Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Getting published: Why agents and editors don't owe you a thorough read

Last week on his blog, literary agent Nathan Bransford quoted Benjamin LeRoy, the publisher of Bleak House books:

"As soon as I see awkward prose on page one, I reject a book. You wouldn’t trust a clumsy surgeon with a scalpel. I don’t trust authors who aren’t in complete control of their environment. Sloppy work is sloppy work. Doesn’t matter the profession, I don’t want it."

[Mr. Bransford continues] This is very true, and perhaps the number one reason I reject queries and partials: awkward prose.

As a reader, I do the same thing. If page one of a novel rubs me the wrong way, I'm done. There may be a great story coming, but that's immaterial if the author is incapable of putting clear, graceful sentences together. I don't have the patience to wade through bad writing in the hope of finding a good story. Not when there are so many good novels waiting to be read.

Here's more from Nathan Bransford:

I'm skeptical when people tell me they can write a compelling novel but not a query letter. Do you have a command of words or not? What if you need to craft a short, wonderful scene in your novel? You can't marshal the words to write it because it's too short of a space? You can't convey a great deal of information with an economy of words?

A successful novelist possesses much more than a lively imagination and a talent for constructing compelling stories; she is able to communicate clearly and effectively via the written word. Some novelists are better than others when it comes to writing query letters and synopses, but all publishable writers should be adept enough at handling words to write effective queries and synopses. (If you aspire to publish romance novels, check my website for advice on writing query letters and synopses.)

I'm sure many of us would be surprised to know just how often editors and agents toss aside query letters and manuscripts after reading only a couple of paragraphs. But why should they read further? If a writer has failed to prove her publication-worthiness on page one, what are the chances that she's going to be able to do it by page twenty-five?

There's a classic submitting writers' trick designed to prove whether an editor or agent has given a manuscript a "fair read" before rejecting it: the writer puts in one of the middle pages pside-down. If the manuscript is returned that way, the writer grumbles that she's been cheated by the insensitive, unprofessional editor or agent. But no publishing professional--even one who has requested a partial or full manuscript--owes those writers anything. Form-letter rejections are not insults. Any writer who thinks otherwise should examine her own responses to people who try to sell products to her. When we turn down a telephone solicitor, do we say "no, thanks" or do we offer a detailed critique of his product and then explain why it just doesn't suit our needs at this particular time?

Writers who bellyache in online forums and at writers' conferences about how nobody's giving them a chance don't seem to understand that editors and agents do not exist to dispense free manuscript critiques--even of the one-line variety--to uncontracted authors. The job of an editor or agent is to spot talent, contract that talented writer, and then help her craft a wonderful book so that everyone can make money and get famous.

So if a publishing professional actually reads your entire manuscript before rejecting it, or if she offers you any response beyond a simple "no, thank you" (and that does happen), she has done more than her job; she has done you a favor.

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