Friday, May 1, 2009

The fiction submission rant

There is no question for this post - I'm writing it because I want to whinge. For there are many days when I just want to never, ever, ever look at fiction submissions again. And it's not because I don't find clients that way - I do - but it's because so much of my time is wasted doing it that I find it hard to justify reading the subs. And why is my time wasted? Because 99% of fiction submissions aren't ready to be seen. (That percentage is an approximation, and possibly influenced by my snarky mood.)

So let's play a game. Let's say I grant every submission 100 points to start with. I'm going to list some common things I see in submissions. Certain things will take off points; certain things will add. If the submission still ends up with around 100 points, then I'll ask for a full manuscript. (In reality it's not that scientific, but maybe I'll change my ways.)

1. Sending in your first draft. LOSE 50 POINTS
1. (a) It's your first novel. LOSE ANOTHER 25 POINTS

2. Asking your best friend or mother to read your novel and then believing what they say and THEN telling me that I should read your novel because your mother loved it. LOSE 20 POINTS

3. Putting your novel away for a while - weeks, if not months - and then revisiting it and doing some more work. ADD 20 POINTS

4. Telling me that if I don't take you on I'll be missing out on the greatest novelist who ever lived. LOSE 10 POINTS

5. Taking the time to understand that to write a novel is to tell a story and that means you can't write 50 000 words of beautiful prose with no plot and no character development. ADD 20 POINTS

6. Being completely unrealistic about your abilities as a writer - everyone may have a novel in them but that doesn't mean everyone should write that novel. If you failed to read any novels in high school, there's a good chance you're not cut out to be a novelist. LOSE 20 POINTS

7. Reading lots of novels, particularly in your genre. ADD 15 POINTS
7. (a) Comparing yourself to those novelists when you submit your manuscript. LOSE 10 POINTS

8. Sending in a half-baked submission 'so you can give me some advice on where my writing should go from here'. LOSE 40 POINTS

And, at the suggestion of one of my authors (some of them know I write this blog - well, only the handsome ones):
9. Mentioning it's a literary novel. LOSE 15 POINTS (he suggested 1000 and used swear words - I'm not going to be that forceful - and please bear in mind that he actually writes literary fiction)
9. (a) Mentioning it's a literary novel set in Melbourne, and you're from Melbourne, and all the characters are from Melbourne too. LOSE ANOTHER 15 POINTS (and before you take umbrage, remember that my name is Agent SYDNEY - that gives me licence for a little fun, non?)

I've just run out of ideas, but there's every chance I'll add to this list in future. And you can probably tell there are more 'lose' than 'add' items. Believe me, I WANT to love every submission I read. I want there to be so many brilliant novels of all stripes out there that Australians only ever want to read Australian novels and forget about overseas authors. But the bitter truth is that I despair. I read the submissions and I see novelists who could turn out to be great but who will get rejected by me - and probably everyone else - because they were impatient. I read other submissions that are truly awful. I read a lot that are just tepid. All of this wastes my time, and when my time is wasted I grow cranky and I'm more and more tempted to never read fiction submissions again.

The biggest problem is that novels are submitted well before they're ready. If this blog achieves nothing else than to make novelists think hard before they submit to anyone, I'll be happy. Because while people like me spend too much time reading submissions that will never get published, we are not spending time on developing and supporting Australian talent.

In the past I have received several emails whinging - yes, whinging, how dare you! - about agents closing submissions and asking why. Well, now you know. We're not a public service - we run businesses. We can't work for nothing. So if we detect that something is wasting our time - and our money-making capabilities - we'll stop doing it. The one thing writers can do to ensure that doesn't happen is to make sure their submissions are up to scratch. Agents do not exist to give you advice unless you're a client. We are looking for writers we can get published. If you can free us up by not sending us your undercooked novel, we'll be more able to look at it when it IS cooked.

Having now expunged myself of bad feeling, I'm feeling charitable. Miss Snark used to run the occasional query-thing - writers would send in query letters and she'd flagellate them (or not) on the blog. I'm considering doing the same thing. If you think this is a good idea, please send an email to call [dot] sydney [at] gmail [dot] com. Please don't send query letters yet - just drop me a line to tell me whether you'd be interested.


Sarahlynn said...

It's through reading agent blogs like this one that I learned not to send in my first draft. So thank you (and other blogging agents) for the education I've received over the past year! I have also seriously overhauled my query letter, since my assumptions about what agents want to know were way off target.

The tricky thing about a lot of your "add points" criteria are that they might not be evident from a query letter. My letter certainly doesn't say that I wrote a draft then pitched it. After a few years I replotted, did character studies, created a detailed outline, and started over. After finishing the first half of the new draft, I had early readers (other writers, not close friends or family members) check it out to see if I was on track. Reassured, I finished the whole thing. Now I'm revising, after which I'll send the whole ms out to my critique group and a couple of readers who are not writers. I'll take another pass at the manuscript with their responses in mind, and only then will it be ready to go out to agents (hopefully by the end of the summer). But none of that process will be in my query letter! My query letter provides my hook and pitch, then mentions the short stories and personal essays I've published recently.

Similarly, I don't know how I'd mention how much (and who) I read in the context of a query letter, unless I say that I'm writing in the style of X, Y, and Z.

I hope that the time I've taken with my novel and my familiarity with what's currently selling in the same genre is evident from my manuscript, but I doubt it will be in my query letter.

I think it makes a lot of sense that there are a lot more "LOSE POINTS" opportunities at the query stage.

Also, I'm not Australian, so I don't know if I'm eligible for your query critique, but I'll certainly be interested in reading those you do flagellate (or not) on the blog.

LiteraryMinded said...

Sarahlynn, I think what she is getting at with the 'add points' is that these things will be immediately evident within the mauscript itself.

Sarahlynn said...

I agree, that's where they should show up.

"If the submission still ends up with around 100 points, then I'll ask for a full manuscript."

In a query, I think it's most natural to look for things writers do incorrectly, things that show that either a) they can't write well, or b) they don't understand the business or otherwise are not yet ready for publication.

JJ Cooper said...

Needs to be some points added for 'platform'.

Although I have an agent, I'd be more than happy to provide the query letter that secured a contract if you think it may be helpful.


T. Adonis K. said...

(this is a first draft comment). As a published writer without an agent, I had to briefly comment because I've worked on the other side a production specialist for a major publisher and worked alongside editors and copy-editors.

This seems to be a little unnecessary and destructive. Tell us what you want to see instead of giving us a point system. Once a publishing company picks up a work of art, there ends up being a lot of hands that will touch an author's work of art.

1. Many agents simply lack the foresight in what would work right now. Instead they play on copying what is working and therefore what worked LAST YEAR and what won't work today.

2. I don't know what my mom really thinks and I've found it very difficult to obtain criticism in general.

3. Sometimes having nothing is still nothing. Ideas should be developed fully.

4. I wonder what Tolstoy wrote - he probably was humble. A writer should really highlight their ability "TO WORK WITH OTHERS", "TAKE CRITICISM" and "MEET DEADLINES." If a writer wants the big fish - you're going to have to deal with not only editors but marketing and sales. If you're work is optioned - you're going to have to meet a deadline for a movie release.

5. Have you read "The Road"... I couldn't get through it, but damn it sold.

6. Damn this is mean. When I've said, "I'm a writer" I heard the response, "wow do I have an interesting story" - I must say I cringe. Still, I would never rant how you did. An agent's job is to read mostly crap and find a gem. When you find a gem - you hire others to read crap. Or you build your business through referrals or get out.

6.2 - I'm dyslexic and really didn't gain an interest in reading and writing until after graduating university. I do know that many published writers first considered writing in their thirties and forties. So what you write is not only short-sighted but irrelevant. Publishers love writers from diverse backgrounds because they package it in the marketing.

7. Reading other published works in "a genre" is really useful if copying someone else's form is the secret to success. It's the secret to hack-dom. An agent should either like your fresh approach or not and you should knock on all doors until then.

7a. I agree with this. Living in LA, I commonly hear that something is like something else. "'It's Gone with the Wind' meets 'Ghostbusters'". I hate this.

8. They actually do this? Ughh. Of course, many times books are optioned for movies before the first draft is ever written.

9. I'm having a hard time getting this one as it's hard understanding what you referring to.
9a. Who cares whether it's from Sydney, Melbourne or Hickville Massachusetts? A good writer writes in the world they're familiar with. It's far more compelling and appealing. A good agent should be able to see what would be compelling to the reader and convince the appropriate publisher to pick up the story.

An agent's job is to read submissions and sell to publishers. If we all followed your advice - all submissions would be DOA.