On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Life for a Real Life Literary Agent (in Training)

As an aspiring writer, how is your query received by the agent? Read on for a little first-hand description.

I read an interesting essay on the Amazon Create Space community by someone (Mr. Mysterious) who’d done a two week internship (7 work days total, since there were snow days) in NYC last winter. I wrote to ask for permission to post this on my blog and unfortunately didn’t receive a response, so am taking the liberty here of just summarizing his observations and impressions because they’re so helpful. I’m assuming this is OK since this guy posted on a public forum loop.

Mr. Mysterious worked for an agent mainly reading queries and samples – since this agency requested a synopsis and first 5 pages when querying. He estimates during his time there that he went through 300-350 queries, averaging about 50 per day. For eight hours (not including lunch or bathroom breaks, or other duties and time expenditures), that might be about six or so per hour, or even more roughly one every ten minutes. This isn’t much time to impress someone who is reading, say, eight pages per submission (1 page query, 5 page sample, 2 page synopsis).

Many of the queries were “way too long,” and he found himself skimming the long ones and/or those with detailed plot descriptions. He felt shorter was definitely sweeter, and he paid closer attention to the concise ones. Queries were usually mediocre, and the handful that weren’t often had sample writing that was.

Mr. Mysterious always read the sample, even if he didn’t like the query. If the query didn’t have a sample, he requested the author to email it back in the body of the email.

After a day, he stopped reading the synopses:

1. Some were too long, occasionally even longer than the sample.
2. After awhile they started to sound the same.
3. If he didn’t like the sample, he didn’t care about the synopsis.
4. They took a long time to read, and when going through a large pile of correspondence the principle is: the faster the better.

The authors didn’t always follow the requested guidelines for number of pages (the longest sample was 20 pages), and although Mr. Mysterious didn’t immediately disqualify these writers, he was definitely annoyed and gave a less careful reading.

Out of 300-350 queries, Mr. Mysterious found exactly ONE that went into the YES folder, and 40 into the ?MAYBE? folder. These query samples had skillful writing (voice, characters, settings, etc.). A few maybes were included even though he didn’t like the samples simply because the writer had some good credentials: a former literary agent or previously pubbed by a reputable publisher and/or major magazine. Many of the credentials cited in the queries were trivial or irrelevant. Credentials only mattered to the intern when they were of something/someone he’d heard of.

The agent who was mentoring this intern rejected the YES, and from the maybes requested pages from one and left two others as possibles. The rest were rejected. The accepted ones he didn’t quite remember but doesn’t think they had credentials in their queries. Neither the agent nor Mr. Mysterious liked the query from the writer from whom she requested pages.

I was fascinated to read that Mr. Mysterious found the same terms appearing in many queries. For example, GUARDIAN – there were a lot of guardians in these samples. He didn’t mention what sorts of genres the agent specialized in, but it sounded like YA and adult, science-fiction-y adventure.

Here’s a quote from the intern’s post: “A lot of queries were like, Main Character is just your average kid/just wants to be your average kid, EXCEPT HE SHOOTS LIGHTNING OUT OF HIS BUTT WHEN HE FARTS.

“A lot of queries, especially YA Urban Fantasy queries, read like they’re all written from the same template. Off the top of my head.

“NAME, a [number] teen year old at [school name] has enough to worry about with [insert generic school/teenage problems], without [insert discovery of paranormal abilities, an ancient conflict, discovery of paranormal abilities AND an ancient conflict]. It will be up to Name to [stop conflict, learn to control abilities]. That is, if he doesn’t get [insert fantasy problem and/or generic school/teenage problems,] first.

“Jake, a thirteen year old at Springwood High, has enough to worry about with not making the base ball team and getting dumped by text message, without a sect of ancient warrior chipmunks bringing their civil war to his town of Springwood. As the prophesied Tailless One it will be up to Jake to bring peace to the chipmunks, if he doesn’t get his heart broken by text message again first.”


This intern also found many girl meets boy stories, where the guy is just too amazing for words. After a few too many samples like this he rolled his eyes and passed on all of them.

Another interesting observation is that writers wanted to “start with a bang,” for example a plane crash on the first page. Mr. Mysterious found this stuff not compelling, if not frankly boring. I would take a guess here that this is so because if you (the reader) don’t care about the characters yet, you don’t really care what happens.

Here’s another quote: “As an intern reading the first few pages of your novel, I was about the most detached person in the world from your story. I wasn't doing this for fun. Or as a favor, cause I knew/liked you. I was doing this, because it was my job, and as you may have guessed, a rather monotonous job at that (though certainly not without its rewards and excitement.) What this means is, the world might be ending in your story, but I was sitting there in an office, tired from my commute, hungry cause I skipped breakfast, and with a lot more queries after you to get through. And the world outside my window? Still there.

“As such, your primary goal in those first five (imo) should be to make the reader, be he agent, intern, or prospective buyer, care. If you make the reader care, he'll be hooked whether you drop a bomb on him or not. If you fail to make him care, then no matter how many bombs you drop, they'll all be duds. (lol, couldn't resist.)


There were so many queries that he quickly started looking for reasons to reject. Some of these were:

1. Lots of typos.
2. Grammar or tense issues.
3. Blandness, clich├ęs, not being interesting.

Mr. Mysterious kept reading especially if the samples had Voice and/or Humor. He suspects there are two types of Voices that are professional: an overt or stylized voice that is immediately intriguing, and a subtle or realistic style of voice. Some examples of voice that he gives are:

Overt/Stylized: Coen Brother’s The Big Lebowski, Chuck Palahuik’s Choke, Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Doestoevsky’s Notes from The Underground, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary Of A Part Time Indian. These overt voices portray exceptional, unique characters with stories that leap off the page.

Subtle/Realistic: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, anything by Hemmingway, John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Orwell's 1984, a lot of classic plays like The Glass Menagerie, and Death of a Salesman. You could imagine someone you see in the supermarket being able to tell these stories. This style often occurs in literary fiction.

5-10 pages for a sample may not be enough to capture this type of subtle voice well, and may not play well to a hurried agent or intern. However, different agents specialize in different genres, so you should look carefully for the type of agent that takes your type of stories.

*

I find it interesting to think that this intern found himself jaded and impatient after only a few days on the job. Keep this in mind when presenting your story. And thank you, Mr. Mysterious, for your sharp insights into the pubbing biz.

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