Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Passion Isn't Everything

All the time you hear about agents who reject a book because we simply aren’t passionate enough about it. Certainly this reasoning has incited numerous discussions on this and other blogs from authors who couldn't care less whether or not an agent feels passion, but just wants someone to sell the book. I’ve even seen comments from those who feel they’ve never been passionate about a book so don’t get this line of reasoning. Luckily, those people aren’t agents.

Recently I read a book that I really was passionate about. Early on in the manuscript I saw flaws (I often see the flaws), but I still couldn’t stop reading. The subject matter was right up my alley, perfectly in tune with my own interests, and I loved the voice. Before I knew it I had finished the book and then I had a big decision to make. I enjoyed the book immensely. I couldn’t stop thinking about it and I did have passion for it. Unfortunately, the book also had a number of flaws, big flaws. The biggest problem was that, as it was written, I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it. It needed a lot of work and I’m not sure this author was capable of doing it. I sat and thought, and thought and thought. I debated and made lists, and no matter how I felt about that book I couldn’t get myself to make the call and offer representation. I just knew it wasn’t ready.

In the end I did call the author and we talked for some time and I’m afraid I passed. I explained what I thought were her true strengths and why the book worked for me. I also explained what I thought she needed to do to bring this up to be marketable to publishers. In my mind the book would need an almost complete rewrite. It’s very possible she’ll find another agent willing to take the plunge. She’s great. I just felt that, while I had passion, that was only one element of what I needed to sell the book.

So while agents discuss the need for passion on a regular basis, making it sound like that’s the biggest near miss authors often face, I wanted to show another side. That sometimes it is possible to have passion for a book you know isn’t quite there anyway.



Megan Burke said...

so it wasn't enough that you loved it?

you couldn't've spent time with the author and got it up to standard? or tell them to hire someone, have a re-write and get back to you?

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

You don't mention if you'd be willing to take a look at a rewrite. Does that mean that you shut the door pretty firmly on this book and author?

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

Fascinating. Is there any way you could explain what was flawed? I'm sure that's not an easy answer, but I'd love to know so I could keep it in mind while writing...

Rick Daley said...

I had a very similar experience with an agent who thought I had a clever premise and said I was a talented writer, but admitted that the manuscript was not ready to be sold into today's competitive market.

I did get excellent feedback. For my work, the issue was unnecessary exposition regarding minor characters. It blurred the focus of the primary story.

I wasn't told to re-write it; I came to that conclusion on my own after spending weeks trying to tweak, delete, and revise. It was a tough choice, but I'm glad I made it. Now I just have to be patient while I finish so I can query again.

Anonymous said...

Hmm...methinks you opened the proverbial can with this one. Apparently the flaw/flaws were so massive you found it overwhelming. But why not offer her another look if she does the rewrite after addressing your critique?

Connie Keller said...

In my experience, passion isn't enough. I've had agents say they loved my novels but ended up declining because of the situation in the market. It's not enough to love the book. Publishing is a business--it's about selling the book.

halitogi said...

I don't think I understand how a book can simultaneously be a)so bad it needs completely rewritten and b)so good it inspires passion. Any chance you could make up some example of when that might be the case?

Anonymous said...

"Passion" is relative.

I'm in the midst of querying right now. One agent said, I want to take this on, but while I love X about this ms, I don't like Y.

The very next agent said, Wow, Y is really knocking my socks off, but I just can't get my head around X.

Perceived "flaws" are just that. Perceived, not necessarily "real." Passion, I think, comes from a writer writing how YOU think they should, which a lot of the time has nothing to do with whether something is publishable.

Of course, that's why all this is so hard.

Anonymous said...

MMMM, interesting discussion here.

I'd be interested to know if you made an exception to the "Don't query the same book twice" rule..you know, once the re-write was done.

This is good insight, thanks for sharing. It's motivation to really learn the craft to tell my stories well.

loveskidlit said...

What were the lists? Pros and cons, or ways to fix?

Mira said...

I agree with what everyone is saying - this is interesting.

It's sort of sad in a way, too, although hopeful in another way.

What I really liked about this is that you spent time talking with the author and giving her feedback. Maybe she can use the feedback to grow as an author. Clearly she has the voice. The voice is the key. I think the rest can be taught or learned, through time, practice and feedback. I think so many try to publish before they're ready.

Hopefully, given time, she can learn it, and you and she will eventually be working together.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Just to clarify I wouldn't have called the author if I wasn't willing to look at this or any other work again. I realize many of you are looking at it from the author's perspective, but from the agent's perspective it doesn't make sense not to offer a second look. I'd be happy to see anything this author wrote again, including rewrites again.

Why not work with the author on it? I thought I did by calling and talking extensively about the changes I thought needed to be made.


Don said...

Lots of things agents do don't really make sense to authors, especially the puppy sacrifices, so authors are always ready to believe that an agent did something a little irrational.
Nothing personal. :)

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

And just to clarify, I've always said that if an agent gives advice that you followed and believed in you should always requery whether asked to do so or not. Agents like to see that their advice worked or was taken.


Laurel said...

Jessica actually had a post on the prospect of submitting a work to an agent after revision. She was pretty clear that in a situation like this (not a form rejection) that it would not be unprofessional.

Click here to read what she says about it.

Laurel said...

I get this post better now than I would have a year ago.

Reading entries on blogs and fiction posted on some of them it's easy to find good stories where the execution constantly distracts the reader.

That being said, I've forgiven some not so great writing for a lot of good stories and went out to buy more of the same!

Heather Kelly said...

I'm wondering what made you think that the author wasn't capable of doing the necessary work. (I don't mean that in a snarky way, I really want to know, because I want to know how to not leave that impression). Was it something particular that this writer had done, or was it something that you have to assume with all unpublished writers?

Angie Ledbetter said...

"I just felt that, while I had passion, that was only one element..."

Also good advice to one contemplating marriage. :)

amanda said...

i love this blog! Waiting for responses is so much easier with a daily dose of "agent brain," even if it does cause a bit of "klung," (in the immortal words of Judith Krantz, "a swift rush of **** to the heart"). It's a craft. Gotta have passion, inspiration, determination... and craft. I hope that writer either re-wrote that book or wrote the next one, and the next one. How could she resist?

-30- said...

Just the fact that you took the time to consider it, and that you chose to call the author personally shows remarkable class.

To me, that says you care more about seeing a good author find their fit than about increasing sales.

Another agent may have decided to pass, but instead of nurturing the author with a "don't give up" phone call, they would have just sent a form letter.

Good on you.

The Rejection Queen said...

You know what they say about opinions? Opinions are like....

I don't get all bend out of shape anymore if an agent isn't passionate about my book. It's his/her lose. Not mine.

Aimlesswriter said...

"I knew I wouldn’t be able to sell it. It needed a lot of work and I’m not sure this author was capable of doing it."
I'm wondering why you didn't think the person was 'capable' to fix it. What brought you to that decision?
I know if an agent called me and had that discussion I'd put everything else on hold to fix it.
I've been told "almost, not quite" before but never with an explaination of why it was an almost.
I think it's great you took the time to call her even if you weren't offering representation at the time. That was very nice of you.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

If I don't know an author I don't know the author's skill level or experience. It's like asking a stranger to sew you a quilt based on a flawed quilt you once saw. I know she can make quilts, but I don't have any idea if she can make the quilt the right way or the way I want it made.

By not offering representation, but by giving my suggested, extensive revisions, the author has the choice to make the changes or not and resubmit. At that point I learn more about the author's capabilities.

Keep in mind this is coming from experience. I'm sure all agents and editors can tell stories of taking on a project that needed work only to discover the author wasn't able to get it up to par.


Anonymous said...

Jessica--you did the right thing and I hope that writer is grateful for your advice and revises her ms. After getting several requests and a near-miss, I think I finally found an enthusiastic agent, the only one who cared enough to comment with specific reasons for "rejection." Now I'm working on revisions so let's hope it pays off--for both of us!

Devon Matthews said...

After reading your post, the question that entered my mind was, do you ever offer representation on a book you *don't* feel passionate about but you know will sell in today's market? In other words, is passion an absolute must in order for you to offer representation?

Christina said...

I don't know about every other unpublished writer around here, but I know when I get a rejection the first thing that goes through my head is "Why?" and then "How close was I?"

To have an agent call you and specifically go over all of the weak points in your manuscript in order to get it up to snuff would be a dream come true!

Lucas Darr said...

Interesting. Not only is liking a book subjective, but there is a business side to it that is not subjective.

I am curious to know if this author had a writing history. That is, a bio with good publishing credits. Or was it blank or insubstantial?

Not really expecting a reply. Just fascinated about the thought process. I am a consultant by trade, and I have seen several times projects did not get picked up simply because it wasn't a perfect storm of oomph.

I had one project which was needed. The proposal was stellar, the money was there. Yet it didn't get picked up simply because there was something else cooking more important. People only had so much bandwidth.

In that situation you just gotta shrug your shoulders, grin and move on. Or you'll go crazy!


Linda Banche said...

I, too, had an agent pass on my book because she she said she wasn't enthusiastic enough to go farther.

She also said hers was one woman's opinion, and to try other agents who might think differently.

Heather Kelly said...

Jessica, thanks so much for taking the time to blog, and the time to answer our posts. It's great to find out agents are so human (and really very likeable, too.)

Anonymous said...

This kind of situation can be so intimidating for an aspiring author if she doesn't feel there's any room for discussion. Too often, we get the impression that agents and editors have the attitude of 'It's my way or the highway' which leaves no chance of understanding why changes are needed to say nothing of figuring out how to make them. I think it's wonderful that you called, which certainly wasn't necessary. It probably took out the intimidation factor right there.

Someone said something like it was generous of you to do this when there was no profit in it for you. Actually, I see enormous profit. One day that author is going to achieve a skill level which makes her work marketable and she'll undoubtedly come looking for you.

Aimlesswriter said...

OooOoo, okay, I get it. That makes sense.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I had many of the same questions about whether you would look at it again, or why you thought the author might not be able to revise the book well, and was glad to see them answered in the comments, so thanks. I think I even understand how you could be passionate about it despite the (apparently) major flaws--this is how I feel about my current MS. Love the premise, but I'm trying to squeeze so much into it that the first draft is coming out a chaotic mess and will probably require an extensive rewrite before I let anyone even see it for critiques...

Unknown said...

I'm sure the author appreciated the positive encouragement you offered... much more affirming of her efforts than a polite "thank you, but no".

I love that you picked up the phone and called too, a nice personal touch goes a long way!

Alan Payne said...

It's not the end of the world if this ms doesn't ever get represented or published.

Michael Chabon was asked about cutting something like 50,000 words out of one ms, and he said he had no problem with it because he sits down and writes for hours each day. More words will come tomorrow, and the next ms will come and the one after that too. And hopefully, they'll be better than the one that didn't sell.

Liana Brooks said...

Ah, but would you let the author requery? If she does the rewrite and fixes everything, would you be willing to take it then? That's the big question.

Shirley said...

As an offshoot of this discussion, which I find very informative by the way, when an agent suggests revisions or in the case of this Ms a total rewrite, should this be done on a new file keeping the original intact?
The reason behind this query is that a friend was asked by an agent, to do a rewrite on a MS and went ahead and did the suggested changes only half way through to be contacted by an editor who requested a full and then rejected it, saying it deviated too far from the partial and was now not suitable.

This raises the vexed question for an author whose advice do you take?

Vivi Anna said...

Shirley, I always keep an original form of my book somewhere. I've had to rewrite for my agent, and then rewrite for my editor. Everything has a different vision for the same book.

My advice is this, for anyone that asks you to rewrite, the author first has to feel comfortable about that rewrite. Because if it goes against the author's vision of the book I'd hesitate to do it. For an agent that asks for a rewrite, I'd keep an original file and then revamp it in a new file for that agent.

The book has to be true to the author first, then try and please everyone at once. It's a difficult thing to do, trust me.

Mira said...

I agree - I think you have to follow your gut ultimately. No matter what.

Someone once told John Le Carre that he didn't have any future as a writer. True story.

So, it's good to get feedback, but you also need to ultimately follow your own instincts.

Can I also take a moment to say how much I appreciate that this conversation was friendly? Given the topic, it didn't have to be. I just really, truly appreciate it. To whomever: thank you.

Mira said...

I thought about this more.

On the other hand - it's very, very good to get feedback. I would never sent anything out without having multiple people look at it. It's very hard to evaluate your own writing.

And certainly an agent, who goes through tons of stuff all the time - that would be an opinion to take very seriously.

But when you get all the input, and if some of the messages are conflicting, then you have to trust your instincts.

T. M. Hunter said...

Liana, it looks like your questions were answered above:

Just to clarify I wouldn't have called the author if I wasn't willing to look at this or any other work again. I realize many of you are looking at it from the author's perspective, but from the agent's perspective it doesn't make sense not to offer a second look. I'd be happy to see anything this author wrote again, including rewrites again.

London Mabel said...

I'm trying to decide whether I'd rather get rejected because

(a) the book was well written but the agent wasn't passionate about it, or

(b) the agent was passionate but the writing was flawed.

I suppose A is better because you can hope to find another agent who loves the story, but... it would probably *hurt* more. "She said I was boooriiing! Waaaah!"

PV Lundqvist said...

Passion gets you through the writing process. Plows you through the lonely hours. And then, the really hard part, dispassionately assessing the novel. What works, what doesn't.

I have to imagine that's what separates the pro from the amateur.

Anonymous said...

Geez . . . listen to the feedback; then immediately move on to the next agent.

Don't start a re-write until all avenues have been exhausted.

Do ya think she's god or somethin'?

Anonymous said...

@anon 3:52. Amen to that! It's one opinion. One. Plenty of other agents out there.

Miss Snark said it best: write well. Quit obsessing.