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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » What Agents Want

   
Author Topic: What Agents Want
DWD
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Interesting recent post on agent Jennifer Jackson's blog about her agency's (Donald Maass) 5-page query limit:

http://arcaedia.livejournal.com/201568.html

Embedded in the post are a couple of good links as well -- one to an earlier post of Jackson's and another to Kristen Nelson's observations about openings from a workshop she co-led. The workshop theme is interesting, BTW. They called it "2 minutes, 2 pages." The leaders pretend they are sitting back reading through the slush pile as the authors read their work aloud. One will say "stop" when a point is reached where s/he would not read on. (Ouch!!!)

Interestingly, both agents have a similar theme, though they express it in different ways: They are more likely to look favorably on a submission if the first five pages make them wish they could read page six.

Jackson:

quote:
Obviously, the whole story is greater than the sum of its parts. I'm not expecting to know everything about the book in just five pages. That's not why I'm reading them. I'm looking for a sense of things. The writer's style or voice, perhaps. A compelling character. A strong plot hook or concept. A taste that makes me want more.

All they have to do is get me to turn the page (or hit page-down in my email) and want more when there isn't any more.


Nelson:

quote:
After the 3 hour session, I can say without a doubt that this was the biggest issue we found in the pages that were read. The openings lacked a sense of urgency that would have propelled the story forward or would have engaged the reader immediately in the story or the characters presented.

In other words, most opening scenes had nothing at stake.


An observation, then, and two questions:

There is always going to be a limit, whether it's 13 lines or five pages, and whether it's formally stated or not.

Do you think what these agents are talking about is the same thing as a "hook"? This seems different to me--a combination that involves more than just the hook.

Have any of you seen/heard similar comments by other agents/editors/slush readers?


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Owasm
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An interesting point I've seen before. I think that's the real point about the first 13... to get that first page turned. If there is nothing to offer on page 2, the relationship between the reader and the author will terminate before getting to page 3.

It tells me there is no excuse to let up in the writing at any point in any work. Just think of sending a 50 page writing sample. You have to make sure every page gets turned to the end, if you don't a form rejection is likely headed your way.

There is no escape from making piece work throughout. I don't think that means non-stop action and a series of hooks at the bottom of each page, but a satisfying reading experience that will keep the pages turning.


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DWD
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Good points.

I think it's extremely interesting that it seems to be easy for agents/editors/slush readers to express what they want a good story to create in them--the desire to read on, the promise of excitement, a sense of urgency--but then continuing on to describe what that looks like is slippery.

My wife and I show dogs (English Springer Spaniels - ESS for short), and I keep seeing a lot of parallels between the publishing hurdle writers have to jump and the hurdle of getting your dog noticed and "put up" in the show ring. As is the case with agents and editors, conformation judges have sets of standards they apply to each entry. The standard for the ESS is a short booklet of prose defining the overall look the breed should have, with a few objective criteria like maximum height at the withers. For the most part, though, it's loose, sometimes quite flowery and effusive prose that leaves the judge a great deal of wiggle room for subjective evaluation.

An AKC conformation judge in Anytown, USA might put my dog up as Best of Winners on day one of a three-show weekend. (Yay!) On day two, though, a different judge evaluating the same group of dogs might put my dog at the "end of the line." On the final day, yet another judge looking at the very same dogs might rank my dog somewhere in the middle. All the judges judge by the same standard, but they all have personal preferences that they apply (that might not even comply with the standard), and there are also winks and nods between judges and handlers who know each other (known as "judging the wrong end of the lead"). In the end, however, it's a very subjective process even absent the creeping in of personal preferences and favoritism.

If you watch the Westminster (or any other televised) dog show, you'll be familiar with this. The judge will declare Best in Show at the end, then a reporter will invariably ask "what made you decide to put up Alowicious as the winner?" The judge will hem and haw and talk about how Alowicious was the the best example of his breed's standard among all those she judged. But she won't tell you what that really means--probably couldn't if she had to.

All that's to say that the publishing world appears to be at least equally subjective in nature. In the end, you can follow all the guidelines, have perfect prose, a compelling story, and flawless pacing and plotting. But if the agent/editor can't find something tenuous--so tenuous that s/he has trouble even verbalizing it with any precision--your work will be set aside. The good news is that there may be another who does see that cryptic "certain something" s/he is looking for and can say "I like this; send more."

There are no perfect dogs. Every one has flaws to describe if the judge has already subjectively disqualified it, and qualities to praise if it is his pick. The real deciding factors, though, are more often than not leaps of intuition that result from years of looking at the breed, watching how the best animals move, looking for an elegance of the whole that is greater than the sum of the individual qualities. Evaluating and selecting fiction for publication seems to be a very similar process.


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Heresy
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DWD, you make some excellent points there, points that have made me re-examine the list of books that have achieved either critical or popular success (I have never felt the two necessarily go hand in hand) that I have disliked. I have sometimes dismissed these as hype, which some are. I have seen several that, if I were an editor and received the manuscript, I would have refused to publish because I considered them that deficient. I have often taken that as encouragement to keep writing, under the idea that, if this can get published, I can get there too. I think I may need to re-examine that too. This thread, the linked articles, and you, DWD, have given me a lot to ponder.

That said, I'm still going to write, if only because it's the way I'm built. I see the world in terms of story, and if I don't write at least some part of them, I find I become very unhappy, very quickly.

Heresy


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DWD
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Thanks very much. I have to say, though, that it certainly wasn't my intent to discourage. After several years of grumbling about AKC conformation, I finally came to the conclusion that it's an imperfect system, it isn't likely to change (not quickly anyway), and I would continue to show our dogs with my wife because we love the sport in spite of its subjectivity (and, well, we just think we have great dogs!).

Again, to me writing is similar. Publishing is a long-established but flawed system, and while I even as a newbie can see signs of positive change, its subjective nature can be frustrating--I'm sure much more so for those of you who've been doing this for a long time). I'm going to keep writing because I love it (and, well, I just think I have some great stories to tell!).


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Heresy
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Believe me, it isn't going to discourage me. As I said, a writer is what I am, at my most basic nature. I stopped for years after I first started, but came back to it 4 or 5 years ago, like someone rediscovering themself.

I only said that this would make me reconsider my view of books that make it, and even when/if my own submissions do or don't make it. In a way, it'll help me get through all those rounds of rejection that will certainly come. The sustaining idea will be that I just have to get it in the hands of the right person, once I'm happy with it, and that is one that encourages me, really.

Heresy


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Jeff M
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quote:
In the end, you can follow all the guidelines, have perfect prose, a compelling story, and flawless pacing and plotting. But if the agent/editor can't find something tenuous--so tenuous that s/he has trouble even verbalizing it with any precision--your work will be set aside

Yup. And even if you do have that tenuous je ne sais quoi, consider the intangibles:
- Perceptions are affected by mood. If the editor is having a "bad day", would they set something aside they otherwise would've read if they had been having a "good day"?
- Is your story being read first thing on Monday morning or in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon that never seems to end?
- Does the editor begin reading your story, only to be interrupted by a collegue running in and saying quick turn on CNN because they found OJ killed MJ, and then they get back to your story 3 hours later?
- Is your story being read after the editor has just plowed through a dozen stories with such atrocious spelling and grammer they appeared written by a rhesus monkey?
- Is your story being read after the editor just read something by the next Steven King and they were so impressed with that story, they bought lifetime rights to that author's and personally invited him over to dinner?
- Did the editor just find out that morning her husband Steve has been sleeping with the cleaning lady, and your MC is named Steve?

For me, learning to craft a story using all the guidelines, etc. is a way of getting the images/thoughts/ideas in my head out onto paper in a way that lets others see what I see. My biggest problem is I can see these great images in my head, but when I put them on paper they just lie there like the hair ball my cat barfed up this morning. Following all the tips and tricks for writing helps me create a better story, but in the end, I have no control of what the editor likes or doesn't like. So I have to satisfy myself. If I do that, then I'm successful.



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DWD
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@Jeff M: Apologies for not coming back around to this. I agree; we have to write for ourselves.

One other point (at the risk of pushing the dog show comparison too far): I've noticed that many breeders know exactly which judges are most likely to put their dogs up based on prior experience and on watching all of them very carefully to see what they appear to like. Some agents now make this info available, but it seems like there's still significant opacity around direct submissions to publishers. Is that true, or just a misperception of mine?


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Merlion-Emrys
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I think that is largely true, DWDm especially with most of the big pro markets (not all mind but most.) The arguements around here about the whole first 13 issue, I think, show that. Certainly its possible to get an idea of what a given editor does and doesnt like (even more so with some of the "lesser" publications that frequently tell you why they are rejecting your story.) Edit: realized I didn't really finish my thought. It is possible to get that feel some times, and some markets even make their reading proccess clear, but many do not. It largely depends on the publication.


I think thats partially because, while I agree entirely with your dog show metaphor, I feel publishing is even more subjective. Most of the very criteria of "good" writing are at least partially subjective, some of them pretty much entirely so.

[This message has been edited by Merlion-Emrys (edited July 09, 2009).]


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