I recently sat in on a panel with Jeff Kleinman—again. He’s the agent from Folio Literary Management I wrote about last year. If you missed that post, here it is. He gives lots of great information for submitting novels to agents, especially literary fiction, and had a few new insights this year. But even what I got from the panel last year bears repeating.
On Biggest Mistakes
Kleinman has four must-haves for writers who submit to his agency:
1) Premise – You MUST have a logline, even if you don’t use it in your submissions. You have to know it in your head because it will help you hone in on your book. Too many good writers don’t have a real sense of what their book is about. A logline, as he explains it, is much like the statement you see on a movie poster. For Splash it was: “Boy meets girl. She’s a fish.”
2) Characters – You get rejected mainly because agents DON’T FALL IN LOVE with anyone in your book. That means you didn’t do a good enough job of bringing your characters to life. Go deeper! Interview your character with crazy questions and keep asking him or her why.
3) Momentum – Make sure words serve to turn pages. Understand what your reader wants to know next.
4) VOICE. This can’t be stressed enough. In commercial fiction it’s what’s most important and it’s a huge problem for many writers. Ask yourself how you can focus and drill down to get something that’s distinctive. Establish voice in the first three to four sentences. There has to be an authority in the voice that the reader buys into.
Also, there’s this. People read for three things: Character, voice and plot. Kleinman suggested reading The Goldfinch as a great current example of all three. The painting in this book, he says, is the plot device that carries the story forward.
On Rejection Letters
If you’re getting:
All form rejections—Then your premise needs work. It doesn’t sound at all interesting.
“Minimal” rejections, as in “Hey, it’s not right for me”—Then your writing is stronger but you still don’t have a great premise.
Personalized rejections—Then clearly something is starting to work. They want to engage with you more. Now you’re likely done with your query letter—it’s probably good enough.
Requests for the first 50 pages—This is the basic minimal amount that gauges their interest in you and it means you have a strong premise. They’re willing to go further.
Requests for the full manuscript and they still reject it—Then it’s always, always CHARACTER. You didn’t engage the agent enough with your characters, especially the main one.
Your query letter should state:
– Why you’re writing to that particular agent.
– Who you are, and how you met the agent, if you did.
– Your contact info.
– What your book’s about—one to two sentences only. Your synopsis will provide the rest.
And hey, get this: He says not to sweat the synopsis too much: “We usually only ask for a synopsis to ensure you’ve written the whole thing.” We suspected as much, didn’t we?
“All agents can do is point out that you’re bleeding. We don’t necessarily know where you’re bleeding from. You have to know how to fix it.”
“Agents want to help you improve your book, but only when you’ve taken it as far as you can. Make sure it’s as ready as you can make it.”
Paperlet, an online writer community, not only allows readers to comment on and edit each other’s work, but actually helps you “build” your story by walking you through the basic structural steps. Check it out at www.paperlet.com.
Hope you find this stuff as useful as I did, everyone. Write well!