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


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How to Take Criticism

The only thing more frightening than an author who won’t take any of my editorial suggestions, is an author who takes ALL of my editorial suggestions.

The former is more common than you’d think. You would be surprised how often I get a submission and write back to someone from my slush pile, trying to be helpful, suggesting they consider making big changes, and the response is something along the lines of, “Thanks, jerk. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

I get that response. I’ll allow that it’s possible I’m a jerk, and I have no idea what I’m talking about. But I also get the hesitation to make big changes. By the time I see a high quality submission (or a finished manuscript for a book by an author I represent), it’s polished. However, that doesn’t mean it’s ideal. Sometimes you have to break it open and start making big changes. 

There are three stages of drafts: At first, they’re rough. And then they’re polished. But then you need to keep going until it feels less polished and more honest.  It’s painful for an author to do this, and I get that.

You also need to keep editing the book to bring it closer to what your ideal reader wants. (This should go without saying, but if those readers want something you don’t want to deliver, they are not your ideal readers. But you have ideal readers, and it’s important to understand what they want.) 

The best way to do that is have people read it and tell you what they think. The hard part about using their criticism is that WHAT READERS SAY THEY WANT AND WHAT THEY ACTUALLY WANT ARE VERY DIFFERENT THINGS. Ten pages into a romance novel, what readers think they want is the two characters to live happily ever after. What they really want is a series of obstacles keeping them apart. 

So here is the one single, super-duper, can’t-miss rule of working with criticism: All reader experiences are valid, even though most editorial feedback is terrible. 

If readers tell you they don’t like your main character, that’s a real true thing that you can’t argue with. If you want readers to like your main character, you have work to do. If you want him to be problematic, you’re good to go. If someone tells you how to make your main character more likable, it may be good advice or not. But you have to look past the advice and think about what the reader experience means.

If a reader tells you your thesis is obvious, and not worthy of a whole book, that is a valid reader experience. Even if none of your other readers tell you that.  You don’t have to throw away your whole manuscript, but you need to wrestle with the idea that your thesis could be more surprising or controversial, and your evidence more compelling.

When I send a manuscript back to my authors, I often say, you don’t need to make all the changes I’ve requested. But you need to think very hard about the ones you don’t make. I may be wrong on how to fix this, but I’m not wrong that it needs fixing. You don’t need to be expert to know when something is confusing, boring, or dense. (And even the best writers aren’t at their best on every page.)

So let’s imagine I write back to you that you spend too much settling petty scores in your book, and you should cut them. Don’t respond with a 1000 word email on why those anecdotes are not settling petty scores. It’s not  a good use of your time. Instead, think about the fact that this reader didn’t get from those anecdotes what you hoped to express. Maybe they need cutting. Or maybe you need to work on those sections to make sure that all readers see them as deeply connected to the rest of the material.

With that in mind, let anyone and everyone read your drafts, since, if you approach it right, you can get as much out of someone who rarely reads as you can get out of a professional. 

Make Your Main Character As Likable, And Unlikable, As Possible

Two weeks ago I wrote back to an author who’d submitted a novel to me. I told her I found the premise interesting, but the main character was boring. He was just a guy doing normal guy things as the world around him prepared to change. 

As I wrote in a recent Ploughshares column, “When I stop reading a fiction submission, it’s usually because the main character does exactly what I would do. He’s a guy (or girl) who’s not that different from me, reacting as I would react. Maybe it’s an amazing world, and an action-filled plot, but if the main character goes from one obvious choice to the next, I’m going to lose interest. The most interesting books have characters who do the opposite of what we’d do.” 

However, this author’s response was interesting, and worth sharing. She wrote back to say she’d made him more of a jerk in earlier drafts, but readers didn’t like him.  Why create a character who isn’t like your readers if it means they won’t like him enough to read about him?

The right answer is: You should make his central quirk a double-edged sword, not dull the blade. Ideally, your main character has something about him that generates surprising good things AND bad things. It’s fine if he’s a womanizing jerk, but only if it’s because he does something really sweet during the rest of his time that relates to that and makes up for the womanizing (somewhat). Like if he’s a single dad, and he doesn’t want to get involved with anyone. Or he’s a superhero cop who needs to blow off steam, and the women would be better off not getting involved.

Possibly the best example of this ever is Gregory House, from the TV show HOUSE, MD. His relentless  misanthropy, and his belief the ends always justifies the means, allows him to save life after life while being a terrible human being. Another example most people know: Batman. His belief that all life is precious keeps him out fighting crime every night, but also keeps him from just killing the Joker. It also keeps him from dating.

If you can get readers to think, by the end of the first chapter, “I like this character and she deserves a better life” and “oh man, in real life this woman would drive me crazy,” then you’ve got a character that can drive a story. 

That Book Sold HOW MANY Copies?

I used to have access to Bookscan, the Nielsen Ratings people’s system for tracking book sales. You could look up the total sales through the big chains (not including ebooks) for any title. I was an invaluable tool, until it wasn’t. When I switched to agenting, it became less crucial, and without ebooks, it became less accurate. 

But when I had it, everyone always wanted to know, “What did that guy’s book sell?” This was especially true for books by peers and colleagues. 

Most people have no idea what good sales are.  I met a guy who self-published his book, and was sad he’d only sold 15,000, not realizing that was much, much better than traditionally published competing titles. I also recently talked to two reporters who didn’t realized their former colleague’s book had stratospheric sales (200,000 copies?). 

If you’re interested in books for any reason, it’s fun to make a list of books and look up the sales. Maybe there’s a recent novel you really need to be telling more people about. Maybe that book that seems a little like yours did so well that the comparison should make up the bulk of your pitch. 

So what’s the formula any person can use to guess at sales numbers from publicly available data? Here it is

—For fiction books, just multiply the number of Goodreads ratings by fifteen.

—For nonfiction books, multiply them by twenty and add that to one hundred times the number of Amazon reviews. 

It’s not perfect. It works less well for books that are a decade old or just a few weeks old or that most of the sales were bulk sales or academic. A self-published book with lots of free copies given out can skew it, and so can a book by a political figure. (They tend to get tons of Amazon reviews by people who hate the author and didn’t read the book.) It’s only a method for ballparking, so it’s possible that it’s far off from some specific book you know the sales for.

But if you’re working on a book, you’d be remiss if you didn’t at least ballpark the books you think of as competition.

Here’s Why I Probably Won’t Read Your Memoir

Why would anyone want to read your book? There are 10,000 books on Amazon that are reasonably popular, not to mention the million or so that aren’t. 

It sounds like a cruel question, but it’s actually pretty easy to answer: it’s a romance novel about hockey, and there aren’t many of those. Or: people love definitive presidential biographies, and it’s time someone did one of the first President Bush.  Or: it’s about a time traveling dog.

The trick is to find the fine line between “readers who like sort of thing this haven’t seen it before” and “no one cares about this.” Your pitch for the book—first to an agent, then to an editor, and then to readers—needs to make it clear that there is a group of readers who love this kind of thing, and haven’t had their thirst quite quenched by other books. 

As I said in my most recent Ploughshares column: the answer can’t be something as subjective as “quality.” Your book needs to be good AND have a clear market clamoring for the book.  Even if you plan on writing a #1 bestseller, you still need a few thousand people who will buy it and tell their friends about it (who will tell their friends about it and so on).  

Let me tell you about a memoir submission I got the other day that’s fairly representative. They author had had some very interesting things happen to him. And he wrote them all down in an interesting way. That got me intrigued, but it’s not enough to sell a book on. 

There are essentially three kinds of memoirs: literary, humorous, and behind-the-scenes. If it were literary, I’d want an author with an MFA and/or a bunch of published pieces on his resume. I’d probably also want it so tightly plotted, the movie script writes itself. If you want to be Mary Karr, the book is the last step, and for this writer, this book would be his first published piece. If it were humorous memoir, I’d want an author with a comedy resume, like a popular funny blog or a gig writing for TV or a ton of followers on his jokey Twitter.  If you want to be David Sedaris, the book, again, is the last step. It if were behind-the-scenes, the focus wouldn’t be on him, but on the thing he’s exposing/revealing. If, for example, you escaped a cult, a book is a place to start, but it wouldn’t be structured like the others. 

When I said this to the author—that he should pick one kind of thing and go with it—he basically said, his book isn’t any of those. His experience is so unusual, that he doesn’t need to pick one of those. 

Every writer needs her his or her own vision, and a place that crosses over what 10,000 or so people are wishing someone would write.  I’ve yet to meet a writer without vision, but I’ve seen work from many that don’t know who they’re writing for or what they want. 

How To Know If You’re Ready To Pitch An Agent

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I like to try to make a science out of everything. However, writing a book is an art, and so is pitching an agent or an editor. The majority of queries I get I hate to say no to, because the problem is less that this person shouldn’t write a book. It’s more than they’re not ready to start pitching yet. Their platform isn’t developed enough, and their idea needs polishing. I thought I’d try to add a drop of quantification to that, so you could get an idea of how far you may be from being ready. 

So here is a riddled with exceptions, on the fly, back of the envelope, Cosmo-stylequiz with a point system for knowing when you’ve got the ingredients for a successful pitch. 

—STEP ONE. Give yourself 1 point for every 1,000 Twitter OR Facebook followers OR every 10,000 pageviews in an average week OR every 10,000 broadcast audience members in an average week OR unit sold of your most recent book.

—STEP TWO. Give yourself 1 point for every Amazon review of your most similar comp title. And I mean most similar. If you’re a first time novelist, your best comp is a debut book. If you’re a newspaper reporter, your most similar comp is another reporter, not a guy with his own TV show. If you’re a personal finance guru, your comp is another guru, not a big branded guide with a huge institution behind it.

—STEP THREE. Give yourself 20 points for exclusive content. This means archives only you have access to, an art program you’ve created yourself, or studies you have performed yourself. Your life experience or your prose only count if they have landed you on the front page of the New York Times in the past. 

—STEP FOUR. Give yourself 10 points for a high concept idea that’s so intriguing, when you tell people your one sentence pitch, their eyes open wide, and they literally say, “Oh my god.” (Examples I just made up: “It’s Gone With the Wind, but instead of the North invading, it’s aliens.” Or, “It’s a coffee table book of baby animals drinking from baby bottles.” Or, “A step-by-step instruction guide for destroying your entire life with social media.”

Add up your points. Are you over 80 points? You’ve probably got a salable book idea. If you don’t, you might still have a salable book idea. But at least you know you have an uphill battle, and you know how you could make your idea more appealing.

How To Stay Out Of The Nonfiction Rejection Pile

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I knew when I tweeted about my recent Ploughshares column, this is what would get the clicks: “In the past twelve months, I have probably received at least two hundred rejections of some sort. It might even be three hundred.” Rejection is part of the agenting business, and part of the writing game in general. 

I admit I have projects that don’t sell, don’t sell for what I wanted, or were bought and didn’t sell to readers. But I have a pretty good success rate because I understand the two things most successful nonfiction projects have going for them. Two things a lot of slush pile inquiries are missing. 

Frequently, instead of a rejection, I just make it clear to the writers that they’re not ready to be querying editors or agents yet. Usually, they are missing one of the two things everyone in publishing is thinking about when they review a new proposal. 

PLATFORM. This used to mean credentials, but more and more it means a quantifiable source of potential readers: 25,000 Twitter followers, 100,000 weekly pageviews, regular appearances on a show with hundreds of thousands of listeners/viewers, 10,000 sales on your last book, and so on. If you don’t have something like this, work on that instead of writing queries. (The exception: you are the acknowledged #1 expert in your field, and the book is about that.)

COMPETING TITLES. Editors need to convince their team it’s worth it to buy a book by presenting a handful of successful similar titles as comparables. These books don’t have to be on the same topic, just for the same readers. (This is how they avoid, especially, the dreaded phrases “It sounds like a magazine article” or “Millennials/NASCAR fans/whomever doesn’t buy books.”) However, the most similar titles by topic and author platform have to have useful sales.  You don’t want any books on your comparables list that have less than 40 reviews on Amazon. Those books likely didn’t sell enough copies to encourage a publishing company. And you don’t want any with more than 250 reviews, because let’s be real, you’re not Michael Lewis, or you wouldn’t be reading this. 

If you don’t have those two things nailed down, at least you know what kind of work needs to be done in the near future. 

Writing a Great Proposal in Eight (Not Particularly) Easy Steps


STEP ONE.  Write the op-ed version of your book.  Make your core argument in 650 words, as streamlined as possible. Just like in high school, there must be a single sentence you could underline, that would be the thesis of this book. And ask yourself, am I taking aim at the biggest book possible? 

STEP TWO. Pick a similar, favorite book and reverse engineer it. Spending some time thinking about how this person researched, structured, and composed their book will be invaluable at the start of doing yours.

STEP THREE. Create a table of contents, with descriptions of each chapter. A normal first stab is 12-20 chapters, with a document of around 1500 words. The final TOC will probably be under 4,000 words, but it’s okay if in draft s it gets bigger than that. 

STEP FOUR. Write a competing books section. This should be only a few hundred words long, and it should cover 3-5 books. None should be a huge bestseller, and none should be a book that sold poorly. 

STEP FIVE. Write a bio.  This isn’t just what you’ve accomplished; it’s your marketing section. Anything you think is relevant to marketing and publicity, but can’t be worked into the bio, is not actually relevant to marketing and publicity.

STEP SIX. Turn your op-ed into the start of the proposal. Come up with a story that explains how you came to find this argument needed to be made. The story should be in the same voice as the finished book. It should subtly set up your credentials.

STEP SEVEN. Write 1500-2000 words that read like the finished book. A sample chapter is great, but it isn’t always necessary. Often, something shorter will do.  

STEP EIGHT. Write the rest of the proposal. Now you’re just adding enough to get you to 8-10k words total and smooth all of this out. Be sure you tell us your best story. What does that mean? Tell us why you’re writing this now? What we do we know now, but didn’t 6 months or 6 years ago? What’s a key distinction you draw in the book, and why has no one else drawn it? 

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.