Category Archives: Query Letters

AgentSpeak: “Your Main Character? We Just Didn’t Hit It Off”

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This week I’m excited to continue the “AgentSpeak” series here on Word Café. Today’s topic is another comment frequently seen on polite rejection letters from agents:

“I’m sorry not to have better news. You have a lot of talent, but I just couldn’t see myself spending an entire novel with your main character.”

Reading this from your dream agent, you experience a roller coaster ride of emotions. Exhilaration (she thinks I have talent!). Indignation (how dare she insult my character like that!). Despair (she hates my book!) And finally, confusion (what does it mean, couldn’t spend an entire novel…?). Let’s see if I can shed some light here.

SadSuperheroWhat the agent could mean is that she just didn’t connect on a personal level with your main character and story—a situation I described in my previous AgentSpeak article. But more likely, she means you have created an unlikable character. Yikes. Now what?

As with many other elements of fiction, the likability of your characters is subjective; what appeals to one reader may put off another. But, just like real-life people, some characters manage to win over an almost universal audience. (Think Katniss Everdeen, Bilbo Baggins, Indiana Jones.) How do they do it? By being witty, funny, charming, and good (but not too good)—the same qualities that draw us to people in the real world. By displaying an ingenious balance of strengths and flaws, with the strengths ultimately winning out. By being unique, while showing us traits we recognize in ourselves.

Now, the converse: what characteristics do readers—including agents—most often shy away from? Here are some of the top turn-offs:

  • Characters who are cynical, angsty, jaded, or just plain mean
  • Characters who are flat or generic
  • Characters who feel like vehicles for a message or agenda, rather than real-life people
  • Characters who show no growth or change from beginning to end of story (unless that’s the point—a tough one to pull off)

Once you’ve identified some possible reasons for the agent’s dissing your protagonist, you’re faced with a tough choice: change him, or stand your ground. Only you as the author can decide which of those actions is right for your book. There’s always a change the agent’s opinion was a fluke. What if you still believe strongly in your character? What if changing him would compromise the heart of your story? Then your best bet is to go knocking on other agents’ doors. And before you do anything drastic, get a second opinion (and a third, fourth…tenth). Did another agent make a similar observation? Is your critique group having trouble with your character(s) as well? If so, there’s a good chance the public at large will feel the same, and that spells doom for your book sales. In that case, you probably don’t need to scrap your protagonist, but it might be time for a little nip and tuck.

AgentSpeak: “It’s Not You, It’s Me”

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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.

Are There Second Chances in the Slush Pile? You Betcha!

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thumbs-up-down-iconsToday I’m drawing from the archive to bring you some mid-week inspiration. Whether you querying five agents or fifty (and btw, I recommend aiming for the lower end to start), the reality is you have to be ready for some agents to say, “no.” But is that the end of the story? Not always! As odd as this sounds, sometimes the quality of a rejection letter makes all the difference.

WHEN A NO ISN’T REALLY A NO

It’s a no-brainer: rejection stings. And when it comes from your dream agent, a “no” stings times ten. Time to move on and never look back, right? Not necessarily. Sometimes “no” just means “not yet.”

I’m talking about your partial or full manuscript. If an agent requested your work, then responded with a fairly impersonal “no thanks,” she probably just didn’t connect with your concept, style, etc., and it’s better to concentrate on your other top choices. If, on the other hand, you got personalized feedback on why the story didn’t work for her, or what you could do to improve it, chances are she’d be willing to look at your work again in the future—either the same project or a new one. And this time, you might get a whole different response. Want some real-life examples of how smart persistence pays off? How about amazing authors Marie Lu, Gail Carriger, Tiffany Reisz, and Michael Martinez. You can read their stories on the clients page of the Nelson Agency website for a healthy dose of encouragement!

When you resubmit, here are some things to include in your new query letter:

    • Make note in your subject line and opening paragraph that you’ve thoroughly revised the project based on the agent’s feedback, and give a few details about what aspects you reworked to make the project stronger. If the agent explicitly said he’d be open to your work again, certainly mention that, too. It puts you way ahead of the crowd and shows you have grit.
    • If you’re pitching a new project instead of a revision, there are pros and cons to mentioning your previous submission. On one hand, the agent could say, “Yes, I remember—this author’s work didn’t resonate with me.” On the other, it shows you have a history of great concepts that caught her interest, even if the writing itself wasn’t quite ready. In general, I favor being up front and reminding the agent you’ve “met” before. It might save her searching through her archive to see why your name sounds so familiar.
    • Include any updates since you previously submitted. Did your revised partial win a contest? Have you had a lot of interest from other agents or editors? These things show your new draft isn’t just different—it’s much better.  It also adds a sense of polite urgency: this project is hot—better take a look before someone else grabs it!

A final note: this advice assumes you agree with the agent’s feedback from your initial submission and your respective visions for the project align. If not, no matter how much you admire that agent and want to work with her, you’re setting yourself up for frustration, and it’s best to knock on other doors.

Best wishes!