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.
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.
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.
#QueryTip = great comparable titles are: published in the past 2-3 years by major publishing houses and have a clear relation to your story.
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.
For instance, if you compare your book to #FSOG, agents may wonder if it’s a real comp, or if you just think your books is BIG #querytip
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
It’s harder than ever for debut books to break into traditional publishing. The struggle is real. And it prompts authors to seek out any and every avenue that will boost their chances. Conferences, webinars, classes, critique partners are all in a writer’s potential arsenal. One of the biggest weapons, and the most dangerous, is the freelance editor. “Will hiring an editor make a difference, and if we did should we mention it in the query?” is a question often posed to agents; which is difficult for us to answer on the spot. One because there are different types of editorial and we aren’t sure what your manuscript needs:
Developmental? An examination of the overall structure/plot/characters/pace etc. Helps a writer find plot holes, fill out flat characters, remove unnecessary tangents, and ensure the story arc is complete. This is the most common type of editorial that agents already do, but if there’s more than a few of these types of issues, it will be rejected.
Copy-editing? An examination of the structure of the prose itself. Helps a writer enhance their prose line by line, streamlining sentences and fleshing out the narrative. If a submission desperately needs this, an agent will pass (unless the project is something they are very specifically seeking or it’s nonfiction). All manuscripts will go through a copy-editing phase before publication, but a basic sound narrative should already be there when submitting.
Proofreading? An examination of grammar and spelling. Helps a writer catch any grammatical or spelling errors. This is the last edit on a manuscript and the first issue noticed by a reader. An agent will not take on a manuscript littered with errors, as they would have to spend valuable time correcting them before submitting it to editors.
Two because, with the internet, the self-publishing revolution, and the economic recession that squeezed the traditional houses, there has been an explosion of freelance editors hanging out their shingle and not all are right for your work. We don’t want to be the one to tell you that you may have wasted your money (if a traditional deal is your goal).
If the author decides to hire an editor, they should tread lightly and do their research.
The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
Although the movie that inspired this title has some gorgeous cinematography, stellar story arc, and an awesome theme song, due to its casual racism and utter lack of female characters, here the Good, Bad, and Ugly have been replaced by real-life badass female wild westerners.*
The Good.Mary Fields, often called “Stagecoach Mary,” was born into slavery around 1832, and after being emancipated at the age of 30, made her way west to Montana. Fields, who was very tall and extremely strong, worked as a general handyman and laborer at a school for Native American girls. She had a reputation for being strong, blunt, and more than willing to get in fights with people who annoyed her. At one point the local medical examiner claimed, she had “broken more noses than any other person in central Montana.”
Hiring a freelance editor can absolutely help whip your manuscript into shape. With the right editor, your story will be polished until it gleams, trad-publishing-ready, thus appealing to agents. How to find these miracle workers? Look for editors who are experienced publishing professionals in your genre. They have either worked as an editor for one of the traditional houses for a few-plus years or they are a traditionally-published successful author. They may even be literary agents (but be careful, more on this under The Bad). If they do not have the prerequisite publishing experience, then they will have a resume of books that they edited which have gone on to be successfully published. These editors are costly, but they will give you the highest odds of producing a manuscript that will eventually make it to the top. Often agencies will have a list of these editors on hand that you can ask for if an agent shows interest in your work. If you work with one of these editors, then yes, definitely mention it in the query letter.
The Bad.From a young age, Laura Bullion was destined to be an outlaw. Her father was a bank robber, and while working as a prostitute in Texas she joined the Wild Bunch gang, where she ran with outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Bullion helped the gang with their robberies, and came to be known as “Rose of the Wild Bunch.” Bullion would help sell the stolen items, forge checks, and is suspected to have disguised herself as a man to help with heists.
These editors you want to avoid at all costs. They are predators eager to take advantage of the vulnerable author. If an editor solicits you and/or promises you will be published at their “house” after hiring them, it’s probably a vanity press scheme. If an agent offers to edit your manuscript, claiming they will represent you after you’ve paid them for said editing, this goes against AAR’s (Association of Authors’ Representatives) Canon of Ethics. If an agent pressures you to work with a freelance editor and is insistent on a specific company, or an editor claims they can get you signed by a specific agent, be wary.** This is an old scam in which the agent gets a kickback from sending authors to said editor and visa versa. A quick online search of any suspicious person with “scam” in the search line will usually bring up red flags right away. Also be sure to check out Writer Beware on the SFWA website. They are constantly updating publishing scams to watch out for.
The Ugly.Eleanor Dumont was called Madame Moustache because of her appearance later in life. But when she was young, she was regarded as exceedingly beautiful. Dumont first made her reputation as a gambler in San Francisco in 1849, determined to cash in on the California Gold Rush. Her casino in Nevada City was a success, and led to Dumont opening a second casino with additional games of chance. After the Gold Rush subsided, Dumont bought a ranch, but lost her fortune when she fell in love with a con man named Jack McKnight. When he sold the ranch and absconded with the proceeds, Dumont tracked him down and shot him dead.
These are the editors that are perhaps qualified to edit, but have never edited in the traditional publishing world. MFA students, other writers, English teachers, librarians, etc. fall into this category. To be clear, these are not actually ugly editors (just using the name to make it fit my oh-so-clever blog structure). They are often great proofreaders and much cheaper than The Good. Because of their lower rates, hiring them for a developmental edit over the more expensive experienced editors, is tempting. However, due to their lack of traditional publishing experience, they may not steer your manuscript in the direction someone in the industry would. These editors are more of a financial gamble, and you could be better off finding a critique partner that will do the same work in exchange for a critique from you. But you also may get lucky and stumble on someone who has a natural knack for developmental editing. If you hire one of these editors, it’s not necessary to mention this in the query.
As always, your best weapon is research. Before making a decision to partner financially with anyone in the industry, do your research to determine if they are the best option for your writing career.
**I have recommended on occasion that an author work with a freelance editor because I really loved their story concept, but it needed too much editorial for me to take on. I also have a client who went to an editor on their own after I passed with notes, a year later the manuscript was in fantastic shape. I signed them immediately and sold the manuscript within three months.
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.
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:
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!)
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…
Writers! On your full ms request, would you prefer a quick form rejection or a slow (6+mo) personal? #slushpile
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.
One of the more interesting aspects of our job is receiving a bulk of submissions that seem eerily similar. For instance the other day I read 3 submissions that had cell phones as main characters. I kid you not. But this post is not about the uncommon, but rather about the common.Lately I’ve been seeing quite a few novels open with a birth and although this is not a big bad thing, it didn’t work for any of these submissions.
Before launching that birth scene out into the submissionverse, pause a moment. Is it really necessary? Or is it a result of your subconscious? Three outside factors, not linked to your particular novel, may be the cause of that scene.
One, an opening scene with a birth usually means the mother dies (and very dramatically too). It’s an easy way to both begin your novel with action as well as develop the main character. Usually this main character is a hero of some sorts, and heroes often have tragic childhoods, something they have to overcome to make them stronger, wiser, better. How many famous orphaned heroes do we have in our stories? Batman, the Skywalker twins, Elsa, Potter, the list goes on and on. With so many famous orphans, has this classic storyline seeped into your novel? If so, introduce us to the hero in the beginning, not their parents who are going to die anyway.
Two, a birth signifies a beginning. Are you simply using it because you’re not sure where to start?
Three, and this is more personal, having recently given birth a month ago, I was given the forceful realization just how damn difficult labor and delivery is. It’s a crazy emotional painful rollercoaster that is completely unique. And what do we do as writers? We take life experiences and put them on paper. Write what you know and all that. So it’s not surprising if there is a deep desire to share your experience through the words of your novel. So consider whether the scene is just representing your ego, wishing to share your experience, or if it’s actually necessary to the story.
Ask yourself this. Why did you open your novel with a birth scene? Because more often that not, it’s unnecessary and actually prevents the story from moving forward. That opening scene is so important for laying the groundwork of the story and catching the reader’s interest. Make sure it’s a conscious decision. Because, just as in real life, the main character is not going to remember their birth and subsequently the reader is not going to care about it. So although it’s where their life began, it’s not where the story begins.