Pub Rants

Category: passing on sample pages

Oh The Foibles of Email

STATUS: Gorgeous day. Unfortunately Chutney is sick and I need to run her to the vet this morning.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SENTIMENTAL LADY by Bob Welsh

The problem with email is that sometimes the tone is not clear—or it can be very open to interpretation.

First off, just let me say that most agents have a standard rejection letter. It’s not good or bad or in any way a personal reflection on you as a writer. It’s simply a standard letter so that writers get a response versus none at all.

Isn’t it in the Godfather movies where he says, “This isn’t personal; it’s business” or some derivation of that?

That’s how you have to view standard rejection letters.

Now of course I have one as well. In the past, I’ve received numerous compliments on how nice my standard letter is. Great. I’m glad it works for some people.

But every once in a while I get an email reply from a frustrated writer that would like to critique the letter. Yesterday, the writer had a problem with the line “After all, it just takes one “yes” and with so many different opinions out there, you could easily find the right match.”

The writer found the phrase condescending, insulting and ridiculous because in her view, it’s not easy to land an agent, that a writer doesn’t have many options, and the market is hard to break into. So my guess is that she has concluded that I’m being unnecessarily cavalier by indicating that it just takes finding the right match in my standard rejection letter.

But I include the line because in many instances, it’s true. I pass on lots of manuscripts that don’t work for me but are sell-able projects that other agents have liked, taken on, and then sold.

So the line is in fact true. For some writers I’ve rejected, it really was about finding the right match. Not for all the writers rejected, mind you, but for some, yes it was.

Tomorrow I think I’ll share my standard rejection letter. Break it down and analyze why I include the things I do in it. Maybe there’s a better way. You guys can chime in and if what you say is valuable, maybe it’s time for a revision. I’m always open.

Fresh & Original Vs. Too Risky And Strange

STATUS: Got a call from an editor expressing interest in a project I currently have on submission. Always a good first sign.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THE DISTANCE by Cake

I’ve been having some interesting dialogues recently about what is too risky and strange (and thus misses the market) and what’s fresh, original, and daring.

What’s the difference and is that difference solely in the eye of the beholder? Darn hard to say.

On one hand I believe any concept can be pulled off and do-able given the right character development. As long as the reader feels emotionally involved with the characters (even the hard-to-like non-touchy feely characters), anything is possible.

After all you can have a story about young tweens with personal demons that shapeshift (and are the external representations of the person’s conscience) and then become static once the tween reaches maturity and that dominant personality traits are fixed. (Philip Pullman’s THE GOLDEN COMPASS)

And it totally works. The concept is strange and original but fascinating.

The difference might be in how one responds to the original concept. Is the initial gut reaction “wow, that’s cool?” or is it “huh?”

And gut reaction can certainly be subjective.

But for me, I know the instant I read a query (mainly because I’ve read so many and have seen thousands and thousands of ideas) which way a concept tips. I either react with “very cool” or a “wow, that’s too strange” or worse yet, “I don’t get it.”

And I can always be wrong. After all, I would have shaken my head over a concept of a novel set in the Ice Age where a Neanderthal clan rescues and adopts an early Cro-Magnon child (known as one of the Others) and that changes the clan’s destiny.

Sign me up for that one. Not.

Except that would be CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR by Jean M. Auel and a big mistake to have missed out on that one. I’m still trying to imagine how her agent pitched that novel to the editors.

“So I have this great story set 35,000 years in the past…” That probably wasn’t the approach.

Ultimately, it can all be in the writing but for me, some concepts are so out there and strange, I don’t want to read that story regardless of how good the writing might be. So even if you might be flirting with too risky, you need to make sure your query nails the emotional punch and allows the risky element to sound perfectly natural.

If that makes any sense. It’s a tough balance to strike but absolutely necessary.

Reading For Fun

STATUS: Working on a contract.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BEEN CAUGHT STEALING by Jane’s Addiction

I’m not sure why but writers are sometimes surprised that agents read for fun. Granted, we don’t have a whole lot of extra time to read for pleasure but all of us still do it.

So of course we read for fun. After all, it’s this passion that got us into the biz to begin with. Not to mention, in a slightly off-beat way, it’s also part of our job to stay current on recent releases. We track what’s hot and why. We read what hits the bestseller lists or what is getting a lot of buzz.

This becomes super important when reading partials. Why? Well, there are leaders in each genre and try as they might, some writers can’t help but be a little derivative of the leaders in their field. It might be unconscious—the mimicking of a premise or a world building construct or what have you.

As agents, we need to spot this. We need a work to be wholly original and not just a really well done copy of something that’s currently out there.

How else can we know this unless we read?

So what’s currently on my nightstand? Scott Westerfeld’s UGLIES. My sister-in-law, a Middle School Principal, has been raving about how much she loves these books and how my nieces really enjoyed them as well.

With these endorsements, it behooves me to pick it up and see what the fuss is all about.

Two Pages Tops

STATUS: Boy do I need to catch up reading after the move. I have to admit that Sara and I are a little behind on reading queries and partials right now. Perhaps I can catch up this weekend.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LUCKY STAR by Madonna

Sometimes I wonder if I’m revealing a deep dark agent secret and whether it pays to be brutally honest on this blog.

There will always be some anonymous commenter who will see it as the sign of the publishing apocalypse. Big smile here.

When reading sample pages, I have literally stopped reading after the first opening paragraph. (Sometimes the writing is just that bad.)

That’s pretty rare. However, I’d say, on average, that I can tell a NO within the first two to five pages of a submission. .

I know this is probably appalling for writers. How can ANYONE make a determination in such a short span of pages?

Trust me. Spend one week at an agency reading the submissions and after you’ve read thousands and thousands of partials, you know.

Like a good melon…

Sometimes it’s the quality of the writing (or the lack there of). Sometimes the writing is solid and the story just isn’t right for me. Sometimes the writing is really good and I just haven’t clue what I would do with the work.

Sometimes I just like it but don’t LOVE it and that’s enough to be the deciding factor.

But on the whole, it’s rare that I read the entire 30 pages I request before making a determination. That’s probably not super encouraging but at least you know the truth about those all important first 10 pages.

Glitch! Take Two.

STATUS: Quiet in publishing because it’s MLK day. Take a moment to think about the impact he had on our world today.

I’m happy to say that the e-newsletter is undergoing a few tweaks and will probably be sent out by Friday. Don’t forget that the subscription process is a double opt in so there’s no chance of spamming. You must respond to the email sent to you in order to be officially on the mailing list.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SAILING by Christopher Cross

Let’s go from computer glitches to writer glitches because these might be the real rejection culprits. Are you ready to get critical and be honest about your manuscript? If so, here are some thoughts to keep in mind.

1. If writing suspense, is your story basically one long chase scene? This is a tough call because there appears to be a lot of events happening but ultimately, when the plot is broken down, and all you have are long, involved chase scenes, you’re going to run into problems.

2. In fantasy, how many scenes do you have where the main characters are sitting around a fire, dinner, at a table (insert whatever) and chatting? Don’t mistake event summary as actual action or scene building. In fact, do we need this summary? Good writers seamlessly interweave any summations to allow the story forward momentum.

3. In all genres, have you mistaken dialogue for action or scene building or for characterization? Remember, there has to be a balance. It can’t be all dialogue at the sacrifice of the other stuff. Some folks are great dialoguers. Don’t rely on your strength to carry a whole novel.

4. I see this a lot in fantasy. Do you have dramatic or action-packed scenes that are great but ultimately don’t further the story any? This is the hardest to be honest about because you love these scenes. They are sooooooo good but if they don’t help to develop the story, you’re going to get dinged.

5. Are you so in love with your characters that you have them do all sorts of fun stuff in scenes but ultimately these scenes don’t interconnect to the main story unfolding? Misguided character love has caused many a downfall for submissions received.

Can you list what actually physically happens in your story? Do it. How many things are on that list? Too many and your story is underdeveloped. Too few and it hasn’t got enough meat to it.

You’d be surprised at how often I pass on good, solid writing simply because nothing happens. Now with literary fiction, you’ve got a little more leeway but it’s the kiss of death for commercial mainstream and genre fiction.

A Call But Not THE Call

STATUS: It’s Monday. Today I went to an editor lunch with Kelly Notaras from Sounds True Audio. Since I mainly do my editor lunches in New York, this was a fun treat. We chatted about Chelsea Green publishing opening an office in Golden, Colorado. Dare I say it? An NYC exodus? Okay, probably not but I’m constantly amazed at how many publishing professionals are moving west. I consider myself on the forefront of the trend…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? EDGE OF SEVENTEEN by Stevie Nicks

Last week I found myself in the interesting position of calling two authors but not because I was offering representation. Sometimes an agent calls but it’s not THE call. You’re probably asking yourself why I would bother if I were passing on a manuscript.

Here’s why. Sometimes the writing is just that good (and in these two instances, I was torn and seriously contemplated whether we could work on revisions with the authors), but ultimately, if I think a manuscript is fatally flawed and it would entail the author revising more than half the work, I have to pass. It’s not fair to them to say, “well, representation is contingent on XYZ first” (despite being sorely tempted).

My goal in calling is to offer encouragement because I believe it’s simply going to be a matter of time before they are in print.

And I’m hoping they’ll think of me for the next project (or maybe they have something else in the cooker I can review so it behooves me to call and ask).

I do consider this to be part of my job. So it’s an important call even if it’s not THE call.

Generic YA First POV

STATUS: Today was a non-day for work. My tech person came to boot up the new network so I pretty much had no access to the computer for most of the day. In good news, I did stand in line for an hour to early vote (and good news for the voting part—not the standing in line part). Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2006.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HEY JEALOUSY by Gin Blossoms

I’ve been noticing something in the Teen Chick Lit submissions I’ve been receiving so I’m finally going to talk about it. It’s tough though because taste can be so subjective and what one agent dislikes, another agent loves.

Same with editors for that matter.

But I think there have been enough examples of late to merit a blog entry and this pretty much applies to what I call Teen Chick Lit, which, as many of you know, is mainly done in a young girl’s first person point-of-view.

Now don’t worry. I don’t think there is anything wrong with first pov; I like it just fine. What’s bothering me is what I’m calling a rash of generic first person narratives (despite good hooks or an original story line). The main narrator ends up sounding just like the main narrators of the 30 plus Teen Chick Lits I’ve read in the last 3 months. There’s no differentiating.

Now the tricky part. What’s generic for me? A couple of things.

1. A Valley-girlish type narrative voice

This is for lack of a better description. I don’t mean strict Valley Girl like, oh my gosh, from the 80s. I know YA writers are trying to capture that teen speak, slang, and quick dialogue so true to life. But what I’m seeing is this narrative voice and the absence of crucial things like character development. A narrator’s voice should be instrumental to showing character depth and complexity. Lately, it seems to be missing. Not to mention, not all teens speak that way. Surely we can have some variety. I have two teenage nieces and they don’t talk in this same rhythm that I seem to be seeing over and over in sample pages I’ve been reading.

2. A dialogue-heavy scenes

This in itself is not necessarily bad. Most YA novels tend to be pretty dialogue-oriented. It picks up the pace etc. I have a problem with it when scenes are dialogue-heavy to the exclusion of everything else, like setting the scene. I’m seeing this often.

3. Misconception that a good hook can carry average writing

Yes, a good hook in Teen chick lit goes a long way but I have to say that I’m an even harder judge when reading YA. I really want the writing to be top-notch, literary commercial, can hold up even on an adult level but has the right pace for YA.

It’s one of the reasons why I had not taken on a YA-only writer until just last week. I’m looking for something that can really hold its own in the market. It’s not generic in any way.

Whatever that means, right?