Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Games Agents Play

STATUS: Started off the day with 80 new e-mails in the inbox. That’s a tough Monday.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? GOLD by John Stewart

When we obviously have nothing better to do….

Last year, I had dinner in the home of a client and her husband. After the dessert, we decided to play a game that they often do with their friends.

From a bookshelf in their office, the player grabs a published book from the shelf. Any book. Once back at the table, the player reads aloud a page from anywhere in the novel.

The question is two-fold. For the non-agent players, would they have continued reading? Why or why not? For the agent, would I have offered representation for the book based on that one sample page?

It was eye-opening and hilarious. The basic idea is that a novel should be able to hold up to intense scrutiny even if a random page is selected from anywhere in the story.

For my part, I would have passed on a well-known romance writer (oops!). To be honest, the writing didn’t hold up. I was completely surprised when the author was revealed.

For several readings, I admired the writing but knew I wouldn’t have represented it–despite the obvious quality of it. Sorry Cormack McCarthy! (Remember, taste really does play a factor in this!)

And out of the all the readings we did that night, there was only one that when the reader came to the end of the page passage, I said, “absolutely! I’d have offered rep for that in a New York minute.”

That author was Margaret Atwood.

Kind of interesting, don’t you think? I wonder how much we are swayed by recognizing an author’s name and reputation. In this game, you didn’t know and had to make a judgement based solely on the words on the page.

34 Responses

  1. Jenny Maloney said:

    And here I thought you were gonna say Scrabble. =)

    YAY Margaret Atwood!! She’s so awesome. I’m not an agent but would become an agent – useless or not! – to represent her in a New York minute.

  2. Keisha Martin said:

    Margaret Atwood is amazing I still get chills when I read the handmaid’s Tale, and she is an inspiration for me; a Canadian writer but also on a bigger scope for writers world wide plus she stands up for issues that are important for humanity.

  3. Anonymous said:

    It’s very interesting because there doesn’t seem to be a set pattern that good sales follow good writing. In other words, many published books with questionable writing styles do, in fact, sell very well and the authors are loved by their readers. I can’t read beyond the first few pages if I don’t like the writing style. But I’m evidently in the minority with some well known authors. Like I said, it’s interesting.

  4. Maryann Miller said:

    What a fun game. Not surprising that so many of the books were not well written enough to grab your attention. I have p[icked up books by “name” authors, only to be disappointed.

  5. Rin said:

    Sounds like a fun game! Not surprised about Margaret Atwood – her writing is always gorgeous. And I usually find that it’s not always writing style that grabs readers – sometimes it’s just an unusual hook or twist in the story that gets them more than any beautifully done writing prose can.

  6. sarah said:

    Good reminder to quit obsessively revising our query letters and first five pages and instead obsessively revise our whole book. 🙂

  7. Lauren Alissa Hunter said:

    Ah! That sounds like a refreshing change to the usual party games. I know I do a similar thing when book shopping… I always read the first page, and if the story, character, or voice don’t entice me to keep reading, I usually pass on it.

    In a more evil twist on this method of selection, I have known people who will read the LAST page first.


  8. Mary Romaniec said:

    What a fun game. The outcome may have been surprising but not when you realize how we are blinded by name-recognition over substance. There was a time when I would purchase a book because it was from a favorite author; that is until I became disappointed by the content and writing of some of the books.

    My summation was that it had to be the “editor’s fault” because the author doesn’t normally write such garbage.

    It’s all in perspective.

  9. Eric said:

    I am always astonished by the different standards applied to literary fiction versus commercial fiction.

    For commercial, the first page, and it seems, each and every page after needs to grab you and not let go.

    For literary, as long as it is well-written — and “Let the Great World Spin” comes to mind — it is fine if it takes fifty pages or more to “get in to it”.

  10. Anonymous said:

    A lot of big-name writers seem to start publishing their rough drafts after a while. I just finished the latest book by a very well-known mystery writer. It deserved a form rejection slip.

  11. Alaina said:

    I hope I never sink to writing things that would get form rejections if I weren’t already published. I think that’s the biggest abuse: having to rely on being a ‘famous’ name. I’d rather be published for the story’s merit, every time.

  12. Misha Gericke said:

    It’s something that really annoys me sometimes.

    I read some books by famous names and find that had they been less famous, they wouldn’t have been published according to the standards to which new authors are subjected.

    It’s demoralizing as well.

  13. GSMarlene said:

    haha – I tried to read All the Pretty Horses by McCarthy and couldn’t make it past the first few pages. No quotation marks! And a couple paragraphs that were a single sentence well over 10 lines long. Completely unreadable to me – I need quotes!

  14. Ryan Stuart Lowe said:

    I remember meeting a college professor who believed that any line written by Shakespeare would be recognizable as his – and worthy of his mark of genius.

    This is just plain silly. There are plenty of prosaic bland boring moments in Shakespeare. There are prosaic bland boring moments in all writers (yes, even Margaret Atwood).

    This is an awfully high bar to set for any writer! But it’s a nice exercise to get us thinking about whether a book is strong through to the core and not just in its opening. Imagine if manuscript submissions were read a few pages in the middle — writers would be scrambling to make their middles and ends perfect, as well as their beginnings.

  15. TravelingSmurf said:

    I’m a longtime reader of your blog, and I know you feel strongly (and there’s proof!) that you can do a great job as an agent living outside of NYC. If I want to work on the editorial side but also not be in New York, where can I find those publishing houses? I’ve looked on editorial type job boards, but I was wondering if there was a better way.

  16. Liz Heinecke said:

    Love Margaret Atwood. However, I must admit that there are books that I read for great stories, despite less-than amazing prose (Dan Brown.)When I read the first Harry Potter novel, I was completely underwhelmed by the writing.

  17. Tony DiMeo said:

    With so much focus on opening lines and first pages, many of us forget that the same care and attention that we apply to the first page in our manuscript should be applied to every page. Thanks for hammering that home, Kristin!

  18. Jennifer kay said:

    Great party game! I’m guilty of spending way too much time revising the beginning and ending of my manuscripts and giving the middle less attention than it deserves. Maybe I should play that game with my own writing.

  19. Stephanie [Luxe Boulevard Bridal] said:

    I can agree with this. Luanne Rice is my favorite author and I currently have 13 of her books. There are two that I absolutely love, one of which I re-read immediately after finishing it for the first time (and it wasn’t one of her best selling books). But there are others I think, Eh … These people are on deadlines, some putting out new releases every year. I don’t always expect their writing and plots to be superb.
    As an aspiring writer and critique group member, I even find myself self-consciously critiquing them. LOL! Terrible, I know. But I think this is where debut authors have it easier. I can spend as much time as I want editing my MS before I decide to send it out. Established authors don’t really have that luxury. But I will still continue to buy Luanne’s Rice’s books. Maybe she didn’t hit the nail on the head with the last two-part series I read, but I still love her writing style.

  20. Alison Adare said:

    Several times over the past few years literary reviews have amused themselves by sending unsolicited submissions to various agents – summary, outline and first few pages of books by William Faulkner, Alice Munroe and other greats – and then publishing the rejection letters with great glee. A consolation to writers everywhere!

  21. Nancy said:

    Interesting book game! It is also an interesting point as to whether the novel was old or new, and whether it was written in an certain style, not currently commercially viable in the marketplace. Can established authors sometimes write less than spectacular pages, or, are there transition scenes that are not as exciting as the rest of the book? There are so many variables that it would be interesting to analyze the results and graph them too. What makes a page exciting? I like this book passage reading idea.

  22. Anonymous said:

    I loved this! And I thought that it might make Margaret Atwood herself smile too, so I tweeted the link to her. She RT’d it, so I hope it made her day!

    I am @MauStCha on Twitter – just used Anon here as I am having a hard time getting my comment to register!

    Thank you so much for all that you do – I learn something every day from reading your posts!

  23. Jeffrey said:

    “A novel’s plot should not be a series of conversations where characters move from one place to another and all they do is have chats with other characters.”

    Well, that’s quite a different claim from “Big reveals shouldn’t happen in a conversation.” I think the above claim is spot-on. I’m fairly dubious that a “reveal” shouldn’t happen in a conversation. In my experience, almost every “big reveal” I’ve experienced did occur in a conversation, and I suspect my experience isn’t terribly unique. How often do you actually catch some indisputably in the act of revealing something through physical action? Sure, it happens, but even when it does the “bigger reveal” is usually in the explanation that follows.

    This isn’t your experience? Just curious.


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