Here's the first part of the Q&A with literary agent and published author, Marie Lamba.
CLICK HERE FOR PART TWONow you’ve seen things from the agent side of the fence, is there something you used to do as a writer which you now realize was a huge mistake?
A huge mistake? Hm. Perhaps sometimes sending out a manuscript that could have used more tightening? Being published since 2007, I hit traditional publishing just as everything began to change. Used to be a writer could send out a book that might need some tweaks but was otherwise a great idea and had great characters, and editors would snatch it up and then work with the writer on some development. Now? Fewer editors are bearing more of the workload. They mostly don’t have the time. I wish I’d caught onto that sooner as an author, and perhaps even hired a developmental editor before subbing my novel. Maybe then some of those “it was an almost for me” rejections may have been contracts instead.
Clint Harris (aka wendigomountain) asked:
How do queries compare with manuscripts when making a decision as to what you choose to represent? Is a one-page pitch enough to tell you if you want to represent someone?
Hi Clint. I’m putting your two questions into one, because they definitely go together…
My query guidelines ask for folks to paste the first 20 pages of their manuscript right into the bottom of the query. Sometimes, even though the first 20 pages are right there for me to peek at, I don’t even make it past the letter.
Here are some things that stop me cold:
•Someone who can’t write a sentence (I don’t mean this to be snarky; I truly mean that some people cannot put words together into a readable sentence!).
•A query about something I don’t represent: non-fiction other than memoir, short stories, poetry, category romance, high fantasy, science fiction (some people don’t read my guidelines, others think “oh, she’ll definitely make an exception for this idea”).
•Something that is a complete turnoff for me in their query. This is a personal thing, but if I am turned off, then I won’t be the right agent for this book. “These are a few of my least favorite things” (imagine me singing this in The Sound of Music…only with a better voice than I have): *Senseless violence, disgusting elements, children violated. *An obnoxious attitude signaling someone I’d definitely not want to work with.
•A story that is unremarkable. A query is a great way to reveal a book without a hook (like a memoir about your wonderful trip to Europe…everyone will love this one, right?), or an overdone storyline (vampire lover, the teen who finds out he’s supernatural and the key to saving the world, etc.)
Usually there is nothing that can save the book for me if those elements are in place. For the most part, I can also tell the voice of the author in the query. Funny, snarky, clever, emotionally engaging, thoughtful, touching…and if that is present in the query, it usually reflects itself quickly in the manuscript too.
Queries are usually highly reflective of the writing, but SOMETIMES that’s not so. If something about the query catches my interest, even though the rest of the query is screaming “don’t read any further,” I will give the ms. a look, and if those 20 pages really draw me in, I’ll bite for a full submission. And SOMETIMES the query is flat, too general, but the credentials of the writer are red-hot, so I’ll look further and see.
And other times? Other times the query is so clever and so promising, but within 3 pages of the manuscript I can see that this writer is talented at writing queries, not books, and that they need to work on their manuscript more than their letter.
Long story short? Queries are often very reflective of their manuscripts, but not always, and that’s why I’m glad I get that 20 page paste in to double check things.
Julia (aka motive) asked:
Aside from the really obvious (i.e. obvious repeat of popular material, ghastly mechanics, etc.) what are the main reasons manuscripts are rejected?
For me, if you narrow it down to the folks with a decent query letter and a well-edited manuscript that exhibits fairly decent writing skills, it all comes down to: is this book exceptional?
We all know how competitive the industry has become. If I take on a client, I want to feel confident that this is a book I can sell for my author. Otherwise I’m wasting everyone’s time. So I have to fall in love with the book, and be able to pitch it to an editor in a way that will make them fall in love with it too!
Being exceptional is not all about being the only one of its type or highly commercial. It’s about moving people, tapping into something real, telling a story in a way only this author can. Look at Marley & Me. That was a story of “a boy and his dog,” right? How ordinary can you get? But it sucked you in, and made you laugh and then bawl your eyes out. The author had a gifted voice, and if I were to pitch that book to an editor, I’d pull out a line or two of his writing and just quote it to the editor, and we’d snag interest.
I’ve read many everyday sort of memoirs… I had a baby, I took a trip, my husband cheated on me, and (sadly common) I was abused and survived. These don’t make the cut when the writing and voice don’t engage, and the story doesn’t jump off the page. Imagine the many ways Marley & Me could have been, well, a dog, and you’ll get my drift.
I’ve also read many submissions of “early” books, meaning the book may have an interesting premise and some nice writing, but it needed much more development by the author. Sometimes the book never really starts (within 20 pages, even 50) and the structure should have been looked at more closely, or sometimes the writer is talented, but this novel is too obvious or immature in its themes or characters or plotlines.
Another frequent problem? The great idea. The nice turn of phrase. But writing that leaves me cold. I see this in a lot of M.F.A. thesis sort of manuscripts. Lots of attention paid to the words, but I’m not drawn into the characters or engaged by the conflict. I’m held at a distance from the emotion and action.
Draw me in, grab me by the throat, make me care!
Marie Lamba (marielamba.com) is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency in NYC. She’s also author of the contemporary young adult novels, What I Meant… (Random House) and Over My Head, and the new paranormal YA novel Drawn. Her work appears in the short story anthology, Liar Liar (Mendacity Press), the anthology, Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering (Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing), and her articles are in more than 100 publications including national magazines such as Writer’s Digest, Garden Design and RWR. She has worked as an editor, an award-winning public relations writer, and a book publicist, has taught classes on novel writing and on author promotion, and is a member of the Romance Writers of America, and The Liars Club.