That’s Not What We’re Looking For

by Amy Atwell (originally published April 9, 2008 on a former blog of mine)

Recently, I attended a regional writers’ conference.  Workshops, networking, an opportunity to meet some editors and agents.  I was excited to pitch to an editor from a publishing house that I’d been targeting for a few years.  I liked their writers, their editors, their scope of published fiction. And I felt pretty good going in. Not to brag, but I had the recent contest successes, and I had three stories to pitch.  THREE.  What could go wrong?

The editor was very nice, easy to talk to, made eye contact with me, nodded and followed along with my pitches.  I gave a very brief overview of all three, and she asked about the romantic suspense.  When I’d done a fuller pitch, she said something like (forgive me for paraphrasing, but I wasn’t carrying a recorder at a pitch), “Hmm, that sounds like the jewel heist might overshadow the romance, so that’s not working for me.  What else have you got?”

I launched into a pitch of my Golden Heart nominated manuscript.  Contemporary romance set in Manhattan featuring a soap opera actor and a Broadway-hopeful–  “No, that’s probably not right for us.  What else have you got?”

Undaunted, I rattled off the basic premise of my other contemporary romance.  Still wasn’t working for her.  “Nope.  None of those are really what we’re looking for, so I’m not going to request any of them.”

I had never been shot down so effectively or so quickly.  I was four minutes into a ten-minute pitch session.  Did I leave in tears?  Heck no.  First off, she was doing me a favor.  If the answer to my submission is going to be no, then a fast no beats a slow no hands down.  And a no before I invest in paper, printing and postage?  Priceless.

So I asked the million dollar question:  What WAS she looking for?  No editor has the perfect answer for this, but hers surprised me.  She was looking for high concept stories, automatic hooks that would translate to bestseller status in the marketplace.  She wanted big story ideas that could be readily translated to book buyers, stories that captured our attention, our imagination, our pocketbook.  My story ideas didn’t strike any of those nerves for her.

But here’s the best part.  She told me it wasn’t personal (I already knew that, but it was still nice to hear).  She assured me she had every faith that the quality of my writing was top-notch. After all, I was consistently placing in and winning contests.  So she had no doubt my writing was really strong, but–(wait for it!)–That Wasn’t What She Was Looking For.

I’ve tried to process this experience for over a week now.  Professionally, I’m good.  I’ve moved on.  In fact, I’ve sent out other submissions since the conference.  Academically, I’m curious, but grateful for this insight.  I mean, how many businesses can look you in the eye, tell you you’re good at what you do, and tell you in the next breath that’s not a good enough reason for them to want to work with you?   Emotionally, I was a little unsteady after realizing that honing my writing craft wasn’t enough to make it in the publishing world.  Now I have to focus on my STORY craft.

In today’s highly competitive publishing market, editors need to contract books that translate to sales.  Strong writing is still very important, don’t get me wrong.  But it’s not enough on its own to make the sale.  The craft of the story, the hook, the marketability are crucial.

Writing is a journey, a learning curve that arcs through time and space.  Every word we thread together into a narrative tapestry teaches us.  Keep writing, keep learning, keep submitting.  Because the other good/bad thing about the publishing industry is that “what we’re looking for” changes.  Your rejected manuscript from two years ago could easily be next year’s bestseller.  Never give up.