How To Think Like Your Agent

Practical writing advice for non-practical writers, from Eric Nelson, an editor-turned-agent with 17 years of experience. You might want to follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/literaryeric


Ask me anything  

What’s distance between your characters and your readers?

When my son first heard the song “Do You Want To Build A Snowman?” he hadn’t seen Frozen yet, and it made him really sad. Terrible sad. I can understand why. Every time I hear her sing, “It doesn’t have to be a snowman” I nearly burst into tears myself. 

Because of that, my son didn’t want to see the movie. But after he saw it, he said something that really surprised me. The song didn’t seem so sad in the movie, because Anna didn’t seem that sad. 

To an elementary school kid, the fact that Anna isn’t that sad about it means it’s not that sad. Because he only see the world through her eyes, and she’s not sad yet. But of course, to a grown up, the fact that she’s not sad, that she doesn’t realize Elsa will never build a snowman is SO MUCH WORSE. 

The distance between what your character feels and what your readers feel is the distance between interesting and ingenious. 

Telling the reader to be sad because your character is sad can be effective, but not likely heart-wrenching. Letting your reader get sad while the main character is walking along, whistling, seeming happy, is a good way to make that reader an emotional wreck. And maybe I just love Joss Whedon and George R. R. Martin too much, but “made me an emotional wreck” is my highest praise. 

If you’re writing something, what’s the biggest gap you have between your characters and your readers?

One Gasp Per Chapter

Let’s talk about Clumsy Smurf.  As Smurfs go, he’s pretty two dimensional. He falls and drops things and knocks things over and, I’m guessing, has some kind of undiagnosed neurological problem.  He seems to feel bad, but his overall range of emotion is rather limited. So why does he get so much screen time?

Because without Clumsy, there’d be a lot of episodes of everything working out find about two minutes in.  They need Clumsy to drive the plot.

In last week’s Ploughshares column, I lamented that writing classes don’t spend enough time on plot. (Actually I discussed Hanif Kureishi lamenting that: “Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.”) I can understand why many teachers don’t teach more about the business of being a writer, but why I talk to writers who’ve never work-shopping a piece of writing for plot eludes me.

I realized if I got a change to teach a one day seminar on writing, I might call it, “The Idiot Sidekick.” 

I often say books are about choices, but books are really about bad choices made early that have to be fixed by better choices later.  This is just as true for a book complaining about the Common Core as for a book about dragons, but for anything narrative your bad choices are often the work of one character. And I don’t mean the villain.  I mean a deeply flawed main character, or her idiotic sidekick. You need someone who makes choices the reader wouldn’t normally make. That character can be more brave, cowardly, foolhardy, or self-destructive.  But this is where surprises come from. Think of the horror movie tropes that cause people to shout at the screen, “Don’t go in there!” You need someone doing something the reader wouldn’t  in order to keep them reading. 

I have a writer I’m working with now, China Okasi, who told me, “My goal is one gasp per chapter.” It’s that gasp that made me want to work with her. Halfway through literally ever chapter in her manuscript, I thought, “I know where this is going.” By the end of literally every chapter, I thought, “Nope.” And often it was one special characters—lovable, but outrageous—that kept pulling the rest of the characters off the beaten path.

So if you’re writing something plot-driven, do you have that character? Even if it’s nonfiction, you’re going to have find him and work him in, or people won’t keep turning the pages to see what happens next. They’re already know. 

Do better books sell more copies?

I remember once telling my new editorial assistant, “There’s no correlation between sales and quality.” I was telling her not to judge a proposal in her inbox based on how interesting it was. I wanted her to think first about how many people buy books like this one, and whether or not it would be interesting to THEM.

Of course, I was also in a sour mood because Farhad Manjoo’s book True Enough had come out, had a great publicity campaign, and sold far less than I thought it should. It seemed like I had spent months complaining to everyone that Farhad, then a staff writer for Salon, should be famous. Of course, the book eventually caught on, sold very well, and Farhad’s become famous by internet journalist standards, so I might have been a little hasty.

Quality does matter, but not in the way that you think. Have you ever heard the expression, you don’t have to be faster than the bear, you just have to be faster than your friends? Well, you don’t have to write better than Shakespeare, just better than the other writers next to you on the bookstore shelf.

I got some push back on my recent Ploughshares piece on one particular line: “The authors who can’t make money writing aren’t in that situation because their slot disappeared—they’re in that situation because their slot has been taken up by someone else more popular. Probably it went to another author who’s actually quite similar, but just better at what she does.”

Do better books sell better? Isn’t it a crapshoot? That’s a fair response.

There are two thread to pull apart here. First, books with a wider potential readers ship sell better, and everything else is second to that. Books on how to lose weight will sell more copies as a category than books on how to gain muscle. That’s just supply and demand. 

However, within that niche, quality is everything. Sure, to some degree book publishing is always a crap shoot, and lots of really good books get plowed under every year. But this is less true now than ever before. Think about. When someone buys a book, they’re no longer just going on where it’s stacked at their bookstore. They’re going on wherever they first heard about, plus Goodreads, plus Amazon, plus every interview and article they can find through Google, plus asking what their friends thing on social media. Readers are more informed than ever, and they know what they want.

You can have a philosophical quibble with equating “best” and “popular. You can object to me substituting your subjective standards with the objective standards of raw sales numbers.”

However, there’s no denying that what is popular happens more organically than ever before. If everybody is reading a novel you hate, they weren’t tricked into buying it.  

Don’t Be Predictable

I was talking to a book editor yesterday and he used an expression I haven’t heard before, but I just loved. He said, “Oh, the whole book is on rails.” What he meant was, this book had a predictable destination, and nothing was going to knock it off course. This isn’t a good thing.

We were talking about a novel a writer has submitted to me.  It had an interesting set-up and was well-researched.  The author had an unusual background that made the novel all the more intriguing. I’m usually only interested in reading a thriller if along the way I’m also learning about automatic rifles or cartel shipping routes or military police procedures or something.  This book checked that box. And the writing for this manuscript was never terrible (not something I can say even about bestselling thrillers!). However, the book’s plotting was so obvious it sometimes makes the most exciting shoot-out feel skippable.  This is the chapter where he meets the girl and he finds out he can’t have her. This is the chapter where the girls gets kidnapped. This is the chapter where the bad guys kill someone close to girl, to show the reader people will die in this book. None of the surprises are surprising.

This isn’t just a problem for fiction. I see it in all kinds of nonfiction, too.  I’ll get a pitch from a liberal reporter-pundit with a series of chapters on how Wall Street is ruining America. You may not know all the details, but you can already plot out this whole book, right? It will chug out of the station around Reagan and pull in to the final Goldman Sachs chapter right on time.  That’s not good.

The first page of every single chapter should tell the reader: this is where we’re headed. And then the last page of that chapter should be somewhere else. This is non-negotiable.  And the solution isn’t to fix the end of the chapter (which is usually necessary for the developments in the next), but to start the chapter in the “wrong” the place from the start. 

Let’s say this is the chapter where your two main characters kiss for the first time. That chapter has to start in a place where the reader thinks, “Well, THIS can’t be the chapter they get together.” Maybe they fight (and kiss anyway!), maybe one has to leave town (and then can’t!), maybe they’re fighting for their lives in a crocodile pit (and he kisses her before sacrificing himself—but he makes it!).  Just don’t start out looking like a kiss is coming. 

Let’s say this is nonfiction and it’s the chapter where we blame Obama for betraying our privacy more than Bush did. Start this chapter ANYWHERE else. Maybe how he campaigning on not doing that. Or praise him for things he did to protect our privacy. Or explore a lawyer’s argument saying this would never happen. And then reveal it! Don’t write the chapter like a newspaper article, in descending order of importance!

I once read Joss Whedon saying that every Third Act problem is a First Act problem in disguise.  This is just as true for books and book chapters. If the end of the chapter isn’t packing a punch, convince the reader a kick is coming, and the punch will land that much harder. 

The Truth About How I Read Your Pitch Letters

1. Scan first paragraph to see if it’s fiction or nonfiction.
2. Scan whole thing looking for the name of a publication I regularly read or at least recognize.
3. Scan whole thing looking for the names of writers I recognize, as comparisons, mentors, or the person who sent them my way.
4. Google the author’s name to see what comes up—before I’ve even read the actual bio in the pitch. I don’t care who she says she is. I care who Google says she is. If she has a Twitter handle, it’s the first thing I’ll click.
5. If none of those things has piqued my interest, reread the letter more carefully to figure out what my negative response will be. I try not to send rejections, so much as, “Here’s what you might want to do instead of pitching agents like this.” I want to be helpful to everyone, and you never know,: This writer’s next book might be five kinds of amazing.
6. If something did pique my interest, I respond saying thanks, and I’ll look more closely. Then I’ll read the first few pages to see if this is a writer that fills me with confidence.

Do you even know what your plot is?

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Tolstoy supposedly once wrote that there are only two kinds of plots: the hero goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town. 

Obviously, it’s a bit reductive, but it’s also hard to say it isn’t true. It’s hard to think of a great book that can’t be slotted into one of those two, if you go with a loose definition of things like “stranger” and “town” and “journey.”

I mention this to authors all the time because it’s clarifying. I read a lot of terrible plot summaries from good writers, so I know the problem is in the plot, not the summary. You would be surprised how many authors think they have a plot, because a lot of stuff happens, but they don’t really have a bounded story with a beginning, middle and end. I don’t care if you have a romance novel or a narrative nonfiction book about science in the 1820s, if you are not building your book around a big, heavily researched argument, you still have to have a plot. 

If you chose a hero going on a journey, read this paragraph. If you chose a stranger, skip down. Okay, so you have a hero, right? Here’s a common response: “There’s actually a whole bunch of characters.” My response: Yes, and there is in STAR WARS, too, but it’s still about Luke going on a journey. If you have two main characters, or you’re spending a lot of pages away from the main character, or viewing him (or her) from afar, you had better know what you’re doing. It’s a risky strategy.

If your book is a stranger coming to town, your main character is going to be one of the townspeople. It can’t be the stranger! If it’s about an unusual woman who arrives, creating chaos, your POV character shouldn’t be that woman, because she’s not the one changing. If she is changing, then you’re in the wrong paragraph. If it’s all the townspeople, I sure hope you know what you’re doing! It’s a risky strategy. 

Okay, so main character’s out to they way. Let’s say for your inciting event, you chose leaving on a journey. IT CAN’T BE A METAPHORICAL JOURNEY. If Huckleberry Finn had been written by the writers in my slush pile, it would be about Huck floating down an inner river of anxiety while attending college classes. A character has to leave home, go somewhere else, experience a life altering event, and end up back at home. And yes, it’s allowed to be a new home. (Crime and Punishment is the rare example of a hero who’s journey is through the same place he’s always been, BUT HE KILLED SOMEBODY. So.) 

Let’s say instead, it’s a stranger that has come to town. How the stranger feels about anything is immaterial; he just has to turn everyone’s lives upside down. That means that it’s fine if it’s a dog, or a car, or nuclear power plant. But it has to be a real physical thing, and it has to have everyone suddenly acting very differently. It can’t be your parent’s divorce, but it can be your mom moving in with you after the divorce. It can’t be psychological trauma haunting a family, but it can be a ghost haunting a family. That means you have to show everyone’s nice little life, and then bang it all changes, and then the stranger leaves, and there’s a new order. If the writers in my slush pile wrote A Bell for Adano, it could be called The Pain of Not Having a Bell in Adano Anymore.

So, check these boxes: hero? townsperson? journey? disruptive new factor in town? If you have less than two, you don’t have a plot. You just have stuff happening to people.  

Can You Just Write A Great Book And Call It A Day?

I wrote a blog post last week about how to write a book that will be popular.  The blog at Ploughshares doesn’t attract a lot of comments, but this one drew an interesting one, which I’ll share in full:

"What about providing the reader with books that might make them think about the world around them a bit differently than before they encountered those books? What if books had good stories with three dimensional characters and really gave the reader worlds to explore? What if we stop all this relentless emphasis on marketing and focus on selling really good stories that make people think? There used to be room for such books in the mainstream, but those days may be gone. Better to sell books like they’re video games or candy bars."

This is a good question.  Why am I so obsessed with treating something a writer poured his intellect, soul, and time into like it was a can of soup?  Can’t a book just be good and get readers? Isn’t there room for that?

The problem is exactly the opposite of what he thinks it is.  Amazon, blogs, social media—all these things have MORE room for quality books in the mainstream.  It’s easier than ever before in history for quality material to rise to the top. So what’s the problem?

Here’s the straight truth: the number of pretty good books published every year is probably well into the thousands. And they can’t all sell well.  Even at some place with a sterling reputation, like Simon & Schuster, probably only one in six of their books meets their sales expectations. What was wrong with the other books? It wasn’t that they lacked intelligence, research, passion, quality prose, compelling characters, or dramatic situations.  Grab the next issue of the Times book review. Look at all the books with a good review. Yes, even for those, most will be sales disappointments. 

If you’re a real reader of books, you know there’s no end of better than decent books to stack up next to your bedside table.

Without know anything about you, I will guess their you are a good writer with something interesting to say, and your book will sell less than half what even your editor and agent are hoping. That’s just the odds. So all my commentary assumes that you are that high quality writer trying to break loose from the pack. 

In fact, you can click on the commenter’s name and visit his website and see he appears to be one of those novelist that wrote a good book but failed to get readers.

Sure, there are some things that are so fantastic, so interesting, so well done and timely, that they spread from reader to reader without a well-executed plan from the author and publishers. But those books are rare.

In fact, next time you wonder why everyone talks about marketing so much, remember this: when Game of Thrones was published, it wasn’t a bestseller. It wasn’t until the series was established that later books made the list.

But yes, dear commenter, it’s worth reminding everyone what George R. R. Martin’s secret to success is. Your goal shouldn’t be pleasing readers; your goal should be to get them reading and keep reading, which is a different thing entirely.

I sell a lot of books by first-time nonfiction writers, and I always picture them saying this to their significant other sometime after they’ve hit the 10,000 word mark on their proposal draft. 

I sell a lot of books by first-time nonfiction writers, and I always picture them saying this to their significant other sometime after they’ve hit the 10,000 word mark on their proposal draft. 

Have Five Knowledgeable People Read Your Book?

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My Ploughshares piece this week was about whether or not you should self-publish.  Whenever I discuss this with anyone in real life or online, they’re usually not weighed on really important question. (You’ll have to click over to find out what it is! See, I can get all Huffington Post when I want to! This isn’t a slideshow, though.) 

I did get one comment on it that was really insightful. Sending off your book to agents results, sometimes, in getting useful advice on what’s wrong with the manuscript. I agree that can be useful, but I think you should be soliciting feedback before then, and not from your spouse.  In fact, every self-publishing star I’ve spoken with has a stable of early readers who know the shelf well and are happy to say what they liked or didn’t. 

So let’s say you’ve written a fantasy book about an elf kingdom. Have you had at least five people read it who read lots of elf kingdom novels? I really, really don’t mean just having a friend read it. Unless that friend is someone who regularly reads this kind of book and knows the trends and the tropes. What if you don’t know anyone who likes the kinds of stuff you life? Spend more time on the internet until you find these people! In fact, you may want to write some fan letters to your favorite elf kingdom novelists telling them how much you love them and asking them if they’d be interested in reading it. What if you know some of those people, and none of them got around to finishing it? I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but your book is not good. If someone who reads lots of books like yours can’t finish yours, you’re a long way from done with it. 

Trust me, I know how hard it is to put things out there to be judged. But trust me on this, too: if your main character is supposed to by funny, but he’s just annoying, you’re better off hearing that from your Tumblr buddy than an agent or Amazon reviewer.

Give Us Something High Concept!

This week I started blogging for Ploughshares, which I’m really excited about. I read my first issue of the magazine about twenty years ago, and it opened my eyes to what contemporary short stories could be.  My blog posts, though, will be more in line with what I actually know about: book publishing. I’ll be writing twice a month recommending a specific article form some other site, and delving deeper into. 

This week’s post is about what book editors most want, and I’ll tell you the answer here: ambition. But I wanted to expend a few more words here on something Peter Joseph, a thriller editor, said: “I’m especially interested in novels with a speculative, fantastical, or unusual, hooky premise. ‘High concept,’ you might say.”

Editors really hope every book that arrives in their inbox will give them something they haven’t seen before. Usually that starts with the elevator pitch. They want something ambitious, but “high concept” is one important kind of ambition. If you’re writing nonfiction, have you chosen most fresh and interesting way to build your case? If you’re writing something narrative, especially fiction, does the basic set-up of the book sound original? Is it clear how this would immediately throw a group of characters into life-changing turmoil? 

I see a lot of pitches that sound competent. But I rarely see pitches that sound like nothing I’ve ever seen.  For instance, I’ve seen so many pitches for books by someone on an emotional journey after a loved one dies. Some are even good, but you can see how that pitch is really generic. On the other hand, I got a pitch for a thriller about a terrorist plot to destroy Facebook, or at least the server center in remote Oregon. I’ve taken that writer on as a client.

One way to weigh if your book is hooky enough is to rewrite your one sentence description of it as a question. Does it still make sense? Is it still interesting?