Following up on my last blog post, I’m writing today with more advice from a (in this case former) big-house editor. I worked with Chris Pavone when he was an editor at Clarkson Potter, as well as when he was at Artisan, and now he can add bestselling author to his resume since his first novel, THE EXPATS, has hit the list.
I really like seeing the insider information from WritersDigest.com and was especially curious to see Chris’s tips on how to avoid editors rejecting your work. There is some solid if basic (and blunt) advice here, mostly for beginning authors. Much of what he suggests it seems to me is really more for authors before they’ve pitched to agents. I’d hope that most agents submitting projects to editors have made sure their authors have corrected all of these holes before the proposal or manuscript hits the desk of an editor.
What I love most about the piece is the comments. Writers are so grateful for seasoned feedback, and it’s clear from Pavone’s background that he knows of which he speaks since he rejected hundreds if not thousands of proposals and manuscripts in his day.
It got me to thinking of asking the question of our readers – what’s the best publishing advice you’ve ever received? From whom? And the worst? Where do you go when you need advice on how to pitch your work? Please share your stories and ideas here and let us know what’s helpful, and maybe more importantly, what isn’t.
As promised, editor Molly O’Neill and I are going to have a dialogue about middle grade. After a lot of thought, we decided to have a conversation via email that we’d transcribe (minus our distracting tangents). Your questions as we go will help shape the discussion, just as your questions are getting us started, so let us know what you think!
MB: It seems only natural to start with this question (plus, you told me to): What is middle grade? It seems a much simpler question at first glance. If we’re looking at bookstore sections, it’s the 9 – 12 part of B&N. These aren’t chapter books or early readers, which are usually quite short, often in series, usually contain education content, and are aimed at a slightly younger audience, 6 – 8 year olds. But they’re also not teen novels, which are usually categorized as 12 and up (though can be 14 and up when there’s more “content”). YA novels often deal with more “controversial” subject matter, and often involve romantic story lines. But that brings us back to the question, what is middle grade? We can define it by age group, but I’d argue that classifying by content is more difficult.
MO: As you know, I have a marketing background, which means that whether or not I intend it, one of the first things my brain starts thinking about for a book is its readership: who is a book FOR? What kind of reader is it going to reach, and how? Maybe instead of asking “What is middle grade?” it’s easier to think about “Who is the middle grade reader, and what is he/she looking for in a book?”
I think that a middle grade reader is often (and note, I’m speaking BROADLY, here) reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape. Middle grade readers who read to understand look for stories that help them piece together the truths that seem to be opening up all around them, about the world and their place in it, and the connections between themselves and their family, their community, their friends, etc. Or they’re reading to understand about a different time/ place and what it was/would be like to be a kid then. Or they’re reading to just understand how stuff works, period—from the everyday mundane stuff to big concepts like justice and honesty and friendship and happiness and love.
The middle grade reader who reads to escape is the kid who is commonly BORED—like middle-of-summer-vacation-bored!—with his/her ordinary life, yet has no means for alleviating that boredom, or even escaping his/her house or classroom. Or maybe he/she is craving excitement or adventure or entertainment or a sense of power and autonomy that family and school simply don’t offer. So that reader dives into an epic story, or something quirky or witty or fantastical or humorous, in order to escape and live in someone else’s world for a while.
The trick is, most middle grade readers are BOTH of those readers at various points, one who wants to understand AND to escape (I certainly was, anyway). So there’s not just one kind of story that appeals to them, which means that middle grade books can be ABOUT anything. So maybe the line between middle grade and YA maybe has more to do with perspective than content?
MB: As publishing professionals, we’re always asking ourselves the question Molly posed above (paraphrasing): Who is the reader for this book? On the one hand, I sometimes wish writers wouldn’t ask themselves that question, at least not at the outset. Too many times, I get a submission and it’s clear that the writer is writing to a specific market or reader. A symptom of this problem that I see very often in middle grade submissions is “writing down” to the reader. This is can take the form of trying-too-hard dialogue (“Zoinks, bud! We need to skedaddle out of here before our ‘rents come biz-ack.”), narrator-as-character (think Lemony Snicket done badly), or message-driven novels (books written only to teach a lesson). On the other hand, it’s important to think about your reader, especially during revision. I always encourage my clients to be as creative and rule-breaking as they want when conceiving of ideas or writing initial drafts, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t then rein things in based on market expectations. For instance, one of the mistakes I see all too often is a mismatch between the age of the protagonist and the intended reader. A 12 year old doesn’t want to read about a protagonist who’s 8 or 80–they want to read about someone in the same general age group.
How to figure out what the audience wants? Do what I always recommend: read. Go to the bookstore and buy some of the recently-published* middle grade. This will give you a good idea of what the audience is looking for, and just how broad the category is.
*Please, please, please: don’t reference books published decades ago as comparisons for your books. What worked years ago probably doesn’t work now–trends and tastes change. “But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe still sells!” you say. Classic books sell because they are classics, and I would argue that many of them would not find an audience today.
MO: Oh, I heartily second the need to read recently-published books, even if you’re a great appreciator of the classics! Unless you have a time-travel machine to go back to a different era in publishing to sell your book, it’s today’s market and audience a new book you’re trying to sell it to. Someone asked in the comments about whether there’s a middle grade canon and I think there’s a canon in every genre of literature, even if its an informal one—that’s why it’s so important to read widely, to have a sense of where your book fits and be able to articulate the things that both make it a natural fit within the genre AND a stand-out addition to the genre.
Speaking of problems you often see, I think one of the most common ones I run across in middle grade is “low stakes.” I think this can happen as a result of writers wanting to make a story feel familiar, but when I was a kid, other people’s lives always felt more interesting than my own, so why would I want to read about everyday, average things like homework and piano lessons and third-period math class all over again? I guess I’m trying to say that there can be a fine line between stories that feel familiar and those that feel, well, dull. This is a big reason I often encourage my authors to push past their initial ideas and explore the unknown creative wilds beyond the very first idea/solution/problem/mystery/story point/etc that they think of – because often the really fresh ideas live deep in writer’s minds, not at the very forefront. Like you said, Michael, you can always rein an idea in later, but too much of the middle grade that crosses my desk in submission feels like it never got a chance to be as creative as it maybe could have been.
Of course, sometimes it’s not always the idea that is the magical part of the story—an incredible voice or character can make even the most average story-moments feel vivid and memorable. But that’s just it—memorable is important. I think about middle grade being the time when a lot of readers discover “that book”—the one that turns them into a lifelong reader, or explodes their world open with new ideas, or shares exactly the right truth at exactly the right moment in a way they’ll never forget. You know, any time I tell people at a social event like a wedding or a party what I do for a living, there’s an odd compulsion—people simply HAVE to tell me what their favorite book was as a kid. And as an editor, those are the kind of books I want to publish—the ones that a reader of today will recall decades from now as being “that book.”
MB: I think it’s great that you bring up the issue of stakes, which can be an issue in any sort of novel. What’s on the line for the protagonist? What makes this story important enough to tell? To be clear, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be writing wonderful, contemporary, realistic middle grade. One question we got (perhaps from a client of mine) was, is there room for a “quiet” middle grade novel? I’d argue that the best books, even when they’re not deal with the end of the world or magic, aren’t really “quiet.” They may be a smaller story, with very real, relatable stakes. But if the story is constructed well, and the voice is strong, the writer can make us care very much what happens in these more everyday struggles. While not contemporary, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt comes to mind.
As an agent, I too have spent my my career looking for those kinds of books. Books that have a lasting impact on readers, that stick with them long after they’ve turned the final page. It’s why I keep hunting for great middle grade.
MO: And as a matter of fact, I think it’s why we’re doing this blog conversation. And it’s getting good! But now we have to get back to work. Check back late next week for a second installment, on Molly’s blog.
In thinking of what to write about today while my computer is down and I can’t access all of my blog notes, it occurred to me that I should ask a question to our readers that I ask myself often in the line of duty, or in publishing terms, in my life as an agent.
I have been known to go to the end of the earth for an author or a project I love, and one of my first blog posts ever was about the sale of a book that took me 54 publishers to find a home. It’s since gone on to sell over 200,000 copies (if only every publishing story had such a happy ending).
In part this commitment (sometimes verging on insanity) stems from the fact that it takes a lot for me to sign something up these days and if I do, it means either I really love it or I think I’m going to be able to sell it, or hopefully both. And in part it’s because I really just don’t like giving up. It often becomes a mission for me to try to come up with a creative alternative to a book that might not be working as well as I’d hoped. We invest so much time in the development of our projects that I hate to admit failure and say I can’t sell something. Maybe that’s why I’m in the middle of vetting two contracts from publishers we’ve never done business with before!
It’s a trait that often serves me and my clients well, but sometimes backfires too and there does come a time when it really is time to give up and move on. I’m wondering what that time looks like for all of you in your writing life. I know it depends on where you are in your process, but, for example, do you try 5 agents, 10, 20, more? If you get an agent and they submit your book and it isn’t selling, would you rather rethink that book if you get consistent feedback or try something different altogether? How many projects have you stopped when you realized it just wasn’t going to work?
There’s no magic number or answer, and it’s different for each author and each project, but I am curious to hear what you all think about this topic and what your answer is to the question “When is it time to give up?”. And when I say give up, I mean on a particular project, not the dream of being published, which you should never give up on!
There’s been a lot of talk in the YA world this week about an article over at Publisher’s Weekly about the difficulty in selling work with LGBTQ protagonists, and the story is even being picked up by non-publishing outlets. (There’s also now some controversy, seen here on the Swivet, about who the mystery agent is, and if, in fact, they ever said such a thing.)
In the interest of full disclosure, I passed on the manuscript in question. It had absolutely nothing to do with the gay character–in fact, it’s not something that even registered. Perhaps it’s having lived on the coasts for years, or perhaps being gay, but finding a gay character in a book rarely registers. An author of mine recently sent in a new manuscript in which the brother of the female protagonist is gay, and honestly, I wouldn’t have noticed if the author hadn’t mentioned it in relation to a plot point. The guy’s gay. Ok. Moving on. And I’ve sold more than one YA book with an LGBTQ protagonist, including a YA memoir.
The same is generally true when I get in submissions. I’m not looking for gay or straight protagonists, and I don’t pay much attention. I care about the concept, the plotting, the voice, the writing–the sexual orientation of the character is the last thing I’m thinking about. Please send me books with LGBTQ characters; I’d love to see anything good! I think just about every agent and editor out there would say the same thing; it’s it’s good, we want to see it.
That said, we also have to be honest about the realities of the marketplace. There are fewer gay readers than straight readers. “Gay books,” on average, sell less than “straight books.” Readers seem to be more interested in reading about straight people–at least that’s what sales indicate. So publishers thinking about what to publish have to take this into consideration. Despite appearances to the contrary, publishing is a business, and sales matter. But YA books with LGBTQ characters continue to get published, are published well, and find audiences well beyond gay teens. For more on this issue, I really recommend you read Malinda Lo’s brilliant blog post “How hard is it to sell an LGBTQ YA novel?”, which was referenced in the Swivet post above, and gives a great view from an author on this subject.
Publishing has to be one of the least homophobic businesses around. The percentage of gay agents, editors, and other publishing professionals is much, much higher than the population in general (no matter which statistic you’re looking at), and people are fairly liberal. I can almost guarantee that there’s no one censoring gay content. ***
If you want to see more books featuring LGBTQ characters, I have a piece of advice: seek out and buy those books. If publishers are rejecting books with LGBTQ characters because they believe they won’t sell, the way to change their minds is by buying the books when they are published. Publishers are chasing after sales, which is why you see so many copycat books–vampire novels after Twilight, dystopian novels following Hunger Games. Vote with your dollars. The more LGBTQ books you buy, the more you’ll see. And I know that we publishing professionals will be happy to sell them to you.
*** I should have chosen my words more carefully in this sentence. I didn’t mean to say that there was never any suggestion that GLBTQ content be removed from a book; clearly, that isn’t true. I was trying to say that I didn’t think anyone was doing this with a set agenda; I don’t think any particular editor’s or agent’s homophobia (blatant, latent or internalized) is the reason that such suggestions are made.
I also never intended to offend anyone with this post, and while I still don’t think I’m being naive or ignoring a blatant issue, I will certainly be more aware and sensitive going forward. I appreciate your responses and comments on this post, whether you agree with me or not. As so many have pointed out, what matters here is that we’re discussing the subject openly. And that can’t be a bad thing. Thank you.
In a response to one of last week’s posts, I volunteered to look at some query letters. The upshot was that I got a number of very good ones–apparently only ringers responded. They were, in fact, so professional and polished that there is little point in posting them here. To paraphrase Aristotle (who was talking about people, not publishing) query letters are “good in but one way, but bad in many.”
In each case, what it came down to was simply an issue of whether the genre or subject matter is one in which I am interested. I rarely take on science fiction of any stripe, but the dystopian novel pitched to me sounded good enough that I would request it. Another was a historical novel set during the Civil War, but despite the richness of the milieu and an engaging enough synopsis, for reasons I cannot myself unpick, I find it hard to feel enthusiastic about the prospect of reading another Civil War novel. Self-limiting, I know, but there it is.
Quirks of taste and interest are a part of this process, and if I dish them out, so must I take them. I recently went out with a book in which part of the action takes place in Congo, only to have an editor warn me that novels set in Africa are rarely his cup of tea. Another editor once interrupted me midway through what I thought was a diverting aside about a trip to Peru to say that “Mesoamerica just didn’t do it” for him. Needless to say, that was the end of my report on the Inca Trail. And I made a mental note never to send him the great Aztec adventure novel that I might someday represent.
That said, I endeavor never to say never, because as we all know, there are also those books that blow these preconceived notions out of the water. I always think about Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, simply because I have: a) no particular interest in horseracing and b) a deep-seated childhood prejudice against animal stories, since the main plot points invariably included injury or death of the animal in question (Sounder, Old Yeller, Big Red, The Red Pony, etc.).
In any case, I’d love to hear about books that redefined or overturned your own cups of tea.
As one whose manners could always use improvement (well, table manners at least), I’m usually hesitant to weigh in on questions of etiquette. However, I got some emails this weeks that I thought were worth discussing…
Perhaps the only benefit of the recent heat wave is that things were quiet enough for me to catch up on submissions. Typically, I respond to queries with my standard form rejection, which I think is polite and honest in that it gives the ultimate reason why we chose not to take on any author’s work—we just don’t think we can sell it. Hence, when I do get an email back, it’s usually an equally polite thank-you note or a query about a new project, which I’m always happy to look at.
However, this time around I got a few replies from authors letting me know that while they were waiting for my answer, they either signed with another agent or got themselves a publishing deal. To which I say, congratulations… but why are you telling me this now, instead of when the interest in your project actually happened? Is it just to fill me in? Or is it to chastise me for being too slow? To show that my rejection doesn’t matter, since things worked out anyway?
Regardless of your motivation, telling me your news after you get the rejection means I just wasted time considering a project that wasn’t available anymore. So, a simple request: if you’ve got a submission with me and something develops, send me an email and tell me at the time—I’d love the opportunity to compete for your affection. (That’s why you initially queried me, right?) And if the message is that you’re withdrawing your work from consideration, then at least I can give you a genuine congrats!
Further to Jane’s post discussing the selling process, I thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at pitch letters: first, a writer’s successful query letter, one that prompted to me to request the material and sign journalist Jason Ryan as a client; next, my pitch letter to the editors to whom I submitted his proposal; and finally, the jacket copy that the publishing house drafted to pitch the book (ultimately titled Jackpot: High Times, High Seas, and the Sting That Launched the War on Drugs) to readers. All three are a bit different, and each is calibrated to its recipient.
1) Query Letter:
This is Jason Ryan, a journalist in South Carolina and former reporter for The State newspaper- the state’s largest daily and capital city paper. I’m seeking representation for my first book, ‘Jackpot,’ and was impressed by your representation of Arab authors and your ‘hands-on’ work ethic. I think your eclectic tastes might facilitate an interest in my unique journalistic endeavor, a narrative concerning smugglers whose sole connection to the Arab world was their fondness for Turkish hash. My nonfiction narrative, ‘Jackpot,’ details the rise and fall of fraternity brothers who, in a decade, smuggled more than $1 billion of marijuana and hashish into the United States aboard sailboats. ‘Jackpot’ also spotlights an age of innocence in drug trafficking, when violence was not ubiquitous.
‘Jackpot’ is the country’s greatest untold marijuana tale, and its twists and turns rival the slickest Hollywood screenplay. Two disaffected men from South Carolina rose to the top of the East Coast drug smuggling underworld with the help of their band of “gentlemen smugglers”- a now extinct breed of drug running rogues defined by their college educations, nonviolent business methods and love for the sea. The smugglers’ adventures involved jailbreaks, transatlantic smuggling flotillas, and dangerous overlaps with international armed conflicts. It all came to an end when the government unleashed a task force known as Operation Jackpot.
While the smugglers themselves have an amazing tale, so do the government agents involved in Operation Jackpot. Their task force fought a pioneering battle in President Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs, using new civil seizure laws and financial evidence to help take down South Carolina’s elusive gentlemen smugglers, men whose nicknames included “Rolex,” “Flash” and “Bob the Boss.”
“Jackpot” is the tale of two groups of men, both cunning and fearless, yet diametrically opposed. On one side was a set of seafaring smugglers with a slipping grip on America’s fast-fading hippie culture. On the other side was a band of investigators empowered by Reagan conservatism that sidestepped bureaucratic hurdles, expanded prosecutorial power and chased drug kingpins to the corners of the earth, sometimes going undercover. Their clash commenced as America underwent a sea change in its attitude toward recreational drug use, severely criminalizing substances long tolerated.
I’ve spent the last year researching Operation Jackpot and interviewing those involved on both sides of the law. I am currently contacting a select group of literary agencies regarding my book. I’m happy to provide a more detailed proposal if you’re interested.
In Jason’s letter above, what leapt out at me was the original research he’d done—a year’s worth of legwork. True crime, as this book might be loosely categorized, is not a genre in which I often work, nor do I count the debate surrounding the legalization of marijuana as one near to my heart, but his query seemed to contain the elements of a great story, one that had a colorful regional focus but national implications, and an author who, as it turned out, had both the access and the ability to capture it
2) My pitch letter:
I am pleased to send you Jackpot; the true story of the rise and fall of a ring of “gentlemen smugglers,” a colorful and incorrigible cadre of good ol’ boys, bon vivants, and drug traffickers who made a fortune, lived a fantasy and became the targets of one of the most extensive and ambitious anti-drug operations ever launched in the United States. Operation Jackpot was the opening volley in newly-elected President Reagan’s War on Drugs; its fascinating story captures a watershed moment in American political and popular culture, when hippies gave way to preppies, kids learned to “just say no,” and a group of seafaring sybarites became Public Enemy Number One.
In the late seventies and early eighties, the gentleman smugglers sailed a veritable flotilla of drug-laden luxury sailboats across the Caribbean, through the Mediterranean, and across the Atlantic, ultimately unloading almost a billion dollars worth of marijuana and hashish along the South Carolina coast, relying on the same sleepy islands and labyrinthine waterways favored by the rum runners and privateers who preceded them.
The ringleaders were native sons of the Palmetto State, and depending on who was asked, Les Riley, Barry Foy and their comrades were local boys made good—or promising young men gone irretrievably bad. The college-educated scions of middle-class and well-to-do families, they traded in conventional careers for a lifestyle flush with adventure, high times, and cash. Lots and lots of cash. Yet lucrative as it was, they steered clear of the burgeoning cocaine trade and the culture of brutality that surrounded it; these men eschewed violence as much as they loved pleasure, and in an instance of life imitating art (or perhaps art imitating life), endeavored to live the lyrics to a Jimmy Buffet song. Their idyll would not, however, last forever: greed, lust, hurricanes, and the occasional disaster at sea caught up with them—and eventually, so did the law. Led by an exceptionally ambitious US Attorney named Henry Dargan McMaster, what ensued was a cat-and-mouse game played out against a backdrop of tropical islands and quiet bayous, crumbling plantations, as well as a vicious civil war (Lebanon) and a US invasion (Grenada).
Author Jason Ryan is a journalist who lives in South Carolina; long fascinated by the Jackpot case, he has gained unprecedented access to both the smugglers and the law enforcement agents who brought them to justice. I hope you find the story as compelling as I did, and will want to add it to your list.
With all good wishes,
In my letter, I tried to stress the “bigger” story, and tie the specific misdeeds and exploits of the drug smugglers to the cultural and political moment in American history. As a kid during the both the Carter and Reagan administrations, I noted the vast political shift, as Carter’s “malaise” gave way to Reagan’s sunnier (and arguably less accurate) vision of the USA. Nancy Reagan’s ubiquitous Just Say No Campaign was, at least for me, an essential part of the zeitgeist. I also try to layout the bones of the basic conflict: smugglers versus US attorney McMaster, who brought a whole new raft of tools to bear on the “kingpins.” Speaking as a former editor who pitched projects to my colleagues, I remember the utility of a pitch letter that helped to position a project, and could sometimes even be cribbed down the line for catalog or jacket copy, so I always try and write the sort of letter I liked to get.
3) Jacket Copy:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a cadre of freewheeling, Southern pot smugglers lived at the crossroads of Miami Vice and a Jimmy Buffett song. In less than a decade, these irrepressible adventurers unloaded nearly a billion dollars worth of marijuana and hashish through the eastern seaboard’s marshes. Then came their undoing: Operation Jackpot, one of the largest drug investigations ever launched and an opening volley in Ronald Reagan’s War on Drugs.
In Jackpot, author Jason Ryan takes us back to the heady days before drug smuggling was synonymous with deadly gunplay. During this golden age of marijuana trafficking, the country’s most prominent kingpins were a group of wayward and fun-loving Southern gentlemen who forsook college educations to sail drug-laden luxury sailboats across the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Caribbean. Les Riley, Barry Foy, and their comrades eschewed violence as much as they loved pleasure, and it was greed, lust, and disaster at sea that ultimately caught up with them, along with the law.
In a cat-and-mouse game played out in exotic locations across the globe, the smugglers sailed through hurricanes, broke out of jail and survived encounters with armed militants in Colombia, Grenada and Lebanon. Based on years of research and interviews with imprisoned and recently released smugglers and the law enforcement agents who tracked them down, Jackpot does for marijuana smuggling what Blow and Snowblind did for the cocaine trade.
The actual jacket copy is shorter, punchier, and more profligate in its pop culture references. Odd as it sounds, the combination of Jimmy Buffet and Miami Vice positions the book pretty accurately. Here, the emphasis is on the big story, but also the colorful adventures of the smugglers themselves, and the text is juicier, studded with interesting details. In addition, the flap copy draws an oblique contrast between the content of most contemporary drug trafficking stories—the bloody, brutal, and horrific reports from warring cartels in Mexico—and the nonviolent approach that these smugglers took. In all three letters, however, the first task of the writer is to be interesting—all three of us are hoping to attract a reader. You can judge for yourselves whether you think we succeed.
In my daily swim through queries, I’ve noticed an interesting trend in opening sentences—something to the effect of “I feel that now is finally the right time to send this your way,” or “I’ve been sitting on this novel, too afraid to send it out until now.” Which leads me to believe that as many people as there are that email me telling me they’ve gotten over the fear of reaching out, there are just as many–if not more–who are still hesitant to hit the Send button. In past blog posts I’ve talked about the query process, but today I wanted to dig a bit deeper and reach those who haven’t yet cleared that first hurdle.
My question is: what’s holding you back? Maybe it’s timing, maybe it’s perfectionism. And I’m willing to guess it also rests in that highly inconvenient fear we all experience throughout our lives of rejection. But I won’t deny that you also probably feel the odds—technical, rather than emotional—stacked against you. If you’re keeping yourself informed and involved, reading blogs, and doing whatever you can to learn more about the industry, there’s no doubt that you’re hearing different advice from different sources: “do this” or “don’t do this” or “text attached” or “text included in the body” or “spell check.” Everyone remembers spell check, right?
The fact is, it’s competitive out there, and a realistic attitude is an imperative. And expectations are inevitably high because we want to see the absolute best that you have to offer. It’s a tall order, I won’t deny it. But here’s the thing: sometimes you have to tune out the noise and dive in. Of course you want your work to be as perfect as it can be, but you also can’t wait forever for that perfection to happen. At a certain point, you have to go for it, because you never know what could be waiting for you on the other end.
Are any of you out there are feeling this? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
This short piece in Salon (originally a letter in the Reading Club) last week got me thinking about boredom, specifically the kind of boredom that we publishing folks experience on an almost hourly basis. Of the thousands of queries and manuscripts that we sift through every year, a significant percentage suffer from a serious case of boring. The good stuff is exciting, thrilling, energizing, and…not boring. The very bad is tragic, hilarious, depressing, and baffling, but, again, not boring. Then there’s that other category of submissions: the inescapably, suffocatingly, mind-numbingly boring. For me, getting through these is the hardest part of my job. Saying “next” when it’s an unsolicited query or manuscript that’s dragging you down into the arms of Morpheus is one thing. It’s quite another when it’s a manuscript by a client or a client’s referral.
When it comes to explaining to a client why his or her novel doesn’t work, “Because it’s boring!” is not an option. You have to dig around for problems of plot, characterization, themes, etc., and that entails reading much more of the material than you can stay awake for without the aid of artificial stimulants. The biggest problem is, of course, that the book is boring, but people who will happily take eviscerating criticism about their prose style or their lack of character development would run you over with their SUVs if you mentioned the “B” word.
Which is why I was so amused by this phrase in axelrod’s letter regarding MFA workshop critiques: “If we didn’t like a piece, we could talk about anything but the one thing that mattered, the awful, dreaded taboo word: boring.” Heh. I know just what he means.
Happy summer, everybody! For the next while, there are going to be some absences from the blog as we take vacations, but we’d hate to leave you guys hanging. It’s no secret that we blog much more now than when we started this baby, and there are far more of you reading than there were way back when. So we thought we’d bring back some blog entries of days gone by that you may have missed if you just joined us in the last year. We’ve cued up enough, but if you have any favorites you think your fellow readers might enjoy, give us a shout below!
Choosing what projects to take on can be a tricky thing. Given the number of manuscripts I usually have waiting to be read and how few of those I’ll actually be able to work on, I start each one assuming that I’ll be passing on it. For about 50 pages, I keep an eye out for the specific reasons I’ll be rejecting. I’m looking for overwrought writing, character inconsistency, sloppy plotting, and/or any reason to put the pages down and move on to something else.
Let’s say I pass page 50 and haven’t found a reason to definitely say no. I hit my optimistic reading phase and for the next 100 or so pages, I’m thinking, “Hook me!” I’ve invested just enough time that I won’t be upset if I end up deciding to pass, but I’m starting to think, “Hey, this could be my next new client.”
At page 150, my mood shifts entirely to, “Don’t let me down now.” Pessimism sneaks back in a bit. Even if I like this, I start to wonder, can I sell it? This is where I bust out the super handy trick that Jane taught me when I was starting out: if you can think of five editors you know who this could be right for, then it’s probably worth a shot. I ride the manuscript out keeping that in mind and also thinking about the competition. What similar books have done well? Are there too many similar books? Does this read like what’s working now, or does it read like what might be working a year from now when it would come out?
Of course, every so often, a manuscript comes along that shuttles my reading rules right out the window. And that is what I live for.
Let’s flash back to last summer. I drag a bag of manuscripts up to my roof, yank out the first one, open to the first page, read the first paragraph…and stop. It sounds so corny and over the top to say that you were hooked on something from the first page except that when it happens, it’s transporting. I read until the sun went down, and the next morning, I handed the manuscript to a colleague.
“Read a page and tell me if I’m crazy,” I requested. “I mean—this is really as good as I think it is, right?”
I fell so head over heels for the novel that I actually wanted confirmation I hadn’t just lost my mind. I felt stupidly luck to even have the project in hand. When the first page was read, I got the affirmation I needed: “It’s really that good.”
“Crap. Who else has this?” Luckily for me, though other agents did have and did want to represent the novel, its author, in her infinite wisdom, decided to work with me. The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan is an astonishing novel for the young adult market that blends the literary and the commercial, stunning writing with rich characters and brilliant plotting. I eagerly look forward to its publication by Delacorte next spring.
The point I always come back to is that people who work in publishing do so because they’re readers. Yes, I read with an eye toward market and potential profit. This is a business, and when you work on commission, you can bet that there’s always an eye on the bottom line. The most thrilling part of the job, though, is playing some role in ushering a book you feel passionately about into another reader’s hands.
At the delightful (and not just because you can gamble there) Las Vegas Writers’ Conference last year, someone asked a panel I sat on, “Would you rather have something come across your desk that has great writing or a great plot?” It’s an unanswerable question. Because I’m not looking for pieces of a good book. I’m looking for the whole package, or for someone who inspires me to believe in their ability to create the whole package.
In responses to rejection letters, understandably upset writers sometimes ask, “Who are you to judge me? What right do you have to say who’s good enough?” All I can answer is that I’m a reader. I’m an audience. And I want you to win me over as much as you want me to be won. It can’t happen always, but we hope it happens enough.
Great story telling. - Jane
Historical fiction. - Miriam
Humorous fiction. - Michael
Original parenting. - Stacey
Horror. - Jim
Narrative science. - Jessica
Middle-grade fiction. - John
Interdisciplinary nonfiction. - Lauren
Popular history. - Brenna
Engaging YA fiction. - Rachel S.
Science fiction noir. - Yassine