Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Edit like an Agent

Whether novelists submit paranormal, YA, or literary, the reasons underlying rejections and requests for rewrites constantly overlap, regardless of genre. Doesn’t this across-the-board similarity seem odd? Actually, not at all. Because fundamental qualities apply to every work of fiction—and every agent seeks these fundamental qualities.

Tip: To land an agent, think like one.

So what are some things that agents might be thinking?

~ Begin earlier than you thought you could.
Over and over, I hear about agents asking novelists to cut five, ten, even one hundred pages. Why? Because you need to start where the trouble does. Don’t set up, take your time, create a world, or establish a serenity to disrupt. Instead? Begin with an actual inciting incident. And right away.

~ Eliminate self-indulgence.
This insidious issue can creep in without writers even noticing. Too many characters. Too much amazingly aggravating alliteration. Heartfelt anecdotes about Gram, whom you loved so very much. Irrational contempt for your arrogant brother-in-law. Be on the lookout for stuff that belongs in your diary, not your professional submissions.

~ Delete backstory.
Donald Maass got an audible groan from a large UW-Madison Writer’s Institute audience when he insisted, “Once you’re seventy percent of the way through the book, have as much backstory as you want. Before that? Forget it.”  Agents are readers, and every reader longs to know what happens next—not what happened yesteryear.

~ Shore up the middle.
            What’s worse than hitting page 102 and no longer caring what happens next?

~ Fix clumsy sentences.
It’s human nature to rationalize. “Oh, the sentence isn’t that bad. They won’t notice.” For better or worse, they definitely will. Every awkward sentence conveys one of the following: The author doesn’t know which sentences don’t work, or the author didn’t care enough to fix that one. Seriously. Do you want to convey either of those messages?

In the background, I imagine increasingly audible grumbling. “How do I know how late I can start?” “How many characters are too many?” “This published book I read made all of these mistakes, and so I…”

Forget all that. If you curb rationalization, you already know the answers to all those questions. Objectivity reveals when to start your book, which characters you can cut, and when your syntax is clumsy or cutesy. Pay meticulous attention to everything you already know, and you’ll read like an agent. That’s how you get one.

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