A little bit ago, my wonderful agent Sara Megibow was tweeting about subjectivity in publishing, and since this is something I’ve thought about a LOT, I thought I’d try to unpack it a bit myself.
I can look back on the first novel I ever really started and say clearly that the craft aspects weren’t there. There were good moments, and there were some strong lines. There were also terrible cliches and clunky structure and a lot of other things that objectively needed improvement.
I’ve never read the full slushpile, in the sense that agents do, but I read a LOT of queries from new writers, both on fora around the interwebz and people who ask me to look at theirs. It’s fairly common to see people voicing frustration that a query/first few pages don’t really get into the story, but in the number of queries and opening pages I’ve read, even I can see that that’s actually not as true as you might think. You can often tell from the pages or query what you’ll see in the rest of a manuscript. Sometimes that’s easily quantifiable in terms of sentence construction, character development, worldbuilding, or basic conventions of writing. Sometimes it’s more nebulous. The style or tone, etc.
But when agents say they can tell from a query or the first five pages of a manuscript if it’s for them or not, they aren’t being jerks — they read enough to have learned through thousands of case studies that if they see something in those introductory words that doesn’t work, it will almost inevitably continue throughout the manuscript.
So let’s break down this whole subjectivity thing, shall we? When rejections come in, most of the time they are really polite and use language like, “not for me,” or “another agent might feel differently.”
I think these comments can be sort of split into two categories (which will probably compound many sets of neuroses, and for that I’m sorry).
1. Actual subjectivity (This writing is awesome, but the book is — too close to something on my list; not a genre I’m looking for right now; something I would struggle to sell; just not the fit I really need right now; not the tone I am going for right now; one of my clients is working on something similar <– insert one of the above). In these cases, the book could very well go on to do AMAZINGLY! But it needs a champion who clicks with it.
2. Not…so…subjective craft concerns. This is the toughie, because ain’t nobody want to hear that their writing isn’t submission ready. I have heard those words many-a-time, and it is not so much of the funsies. But agents don’t have the time to break this down 99% of the time and unpack it for authors who are in their slushpile. They just don’t. Even if they were to say, “The writing just isn’t quite there yet,” that would open them up to authors responding with, “WELL WHY? TELL ME WHAT TO DO.”
So. Craft concerns. What does that mean when the writing isn’t quite there?
Lots of things. LOTS. It could mean stilty dialogue or incomprehensible worldbuilding. Structural issues. Pacing issues. Repetitive sentence structure. Too many fragments. (See what I did there?) Cliches, either in the writing or the subject.
That part is not really that subjective. Some people may enjoy fragments (though likely in moderation). Others might hate them with a fiery flamey thing. To an extent, you can look at a page of writing and say, “This is great craft” even if it’s not your favorite flavor of it. You can also look at a page of writing that IS your favorite flavor and think it’s not well constructed and they went overboard on the salt.
Agents aren’t going to tell you those things because they just flat don’t have time. Agenting for their existing clients is their more-than-full time job. Reading the slush is something they do in the free time they don’t have. They can’t give each of the hundreds of writers whose work they pass on each month a thoughtful and useful critique of the work they’re not signing.
The craft aspect isn’t always easily quantifiable. But one of the reasons the opening pages are so telling is that they do something immensely important: they establish. When they do that well, they immerse. There have been books that stole me away from the first line. There have been others that took me a hundred pages to feel at home in. I think sometimes this sense of immersion is conflated with action — getting to the action immediately — when to me it’s a combination of worldbuilding and tension. Some sort of disturbance in the protagonist’s world, and making that world something we can slip seamlessly into.
Reading a lot in and out of genre can help with this. A disturbance doesn’t have to be finding a dead body or having someone shoot at you. It can be as simple as this: “When Mary came home at eleven at night, the porch light was not on as it should have been.”
Now. That’s a disturbance because we have no idea why the porch light might not be on. It could be that her partner is always home by then and turns it on for her. It could be that the bulb is burnt out. It could be that her partner got home, but passed out from her migraine meds and didn’t flip the switch before they kicked in. Or it could be that something is wrong — really wrong.
A disturbance is, essentially, twofold. It establishes the world (the porch light is always on at eleven at night when Mary comes home) AND disturbs that world in one sentence. It’s also showing instead of telling. Telling would be, “When Mary came home at eleven at night, the porch light wasn’t on. Her partner always left the porch light on, but tonight it wasn’t.” See how that sort of…double taps the mystery of it?
(Also now I kind of want to write that story. 😛 If anyone else wants to write a bit of flash and post it in the comments with that line as the starter, I wouldn’t say no to reading them.)
From both my experience and what I’ve heard from agents when those first pages don’t draw them in, it can usually be chalked up to just that — a lack of that disturbance. A disturbance forms questions in the reader’s mind — and readers want those questions answered. Those questions are what make someone want to read more.
For the vlog section of today’s Blog and Vlog, I’m talking about understanding category and genre, and how the interplay between genre conventions and tropes is something authors need to take into account. WHEE!
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