Category Archives: Agents

Hot Topics from the Conference Scene: Diversity in Fiction Writing + Subjectivity in the Slush Pile

Standard

rmfw
Happy Fall, Word Cafe readers! For me, it marks the beginning of conference season, and I’m just back from the Colorado Gold Conference from Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. It’s always a top-notch event, but this year’s offering of workshops and panels was perhaps the best yet. I’ll give a quick overview of some themes and resources that resonated with me, and then I’ll zoom in on a vital topic for writers heading into submissions: subjectivity in the slush pile and the publishing industry.

A couple of sessions that really stood out to me put the spotlight on diversity in fiction. They were “Writing the Basics of Queer Characters” by Charles Yoite, Emily Singer, and Cath Lauria; and debut MG author Judith Robbins Rose’s talk about writing characters from a different culture/background than your own. A theme that emerged in both sessions was the importance of including a broad array of experiences and viewpoints within what we consider “diverse characters,” in order to avoid what author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the danger of a single story.” In other words, including a cisgender gay male character in your fiction (for example) does not begin to encompass the entire LGBTQ experience, just as writing about a young second generation Mexican girl from a tough neighborhood does not encapsulate “the Latino/a experience” in the U.S. If you’d like to explore this further, check out the website of the amazing We Need Diverse Books campaign. Now in its second year, the BeyondTheTropecampaign has made great strides toward getting the publishing industry and our literature to more accurately reflect the diversity of this country (it focuses on the U.S. book market, but hopefully the message will go global!).

Another dynamite workshop, “Tropes 101,” showed how to turn fictional tropes on their heads, and featured the team from the Beyond the Trope podcast. A few questions that arose: “Why do women warriors wear bikini-like armor–isn’t there a chance someone might try to stab the parts the armor doesn’t cover?” and “How can I subvert the ‘faithful dog/man’s best friend’ trope? (Answers from the brainstorming session: “Make the dog an alligator,” or “Let the dog think her master is an idiot.”) If you’re not acquainted with the podcast, I recommend it for excellent writing advice and a hearty dose of cerebral humor.

I always like to attend the agent/editor panels at conferences to stay current on what the publishing world is looking for, and this year’s RMFW sessions did not disappoint. For me, though, the prevailing message was one you have (hopefully) heard before:

In the world of publishing, it often comes down to individual tastes and opinions.

AgentEditorReadsSlushPilePanel croppedCase in point: the “Agents/Editors Read the Slush Pile” panel. It featured two agents and two publishers/acquiring editors, who were to listen as Angie Hodapp (my friend and former colleague at Nelson Literary) read the first two pages of audience members’ manuscripts. The panelists were to raise their hands at the point where they would stop reading if these were submissions in their slush pile, and then explain why. Talk about a nail-biting experience for the participating writers! But there was a twist: Angie had mixed in the opening pages of four New York Times bestsellers to add a little nail-biting on the other side of the table as well. Here’s how it played out:

Every participant received genuine praise from the panelists, and nearly every one made it to the end of the two-page read with at least one panelist still interested. The agents and editors were clearly impressed and noted that this was not at all typical during such an activity (or in the slush pile); the pool of submissions was exceptionally strong. Some things the panelists liked:

Elegant prose. They noticed when the writing was flowing beautifully, and if it ever started to feel over-written or stilted, hands went up (the “stop reading” signal).

Questions raised in the reader’s mind. There were cases where panelists said they might have stopped reading, had there not been a compelling question raised in those first two pages, ensuring they wanted to hear more in order to find out what would happen next.

The panelists did find room for improvement in each submission. Here were the most common pieces of advice:

Trim, trim, trim. For at least half of the submissions, panelists recommended tightening the writing on the sentence or paragraph level. Several authors were told their story started in the wrong place; that they should trim the first couple of paragraphs, the first page and a half, etc.; start the story in a more dynamic spot, and then weave in any relevant information from the cut material later. Some stories had an overload of descriptive language. Others contained too much thinking/ruminating from the main character, preventing the story from really taking off.

Clarify who the main character is (in the context of the story) and help readers get to know her/him better, right off the bat. Some of the submissions had excellent prose, but the panelists were left with a vague notion of the POV character. More grounding was needed.

Infuse the story with more emotion or a reason for the reader to care. Some of the submissions flowed nicely but left the audience feeling apathetic about the characters (often a precursor to yawning). Tackle the “So what?” factor early on.

Now, here’s the kicker. Remember those four NYT bestsellers? Can you guess how they fared?

The four published novels received reviews ranging from “good,” to lukewarm interest, to “no thanks.” None of them gave the impression of blowing the panelists away. Two received a stop sign from all or most of the panelists before the end of two pages. They were novels by…drum roll…Philippa Gregory and Nora Roberts. Yes, really!

Each of the four bestsellers received suggestions for improvement; the most common was again “I could see room for a bit of trimming/tightening.”

Are you surprised? I wasn’t. After hearing the samples, I agreed with those critiques and suggestions, but on a big-picture level, it’s something I’ve seen over and over in the publishing industry. In writing, as in any art form, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there is such a thing as incontestable good writing, just as there is cringe-worthy writing. But in the middle is a vast gray area, where it often comes down to individual tastes, preferences, and opinions on the part of industry professionals. It has become an axiom: Every agent has rejected a book that went on to be a big hit.

During this critique session, there was definitely overlap in the panelists’ feedback, but not a single submission received exactly the same assessment from all four agents/publishers. And though they appeared a little sheepish at rejecting those bestsellers, the panelists stuck to their guns and delivered what I think was the most important take-away: Publishing is a subjective business, and debut authors have the hardest road. You have to get your foot in the door and prove yourself before you’re allowed a few missteps or a saggy opening scene. Then, once you have established yourself as a master storyteller (AKA sold millions of copies), you just might get away with murder.

12029713_832202210226259_3382780707237131439_o-2

My workshop at the conference was titled “A Layered Approach to Worldbuilding: The Macro, the Micro, & the Unseen.” You can read some of the content in this blog post.

AgentSpeak: Four Not-Your-Fault Reasons Behind a Rejection Letter

Standard

shutterstock_200233214Today, let’s talk about a dirty word: rejection. It’s no fun under any circumstances, but the good news is, some rejections sting a little less than others. That’s because sometimes, it’s not really about your writing.

When an agent reads your novel, he or she immediately starts weighing dozens of factors, both conscious and subconscious, to determine whether the response will be a “tell me more” or a “no thanks.” These factors come in two varieties: those that you can control and those that are out of your hands. Naturally, it’s a good idea to focus on the former—honing your craft, expanding your skill set—all the things that help your writing reach the level agents seek. But it’s also important to take into account the things you can’t control. When is an agent’s rejection not a reflection of your work?

Four Not-Your-Fault Reasons an Agent Might Say No to Your Manuscript:

  • It belongs to an overcrowded market. The truth is that sometimes, no matter how strong your writing is, an agent will say no to your project simply because the market for your topic or subgenre is oversaturated—meaning it would be very hard to get publishers to bite. Big hits in the industry spark trends, and agents’ inboxes are then flooded with waves of hopeful successors for months, or even years, after the trend peaks. Eventually the market can no longer support more of a particular type of story. Readers begin to lose interest; sales dip. Unless your novel has something very different to set it apart from the crowd, you’re going to have a very hard time convincing an agent.
  • It’s too similar to a book the agent already represents. This might sound counterintuitive, since writers are often told to query agents who represent projects similar to theirs. I’m certainly not discouraging that—it’s good advice in general. But in some cases, an agent might feel that your story is too much like one or more of his current titles, meaning publishers might feel the niche has already been filled.
  • The agent’s client list is nearly full. Unless an agent makes it clear on her website, blog, Twitter feed, etc. that she is not accepting submissions, she should be fair game, right? The truth is, sometimes agents keep the slush pile open just in case that next mega-bestseller crosses their path—even though their client list is already pretty full. Under those circumstances, even if the quality of your work is good, the agent will be less inclined to take a risk. And in the end, she is doing you a favor: you deserve an agent who is wild about your work and can give you the time and attention you deserve. This is why it often pays to target new agents, who are actively seeking to build their list and may be taking on two or three times as many clients per year as more senior agents. Just be sure to check that they have a good reputation and adequate experience in the industry.
  • It’s just not the agent’s cup of tea. One of the really tough things about an agent’s job is making the choice to let a high quality manuscript slip away. If the agent can’t connect with your protagonist, premise, or writing style on a deep personal level, she won’t be able to be the passionate advocate you need. The best agents are the ones who know when to bow out and let a project go to a colleague who can truly invest their time, talent, and passion in it.

How do you know if your novel fits into one of these frustrating categories? If you’re lucky, agents will come out and say so. For example, you might have queried an agent who represents your genre, but caters to a different subset or taste: “I prefer grittier urban fantasy—yours was a bit cozy for me.” Translation: “Not my cup of tea.” If, instead, you got a form letter or no response, it’s harder to intuit the reason. But if you follow your target agents’ news, you might find a clue or two; agents often post about their specific likes, wishes, and pet peeves on their blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you discover that you’ve been barking up the wrong tree, don’t be discouraged. Go to your next tier of target agents (after doing some serious research to make sure they’re a better fit). Then, while you wait for a nibble on your current book, work on the next. You can’t afford to send your creativity on sabbatical. Be relentless. Your dream is worth it.

Want to learn more about what you can control in your submissions process? Find out how to make your opening pages the best they can be. I’m teaching a new session of my 8-week online class “Crafting the Strongest Start: How to Hook an Agent with Your Opening Pages” beginning March 23. For more information, visit www.thenextbigwriter.com.

AgentSpeak: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

Standard

Question_smDear Readers,

I’ve been brainstorming ways to make amends for such a long absence. Here’s hoping I’ve found a good one! Today I’d like to address a type of question I often get from my clients and other aspiring writers: “What does an agent mean when s/he says…” It will be part of a series of posts where I decode common lines from agents’ rejection letters or pitch sessions.

Here’s the first one, from a response to a query letter:

“Thank you so much for querying XYZ Agency. I see a lot of talent on the page, but I just didn’t connect with the voice [or story] as much as I’d hoped. Best of luck to you.”

It’s disappointing, of course—not at all what you’d hoped for. But what are you to make of a compliment in a rejection letter? Is this just a polite way of firing off mass rejections?

Possibly, but I doubt it. Agents use form letters, or no response at all, to signal a “no thank you” when they’re either in a hurry or they know right off the bat that a manuscript isn’t going to work for them. This one is different—it has a personal touch. Agents don’t have time to do that for every submission. So from my experience, what this response means is that (a) the agent actually read all or some of your pages (sadly, that’s not a given); and (b) she sees potential—either for this book or for your writing ability in general.

Unless they’re just starting out, most agents only take on half a dozen or so new clients per year (or fewer), out of hundreds or even thousands of submissions. They can’t afford not to be extremely picky, and that means that it comes down to either very clear marketability, or personal taste. That’s right, my friends: agenting is a subjective, not objective, business. Which makes sense, if you think about it: agents help creative people develop their art, and art is always about the visceral, the gut reaction. The heart as well as the mind. You wouldn’t want your book in the hands of someone who simply admires your handling of mechanics or a checklist of story elements. You want someone who gets it. Who sees your writing talent while connecting deeply with your characters and everything that happens to them. Someone who will talk to you about those characters as if she has known them for years. Someone who will fight tooth and nail to get you the success you deserve.

What the agent from this rejection letter is saying is that he simply can’t be that person for you. Perhaps your story is just not his cup of tea (he likes a grittier narrative style, he can’t stand characters who play tennis, etc.). Maybe he thinks your novel is too late for an already saturated market. Or maybe he thinks you’re this close, but not quite there yet in terms of polish.

There’s no way for us to know for sure. But honestly, that’s not the point. What the agent is saying between the lines is that you should hang in there. You caught his attention, and that alone puts you ahead of the crowd. So keep moving forward—by querying your next set of potential agents, or by making your next novel even stronger.

You’ve got the spark. Now build the fire.