Agent Monday: The “Your book’s too quiet” Rejection

Childhood GirlsHappy hot and steamy Agent Monday, everyone! Ever received the following rejection and wonder what it might mean?: “I have to pass because I found your book too quiet.” Too quiet? What’s that mean? And how do you get it to make some noise? Let’s take a look… (Thanks again to client Caroline Noonan and her writer’s group for this great post idea!)

To me, too quiet means that while the book may be written in a lovely manner and the manuscript clean and the plot interesting, overall the book lacks characteristics that would make it stand out in the commercial marketplace.

Remember, an agent’s job is to sell your book to commercial publishers, and an editor’s job is to purchase books that will become stand outs on the shelf and sell.

So what can you do if your book is consistently rejected as “too quiet?” Well, first of all look hard at the type of book you are writing – what distinguishes that sort of book? Have you elevated those elements in your manuscript?

For example, if you are writing a literary novel, is your language and imagery more than adequate? Does it stand out? Are the observations and revelations unique and transforming?

If you are writing for the YA market, is your book different from what’s already out there? Can you come up with a one-liner about the book that’ll get everyone’s attention because your story has a unique approach? Is there a hook that’ll make it stand out – and if so, have you put that unique part of your story front and center in your plotting?

If you are writing for the thriller audience, is your story truly gripping, your plotting original and does your character command the page?

And if you are writing romance, does your hero truly break your heart and does the passion sizzle?

In the historical realm, are the characters riveting and are we fully caught up not only in the lovely and accurate details of the time but also the true drama and personalities and stakes you present?

What are your strengths as a writer? Characterization? Scenery? Plotting? Imagery?  Have you heightened these so they are truly stand out?

Another thing to look at is how you are labeling and targeting your manuscript submissions. If you are calling your book a thriller but it’s really a cerebral mystery, you’ll be missing the mark. If you are directing your submissions to a commercial press, when your book is really a lovely lyrical literary novel, then your piece won’t be judged within the context that you want it to.

So next time you get a “too quiet” comment in a rejection, give your manuscript a hard look. Make sure you’ve really made its most important elements unique and stand out fab, and that you are labeling it correctly.  Then send it back out there and go make some noise!

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

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Agent Monday – What I’m Looking for – Part 2

Tropical beach scene on a sunny day in Oahu, HawaiiHappy Agent Monday, folks.  If you are like me, after 5 solid days of fireworks and potato salad and beach sand crusted into your eyebrows, you don’t know what the heck day it is…  But it’s Agent Monday… I’m pretty sure, anyway.  So, today I’m continuing my What I’m Looking for series where I go into more depth explaining what I tweeted for the #mswl (manuscript wish list) event the other day over at Twitter.  So here goes…

adult fiction – literary voice with commercial appeal – character driven and transporting – take me somewhere/teach me something#mswl

Okay, let’s break this down.  Adult fiction is pretty obvious (though you’d be amazed at how many people don’t get it right).  This is fiction where the main character is in their mid-twenties and older, or, if the character is younger, the material it covers is clearly not for teens or younger.  Just so we’re clear, by that I don’t mean porn, and I personally am not interested in erotica (see my post on Fifty Shades of Not for Me).

When I say literary voice, I mean gorgeous writing, precise language, taking the time to develop imagery and symbolism and meaning throughout the novel.  But that doesn’t mean that I like lofty elitist writing where an author is contemplating their naval and getting all pretentious on the reader.  No no no.  Hence the “with commercial appeal.”  I still want plot, an understandable hook, emotion, etc.  The sort of book that I’d pick off the store shelf and get pulled into…a book that won’t let go.

Character driven – that means that I’m going to care deeply about these characters, even more so than the plot.  This sort of book isn’t all about the hook or the concept – it’s about relationships and growth and conflict all couched within an intriguing story.  No stock characters allowed.

Transporting – take me somewhere/teach me something.  I love getting sunk into another place or time or being taken into the heart of something I’d never have access to otherwise.  Two of my adult fiction clients, Harmony Verna and Yvette Ward-Horner have done this with incredible talent and artfulness.

In Harmony’s historical novel FROM ROOTS TO WINGS, she’s coupled the harsh world of turn of the century Australia with a hero and heroine I immediately fell in love with. We meet James and Leonora when they are young orphans and are with them as they form an innocent love. And we also meet Ghan, a rough man who has lived a brutal life in the mines. He considers himself a hideous monster, yet he, too, is a hero throughout this story. As the three lives intertwine we feel the grit of desert sand on our sweaty brow, the horror of the mining life, the joy of children who never had joy in their lives before, the heartbreak of tragedy, the pomp and excess of the wealthy steel tycoons in Pittsburgh, the scraping back-breaking life of someone living in the Australian wheat belt throughout a drought. Harmony takes us to all of these places with stunning detail as we feel how all of these environs wound and shape the characters we have come to love so much.  At the heart of this piece is a true and deep love story as the orphans James and Leonora search for what is home and what is love.  In a word: gorgeous.

In Yvette’s contemporary novel LOOK WELL, she’s paired the finest of imagery and word choice with gripping action, taking the reader up to the highest peak in Alaska as obsessed climber Gabrielle fights to blaze a new historic route to the top. With her are Jason and Mike, two men who know this is a suicide mission, but who love her so much they are terrified to let her make that climb with anyone else. In this book I feel every thunk of the axe into ice, I become so sunk into the story it’s as if I’m truly on the climb with them. I learn so much about this sub-culture — people who risk all for the thrill of the climb, and who carry their lives on their backs. And the characters on the climb also carry their share of conflicts. Their emotional journeys shape every step they take, keeping this book in the “character-driven” vs. “plot-driven” category. This is truly a “heroes journey,” one that I’m not sure, as I read through, any of the people I’ve grown to care for will survive.  Absolutely stunning and riveting.

So there you have it: adult fiction – literary with commercial appeal – character driven and transporting.

Written one of these? Then bring it on over!

 

*Marie is an Associate Agent at the Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City.  To keep up with all her posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s site here” link located on her page on the upper left margin.

The Plot Sickens

Plot. Ugh! We writers need it to make our great ideas flow. Readers crave it…it’s what makes them turn pages, what creates tension, what makes them CARE about a book. But here’s a dirty little secret: many writers have a love-hate relationship with plotting. Mostly hate, really.

The Rebel Writers are (left to right) Damian McNicholl, Russ Allen, C.G. Bauer, Jeanne Denault, John Wirebach, David Jarret and Marie Lamba

I belong to an amazing novel critique group called The Rebel Writers.  (If you want to learn more about this group and our unique methods of critiquing long manuscripts, you can check out my article Plotting a Novel Group in Writer’s Digest Magazine by clicking here.) This month, our meeting was devoted to discussing plot. Our personal struggles with it, how it tends to bite us in the ass mid-way through our novels, how uncomfortable we are with artificially manufacturing it, and what the hell we can do to make sure our novels are tightly written starting right at the first draft. We came up with some interesting thoughts that I’d like to share…

All 6 of us were on hand for this meeting, offering a variety of perspectives. I’m a young adult author; Damian McNicholl is author of the critically acclaimed literary novel A Son Called Gabriel; C.G. (Chris) Bauer is author of the stunning debut horror novel Scars on the Face of God; Jeanne Denault is author of an amazing memoir about raising a son with Aspergers titled Sucking up Yellow Jackets – soon to be published by the UK publisher O Books; David Jarret writes historical novels and hysterical short stories, John Wirebach writes gritty crime and mystery novels, and Russ Allen writes literary novels.

C.G. Bauer's debut horror novel is "hotter than the flames of hell," says horror master Scott Nicholson

One thing we all acknowledged: we are uncomfortable with following plotting formulas and using step-by-step advice to plot novels. Here’s the thing: writing is an art. At least we writers hope so.  Art should flow, should be organic and original. Should be something new and exciting and enlightening.  We authors want to get to that spot of artistic originality in our completed works with every single bit of fiction that we create.

So imagine how a bunch of artists (put your nose in the air when you say that word) feel when they consider planning out their work of art on 3×5 cards or with post-its. When they think about following formulas in designing their novels… It feels so, so…artificial.

And herein lies the problem. Novels ARE artificial. And, as cheesy as it sounds, writers are manipulators. We use technique to create suspense, tricks to make cliff-hangers, melodrama to induce tears…if we are doing it well, then no one will even notice we are pulling the strings. And we need to be aware of these plotting techniques and embrace them on some level, don’t we?

So we Rebel Writers decided to take our noses out of the air and look around.  Pulp fiction writers use formulas. Soap opera writers use formulas. Many romance authors use formulas. So do television script writers. So do film writers. So, in fact, do many novelists. Maybe its time we face the facts: we can learn something from these folks!

Damian McNicholl's celebrated novel was a Book Sense Pick of the Year

Okay, so once we packed away our collective artistic snobbery, the info sharing really began to flow.  It was like a confessional of sorts, with each of us sharing our own secret plotting cheats.

Russ introduced us to a text called Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schmidt, Ph.D., which outlines just over 50 plots, and argues that every story ever told was one of these plots.  We Rebels quickly found our own novels’ plots in the listings.  Humbling. Forget originality, right? All we have to do is pick one of these plots, and write a story…

We discussed our discomfort with this, but soon admitted that, yeah, it would be convenient to know the sort of story we were writing before we embarked on months to years worth of actually writing it and uncovering our direction. And we all reassured ourselves that whatever we wrote would be distinct if we were true to our own voice and our own view of the world.  That’s the clincher, isn’t it?

Many of us swore by Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, which has exercises that ensure your novel has a sound structure, a strong subplot, tension on every page, etc. etc. etc.  John pointed out how focused movie script writers are in plotting, and how most scripts have a climactic moment on a certain page according to an understood formula. He recommended we look at books about treatments, including a book I have on my own shelf: Writing Treatments that Sell by Kenneth Atchity and Chi-Li Wong. Another favorite of the group is The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. It follows myth and archetypes culled by folklorist Joseph Campbell in his incredible The Power of Myth, and applies the hero’s journey to plotting and structure. It’s phenomenal, and I used parts of this while plotting my newest young adult novel, Drawn. Jeanne shared how she used index cards to decipher the plot of one of her murder mysteries and to reorganize the plotting to fix a problem in its pacing.

I know, right about now you’re thinking: So if everyone has been secretly using all of these plot theories, what’s the big deal? What did the Rebel Writers actually learn here?  Well, every one of us have used these tools AFTER we wrote our novels. First we spent forever writing our monster works, then we sat down with our drafts and thought, hm, the middle is really slow, or huh, the ending just doesn’t do it, and we spent forever dissecting our works and fixing them by applying all of these plotting theories.

Jeanne Denault's stunning memoir about Aspergers

But wouldn’t it be nice to start out with a better sense of the structure and plot at the start? Wouldn’t that cut down on the length of time it would take to write a novel? Imagine how wonderful it would be to be able to create two novels a year vs. one every two years. And wouldn’t we enjoy our writing more if we didn’t have to agonize over our edits, going over the plotting and structure again and again and again? Wouldn’t our final work benefit?

We are all nodding now.  But still scepticism rears its ugly head. Can you really sit down and plan out a novel, plotting its structure, its twists, its climax and conclusion, and still come out with a work of art?  I’m about to find out. See, I’m also a member of the Bucks County Romance Writers, and will soon attend my very first plot party with them. They ask that each member bring a brand new novel idea not worked on yet, a pen, and a stack of stickees. At the end of the 6 (!) hour event, each person is supposed to leave with a completely plotted out novel, and all we’ll have to do is simply write it. Easy, right?

Can this possibly work? Can I come up with something fresh and original, yet plotted, with only stickee notes, my imagination and some strong plotting traditions? Can I then save time writing my novel, with my first draft being close to a final draft? Will I end up writing more novels and being more productive because of this? God, I hope so. Stay tuned…