Pub Rants

Category: passing on sample pages

#NLAquerytip #3

Fact: Clearly outlining in your query letter how your story fits in the market will encourage literary agents to read your entire email letter closely.

First off, what do I mean by “clearly outlining how your novel fits in the market”?  You can do this by:

* listing other titles that would be comparable to yours.

* adding a line that readers who enjoyed X title, Y title, and Z title would also like your story.

* clearly designating your novel’s correct genre or type of work.

Note: This doesn’t mean saying that you as a debut writer are spectacular or that you write better than “insert famous author name.”

That is going to be read as hubris and won’t be helpful in making your query letter stand out. In fact, I have a suspicion that positing so in the beginning of your letter will probably result in a quick rejection.

The three bullet points above, by contrast, spotlight your professional savvy and the fact you did your homework about the current market. This is a business and writers who demonstrate a clear understanding of that in their query letter will attract agent attention.

Professionalism always encourages me to read the entire letter–unless it’s very clear to me early in the pitch that the type of novel just isn’t what I represent. And I imagine that’s true for a lot of my colleagues.

#NLAquerytip #2

Fact: Literary Agents rarely read the entire query letter.

It’s simply not possible given the sheer volume most of us receive. I average about 100 email queries a day and these days, I actually do read the letters myself. If I’m buried, Angie will jump in and help out on my request (as I don’t want writers to have to wait too long for a reply), but it’s pretty much me doing the reading.

And I have maybe 30 minutes a day to give it. Which means getting through 100 queries or so in that time frame. You can do the math. That means approximately 30 seconds for each letter.

So most agents I know, me included, skip down to the pitch paragraph and read that portion first. If it grabs us, then we read the entire query letter.

In long query letters, sometimes it’s hard to actually find the novel pitch! Yet another reason why shorter query letters get better response from agents….

#NLAquerytip

Fact:  Shorter query letters get a better request response from agents and editors.

Or to say this point in a different way: the longer your query letter, the more likely an agent or editor will pass on it and not request sample pages. Why? Because it shows you haven’t carefully crafted or honed your query pitch.

In query letters that are short in length, the writer has to make every word count. So the writer is showing a level of craft expertise nailing it succinctly.

So subscribe to the Twitter-verse approach to writing your query pitch. Okay, I’m going to give you more than 136 characters to nail the pitch but any pitch paragraph should not be more than 5 or 7 sentences long. That’s it. (And no cheating and subscribing to the Faulkner method of making a whole sentence last an entire page length).

Less is more!

Not a very original title for a blog post but it certainly conveys the message adequately! I’ve been on a bit of a reading binge lately. There’s just nothing like that excitement of finding a story that makes all your fingers and toes tingle.

I swear, it might be an addiction and why Literary Agents do the job we do!

And I’ve been reading lots of good stuff as of late. But nothing that is quite tipping me into the “must have” realm as yet. Part of what makes this job so fun is that the right manuscript could hit the inbox at any moment.

Adult Steampunk fantasy: PASS – good concept, solid world building, interesting opening scene. And these are the hardest letters for me to write, the story just didn’t spark for me. So not helpful for that hard-working writer but it’s true.

Young Adult SF: PASS – another interesting world, set on a ship, with a nice opening scene. No spark. Argh.
Adult Literary fiction: PASS – Writer has terrific background in journalism. Cool premise. Solid writing. Just couldn’t quite fall into the story and have it keep my attention. My focus kept wandering so I know this one is not for me.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Too gritty for me and I worried that the main character, his nature, was too dark and grim potentially for the YA market. I could be totally wrong but it’s a sign it’s not right for me.
Young adult contemporary SF: PASS – Another sample with good, solid writing. Interesting story concept. Author had an agent previously.  I should be game for it but the narrative just didn’t spark for me.
Adult Commercial mainstream: PASS – Loved the premise. Solid writing but I actually wanted the writing to be more literary than what it was because the concept hook was so commercial. And for me, that was the way to really make the story stand out.
Fantasy Young Adult: PASS – was a bit on the fence with this one. Nice writing. Interesting fantasy world. Gave it a second read and found I wasn’t feeling passionate about wanting to commit to reading a full manuscript.
Adult SF: PASS – a funny science fiction narrative that works! (so rare.) Good writing. Charming and inventive. Just wasn’t quite right for me but I definitely see another agent taking this one on and selling it.
Young Adult contemporary: PASS – Such a great premise dealing with contemporary YA themes but writing was really uneven and a little too much force on “this is the theme of my novel.”
Adult historical: PASS – Author has great background with winning some accolades. Really liked the time period so sad with this one a bit and reread it. In the end, I felt like I should love it but didn’t actually love it.
Young adult historical: PASS – One of my fav genres and is a popular tale re-telling. Writing felt too stiff and formal (the emotion didn’t match the scene) I couldn’t quite lose myself in the story.
Middle Grade contemporary: PASS – I really wanted to like this one as concept was terrific. Voice didn’t quite nail it for middle grade. Read a bit too adult.
Adult Fantasy: PASS – Really interesting premise for the anti-hero who is main protagonist of the story. Too many fantasy tropes in the opening without enough of a distinctive voice to really make the opening stand out.
Middle grade fantasy: PASS – narrative voice was too adult for the MG audience. World building was a bit heavy in the opening as well. Thought maybe it could work for adult market but it as in the deadly gray area without it being firmly to one audience or the other.
Young adult contemporary: PASS – loved the multicultural aspect of the story. Author has great background as well. This one I just didn’t fall in love with the story and the narrative voice.

Since the start of 2015, I’ve read 30 submitted sample pages and I have another 20 or so to go. I’ve been pretty impressed so far and have asked for 7 full manuscripts. That might be a record for me in such a short time period.

But it also means that I’ve passed on a lot of submissions as well. And they’ve been good so why did I pass? I popped into our electronic submissions database and looked at some of my responses.

Here are some snippets in case you find them illuminating:

“There are a lot of POV shifts and I’m also worried that it’s too quiet.”

“Great concept for the story. Writing too uneven.”

“Nicely written. Quirky characters. Not a story I would pick up and read on my own so just not right for me.”

“Nice writing. Just missing that spark for me.”

“Perfectly fine story but average writing.”

“The writing feels like it’s trying too hard to be literary.”

“Writer nails the voice but there isn’t much driving the plot forward.”

 

The Pesky Scene Break

Last month I did my ever-popular webinar Creating the Road Map for Your Novel. Of the ten participants, half had trouble with a powerful writing tool called the scene break. Now, scene breaks are awesome—unless they are overused or not used for maximum impact.

Why do writers use scene breaks? During the webinar, we came up with several reasons:

  1. To signal a shift in time (for example, to enter and exit a flashback, or to skip over a brief period of time during which nothing plotworthy happens).
  2. To signal a shift in point of view (POV).
  3. To build suspense, leaving one scene at a climactic, cliffhanger moment to switch to a new scene.

(To read some great examples, see Janice Hardy’s article on the topic of scene breaks.)

Here are three things about scene breaks to note:

  • Don’t use scene breaks too liberally. Think of POV as a movie camera. If you are constantly breaking scenes (moving the narrative camera), your reader is going to be pulled out of one scene and dumped into another. If it happens to often, your reader will get whiplash and lose the narrative thread of your story.
  • Scene breaks that signal shifts in time should be used judiciously and only when doing so actually moves the plot forward. Don’t use scene breaks as tools of convenience when they offer no other narrative impact. This type of scene break is the biggest culprit; when it doesn’t work on the page, it creates the most abrupt interruption in the logical flow of the narrative.
  • When breaking a scene to skip a period of time, ask yourself what happens during the time you’re choosing to skip. Are you skipping action that should be on the page? I’ve read manuscripts in which the hero conveniently gets conked on the head during a battle scene, only to wake up (after the scene break) once his buddies have defeated the enemy. New writers who are intimidated by writing action/battle scenes, or scenes in which the hero might have to come up with a brilliant plan to save the day, will sometimes conveniently skip them. Don’t fall into that trap!

In summary, whenever you are tempted to toss in a scene break, ask yourself: What is the function of this scene break? And what, if anything, am I skipping over that should appear on the page?

Two weekends ago, I attended the Pikes Peak Writers Conference, and I had a chance to not only do a read-and-critique session, but also my infamous Agent Reads the Slush Pile workshop.

Doing these classes always provides fresh insight into why I stop reading a submission. Here are the top culprits so you, too, can start thinking like an agent when you read your opening chapters. If you say yes to any of them, time to dig into a revision!

1) Does your opening chapter begin with action, but then stop abruptly so that your character can sit and think or reminisce? About 50 percent of the pages we tackled did just that.

It’s a passive way to begin a story and means you’ve started in the wrong place.

2) Analyze your opening dialogue, and then the exposition that immediately follows it. Does your telling simply reiterate what was already clear in the dialogue?

3) Do you have a prologue? Is it in a different voice or style from the rest of the novel, or does it take a different direction? Is the prologue just an info dump about the world or backstory youthink the reader needs to know? Decide if it’s really necessary to include a prologue, as most agents will skip to chapter one or will stop reading altogether.

4) Do you repeat a fun element that was absolutely funny the first time around, but when it is repeated, it loses impact?

5) Does your opening chapter include nothing but dialogue? Not anchoring the reader clearly in a physical scene is a key culprit for why agents don’t read on. They have no way to imagine the scene.

6) How much of your opening chapter is in the current scene and how much is backstory? Remember that you, as the writer, need to know your character’s backstory, but the reader doesn’t need to know it right away in order to be pulled into your story.

What I’ve seen in the last 2 weeks and why I passed:

4 Full Manuscripts (2 with offers of rep on the table)

1 – New Adult/wm’s fic. Recommended by a former editor we know well and like. I totally enjoyed the writing but for me, the story didn’t have a foot solidly in one genre or the other. I didn’t have the vision/passion for it so I passed.

2 – Wm’s fic/erotic leaning. Probably one of the more interesting concepts for a story that I’ve seen in a long time. What was interesting is the writing was quite literary but if I were to explain the plot, it would feel like contemporary romance. I went back and forth on that one as so intriguing. I did end up passing despite how smartly it was done.

3 – Middle Grade. Great great concept. But I had reservations that the voice didn’t quite nail the middle grade age range and although cool, a lot of the story felt too sophisticated but not exactly right for YA either.

4 – Middle Grade. Multicultural main character which I love. Great MG voice. Story line needed some work and with my current work load, I was afraid I couldn’t give the author the attention deserved.

5 Sample Pages

1 – Adult literary. Too literary for what I can be successful with. But terrific writing and a wonderful multicultural story.

2 – Young adult. Previously published author with great background. Fun paranormal. Snappy writing. I liked it but didn’t love it.

3 – Adult steampunk. Author had very cool background and the writing was nice but the opening didn’t grab me.

4 – Adult literary. Same as the other above. Too literary for what I tend to have success with. Wonderful multicultural angle though.

5 – Contemporary romance. Previously published author with great backlist and background. I liked it but didn’t love it. With a full client list, it makes a difference on what I’ll take on.

If I can be that succinct. LOL My current workload is as such that I’m not doing a lot of reading right now. That will probably ease up in another month or so. But from what I have read in the last two weeks, here are my sum ups of 7 projects and 7 reasons why I passed.

1) Client referral – Post-apocalyptic adult fiction. Very cool world. Strong writing so the writer has talent but I just didn’t connect with the story/characters.

2) Client referral – adult literary thriller. Really talented writer but the work was very Cormac McCarthy THE ROAD kind of dark. Not my thing. I’m not going to be a good champion for that.

3) Client referral – women’s fiction. I thought it more young adult and asked author if they wanted to revise to be solidly in that realm. If so, I was willing to give it another read.

4) Anita pulled out for me – young adult fantasy. Had the coolest concept I’ve seen in a while but the work wasn’t quite ready. Wrote an editorial letter and asked the author to revise and send back to me. Hope this person does.

5) Client referral – Contemporary Young adult. Another really cool concept inspired by a real event but fictionalized. I didn’t connect with the main narrator which seemed crucial for this story.

6) Prev. published author – adult SF. Cool concept. Good writing. Just wasn’t right for me.

7) Sara asked me to look – Contemporary Young Adult – Good writing but the main narrator had a caustic voice. I wasn’t sure if I could spend a whole novel with that character.

 

Just recently I did a workshop where I had the participants partner with another person in the class and exchange the first 30 pages of their manuscripts. The assignment I gave them was to read the 30 pages all the way through once. After that was completed, to go back and start rereading. On the second read, I asked them to go page by page and outline the plot points in a neat list list by chapter.  I stressed that they were not summarizing the chapter. Simply listing the action found in it.  Then I had them email me the outlines before I started reading.

Those were the instructions and everyone in the class tackled the exercise just fine so I’m confident all of you can do the same.

I’d take a quick glance at the by-chapter outline and as an agent, I’d know what was wrong with the manuscript before I even hit the first page and started reading. I would then read the document to confirm what I already knew. One hundred percent of the time I was right.  I’d say 90% of what we see on submission has these issues so it’s definitely worth taking forty minutes to do this exercise with a writing partner that you trust.

Because the two main culprits that will nix you getting a full manuscript request are these:

1) The work is missing a plot catalyst to really start the story (so there is a lot going on action-wise but no actual story unfolding).

2) There is nothing at stake for the main character.

Happy revising!