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Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Tue 25
May
2010

Mind of the Agent

Writing I remember when I was desperate to find a girl but had no idea what they wanted. I knew what I wanted. I wanted them to take delivery of my package. But how to convince them? What did they want from me? Where could I find one with a good reputation, who didn’t charge fees?

Wait, did I say girl? I meant literary agent. I couldn’t find a literary agent.

Now there are tons of sites about literary agents. Some are by agents. My favorite is Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown, but there are plenty to choose from. There’s no longer any excuse for not knowing at least a little about how an agent’s mind works: what they’re looking for, how to approach them.

Still, the other day I received an email from a writer facing a quandary:

A Literary Agent has given me a favourable reply (ie: wants to see my entire manuscript from a lousy query letter), so I immediately panicked and sent it to a “professional editing” service (one listed on Australian Literary Agents Website) for a final Mr Sheening. Do Literary Agents have a time limit before they get miffed if you don’t send manuscript by return email? The Editing Service assures me that I have two months (?) to submit, as they have not started it yet, but “it is on the top of their pile”.

Help… please?

Yours in awe

Elle

Usually I can’t respond to emails, but I make an exception for those that sign off, “Yours in awe.” So I replied, and then I thought I might as well post my response here, because it was just that good. Or possibly not, but what the hell, it’s not like I’m forcing you to keep reading.

Hi Elle!

This is why you don’t query agents until your book is ready, of course. But I know it happens. I queried a few agents with my first novel then freaked out because what if they wanted to see it? I think I did lightning rewrites every time someone responded.

I see two issues. The first is: Are you damaging your chances if you don’t respond to an agent immediately? If we were talking about American agents, I’d say, “Maybe.” Most reputable American agents receive more queries than they can remember, and might not notice whether it’s been two weeks or two months since they asked to see yours. But they might.

For an Australian agent I’d say, “Probably.” They deal with far fewer writers and are more likely to wonder what’s going on.

But either way, I’d send them that manuscript. Agents want reliable clients, and if the first thing you do is delay, they’ll worry you are one of those writers who are forever six months away from finishing their next book. For this reason you should not reply with some pathetic story about how you thought your book was ready but now you think about it can you please have a few more months. Don’t do that.

You are worried that your book could be better; well, it probably could. They all could. Do you think yours has little flaws or big ones? If they’re minor, they’re unlikely to dissuade an editor who otherwise loves your work, and if they’re major, you’re dead no matter what: dead if you send in that piece of crap, dead if you wait for two months only to discover from this editing service that you need to spend six more on rewrites.

Speaking of which. There are very fine freelance editors out there but I don’t like the concept. In particular I think it’s bad for amateur writers with no idea what’s good and bad about their book to consult a freelance editor in the hope that this expert can explain it. It’s bad because (a) to rewrite well you need to completely believe in what you’re doing. Receiving advice you don’t really understand or agree with but feel compelled to follow anyway because it’s coming from an expert will crush everything unique and valuable about your book.

And (b) some freelance editors are delusional psychopaths.

By my reckoning, about one in four pieces of literary feedback are so wide of the mark they’re not just unhelpful but destructive. They want your book to be more like a completely different type of book, or prostrate itself before the altar of Strunk & White, or not imply things about hot-button issues you never even thought of, or go into depth about things nobody cares about, or not do this mildly felonious thing that someone tore strips off them for at their last story workshop, or stop reminding them of their ex-wife.

I’m talking about feedback from other writers and readers, rather than editors; you would hope freelance editors are less delusional than writers. But I don’t know. Why take the risk? This is why I advocate quantity: get your ms. read by at least eight or ten people before you show it to anyone in the industry. Enough to identify the outliers.

More on this here.

Obviously I haven’t read your manuscript (that wasn’t an invitation). I don’t know which editing service you’ve selected, or how experienced you are, or whether you’ve workshopped it already. But based on what I know: send it. You’re more likely to hurt yourself by not sending it than you are to help yourself by delaying for months in order to maybe improve it but maybe not.

Good luck!

Max.

Comments

This is where site members post comments. If you're not a member, you can join here. There are all kinds of benefits, including moral superiority!

Thomas (#1221)

Location: Germany
Quote: "One more, and I'm going to consider you my penpal."
Posted: 3224 days ago

Teehee, prostrate. Girls make me giggly.

TotesEichhorn (#4757)

Location: Vienna - Austria
Quote: "marketing IS modern propaganda"
Posted: 3224 days ago

Interestingly, I simply like your Style... to be more exactly the style you put words... and use your sentences, on the point, fast, humorous.
I get it, though I am not a writer or in any way a library keeper ;) and the advise you give, is good to be considered, not only if you are a writer. this counts for an creative job. don't delay. deliver when ready, and have a good idea of when that will be. thanks for info max, i gladly am in your list to be a receiver of such "news".
Cheers / Skol / Kippis / Prost ;)

Philippe Bolay (#3142)

Location: Sweden
Quote: "Quotes are great for hiding mediocrity"
Posted: 3224 days ago

So, since emailing doesn't work, how do I get you to come lecture at our school. =)

Jei Post Rok (#3337)

Location: U.K.
Quote: "Idiot A: "It wasn't my fault, i was only following orders." Idiot B: "I only gave orders, i didn't do anything!""
Posted: 3224 days ago

And if she sends the manuscript 'as is', would it be a bonus to mention that she's also getting it professionally edited? You know, as a cost savings to the publisher. Or would that be career suicide? As in... 'I can't edit my own work... hell, i can't even spell.'

Richard Thomas (#3828)

Location: Chicago, IL USA
Quote: "What does not kill me makes me stronger."
Posted: 3224 days ago

Wait, did you say something about your package?

Great stuff as always Max.

Peace,
Richard

Machine Man subscriber Katrina (#847)

Location: SF, CA
Quote: "Good sex is like good Bridge: if you don't have a good partner, you'd better have a good hand." -- Mae West"
Posted: 3224 days ago

I like the "that wasn't an invitation" bit. Nice way to shut someone down.

Machine Man subscriber M.I.Minter (#347)

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan, USA
Quote: "When I read about the evils of drinking, I gave up reading."
Posted: 3224 days ago

What most people don’t know is that Max re-wrote this letter 11 times over the last 4 months, and that when he sent it to an outside freelance editor.
They simply sent back:

“Send it. You’re more likely to hurt yourself by not sending it than you are to help yourself by delaying for months in order to maybe improve it.”

This caused him to go through three more drafts of the response letter, and even then, he’d only release it on his blog. It will take another 2 years of rewrites before he’ll actually print this letter and send it to her.



I’m not sure what the opposite of muse is, but I can’t be far off.

Hugo Edwards (#3925)

Location: Philadelphia
Quote: ""Science!""
Posted: 3223 days ago

Personally every time I want someone to read something I've written I decide I'll take their comments in stride and not freak out over them or let my future editing of that piece be influenced by it unless I think it's good advice. Unfortunately I throw 30 fits over whatever anyone says and then spend every other editing session obsessing over their comments. Woe.

draoi (#4875)

Location: oak
Quote: "draoi all those memories and a big ...are the materials for "
Posted: 3222 days ago

Meet the Writer-Dië Sound of Thor's
So is Max -the ..... in is fictionable universe, treatable like any other's writer's claim?
Maybe writer's are not testable, about girls, agents morality, meaning,and other metaphysical ultimates.
it as life beyond this blogs?


Anthony (#4916)

Location: Brisbane
Posted: 3183 days ago

Great post.
I've found agents to be an odd breed.
I sent a query email to a major agency in Sydney, and was invited to send a sample.
I did so and was then invited to send the entire MS.
That was three months ago.
I recently sent a follow up email as another agent has also asked to see the entire MS,so I touched base with the first agency.
And received no answer.
Still waiting, either for a response to my email or to the MS.
Go figure.
Cheers,
Anthony
www.anthonyelement.com

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