This heartfelt article describes what many of us know is involved in querying literary agents.
If you’re just starting out as a writer, yet to jump through an agent’s submission hoop, then what Glen Cadigan describes will give you a good idea of what to expect when you’ve completed your precious story.
I just received my 40th ‘No’ from 88 queries made in February, which brings my total of rejections up to 677 since 2013. I’m not upset by this, forging ahead with my plans to return to self-publishing, which, at the moment means adding posts to my Paul Pens blog in anticipation of it going live. To me, rejections are like flies splattering themselves on my windscreen as I drive onwards.
I found Glen Cadigan’s article via a link on the excellent Writers’ Services newsletter, which is worth subscribing to, that also featured an article from Jane Friedman who does a question and answer session with two literary agents, comparing and contrasting what they say with the reality that Glen Cadigan describes.
Before I started reading it, I predicted that both agents would stress the importance of good quality writing, which is what they always say, and that I’ve described here in an old post as the biggest fallacy about publishing.
The idea that your manuscript will rise to the top of the slush pile, glowing like an irresistible gold ingot because it’s well-written is nonsense. It certainly helps, for writing has to be coherent, at the very least, but from seeing what does get published to become best-selling, I reckon that it’s the concept of a story, something unusual, intriguing and exciting that can be marketed, which motivates agents and publishers to get behind a book.
This article was in the Curiosity.com newsletter today, about eggcorns—which are words or phrases that are misheard or wrongly remembered and regurgitated in a slightly different form—which then enters usage. This could be one way in which language evolves.
I’ve heard number 5) Bad wrap (bad rap) said as “bad rep”…as in bad reputation.
One phrase not on the list, that I don’t know which came first, isDull as ditchwateror Dull as dishwater.I grew up saying the former, but the washing-up option is more common nowadays.
Mishearing song lyrics or poetry leads to what are known as Mondegreens.
For a while, I thought that Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits was singing “Money for nothing and your cheques for free,” in their song Money For Nothing, rather than the actual lyric “your chicks for free.” Some listeners thought he was muttering “your chips for free.”
A close relative is a Malapropism, which can be humorous.
This article suggests that writing in longhand or by typewriter is a more stimulating method of creating a story than skating the surface of a soft-touch computer keyboard.
That there may be ‘hidden efficiency’ in pen, pencil and typewriter ribbon is intriguing. I agree that I remember information better if I’ve written it down, which is partly why I jot ideas onto scraps of card that are dotted around my laptop’s cooling cradle. I’ve got hundreds of documents stored in scores of folders on my desktop, which I’m sometimes glad to find while looking for something else, for I’d forgotten that I’d already done that bit of research!
I’ve written a few poems in longhand, but never anything in prose. I love relying on my laptop, which I also use to aid my concentration by playing music as I write. I even defy the common advice of not having an internet connection while I write, for sometimes it’s best for me to get a fact right at that moment, rather than doing it later when editing, as it will affect what I write next. I’m very focused, checking just that one fact and not wandering off to surf the web.
What about you?
Do you do everything on a computer?
Or by longhand or typewriter, afterwards producing a computer file?
One of the best-known televised games isCountdown, whose format has been sold worldwide:
Scrabble, with its many variants, has been around since 1938—rumours that it precipitated WW2 are probably untrue—but its interminable nature rivals Monopoly, which tries the patience. I’ve known several Scrabble bores who insisted on finishing the game, sitting up until the early hours of the morning. One had a gold-plated version whose glistening board and engraved letter tiles were difficult to read without tilting one’s head, making it tricky to remember which letters were in play.
Magnetic letter or word tiles to attach to fridge and freezer doors are a diverting way of having fun and leaving messages, though slamming the door is inadvisable, as stepping on a tile in bare feet is unpleasant, though not as painful as a Lego brick.
I’ve gone through phases of doing crosswords, never being addicted to them. I prefer puzzles based on general knowledge, as the satisfaction gained from working out cryptic clues escapes me. It’s been said, that doing crosswords is a good way of warding off dementia.
But a 2018 report in the British Medical Journal denied this was so.
I think that I’ll stick to my own word game, which is best played in bed as a way of hypnotising yourself or a partner to fall asleep. Using the alphabet, name a dog breed beginning with ‘A’ and so on—or a country or your favourite forename or a car or food…whatever you fancy. Take it in turns with a partner. You may well find that they and you go to sleep at the same letter each night.
This article in Vox.com reveals some startling examples of product placement by authors and screenwriters:
When a writer signs a contract agreeing to mention a company or product a certain number of times in their story, then the book is really an extended commercial…more so, if the company’s name is part of the title, as in Fay Weldon’sThe Bulgari Connection.
Although a fashion blogger turned novelist, called Riley Costello, is attempting to patent the term ‘shopfiction’, it seems that the notion of promoting product names in books has declined in use, largely because books are seen to be less influential these days.
Setting a story in the world of fashion or music, come to that, it would be impossible not to name names, as both activities are driven by competition between labels and brands for clothing, perfume and instruments. That’s not necessarily product placement.
Some commercial names become common expressions, such as to hoover, google it, jacuzzi, q-tips and tupperware.
Product placement is not usually an issue with Crime writing, but it’s something I’ve taken into account in penning my Cornish Detective novels. Without meaning to infer that what vehicles my characters drive are in any way desirable, I mention their cars, bicycles and motorcycles more as a way of showing their natures. I’ve read some crime novels that didn’t describe the make of car at all, which seemed daft, for the author happily named the detective’s gun and even which ammunition it was loaded with.
I’m happily working my way through James Oswald’s Inspector McLean series. I’d hazard a guess, that Oswald admires and maybe owns an Alfa Romeo, for his protagonist drives a classic Alfa, wildly unsuitable for his job, and a more modern Alfa only lasted one book before it was destroyed when a building exploded.
I tend not to have my detective protagonist say “google it” when his officers are searching for information while staking out a suspect’s house, instead he asks someone to look on their smartphone. One of my beta readers called me on what she thought might be product placement, as I’d had my main character order a collectable Victorian book on orchards from AbeBooks, which seemed to be the most likely place that he would have found it, and that sounded less clumsy than saying “an online book retailer.” Admittedly, when I wrote it, I thought some readers might benefit from knowing about AbeBooks, but I don’t see any money coming my way! Nor will I get anything for mentioning Taser, the electroshock weapon, which has been used a couple of times in my stories.
How do you handle the issue of mentioning product or company names?
Crime writers, in particular, will be interested in a startling discovery about DNA, which has been shown to be highly mobile, migrating between objects in previously unimagined ways. Instead of DNA being undeniable evidence that a suspect committed a crime, it could just be that skin cells and bodily fluids were transferred by touching a door handle that hundreds of others later touch.
This could potentially affect us all. Say, for example, that you sneeze while walking along a street. You can’t see it, but some of your sputum attaches itself to a lamppost, which a passerby brushes against, picking up your DNA on her dress. She is murdered that night—your DNA is on her dress. So what, you say, “I’m not a criminal, no one has my DNA on file from a previous conviction.” But unbeknownst to you, your cousin submitted a sample of their DNA to an ancestry tracing service which shares their data with law authorities, and there are enough similarities for you to be arrested! Have you got a provable alibi?
It’s not as if the police are operating with a clean slate. A British forensic researcher found DNA on three-quarters of crime scene tools he tested, including cameras, measuring tapes and gloves, making evidence discovered at a crime scene highly unreliable.
I predict that there will be hundreds of appeals against convictions based on DNA evidence, as a result of this revelation.
My jaundiced view of literary prizes is that most of them are marketing exercises to increase the sales of an already successful novel. I understand why this happens, for it’s getting the snowball rolling that’s the hardest part of attracting attention to one’s book, so if it’s already gathered momentum why not add a few more layers with prizes?
It’s worth remembering, that not all prize-winning books have huge sales. Bestselling novels are usually genre writing. There are prizes within genres, of course, but the high profile awards are somehow seen as conferring quality on the winning book which is literary in style. It’s rare for a crime, western, romance, fantasy or sci-fi novel to win a major award.
I’ve read a few of the main contenders for this year’s round of back-slapping by the publishing industry, enjoying them, but it becomes rather tedious when the same titles win lots of prizes. Colson Whitehead‘sThe Underground Railwayhas won the Arthur C Clarke prize for science-fiction, a Pulitzer, a National Book Award and he’s been longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Sebastian Barry’sDays Without Endwon the 2016 Costa Book Award and the 2017 Walter Scott Prize.
Francis Spufford won the Costa Book Award for a first novel, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Ondaatje Prize for his Golden Hill
I’m not jealous of these authors (not much), for their entry into literary prize awards happens at the behest of those with vested commercial reasons, so it’s hard to take them seriously.
There aren’t many book awards decided by readers’ votes. One such is the Books Are My Bag Readers Awardwhich is curated through bookshops. Reader Viewsruns an annual competition aimed at the independent writer who self-publishes.
The Goodreads Choice Awardis supposedly chosen by readers, though users of the site have no say in which books are nominated which has led to allegations of bias.
I’ve spent most of this year entering writing competitions, which has meant writing fresh material, as I naively self-published my entire catalogue of short stories and poetry online—effectively disqualifying it from 99% of contests. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of interpreting what the competition organisers are after, and have even felt a slight frisson of anticipation when I see the longlists announced for such awards as the Bridport Prize and the Bath Short Story Award.
It’s easy, as an unknown author lurking in the shadows, to look at the fuss surrounding national and international book prizes and think “This is nothing to do with me.”
It’s all as meaningless as music and acting awards—a bunch of insincere arse kissing run by the merchants selling their wares.
It’s easy to become paranoid as a writer. After all, we work alone, hidden away from the world creating stories that we hope will be loved by the very people we’re shunning. But to do this, we need to make entreaties to mysterious wraiths—literary agents—whose websites appear to show them as civilised arbiters of taste, yet they’re also strangely silent when approached.
Querying takes on the feeling of throwing a message in a bottle into a tempestuous ocean: has anyone even read your submission, and if they have done did they immediately dismiss it or laugh their heads off at your ineptitude?
The old saying ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean to say they aren’t out to get to you’takes on a frustrating twist for writers: ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean to say they even know you exist.’
This state of disconnectedness and paranoia are well summed up in a poem by Phillip Lopate, called We Who Are Your Closest Friends. An excerpt appears in Anne Lamott’s Bird By Birdwhich is one of the best books about writing I’ve read.
We Who Are Your Closest Friends
we who are your closest friends feel the time has come to tell you that every Thursday we have been meeting as a group to devise ways to keep you in perpetual uncertainty frustration discontent and torture by neither loving you as much as you want nor cutting you adrift
your analyst is in on it plus your boyfriend and your ex-husband and we have pledged to disappoint you as long as you need us
in announcing our association we realize we have placed in your hands a possible antidote against uncertainty indeed against ourselves but since our Thursday nights have brought us to a community of purpose rare in itself with you as the natural center we feel hopeful you will continue to make unreasonable demands for affection if not as a consequence of your disastrous personality
Do any of you feel like you don’t exist, that what you’re doing is just a figment of your own imagination? How is it that mediocre authors get published when your immaculate manuscript can’t get a look in? Do you ever feel like there are more people who hate you and your writing than love it?
Should your paranoia follow you to bed and cuddle up with regret, then remember Fleur Adcock‘s poem Things:
There are worse things than having behaved foolishly in public. There are worse things than these miniature betrayals, committed or endured or suspected; there are worse things than not being able to sleep for thinking about them. It is 5 a.m. All the worse things come stalking in and stand icily about the bed looking worse and worse and worse.
It’s an evolutionary quirk of the human mind, that we remember and focus on negative memories better than we do the pleasant events that happened to us. Partly, this is a hard-wired defence mechanism to keep us safe, but it can make your brain feel like it’s conspiring against you.
While exploring the Galley Beggar Press website, I came across this wise advice from one of Galley Beggar’s founders Sam Jordison:
“I also want to give a few words of encouragement. Submitting a book takes guts. I know it can feel like cutting your own heart out and serving it up so other people can poke around in the red, bleeding, somehow-still-beating flesh. I’m acutely aware of how dispiriting it can be when this act of emotional exposure is met with either a negative answer or silence. So I want to be clear on a few things. We admire anyone who has finished a novel, let alone been brave enough to send it to us. Just because we might say ‘no’ (or nothing) this time, it doesn’t mean we won’t say ‘yes’ another time. Just because we might feel your book doesn’t fit on our list, it doesn’t mean it might not fit somewhere else. Just because we’ve said ‘no’—it also doesn’t mean we might not have regrets later. (In the past we’ve missed some damn good books. It happens. You can’t always understand what you’ve got in front of you when a manuscript comes in.)
All of which is a convoluted way of saying that you’ve really got nothing to lose by sending in your work, if you think it fits with what we do. And potentially, lots to gain. Even if it’s quite a long shot…
It’s also a way of saying: don’t give up.”
There are some decent and polite agents around, but on the whole, I’ve found literary agents to be just about the most uncommunicative profession I’ve ever had dealings with—silence being their default setting unless they’ve been programmed to spit out form letters of rejection!
All the same, It’s vital to keep on keeping on with the querying, while investigating other ways of getting your name and stories known to the general public, such as entering competitions.
I read of one Science Fiction writer (whose name escapes me), who spent several years querying literary agents, getting nowhere. He knew that one particular agency was an ideal match for his debut novel, and even though he’d written several more in the intervening period, he continued to submit this book. On the twelfth submission, he was signed to them. When he sat down opposite his new agent, she claimed to have never heard of him before!
I’m not sure what this proves…other than, that if you don’t persevere no one is going to come out searching for you and your novel.
Of all sad words of mouth or pen, the saddest are these: it might have been.
Quite by chance, I came across a quote from super-agent Carmen Balcells, said not long before she died:
‘To be a literary agent: it’s a modest job. But it’s a job that’s important for the writer. It’s a position that you take the right decision for your clients. And the problem is that the ego [of the agents] can get in the way. It’s very important that the agency is a person, one person. It’s not about money.’
I’ve just read a volume of poetry by Ursula K. Le Guin, calledLate In The Day, which included a couple of essays as an afterward. One was on verse form, the other, an extract from the acceptance speech she gave to the National Book Foundation for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
The whole speech ishere, with a video. She has wise words to say about the current state of publishing; this resonated with me:
I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries, the realists of a larger reality.
Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. Developing written material to suit sales strategies in order to maximize corporate profit and advertising revenue is not quite the same thing as responsible book publishing or authorship….
Yet I see sales departments given control over editorial. I see my own publishers in a silly panic of ignorance and greed, charging public libraries for an ebook six or seven times more than they charge customers. We just saw a profiteer try to punish a publisher for disobedience and writers threatened by corporate fatwa, and I see a lot of us—the producers who write the books and make the books—accepting this. Letting commodity profiteers sell us like deodorant, and tell us what to publish and what to write….
Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.
I’ve had my own experience of my self-published books being treated like ‘deodorant’, for I uploaded 44 titles to Amazon three years ago. I priced them attractively, but all the same, after about 18 months Amazon contacted me to suggest that I allow them to bundle various short stories and poetry collections with nine other writers’ work—as if my creativity could be shrinkwrapped like a multipack of lightbulbs, toothpaste or deodorant.
This would have given me a profit of 10 cents for each sale, instead of the original $1.99 I’d priced a 6,000-word short story. No skin off Amazon’s nose, as they make their profit whatever happens, and it’s certainly a tempting purchase for a customer, but it put me in the bargain basement, priced at less than what a charity/thrift store would ask for my secondhand book.
The commercial imperative tramples a writer’s message underfoot. It even affects the book cover design, for I’ve read several crime thrillers this year where the illustration on the jacket misrepresented what happened in the story. Sure, it looked alluring or sinisterly malevolent, with a rugged hero, but it was plain that the artist hadn’t read the book, or if they had they were instructed by marketing to sex things up! In this way, books are becoming like processed microwave meals.