I will be on the faculty at the Las Vegas Writers Conference this May 2-4, along with a fantastic group of publishing industry professionals like Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Jessica Watterson and more. I’ll be taking pitches and leading the workshop “Polishing Your Prose to Make it Submission Ready,” which is always a popular one, as it urges you to take a fresh approach to your prose, particularly commercial fiction, before sending it to literary agents.
I recently read an interesting post on Pub(lishing) Crawl by Patrice Caldwell about the importance of shutting out external noise in order to better focus on your writing. (Fyi, Pub Crawl is a fantastic resource for writers. Y’all should be following.) This post really hit home. In particular her discussion of “echo chambers,” and how your support circle can become one, and because of this actually fail to support you. It’s so true, and not just for writers.
As a West Coast literary agent, the majority of my work happens online. Online, the echo chamber becomes more pronounced. On social media I follow and interact with a lot of publishing professionals. My feed is full of success stories, major deal announcements, and “advice to writers.” My mornings are spent browsing Publishers Marketplace and answering NYC-based emails. When I’m not reading submissions, I’m reading those books that recently “made it,” Newberry award winners, Hugo award winners, NYT bestsellers etc. Podcasts such as Print Run and blogs like Pub Crawl and Jane Friedman fill my subscription inbox. It is a lot of cyclical information.
These helpful resources are full of supportive and amazing people.
There is constant competition within this echo chamber. Everyone wants the next big deal, and we want it now. We want to be a part of the exclusive inner circle where magical connections spark best sellers (spoiler, there is no inner circle). Tweets that go viral and books that get buzzy film deals. Instant gratification in an industry that rarely gives anything instantly. It’s a constant tease that there could always be a bigger, better opportunity around the corner.
It’s so easy to lose sight of the reason I became a literary agent.
That love of reading. A passion to bring amazing words to more readers. To champion under-represented voices. To change the world as only literature can. To reach that shy girl who spent her nights with a nose pressed into a book, reading about a world so much bigger than the limited one she was growing up in. That teenager in the throes of hormonal depression reading that she was not alone, that young woman traveling to faraway places because she had been inspired by the words on a page. To the grad student having an internal feminist revolution with experimental fiction, and the new mother fighting drowning in post-partum blues with beautiful prose. They are why I’m here.
It’s important to step away from the noise, to take a breath and remember why we do what we do, as I am reminding myself right now. If you are online (maybe your agent made you start tweeting, so potential editors could stalk you) try to filter the noise the best you can. Go to bookstores and libraries, meet people in person and have face-to-face conversations. Remind yourself that what you see online is only a small piece of the big picture.
Kimberley Cameron & Associates is hosting another Query Boot Camp via Writer’s Digest January 15-18. Get four hours of online time with me or one of our other agents to ask ANY questions you might have about publishing and writing*. Maybe you want to know if dragons make good romantic heroes, or what is the average word count for middle grade, or why you shouldn’t start your novel with the character staring in the mirror even if they’re a zombie. Or perhaps you want a peek behind the curtain on the daily work life of an agent, do we really cackle loudly as we throw queries in the trash and eat unsuspecting new authors for breakfast? I promise an honest and fun forum! There’s an added bonus of a query and sample critique after the course is over. It doesn’t matter if you are ready to query or just putting the first words of your novel down. Click the image below to enroll. Sign up soon as spots fill up!
*If you’re writing nonfiction I recommend requesting to join Elizabeth Kracht’s group as the rest of us don’t represent nonfiction.
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.
I often get asked, “what makes you auto-reject a submission?” This is difficult to respond to as the answer is complicated and multi-layered. There isn’t a magical rule that will somehow make your submission “safe” from being discarded after the first glance. Anything from personal taste, to current list space, to the market can factor into a quick rejection. This is why a chorus of agents and editors and published writers are always singing “don’t take rejection personally.” Easier said than done, right?
Of course none of this matters if the sample pages fail to reel us in. If your pitch does happen to snag my interest, I’m reading the sample. If you’ve gotten this far, you’ve passed the query auto-rejection phase. Congratulations! But now those pages have to hold my interest. Yes, I have rejected a submission based on the first sentence and yes, it happens more often than I’d like. But how could you possibly know from the first line? you ask.
Because it’s our job to know.
Sounds arrogant, sure. Believe me, I’ve been there on the other side, thinking it wasn’t fair that agents claimed they rejected a sub based on that first line. But after years of reading the slushpile, editing manuscripts, shopping clients, etc., I’ve been trained to see the level of prose based off that first line. Other agents will tell you the same.
In the past 2 days I’ve read 4 opening pgs w the same 1st line: “The first time I saw/did X, I did Y.” #amwriting#amquerying
That opening line tells us multiple things about your manuscript. A few examples:
There’s a grammar/spelling/typo mistake
you’re inexperienced with basic writing rules or
you’re lazy and don’t proofread or
you’re impatient and don’t proofread
It’s a poorly constructed sentence
same as above
Your character is waking up
This is done all the time. It shows your inexperience.
You have to get the reader to care first before asking them a question. Indicates you may not understand narrative characterization yet.
Your character is running/fighting/breathing hard
We don’t know your character yet, so we don’t care what action they are doing. Shows you may not be able to create tension without using action.
There’s a dead body (or another cliche)
It’s not shocking as we didn’t know the person before they were dead. Plus it’s been done. A lot. This tells us you may write in a lot of cliches.
The weather is being described
I did this in my first novel! *cringes. Shows you may not be able to streamline your world-building using only important details.
A vague “deep” philosophical statement is made
Same issue as the rhetorical question.
This one you’ll get other agents that disagree, but I’m not a fan of dialogue-heavy prose, so the first line as dialogue doesn’t go over well with me. Plus you run the risk of “floating head syndrome.”
Your character sighs, purses their lips, looks at something, shrugs, grins, raises their eyebrow or some other filler action
I dislike these filler actions in general, but in that first line they are the biggest tension killers of all. If a filler action is used in the first sentence, no doubt the rest of the manuscript is filled with them.
I could teach an entire semester on the first line, and I’m still fairly fresh in the publishing industry. Imagine what editors and agents who have been reading for 20+ years could glean from that sentence.
Of course, the disclaimer, many writers have done all of these things in their first line and their books are hugely successful. I mean hell, the first client I signed and sold did one of them. But in general, these are a few of the reasons I pass on the first line. Before you get too frustrated, hear me out. It’s not a final judgement on your writing. If your opening line causes me to pass on your project, despite being intrigued by your pitch, it’s not that you are a bad writer, it simply means the pages aren’t ready, or that you aren’t ready.
On a sunny note–if you nail it, that first line can result in a request.
Read the first line of a partial manuscript & had to have the full. Sometimes one line is all it takes. #querytip