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.