5.14.2007

But, but, I did that on purpose!

Hi Miss Snark--

I've been querying my novel since March and have gotten responses from a few big agencies. I'm in my second round now, sending samples to the agents who said yes to a letter, and presentation packets to those who said yes to a sample. All of the former have turned me down. (what the fuck is a presentation packet for a novel anyway??)

One agency requested temporary exclusivity on a three-chapter sample after reading my letter. This is, I've read, one of the most (reputable? powerful?) agencies in the industry, but they had no submission guidelines listed anywhere, not even on their own website. I sent the sample over, but also sent an e-mail saying that while I'd be happy to give them exclusivity effective that day, my submission was already simultaneous (this was also stated in my query). Their rejection came less than a week later.

Given the very quick turnaround, I can't help but think that this was because I could not offer them exclusivity. But had they been interested, I might have been caught in a lie, which I think is no way to establish a business relationship. Would it have been better to lie? Am I just being naive here?

Another agent sent along a few criticisms with her rejection, and, my gigantic writer ego aside, I thought they were preposterous. She suggested that I stop using the passive voice, add more dialogue, and put in more vivid descriptions--all intentional personal style choices that were direct results of the novel's story.

My own business sense and understanding of the market, coupled now with the fact that big agencies have responded to my queries, tell me that this novel is most likely sellable. That being said, I'm thinking that this agent--and the others who said no to a requested sample--liked the premise, but not my writing style in executing it.

But if a novel has marketability, does its style really affect that? Or is there something I'm missing here?



Yea, a clue.

What on earth led you to conclude the novel was "sellable" (and it's "saleable" but maybe you chose that word on purpose too)? You've got a fistful of rejections from people who've READ the thing!!

Just because someone said no quickly doesn't mean they didn't read it. I can turn things around pretty damn fast if I see right away that it doesn't work.


You've got passive voice, limited dialogue and flat description. Yes, I know you described it differently but that's what I get from what you said. Say what you will about downmarket fiction, it's usually full of dialogue and pretty vivid.

What you have here sounds like a high concept, badly executed book. Of course I haven't read it, so take that with a grain of salt. The only thing that really makes me think I'm right on the money here is the idea you actually have a presentation packet for a novel. I'm almost afraid to ask whats in it.

41 comments:

Maggie Stiefvater said...

I must be psychic - I heard the clue gun cocking somewhere around the third or fourth sentence in.

I'm Totally Bummed! said...

Oh...

No feathers or a musical card with my pages?

*dammit*

What about spritzing it with my favorite perfume?

Elektra said...

"...my gigantic writer ego aside..."

Oddly enough, most writers have tiny, fragile little egos that have us scurrying toward the ice cream when an agent sends constuctive criticism (note to any agents who might be reading it: this does NOT mean we want you to stop sending it).

Maya Reynolds said...

I'm hazarding a guess here, but I suspect the writer is a successful business type who is able to write a dynamite query letter.

While being able to write a coherent and compelling business letter is a good start, it's far from writing a good novel. And saying that you opted as a conscious choice for passive voice and lengthy stretches of narrative is a big hint that you aren't yet aware of that difference.

Try picking up a couple of cheap copies of your favorite novels. Color code the narrative, dialogue and action using different colored highlighters. I'll bet the narrative will be far outweighed by the action and dialogue.

Good luck to you. Asking MS for advice was an excellent move.

Heather said...

Dismissing advice from an expert in any field you are NOT an expert in as "preposterous" is the height of nitwittery.

Do you tell the lawyer his free legal advice is uninformed when you're not a lawyer?

Of course not! So why would you ignore the advice of someone who is presumably professional enough to know what sells to publishers and HAS sold to publishers (so presumably knows what she's doing) that her ideas ware preposterous?

She has sold many books. You have sold... none.

I'd listen to the expert.

Don't mistake "voice" for ineptitude. Your "deliberate choice" is crippling your work. Take that critique at face value... it's solid gold.

BenPanced said...

The whole "presentation packet" idea screams "marketing plan" to me.

Anonymous said...

I know this is considered blasphemy in some circles, but I can see how using the passive voice and very little dialogue could both be valid artistic decisions. But I'm struggling to see why you would deliberately avoid vivid description.

Kanani said...

Another agent sent along a few criticisms with her rejection,

I'd say that was very generous of the agent to be that specific in their feedback to you. They could've tossed it into the shredder where it would be raining down on the Agent Parade they have each July down Madison Avenue.

The agent reads thousands of submissions each year, and if she says something is wrong with the voice, just don't take it as opinion, take it from someone who probably has a good idea of what he or she is talking about.

Voice, style, tone, description ---those are things you get worked out in the first, second and final drafts.

jennyhaddon said...

I'm a great believer in George Orwell's rules for a good plain style - and he was saying avoid the passive two generations ago.

Yes, there's a place for the passive. Say, a character who never wants to blame anyone, so says thing like, 'It was thought a good idea to ...' But as a narrative style it distances the reader.

I don't think it's great in business letters either and I used to write a lot of them. It's just a way of weaselling out of admitting ownership of daft ideas.

December Quinn said...

Those silly, stupid agents, always trying to make a work actually worth reading. Preposterous.

Don't they understand my book is supposed to be dull and hard to read?

WinterRose said...

Yeah... what in the world is a presentation package?

Elizabeth said...

I'm dying to know what a presentation packet is.

WitLiz Today said...

Ok, bucko, let me help you out here. This has really really worked for me. And it has saved my writing ass on many many occasions.

Let's take this important part of your letter,"Setting my gigantic ego aside.." and redo it, so that it reads something more like:
"Telling my gigantic ego to fuck off and die."


I started doing this when I first began writing a year ago. I had similar thoughts to the ones you've expressed in your letter, except I didn't go in for the conference. I'm too cheap to do that, but even so, I was pretty sure if I just pitched my idea to an agent, voila, ring around the rosie, they'd all fall over me.

I was equally sure I was above any editorial suggestions. After all, you can't touch a masterpiece. That's just wrong. Really. That would be like some smartass contemporary composer like me adding a new movement to the Beethoven ninth symphony!

Beethoven wouldn't just turn over in the grave. War would break out. Again. (See Bible)

Anyway, as the novel progressed, it got harder and harder. I had more problems than Ricky had with Lucy. Pretty soon, my ego retreated, a pale imitation of it's former self.

And then a strange thing happened. As I defeated each problem successfully,I gained enough confidence to tell my ego to fuck off and die, whenever visions of grandeur did the sugar plum fairy in my bedroom suite.

Today? Well, I'm working my ass off. My novel is percolatin'.And my ego and I are getting along just fine.

Bill said...

The author touched on a pet peeve of mine--justifying a poor writing decision by saying it was done on purpose.

Though the author at least made a conscious choice, one must remember that being annoying on purpose is still annoying (yes, I've learned the hard way on that one).

Gerri said...

She suggested that I stop using the passive voice, add more dialogue, and put in more vivid descriptions--all intentional personal style choices that were direct results of the novel's story.

I can't think of any story that benefits from passive voice and lack of vivid descriptions. In fact, those two problems are huge markers that the writer doesn't know WTF they're doing in prose.

Here's why passive voice is bad. ZZZZZZZZZZZ...*snore* Puts readers to sleep. Stories have to have excitement, and passive voice strips the chance to build intensity.

When I was teaching college English composition, one of the problems I had was getting my students to put in detail. "We don't want to bore the audience," was the universal excuse. I'd usually grab the table and howl at that point. Then my advice: "Specific details make the essay (story) interesting! I want to know the specifics so I can see it in my head!" Vague details leave mushy pictures in my head, and I don't like mush.

Less dialogue doesn't bother me as much. Now that is a legitimate story decision. However, if the agent notices the lack, that's an indicator that your Story is out of whack.

If you'll actually listen to advice, here are a few things you should do.

1. Do some studying. Read some books on writing so that you get a better understanding of Story. Read books in your genre to see what they're doing prose-wise and Story-wise to capture and keep their audience.

2. Buy Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages. I'd almost take a bet that you've probably made almost every error that he talks about in the first part of his book. Even if you haven't, the book will be a plunge into ice water for you on the realities of what agents are really looking for.

3. Join a critique group that's known for its honest, helpful critiques.

3a. Take what they say seriously and don't whimper "But I planned it like that."

Good luck with getting that gigantic ego under control.

C.J. Redwine said...

The good news: if you deliberately chose to write in a way that you now see is hindering the sale of your work, you can just as deliberately fix it.

There are ways to structure your novel to artistically suit your premise without using devices that are off-putting to so many.

Maybe you can save this particular artistic presentation for when you're already established and your publisher is willing to print just about anything you write.

Good luck with it. =)

Bonnie Shimko said...

I included a whole slew of "intentional personal style choices" in my last novel. I guess I was trying to be...I don't know...more lyrical, maybe. The book sold, but the editor was quick to point out that my "intentional personal style choices" were annoying, and in her opinion, should take a hike. I bought them tiny boots, backpacks, and mosquito repellant and sent them on their way. And I learned my lesson. Now I just write.

Kim said...

Yanno, if I received a critque of why my submission was rejected, I think it would make me go "Hmmm.... ok - let's see where I went wrong." Sure, it'd come AFTER I fumed for a few minutes, but I certainly wouldn't think that I (the rejectee) knew more than the agent (the rejector) when it comes to saleability (or sellibility). After all, which one of us is actually going to be selling it.

Ms(or Mr) Clueless, meet Ms Cluegun... Trust me, you need it.

Anonymous said...

"a successful business type who is able to write a dynamite query letter"

Shit, fuck, and dammit. maya reynolds has, in one brief, brilliant sentence, described why I gave up after 10 years of trying to get published. Clearly, given my request rate (I got tons of interest from big agents, with excitement just in the requests... phone calls back in the day, and agents willing to bat pages back and forth with me via email, plus I had an agent twice), I write a query letter that gets 'em salivating.

Clearly also, I don't deliver. I guess I'm writing novels for my own taste still. Or rather, I was. For now, I'm on a self-imposed sabattical.

But thank you for explaining the reason, maya. All those years and I never figured out the key was that I was in business writing and editing at the time!

L.L. said...

Since I follow a long line of comments, [of which you will no doubt wish to argue] I will keep mine short. Well, maybe not---

Everyone who studies this craft knows, 'you show, not tell' your stories. A reader can't fully appreciate your work if they can't 'see' or 'feel' what you're writing about.

You also use your characters to 'act' out your storyline. Always telling it in an 'active' voice so that readers can 'feel' the tension, heartbreak, love, or pain.

I believe it's possible to maintain one's artistic intensions and still write in an active, descriptive voice. Otherwise you may risk not sharing them at all.

CMonster said...

I really thought this was a badly done joke.

Of course, if it was meant as a joke, it means the writer's comedy is just as bad as his character's attitude.

Kit Whitfield said...

On another point, it's possibly doing yourself no favours to send 'samples to the agents who said yes to a letter, and presentation packets to those who said yes to a sample'. You're sending them stuff they haven't agreed to. I mean, if you agreed somebody could call you at work, and they took that as permission to turn up on the doorstep of your house, you'd be put off, no? It's best to stick to doing what they said you could do.

Pushing the foot-in-the-door policy risks irritating people. You're much better off showing them that you have some patience and waiting for their agreement before sending them things.

Anonymous said...

Please don't be too proud to seriously consider any advice an agent or editor gives you en route to publication.

Of course, I haven't read your book. But I agree with the posters who point out that the agent knows what she is talking about, having been in the business much longer than you.

I'd get a critique of your book from a few other people, online or offline, and see if their reactions match the agent's. If so, you might want to think about revision.

Sure, it's humbling to have to sit down and do an overhaul. But it can be worth it.

Mecha said...

I'm going to take a crazy guess on this one. If you study a marketplace and find that everyone's doing X, it's natural to think, "Why, if I did N, I could clean the floor with these people! I'll really stand out! They'll hail me as an innovative force of change! I WILL BE THEIR GOD!"

Sometimes this is true. Other times, everyone's doing X because they've already figured out that N doesn't work. In this case, it's definitely the latter.

There are solid reasons why these things don't work, reasons that any writer is free to cheerfully ignore. Just remember that your "revolutionary" is everyone else's "boring and irritating." Take your lumps, heed everyone's advice, go back to the basics, and start again.

Conda said...

I agree with CMonster--this has got to be a joke. I mean "a packet" and gigantic ego and passive voice a choice? Come on.

One good thing came out of it, lots of great discussion in the comments.

KingM said...

Presentation packet might just mean letter, synopsis, chapters.

I also think agents are capable of "not getting it" just like anyone else. It's like the writing group where eight people love the story and the last two look at each other, confused.

Having said that, the two suggestions in question sounded valid to me.

Heather B. Moore said...

You have to follow the rules until you've sold enough books to break them. Any one of those things are a red flag to an agent. Plus you need to be willing to edit. If you have agents who do love the book, but want a rewrite, you should invest the time. It will be worth it. Dialog, description, and the active voice cannot be passed over in this cut-throat market. Even if an agent did take you on, and "if" she sold your book to a publisher, the reviewers will not be kind.

Gerri said...

Clearly also, I don't deliver. I guess I'm writing novels for my own taste still.

Don't come down on yourself too hard. I doubt that it's your taste in stories that's holding you back. If it were, you wouldn't have gotten bites on your queries. I rather suspect your concepts are solid, but your execution of those concepts needs work. The advice I gave earlier will work just as well here as it does for the writer of the original letter in this post. :)

Don't give up, Anonymous2. Study craft now that you have high concepts and the ability to write kick-ass query letters. And good luck!

David said...

"I started doing this when I first began writing a year ago."

Wow. A whole year.

Anonymous said...

Hmm? What's the problem here? Let me see...13 "to be" verbs in the original post before I stopped counting, another five passages to drive me nuts before I stopped counting (e.g., "I can't help but think this was because I could not offer...."), 13 I's without including any of the my's and me's. My fifth grade teacher said not to do that. Something tells me the novel needs work, the ego a bit of downsizing, but the concept sings. Good luck.

Original Poster said...

Original poster here--

Thanks to everyone for your responses, especially MS, but I think a few points have been misconstrued.

I wasn’t pretending my work was above criticism. I’ve had this thing reviewed and critiqued by several people in and out of the entertainment industry, and have taken a lot of suggestions over the two years since I started it.

The particular criticisms of this agent weren’t relevant, when taking into account the story, its narrator, and my personal writing preferences. By the same token that Mecha’s aptly-named “crazy guess” of tailoring a work to specifically counter a marketplace’s norm would be impractical, so would it be to start using active voice for a narrator that wouldn’t, due to his or her personality and circumstances. It wasn’t a case of breaking rules (Re Heather B. Moore’s comment), but of creating a cohesive work where the narration fit that character. There is such a thing as stylization. Going back and forcing active voice onto a narrator simply because that’s what’s more common would be a square peg. THAT’s what made it preposterous, not the very idea that my precious manuscript would actually need editing.

Again, I didn’t get ONLY rejections on this. For the eight weeks I’ve been querying, I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses; THAT tells me that this thing is sellable (which I think is a perfectly good synonym for “saleable,” unlike the case of “yeah” vs. “yea”). What strikes me as odd, however, is that rejections are coming from agents who read only the letter first, and that requests to see more of my work are coming from the ones who got the sample on first contact.

And that was the heart of my question--whether personal style, which comes across mainly in the sample, was more important a factor than marketability, which presents itself in the query. If the work has a hook and reads decently, I don’t see that as as much of a problem as something that’s blissfully colorful and wonderfully descriptive but without punch. If the premise had no marketing potential, none of these agencies would reply in the first place. Competitive market, piles of slush, and all that jazz.

The whole school of ‘be as descriptive as possible in every possible situation’ (Re Gerri) has always irked me, reminding me of a preschool exercise during crayon time. I’m sure this has influenced my own writing style, but keep in mind that Lukeman did include chapters on both subtlety and the dangers of adverbs and adjectives.

Re everyone’s guesses, I had Lukeman’s guidelines down (through thorough research) before I bought his book, I’ve never sent an agent anything they didn’t request or agree to (no idea where Kit Whitfield’s assumptions came from), and I didn’t invent the focus group. Nice tries, though. And the majority of professional writers I’ve met and worked with have egos that could fill a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day balloon.

And just to cool everyone’s fears--the presentation packet was just a larger sample or manuscript plus a full synopsis. No glitter or decorative soaps or freeze-dried ice cream. Yeesh.

Anonymous said...

I've written 25 books, and had 21 published. I have three in the pipeline to be published later in 2007 and 2008. Seventeen books are still in print, and I just signed an addendum to my contract to offer all of them as e-books. Okay, enough about my credentials. Here's the important part:

Want to know the secret to being published? The reader is more important than the author. Period.

pjd said...

Don't they understand my book is supposed to be ... hard to read?

If it was hard to write, it should be hard to read. Similar to that story of the hillbilly who sent her cousin a letter that began, "I'm writin' this slow because I know you don't read so fast."

For me personally, I am so worried about this phenomenon [warning: large PDF] that I almost can't accept compliments any more. When I get an acceptance (short stories only so far, alas), my opinion of that particular journal plummets.

But seriously, any time you feel like opening a sentence with "my gigantic ego aside, I thought..." you need to reflect on whether you're really setting aside your gigantic ego. I'll lay ten to one that you're not.

Finally, to the business writer currently on sabbatical from fiction: If you were good at business writing, then you have all the tools. You just need to learn to apply them differently. And, unlike in business where it's relatively easy to sell a crap product with a good sales pitch, this industry demands a good product and a good sales pitch. When you're selling to someone who has to sell to someone else who has to sell to the public, you're not likely to get far with a crappy product.

Anne said...

I had a friend (who had just finished writing a novel) describe something that sounds like this "presentation package." Essentially, it was a marketing package: special folder, logo/letterhead for the book, etc. I don't think she expected it to be used by the publishing house for marketing, but to make her own work stand out.
My day job's in a creative field (not writing) and have run across "presentation" style resumes in a similar vein.
Not saying it works, but since you asked...

Anonymous said...

Looks like the original poster is doing things backward: he/she cultivated the snotty, obnoxious personality and resistance to advice (nice job of biting the hand he/she asked for a snack) before getting the fat publishing contract.

Gerri said...

The whole school of ‘be as descriptive as possible in every possible situation’ (Re Gerri) has always irked me, reminding me of a preschool exercise during crayon time. I’m sure this has influenced my own writing style, but keep in mind that Lukeman did include chapters on both subtlety and the dangers of adverbs and adjectives.

Description doesn't require adjectives and adverbs. Description can be as subtle as using "sauntered" instead of "walked".

Description = details. Details need to be specific. There's a vast difference between a book and a novel, between a building, a house, or a home. Vague = bad. Specific = good.

"I want to go back to the house."
"I want to go back home."

If you reread my response, you'll see that I emphasized details, not description.

Compare these two:

"The day was hot."

"My husband complained, "I'm marinating in my own sweat."

Vivid mental image, no?

And since you brought up Lukeman's chapter on Subtlety...

"A writer who is confident need not prove anything, need not try to grab attention with spates of stylism or hyperbole or melodrama"(159).(emphasis mine)

Marissa Doyle said...

"The reader is more important than the author. Period."

This is going on my desk where I can see it every day. Thank you, anonymous.

Manic Mom said...

Did we ever figure out what a presentation packet is? I'm guessing it involves scented paper and possibly some confetti?!?!?

Maya Reynolds said...

Well, I was giving the writer the benefit of the doubt when I wrote my first reply. I've revised my opinion.

He was looking for validation, not advice. The narcissistic rage peeking through his answer ("Yeah" vs. "Yea") is a big clue.

After reading his snotty response, I predict that Mr. Stylistic will be flogging his manuscript for a looonnnnnggggg time.

We all know the type. You run into them everywhere. They complain about the dumbing down of the publishing industry and have the arrogance to lecture a professional on "creating a cohesive work where the narration fit (sic) that character."

While the rest of us are seeking critiques from fellow writers, he's talking to "people in and out of the ENTERTAINMENT industry." Be still, my beating heart!

Spare me.

Anonymous said...

But if a novel has marketability, does its style really affect that? Or is there something I'm missing here?

I'm not sure anyone's said this yet:

The way you put that question sounds like you think that marketability and style are two separate, unrelated things. Unless you're Dan Brown, they're not. If a book has a supremely marketable concept and an absolutely unreadable style, it's not marketable. The back-cover copy may be, but the book itself isn't.

This isn't product advertising - it's not like you have the new wonder vitamin that will cure the common cold, but you've put it in a scuzzy wrapper, and all the marketers have to do is repackage it in line with market research. The style IS the book. If it's not saleable, the book's not saleable.

Clearly this particular agent felt it wasn't. That doesn't necessarily mean others will feel the same way, but I wouldn't dismiss it offhand.

Is there any way that her comments can be used to make your book better? If so, use them. If not, then it's possible that you and she simply don't have the same tastes - but if you keep getting the same response from more agents, there's a limit to how long you can dismiss it.

Beth said...

fwiw, saleable, salable, and sellable are all listed on dictionary.com as legitimate variants of the same word.

To the original poster--

If you used passive voice, flat description, and scant dialogue to reflect a particular character's POV, you should also be aware that you chose a potentially offputting method of communicating the story. If there's one rule of writing that must always be followed, without fail--a prime directive, if you will--it's that a writer must engage the reader.