFA program? Seriously? Are you in school in Iowa?

(2) OK, being serious, having an author's recommendation in your query letter as a sentence or two is almost never bad, provided that author was not self-published, because then it doesn't count. So yes, you should put that in your query letter. Specifically, you should put the good things they said about your manuscript in the query letter, not the fact that they said it should be published.

(3) 40K is a novella. You can send it out, but it will probably get knocked out of the running on that alone. On the other hand, you may get lucky. If you're prepared for a slew of rejections, you can give it a shot. Most published authors have rejections from other manuscripts under their belt before they get an acceptance.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Rejecter. You rock. I should spend a year trying to get to 60k if this ever wants to see the light of day. It's not THAT good.

Anonymous said...

So, does that mean 60K is the minimum to be considered a novel. I have a short novel I've been working on, and am a little worried about the novel/novella question. Thanks.

The Rejecter said...

60 is a little short. 70 is more appropriate.

Anonymous said...

Rejecter, I was surprised by your answer.

Including quotes, praise, etc. from professors -- even famous ones -- in a query strikes me as incredibly amateurish and unprofessional. I know lit mag staff laugh at this. And it's something that always shows up in letters from MFA students.

Now, Rejecter is the expert here. I'm not an agent, and since Rejecter reads queries and she thinks it's okay, then obviously she wouldn't have a problem with it if your query crossed her desk. But I have a really really really hard time believing that the majority of agents or publishing professionals who see this in your query will take it seriously.

Plus, I worry what your professors are thinking telling you they are so confident this will be published when it's a 40,000 somewhat quirky or experimental novella. I even question whether they could truly understand the publishing world if they are telling you they expect to see it on the shelves. Unless they are talking about small, independent university presses (in which case you probably wouldn't be seeking an agent right away anyway), they are insane or, at best, misguided. Publishing companies are barely buying many literary novels these days, never mind experimental stuff from unknowns, and especially not 40,000 word novellas. I'm not saying give up or don't try -- just that it's ludicrous that your famous professors don't understand that this is not something that a New York house is going to buy right now.

I am not trying to be harsh. I'm just a little worried for the person who asked this question because I fear these professors have gotten his/her hopes up for absolutely no reason.

p.s. If these professors are actually famous, then their praise might be worth something if they convince THEIR agents to read your stuff and sign you. This is the most promising angle and is completely different than you writing down their praise in a query letter sent cold to other agents. Even if your professor's agent did sign you, I have to wonder what they expect to do with a 40,000 word novella??

Anonymous said...

Hi rejecter,

Great blog! I was wondering though, what is the minimum word count for a collection of short stories?

Haley Jo said...

Wait a minute. What's wrong with Iowa? I live in Iowa.

The Rejecter said...

Iowa has the best MFA program, by far.

Anonymous said...

Wow. Stating that Iowa has "the best MFA program by far" really relies on a pretty narrow sense of what "best" means. Iowa definitely has the edge in name and history and track record (it's the oldest and most established, so of course!), but "best" is relative. Texas, Irvine, Cornell, and Michigan have been turning out several of the more recent buzzworthy emerging authors, Pulitzer Prize-winners and GRANTA ones to watch. They also focus more on fine-tuning an original voice over a "standard Iowa Writers Workshop" voice. Don't get me wrong -- Iowa rocks! But those other programs boast pretty famous writer/teachers as well, so Iowa would not be the only place to work with them. I mean, Brooklyn College has both Michael Cunningham ("The Hours") and the well-renowned Amy Hempel on staff and NYU as of this writing has E. L. Doctorow, Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith on faculty. At least 5 other MFA programs around the U.S. can probably boast an equally steller stable of writer-teachers. I'm kind of leaning with the Anonymous upthread who wondered at your initial answer -- there seem to be small gaps of knowledge that emerge in these responses.

In any case, to the original query: good luck on the novella! Do what you can to get it out in the world and keep trying, if at first, it just doesn't see the light of day. It really is a crap shoot, so keep on doing the work that sustains you.