How a literary agent can improve your writing

I don’t really believe in the traditional publication model anymore. That is to say, the model where the writer writes, then queries an agent, who (ideally) agrees to rep the author and actually submit to publishers. I believe this process is interminably tedious, and that it gives authors the short end of the stick both creatively and financially.

That is not to imply that all literary agents are talent-less, bloodsucking hacks. There are agents out there who are up there with the best of editors in terms of their ability to whip a sagging manuscript into fighting shape. When I think of these kinds of agents, I think of Janet Reid. Her blog, Query Shark, is one of my absolute favorite writing resources (and that’s from someone who’s not even interested in querying agents).

Reid’s specialty is the annotated critique of query letters. Here is an example, from Query #254 (Reid’s comments in italics):

“Wealthy French attorney André Gensonné, specializing in art crime, discovers a painting of a woman who resembles the vulnerable girl he met in the United States two decades ago, just after his 18-year old brother drowned. (36 words) His failure to save his twin defines his virtuous existence; he strives to fulfill the role of two sons for his family and their four-generation law firm.

36 words is too many. Too many words is made worse when they form a boring sentence. Why do we care about any of this? And oh my Godiva… virtuous existence? I’d probably stop reading right here. Why do I want to read about anyone who could possibly be described as having a virtuous existence? Virtue is boring. TRYING to be virtuous when beset by evil temptresses… now THAT is interesting.

Truthfully though you’ve made a classic query error here: you’re focused on setup and backstory rather than where the story gets interesting. You’ve compounded the problem with Andre Gensonne sounding tres ennuyeux.

The painting entitled Miriam disappears from the Musée de l’Erotisme propelling André to search for it and the woman named Anne, who has lingered in his psyche. Miriam has a notable history; the painting disguises an Impressionist work by Elisée Maclet. The two men responsible for the camouflage, Maximillian and Bertrand, skirmish over custody, value and ownership. But their primary objective is to fence the Maclet without getting caught.

Who is Anne? And why is she stalking his psyche?

At this point we’ve got way too many characters in play: The boring Andre, his dead brother, their entire family firm, Miriam, Anne, Elisee, Maximilian and Bertrand. This is the von Trapp family without the soundtrack or a scorecard.”

This isn’t just a query lesson. It’s a free writing lesson, and it’s valuable whether you plan on querying agents or not. Check it out sometime. You just might learn something. I know I have.

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