Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part XV: wrapping it all up and tying it with a nifty bow

Some exciting news today, campers: remember how I spent the month of October locked in my studio, making revisions on my novel, as requested by an editor at a major publishing house? No? Well, remember that long period when I was extremely grumpy? It has evidently borne some fruit: I have been asked to make a second set of revisions. Which, believe it or not, is good news; it means the editor liked my first set of revisions. Hooray!

Was that gasp I just heard the sound of a quarter of my readers clutching their hearts, crying, “Wait – a publisher can make an author revise a book TWICE before making an offer?”

Well, to tell you the truth, the second go-round is a touch unusual, but it’s not at all uncommon anymore for an editor to ask for some fairly hefty one-time revisions before there is even any talk of filthy lucre changing hands. And yes, in the past, it was traditional for a publishing house to buy the book first, before the fine-tuning began. So the next time anyone tries to tell you that the publishing industry is anything like it was even ten years ago, you know what to reply: the fiction market, and indeed the book market in general, is a lot tighter than it used to be.

All of which seems like a perfect lead-in to my last post on the Idol rejection reasons (if you do not know what these are, please see my post for October 31), because, really, it’s important to recognize that agents (most of them, anyway) don’t hold submissions to such high standards in order to be mean — they want to take on books that they know they can sell within today’s extremely tight market. It’s not enough for an agent to love your work; the agent needs to be able to place it at a publishing house for you.

And while, in the past, agents tended to be open to working with their clients in order to work out the technical kinks prior to submission to publishing houses, now most of them expect writers to submit manuscripts so clean and camera-ready that the agency screener could confidently walk them directly from the agency’s mail room to the desk of even the pickiest editor. Thus these last few weeks of weeding out the most common submission problems.

Today, however, we get the reward: the description of the kind of book that makes agents weak in the knees.

Surprisingly, agents tend not to talk too much about what they love about books at conferences — they tend to stick to describing what is marketable, because that is, after all, their bread and butter. But as those of you who have been querying strong, marketable projects for a while already know, agents often reject submissions for perfectly marketable books, a fact that is very confusing to those who have been taught (sometimes by agents at conferences) to believe that every agent is looking for the same thing, or to those who believe that a single rejection from a single agent means that everyone in the industry will hate a book.

Especially for first fiction, it’s not enough for an agent to recognize that a writer has talent and a book has market potential: they like to fall in love. If you’re a good pitcher, you already know the reaction I’m talking about: the eyes becoming moist with desire, the mouth appearing to go dry with lust. When an agent wants a project, the symptoms strongly resemble infatuation, and as the Idol series has taught us, it’s often a case of love at first sight.

As with any other type of love, every agent has his own particular type that is likely to make his heart beat harder, his own individual quirks and kinks. Just as an agent will train his screeners to rule out submissions containing his pet peeves, he will usually set some standards for the kind of project he would like to see forwarded to his desk. So, in a way, our old pal the underpaid, latte-quaffing, late-for-her-lunch-date screener is her boss’ dating service.

Here’s the list of what the Idol panelists said would light their fires sufficiently to ask for a second date — in other words, what would lead them to want to read beyond page 1 of a submission:

1. A non-average character in a situation you wouldn’t expect.
2. An action scene that felt like it was happening in real time.
3. The author made the point, then moved on.
4. The scene was emotionally engaging.
5. The narrative voice is strong and easy to relate to.
6. The suspense seemed inherent to the story, not just how it was told.
7. “Good opening line.”
8. ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.”

“Hey,” I hear some of you out there saying, “isn’t there something missing from this list? Shouldn’t ‘This is a marvelous writer,’ or ‘That’s the best metaphor I’ve ever seen for a love affair gone wrong,’ or “Wow, great hook” have made the list? Shouldn’t, in fact, more of these have been about the craft of writing, rather than about the premise?”

Excellent questions, both. Would you like the cynical answer, or the one designed to be encouraging to submitters?

Let me get the cynicism out of the way first: they are looking for a book that can sell quickly, not a writer whose talent they want to develop over a lifetime, and that means paying closer attention to an exciting plot than to writerly skill. In essence, they are looking to fall in love with a premise, rather than a book.

The less cynical, and probably more often true, reason is that this is not the JV team you are auditioning to join: this is the big league, where it is simply assumed that a writer is going to be talented AND technically proficient. Unless an agent specifically represents literary fiction — not just good writing, mind you, which can be produced in any book category, but that specific 3-4% of the fiction market which is devoted to novels where the beauty of the writing is the primary point of the book — the first question she is going to ask her screener is probably not going to be, “Is it well-written?” Presumably, if a submission weren’t fairly well-written and free of technical errors, it would not make it past the screener. As we have seen before, the question is much more likely to be, “What is this book about?”

Before you sniff at this, think about it for a minute: the last time you recommended a book to someone, did you just say, “Oh, this is a beautifully-written book,” or did you give some description of either the protagonist or the plot in your recommendation? Even the most literary of literary fiction is, after all, about SOMETHING.

Ideally, any good novel will be about an interesting character in an interesting situation. Why does the protagonist need to be interesting? So the reader will want to follow her throughout the story to come, feeling emotionally engaged in the outcome. Why does the situation need to be interesting? So the reader will not figure out the entire book’s plotline on page 1.

If you have both of these elements in your premise, and you present them in a way that avoids the 74 rejection reasons I’ve been discussing throughout this series, most of the rest of the criteria on this love-it list will follow naturally. If the reader cares about the protagonist, the stakes are high enough, and the pacing is tight, the scene is much more likely to be emotionally engaging than if any of these things are not true. If you eschew heavy-handed description and move straight to (and through) the action, conflict is more likely to seem as though it is happening in real time, no one can complain that you are belaboring a point, and the suspense will develop naturally.

So really, all of this critique has been leading directly to the characteristics of an infatuation-worthy book.

Of course, all of this IS about the quality of the writing, inherently: in order to pull this off successfully, the writer has to use a well-rehearsed bag of tricks awfully well. Selecting the right narrative voice for a story, too, is indicative of writerly acumen, as is a stunning opening line. All of these elements are only enhanced by a beautiful writing style, of course.

However, most agents will tell you that lovely writing is not enough in the current market: the other elements need to be there as well. As well as a certain je ne sais quoi that the pros call an individual voice.

All of which is to say: submission is not the time to be bringing anything but your A game; there really is no such thing as just good enough in the current market. (Unless you’re already established, of course, or a celebrity, or you happen to have written the story that the agent always wanted to write himself, or…) Playing in the big leagues requires more than merely telling a story well — that’s the absolute minimum for getting a serious read within the industry.

Which brings me to #8, ”There was something going on beyond just the surface action.” Submission mail bags positively burgeon with clear accounts of straightforward stories, as well as with manuscripts where every nuance of the plot is instantly accessible to the reader as soon as it is mentioned. Books that work on a number of different levels simultaneously, that give the reader occasion to think about the world to which the book is introducing her, are rare.

That the Idol agents would be looking actively for such a book might at first blush be surprising. How much subtlety could a screener possibly pick up in a 30-second read of the first page of a manuscript?

Well, let me ask you: the last time you fell in love, how much did you feel you learned in the first thirty seconds of realizing it?

Pat yourselves on the back for making it all the way through this extremely sobering series, everybody: this was good, hard, professional work, the kind that adds serious skills to your writer’s tool bag. Be pleased about that – and keep up the good work!

P.S.: Hey, those of you interested in alternate realities: long-time reader and FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) Brian Mercer will be talking about his book, MASTERING ASTRAL PROJECTION on the radio show, The Darkness on the Edge of Town. The radio show will air on Sunday at 10 PM Central Standard Time at 1470 AM (for those of you in the greater Minneapolis area) or streaming live via the show’s website.

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