Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Untrendy Trends

I’ve noticed some trends lately, and I hope that’s all they are. But first let me say that our only way of discerning whether you can write or not is gleaned though the query process. So if you drop the ball there, you probably won’t get past first base as far as an agent getting serious about seeing any of your work.

Many of you are now sending ten pages along with your query and that’s great, as it shows me that you’ve done some research on us. However, I have to say that just because you put a writing sample in your query doesn’t negate the necessity to also formulate a good query letter. As has been said over and over here and on just about every writer board that I’ve ever visited, QUERY LETTERS ARE IMPORTANT, so study how to write an effective one. There is no short-cutting this vital step. So if you’re getting loads of rejections, a bad query letter might be the reason.

One of the trends I’m seeing is that a number of writers send either their query, their pages, or a bio as an attachment. Do not attach anything to your query as that will only get you rejected. Viruses hide in attachments so most won’t ever be opened if they are not requested. But also, those who phish for information do so hoping that the recipient of your attachment will write back saying they won’t open attachments, so most agents, being aware of phishing techniques, will just hit the delete key.

Then there are those who have a passable query but get a rejection anyway. What’s that all about? It could be that you are querying something that’s not marketable, or something that I don’t represent. Yes, I’m open to many genre areas but I don’t take Christian or Spirituality queries at this time. The reason I reject in this area is that I don’t have expertise or sources developed and have no desire to develop them at this time.

Another tread is wrong word count: Yes I know that we’ve not posted what we consider a typical word count and we probably won’t. However, if you’re a novelist, it pays to know what constitutes a novel. For one thing, adult novels are larger than 50,000 words and anything less is a novella, short story, a young adult novel, a middle-grade novel, a picture book or a script. Information on exact word counts is like finding hens teeth, however, a little research will give you the answer and here’s how. Go to your local bookstore, picking up a few book and see what their average page count is. Next, multiply 250 words per page times that average and you have it. Say the average page count is around 350 pages, multiply that times 250 words per page and you have 87,500 words. Of course you don’t have to send exactly 87,500 words as that would be ridiculous. What I do like, however, are books that are well developed and well written and those books run somewhere in the neighborhood of 85,000 to 110,000 words. Simple books don’t do it for me.

If yours is a simple story with one character and no subplots that covers a day or two in the life of your characters, then yours will be a very short story, after you cut out all the overwriting that is. As for me, I like complex stories told from multiple viewpoints, so books that I like are usually around 350-450 finished book pages long. See how simple that was?

No commercial appeal: This is a catch all. It can mean anything, but I use it to mean that if the book you’ve written looks like what everyone else is writing—abused wife, kids, dog, bipolar problems, serial killer, fantasy set in a land far, far away and such, don’t send it to me. If it was a best seller a year ago, there’s been so many trying to duplicate it that it’s old news and has low or no commercial appeal. Whole genre’s have disappeared because of market gluts, so this is what I’m talking about here—no commercial appeal.

With all that I’ve mentioned above, I’ve left out the obvious books that have bad openings, point of view problems, no story, one dimensional characters—all that stuff that writers who query me have fixed already. However, if you haven’t, you probably shouldn’t query.


Scott Jensen said...

I hear what you're saying, but would like more elaboration on "commercial appeal". You seem to be saying it needs to be popular but mustn't be popular.

Travis Erwin said...

Just curious how many times do you see a great ten pages that has been polished until it shined only to get more pages and have the writing fall apart?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

On the issue of commercial appeal, only: Some books might appeal to only teens or older adults, just men or just women. Another word for commercial appeal is broad appeal but even beyond that, a book with high commercial appeal would mean that a novel can go beyond the novel, like into being a movie, a television series, have appeal in an English speaking foreign country, after translation, spawn a video game, coin new words, start a new trend in fashion or even formulate a different way of looking at things.

In regard to popularity, think of it in terms of timing. We need books that have broad appeal before the market becomes saturated with books of that type. So a book needs to be in a popular area, but not in one that is so glutted editors are only reviewing work from the top five authors in that genre. Publishing is cyclical and finding material that people want to read but doing so before a 1000 other authors (some hyperbole for ya there) fill editors’ lists for that trend is the key. Think of Harry Potter. There was only going to be one Harry Potter, yet every publisher wanted one and every writer wanted to create the next popular boy wizard. You are always going to have readers who like Harry Potter and wanted the same kind of story, but maybe with a different setting or different characters. Publishers responded to that need and so did writers. The market for books about boy wizards or just mid-grade fantasy in general overflowed with knock-offs and so commercial appeal disappeared when readers decided they wanted something new. Only those authors who established themselves at the beginning of the “let’s copy Harry” craze are still writing something. The others faded out because there just wasn’t a need anymore.

Hope this helps.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

“How many times do you see a great ten page that have been polished until it shined only to get more pages and have the writing fall apart?”

You’re right that this could happen if there was enough great writing in those first ten pages. Most times, though, I only have to read a page or so and don’t order more. Many times I don’t get to the reading because of problems in the query letter—problems like low word count, something that’s low on my priority list, the audience is too narrow, something I have too many of already, a genre that I don’t handle. Things like that. Also, sometimes writers don’t send the first ten pages but send something from the middle of the book, and I can’t tell anything from that.

But to fully answer your question, yes, I have ordered works that fall apart after ten pages or even past that point. Many authors can write beautiful opening but cannot transition into middle novel. Books, of course, even dry up after that because some authors tried to pad a novel to make it longer and it’s quite obvious they should have stopped at the short story or novella stage. One pitfall I see is that many writers have taken the advice to polish the first three chapters to heart, but they stop there. So they will get requests for chapters, but after chapter three or four, it becomes a whole different world because the writing is much rougher. The whole novel should shine, not just parts of it, and those novels are hard to find.

Anonymous said...

BK: I can relate to the query letter issue, big time. In the last year I sent around 20 submission packages (query letter, synopsis, 2-3 chapters) to sci-fi agents in the UK, and got mildly polite rejections. Having used up most of the available pool of agents, I finally decided to get my submission package reviewed by a professional literary consultancy. They told me my writing was okay (good in fact, and that it had commercial value), but that my query letter and synopsis were a total disaster, and they would be surprised if agents got to the chapters. They gave me some hints, and after 20 re-drafts, I sent it out again. I now have an agent.

Anonymous said...

I find your opinions to be more rude than helpful. You are an agency, so it's not a matter of whether you like a novel, but a matter of the audience that is out there for that story. I hate cheesy romance novels, but they obviously sell. Why? Because there's a market for it.