Kevin Brennan Writes About What It's Like

Bad news bares …

Well, gang … I’ve been trying to get agent representation for my novel, Three for a Girl, for nearly a year now. I’ve queried roughly 115 agents and received a response from 39 of them. Three agents requested the full manuscript, whereas, back in my heyday of querying for agents – say, the late ’90s, early 2000’s – I might have expected at least 10 out of that many queries. A handful asked for smaller partials, but none went on to ask for the whole book.

Yesterday I heard from the last agent holding onto the full manuscript. She declined to represent.

So, alas and alack, I’m afraid it’s time to hang up Three for a Girl and move on. I think a sample size of 115 is plenty to drive home that this market is not going to support this book.

And that’s a shame because, if I don’t say so myself, it’s a terrific book.

Later this spring I’ll start shopping around the next project, which I’ve always believed to be the best work I’ve got. I don’t know its title yet, and I’ll need a damned irresistible one to break through the gatekeepers’ gate. But what I do know is that if this one doesn’t fly, I got nothin’ that the New York publishing business will ever embrace. Just a fact o’ life, I guess.

I’ll keep you up to date on that story as the year goes on …

As a bonus, here’s the response I drafted to the agent but won’t send. Just blowin’ off steam, you understand:

Dear Jessica,

I appreciate your taking the time to have a look at my novel, but I have a sneaky feeling you didn’t read the whole thing, since the dynamics of LeeAnn, Kurt, and Arlene are the least of the challenging elements in this book. Some of my favorite novels feature interpersonal relationships that have made me uncomfortable – that’s what makes those books tick. Here, the dysfunction is the substrate for redemption. And for the reader who makes her way through the whole story in spite of being uncomfortable at times, it works.

Hell, I wasn’t comfortable with the dynamics of Stella, Stanley, and Blanche, but I loved Streetcar.

I’ll be honest. I’m sixty years old. I’ve had a novel published by a New York house (Morrow), and I’ve been represented by at least five agents over the years. I don’t need any “resources” – I’m not about to sit down and write “what agents want to see in their inbox NOW.” I’ve written the books I wanted to write, had to write, and I don’t imagine myself retooling now to try and catch whatever the next wave might be.

It took you three months to casually dismiss Three for a Girl because it made you uncomfortable. I wish you could have brought yourself to read the whole thing and then to provide some thoughtful remarks on why you aren’t interested in representing it.

That I could have respected.


Kevin Brennan

22 comments on “Bad news bares …

  1. islandeditions
    March 9, 2018

    I thought the whole point of serious fiction WAS to make the reader uncomfortable – in order to make them think … Who knew we were supposed to be writing solely to entertain those readers, allowing them all to just pass the time of day.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 9, 2018

      I think you nailed it. What agents want now are books that strictly entertain. Not that mine doesn’t entertain. It just doesn’t strictly entertain.

      • islandeditions
        March 9, 2018

        I hate to bring up this issue, but I wonder if it’s an age or generational thing. We now have younger readers being presented with trigger warnings about reading material so they can choose to skip a book if reading it might “upset” them. Or do you think it’s just the publishers and agents wanting everything “Disneyfied” (see our favourite book “Fantasyland”)? I can’t help but think that, if the movie were to be remade today, Bambi’s mother would not die …
        In any case, I believe that people are not being taught to read in order to understand what is being written, but rather to simply “consume” what is written, with no thought as to the true value of what the author has intended in their story.

  2. John W. Howell
    March 9, 2018

    I can imagine what the agent had to say. I would say 115 is a good sample size. Good luck on the next. (I loved the comment in your letter “I’m not about to sit down and write “what agents want to see in their inbox NOW.”’)

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 9, 2018

      Yeah, that line is from one of the “resources” she referred me to. Like I’m going to drop everything and write a dystopian YA vampire novel …

      Thanks for your support, John. It helps.

  3. pinklightsabre
    March 9, 2018


    • Kevin Brennan
      March 9, 2018

      Sums it up nicely.

      • pinklightsabre
        March 9, 2018

        In commiseration for ya, lad.

  4. kingmidget
    March 9, 2018

    Go find out who agented A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. A whole hell of a lot of uncomfortable in that tome that apparently didn’t bother the agent. Your description of the thing embedded in your never-to-be-sent response makes the story sound all the more intriguing to me.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 9, 2018

      Yanagihara’s agent is one of those who handles a lot of Ivy League grads who now live in Brooklyn (don’t get me started), and she’s at ICM. I don’t have a prayer. Not that I won’t give it a shot!

      I haven’t read HY’s book yet. Something about that cover photo gave me the willies. 😉

      • kingmidget
        March 9, 2018

        Easily the most disturbing book I’ve ever read.

      • Audrey Driscoll
        March 9, 2018

        I hadn’t heard of this book, never mind read it. Looking at Goodreads, I see that more than 50% gave it 5 stars, but there are 2 or 3 really long and passionate one-star reviews that make the book sound pretty miserable. Well-written but miserable. Lots of disturbing stuff, for sure (read the plot summary in Wikipedia).
        I sympathize with your agent-hunting results, while remaining in awe of your persistence.

      • Kevin Brennan
        March 12, 2018

        Sorry I missed this comment, Audrey. I think my persistence is in need of some re-soling pretty soon, though … 😐

  5. Carrie Rubin
    March 9, 2018

    Sorry about the passes. I’ve been there. I have the misfortune of writing a genre that is “twenty years past its due date.” Always a laggard, I am. 😄

  6. curtisbausse
    March 10, 2018

    That’s commendable perseverance. I gave up after 32. It was dystopian YA but didn’t have enough vampires.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 12, 2018

      I guess you can never have too many vampires … Sad!

  7. Ilona Elliott
    March 10, 2018

    Damn everything is so trendy now. What a bunch of sheep. Sorry for your troubles Kevin. Maybe you can revive it again some time in the future and have better luck.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 11, 2018

      Right … never say never. They sure do seem to lack imagination, though. But they always have, so nothing’s new about this now.

  8. 1WriteWay
    March 12, 2018

    I meant to comment earlier but I was having problems logging into WP (probably one of the reasons why I haven’t posted lately either …). But since I didn’t, I’ve had the opportunity to read a brief and somewhat superficial review of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery. Okay, I’m biased because The Lottery is one of my most favorite stories of all time but … what was interesting about the “review” and many of the comments was the fact that the reader found the story disturbing and that was enough reason to essentially pan it. Now just because The Lottery is a story that many if not most high school students are required to read, just because it is considered to be a great classic, that doesn’t mean every reader has to like it. But to dislike a story simply because it’s disturbing??? I don’t get that. What about the writing itself? Most of the people who commented on the review agreed that they would much prefer to read happy stories, ones with happy endings, full of shiny, happy people.Some who had read The Lottery saw parallels between the story and current events and that, again, was enough to say they would not recommend reading it.

    What I’m trying to get to is, this agent who passed on your novel seems to have the same attitude. People are uncomfortable enough these days, why make them more uncomfortable? Well, why not? Why not give them something to think about? Why not give the reader the opportunity to lose herself in the lives of other people, sort through their failings, and maybe come through with a deeper appreciation for humanity? It seems like this agent, like perhaps so many others and a considerable number of publishers, think of writing as a technical skill, not an art. It’s both, I know; you need skill to be good at it. But you need art to have a reason to write … and a reason to read, I would argue.

    Interestingly, I’ve gotten “hooked” on a police procedural series by Ann Cleeves. It’s her Vera Stanhope series and I bet this agent would have rejected these novels too. It’s genre fiction to be sure, but so heaving character-driven that sometimes I forget I’m reading (actually listening) to genre fiction. Cleeves brings the reader into the head of almost every single character and it very, very uncomfortable. The main character–Inspector Vera Stanhope–is the most uncomfortable character of them all. She’s overweight, middle-aged, never married and no children. She drinks too much and has nothing waiting for her at home except bad memories. She makes mistakes. Most people are appalled by her because she looks like a bag lady. She has eczema on her legs. She is not comical. There’s an underlying sadness to her, especially when she sizes herself up against some of the other women in the novels.But it’s a sadness I can relate to.

    Anyway, my point is that even genre fiction can be uncomfortable and successful. Sigh. I think that agent is in the wrong line of business.Perhaps interior design would have been a better choice.

    • Kevin Brennan
      March 12, 2018

      Oh, snap! Interior design!

      Maybe it’s just me, but I think novels are kind of meant to be disturbing and provocative. What am I not getting?!

      But frankly, half the time I think they just glom onto anything to explain rejection. It’s not the real reason. The real reason is the book doesn’t conform to the mold of what they’re “looking for” right now.

      That said, I’m having to reject things at The Housewife now, and let me tell you, it’s not a piece of cake!

      • 1WriteWay
        March 12, 2018

        I’m sure rejecting submissions is difficult, especially if you get something you like but it’s not the right fit for TDH. Maybe you should have a special issue for uncomfortable stories 😏

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This entry was posted on March 9, 2018 by in Writing and tagged , , .
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