Mark your calendars, I’m hosting a live webinar for Writer’s Digest on Thursday, June 14 at 1pm EDT. We will be discussing reader immersion, natural world-building, and polishing your writing all through a SFF lens. And bonus, there’s a 750 word critique! For more details and to sign up click the link below:
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.
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.
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.