Slushpile

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¬†ūüĒ•ūüĒ•ūüĒ•

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¬†‚̧ԳŹ‚̧ԳŹ‚̧ԳŹ

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¬†ūüĆöūüĆöūüĆö

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.

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 ūüíÄūüíÄūüíÄ

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