3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with an Agent

by abbyladybug | via Flickr

by abbyladybug | via Flickr

In today’s guest post, editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman (@rfaitheditorial) discusses three ways you might be sabotaging your prospects with an agent (and how to improve your chances).


In my years as a freelance editor, I’ve learned that writers like to tell themselves stories about why they can’t sign with an agent. “My book is just too literary” and “There’s an industry bias against bloggers” are two of my favorite excuses. But here’s the truth:

The number-one reason an author can’t sign with an agent is because the book is bad.

“But bad books get published all the time!” you tell me, thumping your copy of Life and Death: Twilight Reimagined. It’s true that bad books get published. But if you’re a new author hoping to sign with an agent, you shouldn’t hang your hat on the infinitesimal probability that your manuscript will inspire an entire generation of teens and their mothers to idolize the undead, and thus excuse you from adhering to the rules of good-quality writing.

The happy news is, if it’s true that authors don’t get signed because their books are bad, then the opposite must also be true: the number-one reason authors sign with agents is because their books are well-written and thoughtful. Obviously this is the sage, clarifying wisdom you’ve been waiting for.

Even authors who know how polished and dynamic their work has to be in order to get an agent’s attention don’t realize the subtle ways they’re sabotaging their own success. Here, I’m sharing three pitfalls that can keep you from reaching your full potential as an author—and by extension, might be keeping you from signing with an agent.

1. Too Much Input, Not Enough Output

Smart authors know that getting feedback on their work is the key to growth and revision. But authors sometimes get stuck in a kind of analysis paralysis, trapped in a cycle of soliciting feedback, revising, soliciting more feedback, revising again, getting another beta read, removing the prologue and bumping the scene with all the explosions to chapter 1, and on and on. The result is frequently disastrous.

An example: I’m presently working with an author whose book has been in development for something like five years, during which time various drafts have been analyzed by members of her writing group. My very smart, talented client has taken a lot of the feedback from this group to heart, despite the fact that not a single person in the group has ever published a book or worked in a professional editorial capacity. A huge part of our work together is now focused on excavating this author’s organic, authentic writing voice, which has been almost totally squelched by an abundance of noisome feedback. She’s lost sight of her instincts, which are actually quite good but have been buried under years of critical rubble.

I commend the bravery of authors open to critique, but giving feedback is an art form almost as nuanced as writing itself. “Authors need smart feedback from sources that know how to evaluate a manuscript objectively,” says Carrie Howland of Donadio & Olson. Constructive, thoughtful critique considers how successfully a manuscript executes itself. Is the plot of a thriller tense and exciting? Do the hero and heroine in a kiss-or-kill romance feel equal parts attracted to and repelled from each other? Does a literary novel engage with language in new, interesting and authentic ways?

When you receive a critique built around the phrases “I liked”/ “I didn’t like,” you’re actually gathering more information about your reader than your draft. What I respond to in a manuscript isn’t significant unless I can articulate why. Does my aversion to a character stem from his reliance on hackneyed tropes? Do my questions about the book’s conclusion come from a lack of world-building consistency? A valuable critical eye sees beyond what doesn’t work to why it doesn’t work, and hopefully further still—to how you can fix it.

Critique is a game of quality, not quantity. Reduce the number of voices vying for space in your head, and listen carefully to those that bring the most value to your work.

2. Contests vs. Content

Twitter is an incredible resource for writers. Last week I participated in my first #1linewed, since I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year, and I was immensely touched by the support, talent and enthusiasm infusing the Twitter author community. That said, there is a double-edged sword in the Twitterverse: pitch contests.

On the one hand, pitch contests are awesome. They encourage authors to practice thinking about where their books fit in the marketplace, give them a chance to bypass the dastardly query letter (for a short while), and help clarify story issues like characterization, plot, and conflict.  On the agent side, Twitter pitch contests are a nice way to window-shop the slush pile and engage with new talent. There are a lot of success stories coming out of Twitter pitch contests, and I wholeheartedly support them.

My bone to pick is with you, Serial Twitter Pitch Contest Entrant. Whenever I peruse contest hashtags, I frequently encounter the same handles again and again, the same pitches, the same writers. I often wonder when, exactly, these authors are shutting down their social media long enough to, y’know, work on their novels. Because while it’s great to understand how to pitch your novel in 140 characters or 35 words or 17 emojis, at the end of the day you have to send bona fide pages to an agent. Have you spent more time on your pitch than on your protagonist’s internal conflict resolution? Are you all pith (not a typo) and no plot?

Twitter pitch contests offer an amazing opportunity, but to make good on a great pitch, you need to have written a great book. Get honest about the state of your manuscript. Are you really ready to pitch? If you’re not, or if you’ve tried several times and have been unsuccessful, it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate. And don’t worry—there will always be another contest to enter when you and your manuscript are ready.

3. Where We’ve Been, Where You’re Going

Advice-mongers are always telling authors to read more, because that is the single best piece of advice anyone has ever given an author, other than “Write more.” But how can reading help you sign with an agent?

“Writing is a conversation,” agent Noah Ballard of Curtis Brown told me. “If you aren’t reading books that are being published now, how do you expect to be relevant?”

Familiarizing yourself with current and canon successes in your genre will help you think critically about your own writing. Who are you similar to stylistically? How are you bringing a fresh idea to a popular theme? A well-versed author can add meaningfully to conversations about how to pitch a manuscript to editors.

But being well-read is important for reasons outside of marketing too; reading widely refines and challenges your literary palate, and brings depth and thoughtfulness to your writing. You can’t write a convincing antihero if you haven’t read Wuthering Heights and Moby Dick.  You can’t—or shouldn’t—write a revenge story without first savoring The Count of Monte Cristo. Writing a space opera? I want to know that you’ve read Asimov, Orson Scott Card, Douglas Adams, Emily St. John Mandel, and the most recent stunner from Michel Faber. Bow to the masters, acknowledge your peers, and blaze a trail for yourself armed with the knowledge of what has come before. The history of the written word has always revealed its future.

There’s no denying that signing with an agent is a challenge, even when a book is fantastic. Plenty of wonderful authors and their books don’t find representation quickly, or at all—though my experience suggests that difficult-to-agent books often have significant problems in execution, craft, or concept. You can help yourself by being extremely selective about soliciting critique, finding balance between putting yourself out there and taking time to develop your craft, and reading as many wonderful books as you possibly can. Keep writing, and keep reaching for the kind of greatness on the page no agent will be able to resist.

Posted in Getting Published, Guest Post and tagged .
Rebecca Faith Heyman

Rebecca Faith Heyman

Rebecca Faith Heyman is a freelance book editor whose no-nonsense, compassionate, creative critique and astute book coaching have been helping authors tell their stories for almost a decade. She also serves as an advisor to the board of Reedsy, a curated marketplace for book industry professionals. Connect with Rebecca on Twitter at @RFaithEditorial, or via the RF Editorial web site.

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27 Comments on "3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with an Agent"

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[…] Editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman discusses three ways you might be sabotaging your prospects with an agent (and how to improve your chances).  […]

Susan G. Weidener
“A huge part of our work together is now focused on excavating this author’s organic, authentic writing voice, which has been almost totally squelched by an abundance of noisome feedback. She’s lost sight of her instincts, which are actually quite good but have been buried under years of critical rubble.” One of the reasons we don’t have men in critique sessions of the Women’s Writing Circle is this: I have encountered several women who told me they felt “eviserated” by men in their workshopping experiences outside the Circle . .. in one case, the man was so cruel in his… Read more »
Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)

Hi, Susan. Thanks so much for reading! You’re spot-on: creating a safe space for critique is really important — we have to feel free to find our way around in a manuscript, which is rarely a linear or blunder-free process. It’s worth mentioning that the client I mentioned in the article was workshopping with women. Personally, my go-to editor is male. Cruelty or snarkiness can come from poor critical partners of any gender. I hope your friend found her voice again and finished her memoir!

Susan G. Weidener

Rebecca, I’m surprised a workshop comprised solely of women would have the same impact on the female author as a man or two criticizing her work. Most men do not bring the same perspective/validation/perspective and critique to women’s stories as women – and yet, as you mention – women often “go to” men for the ultimate approval/editing of their work. Thanks to the Women’s Writing Circle and the support and validation of women in the Circle, the writer I mentioned is slowly getting back on track with her memoir and valuing her voice and the compelling nature of her story.

Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)

I’m so glad to hear she’s back on track, Susan! Send her my best, please.

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[…] on Jane Friedman’s blog, freelance editor Rebecca Faith Heyman reports honestly that “difficult-to-agent books often have significant problems.” The completed […]

Vina Grey

Great post. I had to chuckle where you wondered WHEN someone was writing as opposed to being on social media. Reading the ‘masters’ in a genre is a must, I agree. However, it may also be also useful to read someone in your genre who is wildly popular currently to better understand the market. But as you say, how to achieve the balance between time spent reading versus writing is a tough question (and not one I have solved for myself!).

Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)

Thanks, Vina! Agreed — “current and canon successes” are a big part of the key to understanding what’s popular now while maintaining a wider view that considers more than just the market’s trends. When you figure out that magic balance, let me know!

Stuart Horwitz

Great post, Rebecca!
I am currently struggling with your first point, having just had my third book beta read by six people. Really only three of them gave me substantive and neutral responses that are fueling my way forward. So now… is that enough? “Quality vs. quantity” as you say? Or should I sneak another two prospective readers into the game off the bench?

Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)
Hi, Stuart. Thanks for your question, and congratulations on the completion of your MSS draft. If you feel like the three neutral/substantive reads you got are indeed fueling you forward, and you’ve gained some good clarity and insight around your next set of revisions, I think it’s safe to move forward. If those three reads gave you conflicting advice, or if you’re not entirely sure which direction to go in, consulting another reader or two might be valuable, though I’d consider giving those readers targeted questions to focus on. Sometimes it takes changing a few gross items to uncover the… Read more »
Stuart Horwitz

Fantastic advice, Rebecca. I’m due to submit by mid-December so I may not have the back burner option, but I can definitely shift the questions for the two readers who are jumping in to help resolve some conundrums. And in the end, as you indicate, it’s really about resonance, right? So Iikely I already know a lot of what I need to know at this point. Thanks again!

Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)

My pleasure! Best of luck with the manuscript.

Lynn
I’m struggling with the advice of reading the current greats in my genre. My first novel, an MG urban fantasy, is in the process of writing the amazing query and synopsis, but I prefer to avoid the modern novels it’s like because I hope it can go on to the series. (Many like to tell me what it’s like when they hear about it.) I don’t want to be influenced scene-wise from the modern greats. On the other hand, I write what I like, so can’t help reading some of them. Usually the ones I love I can’t use and… Read more »
Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)
Hi, Lynn, and thanks for reading. First, I am a displaced Pennsylvanian myself; I hope you’re enjoying the wonderful City of Brotherly Love! Please do us both a favor and eat a soft pretzel for me. To your question, I think this is something a lot of author struggle with. What you’re really talking about here is voice, right? You’re concerned that influence from your contemporaries will obscure your own voice. I have three suggestions. First, if you really feel connected to an author’s style, try to go beyond “I like/I didn’t like.” As you would while providing a high-level… Read more »
Maria

I really love the thoughts on why reading is so important. You see that tip bandied about a lot for writers, and this post really breaks down a few of the reasons WHY it is so crucial. Great post!

Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)

Thanks so much, Maria!

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[…] 3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with An Agent, from Jane Friedman: Sometimes, you don’t necessarily have to do anything obvious, like having a negative web presence, to ruin your chances of landing an agent. Sometimes, the cause is something much more subtle. Excerpt: “In my years as a freelance editor, I’ve learned that writers like to tell themselves stories about why they can’t sign with an agent. “My book is just too literary” and “There’s an industry bias against bloggers” are two of my favorite excuses.” […]

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[…] bloggers share information about agents. Rebecca Faith Heyman explains 3 ways you’re sabotaging your chances with an agent and Janet Reid lists more ways to query badly, while Mary C. Moore writes about self-publishing and […]

Peter Fritze

Hi Rebecca. “When you receive a critique built around the phrases “I liked”/ “I didn’t like,” you’re actually gathering more information about your reader than your draft.” AND “A valuable critical eye sees beyond what doesn’t work to why it doesn’t work, and hopefully further still—to how you can fix it.” Both superb comments. I’m learning to use three or four tried and true beta readers. I never quite know what to do when someone says they don’t “like” a character. Often that was the point. Thanks.

Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)

Thanks so much, Peter. It’s one of the most salient points I try to make when mentoring new editors — that our feelings are different from the impressions we get based on how successfully a book articulates itself. It’s great that you’ve found a cohort of beta readers you trust. Best of luck!

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[…] specific reasons as to precisely why reading is so important for writers. The post is called:  3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with an Agent, and it’s written by editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman. It’s a great read […]

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[…] with in publishing. Some of us seek an agent to deal with it for us. Rebecca Faith Heyman describes 3 ways you could be sabotaging your chance with an agent, and Janet Reid reminds us to clean up our web presence when seeking an agent. For those of us […]

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[…] 3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with an Agent […]

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[…] Faith Heyman presents 3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with an Agent posted at Jane […]

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[…] always something good going on over at Jane Friedman’s blog, and in case you missed it, here’s an excellent guest post about how you might be sabotaging your manuscript. Aside from the number-one reason—the book is […]

Alfredo Anthony Grajales
Alfredo Anthony Grajales
I am a nobody that is barely literate and has absolutely zero chance in hell of writing a commercially successful book. Not in this artsy fartsy analytical world of critics, agents and editors. Their greatest talent is to cut your heart out and stomp on it while telling you it is for your own good and growth. And they are right. Don’t get me wrong, I understand it is indeed necessary to have these people in the business. To sift through the abyss of stories and shovel the shit into one big pile of sewage. Someone has to be willing… Read more »
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[…] which in turn was inspired by a fantastic post on Jane Friedman’s website called 3 Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Chances with an Agent, written by editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman. I recommend reading the whole thing, […]

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