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Saturday, October 13, 2012

Musings of a Wet-Behind-the-Ears Agent

I recently joined the Les Stobbe Literary Agency as an associate agent. I’m actively seeking to build my list. I’m also actively seeking to get to know editors, so I can send them the exact manuscripts they want. If I send the wrong manuscript to an editor, it will be rejected simply because it doesn’t fit. So, obviously...

Rejections Don’t Mean Your Work Stinks

What if you want to marry a man who speaks English, but your matchmaker sends you three men in a row who speak only Portuguese? What if you want to marry a Christian man, and your matchmaker sends you a Muslim man, instead?

Portuguese-speaking men and Muslims are not of less worth than English-speaking men or Christians. You will still reject them because they simply don’t fit your needs.

Beyond trying to match up books with editors, though, I also have my own likes and dislikes. I don’t like supernatural books, for instance. So even if I know ten editors who like those books, I might not be a good matchmaker for them.

Why? Because if I’m going to have any chance of selling a project, I’m going to have to be excited about it. Just as you have to make sure you’re passionate about a work before you start off on the marathon of writing a novel, I have to make sure I’m going to be passionate for the long haul.

There are other reasons for rejection, too. Maybe your trouble is: 
  • Terrible Timing—you sent your story in too early...or too late
  • Similar Story—the editor has already done a project like yours
  • Way Weird—the editor has never done a project like yours
So rejections may have nothing to do with your writing. They might not be a remark on your work’s lack of worth...

Unless It Really Does Stink 

What about when you send a book to the right agent and you know there are editors hungering for just such a book?

I’ve done that before. I’ve sent proposals to agents and editors who loved just the kind of book I was peddling.

And I’ve been rejected.

I don’t see any benefit in lying to myself about it…my project stank. In some way that hindered editors from making offers, it stank.

The hard part is figuring out what part of the rejected projects stink, exactly.

Find the Problem, Fix the Problem 

The hard thing about writing novels that you hope to sell is that there are seemingly infinite ways you can go wrong.

You may have a problem with:
  • Poor Pacing—too fast or too slow
  • Pitiful Plot—too convoluted or too shallow
  • Dreadful Description—too much or too little
  • Cardboard Characters—acting without motivation or motivated but not acting

Oh…sorry...where was I? Oh, yeah, stinky writing.

The thing is you may have plot problems or character problems or prose problems or any combination of these. And each problem may be caused by a hundred different things.

So how do you figure out what’s wrong?

We've got to be up on the market. If you want to know if your story is derivative or your timing is off, you have to know what's being published and by whom.

If the problem is not that we've missed the market then we need to take a hard look at our writing. We need to try to read with fresh eyes.

Donald Maass, in his excellent book Writing the Breakout Novel suggests we throw our manuscripts in the air, and pick up pages one at a time, reading them out of order, to see if there’s tension on every page. Breaking the book down and reading it out of order tricks us into really reading what's there instead of filling in what we know should be there.

What else can we do? You tell me. How can we take the blinders off and read our own writing with the same critical eye we give to other works we read?

If you can’t come up with any tips for us, how about giving me a letter of the alphabet and a rhyme for my ABCs for Authors gift book. Best rhyme (in my opinion) will get a prize. Winners choice: a ten-page critique from me, or a ten dollar gift card from Amazon. (Because let’s face it, at this stage of my career ten bucks is about all my crits are worth. However, that will change, my pretties. Just give me a little time.)


Sally Apokedak is an associate agent with the Leslie H. Stobbe Literary Agency. She's looking forward to attending lots of conferences next year and hoping to build a dynamite list of children's authors (PB to YA). She is also the local liaison for SCBWI in Cobb County, Georgia.


  1. Cool, Sally! Congratulations. You'll do well no doubt.

  2. Very cool! Congrats and looking forward to meeting you at the Write2ignite conference!

  3. I'm so happy for you, Sally, as I've told you before!

    And I think having outside critiquers is crucial--extra eyes on our MSes. But a great agent can look at your writing and tell you if it's working or not.

    You're so right, though--much of it is timing, willingness on the publisher's part to branch out (if you're out of the box), and just hitting your characterization/plot/prose spot-on.

    I'm sure some you're going to unearth some excellent writers/books for the CBA, Sally! All the best to you.

  4. Congratulations, Sally! What a wonderful use of your talents...

  5. A is for ants in your pants--why is there no intrigue?
    B is for blowing your chance--who is the character?
    C is for cutting the dance--what is the tension?
    D is for destroying the plants--where is the scene?

  6. You know I can't resist a picking up where you left off:

    E is for Egregious Ego that won’t change a word,
    F is for Foul-mouthed Fuming (unfortunately overheard).

  7. G is for Grammatical Gaffes, which leave editors annoyed
    H is for Heavy-Handed, a label you'll want to avoid.

    (I'd go for more
    But these take time
    I think I'll sleep
    And stop the rhyme.)

    Congrats again. And I'm confident the experience of working with as godly, creative, and industry-savvy a man as Les Stobbe outweighs any bellicose blowhards you encounter along the way.

  8. Read it in character
    Change voices and all...
    You'll know if it's ready
    or needs overhaul!

  9. Thanks! To all of you--for the congrats, for the rhymed answer to how we can hear our books with fresh ears, and for the additions to the ABCs of Writer Maladies book.

    I is for Indignant Inker, when edited he gets snobby
    J is for Jubilent Jotter, treating writing as a hobby

    I can't understand why people aren't flocking over to do these. What? The rest of the world is not as easily amused as I am?

  10. Do you mind if we skip to the end?

    Y is for youthful yokels who can’t understand the guidelines
    Z is for zany zealots who attack agents with verbal landmines

  11. E is for Erupting Envy, never a writer's true friend
    F is for Freezing Fear that stops you from pushing "send."

    I think these are definitely fun! ;-)

  12. Ah, those zany zealots. I've seen some of those around lately. It seems they are big fans of The Wrath of Kahn, or, or, Kahn Wrath...or...something like that. :)

  13. Congratulations, Sally!

    Assume you spewed words like a generous fount.
    Chop your word count to make every word count.
    A bloated tome becomes a sleek tale to flaunt,
    As you author bestsellers a reader would want.

    This Jubilant Jotter loves to write short silly poems where all the rhyming words are only one syllable. Sorry, Sally.

    1. ha ha, Well, I'm pretty sure all my rhyming words in this little exercise have been one-syllable words, also. Or, maybe I got in a couple of two-syllable words. This is why I would never represent myself if I sent myself picture book manuscripts, of course. I would give myself a very quick form rejection, I'm quite sure.

      But I love the idea of authoring bestsellers that a reader will want. That's on my bucket list. :)

  14. A huge congrats, Sally!!! :-)

  15. Congrats Sally!

    Q - question your pay-off, be sure to leave a plant. No one wants a surprise when no hint did you grant.

  16. Sally, um, nothing like being the last to know. Ha. Congratulations!!! I'll be sending some people your way eventually. I like to collect good writers and pass them on.

    1. Confession time...I've been eyeballing the winners of the Launchpad contest for several months. :)

  17. Here's another couplet:

    G is for Grasping Greed that's sure to disappoint.
    H is for Hard-core Haters with noses out of joint.

    1. oh, love those hard-core haters. And the noses out of joint makes me think of panties out of place:

      K is for Kleptomanious Kiters, who steal others' work two-fisted,
      L is for Line-edit Legalists, whose panties are easily twisted.

  18. A is for ability. The ability to be great


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