Last week Nathan Bransford invited his blog followers to be agents for a day. The idea was similar to that of Pitch Parlour (one of my erstwhile haunts but sadly now in intermission) in allowing writers to judge their peers on the strength of a pitch letter and sample pages. (Most U.S. agents work from a pitch letter rather from a synopsis and partial manuscript as is more usual in the country.) What I liked best about this exercise was NB’s observation after the event that while an agent’s view will always be subjective i.e. based on individual taste, that doesn’t mean it’s arbitrary i.e. lacking in any guiding principle. (These definitions/interpretations, by the way, are my own.)
As aspiring novelists, I think we would do well to remember that if our book isn’t getting picked, those that are selected have not only appealed to the agent in a personal way but also have the underlying characteristics that will ensure commercial success. Some of these will be relate to the overall quality of the writing (character, pace, plot) others may be particular elements thought likely to appeal to the current market (e.g. genres or settings regarded as in vogue). But if we despair of gaining attention, we must remind ourselves that ‘they have their reasons’. Instead of blaming them for doing their job, we should make sure that we are doing ours.
On this basis I’ve been doing some ‘revision’ helped by the authors of The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, a book recommended some time ago by one of the Strictly Writing authors. This is not a straight text book but a compendium by a number of contributors. The chapters are not too long, and although I haven’t come across anything I didn’t already know, seeing it put in a new way is an excellent reminder of all the things I need to do to create a book worthy of professional attention.
In terms of personal response, I’m also reminded of how easy it is to get on the wrong side of a reader with some trivial detail. I was really looking forward to my current read and ready to lap up the historical background of a period that really interests me, but just as I plunged into the story, I stubbed my reading toe, as it were, on the hero’s name (Alex) which to my mind doesn’t fit a Victorian Scotsman. Because of it I’m struggling to take off a critical hat and simply go with the flow of the narrative.
So there we have it: a detail that could have been changed by an editor, but as a reader I have to put up with it. And yes, this is entirely subjective !