Slushpile

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.

Comparable Titles: Why Literary Agents Want Them

Comparable titles, agents love ’em, writers hate ’em.

They are a required part of my submission form, so I’ve seen the gambit of writers attempting to get out of answering the question. Multiple “n/a,” several “I don’t know,” and more than I care to count of “my manuscript has no comparable.” Even had annoyed emails asking why agents ask writers to jump through so many hoops.

There is a staggering amount of advice on how to query agents online, including how to choose your comparable titles. Search “comparable titles query” and multiple posts by successful writers and legitimate agents pop up.

Rather than regurgitate this easily accessible information, I’ll focus on what comps mean to me when considering a submission.

Whittling down submissions is like any other job application process, first the applicant has to meet the bottom line. I developed my submission form to ensure those that queried me already fit the mold of clients I’m looking for. It’s not a perfect system, but it works for the most part. I do have the occasional chuckle at some of the gaffes I’ve seen especially, as mentioned above, with the answers to the comparable titles section. Don’t worry though, there is only one answer to this section that will actually get you an auto-reject. To win this distinction you have to be an author who claims there is no comparable to your book, i.e. your manuscript is totally unique.

Not only is this not true, it’s incredibly egotistical on the part of the author, and that kind of ego is not one I want to work with. Close behind these “one of a kind” types are writers who say they are the next big franchise series, e.g. “My book is the next Harry Potter.” Perhaps it’s not their ego, but they might have the expectation that they will make the kind of money JK Rowlings does. And their agent will be expected to fulfill this dream or die trying under a mountain of anxious and demanding emails.

Answers such as “n/a” or “I don’t know” may not win you any points, but I won’t toss your sub. I will assume however that you are either lazy (not a great first impression) or unknowledgeable about the publishing industry (which makes me wary as I’m looking for long-term clients i.e. understand the time it takes to get published and the professional demands of being an author).

Moving on to authors who actually come up with comp book titles. First, thank you for trying. It is appreciated.

Those of you who use my clients’ work as comps. Clever idea, however be aware that I know these works more intimately than almost anything else on the shelves. I’ve helped edit, revise, flesh out characters, even out pacing, catch plot holes, develop marketing copy, title it and so on and so on. If you’re using one of them as a comp, be damn sure you’ve read it and your manuscript really does compare. Because I sure as hell will. . . and kudos for having the cajones. 

Then there’s the chart-toppers like Divergent and Game of Thrones. These are over-used, and will not give your sub any distinction. I guarantee the past five fantasy submissions used GoT as a comp, so I’ll just glaze over these. Or there’s the old, even out-dated comps like Wicked or The Hobbit. I don’t mind these as much as many agents seem to, it at least shows me the author knows vaguely who their target audience is. What prevents old comps from adding to your submission package is that the odds that I know the editor are slim, and the imprint that first published these books may not be publishing similar books currently or may even be defunct.

Because that’s really why agents want to see comparable titles. If they are good, nay great, comps, then they will give us an instant idea of who and where to send it to. Recent books like The Star-Touched Queen and Certain Dark Things have both been mentioned or reviewed by me online. I know the editors of these books and I know the imprints that published them. If your book is comparable, then you have honed in on the right agent.

Mexico City vampires! Can’t wait to read this. #bookstagram #diadelosmuertos 💀💀💀

A photo posted by Mary C. Moore (@marycmoore) on


Not that I’m expecting you to stalk my social media or have perfect knowledge of what I’ve read recently. But if you write in the genre I represent and you choose comps that are moderately successful titles from the past year or two in that genre, chances are I’ve read them or at least heard of them and so know who published them. (If not, that’s on me.)

In closing, if you use recently published successful books as comps, they can really make your submission stand out of the pile. But if you don’t manage that, it’s okay. I’ll still consider your submission.

Why Your Full Is Taking So Long: Confessions of a Literary Agent

Back in my own submitting days there was nothing quite so agonizing yet exciting about the wait while a literary agent considered my full manuscript. And wait I did, for one in particular. Wait. wait. wait. Until finally, I nervously nudged, it had been six months and everyone said it was okay to nudge, so it was okay right? A few days later there it was, the response. Breathless, heart fluttering, I opened the email and…

…form rejection.

Now on the other side of that desk, I have tried hard to be gentle with authors. Queries not for me are form-rejected as quickly as possible and rejections to a full manuscript are personalized to the best of my ability (it’s a difficult balance, because I don’t want to steer the author in the wrong direction editorially and sometimes reasons for passing are simply subjective). But for all my good intentions, the slushpile is a mean mothaf*cker and right now it’s winning. The average amount of submissions I get per day hovers around 15 and is not showing any signs of slowing. My patience and empathy are waning with each badly written query, obviously in the wrong genre submission, or snarky response to my form letter. And I’m slipping into that dreaded hole, the one where I hang onto manuscripts for far too long. I’ve tried requesting less, but there’s that feeling of “if I read just a bit more, I’ll know if I want it or not.”

The reality is, I’ve always got my hands full with client work, and my clients come first. I’m busy editing and shopping their manuscripts, and until I sell another one, I’m hesitant to take on anyone new. I’ve also always got a few potentials that I’ll have been working with over the last year or so and have yet to sign, but all indications point to I probably will. BUT I also don’t want to let go of that small, but ever-growing pile of manuscripts in my inbox. I know there’s a gem in there, I can feel it. But it wouldn’t be possible to sign all of them. So sometimes I’ll go into one, thinking I’ll come up with a reason to pass, but then I find myself 50 pages in, mentally editing it, and have to put it down because I don’t have the time right now to edit a full manuscript that isn’t one of my client’s and besides I’ve already got five or six R&Rs floating out there. I know it would be kinder to simply pass with a form rejection early, rather then sit on them for months at a time, but then I remember the heartbreak I went through and I can’t bring myself to do it. So these fulls languish there, and their authors patiently wait, and wait, and wait…

…at least I hope I can do better for them than a form rejection. But there’s definitely a guilty little gremlin voice in my head who whispers, “you now understand those other agents’ point of view and wish you could just do the same.”

The slushpile is turning me into a mean mothaf*cker.

I hope this confession inspires those of you waiting on a submission response to move forward. Write your next story, and keep pitching your current project in any way you can. Don’t pin your hopes on an agent who has your full, because it could be a long wait.

And maybe, just maybe, if said agent can pull her shit together or sell another book or two, she’ll come back to your manuscript that’s been there for the past 8 months and actually have the space in her head to fall in love with it.

Titling Your Manuscript For Submission: An Agent Weighs In

Artwork by Marcus Connor at Brainless Tales

A quick Google search will bring up a host of useful articles with tips on how to title your novel. Rather than regurgitate the information already easily available, this post will dig into my own personal (and I like to think professional) point of view and focus on those books that are in the manuscript phase, i.e. soon to be out on submission or wallowing in the slushpile.

As I evolve and grow into my occupation, I am surprised by how much I am continually learning and changing. Writing rules that I believed were absolutes in my first year are now not as important to me as writers who have clear longterm career goals. Genres/writing styles that I once thought to be marketable fall behind as marketing trends point me in a different direction. And the amount of time I spend on each submission, has dramatically fallen. Before you get indignant, hear me out. I know, more than ever before, what type of client I’m looking for and what kinds of projects I want. Eighty-five percent of the time I can tell from the query alone that we are not a good match. The other fifteen? Those will eventually get a closer look. They will queue in my inbox (hopefully not too long), waiting for the day I can muster up a few hours to examine them. When that day comes, first I have to recall why the submission is sitting there. Perhaps the author’s website or bio impressed me. Maybe their opening pages caught my interest or their particular writing style intrigued me. But if I have difficulty pinning down why I kept it, odds are I will pass. If it didn’t stick with me after percolating awhile, then I move on to those that did.

One of the biggest aspects of a submission that will help it stick in my memory is the title. If I remember the title, most likely I’ll remember the query, the writing, and the reason I’ve kept it around. And I’m going to boldly make the conjecture that most agents and editors would agree with me.

Titles that tend not to stick are those that are hard to pronounce or have made-up words (here’s looking at you SFF writers!). Long titles will be a problem as well, unless it’s a catchy phrase. In general if people give you a “huh” expression when you tell them the name of your book, time to rethink it.

The takeaway from this? Your title shouldn’t be a half-fast decision nor a personal choice (most titles will change a few times through the publishing process anyway, so you don’t want to get attached), rather it should be considered another tool to market your book, a piece of the submission whole package. Research the craft of titling your book as carefully as you are researching the agents you choose to query (operating under the assumption that if you are reading this, you are researching literary agents) and hopefully you will come up with a title will make your submission stand out in the slush.

And, given my baby girl has let me sleep that night, I’ll remember your submission.

Letting That Manuscript Go: An Agent’s Struggle

ice monster

On the surface we agents may seem cold-hearted. We crush dreams on a daily basis after all. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find we truly do care. Sometimes too much. One of the hardest things I face in the slushpile is letting go of manuscripts that I know are good, but I just can’t take on. And the reason is frustrating. There are so many authors out there and so few agents. I just don’t have the space for all of the good ones.

Right now I’ve whittled my submission pile down to 33 full manuscripts. And that’s a win for me. It was at 80. My goal is to have answers for them by the end of August, but I can only take on 1-2 more clients this summer. As I whittle the decisions get harder and harder. Occasionally I can spot a needed revision, pass notes along to the author, and hope that they will take long enough with the edits that by the time they resubmit there is space for them. But more often than not, I have to let it go. I loved it, but not enough. Perhaps it was a bit too quiet, or the author didn’t have enough of an online presence, or I’ve already got a client with a similar style. All of these seem like silly reasons to pass, but they are reason enough. And so, with a sadly inadequate letter, I say goodbye, hoping that the author will persevere and find a home for their writing.

Then I turn around and submit my clients’ work to editors who are faced with the same damn dilemma. Who not only have to fall in love but also have to make the decision to champion the manuscript, fight for it in acquisitions and convince others, such as marketing, to take it on. So no surprise agents get a lot of rejections too.

This business can be heartbreaking, causing us agents to form an icy defensive layer. But we are not cold-hearted. We wouldn’t be in this if we didn’t love books and the artists who create them. I hope this perspective, for those of you in the query trenches, inspires you that we are cheering you on even as we let it go.

let it go

Write Tip: Character Eye Color

We all want our characters to be special, unique, stand out from the crowd. And often writers attempt to achieve this, in part, by giving them “piercing” or “soulful” or “wide” eyes of a lovely shade of blue, ice, green, violet, hazel, etc. Basically any color except that plain old brown.

Elizabeth Taylor was famous for her “violet” eyes. Is your character as fabulous as Liz Taylor?

But if you were given a peek into the slushpile, you would be a bit embarrassed to realize by giving your character such special eyes, you’ve actually made them quite ordinary. If we were to postulate eye color statistics based off of characters in submissions, the world would be made up of mostly green and blue-eyed persons with a good chunk of beauteous hazel/violet-eyed gals in one corner and steely, silver/amber-eyed hunks in another. (There would also be a looot of white people, but that’s a post for another day.)

I may sound like a broken record at this point, but write with awareness. Don’t default to the easy way. Your character’s uniqueness should not be shown through their eye color but rather through the situation they are in (the plot) and how they handle it. Their looks are a part of who they are, but not what makes them stand out. Their appearance should be realistic, for many reasons, number one so many different readers can relate to them.

This is not a rule, just a suggestion to consider. Unless their eye color is super important to the story (for example Alanna’s violet eyes in the Song of the Lioness series. Her magic is purple to match, and the blue-eyed prince’s magic is blue) consider defaulting to brown, especially when there are many characters in the story. Because brown eyes can still be attractive, unique, special, windows to the soul, etc. (full discloser, my eyes are brown). And because statistics.

Percentage of eye color in the world according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology:

  • brown 55%
  • blue 8%
  • hazel 8%
  • green 2%
  • silver (rare)
  • amber (quite rare)
  • violet (extremely rare)

TWO PERCENT OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION HAS GREEN EYES. Something to think about. *While we are at it, two percent are red heads too. So that gorgeous green-eyed woman with the rich red hair? Reconsider. (I’m looking at you, romance writers!)

Love to hear opinions on this, agree, disagree?

Rejections – Slow Personal vs Quick Form – Writers Weigh In

Artwork by Shugo rai

In the life of a literary agent, the submission pile is a never-ending weight on our shoulders. As I write this, I have around 80 requested full manuscripts awaiting my response. But I’m looking to sign only two clients by the end of the summer, maybe three. So obviously 70+ are going to have to be rejected. And in my particular case, I feel a lot of guilt over the manuscripts that I can’t decide on. The ones that sit in my inbox for more than three months. I know what it’s like to be a writer with a novel on submission, how exciting a full request is and how heartbreaking a pass is on that full after months of hopeful waiting. So I can’t bring myself to send a form response to those writers that I’ve requested fulls from, especially when I’ve sat on them for so long. Which means I take even longer to respond because I want to add a personal touch to my response, a reason I am passing but yet an encouraging note over that. I assumed all authors felt the same way. But you know what they say about people who assume…

Almost half voted for a quick form rejection! This made me seriously rethink my strategy. Perhaps there is a middle ground? A form letter that has been tweaked? What do you think? Would love comments and further opinions on this as I continue to evolve my submission pile strategy.

How to Format Your Fiction Submission

owl
When the sample is formatted poorly, it does not motivate us to read it.

Digging through the slushpile is hard work. For every query an agent answers, two more come in. We must get through them quickly or risk drowning, so as horrifying as it may be, often those that are formatted poorly go straight to the rejection pile. In the interest of giving your submission a fighting chance out above the hundreds of others, your best bet is to have a clean concise query letter and a well-formatted writing sample.

This particular post focuses on how to format your sample writing. First, remember that your sample/partial or full manuscript is a draft, not a published piece, so you are looking to create pages that are stripped down to just the writing. You want the quickest and cleanest read for the reader without all the fancy parts. (And yes this is true of picture books too!) Here are some tips on how to format your sample correctly.

First page:

  • Top left hand corner has your name, contact information (address, phone, email, and website)
  • Top right hand corner has the word count of the ENTIRE novel, not of the sample
  • A few spaces down has the title
  • Directly following is the opening line of your manuscript
  • Do not include a table of contents, an acknowledgments page, quotes, title page, or any other front matter. It is unnecessary and simply takes the reader longer to reach that important first line.

Body:

  • Double spaced
  • First line of each paragraph should have a 0.5 indentation
  • Simple font, (Times New Roman or Arial are safest), black, 12pt, you may use italics or bold for emphasis, but avoid using colors, different fonts etc.
  • Page number, title, your last name in the top right header
  • Do not include images, fancy headers, or blank pages between chapters. Do not use underline for italics or double spaces after a period (these are outdated).

There are reasons for these formatting requirements, if you don’t know them ask in the comments. Samples of a front page and body page below.

Clean Manuscript Format Front Page

Clean Manuscript Format Body Page

In Defense of the Form Rejection

I recently wrote a short story, my first in over a year. Inspiration struck and I listened.

Unlike novel writing, short stories are short-term rewarding because you reach “the end,” while you are still loving that muse whispering in your ear. I was particularly excited about this story, as I knew exactly which magazine I was going to submit it to. A few years ago, said magazine had rejected another story of mine, but with glowing praise and a request to see more of my work. I kept that in mind, because this magazine is a professionally paying market and one that would be quite a feather in my writing resume. Thus after some furious late nights, anxious waiting for the beta reads to come back, and a lot of editing, I sent off my beautiful 3k-word gem to this magazine.

Another rather sweet aspect of short stories is these days most magazines use submission software. This means you can stalk, I mean track, your submissions. And, at least in the SciFi/Fantasy professional market, many of them have fairly quick turn around times. This is in part because they don’t allow simultaneous subs in part because the stories are shorter. Altogether it’s a much quicker and less frustrating process than novel submissions.

So a week full of checking the website later, there it was, that email. I took a deep breath and opened it to find… a form rejection letter.

The range of emotions that followed is one every writer is familiar with. But there was one more. Understanding. Working for a literary agency, I’ve sent out hundreds of form rejection letters over the years. And recently I opened up my own inbox to queries. In the beginning I tried to make each response a bit personal, a note here, a comment there. I knew what it was like to be on the other side, and that experience pushed me to communicate personally as much as I could, especially if the writing had potential. However, I discovered, to my dismay, that the majority of personal rejections were not appreciated, in fact they were often responded to with a “could you clarify this?” or “can you take this further?” or “what can I edit to change your mind?”

My personal notes were not received as the compliments they were meant to be, but rather as an opening for an editorial conversation. One that I had to ignore. It made me feel guilty, not continuing the conversations, but there is not enough time in an agent’s schedule to answer every author question that floats through our inbox. I was also spending more time coming up with ways to make the reason I was passing on the project sound nice and encouraging and editorially useful, rather than focusing my energy on considering each submission carefully. Which made me reluctant to open my inbox. I had burned out. Thus more and more I found myself responding with a form rejection, both in the interest of time and clear communication. My defense of the form rejection:

  • It’s a clear answer.
  • You receive said answer faster.
  • It’s less emotional.
  • It helps prevent slushpile burnout, so the agent/reader can focus on what’s important, considering the submission itself, rather than coming up with something to say in response to it.
  • The form rejection helps to keep expectations in check.

I know most authors who don’t do their research don’t understand this, because they don’t see the other side. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard writers say, “it couldn’t be that hard to respond to a query!” Let me tell you, yes, yes it can.

Every once in a while, if the writing jumps out at me, or if I’ve met the author in person, I will still respond personally, but for the most part I’ve become a fan of the form rejection. Sure you could argue that if I hadn’t gotten that personal response back in the day, I wouldn’t have been as eager to submit to the magazine, but I also wouldn’t have had as high of hopes. At least you can take comfort in the knowledge that I’m getting them as good as I’m giving them. We all just have to keep on keeping on. My so-called gem of a short story is already sunk into another slushpile.

*All artwork by street graffiti artist Banksy.

Follow me on Twitter @Mary_C_Moore for more tips and updates on queries and the slushpile.

 

 

 

Rejection and Publishing

Rejection, it’s a word all writers loathe and fear. I myself have been rejected as an author by zines, agents, editors, workshops, and readings. It’s a difficult road, and I feel for the thousands of writers that pass through our slushpile everyday. It’s hard not to take each rejection like an arrow to the heart and I’ve seen writers who have become bitter, angry, sad, and then broadcast it online. They vent their frustration, believing they have been wronged, calling publishers, editors, agents alike nasty names and blaming them personally for the rejections.

One of the most important things I have learned since entering the other side of publishing is that rejection is not personal. Publishing is first and foremost, a business. The people within publishing love books (they have to, for it is rarely a lucrative career), but they are not artists per say, so they are looking at each submission with a practical eye. For example, as beautiful as your prose may be, if the book is hundreds of thousands of words long, an agent knows that a publisher will not probably not pick it up because to publish a book that large costs more money. No one is saying the writer is a bad writer for having a long book, it just means the writer probably doesn’t understand the business side of publishing and is likely inexperienced.

So if you are like the average writer and wish to have a financially successful career, do your research, know the business and understand that it’s similar to any other job. Your first project is your entry-level resume. You’re going to have to submit it to as many places as you can, be rejected or ignored, and even if you do get hired, you won’t be the CEO within the year. But if you keep honing your craft by going to school or workshops or conferences, doing online research, critical reading and practicing writing, just as you would invest in another career, your odds of success become much higher.

And you will see that rejection is just business as usual.