Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Red Flags

Red flags are sort of like pet peeves. Every agent, every editor, and every author has them. In the case of pet peeves they are things that drive us nuts. In the case of red flags they are things an author tells us that immediately convince us the book is probably not working.

Certainly all red flags are different, but here are just a few of mine.

“When I originally wrote this it was 325,000 words. Realizing that was much too long I split it into a trilogy...”

You know, a well-written book cannot simply be divided. That means that somewhere in the middle of your book the story ended and another, completely different story took hold. Either that or you simply cut the book in thirds, and I’m going to have to read three books to be able to actually finish one. The author often makes this sound so simple, like you just split a book. Even if that’s what you did, ultimately you would have had to rewrite all three books to make it work. At least that’s what I think when I hear that. So even if you did split a book to make it into a trilogy and you feel it was successful, no need to tell me.


"I love reading [name your genre] novels, but never find anything that I think is really good, which is why I decided to write this book..."

I think it's pretty obvious here that the author probably doesn't have enough of an understanding of the market or the genre to be able to write the book. Now of course I could be wrong, but do I really want to represent an author who doesn't respect the genre she's writing in?


"My book still needs editing..."

Almost every book I offer representation on needs some editing. A tweak here or there at the least. If you think your book needs editing, at a time when you should think it's ready to be published, imagine what I'll think?


"I've attached chapter [any chapter other than chapter 1] since this is when I really feel the book gets started."

Why wouldn't your book start at the beginning?


"I wrote this book in three weeks."

I know people do it. I know they can, but I have to question how a book could have been written, edited, and revised in three weeks. And I'm talking a full-length 80,000-word novel here.



Rick Daley said...

I have a mental image of the robot from Lost In Space* waving his arms going "Danger! Danger Will Robinson!"

*Yes, I am old.

WORD VERIFICATION: ducalit. A warning to a tall person who is about to bump his/her head on an overhead illuminative object.

Amy Tripp said...

The last one made me laugh. I think many nanowrimo participants can say "I wrote a book in four weeks" but we say it with a smirk and a niggle at the back of our brain about how that four weeks of writing will turn into six months of editing - IF it's even worth putting the work into.

Let's see, it's July, nano was in November, and I'm looking at another month before my nanonovel is ready for my first readers to even get a glimpse of it.

Great list - most of them made me cringe.

Phil Hall said...

In three weeks? Seriously? I have 68K written and edited...that took me 13 months. Three weeks would land me in the looney bin!

Chro said...

The thing is, whenever someone creates a 200k+ word monster, EVERYBODY tells them to split it into multiple books, as if it is common practice. Mostly because the alternative is to cut out half the novel.

Why someone would admit they had done so is beyond me, however.

Loree Huebner said...

Love these. The "I wrote this in 3 weeks" cracked me up.

Unknown said...

What I find crazy is that you've read this on a query letter. I could see how you wouldn't even want to dive in the pages.

Along with editing my novel I've edited my query letter SEVERAL times. There is no such thing as perfection but you can do your best to get close.

Anonymous said...

"I think it's pretty obvious here that the author probably doesn't have enough of an understanding of the market or the genre to be able to write the book. Now of course I could be wrong, but do I really want to represent an author who doesn't respect the genre she's writing in?"

This is very much an agent or publisher's view, not something a fan or a writer would ever say.

Agents and publishers are worried about marketability within neat and rigid genre pigeonholes. "Oh no, it doesn't tick the boxes! Whoever will buy this?!" That's why the Fantasy fiction genre, for instance, is so saturated with samey, archetypical trash: publishers like to play to the safest bet / lowest common denominator in order to secure the highest possible sales. The genre, which once had so much potential, has been ruined over the last thirty years by agents, publishers and authors being too concerned with "an understanding of the market or genre".

Maybe you should take the view that actually this writer is trying to push the constraints of genre and take it forward, to write an original work? I can respect a genre in terms of an artistic movement or ideas of different people flowing in a particular direction over the years, but never in agent and publisher terms, as if it's a flavour of soda sold to a demographic that likes the taste.

To be honest, I think anyone who made that statement is bloody lucky not to be represented by you - they had a lucky escape.

Anonymous said...

Ohh, again, thanks for the tips. They seem like no-brainers when you spell it out like that, but who knows. I probably might have made one of those errors!

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

This post but mostly one of the comments has brought forward questions I have about genres. Have contemporary genres become more specific in the last 20 years? Or is there more of a need to categorize to market a book?

Kelley @ Between the Bookends said...

Great post. Thank you for the tips.

I also have the same question as Angie. Is it important that the book fits into a genre perfectly?


The Other Stephen King said...

Thank you for a great post!

I'm with Betty. As a n00b in the field, I can see myself saying some of these things, and so I'm glad you've taken the time to point out the issues with them. My idea, for example, started out as a single story line that probably would have filled up 300-400K words. With some planning, though, I was able to split the story into a few separate arcs, and the first story is currently written, revised, and on an editor's desk at about 80K. Doesn't mean I'm going to tell all that to a prospective agent, of course.

On the matter of genre, I can certainly say that I like my story better than I like any of the other stories in the genre, though I admit that there are some other fantasy stories out there that I like quite a lot. To say I don't think anything out there now is really good would just be silly.

All that said...there are right ways and wrong ways to present a pitch, and a writer more than anyone else should understand that. I guess, going back to my original point, I really can't see myself saying the things you posted, after all.

Side note: Word Verification: ghtshn? What the hell word is that? At least it's not stretched and blotted into complete unreadability like the "word" verifications are in Facebook. Sometimes I wonder if these programmers know the difference between "human" and "forensic scribble interpreter."

Anonymous said...

I wish I could write that fast!! Holy smokes, I want what they are drinking!! LOL

On genre, mine was crossed all over the place. I was lucky that my agent (*grin*) knew exactly what I was writing and wanted that. I learned just to write my story, and let the genre issues reside with the pros that will sell it.

On queries...I am constantly amazed that writers will attach a noose to the very letter that is supposed to be selling them. It's a job interview. You don't bring a list of your bad qualities to an interview. You show your shiny side.

Anonymous said...

"It's a job interview" - is it?

The writer's bringing the talent and the product to the table. What does an agent bring? Their network of contacts, I guess. Their knowledge of which kinds of products (genre of book) are best sold by whom.

Who're the agents looking out for? Not the author. Not the readers. Themselves. They are a largely irrelevant middleman (a parasite, you might say) who takes a cut without either exercising the talent or the hard work to make the product, or having sufficient resources to put it on the market.

So no, authors aren't attending a job interview. You're not doing them a favour. They're doing you a favour. You're the least necessary part of the equation. Their hard work and talent is keeping you in business, despite you really not contributing anything toward anything.

"Job interview". Yeah, that's funny. I love it how those in the business side of publishing like to pretend that they're the most vital part of it all. People were telling stories long before others were profiting from them.

Margo Lerwill said...

Quoting Jessica "Now of course I could be wrong, but do I really want to represent an author who doesn't respect the genre she's writing in?"

Anonymous said: "This is very much an agent or publisher's view, not something a fan or a writer would ever say."

You assume too much. There are plenty of writers and readers out there who would say this, myself included. It drives me crazy when a self-indulgent writer can't even be bothered to learn enough about genre to know what they're writing or to acknowledge that genres have dedicated readers. Disrespectful is the perfect term for this kind of self-absorbed creative masterbation.

ryan field said...

I own rental properties and I get all kinds of red flags from prospective tenants.

But I was once contracted to write a 75,000 word novel in three weeks for a different kind of publishing venture. I did it and met the deadline. But I'd never do it again.

Anonymous said...

"It drives me crazy when a self-indulgent writer can't even be bothered to learn enough about genre to know what they're writing or to acknowledge that genres have dedicated readers."

You're both assuming, though, that they don't know the ins and outs of genre.

"I love reading [name your genre] novels, but never find anything that I think is really good" < this suggests that they have already read fairly widely.

"Dedicated readers" or undemanding and undiscerning readers who will just lap up any old crap that comes out of the genre fiction factory? All genres have formulaic dross and all genres have interesting, forward thinking works, but certain types of agent, publisher and author will always favour the former because it's easy money.

Self indulgent creative masturbation at least involves creativity, unlike the literary junkfood business. Dulling readers' palates and making their minds fat and useless.

vp chandler said...

I can see me saying, "It needs editing." Of course I would work hard to produce the best product possible, but we all know it will need work no matter what. I would say this to let the agent know I understand that there is a lot of hard work ahead, the process continues.
I'm also guilty of self-deprecation. It's hard not to be intimidated by the business. So when the time comes to present my work I will try not to say that!

Margo Lerwill said...

Wow, Anon, I see you have a huge respect for readers as well. That should work out great.

Anonymous said...

"Almost every book I offer representation on needs some editing. A tweak here or there at the least. If you think your book needs editing, at a time when you should think it's ready to be published, imagine what I'll think?"

That maybe now it's time for publishers' editorial departments to do their job and earn their cut. That's what they're there for. But I suppose these days publishers think they're just there to do the tedious promotional stuff, find some horribly tacky and generic cover art, pay for the book to be printed, then sit back and wait for the dough to come rolling in?

"What do you mean, the book might need editing?!? You mean I might actually have to do some work??? You're not selling this one to me, parasitic agent! Next author please"

Anonymous said...

@Margo Lerwill: I have a huge amount of respect for certain readers. I'm not making McDonalds here... But I appreciate you being upset when told it's bad for you.

John said...

"I love reading [name your genre] novels, but never find anything that I think is really good, which is why I decided to write this book..." is just a bad presentation of a thought.

The thought is "I could never find the [genre] novel that tickled my heart in just the right way, so I wrote it."

Putting down the genre is insulting. If you're asking an agent to represent you, it should start from a place of respect. If they couldn't find good work before you, why would you want their help?

Jael said...

I'm with Margo and John (and Jessica) on the idea that a writer shouldn't insult the entirety of a genre they hope to be published in. "All romance sucks so I wrote this romance that doesn't" isn't the right way to express it, at the very least. Especially if the agent you're querying represents the books you just insulted. And if they don't deal in that genre, why are you querying them?

Some published books are amazing and some aren't. Focus your efforts on being part of the first group and forget about the second.

Anonymous said...

I think any book that the author thinks needs editing probably isn't done. If you have a feeling that it needs editing, then try to find where to fix it! Also, a query letter is a job interview, because you want the agent to help you to sell your novel. Yes, the agent benefits too, but is that really a problem? If you don't want a mass market book, then you probably shouldn't be querying. Just publish online. I agree with most of what Jessica has said in the post, because I believe that any author who says those things probably isn't ready to be published.

Anonymous said...

"I love reading [name your genre] novels, but never find anything that I think is really good, which is why I decided to write this book..."

"I think it's pretty obvious here that the author probably doesn't have enough of an understanding of the market or the genre to be able to write the book."

I don't think it is obvious at all.

Publishing is not a concern during the writing process for authors who write due to a frustrating lack of books that capture their interest.

I have talked with many people who do not read as much as they used to because they are limited on book selections that appeal to them.

There is a huge market of people waiting to read something other than supernatural themed books or Jane Austin knock-offs.

MAGolla said...

Recently, I beta read a story that a writer friend wanted to self-pub . . . she left the protagonist in dire straits at the end of book one. OY!

1) would have tossed the book into the wall, but I didn't want to break my computer.

2) gently suggested she rethink this, since readers don't like being betrayed by an author, but this was a "trilogy".
--Uhm, no it isn't.

3)suggested she cut the first 50 pgs to clean up the repetition.
--yeah, like that suggestion really flew with her.

So, totally ignoring my suggestions she went on to publish the story because she had a 'deadline'.

Uhm--self-pubbing--you can CHANGE your deadline.

I won't read for her again. And, if you decide to self-pub, well, that book had better be the best it can be!

Elisa DeLany said...

This list only further solidifies my conviction that I could never be a book agent.

Laura W. said...

"Realizing that it was too long I split it into a trilogy..." Or if you're Christopher Paolini, you realized your trilogy was too long and split it into a "Cycle." But you have to be published and bestselling and reputable to do that (and you'll still piss off your fans when they realize they have to buy another book)...

The reason people probably include these "red flag" details is that they want to include a bit of backstory to make their query letter personalized, instead of letting the story speak for itself.

MarcyKate said...

It doesn't matter whether or not you consider a query letter the equivalent of a job interview, nor who should or should not work for whom in the agent/author/editor dynamic. The salient point here is that publishing is a business and if you want to be a part of that, you have to act professional.

Denise said...

This is a very valid post. One of the things I'd suggest querying writers do is use it as an addendum to Query Shark on what *not* to include in a query. Easy enough.

I'm a bit annoyed at the vitriolic response from "Anonymous," though. Basically, s/he doesn't agree. Fine. You've made yourself clear. At this point you're not bringing anything else to the conversation. Have a nice day, but please do it somewhere else. To call Jessica Faust parasitic is rude and uncalled for. Her reputation is stellar, her years of experience and sales history substantiate her value and she's doing a positive service with this blog.

Grrrr. Sorry for the rant. And Jessica? I know you don't need defending, but I've visited with you re: a manuscript. I couldn't let this go without comment, and I'm happy to put my name to it.

MadDabbler == Denise T.

Becca said...

Everyone has pet peeves. Even agents. One of my pet peeves is other people telling people that they shouldn't have the pet peeves they do :P

Her approach to viewing MS work for her. Another agent may tackle things differently.

You have other writers, readers, agents, and publishers to deal with. No, they *aren't* all looking for the same thing. So what? They're individuals.

Personally, I think it's nice that she shared her pet peeves on the blog so people who are querying her can know what ot avoid. She even says even if they did do that not to tell her. I think that says a lot right there. She realizes that maybe that split trilogy MIGHT work, but her experience is that most times they don't work, so telling her up front is likely to make her go into things with apprehensions, or avoid it all together. This is true of just about every human on the planet. If 99 times out of 100 one thing leads to a bad result, you tend to avoid knowingly putting yourself in that situation.

Even doctors support this.
You "It hurts when I do this."
Doctor "Then don't do it."

Finding an agent is one path to success. this is part of that path. If you want to take a different path, take a different one. But you'll at the very least have to keep your target audience in mind, or at least *find out* who your target audience really is.

It's a good tip. Makes it easier

Stephsco said...

Like Amy commented, Nanowrimo success means you have a 50k word FIRST DRAFT. Most of which I imagine needs extensive overhauling unless you've been consistently writing and completing works for years. Even though, still needs editing. I'm 8 months out from my Nano draft and feel *maybe* halfway there.

I think a better way to say the genre thing is "I wanted to add a new twist to [genre]" or something that adds to it rather than bashes what's out there.

Danielle La Paglia said...

Thanks for the tips. Like others have said regarding the editing and genre comments, a writer may not intend to be insulting, but she needs to be aware of how her comments will be perceived.

Anonymous - If you hate agents and publishers so much, why are you bothering to read an agent's blog? Why not just self-publish and be done with it? Furthermore, I find it interesting that you're willing to attack the industry and other writers, but you're not strong enough in your convictions to identify yourself.

Eddie Louise said...

Funny how people are always willing to attack the messenger, but less willing to confront the message.

What I take from your article:

1)If the 1st draft was 300K+ words - then talk only about the FIRST book in the edited form and *hint* at the remaining stories. If you have done the work as a writer than there will be interest in the remaining story.

2)If you think you have done better than other writers in the genre - then speak specifically to what makes your story transcendent. As long as books are shelved by genre all publishing professional will have to be concerned about genre. also, you should never disparage other writers - it smacks of unprofessional and immature behavior. The last thing you want a prospective agent to think is that you are unprofessional and immature!

3)Stating that you are sure the book needs editing it tantamount to saying it is not done. Saying you are *willing* to edit and revise shows that you understand the process. It is a fine but critical distinction!

4)1st chapters *must* grab. If they don't - rewrite them.

5)It is best to never mention how long it took to write a book. Let the quality of your writing speak for itself.

Anyway - that is what I am taking away from this post.

And to the Haters - don't shoot the messenger!

Maria Mainero said...

Regarding the genre question and comments. A better way to put it might be, "I love reading this genre, and wanted so badly to read a book about vampires who could reverse their status via time-travel, that I decided to write one!"
Although an agent should recognize a truly unique idea without it being pointed out so bluntly.
Isn't the point of the query letter to intrigue the agent about your story? Going into your history as a reader and writer isn't going to clinch the deal if your story doesn't hook.

Sherri Shackelford said...

I can't imagine writing a book in three weeks! That's all I have to say about that...

Anonymous said...

Wow...can't believe all that Anon said today. I agree w/Danielle... why on earth is this person bothering with an agency blog if they are so anti-agent? Seriously, why bring the ranting here. Go do your thing.

Agents bring the best thing ever to the table: They allow a writer to just write. I don't have to worry about contracts and deals and what happens when and where the dots connect legally. Jessica does all that. I just write. And that's worth everything to me.

If that's not your cup of tea, then great. Go drink soda. But don't bash the tea drinkers. We like it here. :)

Karen Duvall said...

It appears Anon is suffering from a bad case of sour grapes. To each its own, but what a shame it has to bring its vitriol here.

Great post, Jessica! And i think it's so important for querying writers to know the pet peeves of the agents they want to query.

I'd also like to join in on pointing out the value of an agent. While it's true that an agent is your business partner in representing your work and negotiating deals, they can be so much more than that. Jessica is not my agent, but from what I know of her, she appears to have the same ethics and compassion as my awesome agent, who means the world to me.

My agent is my mentor as well as my go-between when it comes to dealing with my publisher. She's also my supporter, my cheerleader, and even my motivation at times. She's my career counselor as well. If not for my agent, I wouldn't be on the career track I'm on right now and that means a lot to me.

An agent can be just the business end of things if that's all you want. Personally, I like the whole package and I'm so happy there are many good agents who offer that.

Roxanne Skelly said...

Writing a book in three weeks. Hmmm. Maybe if you didn't have a day job and a methamphetamine addiction. I suspect the quality would suffer, though.

My challenge...I knowingly have something that some may consider a cliche, even a red flag, in my story. I agonized over this a lot, and tried to write it out umpteen million times. The story keeps on telling me that that certain piece needs to be there.

And I've had people writing in my genre take a look, and for most, they think it works.

But I know darn well there will be agents, publishers and readers who will immediately put it down just because it hits their 'red flag' button, regardless of the story.

Sigh. I guess it's better than I know the risk than not.

LivelyClamor said...

Wow. All my newbie lack of experience folded up into one post!

I did NaNoWriMo last year. What I wrote should never see the light of day, but it did get me out of the problem of rewriting five pages endlessly and never moving anywhere. The idea was originally intended to put an unexpected twist into a somewhat stereotypically predictable genre. I still want to do that. But I have a LONG way to go and am not sure I would trumpet my disdain at the genre in a query letter...let the agent be surprised. Of course this is still in the theoretical. I have a day job and a lot of plot problems to take care of first.

I agree that coming at a genre from an unexpected angle can be a joy. I don't know if agents would see it that way. It's my own quirky sense of humor. And maybe some misconceptions about genre. I'm happy to admit I'm working on that.

I too am surprised that a commenter who goes on to make such acrid comments about agents and publishers is lurking on this blog...why bother except to get attention and antagonize?

Anonymous said...

Great post that raises one question. Your comments reminded me of a certain writer. Every phrase in this author’s work is a cliché. I can finish every sentence without reading to the period. If a sentence ends on the next page I don’t have to turn the page to find out what comes next. After three or four pages of this I start falling asleep.

The author in question writes blistering, screaming monster bestsellers that fly out the door so fast it is almost dangerous to walk into a bookstore.

So now you are saying the fact I don’t admire this stuff means I will never be a writer?

In the interest of my own salvation, the author in question is a male and therefore fair game for criticism. Women authors are just as bad, but you will never get me to admit it.

Laura W. said...

Anon: "Women writers are just as bad, but you will never get me to admit it." <-- question mark...??

Sorry to add fuel to the anonymous fire of raging trollery, but I just couldn't resist pointing that out.

Sam Mills said...

Anon-- it doesn't mean you'll never be a writer, it just means there's no point in telling an agent, "I hate the books you already represent, but I bet you'd like mine." If they represent books that you hate, then you probably do not fit the style they like! You're better off submitting to somebody who likes your kind of work.

Virginia Llorca said...

I wish Anonymous was linked to his website. There are a few things I want to discuss with him. But now he has mine. And genre, genre, genre. . . It's like only going to cowboy movies.

angie Brooksby-Arcangioli said...

There are lots of bitter Anon that cannot appreciate an agent's worth.

I've never, yet, worked with a literary agent but as an artist I've worked for years with galleries. People always ask me what their cut is. 50 - 60% of the sales, in my case it is even more. Do I hate my gallery because they are exploiting me, no. I think they are worth their weight in gold. They leave me all the time to create and send their driver to my atelier. I think a good literary agent must be the same.

The bitter Anon who feels s/he could do a better job than an agent. Why why not do it? Market yourself, your negativity is just a waste of energy.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Let me clarify something. I think it's very easy to find bestselling authors in the genre of your choice that you don't like. I do it all the time. However, to say that there's nothing out there in a particular genre that's any good signifies to me that you don't understand the genre. It's not that I discourage thinking outside the box. I mean c'mon, if you've been reading my blog for even a month I think you know better. What it says to me is that you don't have an appreciation for the genre is you think there's "nothing" that's good.


inklings Anon said...

It was submitting queries that told me I needed to cut out a chapter and a half from my book. I kept sending queries out that wanted the first 5 pages. What? This is all set up!! You can't even know what's happening in 5 pages. Luckily, a little Sol Stein writing had empowered me to make the difficult decision to make the necessary cuts. Of course by that time, I had become weary of sending out queries because graduate school was beginning to consume too much time. I probably should have told agents that I was considering indie publishing. Now I'm making money and my would have been agent is not.


Laina said...

I wrote a 60ishK book in about 34 days.

I've been editing it for a year. (I've also written two and a half other books.)

I am not going to put ANY of that in my query. XD

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Sarah said...

I for one am glad I read this post. I am one of those who wrote 290 thousand words. (before I knew about the wonderful world of word count) And it was suggested to me to break my novel into a trilogy.

I did. But I had to rework it.

I had to make sure each book was a fulfilling story at the stand alone level. Even if they ended with some problems unresolved. Problems to be resolved in future books.

It was kind of a bummer for me, because first I sliced the work into a trilogy, then I read it one book at a time to see how it felt. I started reworking the first before I even made it to the end.

Why? Because it wasn't a whole book! It was a beginning. It's a whole book now. *satisfied grin*

As much as it set back my querying process, I loved doing it because I love my book(s).

No, I didn't love every moment of it--c'mon, it was more work for me! But now that it's standing ready for polishing, I can say I loved it.

Sure, my book was sliced in three, but I COMPLETELY understand the need to make sure each story has individual potential.

Trilogies work. Series work. Leaving the reader hanging a bit at the end in one way or another is okay when there are more books coming. Successful authors do it all the time.

The punch is the satisfying ending.

Well, that and everything leading up to it.

Thanks for the red flag warning. I appreciate it.