Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part III: will someone hold this massive grain of salt for me?

The last couple of days’ posts have been kind of in-your-face, haven’t they? Sorry about that — it’s the nature of the beast, when the ruling out of submissions is the subject. It makes us all feel as if we’ve been mauled by wildebeests.

Still, there’s no need to despair: to succeed in this business, all you need to do is make your initial pages technically perfect, fresh without being weird, and not hit either any of the pet peeves listed on the Idol list (see Halloween post) or personal ones that the agent in question might have. Your characters need to be original, your premise interesting, and your plot riveting, beginning from Paragraph 1. Oh, and you need to be lucky enough not to submit your brilliant novel about an airline pilot on the day after the agent/screener/editorial assistant/editor has had his/her heart broken by one.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, my work is done here. Let me know how it all turns out!

Okay, so it’s not such a piece of cake: it’s a genuinely tall order, and a long list of don’t can be very, very intimidating. Before you throw up your hands in despair, let’s break down the Idol list of rejection reasons into bite-sized chunks.

The first thing to realize about this list of agents’ pet peeves is that some of them are, in fact, personal pet peeves, not necessarily industry-wide red flags. The trick is recognizing which ones. Right off the bat, a cursory glance at the list identified these as probably personal, rather than endemic:

15. The opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life.
25. The first lines were dialogue.
33. Agent can’t identify with the conflict shown.
37. The story is corny.
42. The opening scene is too violent (in the example that generated this response, a baby’s brains were bashed out against a tree).
43. Too gross.
44. There is too much violence to children and/or pets.
46. The story is written in the second person.
47. The story is written in the first person plural.
48. The narrator speaks directly to the reader (“I should warn you…”), making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story.

How do I know these are not widely-shared rejection criteria? Well, experience, but also, critical analysis. Allow me to explain.

Before I start dissecting them, however, one caveat: just because these particular pet peeves are agent-specific does not mean that you should simply disregard them. If you are planning to submit to any of the agents on that particular panel, it would behoove you to take them very seriously indeed: one of the reasons that savvy writers go to conferences, after all, is to pick up information about the specific likes and dislikes of particular agents, right? Use this information strategically, to help target your queries and submissions to the agents most likely to enjoy your work.

When you’re listening to such a panel, there are a couple of signals that will alert you to something being an individual’s pet peeve, rather than a general rule. First — and this happens surprisingly frequently — the person uttering it will actually say, “Maybe it’s just my pet peeve, but…” or “It really bugs me when…” It’s a pretty safe bet that what is said next is a personal preference.

I know: it’s subtle.

Also — and this happened on the Idol panel — sometimes an agent will express an opinion, and the other agents will guffaw at him, fall over backwards in surprise, slap him across the face and tell him he’s an idiot, etc. Again, all of these are pretty good indicators that we’re not talking about a widely-recognized agency norm here.

Take, for instance, #25, when agent Daniel Lazar’s having flagged a submission because the first lines were dialogue. Now, this is a pretty sweeping criticism, isn’t it? A lot of very good books open with dialogue. So how did the people in the Idol audience know it was his pet peeve? Well, he began his critique with, “Maybe it’s just me, but…” And after he said it, the agent sitting next to him turned to him and said, “Really?”

Starting to get the hang of this?

I know I’ve been saying it a lot lately, but it bears repeating: no matter how much talk there is about how agents all want to represent the same kinds of books, it’s just not the case — they are individuals, with individual tastes. And thus, logically, if your submission is rejected by one, you have most emphatically NOT been rejected by the entire industry: you’ve been rejected by one individual within it. Learn what you can from the experience, then move on.

This can be very, very tough for writers who have just spent a small fortune on a conference, pitched to five agents, and had requested materials rejected to do. Yet at even the best conference, no group of agents small enough to fit in the same room, much less on the same panel, are a representative sample of how the entire industry will react to your work. I know it’s discouraging, but it just doesn’t make statistical sense to throw up one’s hands after a single round of rejections.

To put this in perspective, it’s not uncommon for an agent to submit a client’s work to as many as 50 different editors. If #48 says yes, that’s a win, just as surely as if #1 did. Should you really be any less tenacious in marketing your book to agents than you would expect your agent to be in marketing it to editors?

Now that you know why it is so important to differentiate between what you absolutely must change on your first page and what you should change for a particular agent’s eyes, let’s go back to our list of rejection reasons. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Why is that particular one problematic?” Often, the most obvious answer will be that it’s the agent’s personal opinion.

Let’s apply this test to #15, the opening had a character do something that characters only do in books, not real life. On the panel, Rachel Vater cited this reason quite often, but neither of the other agents mentioned it. (Did that make your personal-preference antennae perk up, campers?) She gave those who were listening another clue: a couple of times, she cast this objection as,
“Well, I’VE never done what the character does here…” Ding ding ding!

Even if she had not been kind enough to flag this as a personal preference, we probably could have figured it out. In this context, she specifically singled out a character who shook his head to clear an image or bring himself back to reality, as in, “he shook his head to clear the cobwebs.” Now, as an editor, I do have to admit, this is an action that one sees occur with GREAT frequency in manuscripts; in fact, I suspect one could make a pretty good case without trying very hard for labeling it as a cliché.

However, this is not how the rejection reason was phrased, was it? No, it was cast as “this is something a normal person would not do.” Unless we’re talking about psychopathic behavior, a statement like this is almost certainly based upon personal experience. Everyone’s opinion of normal is different.

So what this critique is really saying is, “People in my circles and from my background don’t do such things.” Fine; good to know: now we can target the submission away from the agent who cannot imagine doing such a thing and toward an agent who can.

Getting the hang of this yet?

The same logic test can be applied, with the same result, to #33 (agent can’t identify with the conflict shown, which is obviously based upon personal taste) and #37 (the story is corny, which must be based upon the observer’s background and worldview). Note the preference, and move on to the next agent.

If you get the same response from a few different agents, it might be worth a second look at your opening pages for plausibility. For the sake of your future success, it is probably worth bearing in mind that an awfully high percentage of agents and editors are from upper-middle clad backgrounds, and thus graduated from rather similar English departments at rather similar liberal arts colleges, mostly in the northeastern part of the country. Their brothers (and sisters) dated one another’s sisters (and brothers). If you can’t imagine reading from such a point of view, it might behoove you to find a first reader who can, to subject your manuscript to the Minor Ivy Plausibility Test.

The personal preference test, believe it or not, can also be applied to reasons associated with voice choice. Yes, I know: since it’s a technical matter, it seems as though rules should govern whether it’s acceptable, right? Not really. There are plenty of agents and editors who don’t like the first person voice much, and, as we saw on the list, other voices may raise hackles: 46. The story is written in the second person; 47. The story is written in the first person plural. What could such statements be OTHER than personal preferences?

#48 (the narrator speaks directly to the reader, making the story hyper-aware of itself qua story) is also a personal preference about narrative voice, albeit a more subtle one: for some readers, including the agent who cited this rejection reason, a first-person narration that breaks the third wall is jarring, a distraction from the story. However, there are plenty examples of published books that have used this device to great comic or dramatic effect: I would not send the agent that expressed this preference THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, for instance.

Now, I suspect that those of you intrepid souls out there devoted enough to literary experimentation to write a narrative in the first person plural (like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES) or second person (like BRIGHT LIGHTS, BIG CITY) are probably already aware that your work will not be to everyone’s taste, any more than excellent fantasy writing will be to the taste of an agent who prefers hard-bitten realism. But this doesn’t mean that the experiment isn’t worth trying, is it? Just choose your querying targets accordingly.

I should wrap up for today, but before I do, I want to take a quick run at another group of reasons, #42 (the opening scene is too violent), #43 (the opening scene is too gross), and #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). The first two are obviously in the eye of the beholder: a quick look at any bookstore will tell you that there is no shortage of violent material. So it can’t possibly be an industry-wide rule, right?

However, pay close attention when an agent draws a line about this: this is not an agent to query with a violent piece, and he’s doing the people who write violent pieces a favor by being up front about it. (For instance, an agent who asks that I do not mention him here — see post of May 10, 2006 for explanation — routinely tells conference attendees not to send him children-in-peril stories; he doesn’t like them.) Do be aware that although most of us have had writing teachers beat into our brains that a story needs an opening hook, to draw the reader in, it is possible to go too far.

And because 99% of the writers out there have had this advice beaten into their brains, too, agents see a LOT of shocking things on first pages. A super-violent opening scene, then, will not necessarily make your submission unique.

Which is why I slipped in #44 (there is too much violence to children and/or pets). Yes, this is a matter of personal preference — how much violence is too much and how much is just right is in the eye of the beholder, just as much as ideal porridge temperatures were on the tongues of the Three Bears — but this one happens to be a preference that at LOT of editors share, and for good reason: it can be very hard to market a book that features a lot of violence against wee ones. And don’t even get me started about how hard it would be to sell a cozy mystery with a dead cat in it…

My overall point has, I hope, become clear. Everyone chant together now: “Never kill off the detective’s pet kitty.”

Well, yes, that’s a pretty good rule of thumb, but I was really thinking of a broader point about submission and conference lore: not everything that pops out of an expert’s mouth should be regarded as a hard-and-fast rule. Use your judgment, or you might end up staggering under the weight of such a heap of pronouncements that you’ll be terrified of breaking a rule every time you sit down at your keyboard.

I’ll try to demystify more of the Idol rejection reasons tomorrow. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part III: will someone hold this massive grain of salt for me?”

  1. I wonder how many times Alice Sebold was rejected. heh.

    I missed most of the Idol workshop this year, but I participated in last
    year’s so-called blood bath. I was one of the lucky ones. (Well no, it
    wasn’t just luck. I spent a great deal of effort rewriting the opening of my
    novel after attending a workshop earlier that year where I was made to read
    my opening line out loud, after which the instructor asked the class, “A
    raise of hands, who would keep reading this?” Two kind souls raised their
    hands half way in sympathy. I cringed, yearning for the sound of crickets.)

    Interestingly, I cannot recall any violent openings from last year’s Idol.
    There was one I recall as being kind of gross, yet hilarious and clever —
    one agent demanded, “Keep reading!” while the other two panelists said,
    “No!” There were a few openings that the agents called ‘weather report’
    openings. There were at least three or four openings involving a character
    waking up to a fire, and a few more with characters waking to some other
    crisis. The agents pleaded, “Start your story with your protagonist awake!”

    There were also a number of great first paragraph openings. The panelists came to attention, their facial expressions serious and hopeful, and then the second paragraph turned into back-story, a flashback, a weather report, etc. The panelists wilted, shaking their heads in disappointment.

    The first thing I did when I got home was remove a chunk of back-story from page two. 😉

    1. I brought up the Alice Sebold issue to one of the agents on the Idol panel, actually, for that very reason, as well as Barbara Kingsolver’s THE POISONWOOD BIBLE, Dorothy Allison’s BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, Alice Walker’s THE COLOR PURPLE, etc., all of which have some fairly horrific things happening to children.

      Her response: “Yes — that’s why it’s harder to sell now.” I guess they’ve been creeped out enough for the short term…

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