I love my readers: eagle-eyed Serenissima wrote in to point out that in my eagerness to tell you yesterday that our exemplar Daphne should have followed Digory’s instructions, I forgot to add HOW she should have followed them. (I’d fill those of you who missed yesterday’s post in on what I’m talking about, but that would make it too easy, wouldn’t it?) Yes, since agent Digory asked for 50 pages, Daphne should have sent exactly 50 pages – no more, no less, even if that meant cutting off the story mid-sentence.
But should she try not to have page 50 end mid-sentence? Should she try to arrange her plot so there is a section break there? Or, even more strategic, so there is a cliffhanger there?
Agents are quite, quite used to their requested page limits’ causing odd breaks, so do not worry about leaving ‘em hanging. (The ones who are truly married to closure will ask for entire chapters, not specific numbers of pages.) For this reason, it can appear a bit contrived if page 50 just happens to be the end of a chapter or section – although arranging the end of a section to fall on the last page is often a good idea for a contest entry, where it would be impossible for the judge to request more pages.
Never forget: the primary goal of those first 50 pages — or whatever part of the manuscript the agent has requested – is not to satisfy the agent’s sense of dramatic closure, but to get him to request the rest of the manuscript. Tying up ends too neatly might actually work against your aims here.
It’s nice if the agent finishes page 50 wondering what happens next – but as it’s not necessary to induce him to lie awake nights wondering what happens on page 51, rearranging your writing so a cliffhanger falls on page 50 (or whatever the last page of the submission may be) should not keep YOU awake nights. Leaving him wondering what happens in the rest of the book is sufficient – which, if you’ve established a sense of tension and conflict in the first 49 pages, he should already be doing.
In other words: you don’t need a murder to occur on page 50, necessarily, and it may well come across as heavy-handed if the last line on that page reads, “’I’ve been poisoned!’ Angelica cried. “And the culprit is”
Got it? Good. All right, on to the meat of today’s post.
Over the past few months, I have noticed an ailment cropping up with astonishing frequency amongst writers of my acquaintance. It’s a syndrome that, in its mild form, can drive writers to lose confidence in their work after only a few queries, and in its most virulent form, can alienate agents and editors before they’ve even read a word that the writer has penned.
And, to make it harder to head off at the pass, or to diagnose before symptoms develop, this syndrome leads to behavior that a professional writer, one who was actually making a living at it, would never even consider doing. So, naturally, it had never occurred to me that writers I know, good ones with probably quite bright futures, were engaging in it – and it might be hurting their publication prospects. So today I’m going to flag it, so none of my dear readers get caught in this quite common trap.
I refer, of course, to the notion that ANY book by a first-time author – be it absolutely the latest word in literary fiction, the mystery that even Perry Mason couldn’t solve before page 355, or the next DA VINCI CODE – would be so exciting to agents and editors that they would drop everything else to pay attention to it.
Or, potentially even more damaging, that they SHOULD, and that the writer has a right to expect instantaneous responses. Or even very quick ones.
Now, I have mentioned the most common corollary to this belief many times before: the insidious idea that if a book is really good (or, more usually, if its writer is truly talented), that the first query, the first pitch, the first submission will instantly traject it into a cozy lifetime relationship with the perfect agent or editor.
Oh, you laugh, but deep down, most of us would love to believe that our work is so redolent with talent that it will be the exception to the long turn-around time norm. The fantasy is a compelling one: place a stamp on a query on Monday, receive a request for the full manuscript by the end of the week, sign before a fortnight has elapsed, sell to a prominent publisher by Arbor Day. For those who query via e-mail, the expected timeline runs even faster: query tonight, request tomorrow, sign by next Wednesday, sale by April Fool’s Day.
I wish I could tell you it could happen, but as long-time readers of this blog already know, the industry just doesn’t work that way. Occasionally, people strike lucky, but a good writer should EXPECT to have to try many agents before being signed, and to have to wait weeks or even months to hear back from agents and editors.
So, in case any of you have missed the other 147 times I’ve said it in the last few months: it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit to agents one at a time. No matter how much you like a particular agent. Giving in to the notion that good work gets picked up immediately may cause a writer to take years to cover the requisite array of agents to find the right one, or even to stop querying in frustration after only a few tries.
Strategically, either is a bad idea. Competition over who is going to represent you, like competition over who is going to publish your book, can only help you, and unless an agent asks you point-blank for an exclusive look (which you are under no obligation to grant), these days, most agents ASSUME that a writer is sending out simultaneous submissions.
But the larger assumption, the one that dictates an expectation that ANY book is a drop-my-other-hundred-projects occasion for an agent or editor, is even more dangerous, because it can lead to behavior that is not only unlikely to convince industry types of a writer’s professionalism, but might even alienate them permanently. It can – sacre bleu! – lead to a writer’s being pushy.
Why is this a problem? Because as anyone in the industry can tell you, there is no book for which every agent is holding his breath. Naturally, everyone would like to snap up the next bestseller, of course, but since no one really knows what that will be, and they spend their lives surrounded by so much paper that the average agency could use it for insulation, it would simply be too exhausting to leap upon each new submission as though it contained the philosopher’s stone.
Even if that book turns out to be HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE. They need time to read, and no matter how much you would like yours to be the only submission on your dream agent’s desk at any given moment, yours is probably going to be one of fifty.
So there can be no legitimate reason, in their minds, for a writer to act as if HER book is THE one. Even if it is.
But try telling that to some writers. As in the most common manifestation of all:
Writer-centered scenario 1: Marcel has been working on his novel for a decade. Finally, after showing it timorously to his lover and a couple of roués claiming to be artistes he met at the corner café, he decides it is ready to submit. Being a careful sort of person, he researches agencies, and finally settles on the one that represents his favorite writer.
He submits his work, fully expecting to hear back within the week. By the end of a month, he is both flabbergasted and furious: why hasn’t that agent gotten back to him? As the sixth week ticks by, he decides that there is no point in hoping anymore. When his SASE and manuscript finally arrive back on his doorstep at the beginning of week 9, he doesn’t even bother to open the packet. He pitches them straight into the recycling bin.
He never submits again. Instead, he hangs out in absinthe bars with his amis, bemoaning the fact that the publishing world has refused to see his genius.
Okay, what did Marcel do wrong? (Other than drinking absinthe, which I’m told is pretty lethal.)
Oh, let me count the ways. Give yourself an A if you said he assumed that a single agent’s reaction was identical to that of everyone’s in the publishing world, as if rejection once means rejection eternally. What does Marcel think, that every agent in the country gets together every night under the cover of dark to share the day’s submissions, so every agent can provide a uniform response?
(Actually, there is a pervasive rumor like this that surfaces on the conference circuit every year or two about a national database where agents log in the names and book titles of every rejection, so that once a manuscript has been seen by a couple of agents, the others will know to avoid it. Piffle.)
Like it or not, the belief that one agent equaled the industry actually stems not from insecurity, but from an extreme case of egoism on Marcel’s part. Rather than considering himself one of the literal millions submitting manuscripts each year, or pondering the notion that he might need to learn a bit more about the industry before he can submit successfully, he prefers to conclude that his IDEAS are too out there for the cowardly market.
At least, he concludes that aloud: in his heart, he may actually believe that no one is interested in what he has to say. In this, he would be far from alone: there are plenty of Marcels out there who never send their books out even once.
Was that great collective “OH!” I just heard indicative of realizing that you know a writer like Marcel? Most of us do. The Marcels of the world are the ones who are all talk, and no query.
It takes real guts to pick yourself up after a rejection and send your work out again. It’s mighty tempting to give up, isn’t it? So give yourself an A+ if you pointed out by giving up so easily, Marcel never has to risk his ego’s being demolished by rejection again.
Extra credit with a cherry on top if you noticed that Marcel sought feedback only from his lover and friends, who could not possibly give him unbiased critique.
But you’re too clever to follow Marcel’s route in any of those three respects, aren’t you, readers? You know that a single rejection cannot logically mean that the book is unmarketable, that your writing is no good, or that you should give up writing altogether. Even a dozen rejections do not necessarily mean that: what an individual rejection means is that the agency in question didn’t like something about the submission.
Try to improve your submissions, by all means, but keep trying. Having to send out your work again and again is not – I repeat, is NOT – necessarily a reflection upon the quality of your writing, although it often is a reflection of how it is presented on the page. (Thus my continual yammering on the joys of standard format.)
Keep your chins up, campers. And keep up the good work.