Tuesday, August 07, 2007

An Agent's Dilemma

While traveling recently I brought along a full manuscript submission to read. I had already read the first three chapters and was thrilled. It was a thriller with a unique and different hook. The characters were well drawn and likable and the writing was absolutely amazing. I couldn’t have been more excited. In fact, I rarely travel with manuscripts, using airtime to read for pleasure, but in this case the manuscript was entirely pleasurable. Until I finished.

I loved the idea and could picture it not only on bestseller lists but also as a movie option. I loved the writing. The author had real talent, and although she’d been published before with a small house I knew she could make it big with the big houses. So what was my dilemma? The plot was a disaster. This was a thriller with no mystery at all. Intern Lisa and I both read the partial first and were shocked to discover that every suspect in fact did commit the crime, we were picking up on clues faster than the protagonist, and in fact we had solved the entire mystery before finishing the first 50 pages. It took the protagonist 400.

Easy reject, right? No. For some reason I was stumped by this one. I knew the author could write mystery and had, in fact, been well reviewed for her previous works. But why couldn’t she write this? I had a long list of revisions, but did I really want to take on the task of working with the author on them? What if she couldn’t do the rewrites? I mean this was big. It wasn’t just a piece here or there that needed correcting, this needed to be an entirely new book. And did I want to risk that? Did I want to ask her to do rewrites only to get them back and discover that it couldn’t be fixed? On the other hand, asking her to make the changes could result in just the book it could and needed to be.

Decisions, decisions. I was leaning toward offering representation. I really felt this was a book that I could do amazing things with, but I wanted to talk it over with the BookEnds team. I didn’t need them to read the book since I knew very well what was wrong with it, but I just needed their opinions and advice on how to handle the situation. I was waiting to bring it up at our Wednesday meeting.

Well, the decision was made for me. That author got a call from another agent who signed her right out from under me. Sure I was disappointed, and of course knowing someone else moved a day faster than me bummed me out, but I suppose it took the pressure off too. The decision was made for me. Do I think I lost out by not moving faster? Yes and no. I lost out on an opportunity to work with a really talented author whom I was excited about. On the other hand, the book needed a great deal of work, and doing that would take time away from my other busy clients. In the end I’m not concerned, I’ll find something else just as fabulous and that needs a lot less work.

So now I’m on a thriller hunt. I’m looking for the next Karin Slaughter or Kathy Reichs. I want a female protagonist who is tough with weaknesses. I want someone readers can relate to and a book that keeps me turning the pages late into the night.



Anonymous said...

Very enlightening post. How willing are you to take someone on who has to be "schooled?" Even with a track record, since the author was switching to a slightly different genre it might not sell the way it is. What is the point that you are willing to put in the work with no guarantee, or as in this case, do you let the author decide?
Do you ever follow up on this sort of submission? Not with the author, but keeping track of if and how (meaning with the revisions) it sells?

Aimlesswriter said...

Its nice to know you give books that need so much work consideration too. Do you ever encourage a writer to resubmit after reworking the book?
Do you handle thrillers with serial killers? Or would that fall under a different genre?

Aimlesswriter said...

Another question; Would you have been so interested in this author if she hadn't been published before?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Great questions.

How willing I am to work with someone is really a gut decision. I would have to think the writing was fantastic and the work extremely marketable to take on something that I felt needed a great deal of work. I've done it a number of times though.

And regularly I will give authors feedback on work that I'm passing on and I definitely encourage everyone to consider resubmiting (either a fully edited manuscript or, preferably, something new and fresh).

I track a lot of submissions and am always keeping an eye on authors and careers. If I liked something but ultimately passed on it I'm thrilled when I see that it's something that later sold.

And yes, I love serial killers (in fiction that is).

And would I have been so interested in this author if she hadn't been published. I don't think so. She had amazing reviews which proves she knows how to write a book--how to write what were obviously the weakest points of the book. That gave me some level of confidence that she could do the edits necessary.


Josephine Damian said...

Errrr... so all the suspects were the killer, kinda like "Murder on the Orient Express?"

I've read so many thrillers where the killer was so obvious early on, I vowed never to read those authors' books again - they lost me as a reader.

In spite of that other agent taking on that client/book -
I think you were right to take a pass. I'm sure every MS submitted needs work, but that one sounds like too much work for any agent.

Great questions, Aimless Writer.

Joe Moore said...

Seems to me that things happen for the best. Although the author was an excellent writer, there’s no guarantee that she could make the needed rewrite on such a large scale. Or for that matter, that she would want to. My old mentor used to tell me to pick the low hanging fruit. And in this instance, the next female-protag thriller through your door just might be a ripe, juicy peach ready for harvest.

JDuncan said...

Ok, just curious here, Jessica. If the book is a thriller, why is knowing who the killer is early on a problem? I can see this in a mystery, where the point is to solve the crime, but I thought the thriller was more in catching the guy before some big, bad catastrophe could happen? Though if the protag was clueless about the 'who' until the end, then that would be a problem as well. Sounds like the author might have been a little confused about which genre she was trying to write.

Speaking of structural problems, I am curious Jessica, if you have ever read something that used multiple first person pov's that you liked. I've gotten feedback on my ms that editors in the suspense/thriller genre aren't really going to like that format. Do you find in your working with editors that structural elements like pov follow certain guidelines across genres, i.e. mystery editors primarily like third person or what have you? Or is it more an editor to editor preference? I knew I was taking a big risk with multiple first person pov's when I wrote my story, and I will likely have to change it if I want to garner any real interest, but curious what your take on it is.


Mark Terry said...

Two questions and/or comments. After talking to one of your clients, I wasn't under the impression you handled thrillers (which are what I write).

And like someone else commented, why is not knowing the killer all that odd in a thriller? The standard thriller format has an open structure where the reader knows who the bad guy is? Or, is it just that the protag was too dense to figure out what was right in front of them?

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

You're right. With a thriller it is perfectly acceptable that we know who the killer is. The mystery/thriller aspect is than that we have to find the killer before something else happens. In this case the mystery/thrilling aspect was supposed to be that we also needed to find out who the killer was. The problem wasn't so much that we knew who the killer was, but that we could so obviously see who the killer was when the protag couldn't figure it out herself.

It's okay for the reader to see things the protag can't (the killer acting for example), but not okay when we are seeing clues and figuring it out when the protag is so obviously missing them.

I have read things with mulitple viewpoints that I've liked, it really depends on how it's done. As with everything. Overall though I find it is often difficult for the reader to become fully engaged with one character when this happens. As to how editors react to this I don't think any of us have any specific rules of like or dislike. We just want it all done very well. In fact, I don't even want to notice the viewpoint when I read.

And yes, I do represent, or would love to represent thrillers. They are a much harder sell than some other types of mysteries which is why we have a limited number on our list. We're very, very picky.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I love hearing stories like this. Very enlightening.

Sandra Cormier said...

If the protagonist is presented with the same clues as the reader, he or she should be able to solve the puzzle as quickly as the reader. However, sometimes the reader is privy to events that the protagonist isn't, therefore it's okay for the protagonist to be in the dark.

Hang on, Jessica! I have a romantic thriller cooking right now but I'm only half finished! The race is on!