In a few months, registration for the 2010 SCWW Annual Writers' Conference will open and offer you the opportunity to mingle with those unfamiliar beings, agents and editors. Agents and Editors inhabit a world we all hope to visit, and nothing beats a face-to-face meeting with those inhabitants. I had that experience last year and I'd like to share with you my encounters of the First, Second and Third Kinds.
My First Encounter was in a Slush Fest. Upon entering the room, attendees hand in transparencies of the first two pages, or a synopsis, of their work. These are projected onto a screen for all in the room to see and are critiqued by an agent or editor. The work is anonymous and has not been seen prior by the faculty member. The exercise demonstrates how agents and editors cull their slush piles looking for openings that grab them.
The agent for my Slush Fest was enjoying the submissions. At one point she remarked, "These have all been really, really good. I almost wish I had one to show what I don't like." Fortunately, or unfortunately, mine provided that example.
Her nose scrunched up a bit and her mouth twisted. "This opening paragraph really isn't doing anything for me." The agent sliced and diced particular words, phrases and references that held no meaning for her. She wondered aloud what the author might be trying to say or do, before removing the offending page from the screen.
My Second Encounter was a Pitch Session. This is another quick, first impression opportunity to sell a story. Again, the faculty member doesn't see the manuscript before the meeting, but there is time for discussion. My pitch was to another agent. I pitched. The agent didn't immediately catch. BUT, he asked to see my opening pages so we pulled them off my flashdrive onto his computer.
"The writing looks strong but we've gone through all these pages and I'm still not sure what the conflict is or why this is important." Then Agent #2 reached across the table, grabbed my arm and yelled, "What's wrong with Michael?!"
"That's the tension and conflict I need to see within the first few pages," he told me. "I really don't care about nice, family Michael." We talked a few more minutes then he gave me his card and said when I reworked the first five pages he'd take a look at them.
My Third Encounter was an Extended Critique with an editor. For the Extended Critique, a faculty member receives up to thirty pages of a manuscript weeks before the conference and has time to read and critique the work. At the conference, faculty member and writer have twenty minutes to discuss the piece.
As I sat down, the Editor said, "First, I really like your opening. I immediately know where you are, you've set the tone and emotion for the story. I'd shorten it some, but really, very nicely done."
This was the exact opening that did 'absolutely nothing' for Agent #1.
During the next twenty minutes the Editor pointed out where my story was strong and where it needed work. She, too, said the conflict needed to appear sooner, but liked the way I'd developed the family dynamics.
Same material, three different encounters, three different responses. So what was that supposed to tell me? Actually, my three encounters perfectly illustrated the advice agents and editors continually give us.
1. This is a business. Agents and editors are in the business to find the next author and book to represent. It's our job to offer the best writing we can.
2. This business is also subjective. Along with industry standards, agents and editors bring their own likes, dislikes and worldview to the process of choosing the 'right' manuscript. The different reactions to my opening paragraph made that clear to me! Subjectivity is an element we have no control over so writers shouldn't take rejections personally.
3. Take the feedback and apply it. I took the reactions and advice, figured out which came from personal preference and which stemmed from the quality of my writing and fixed my manuscript. I also kept those notes and suggestions in mind while working on my next novel.
4. Do your homework. While we can't completely eliminate the subjectivity factor, we can help ourselves. To get a better sense of an individual agent's taste, read several books that agent has represented, preferably by different authors. I did that before the conference. I still missed with Agent #1, but I was pleased with the responses from the other two contacts.
5. Make your opening paragraphs and pages count. Whether those sentences are in the manuscript or the query, that sliver of work is our foot in the door. Even though my overall writing was strong, I needed to bring the conflict/tension front and center, sooner.
6. Don't give up. Keep honing your writing to make it stronger. Keep submitting your manuscript until you find the agent that fits.