Saturday, May 26, 2012

Agent Rejection and Starting Over

More than a year ago, I started writing a new memoir titled Mormon Punk: From LSD to LDS. I have read conflicting opinions on whether one can sell a memoir on proposal with sample chapters and a synopsis or whether the whole thing needs to be written first, as with a novel. I decided to try selling on proposal because I already have a track record with seven books published, and I felt that the topic of Mormonism was (and still is) timely, for obvious reasons.

I formerly had a literary agent when I was trying to sell a Mormon missionary memoir, and she did get me the contract to coauthor Mormonism For Dummies, but I wanted to start fresh with someone else, preferably someone actually based in New York City (people claim this doesn't matter, and probably it doesn't, but there's something appealing about it). My former agent was based in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Over the past year or so, I've probably submitted this new proposal to about thirty agents, and I've gotten readings from about seven or eight, including some well known agents such as Betsy Lerner, Richard Curtis, and Molly Glick, all of whom I got personal rejections from. (In the case of Lerner and Glick, their junior agents first responded to me and evaluated my work, and then they passed on my proposal to the senior agent.) I think I came close in a few cases, with my proposal being evaluated by several people within an agency. I have included some of the more interesting personal rejections below, without identifying who wrote them.

In one case, I had a strong referral from a well-connected New York journalist/author, who gave my proposal to his agent. Despite my contact's repeated followup, this agent really took his time before rejecting about six months later. From what I could gather, one of the agency employees found something I wrote online that made the agency uncomfortable with taking me on as a client. I can only assume it was something I wrote against gay marriage and the gay movement. Of course, if you're going to publish an authentic Mormon memoir, it's likely going to include some resistance to the gay movement, otherwise it's not really an authentic Mormon viewpoint, in my opinion (I think any Mormon who is pro-gay is really a secular humanist, deep down). But I doubt New York publishing will ever accommodate this. I don't regret my position; it's not like I would change my beliefs just to get published by telling lies.

Anyway, I am now setting aside the 18,000 words I previously wrote as sample chapters and starting over on the memoir, taking a somewhat different approach. I'm not sure how far I'll get, because I've been having trouble getting into a routine of regular, consistent work. I will try not to fall into temptation to submit proposals until I have a completed manuscript in hand, which I think will increase my chances. I hope I can have something done by the end of the year. This should be doable if I spend an hour or two writing most days of the week.

One thing I failed to do was get into a writers conference this summer. I went to Writers@Work in Salt Lake last summer, and it was helpful in some ways, but I didn't feel like going again this year. (In some ways, writing workshops are rather tedious and uncomfortable.) I wanted to attend a writing conference on the East Coast this summer, but none of the three I applied to worked out. The Norman Mailer Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, rejected me for undisclosed reasons; I assume they didn't like my writing sample. Emerson College was launching a new summer writing conference, but then they canceled it for some reason. Then I applied to the Yale summer program, but they were already full. Maybe I will try again next year, if I still have budgetary capacity like I did this year.

Frankly, I do not like the role of creative writing in my life. I really wish I could just forget about it. However, I feel a constant tug of guilt when I let months go by without really working on anything, and I constantly take notes on potential ideas and material. Without a creative writing project on the horizon, I feel adrift at sea. On the other hand, I don't feel like anything I want to write would be welcome by Mormons, family members, my wife, or even the Lord himself. When I write creatively, I don't want to toe any cultural lines of what's "appropriate" or "uplifting"; I want to tell weird, realistic, transgressive, original stories, otherwise it would just be boring and not worth the effort. However, the impulse might just be a temptation to spend my time and energy in the wrong way, instead of putting enough effort into family, church, and corporate career.

Here are the agent rejections:
I thank you for both the chance to consider your manuscript and for your patience.  While your story is a compelling one, I felt that it isn't strong enough for me to present to the major publishers.  What I was looking for when I requested this was a strong, clear arc that carried us through your personal testing.  What I feel like I'm seeing here is a somewhat truncated and rather simplistic (because of your youth at the time) challenge to your early understanding of your faith and a similarly youthful affirmation of your faith. 

I may be missing the mark--which is why I've hesitated to say no to this project--on account of my own (I'm a Protestant preacher's kid) similar rebellion and return to the fold which I don't feel qualifies as a literary jumping off place.  Another reason that I am declining here is that there seems to be a remarkable lack of curiosity about the Mormon faith here in the States despite the success of several books both pro and con pub'd in the '90s. 

I regret that I can only offer you all my best wishes for  your future success with this story.  I am almost certain that you're going to be able to find another agent who not only disagrees with me, but does so with both alacrity and vehemence.


I appreciate the offer of exclusivity, and so I dropped what I was doing to read this, and I asked some colleagues to do so as well.

We're all agreed that if anyone can write an absorbing and entertaining memoir about life in the LDS it's you, and what we read fulfilled that promise.  But it doesn't take us far enough into the story arc of your life, ending before the commencement of your missionary adventure.  I think your life, and the story of your life, need to cook longer.  And I gather the book isn't completely written.  The episodes you depict seem tenuously linked to each other, and though each is telling it was hard to assemble them in a cohesive way that would show me how your character is unfolding.

In short, we felt this memoir isn't ready to release despite the timing.  If you can elicit interest from an enthusiastic agency, you should absolutely go with them.


Many thanks for sending in your proposal. Between Mitt and Book of Mormon, the timing seems right for your memoir. I’m sorry to pass, but I didn’t connect enough with the writing – with the intensity of the experience. I hope others have a different reaction and you place this in good hands.


I have not been responsible--I owe you an apology. Please do reach out to others so that I don't slow you down. But I will try to focus on your work soon. I read what you sent previously but I need to re-read it. You are talented--but I need to evaluate whether I think I can actually sell your memoir in what is an anxious book marketplace.


Thank you for sending these materials and for being forthright about your process with other agents.

I have decided to step aside so would like to thank you and wish you much luck with this project.  I am sorry I was not more responsive.  I think you’re a talented writer and very much hope you find success with it.

Thanks so much for sharing this with me. The writing is quite strong and the story interesting, but since I've done similar books in the past (like Tony DuShane's JESUS JERK) and they've sold to tiny presses, I'm not sure I'd be able to find a big enough audience for this, so I'm going to step aside and let an agent with a clearer sense of how to break it out take it on.

Me: Thanks for the note. You don't think Mormonism is a special case right now, with unprecedented curiosity due to Mitt Romney, "The Book of Mormon" musical, "Big Love," etc. and yet not much published that reveals the faith's innards?

Agent's reply: The one Mormon book we've done so far didn't do very well...


I think you need to have less chapters that are more fully fleshed. I think today's political arena with Mormonism could give you a real marketplace. Personally, the religious side/ the Mormon devil experience etc.--was not something I could relate to in any way that I felt could help sell the book. Best of luck


One of my favorite movies growing up was SLC Punk and I've spent a lot of time in Utah, fascinated by LDS culture. However, I don't represent a lot of memoir, even if it is coming of age, so I wouldn't have the right contacts to really do this justice. However, just so you know, it sounds great. Best of luck.


I enjoyed the opening very much. You're a fine writer and have a knack for capturing all the right details. But I'm afraid that going back to your childhood isn't necessary. In fact, it detracts from what's actually interesting -- your years as a drug user and absence from the church. Many memoir writers have a tendency to tell the whole story, which I actually think is a mistake. While events from your childhood might provide depth to what happens later in life, they aren't always required. My instinct is to focus on your later years. Let that carry the story.

I know I just read the first few chapters, so perhaps you take this route. Please let me know because I'm intrigued but at this point I'm not yet convinced that the approach is right.

1 comment:

Jonathan Langford said...

Interesting. It seems to be a case of "pretty positive rejections" -- but still rejections nonetheless.

Good luck with (a) reconceptualizing this in a way that you and others feel works, and (b) figuring out an appropriate balance (for you) of creative work and other parts of your life. And then share the secret with the rest of us!