Sunday, 20 June 2010

What agents want

My sister bought me a book she'd enjoyed and thought I might like, The Last Time They Met, by Anita Shreve. It didn't sound quite my sort of thing: crimes of passion, incest, negligence, loss and guilt, but I started to read it. And stopped again. Here are the first two lines:

She had come from the plane and was even now forgetting
the ride from the airport. As she stepped from the car, she

Word echoes: from three times, she three times. Now I know no normal, non-writing reader would notice this, or mind it if he did. Goodness, look how popular Stieg Larsson's novels are, and on one of his first pages, I found five sentences in one short paragraph beginning with She. But you'd think an editor would pick it up.

Of course, what made it a real turn-off for me is the fact that as an unpublished author, I'm constantly being told that any error, particularly on the first page, will cause my typescript to be tossed in the shredder. If my writing is not polished till it shines, it has no chance of getting read by an agent's assistant, let alone reaching the shelves of a bookshop.

I no longer think this is so. What agents are looking for, it seems to me, is not a polished book; nor is it a book that they fall in love with (whatever they say). They are looking for a book they believe they can sell to a publisher.

That's all.


  1. I'm with you there Lexi, at the moment I'm reading a book by a new author who has a mistake on the first page. A typo, which you would've thought would been picked up by the author, editor even the proofreader.

    I wouldn't be happy if it was my first novel. To find your first full novel has a mistake like that on the first page... ugh!

    I sometimes think being a writer stops you from enjoying being a reader. As soon as I find a mistake in a published book I find myself looking for the next one.

    And I'm muttering, how did they get this published!

    Good luck with your, Lexi

  2. Jamara, I agree about writing changing one's reading experience, and not necessarily for the better.

    But I do think that if Jane Austen, Dickens et al, writing everything out by hand without benefit of spell-checkers and editing hardware like Autocrit, could get it right, there really aren't any excuses for modern published authors.

    (Now I'll look a real fool if I get published and there's a mistake on page one. On the other hand, that would mean I'd got published...)

  3. Hmm, those lines would have me shutting the book too because it's just not my taste. They do create an atmosphere though; a tone. All quite slow and considered. I guess the language works as a cue for what the book or character will be like? I can't say I'm gripped to get hold of that book and find out.

    As you say though, a non-writing reader wouldn't analyse it. At a reading group I'm a member of, we read a short story by Katherine Mansfield and I was the only one who commented on the dated use of language and punctuation. Everyone else just talked about the story.

    I guess it's the concept which is the key thing you need to sell to a reader as well as a publisher.

  4. After having listened to a lot of writers, published and unpublished, I'm convinced that concept and plot are as important as anything else. There are loads of weak and feeble novels out there, selling well, which have a great concept, say, and little else. Some of them are by previously unpublished authors as well. But good writing won't hurt!

    I just read two volumes of a historical trilogy, and gave up halfway through the last because I was bored. The concept was great, but better writing and stronger characterisation could have made it a classic.

  5. I hope that's not all! Cos that's just so bleak!!! :-)

    I hope that good writing and talent will always be able to squeeze in there with all the other not so good stuff and the celebrity books! I hope so!!

    take care

  6. I'll bet it wasn't the author's first book, was it?

    Even before I started reading more critically, I think I would not have liked that opening because it just sounds choppy and wrong. It feels like a child wrote it. An intelligent child, but a child.

  7. And we're not even meant to open with something in the pluperfect like 'She had come from the plane', surely....

  8. K, I do rather agree. Story is king, but that's not to say nothing else matters; and maybe the author struggled until she got going.

    Robert, I realize I'm not sure what concept is.

    Kitty, I think we are lucky to have the option to self-publish, given the excellent books that can't squeeze in these days.

    Christine, you are correct; I think it was her third novel.

    Hants, I bow to your superior knowledge of tenses. Myself, I believe you can open with anything, so long as it works.

    (I've just come back from a garden party, and it was nice to find all your comments.)

  9. I just meandered over to your blog from your comment on Gary Corby's latest post. I think you have a point here, but agents may be looking for a combination of both- a book they love and one they believe they can sell. At least that's what I'd be looking for if I were an agent.

  10. Hi Lexie, we did indeed overlap a bit.

    I'd suggest "a book they can sell" includes "polished" for a debut for sure, because there's that initial leap to make.

    If it's any compensation, a published writer who hasn't made sales because people don't like his 2nd or 3rd book is, if anything, in a tougher situation than a debut.

    On Stieg Larsson...I met his English translator last year and, believe me, he is very, very good at what he does. If you see multiple sentences starting "She..." then it's because that's the best possible translation of the original, which I'd be willing to bet contains multiple sentences starting "She...". I wouldn't be a translator for anything.

  11. Stephanie, I think you sum it up perfectly. (Not that I imagine it's the quality of Katie Price's books that her agent loves.)

    Gary, I'm sure the translator is good, else Larsson wouldn't have done so well in English-speaking countries - I was carping mildly at the author.

  12. Hi Lexi

    You’ve stumbled on one of my pet hates. Actually, pet hate doesn’t adequately describe it. Writing like this has been known to send me into a rage.

    It’s utterly unfair that unpublished writers are told to do A, B, C if they’re to have any chance of getting into print… and yet you can pick up a plethora of successful books where A, B and C are utterly ignored.

    Personally I spend hours agonising over my prose to make sure multiple sentences don’t begin with the same word or that there’s only one participle per cluase or an unusual word isn’t repeated (sometimes, not even repeated again in the entire book).Then I’ll read a book which is full of lame, oft-repeated adjectives or split infinitives (another of my pet hates) and I sometimes wonder, why do I bother putting so much work in when so few readers, editors included, seem to care. And that’s a sad thing: editors don’t have the time to polish the writing.

    Which brings me to your last point. All publishers/agents want is something that will sell. It’s true… but a terrible indictment on the business. I recently read about a writer who scored a major, multiple book deal with a very prestigious publisher. I’ve read one of his previous books (I’ll be discreet about who it is) and the writing is dire. His new publisher should be ashamed to sign him up… and yet someone, somewhere thinks he’ll sell – so forked out the cash. Publishers don’t seem interested in the quality of the writing… but then these days, most publishers see books merely as a product, so why should they care?

    The final irony about this is that they don’t even know what sells! It’s all to do with what the perceive. If they believe a book will get the cash registers ringing they’ll snap it up regardless of quality or whether it will actually sell. On reflection it’s a very depressing business…

  13. Agreed.

    I too am obsessive about making my writing the best it can be (though I don't mind a split infinitive if it sounds better). It's a matter of pride - after all, no one's paying me to write.

    And I quite understand that publishers need to make money; I just think they should achieve that by publishing excellent books.

  14. What about the story, Lexi? Did you read on?

  15. By the way, "concept" just means the idea of the story.

    In Hollywood the term is usually "high concept", denoting a film that is easily explainable.

    For example, "Kindergarten Cop" -- a tough cop is faced with more than he can handle when he has to go undercover as a kindergarten teacher.

    "High concept" is also responsible for descriptions such as "It's Jaws meets Alien".

    The reason it's important is that a film (or book) with a simple, compelling idea is easier to sell than one which takes times to explain.

    Unfortunately, I find most high concept films are usually so simple that you don't actually need to see them to know what's going to happen.

    "Easier to sell" is also the reason why remakes are so popular. It's the "A-team" again, but with a bigger budget.

    Not advocating this approach, you understand. Just explaining.

  16. Thanks, Richie, I can always rely on you for a vivid and lucid explanation. (I tried and failed the other day to find your remark about dictators who in spite of manipulating election votes still, in part of their brain, think they are more popular than George Bush.) I guess Snakes on a Plane is high concept.

    I haven't yet read on, but it's been one of those weeks...

  17. Snakes on a Plane is the perfect example of a High Concept.

    I can't remember that remark about dictators. Mind you, I've noticed that I have at least two distinct personalities depending on whether I'm drinking tea or coffee. Under the influence of coffee I go whacko but creative. On tea I'm analytical and dry. Unfortunately, this Jekyll and Hyde situation suffers from neither personality being able to remember much of what the other has done.

  18. I've just found myself laughing at my earlier post where I said "In Hollywood" as though I'm having lunch on a regular basis with Steven Spielberg. That bit was Coffee Richie.

  19. This tea and coffee thing sounds good - all you have to do is write it down before it gets away. Or carry a dictaphone wherever you go to mutter into.

    What effect does strong drink have (apart from the obvious)?