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The Critique Crypt => General writing chat => Topic started by: Ed on March 26, 2010, 03:21:39 PM

Title: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Ed on March 26, 2010, 03:21:39 PM
Went to a panel discussion earlier today, where four agents made up the panel. They were J Berlyne, I Drury, J Jarrold and D Lumley. It was a very interesting panel to ask questions of. They talked about a well written letter going a long way towards getting yourself an agent. They're looking for, above all else, a professional attitude, second only to a genuine talent. John Jarrold said he gets hundreds of manuscripts sent to him, but very few authors manage to lift the words off the page and engage him - and they're the ones he signs. He said he can tell straight away, first page, whether the person can write.

They said to mention any credits you might have and any experience you have in writing. I asked which credits they thought worth mentioning - did internet zine credits count for anything? Ian Drury rubbed his two forefingers past his thumb and said, "Show me the money. If you've been paid for your work it's worth mentioning." If not, don't bother. On this they all agreed. John Berlyne added that he liked to look up the name of applicants to see what they were getting up to online - not how much noise they made on forums and the like, but to see how well plugged in to their genre they were, whether they had built some kind of online following. They all liked to see that an author had a facebook page and a blog or a website of some sort.

Openings - somebody asked what they thought about the old tropes at the beginning of stories - what openings you should really avoid, and they weren't really bothered, as long as there was a hook. Dialogue seemed to go down well. They said it lent an immediacy to the opening, sometimes. Dorothy Lumley said she really disliked stories that began with the protagonist setting off to go somewhere. They all seemed to agree they wanted the story to begin when the MC was where they were meant to be. Ian Drury said if the word 'seem' or 'seemed' was anywhere in sight he'd reject it straight away, plus he has a pathological hatred of adverbs.

Hot tip was to join the Publisher's Weekly website to check which agents were currently looking for what, who was taking submissions and who was closed. Dorothy Lumley said not to take any notice whether agents were currently closed - sent it anyway - she said she can't help herself - she has to read what comes. Ian Drury said anybody sending him a letter with the first three chapters would get their stuff read more quickly if they sent their submissions via snail mail, rather than electronically, purely because the things piled up and became a fire hazard if he didn't keep up with them. John Jarrold said he didn't take anything but electronic submissions.

The crux of self publishing: I asked whether the fact an author had self published a book would make them more or less attractive to an agent. John Berlyne said it wouldn't bother him. Ian Drury said he wouldn't touch the author with a barge pole. The other two said it made no difference to them unless the author had successfully sold lots of copies. They like to see authors working hard to promote their work and get it into book stores, sell lots of copies, but they really had to be working hard at it and actually selling good numbers to count for anything in a positive sense.

Interesting session.

(edited to fix 'pathalogical' - couldn't leave it there)
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: desertwomble on March 26, 2010, 03:36:23 PM
Very informative stuff, Ed!

DW :cheesy:
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: delph_ambi on March 26, 2010, 04:07:10 PM
Good stuff. Thanks Ed.
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Grillmeat on March 26, 2010, 05:02:56 PM
Thanks for sharing Ed. That is very informative stuff.
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Ed on March 27, 2010, 03:27:41 AM
Didn't have much time to write last night, but I wanted to get a few main points down while they were still fresh in my mind.

As I think of other things they said, I'll put them down:

When to query an agent about whether they've received your submission - leave it at least a month, in the absence of any other guidelines. Bugging them for a reply, or showing impatience is a sure way to get yourself rejected. Dorothy Lumley suggested enclosing a self addressed, stamped envelope that the agent can drop in the post to say they're looking at your submission.

Keep an eye on what the market's doing, but don't just write what's popular at the time, because you're always two years behind the game. That said, they all agreed horror and sci-fi are on the rise at the moment, and historical fiction seems particularly popular. Ian Drury said post Tom Clancy cold war drama readers seem to want a story where there's a clearly defined good guys vs bad guys type deal with big battle scenes, and ancient Rome or medieval times are a good place to set such things. He also had an interesting point to make about submitting to publishers. He said sometimes a novel will be out of fashion and then come back into fashion with the acquisitions editors. One of his clients' manuscripts was rejected by an editor and then Ian submitted it agai, to the same editor, two years later, and that time it was accepted. He also said publishing houses have a revolving door policy when it comes to hiring. It's not unusual for editors to come and go, so given time, the same MS can get subbed to the same house many times over the years, because suddenly there's a new horror editor, who hasn't seen the stuff before.

I asked, given the number of authors each said they could represent effectively (around forty or fifty), and them continuously picking up new authors, what the old ones did or didn't do to deserve being dropped. Dorothy Lumley said she usually kept hold of authors and kept trying on their behalf, but she said sometimes an author pushes too hard and doesn't think they're getting where they want to be fast enough, and at that point they might agree to part company. They generally agreed that some agents are better matched to certain authors, and sometimes there would be a personality clash, but it usually stayed civilised.

Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: LeeThompson on March 27, 2010, 04:25:45 AM
Great information there, Ed! thanks for sharing it with us! It's such a subjective thing, isn't it. I think for an agent to actually read your whole MS a lot of stars have to align.
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Ed on March 27, 2010, 04:58:19 AM
I dunno, Lee, that's not the impression I get. It seems to me that it's infinitely doable as long as you put in the work and can tell a good story. let's face it, the vast majority of people subbing stuff are doing something wrong. Doing it right will make you stand out from the crowd, I think.
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Geoff_N on March 27, 2010, 05:47:08 AM
All good stuff, Ed. John Jarrold told me that even if a submission was well-written and ticked boxes he still had "to love it" to  take it on. He couldn't define that factor.

Interesting that medieval / fantasy is in vogue. My US agent has yet to receive a response from the one publisher she's tried for Xaghra's Revenge, perhaps I should send it to JJ.

Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: delboy on March 27, 2010, 06:01:30 AM
Great stuff, Ed. Thanks for taking the time to post this!

Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Rev. Austin on March 27, 2010, 08:53:51 AM
Yeah thanks for the info Ed  :afro:  Nice to know I'm definitely doing something right, from what they've said, but if only I could get one of the editors/agents who reads my full MS to decide they DO love it hahah
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Ed on March 27, 2010, 02:08:04 PM
Oh yeah, something else they said - novel length - they said they couldn't sell anything under 100k words and often fantasy novels had to be at least 120k before a publisher would pick them up.

Went to another interesting panel discussion today - this one was screenwriters talking about why scripts failed to make it to film. Sounds like a nightmare profession to me. One, I'll look the names up later, said it's like there's five hoops swinging out of sync in a row, each moving at a different rate from the other, and you're standing at one end with a spear. Every so often the hoops will line up for a fraction of a second, and that's when you have to throw the spear to hit the target. Even after you've spent months working on the script and it's what everybody wants, the film might not get made for a dozen reasons or more - maybe funding, change of actor, director, whatever.

At the Q&A session I asked about whether any of them wrote using the hero's journey. They said no - that's old fashioned - very nineties. Then they said if a story's in trouble, by all means use the HJ to fix it - be aware of it - but do all you can to avoid it as a plot structure. I get the impression it's considered cliche.
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: LeeThompson on March 28, 2010, 12:15:14 AM
Man, that's some great first hand info, Ed!  :cool:
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Geoff_N on March 29, 2010, 12:36:41 PM
Ed, do you mind me sharing your agent obs with writer friends on another forum please?

Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Ed on March 29, 2010, 02:15:31 PM
Ed, do you mind me sharing your agent obs with writer friends on another forum please?


No, I don't mind, but thanks for asking first :smiley:
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: delph_ambi on March 29, 2010, 02:56:24 PM
Ooh, I'd like to as well, if that's okay? A small private forum, and posted with full attribution (natch).
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Ed on March 29, 2010, 04:53:20 PM
Yep, sure, as long as you promise to fix some of my spellings, like 'pathalogical', for instance - I was working on an old version of Opera that doesn't have spellcheck, and I'll sometimes slip into phonetic spelling that only strikes me as wrong when reading it now. ::)

BTW, I've just remembered what they said about synopses - many of them (perhaps all) don't seem to read them before they look at the MS. They all agreed that it was the hardest thing in the world to do and get right - condense 100k words into a page or so, and still make it seem interesting? They said the only time it becomes useful is when pitching the story to a publisher and they want to know exactly what it's about. They likened it to the blurb on the back cover of a finished novel. Neither publisher nor agent wants the job of writing a synopsis - they prefer for the writer to do it. For it to contain a one line broad capture seemed popular, such as "It's like Terminator meets Bambi," for instance. Something they can use to quickly pitch it.

What they like to see is a writer who knows what category they are writing in - be it horror, romance, dark fantasy, sci-fi. They also mentioned their pet hate is authors who take a scattergun approach to targeting agents. They all said they absolutely hated it if they'd spent valuable time reading a MS, only for the author to tell them they'd had an offer from another agent. Also, Dorothy Lumley said she quite often receives queries with an ancient date on, which tells her she's just been sent a standard letter. She said sometimes they'll be addressed to the wrong name, too - maybe a mix of her name and the one above or below her on the list.

They also talked about MS preparation. They said ten or fifteen years ago, publishers, if you approached them with a MS that was 80% ready to publish, would be willing to pick it up and do the last 20. Now they don't have the time or the staff to do it. Absurdly, editors no longer have time to edit. Most agents seem to be former editors, and although they want to see as near perfect a MS as possible, they will help you do that last 20% that the publishers won't. This is why, they say, you're better off approaching an agent rather than hitting publishers directly.
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: omega1300 on March 31, 2010, 10:23:27 AM
As everyone else has mentioned, this is great Ed - thanks much for posting it!
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: Bec on April 28, 2010, 06:05:32 AM
Thanks for all the useful info, Ed!
Title: Re: From the agents' mouth
Post by: digitaldeath on May 28, 2010, 09:08:24 AM
Rather belatedly noticed this, but I will add my 5 cents worth. I had a good contact in Time Warner, or whoever they are now. Admissions editor, she always read my manuscripts, in fact I sent them as paperbacks so she could take them home. Although she often praised them she said that it was a horrendous step accepting a new author. Publishers mainly want money, they get that printing material from footballers wives and people from Big Brother. Three yeras ago she transferred to another department because she was sick of turning away very good manuscipts and seeing the presses churn out crap. My last communication, October, was regarding a horror novel. The suggestion was try to go it alone as if you can get sales even reasonable then the big cats will notice that the initial problem has been overcome and want 'a piece of the action'.
Maybe I am not top flight, I sell low numbers as production is a pain. At the moment all my kit is in Spain anyway but I have sold maybe 400 over the years and as some customers ask for sequels I don't feel I am totally out of touch.
Just broke most of the time.