Query Tips

The Evolving Client List: Notes From A Literary Agent

I can see it. A break in the deluge, a light at the end of the tunnel. A clearing of the slush. Am climbing determinedly for it. I vowed I would not reopen to submissions, until I had responded to every last sub in all of my inboxes (yes, I said inboxes plural, writers have interesting ways of worming into every contact I have). It’s down to a handful of submissions, and these are the ones that I have been hanging onto for far too long. One or two will hopefully result in an offer, at last. But I have to face the heartbreaking reality that I must let most go. I can only take on a few more clients this year, and I need to make myself available for submitting authors once again.

So why would I suddenly make an offer on something I’ve had for months and months? And why would I open to submissions when I already have a full client list, plus some great submissions on hand?

An agent’s client list, both the current and seeking, ebbs and flows. Even mine–despite the fact that I tend to keep clients for multiple projects meaning less and less room for new clients–still morphs month to month. This is in response to a few factors, the ever-changing market, the evolution of my literary tastes, and the statuses of my current clients. For example, although I love love love YA (young adult) high fantasy, it’s super saturated and hard to sell right now, plus I have a large handful of clients who write in the genre. So where I was once eagerly reading all the YA fantasy, now I’m much more selective. On the flip side, MG (middle grade) is seeing a surge, and I’ve recently read more than a few really inspiring MG stories, e.g. THE GIRL WHO DRANK THE MOON, which has made me hungrier for it. I wasn’t into adult thrillers a few years ago, but then I read some of the popular ones that came out, e.g. THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN and found myself ready to sign one, but way after the market had peaked. Thus I’m seeking that super high-concept yet unique thriller that would be hard for a newer author to pull off. I’m a big fan of lady pirates, but a current client totally by coincidence pitched me a lady pirate fantasy and so I’m no longer looking for one. And so on and so on.

To make matters more confusing, I keep the projects that I saw potential in, because maybe in the future my client list will open up or the market will shift.

But it’s impossible for submitting authors to know any of this happening behind the scenes. Their best guess would be to check out the agent’s social media and watch the market. And agents understand this. We’re pretty happy if you’ve simply done a bit of research on us.

We wade into the slushpile, hoping for that one manuscript that fits the market and our current tastes and that we fall in love with. Not too much to ask right?

All this to say: I’m getting my waders ready. Hoping to open again to submissions this summer.

Mary C. MooreOctober 17, 2017

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Is Your Story Unique? – Slushpile Notes

Image courtesy of JD Hancock

Part of a literary agent’s job is, sadly, “crushing dreams.” With every rejection I send I know I am causing real pain to another person out there. Joey Franklin stated in his fantastic Poets & Writers article Submit That Manuscript! Why Sending Out Your Work Is So Important, “Neuroscientists have actually identified similarities between our response to rejection and our response to physical pain.” I was equally in total agreement and completely horrified. I’ve had reactions to rejections that lasted hours if not days. But I also send rejections on an almost daily basis. My submission karma is not looking good.

Franklin goes on to express why submitting is so important. It’s a part of the necessary evolution and development of your writing. You need your dreams crushed so you can pick them up again and make them stronger. Ignorance is bliss, but it won’t get you published (in most cases).

In my desire to help writers, I can be harsh with my advice, as if by doing so I’m saving them from the inevitable rejection pain that comes from their ignorance. I still haven’t figured out if this approach is misguided, but sometimes I can’t help it. A few weeks ago I was on a panel and a writer asked, “How can we balance picking out comparable titles yet staying true to our story because it’s too different, unique.”

I looked her straight in the eye and replied, “Trust me. Your story is not unique.”

Woah. I knew instantly it was a bit much, a knee-jerk response. It’s because I hear that all the time, “My story doesn’t have any comparable works.” or “What I’ve written is beyond compare.” etc. It makes me angry when writers seem to ignore the magnitude of what makes up the literary canon. I have to remind myself that in their inexperience, they really do think there aren’t any stories like theirs on the shelf or in the submission pile. (Fyi, there are dozens if not hundreds of other stories with similar concepts to yours in slushpiles around the world.) Usually I try to be gentler with my advice, so they hear me and don’t shut down into defensive mode. Because the more aware a writer is of how wide and sweeping the literary world is, the better they can navigate it.

Luckily, and to my embarrassment, the agent next to me chimed in to ease the tension. She used a word which resonated with me and the room full of writers. Fresh.

Stories, by their nature, are repetitive:

But yours can be a fresh take.

Take a story about a superhero who saves the world. How many times have you read that one? I bet you’re rolling your eyes right now. Me too. So how did a movie with that same old story make over 200 million dollars world-wide opening weekend just this year? Because it was fresh. Wonder Woman was a superhero movie starring a female superhero, directed by another female. Gasp. (Sad that in 2017 this is considered fresh, but we’ll save that rant for another time. Throw in the argument that a female screenplay writer should have been involved, and my head might explode.)

So how do you know you are writing something fresh? By reading, reading, reading. Then writing, writing, writing. Then submitting, submitting, submitting. And all over again. Writing is an apprenticeship. The more you read, write, and submit, the more you learn. You learn to recognize the commonality of stories and writing. You begin to see the building blocks which all books are built on and the mythologies that have supported stories for a millennia. You come to understand what is universal truth versus lazy stereotypes. And your vision shows in your writing. You are able to take a story and make it your own, put a new spin on a tired tale.

So perhaps your story is not unique. But it can be fresh.

Do Literary Agents Reject Your Submission After Reading One Line?

I often get asked, “what makes you auto-reject a submission?” This is difficult to respond to as the answer is complicated and multi-layered. There isn’t a magical rule that will somehow make your submission “safe” from being discarded after the first glance. Anything from personal taste, to current list space, to the market can factor into a quick rejection. This is why a chorus of agents and editors and published writers are always singing “don’t take rejection personally.” Easier said than done, right?

There are many things you can do to ensure your submission has the best chance of being considered further. There are posts upon posts on how to write a decent query (including one of my own). Follow each agency’s submission rules, know your comparable titles, have an online presence, present yourself as an appealing client, and so on.

Of course none of this matters if the sample pages fail to reel us in. If your pitch does happen to snag my interest, I’m reading the sample. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve passed the query auto-rejection phase. Congratulations! But now those pages have to hold my interest. Yes, I have rejected a submission based on the first sentence and yes, it happens more often than I’d like. But how could you possibly know from the first line? you ask.

Because it’s our job to know.

Sounds arrogant, sure. Believe me, I’ve been there on the other side, thinking it wasn’t fair that agents claimed they rejected a sub based on that first line. But after years of reading the slushpile, editing manuscripts, shopping clients, etc., I’ve been trained to see the level of prose based off that first line. Other agents will tell you the same.

That opening line tells us multiple things about your manuscript. A few examples:

  1. There’s a grammar/spelling/typo mistake
    • you’re inexperienced with basic writing rules or
    • you’re lazy and don’t proofread or
    • you’re impatient and don’t proofread
  2. It’s a poorly constructed sentence
    • same as above
  3. Your character is waking up
    • This is done all the time. It shows your inexperience.
  4. Rhetorical question
    • You have to get the reader to care first before asking them a question. Indicates you may not understand narrative characterization yet.
  5. Your character is running/fighting/breathing hard
    • We don’t know your character yet, so we don’t care what action they are doing. Shows you may not be able to create tension without using action.
  6. There’s a dead body (or another cliche)
    • It’s not shocking as we didn’t know the person before they were dead. Plus it’s been done. A lot. This tells us you may write in a lot of cliches.
  7. The weather is being described
    • I did this in my first novel! *cringes. Shows you may not be able to streamline your world-building using only important details.
  8. A vague “deep” philosophical statement is made
    • Same issue as the rhetorical question.
  9. It’s dialogue
    • This one you’ll get other agents that disagree, but I’m not a fan of dialogue-heavy prose, so the first line as dialogue doesn’t go over well with me. Plus you run the risk of “floating head syndrome.”
  10. Your character sighs, purses their lips, looks at something, shrugs, grins, raises their eyebrow or some other filler action
    • I dislike these filler actions in general, but in that first line they are the biggest tension killers of all. If a filler action is used in the first sentence, no doubt the rest of the manuscript is filled with them.

I could teach an entire semester on the first line, and I’m still fairly fresh in the publishing industry. Imagine what editors and agents who have been reading for 20+ years could glean from that sentence.

Of course, the disclaimer, many writers have done all of these things in their first line and their books are hugely successful. I mean hell, the first client I signed and sold did one of them. But in general, these are a few of the reasons I pass on the first line. Before you get too frustrated, hear me out. It’s not a final judgement on your writing. If your opening line causes me to pass on your project, despite being intrigued by your pitch, it’s not that you are a bad writer, it simply means the pages aren’t ready, or that you aren’t ready.

On a sunny note–if you nail it, that first line can result in a request.

Why Submission Response Times Vary So Dramatically: A Literary Agent Breaks It Down

In general, publishing moves slowly (we’re talking molasses). You can be out on submission for months, even years, first with literary agents and then again with publishers. So it can be incredibly frustrating to hear stories of authors getting signed by an agent after two weeks or being picked up by a publisher after three days. You’ve spent years honing your craft, learning the market, and researching industry professionals, while newer, younger authors are celebrating on Twitter or shouting with glee on their blogs about their astonishing and seemingly-instant success, causing you to feel like you’ve been too long in the query trenches, that you’ll never get published.

This is not true. The timing of when/if your manuscript gets picked up depends on many different factors, far too many to fit into one blog post. But a main factor is what kind of appeal your manuscript has. I like to break it down into three types: *note, these categories are assigned given that the manuscripts are well-written, evenly-paced, and tightly-plotted

Market Hot 🔥🔥🔥

These are the stories that happen to hit the right note on the market. They are timely, they are polished, and the author has managed to leverage it to be visible to multiple agents and editors at one time, i.e. on Twitter pitch sessions (#PitMad, #DVpit, etc.), at a conference/contest, Pitch Wars, and so on. These are the authors with multiple agent offers after only a week on submission. The reason these get snatched up so quickly is agents know they are hot. There is a distinct advantage to being the first to make an offer, and if that’s not possible, someone else will offer soon, and so an agent has to read it fast or risk being left in the dust when the fight is over. And when the dust clears, often that same manuscript ends up selling at auction with publishers not long after, while those agents that lost out quietly weep over ice cream.

The odds of your submission falling in this category are slim. There are only a few a year. But given the excitement they generate, these are the stories you hear the loudest. Try not to compare yourself to this. Dream big always, but be kind to yourself as the path to publication is long and hard for most.

Heart Novel ❤️❤️❤️

These are the manuscripts that land smack in the middle of an agent’s MSWL (manuscript wish list) but aren’t necessarily market hot. These stories are the reason most of us got into the business. For example, I’m dying for an adult upmarket expansive historical romance set in a Mexican hacienda, with thoughtful social commentary layered into it, written by a latina/indigenous author. Or a northern California fantasy full of local magic, cryptozoology, weed, and redwoods. This is super specific to me and my tastes, not to the market. If one of these landed in my inbox, you bet I would read it quickly and if it was good make an offer pretty damn fast. Not because I know competition will be tight, not because I have a list of editors the length of my arm to send it to, but because it’s a story I believe in, a story that touches my heart.

These are also rare (I’ve signed one in three years) and may not hit the publishers the same way. Maybe the heart novel gets an agent quickly, but could be on submission to publishers for months/years. Maybe the agent sells the client’s next work, waiting until the client makes a name before selling the heart novel. That your ms will hit exactly what the agent is looking for is far-fetched, although your odds increase exponentially with the more research you do on each agent. At least if your project comes close, it will definitely make us pay attention.

Dark Horse 🌚🌚🌚

Finally this category is probably where your manuscript lands. The unknowns. The slushpile. The surprise. Most agents after a drink or two will tell you they didn’t know they wanted that particular submission until it landed on their desk. Of course you want to aim for the right genre and reader age range that the agent represents, but within that the potential is vast and varied. I had no idea I wanted a cozy mystery series starring a veterinarian or a military space adventure with an unreliable narrator. I fell in love after they were submitted to me . The response times on these can be weeks, to months to even a year or so depending on the agent’s workload, the ever-changing market, and available space on their client list. There may be R&Rs (revise and resubmit) and phone conversations without an offer. It could even end with the heart-breaking “this is good but I didn’t fall in love,” rejection. The potential to be a Dark Horse is why your query is so important. You have to convince the agent that yours is the manuscript they never knew they wanted, that you are a writer who will win the race. You don’t have that bit of leeway that the market hot and heart novels have. Just by circumstance, they’ve already gotten the agent to read with an open heart and willing mind. We do not do this by default. The slushpile has made us into cynics. Your manuscript must be impressively polished. Because the agent is still skeptical. Your query intrigued us, but we go into it expecting it to not be ready. Please, surprise us.

And, if your writing impresses us, then worst case scenario we can’t sell this manuscript, we know we can develop your next one together and it will have a much higher chance of being at least a little market hot. The largest percentage of my clients are Dark Horses. One was even two years from initial submission to my actual offer!

So keep on writing and keep on submitting. Everyone has space on their list for the Dark Horse, even if their path to publication is molasses slow.

Does Your Book Crossover? – Genre Breakdown

I recently had the pleasure of participating in a Q&A on Twitter for authors via the wonderful #ontheporch community. It’s a hashtag for writers about writing run by these two lovely writers:

 and 

The theme for the hour was “Writing Commercial Fiction” and the discussion was both fun and fast.

I realized, as I often do during Q&A sessions with authors, how much information I take for granted as a literary agent. I have learned so much on the other side of the desk, and it’s easy to forget how mysterious it all seemed once upon a time. One particular question that appeared to cause a lot of anxiety was whether or not a manuscript fell into the “crossover genre.” Writers were unsure what crossover meant, yet they had heard it was important that their manuscript achieved that status. I’d be pretty anxious too!

So, to clarify. Crossover isn’t a genre, it’s an adjunct of the genre, and it’s used as a label in publishing mainly for marketing purposes. In a literal sense, your manuscript is crossover when it “crosses over” from one genre to the next, e.g. a thriller in an urban fantasy setting. Publishers love crossovers because they can potentially be bought by fans of both genres, i.e. it “crosses over” to different audiences, which means…

Crossover can also pertain to the type of writing, e.g. you’ve written a romance but the language is so elevated it could be considered upmarket or even literary. In these cases the term crossover is often dropped and occasionally the commercial genre label is dropped as well, and instead it’s referred to “upmarket” or “bookclub” fiction.

The most common use of the term crossover (and where the most confusion seems to happen) is referring to the age range of the reader. In particular YA (young adult) novels are considered crossover when the publisher is hoping to reach not only teenage readers, but adult readers as well. For example, The Hunger Games was read widely by both kids and adults, and its crossover appeal is what drove a lot of its popularity. In the technical sense the reverse is possible, i.e. adult books can crossover to kids, but this is far less common, and not used in marketing. When pitching a crossover in age range, it’s always in terms of aging up, e.g. a middle grade that can appeal to young adults, YA to adults, etc.

So what does this all mean for you the author? Knowing if your manuscript is crossover or not, shows a better understanding of the market, which can only further help your submission. Unsure? Then stick to your main genre and reader age. An agent can spot a crossover even if it’s not stated as such. But if you do claim it’s a crossover and it’s not, then that may cause the agent to believe that you don’t understand the market you’re writing for or that you are trying to overcompensate for something lacking in the writing itself. This won’t kill your submission necessarily, but it won’t help.

Hope this helps and happy writing!

Mistakes in the Slushpile: Filter Verbs

I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Unreliable Narrators for a podcast. They asked some in depth questions: what’s a typical day in the life of a literary agent, advice for writers, book recommendations etc. so be sure to check it out to hear my answers.

One of the questions I continued to think about the next day. They were curious to know what is the most common mistake I see in the slushpile. This is difficult to answer as the slushpile is constantly morphing and changing, and I didn’t want to give the usual answer that writers hear all the time like:

  • query is misaddressed or agent’s name is misspelled
  • it’s the wrong genre for that particular agent
  • spelling/grammar errors in query
  • prologue or slow opening line
  • word count is too high or too low

(These are incredibly common.)

What I settled on was the overall truth that… most writers query too soon. They submit their work before it has been fully polished. And a major aspect of that polish is getting rid of the words that cause distance between the narrator and the reader, also known as filter language.

Filter language is typically those pesky overused verbs that inexperienced writers use to inform the reader what the protagonist is experiencing, i.e. “I saw” or “he felt” or “she knew” (hear, think, hope, touch, realize, wonder, look, seem etc.). These verbs are largely unnecessary as we the reader are experiencing the story through the eyes of the character, thus we don’t need to be told the character is seeing something, we should simply see it, e.g. “She saw his dark cape swoosh.” vs “His dark cape swooshed.” A fully polished manuscript will have eliminated many if not all of these filters, bringing the reader closer to the story thus strengthening the odds it will catch their interest. As the most important aspect in a submission is catching the attention of the agent (just as the final product must catch the attention of the potential reader) you can imagine just how important the removal of filter verbs is.

For those of you scrambling to hit search all in your document right now, I say great, but take a moment to consider perhaps this manuscript that you wrote full of filter verbs isn’t the one. When I said writers submit their work too soon, I meant they as a creative entity, not just that single manuscript. You are an apprentice, your first completed novel gets you into the mail room at the bottom floor. Don’t set such high expectations of yourself that you will be the CEO in a year. This will only serve to discourage, as you will be faced with certain rejection and disappointment. Keep growing, evolving, studying, and learning your craft. So when you read a post like this you won’t be scrambling, rather nodding along (hopefully not too smugly). At that point, you are likely ready to submit. And I will be ready to read when you are.

Write on.

Mary C. MooreJanuary 25, 2017

 

The San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC) is hosting an auction with proceeds benefitting both the San Francisco Writers Foundation and the social justice organization EveryLibrary. There are some wonderful items up for grabs including a full manuscript critique by Fuse literary agent Tricia Skinner and and the first 25-50 pages critique by my KC&A colleague Amy Cloughley.

 

I’ve donated a query letter and first 10 pages critique. Literary agents often ask for your first 10 pages when you submit your query. This is why the beginning of your novel is so important. Get in-depth and personalized feedback on your query and first 10 pages if you win this item. It’s already gotten 38 bids! There’s still 24 hours left to bid and donate to this wonderful cause. Visit the SFWC auction page for more information.

Click to bid here.