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Cowgirl’s Guide to Literary Agent Feedback

(This photo has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this blog post. I just took it on the way home from work tonight and stuck it in here because they told me blog posts with pictures attract more readers, and I couldn’t conceive of a picture that went with this blog subject, but who am I to argue with the all-powerful they? So here’s your frigging picture. Enjoy.)

Category romance writers have a huge advantage over those who write almost any other kind of fiction…you have publishers that will accept submissions directly from the writer. For the rest of us, the road to publication nearly always meanders through the portals of a literary agency. There are hundreds of blog posts about the process of acquiring an agent and they’re all better than anything I could tell you. (Um, well, most of them. Do take care that the person whose advice you’re taking actually has some kind of experience and knowledge beyond that gleaned from last week’s perusal of Google reader and the bitch session with their last critique group.)

Anyway, I thought some of you might be interested in what happens after you sign with an agent. Again, not an expert here, but I can share my own experience.

First off, an agent isn’t a guarantee of a sale. I have proven that repeatedly over the past, um, well let’s not get into specifics, okay? Several of my agency stablemates share my experience, having not sold the book that got them signed. One of them landed on the NYT bestseller list last year with a subsequent book, though, so we persevere in hopes we’ll be next.

Because here’s the thing…it’s possible for a truly wonderful book to fail to find a home due to factors beyond the control of the writer or the agent. Silly things like popular trends or a story that doesn’t fall into a niche a publisher can market easily. Since conceding that getting published is, in many ways, a crap shoot, my blood pressure has dropped several points. That, and the cross-stitch sampler above my bed that says, “Just write the damn book”.

Last fall I submitted what I considered to be a finished novel to my agent. She advised me to cut out a third of the plot, give her more of the psychotic horse and Bill the house goat and send it in again. After scraping myself off the ceiling, I agreed with her assessment.  I mean, everybody knows you can never have enough of the horse and the goat in a romance, right? So I rewrote and resubmitted.

She made a few more suggestions on specific scenes and sent it back. I fixed it some more, and resubmitted. Then she read the same book, front to back, for the third time, doing line by line edits for things like typos and unnecessary words and stuff that makes her go ‘huh?’.

Have I mentioned I’ve never paid this woman a dime? And never will, if she doesn’t persuade a publisher to buy one of these books?

Those of us out here in the West hear all the time about how people in New York City are rude and pushy and don’t care if they hurt your feelings. I can’t say for sure because I’ve never been there. But my agent hangs her hat in downtown Manhattan, and she has developed an entire vocabulary intended to keep the sensitive writerly types on her roster from doing physical harm to ourselves when she tells us what she thinks of our latest effort. I, however, have learned to decipher her secret language. Here’s what she says—and what she really means.

Perfect! – Of course, we both know it’s not perfect. Nothing printed or conceived by a human being has ever been perfect. But it’s finally close enough to be seen by a real live editor. Who, should she purchase the manuscript in question, will promptly write up thirty-two pages of edits to be completed prior to publishing. See? Perfect.

Almost perfect – Other than the two hundred and fifty-three extraneous uses of the word ‘just’ and eighty-five sentences that start with ‘And’, plus maybe you could give the climactic scene a touch more oomph?

Getting there – The plot mostly makes sense, none of the minor characters’ names change from Frank to Joe midway through the book, and I don’t have a burning desire to shoot either of the major characters. We are definitely on the right track.

You’ve got a great start here – Holy crap, do we have a lot of work to do.

Hmmm. Interesting concept – Hello, recycle bin.

As for that last book…no go. After some excellent feedback from a couple of trusted editors, we made the decision not to submit it elsewhere until after another, even bigger rewrite. Which I will be doing right after I finish my current manuscript. Working title…The Never-Ending Novel. Genre…Epic Contemporary Romance.

I can’t imagine why she has trouble selling this stuff.

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7 Responses

  1. This made me smile – what a great post. And I love the frigging picture. So very different from what I see each day. It absolutely made me want to read it 🙂

    I don’t have an agent. Do I want one? Yeah. Eventually. Do I have to have one now? Not really. But I love to meet agents and read their blogs. I’m constantly storing information about agents in my brain so I know exactly which ones to stalk at conferences. 🙂

    Oh, and all my finished manuscripts are almost perfect. I love “just” and sentences starting with “and.”

  2. Really enjoyed this. I absolutely loved the list. Perhaps someday I’ll have an agent. (It is to hope.)

    What? There’s something wrong with beginning sentences with ‘And’. I just don’t understand that 🙂

  3. Liz: Everyone I’ve talked to–including agents–say you don’t need an agent when dealing with most Harlequin imprints because their contracts are pretty boilerplate so there’s really nothing to negotiate, so you’d just be signing away 15% of your checks for no appreciable gain. It’s when you branch out into single title or other types of fiction that you need to start agent shopping.

    Barb: Hah. Nicely played.

  4. the picture is journey’s-long-road-ahead looking…it kinda goes.

    and awesome post. you have an amazing agent *jealous!*

  5. Keri: I do have an amazing agent. Not all of them are wiling to do so much editing with no promise of reimbursement other than my gratitude.

  6. I’ve been editing all day. Removing a sh*tload of “and”, “just” and “seems” I needed this laugh today! Thanks.

    I don’t have an agent and I am targeting HQ. There are some advantages to an agent with HQ, but mostly in getting your MS read, and maybe some extra advance copies.

    Someone you will be on the NYT list, Kari, as long as you can make others laugh as much as you do us

  7. thanks, cyndi. Sooner would be better than later. *sigh* Today was the first time I havent helped with shipping calves, thanks to the stupid day job.

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