Things you notice reading submissions at a literary agency


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“Damn!” muttered the Literary Reader, flipping through the pages. It had happened again. Someone had opened a novel with an exclamation designed to grab attention, referring to something that happened moments before the opening. It was not the first time he had seen such a tactic, which usually led into a flashback of a few days or weeks earlier. The first, and most important such occurrence had been three weeks prior…

Lesson learned: Find the relevant and interesting point and start there. A lot of books use this opening, and many make it to print, but it’s tired and so is the person who has to read 100 of them a day. If you want to up your chances, develop a fresher opening.

One submission opened with a newscast about the capture of a serial killer before casually mentioning “in other news, a man shot up a nursing home. Fifty senior citizens are dead and twenty more await diagnosis.” Which news story do you think is bigger? Moreover, twenty awaiting diagnosis? Have you ever heard the news say that? They’d say “injured,” no? This isn’t a mesothelioma suit, it’s the worst shooting in U.S. history. Top story, man. TOP STORY.

Lesson learned: Know how your characters would say what they do, why, and in what order (in this case, their concern is to grab your attention). If it bleeds, it leads.

For pages and pages, some writers structure every sentence as, “Subject verbed as subject other verbed.” e.g. Aruna sighed as the turned into her husband’s embrace. Sanjeev nuzzled her as he pulled her closer. She closed her eyes as she hugged him back.

Lesson learned: Variety. You wouldn’t want to hear a song that was exactly the same in the first bar and every bar that followed, would you?

I don’t care if the book’s politics are different from mine, so long as the writing is good, but one Tea Partier(?) submitted his novel about four guys who decided to terrorize Dubai in order to convince other UAE states to stop supporting terror. So…they’re anti-heroes? No, they’re straight-up heroes who are going to murder innocent people in one country until rich residents of another country realize this is exactly what they’ve been supporting, and, aghast, stop their work. So these guys, who become terrorists in response to terrorism, decide to commit acts of terror to thwart the creation of other terrorists. It’s not logically consistent, but the book is playing it as though it is. At no point is it brought up that, by their own experience, this will probably create a greater number of terrorists.

I’ll give him this, though. He started off with the action. Meet the characters — KA-BOOM! — trauma. But then he slowed down the narrative for a few pages to have a health-care debate between a “FAX News” reporter and a thinly veiled President Obama, right there in the rubble of the stadium bombing.

Lesson learned: Be consistent. Also, don’t drag down your story, especially in the opening.

I awarded that submission extra points though, for most creative death: a headless body, vaulted from the stands by the explosion as a burning, decapitated missile, struck one of the lead character’s son just before he could score the game-winning touchdown, breaking his neck.

DAMN YOU, TERRORISTS.

Finally, the biggest lesson of all, since I know you’re writing a young adult love story between a woman and a vampire/ghost/angel/demon/merman/alien/time-traveler/college mascot — Do not use these names anymore: Damien, Daemon, Damon, Marek, Dominic, Tristan, Lucien, Azrael, Gabriel. I suspect the reason Twilight got published over other, better submissions, was the love interest’s fairly typical name, “Edward Cullen.” Every single paranormal stud in the voluminous submission pile of my short stint as a reader was named “Vlad Fangarescu” or “Aqueous Gillii” or “Hugo Frankensteiny”.

Lesson learned: You can still use Victor, but only if he’s a normal person without any special powers.