Category Archives: Submitting Your Work

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

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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.

Five Ways to Impress an Agent with Your Opening Pages

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[ Note: This article first appeared in the July 2014 issue of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers newsletter. Go RMFW! ]shutterstock_138099389

Today I’d like to tackle one of my favorite FAQs: What does it take to hook an agent with your opening pages? (Insert profanity if you’ve been through or are in the midst of this process!)

The truth is, on any given page of your novel, agents weigh dozens of factors based on their knowledge, experience, and personal taste. They’re also employing another vital skill: instinct. If their gut isn’t telling them to read on, their brain probably won’t win the argument. But I think I can boil it down to five key elements that really make agents swoon:

A Remarkable Voice. Every author has a voice, but what makes one captivating and another lackluster? One major element is uniqueness—both at the “big picture” level (how your characters see the world) and in the details (word choice, flow, syntactic quirks). Another is authenticity. Do the narration and dialogue ring true with our understanding of the characters and story? A third is unobtrusiveness; while not invisible, a strong voice effortlessly captures the reader without calling attention to itself.

Flawless Writing. An agent is hooked when she reaches the end of your pages and had forgotten she was reading a sub- mission. This happens when the writing is so polished that there was nothing to trigger her “agent brain” and pull her out of the story. The opening pages must deftly balance scene and summary, clear dialogue, and just enough intriguing backstory. Disappointment comes from sending out a project too soon. Find a critique group or writing partner you can trust to be brutal with your early drafts. You’ll thank them later.

Irresistible Characters. No matter how beautiful the writing, a manuscript is in trouble if an agent doesn’t fall in love with the main character(s), or at least find them hard to forget. Like all readers, agents want to feel a strong emotional stake in what happens to these people/dragons/aliens/werefolk. At the end of your sample chapters, you want to leave agents in anguish, dying to know what will happen to your characters.

A Compelling Inciting Incident. Another thing agents look for is an inciting incident within the first thirty pages or so. Granted, there are excellent novels that take longer to get there; Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is an example. But Outlander is an 800+ page tome, and long stories like that are the exception, not the rule. An author has to have a good reason to delay the spark, such as relevant scene setting or character development. In the slush pile, a long delay is more often the result of unpolished writing that needs a trim.

Smooth Mechanics. As sexy as that sounds, this one has more to do with nuts and bolts than instinct. Still, it’s important enough to make the list. One or two typos is probably not a deal breaker, but if a manuscript includes frequent mistakes in grammar, spelling, punctuation, or formatting, agents start to see red flags: Is this author unprofessional? Downright careless? Would our working relationship be a mess, too? Don’t take chances—run it by your exasperatingly anal copy editor friend before you hit that “send” button.

Whether you’re about to start the submission process, or already in the trenches, best of luck!

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.