Friday, October 03, 2008

The Way I Read

I’m always asked if I actually read for pleasure given that my job entails doing a whole heck of a lot of reading, and I’m actually surprised that others are surprised when I say yes. However, one of the things I’m not sure I’ve ever explained to anyone is I read differently for each thing I read. For example . . .

Query Letters

To clarify, these are the one-page equeries that I receive each day (by the way, we’re now up to about 25 to 30 a day in my inbox alone). When I read queries I often skim through the introductory material, title, and even genre, because I’m looking for the meat of the query. I want to know what the book is about and I want to be excited about it. In other words, I’m reading through the query to be stopped. I want to get to the point where I think, “Wait a minute. I need to read that again.” When I get to that point it’s very likely that unless there are any real bumps in the road (a word count of 7,000, for example) I will be requesting more material. Queries take a lot longer to read than one would think, and even if I can read one query every two minutes, I certainly can’t read 50 queries in a row. Which is why I now have nearly 200 queries sitting in my query folder.


This is almost always material I’ve requested from a query letter. Typically a proposal should include the first three chapters of your book and a synopsis. Now here’s the big one . . . never do I read the synopsis first, and I always wonder why people put the synopsis on the top of the chapters since the chapters are what you really want me to read, but that’s a post for another time. When reading proposals the first thing I do is read the attached letter (attached because my assistant probably clipped the entire packet together). Proposals that either don’t include letters or don’t include letters that give me any information about the book (usually the same information that was in the query is best) usually get put back down to be read at a later date. When I finally have time to sit and read proposals I want to pick up proposals that I know I’ll be excited to read. So I go through and read all the letters first. Which proposals do I remember requesting and which grab me just as much the second time around as they did the first? Those are the proposals that are likely to go home with me first. From that point I flip through until I get to the first chapter and then I sit down to read. Often when reading proposals I’m distracted. I’m reading at home, at night, and dinner is on, or the TV is on, or there is just chaos. A good three chapters is going to make that chaos disappear. Like most readers I don’t have the opportunity for a peaceful few hours to sit quietly and read. Instead I’m counting on the book to take me to that peaceful place. Okay, full disclosure time: When reading proposals I’m looking for that first reason to reject. I get 25 queries a day and probably 25 or so proposal packets a week. I can’t possibly take on that many new clients, and in my years of experience I know that there are not going to be that many winners in there. So I’m skeptical (as are all agents and editors), but I want to be wowed. Because there’s nothing more exciting than finding something amazing when you least expect it.

Requested Manuscripts

I don’t request many full manuscripts, so when I do I usually remember it and watch for it. However, the true test of the full manuscript for me is whether or not it holds up. I’ve already read the first three chapters, so when the full crosses my desk, do I have to read those first three chapters again or do I remember them so clearly that all I need to do is skim through anxiously awaiting the material I haven’t yet read? If I have to read them again to remind myself about the book and if I feel weighted down by the time I get to chapter five, I can easily reject the book. If, however, chapter four grabs me as well as chapter three and the next thing I know dinner is burning and infomercials are playing, I know I have a winner. Requested manuscripts are something that often hang over my head. I’ve got three client manuscripts right now I need to read (and I’m excited about reading) as well as numerous proposals and other things, so while I’m always excited to find a new client, the thought of finding time to read another 400 pages is intimidating. So again, I’m looking for a reason to reject and get this task off my desk.

Client Manuscript for Revisions

When reading client material, whether a full or partial, for revisions I need to be in a completely different mind-set. I need to be able to focus, which means I need to have my desk as cleared off as possible with no other projects hanging over my head. The phone can’t be ringing and I can’t be checking email. The best thing for me to do when reading for revisions is sequester myself (wouldn’t that be nice). When reading for revisions I always have pen in hand and a notebook at my side and I make notes. Notes to myself and notes I will share with the author. I am reading with an incredibly critical eye. Not skeptical, but critical. I need to concentrate and follow the story carefully and I need to be willing to be judgmental. To tell my client what is or isn’t working and to give suggestions. I need to have my editor’s hat on, which means a creative hat as well as critical. Reading for revisions is actually very tiring for me. It’s not like sitting down to read queries or to simply read an already published book. Instead it involves carefully thinking about every word and phrase.

Reading for Pleasure

Which, let’s face it, is the best reading of all. There is nothing better for me than being able to just sit down and read a book. I’m not going to be asked for my opinion and I’m not going to be asked to judge the book. All I need to do is lose myself in the story and read. I can put it down and never pick it up again if I don’t want to or I can pick it up weeks later when I have the time.



Rodney Battles said...

Excellent post, Jessica. Thanks for sharing.

MAGolla said...

Great post, Jessica. I guess I need to perk up my query. :-(

Susan at Stony River said...

Thank you for this post!
I suppose we all knew that the first words and the last words of our partial need to be extra-special, but now I have a mental note for chapter four as well--

Great stuff. I'd love to know what books you choose for pleasure (if you can find the time to list a few?)

Richard L. Mabry, MD said...

Just to be clear, you say a proposal should include a synopsis and the first three chapters. Some agents and editors also ask for a market analysis and comparative works, plus information about the author (including their platform). What is your take on this?
As always, thanks for an informative post.

Mark Terry said...

I've said it here and other places and I'll say it again. I don't think I'd like being a literary agent.

It's always amazing to me how interested I can be in some of the materials I have to read (and write) as a freelance writer, but the idea of reading that many queries or proposals just makes me quiver.

Kathleen MacIver said...

You know, Jessica, in two years of following agent and editor blog, a lot of things get posted over and over again. But I can honestly say that this post is totally unlike any that I've come across so far! And it's good, too. It really explains why some things get rejected, which (to me) helps lessen the disappointment.


Anonymous said...

Can I offer you an IV drip of highly caffinated coffee? And maybe a large bottle of aspirin, too?

Oh, and a nap?

Amy Sue Nathan said...

This is one of the smartest posts on the blog - and I enjoy them all. It reveals more about you as an agent than anything I've read...and perhaps it's insightful regarding other agents as well. It's good to get a peek over the fence now and again. It makes it clearer for us, the writers, to give you what you need, and want.

Thank you.

Robena Grant said...

Great post. Thanks. I'm in awe of your reading.

Can you lose yourself in a novel when reading for enjoyment, or does your mind wander when your critical eye hits a bump?

As my knowledge of the craft of writing grows I find I'm more critical, unless the story is superb. And that's annoying because I'm making little mental comments that take me momentarily out of the story. The superb ones I fly through and they stay with me for years, I find I don't analyze them until the end.

Jessica Nelson said...

Thanks for sharing!

Kate Douglas said...

I can vouch for Jessica's critical reading of client manuscripts. She's VERY picky, but in a good, constructive way, and her comments, at least in my case, have always strengthened the story.

The Rejection Queen said...

Damn, if my first line sucks in my query letter, it gets rejected? Damn. Thank god someone told me to rewrite my query letter. Maybe I dind't know what I was doing.

Anonymous said...

Okay, full disclosure time: When reading proposals I’m looking for that first reason to reject.

Jim McCarthy said this. I'm surprised, but not really. Why would an agent want a book they find huge, major flaws with?

But still interesting.

Anonymous said...

Really liked this -- thanks for posting it.

I wonder one thing about agents' pleasure reading, though: How often (if ever) do you find yourself thinking like an agent as you read whatever it is? For instance, Oh, I wish this were my client, I know just how I'd market it or First 25 pages, eh, not so much, thanks, now on to the next book...!

Anonymous said...

Excellent post as usual. One thing that went through my mind as I read this is that you (or your group) would benefit from a first reader of the sort publishers used to have before agents assumed the job. I can understand the reason for not using one, but a reader who could throw out all the worst dreck would save you a lot of valuable time.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I think a lot of writers (myself included) get really hung up on query writing but forget the true importance of having an outstanding proposal ready. If the agent asks for the first three chapters, you really need to leave them wanting more after chapter 3!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such an informing post! I have some time before I start sending out queries (as in finishing the book, lol) but I'm doing as much research as possible before so I'm not completely lost.

Anyway, I'm grateful for the time and effort that you put into finding a great and marketable book and for sharing this with all of us so we know what's expected!

Heather Moore said...

Reading for pleasure is the best. Thanks for all your insights, Jessica.

Abi said...

Thanks for sharing Jessica! This is an incredible insight into the reading how-to's of a literary agent. An author always wants to know more inside details!


ChristaCarol Jones said...

I'm amazed by your talent. Your reading balancing act sounds like my life with all the things I do on a daily basis.

Thanks for sharing such great insight, not only is it valuable information but it helps us get to know you a bit more as well. And I'm glad you said the blunt truth about looking for reasons to reject. It helps me get my feet back on solid ground instead of floating up in Neverland.

Jory said...

This is very informative and helpful. Thanks for posting!

Marian Perera said...

Some time ago, I used to think it would be fun to read slush for a day or two. I changed my mind after realizing what this is actually like (i.e. slush pile quality), but Jessica's post was very enlightening about the pressure of getting through it all as well. 25 to 30 queries in the inbox each day, on top of all the other reading? I think I'll stick to being a writer. :)

Julie Weathers said...

I have heard the, "I read looking for a reason to stop," before.

I kept this in mind when I was revising the first three chapters. Barbara Rogan also hammered this home in her Next Level workshop. Since she is a retired agent and editor, I trusted her judgment when she kept pushing me to make every sentence count. Sometimes I felt like banging my head on the desk, but she was right about all of the complaints.

Of course, her, "Just make the first chapter sing," comment was a trap. After that I was told to go on and make the next chapter sing.

For many readers, a book is innocent until proven guilty. I look at submitting as guilty until proven innocent.

We just have to go that extra mile and not give agents a reason to say no.

Jessica, this is one of those posts that will most likely be stickied everywhere. Thanks for sharing this.

TerriRainer said...

I have noticed that reading for pleasure NOW, is different than BEFORE.

Now, I write, so I look at other's work differently.

Before, I merely judged a book by the story, never the actual writing style, POV, showing vs. telling, etc.

Not sure which way I would rather be reading a book though!

Thanks for the insight.

:) Terri

Jennifer McKenzie said...

I still struggle with openings. I'm a "slow and steady wins the race" kind of writer which has garnered me impressive rejections.
I've learned to open a book in better places.
I hadn't thought about how chapter four might be hugely important.
After all, it's the NEXT part of the book you go to when you receive the full.

Sophie Playle said...

Very interesting and informative. Thanks for sharing!

Jemi Fraser said...

As a teacher, I read on a lot of different levels for my job as well. Thank you for posting this window into your reading :)

Margaret M. Fisk said...

So many writers talk about losing the ability to just read. I think it's wonderful, considering how much your job is about assessing fiction, that you can still read as a reader.

When I'm reading for pleasure, I let myself get swept away. Only later will I try to figure out how that worked. But when I'm editing or critting (my work or others), it's a very different experience.