In my years as a freelance editor, I’ve learned that writers like to tell themselves stories about why they can’t sign with an agent. “My book is just too literary” and “There’s an industry bias against bloggers” are two of my favorite excuses. But here’s the truth:
The number-one reason an author can’t sign with an agent is because the book is bad.
“But bad books get published all the time!” you tell me, thumping your copy of Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined. It’s true that bad books get published. But if you’re a new author hoping to sign with an agent, you shouldn’t hang your hat on the infinitesimal probability that your manuscript will inspire an entire generation of teens and their mothers to idolize the undead, and thus excuse you from adhering to the rules of good-quality writing.
The happy news is, if it’s true that authors don’t get signed because their books are bad, then the opposite must also be true: the number-one reason authors sign with agents is because their books are well-written and thoughtful. Obviously this is the sage, clarifying wisdom you’ve been waiting for.
Even authors who know how polished and dynamic their work has to be in order to get an agent’s attention don’t realize the subtle ways they’re sabotaging their own success. Here, I’m sharing three pitfalls that can keep you from reaching your full potential as an author—and by extension, might be keeping you from signing with an agent.
1. Too Much Input, Not Enough Output
Smart authors know that getting feedback on their work is the key to growth and revision. But authors sometimes get stuck in a kind of analysis paralysis, trapped in a cycle of soliciting feedback, revising, soliciting more feedback, revising again, getting another beta read, removing the prologue and bumping the scene with all the explosions to chapter 1, and on and on. The result is frequently disastrous.
An example: I’m presently working with an author whose book has been in development for something like five years, during which time various drafts have been analyzed by members of her writing group. My very smart, talented client has taken a lot of the feedback from this group to heart, despite the fact that not a single person in the group has ever published a book or worked in a professional editorial capacity. A huge part of our work together is now focused on excavating this author’s organic, authentic writing voice, which has been almost totally squelched by an abundance of noisome feedback. She’s lost sight of her instincts, which are actually quite good but have been buried under years of critical rubble.
I commend the bravery of authors open to critique, but giving feedback is an art form almost as nuanced as writing itself. “Authors need smart feedback from sources that know how to evaluate a manuscript objectively,” says Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olson. Constructive, thoughtful critique considers how successfully a manuscript executes itself. Is the plot of a thriller tense and exciting? Do the hero and heroine in a kiss-or-kill romance feel equal parts attracted to and repelled from each other? Does a literary novel engage with language in new, interesting and authentic ways?
When you receive a critique built around the phrases “I liked”/ “I didn’t like,” you’re actually gathering more information about your reader than your draft. What I respond to in a manuscript isn’t significant unless I can articulate why. Does my aversion to a character stem from his reliance on hackneyed tropes? Do my questions about the book’s conclusion come from a lack of world-building consistency? A valuable critical eye sees beyond what doesn’t work to why it doesn’t work, and hopefully further still—to how you can fix it.
Critique is a game of quality, not quantity. Reduce the number of voices vying for space in your head, and listen carefully to those that bring the most value to your work.
2. Contests vs. Content
Twitter is an incredible resource for writers. Last week I participated in my first #1linewed, since I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I was immensely touched by the support, talent and enthusiasm infusing the Twitter author community. That said, there is a double-edged sword in the Twitterverse: pitch contests.
On the one hand, pitch contests are awesome. They encourage authors to practice thinking about where their books fit in the marketplace, give them a chance to bypass the dastardly query letter (for a short while), and help clarify story issues like characterization, plot, and conflict. On the agent side, Twitter pitch contests are a nice way to window-shop the slush pile and engage with new talent. There are a lot of success stories coming out of Twitter pitch contests, and I wholeheartedly support them.
My bone to pick is with you, Serial Twitter Pitch Contest Entrant. Whenever I peruse contest hashtags, I frequently encounter the same handles again and again, the same pitches, the same writers. I often wonder when, exactly, these authors are shutting down their social media long enough to, y’know, work on their novels. Because while it’s great to understand how to pitch your novel in 140 characters or 35 words or 17 emojis, at the end of the day you have to send bona fide pages to an agent. Have you spent more time on your pitch than on your protagonist’s internal conflict resolution? Are you all pith (not a typo) and no plot?
Twitter pitch contests offer an amazing opportunity, but to make good on a great pitch, you need to have written a great book. Get honest about the state of your manuscript. Are you really ready to pitch? If you’re not, or if you’ve tried several times and have been unsuccessful, it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate. And don’t worry—there will always be another contest to enter when you and your manuscript are ready.
3. Where We’ve Been, Where You’re Going
Advice-mongers are always telling authors to read more, because that is the single best piece of advice anyone has ever given an author, other than “Write more.” But how can reading help you sign with an agent?
“Writing is a conversation,” agent Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown told me. “If you aren’t reading books that are being published now, how do you expect to be relevant?”
Familiarizing yourself with current and canon successes in your genre will help you think critically about your own writing. Who are you similar to stylistically? How are you bringing a fresh idea to a popular theme? A well-versed author can add meaningfully to conversations about how to pitch a manuscript to editors.
But being well-read is important for reasons outside of marketing too; reading widely refines and challenges your literary palate, and brings depth and thoughtfulness to your writing. You can’t write a convincing antihero if you haven’t read Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick. You can’t—or shouldn’t—write a revenge story without first savoring The Count of Monte Cristo. Writing a space opera? I want to know that you’ve read Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Douglas Adams, Emily St. John Mandel, and the most recent stunner from Michel Faber. Bow to the masters, acknowledge your peers, and blaze a trail for yourself armed with the knowledge of what has come before. The history of the written word has always revealed its future.
There’s no denying that signing with an agent is a challenge, even when a book is fantastic. Plenty of wonderful authors and their books don’t find representation quickly, or at all—though my experience suggests that difficult-to-agent books often have significant problems in execution, craft, or concept. You can help yourself by being extremely selective about soliciting critique, finding balance between putting yourself out there and taking time to develop your craft, and reading as many wonderful books as you possibly can. Keep writing, and keep reaching for the kind of greatness on the page no agent will be able to resist.