Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part VIII: those pesky talking corpses

The more I go through the Idol list of rejection reasons (if you do not know what I am talking about, please see my post of October 31), the more it strikes me: yes, agency screeners read a lot of submissions in a day, but how hard would it be to scrawl a single sentence fragment in the margins at the point where they stopped reading, so the submitting writer would know why it was rejected? Or even just make a mark on the page, so the writer would know where the screener stopped reading? Heck, since most of the reasons are very common, they could just place the appropriate sticker on each page, or invest in a few rubber stamps: “Show, don’t tell,” or “Where’s the conflict?” At least then we’d know.

But, hard as it may be to believe, not everyone in the industry follows my advice… So the best I can do is to try to help you insulate your submissions against the most frequent complaints. Back to the Idol list. Today, I want to concentrate on the rejection reasons that would make the most sense for agency screeners to rubber-stamp upon submissions: these are the common technical problems that are relatively easy for the writer to fix.

If she knows about them, that is.

My favorite easy-fix on the list is #50, an adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often mistakenly assumed to be YA; this is funny, of course, because even a cursory walk though the fiction section of any major bookstore would reveal that a hefty percentage of adult fiction IS about teenage protagonists.

Why is this a problem at the submission stage? Well, in an agency that does not represent YA, the book is likely to be shunted quickly to the reject pile; there is no quicker rejection than the one reserved for types of books an agency does not handle. (That’s one reason that they prefer query letters to contain the book category in the first paragraph, FYI: it enables agency screeners to reject queries about types of books they do not represent without reading the rest of the letter.) And in an agency that represents both, the submission would be read with a different target market in mind, and thus judged by the wrong rules.

“Wait just a cotton-picking minute!” I here some of you out there murmuring. “This isn’t my fault; it’s the screener’s. All anyone at an agency would have to do to tell the difference is to take a look at the synopsis they asked me to include, and…”

Stop right there, oh murmurers, because you’re about to go down a logical wrong path. If you heed nothing else from today’s lesson, my friends, hark ye to this: NO ONE AT AN AGENCY OR PUBLISHING HOUSE EVER READS THE SYNOPSIS PRIOR TO READING THE SUBMISSION, at least not at the same sitting. So it is NEVER safe to assume that the screener deciding whether your first page works or not is already familiar with your premise.

Why is this the case? Well, for the same reason that many aspects of the submission process work against the writer: limited time. That screener needs to figure out whether the submission in front of her is a compelling story, true, but she also needs to be able to determine whether the writing is good AND the style appropriate to the subject matter. An adult style and vocabulary in a book pitched at 13-year-olds, obviously, would send up some red flags in her mind.

So, given that she has 50 submissions in front of her, and she needs to get through them all before lunch, is she more likely to (a) devote two minutes to reading the enclosed synopsis before she turns her attention to the writing itself, or (b) only read the synopses for the submissions she reads to the end?

If you didn’t pick (b), I would really urge you to sign up for a good, practical writing class or attend a market-minded conference as soon as humanly possible. A crash course in just how competitive the writing game is would be really helpful. From the point of view of a screener at a major agency, two minutes is a mighty long time to devote to a brand-new author.

I know; it’s sickening, and it’s disrespectful to us. But knowing the conditions under which your baby is likely to be read is crucial to understanding how to make it as rejection-proof as possible. For those of you who write about teenagers for the adult market, I have a bold suggestion: make sure that your title and style in the opening reflect a sensibility that is unquestionably adult, so your work is judged by the right rules.

This can be genuinely difficult if your narrator is a teenager — which brings me to #49 on the Idol list, narration in a kid’s voice that does not come across as age-appropriate. (For the record, both an agent who represents solely adult fiction and one who represents primarily YA noted this as a problem.) This issue crops up ALL the time in books aimed at adults that are about children; as a general rule of thumb, if your protagonist is a pre-Civil War teenaged farmhand, he should not speak as if he graduated from Dartmouth in 1992. Nor should a narrator who is a 6-year-old girl sport the vocabulary of an English Literature professor.

Usually, though, the problem is subtler. Often, teenage protagonists are portrayed from an adult’s, or even a parent’s, point of view, creating narrators who are hyper-aware that hormones are causing their mood swings or character behavior that is apparently motivated (from the reader’s point of view, anyway) solely by age. But teenagers, by and large, do not think of themselves as moody, impossible, or even resentful; most of them, when asked, will report that they are just trying to get along in situations where they have responsibilities but few rights and little say over what they do with their time and energy.

And yet screeners are constantly seeing openings where teenage girls practice bulimia simply because they want to fit in, where teenage boys act like James Dean in REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, where teenage characters flounce off to their rooms to sulk. Yes, teenagers do these things, undoubtedly, but in novels, these things have been reported so often that they come across as clichés. And teenage characters and narrators who diagnose these behaviors as an adult would are accordingly rife.

Also, agency screeners and editorial assistants tend to be really young: they weren’t teenagers all that long ago. Sometimes, they are still young enough to resent having been pigeonholed, and if your manuscript is sitting in front of them, what better opportunity to express that resentment than rejecting it is likely to present itself?

So do be careful, and make sure you are showing the screener something she won’t have seen before. Not to give away the candy store, but the best opening with a teenage protagonist I ever saw specifically had the girl snap out of an agony of self-doubt (which could easily have degenerated into cliché) into responsible behavior in the face of a crisis on page 1. To submission-wearied professional eyes, reading a manuscript where the teenaged protagonist had that kind of emotional range was like jumping into a swimming pool on a hot day: most refreshing.

One of the most common ways to set up a teenage scene in the past brings us to reason #63, the opening includes quotes from song lyrics. Yes, this can be an effective way to establish a timeframe without coming out and saying,
“It’s 1982,” but it is also very, very overused. I blame this tactic’s use in movies and TV: in the old days, soundtracks used to contain emotionally evocative incidental music, but in recent years, the soundtrack for any movie set in the 20th-century past is a virtual replica of the K-Tel greatest hits of (fill in timeframe), as if no one in any historical period ever listed to anything but top 40.

I’m fairly confident, for instance, that there was no period in American history where dance bands played only the Charleston, where every radio played nothing but AMERICAN PIE, or every television was tuned to THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW. Yes, even when Elvis or the Beatles appeared on it. We’re creative people — can’t we mix it up a bit more?

Other than ubiquity, there are other reasons that agents and their screeners tend to frown upon the inclusion of song lyrics in the opening pages of a book. Unless the song is within the public domain — and the last time I checked, HAPPY BIRTHDAY still wasn’t, so we are talking about a long lead time here — the publisher will need to get permission from whoever owns the rights to the song in order to reproduce it. So song lyrics on page one automatically mean more work for the editor.

Also, one of the benefits of setting a sentiment to music is that it is easier to sound profound in song than on the printed page. No disrespect to song stylists, but if you or I penned some of those lines, we would be laughed out of our writers’ groups. For this reason, song lyrics taken out of context and plopped onto the page often fall utterly flat — especially if the screener is too young to have any personal associations with that song.

#45, it is unclear whether the narrator is alive or dead, started cropping up on a lot of agents’ pet peeve lists immediately after THE LOVELY BONES came out. Ghostly narrators began wandering into agencies with a frequency unseen since the old TWILIGHT ZONE series was influencing how fantasy was written in North America on a weekly basis. And wouldn’t you know it, the twist in many of these submissions turns out to be that the reader doesn’t learn that the narrator is an unusually chatty corpse until late in the book, or at any rate after the first paragraph of the first page.

Remember what I was saying the other day about agents not liking to feel tricked by a book? Well…

I need to sign off for today — I’m off to have dinner with a sulky teenager who prattles on about peer pressure, a child who speaks as though she is about to start collecting Social Security any day now, and a fellow who may or may not have kicked the bucket half a decade ago. Honestly, if agents and editors would only recognize that we writers are merely holding, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, all of our lives would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

Keep up the good work!

2 Replies to “Conference-gleaned wisdom, Part VIII: those pesky talking corpses”

  1. I have a question for you. I am frantically working on a proposal to be submitted within the next week or two. As I am working on my sample chapters, I’ve realized that part of my writing style consists of sentences that are fragments.

    I have an excellent grasp of grammar and have no trouble writing in complete sentences. But the style I have developed over the years owes part of its rhythm to fragments. I like the emphasis they provide, and the way they ‘pace’ the writing.

    I’m concerned, however, about putting fragments in my sample chapters. What if agents think I don’t know how to write in complete sentences? But without the fragments, my writing feels formal and a little bland.

    What’s the scoop? Are fragments allowed in otherwise grammatically correct writing, or are they to be avoided like the mange in those critical sample chapters?

    Thanks for your advice. I have spent hours in the last week poring over your site and have found the proposal information especially helpful.


    1. Hoo boy, Mary, is this ever a complex question, and one that I have heard debated long into the night by many, many well-established writers, who have precisely this fear about critics not understanding the interesting things they like to do with language from time to time.

      The short answer is that if it is integral to your style — which certainly seems to be the case, from what you describe — keep ‘em. Usually, if fragments are part of a well-developed rhythm, it will be pretty apparent to a good reader’s eye that their use is a well-thought-out choice.

      That being said, there are agents and editors out there who hate fragments like the mange you mention. (Great analogy, by the way, for the way grammar-hounds tend to think of it.) With such people, you would in fact be better off without the fragments. However, if the fragments add considerably to your writing, in your opinion, I am inclined to think that you would be better off not associating with agents and editors who don’t understand what you’re trying to do.

      The big danger, of course — and I suspect that you already know this — is that some over-eager intern screener fresh from his first serious English class is going to take umbrage at the fragments. This does in fact happen with some frequency — most of the time, screeners are told to weed out the submissions with grammatical problems, but not necessarily given a crash course in the difference between stylistic choice and error first.

      Whether your submission ends up screened by such a sterling character is, alas, largely a matter of chance. So yes, you are taking a bit of a risk in including them.

      However, and this may well sound a little odd after what I’ve just said, almost anyone in the industry will tell you that it’s a mistake to mess with a style that works. Fragments are not all that rare anymore — heck, Annie Proulx even won the Pulizer for a work chock full of ‘em. If you love them, they should probably stay.

      Especially if your book’s category is one where fragments have a track record for being used with success. In literary fiction, for example, their use is very much accepted.

      I’m going to bounce this question off a few industry bigwigs, though, to see what they have to say about it, and then blog about it. It’s a very interesting question, and I’m glad you brought it up.

      FYI, I’m going to be writing a NF book proposal in December, so I’m planning to write a fairly extensive series on proposals then.

      Good luck!

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