Wednesday, January 30, 2013

What’s Behind My "No"

By Jami Deise

I’ve spent the past year trying to get an agent for my novel Keeping Score. This process entails looking up agents in a literary guide or reading about them in Writer’s Digest, finding the ones who represent women’s fiction, and sending them my carefully crafted query letter. Rejection usually follows, either immediately or a few weeks later.

It’s a bummer.

Ironically, during the past year I’ve also been in the position of rejecting. As a reviewer for Chick Lit Central, I receive a number of emails a week from writers pitching their books for review. When I first signed up as a reviewer, I said yes to almost every book that came my way. Then the books started piling up, and I had to decline to write some reviews because the writing wasn’t professional.

I got a little pickier.

It occurred to me that agents probably underwent the same metamorphosis. Eager in the beginning, they say yes to a number of queries that cross their desk, only to be overwhelmed and disappointed. Then their interests narrow; they become more adept at spotting weaknesses in the query itself, and their rejections go way up.

My interests have narrowed considerably. Yet at the same time, it’s hard to say what I am or am not interested in without reading the book’s summary. Generally, I don’t like straight romance. If the heroine’s biggest problem is choosing between Guy A and Guy B, I’ll generally choose not to read her story. If she’s just been dumped and struggling to get over it, I really don’t care about that either. Stories set around the holidays? Nah. Whirlwind romance on a European vacation? Nope.

I am partial to women struggling to be successful in a demanding profession. I like stories set in big cities – Washington, LA, NYC – and the industries there. I’m obsessed with HGTV, so a book that features home renovations would interest me. I’d rather read humor than drama, but a “family in crisis” story would get me. Pregnancy and motherhood of kids at any age is a favorite.

A sharp, funny, well-written synopsis on any subject is more likely to interest me than a poorly written summary about one of my favorite subjects. What makes a summary well-written is specificity and character. The first sentence describes who the protagonist is and what her life is currently like. Then, the bombshell that changes her world. Next, how is she going to solve this problem? Then a line about a complication and maybe a romantic subplot. End it with a question or provocative summation.

A synopsis that does not work is one that talks more about the themes of the novel rather than the plot. Love, forgiveness, longing, desperation… a summary that talks more about the protagonist’s emotions rather than her actions is not going to get my attention. Those emotions can be inferred from a specific synopsis; conversely, plot cannot be determined through a description that “this is a story about one woman’s search for love, forgiveness and hope during a trying time.” Furthermore, when I read such a summary, I suspect that since the writer could not create a compelling synopsis, the novel itself might not be well written, either.

Similarly, I like a clever title. Titles that get my attention have a cute play on words, use a cliché in a new way, or contain a contradiction or paradox. Vague titles are a turn-off. I wouldn’t find something like A Magic Life very magical.

However, these are just my preferences. Other reviewers or agents might be intrigued by pitches that center on emotion rather than plot points. And there are many agents and reviewers who only want pure romance, who enjoy holiday-themed stories, and who love literary vacations. In fact, there may be many more of them than those who share my preferences.

After all, I have a clever title, a well-written synopsis, and a heroine who cares about things other than her potential love interests. And I still don’t have a sale.

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