A Fifth To Start the Day

Dear Miss Snark,

I'm not sure how to proceed. Earlier this year I finished my first novel. I sent out query letters and a well respected agent asked to read a partial. Ultimately, she passed, writing "while you are obviously an intelligent writer, the story did not grab me as it must. By page 80 I simply felt distracted."

So I revamped the first section of the book and queried a new group of agents. Subsequently another well respected agency requested the full, writing they were "fully engrossed" in the lives of the characters in the partial and "wanted to see how it all turns out." This week they also passed, thanking me for my great patience but declining on the grounds that they weren't convinced enough "of the strength of the writing to be a good advocate for the book".

What does this mean, in your opinion? Story problems, character problems, these are areas I think I know how to fix. But "strength of the writing" seem to imply something more fundamental. It is a first novel. Should I shelve it, as you advise about all first novels, and wait until novel #2 is ready to shop around? I cant help but be encouraged by the interest I've received in such a short time by some very well respected agents. But since I haven't been able to close the deal, I'm beginning to think perhaps I'm shilling the wrong product.

Thanks very much!

How many agents have you queried? It sounds like less than ten...and you've got several reading partials and a full. That's not bad at all.

First, "strength of writing" is so subjective that there's no way you could truly use that as a bench mark for fixing something. I use this when the language seems tepid or there just isn't enough clarity to the narrative, or the plot falls apart, but other people use it to describe other things. There's no industry standard for what "strenght of writing" means.

Second, it won't hurt at all to go ahead and write that second novel WHILE you keep shopping this one around. At the end of the second novel you may have some insights into the first one that you don't have now.

Third, go re-read your ten favorite novels in the genre you're writing in. Read with your writer's eye fully engaged. Look for what you think makes the novel work so well. Then look at your novel and see if you're doing that. One of the truest mark of a good writer is someone who can step back enough from their work to really see how it works (or doesn't). People who are so emmeshed in their work, and defensive about criticism, can't ever see the forest for the trees, and their work suffers for it.

Fourth, remember agents are always going to give very amorphous comments because they are afraid if they say "this doesn't work" or "your plot falls apart on page 10" you'll fix it and resubmit. General rejection letters are bad schematics for novel repairs.

Fifth, you might dig around for a critque group. Good ones can give you perspective and help. Bad ones suck worse than rejection letters, but you'll be able to tell which side of the line the group is on without too much investment.


Cudd said...

Miss Snark... you've gone soft. I didn't see one ounce of snarkiness anywhere in that response. Not to say I think your writer deserved it, but wow. I thought I was on the wrong blog for a moment.

Oh, and wonderful advice. Seriously, I'll have to keep that in mind when I get around to actually finishing books instead of just jotting notes on a million plots.

Kalen Hughes said...

Second, it won't hurt at all to go ahead and write that second novel WHILE you keep shopping this one around. At the end of the second novel you may have some insights into the first one that you don't have now.

This was certainly the case for me. I took almost a year away from my first novel while I wrote and queried my second novel. When I took a look at the first one, I saw lots of places that could be improved, tightened, cut, etc. Ultimately, I sold the rewritten version of the first novel, but I would NEVER have been able to sell the original version (a hard truth to admit).

Miss Snark said...

Well Cudd,not all questions need to be Snarked.

Eileen said...

I think this question taps into the desire by us writer types to find the "answer." If we could know what we are doing wrong than we would fix it and publishing fame and fortune would follow. The difficulty comes is that fixing what one person saw as wrong can make it fall apart for another. Trying to read Dan Brown level puzzles and meaning into agent comments will never lead you to the Holy Grail. (if you take the first letter of each sentence it spells U SUK) Although it might lead you to drink.

Harry Connolly said...

Rejectomancy is a favorite hobby among writers. Resist the urge. If the rejection doesn't say something like, "If you make these changes, I'll look at it again" just ignore the details of the letter and think of it as a "No."

If you don't, you'll waste a lot of time and mental energy. Agents could teach the Japanese a little something about saying no in the vaguest possible way.

kis said...

I actually had an agent--one of the first eight I queried, read my full. She wrote a detailed critique that told me she'd read far enough in to give it a real shot, and suggested some specific changes. She then invited me to resubmit it, or anything else I had written, once those changes were made.

In the end, I just couldn't do everything she asked. It was kind of like saying, "I want a story about Frodo, Sam and Gollum, but all this other stuff doesn't need to be here. Cut out Saruman, Gondor, Rohan and all that, then we'll talk."

I just came to the conclusion she wanted a totally different kind of book, but I will keep her in mind for anything else I write. It was reassuring to have someone say, "the world and the style were all very strong, it was just too much story for me."

Here's hoping it won't be too much story for someone else...

Cudd said...

Miss Snark,
I realize that not all questions deserve a good snarking, but it still threw me off. You had a whole bunch of commenters teasing the last nitwit about how "Miss Snark is NOT your friend." I was almost convinced that you never spared anyone on your column, regardless. I'm glad to find I was wrong, :)

WV: yccfut.. why do you see the foot?

Who First? said...

As another first time writer, I'd like to know what type of agency to query first. A lesser known agency that may provide feedback other than "not right for us", or go for a 'big name' agency straight away? This, of course, assumes an already well researched list of agents who accept queries.

I don't think this question was addressed in the Snarkives.

Termagant 2 said...

Eileen has it on this one, IMO.

When my first agent & I first began shopping a novel around, the rejections started coming in. Thick & fast, oy did they come in!

My problem in rejectomancy was: no two rejected it for the same reasons. Tim said it lacked depth. Bob said the world I'd used simply doesn't work like that. John said it didn't "grab" him.

Now how's a writer to work with that? Simple, IMO - ignore everything and work on making it a better book.

I subsequently sold it, sans agent, to a small press. That's enough for now. I'm still working on the deal with Big Dog Publishing in NYC...


Anonymous said...

I am in your exact situation, (well, maybe not exact)almost went loco, then sat down and started writing novel 2. That was 3 months ago and after I quit the crying I looked up one morning (this morning to be exact) and I was 200 pages into novel 2. Actually, novel 3. Never had anyone look at novel 1. Yes, I am a little crazy. Boyfriend re-minds me everytime I forget. Nothing helps heal the wound better than writing a new story. Renews hope. But hey, submit some more. Nobody's telling you to quit. (-:

Georgia Girl