Friday, November 27, 2009

What's not to like?

After sending Author X a polite rejection, he responded with an equally polite question:

Ms. Bent,
> If you have the time and inclination could you answer this
> question...just what ARE you looking for? It's not that I'm going to
> write something according to formula, but I'm curious. I certainly
> won't blame or hold it against you if you never reply to this reply
> (the department of redundancy department strikes again!), but any
> insight into what the market seems to be would be of great benefit.
> Best,
Author X

I asked him if I could reproduce his e-mail because I think it's a question that comes up a lot. It's also along the same lines as a question I've discussed extensively with an intern of mine who is also a writer: If I think a manuscript is good, or even great and absolutely saleable, how come I will still pass on it? After all, if it's saleable, why not go out there and sell it?

And the answer is thus: why do you like Hemingway but not Fitzgerald? Why do you walk into a bookstore and pick up one book but not another? After all, you know Fitzgerald is a masterful writer. And you know that in the bookstore you could find many more books that you would conceivably buy.

Taste, my friends, it all comes down to taste. If you go into the bookstore with a budget to buy only one book by an author that's new to you, you have to pick out the book that's your very favorite out of the books that you see. When I'm reading manuscripts, I have the same constraints. I must pick out my very, very favorite. If I took on every solid manuscript that I read, I wouldn't have nearly enough time to sell them all. It has to be a labor of love and passion for me to sell your book; otherwise I'll potentially lose interest if I can't sell the book in the first round of submissions.

Additionally, even if I see that a book is saleable, that doesn't mean I can personally sell it. I have to pick a book that I have a true affinity for so that as I'm reading I'm composing a pitch letter in my head and a list of editors that I think will love it. If that doesn't happen, it means that I truly don't know how I would pitch this or sell it. If I love a science fiction novel, that doesn't mean I know how to sell it. I don't work with the editors that buy it, and I'm not familar with the genre so I don't know if it competes with what's already out there, or if editors will think it's old news. I would be doing the book's author a disservice by representing him or her.

So, Author X, I'm looking for a book that speaks to me somehow, in a genre that I know how to sell. And that "somehow" is of course the mysterious element that authors can't predict. The solution of course is to submit to multiple agents who could potentially be a fit, and keep submitting, until you find the agent who truly "gets" you. And that's also what agents do with editors. You know that a particular manuscript will probably be to a certain editors taste, but you never know if it will truly spark with them enough for them to try to make an offer.

As it so often is, the message is to keep trying, believe in yourself and your work, and hard as it is, don't take rejection personally. Remember that Fitzgerald papered his wall with rejection letters, Dr. Seuss got turned down by at least 20 publishers (check out this link:, Alex Haley was rejected over 200 times before Roots was finally published, etc., etc. And finally, I leave you with this a great link with lots of rejection stories for when you're feeling discouraged:

Thursday, November 26, 2009


Is everyone happy and full tonight? I for one had four different desserts and am contemplating a white chocolate chip cookie as I type.

I digress. Anyway, if you are a young adult/middle grade author, watch this space for a very exciting announcement soon.

Happy Thanksgiving to all and to all a good night.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

squeaky wheel

Hey guys--

If I have requested a manuscript from you, and you haven't heard from me after a month, please, please follow up with an e-mail. Squeaky wheel definitely gets the grease.

Happy Thanksgiving to all and Happy Birthweek to me!


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pride and Prejudice Without Zombies

I had coffee the other day with an editor from the Penguin Classics group and she handed me the most gorgeous version of Pride and Prejudice with a cover designed by Ruben Toledo. Check it out: The amazon page doesn't do it justice; it really does look amazing.

Well, of course, then I had to start reading it. Jane Austen is my very favorite author and for a few years running I read all her works every year over Christmas break, but I'd fallen out of that habit. And what a pleasure to be reminded all over again why I absolutely love this book--the writing, the characters, the dialogue. But this time I've noted something else about it. I'm reading so many manuscripts these days looking for new clients that I bring a new perspective to this book, which is: damn, if this book just isn't FULL of plot. I think many of us (me included) tend to think of the classics as slow-moving, ornately written, focusing on character as opposed to plot. But reading Austen reminds me that beyond Austen, plenty of classic literature has fast-paced, rip-roaring adventure, edge-of-your-seat kind of stuff. And reading Austen makes me realize very clearly what's missing in a lot of the manuscripts I'm reading these days.

Which (finally) brings me to the point. I am reading so many beautifully written novels whose descriptions in the query sound fantastic--full of plot and intrigue. But when I sit down to read said novels, I find myself reading page after page of description and conversation with no real movement forward in terms of plot. I've said it before: start your story, don't set up your story. From right around page one, I want to be plunked down in the middle of intrigue. I'm not saying write a mystery, but I am saying that I want there to be a kind of mystery element, a reason to keep reading because I want to know what happens next. Let your book pose a question almost from page one: will Annabelle find her father? Who is the mysterious character following Bob? What is the story behind the family bible with significant words blacked out? Will Jane find love (and more importantly marriage) with Bingley? What is the story behind the Wickham-Darcy feud? Will Lydia be rescued in time?

Even the most character-driven novels, in my opinion, work because you love the character so much that you want to see what happens to them next. Will they get the promotion, fall in love, get the girl, lose the weight, find their dog? There's still a question being posed and you keep reading to get the answer.

As I write, Rachelle Gardner just tweeted the following:
"A good plot is about disturbance to characters' inner and outer lives." ~@JamesScottBell

I think that sums it up perfectly.