How do you decide which projects you want more of, and which you don’t?
The easy, short answer is I just know. But that isn’t helpful, is it? That’s not advice, it’s a statement. It’s a true statement, but not one that answers the question.
I really do just know which projects will work and which won’t. However, I didn’t always, and it’s not as simple as it sounds.
I started as an intern at Talcott Notch when I was finishing up my undergraduate degree in English. The first few queries I read? Some were easy to get rid of, because they were too long, or too short, or they were things we didn’t represent (like picture books). Others were a lot harder, because the concepts were good but the writing wasn’t there. Or the writing was great, but the concept needed work.
I requested to see more of a lot of projects as an intern. So many. I went partial happy in those first few months, and then I had to read all of those partials. It was a lot, especially when I was still in school full time and working a part time job. But I got it done, and it was an incredible learning experience for me. I don’t request nearly as many projects now. Because I figured out what might work, and what probably won’t.
In my own inbox, there are some queries that are quick rejections. I only represent women’s fiction and romance for adults, so anything outside those genres will get an instant no from me. I don’t know those markets as well as others, and since I’m just starting out it is better to limit myself to specific genres that I know. I also don’t work with chapter books or picture books, so when I get those in my inbox I reject them as well.
As an assistant, I read queries for other agents at our agency as well. They have been in business longer, so they work in a wider range of genres. There aren’t as many quick rejections there.
After I’ve weeded out the ‘easy’ ones (sending out a rejection is never easy for me. I don’t like telling authors no, but it’s a part of the job), it’s time to go more in depth. I read the query and sample pages. There are some concepts that don’t work for me specifically, like most high fantasy or scifi, that I’ll reject. I have to be passionate about the projects I take on, and that doesn’t happen with some subgenres (though I always read the sample pages in case it does spark my interest).
Some concepts are really interesting to me. You can see my MSWL here and my blog post on what I’m looking for here. These usually take a priority for me when I’m reading queries, because they’re subjects that I love and am already passionate about. My client Allie’s book is about a girl with undiagnosed OCD and my client Carrie’s book is about a tennis player. Mental health and sports are two of my favorite subjects to explore, especially in YA, so they were instant requests for me.
Once I’m intrigued by a basic concept, I consider the sample pages. I don’t think the pages need to be perfect, at least for me. I like to work as an editorial agent with my clients, so we can work on the grammar/spelling in the book when the time comes. However, there is something to be said about voice. I want the voice to draw me in and I want to feel like I’m on a journey with the character, not just hearing about it from the character. I sometimes put it in terms of TV shows: I like the ones that never break the fourth wall and have a story for me to dive into, rather than the ones that talk to the camera or are told with a lot of voiceover. This is a personal preference, and when I reject on the basis of narrative voice, it doesn’t mean there is anything inherently wrong with the voice or the project. It just isn’t right for me.
There are some writing issues that I will reject for. If the sample pages are an info dump, I’m not going to be drawn into the story as much as I want to be. If it starts with a boring scene where nothing is happening, I’m not encouraged to keep reading. Basically, any reason I would put down a book in a bookstore, I’m going to do the same when I’m going through my queries.
Then there’s telling vs. showing. This isn’t an instant rejection for me, because if you have a strong concept and characters, we can work on showing instead of telling. However, if I’m distracted by the telling and it makes it impossible for me to get into the story and appreciate the plot/characters, then I’m going to reject for it.
For some books, the setting matters almost as much (or more) than the characters and plot. If I can tell that is the case from the query, and I don’t feel like there’s a sense of place in the sample pages, then that’s another reason I might reject. This is a limited case, though.
There may be other reasons I’ll reject, but these are the major ones. There are of course other reasons I might request more of a manuscript, too. Even if I’m not sold on concept, if the voice and sample pages intrigue me, I’ll read more. I’m looking for good writers telling good stories, but agenting is subjective. What I want is different than what other agents at our agency, and other agencies, want. What I don’t want is different, too.
Write the best book you can, get feedback from beta readers and writing groups, and research agents to determine who might be a good fit. I hope this post, and others, help you to see what the process is like, and the reasons I will – or won’t – reject a query.
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Nathan Maher says
This really puts a few things into perspective regarding the instant rejects as well as what goes through your mind when reading. In the past, it’s felt like there was this curtain where queries are assessed. Now, that curtain is not so veiled!