Wednesday, March 22, 2006

How An Agent Reads & Evaluates Your Partial

Writing about Kirsten Nelson's Pub Rant last night reminded me of an article I read some time back.

Have you ever had one of those "down" moments when you just can't muster the energy to write? I have. Fortunately, I don't have as many of those as I once did. For me, the challenge is to use that time constructively. Given my natural proclivity to veg, my first instinct is to play online games (Sudoku, anyone?) or to do a bunch of blog hopping. It takes a real effort for me to force myself to do one of two things: read articles on the craft of writing or edit my manuscript. And, even when I'm doing those two activities, I know my word count for the week still looms over me. Nothing eliminates it; I just have more to write later.

One of the places where I consistently find excellent articles on writing is Backspace ( Backspace bills itself as "The Writer's Place," and it's an appropriate title.

During one of my "off" moments last year, I read an excellent article by Kirsten Nelson. The title was too long, but--hey--you can't have everything: "From Post Box To Agency Inbox: An Insider Look At How An Agent Reads and Evaluates The Requested Sample Pages For Your Novel."

That article could serve as a companion piece to last night's blog. In it, Kirsten talks about the writing styles and subjects which force her to take a pass on partials. I'm going to summarize those here:

1. "Fresh storyline but the writing isn’t strong enough." This is a partial in which the author has a terrific plot line or story concept, but is simply not a strong enough writer to pull it off. This is purely a question of craft. Kirsten described these cases as "heartbreaking." However, as a businessperson, she doesn't have the time to train a newbie writer to write. So she passes on the project.

2. "Sharp writing with a tired storyline." This is the opposite of Problem #1. Here, the writer is strong, but her material has been done again and again and again. Either the writer lacks the imagination or the motivation to come up with a fresh and exciting story line.

3. "A beautifully written but boring work." This is a twist on #2. Again, the writer is strong, but the subject matter is deadly (at least to that agent). Remember: agents are people, too, with likes and dislikes.

One of the real public services that agent blogs such as Anna Genoese, Miss Snark and Pub Rants provide is that they help newbie writers to see agents as people. People who can dislike sci-fi (Miss Snark) or love romances (Kirsten).

This seems to me to be the most frustrating mistake of the group. It can so easily be avoided by the writer doing a bit of research to find out what genres the agent in question likes to represent.

4. "Poorly written material regardless of story." This is #1, only without the great concept. It is probably the easiest for an agent to pass on. Badly written material without even a good plot to recommend it isn't going to find a home with any agent. There's a reason they call writing a craft.

5. "Stories that clearly don’t fit in the market. I’ll get a cover letter that will say something like...'my story is a blend of science fiction and romantic comedy with elements of suspense. It can be called Chick Lit.' Huh? It is only the extraordinary writer who can outrageously defy genre boundaries and become a phenomenal success. It just doesn’t happen often. You need to know where your novel fits in the market."

This one is almost an exact duplicate of a comment that I quoted Kirsten making in my blog from last night. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of a writer knowing and understanding his market. You MUST be able to tell an agent or an editor where your novel will fit on the shelves of a bookstore. It's all about marketing.

6. "Partials with demanding or unprofessional cover letters." This problem is the only one of the six that is more about the personality of the writer than about her ability to write. Kirsten and Miss Snark are in agreement on this one. "Life is too short to deal with negative and demanding people." Kirsten made the point that she is not talking about assertive authors. While she doesn't say it, I'm guessing she is talking about aggressive authors, which is another kettle of fish altogether.

There is so much good information available to writers today. We need to be grateful for all the advice offered so graciously and willingly.

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