What can YOU say in six sentences?
In my experience and that of a couple of friends of mine, most agents in these hard economic times are interested in what they think is going to sell, period and what sells as far as they're concerned is last year's best-seller. This shapes all their "ideas" regarding character and presentation, which is to say, if you can write like Dan Brown, you've got it dicked. Then there are all those literary works the New York Times reviews that plumb the bowels of the soul, or some fucking thing, whose authors, often 19-year-old freshmen at Harvard, are given advances of half-a-million dollars and feted around the creme de la creme of the cocktail circuits until everybody gets tired and forgets them, which happens in fairly short order these days because there are oh so many more of these Lit Class geniuses clotting the halls of academe until it comes time to trot their wares out on stage.
In short, agents are those who are attuned, not to whatever may constitute good writing but to business, a business predicated moreover on safe returns sucked from the safest investments. Fuck 'em. Who in their right mind would ever subject themselves to such people's critiques, at least after having been through the mill with one of them? I still send my stuff out, and I'm always willing to take suggested changes under consideration to the point they stop making sense, but I think the stories I write have some merit and I'm not about to change them to something else merely to make them more palatable for middleclass consumption--which is what the deal really is--and thereby see print. There are some things that are best left to hacks.
If you liked this (and I did) you might be interested in something that ran in pifmagazine some years ago about a workshop run by Gordon Lish, "Captain Fiction." This scared me even more than the blog.
In other words, you have to grab the reader/agent in the first six sentences, so what we're doing right here is the perfect practice!
I like the anonymity part. I bet it is painful to sit there while feeling ripped apart. Thanks for this.
I love Robert's reply to this.
I'll tell you how I came to find this. I'd sent a piece several friends here and there admired to Smokelong Quarterly, thinking it was right in tune with their market. It was quickly returned with a thanks, but no thanks. Shortly afterward I read a flash I really enjoyed, and among the writer's credits I noticed she was a reader for Smokelong, and also puts up a blog wherein she posted the Top 25 Reasons Agents Give...blah, blah, blah, and cited the longer list posted on the annemini blog as her source. I then read several of the "reader's" stories and flashes, and though I enjoyed all of them, I also noted that in about 60% of them she "broke the rules" set forth in the list.
So, I have to think Robert is correct in his response. There are clubs out there, and you can pretty much get anything published if you came up with the admins, and they favor you, and they seem fond of giving reasons why nonmembers are not going to be accepted.
As I am so busy with non-writing work at the moment, I have just about enough time to squeeze out a story now and then, and not enough to schmooze and curry favor with the snobs who have established online magazines I like the look of, but which have closed their doors to others. Until I retire from the school, it looks as if I will remain an other. Perhaps at that not too distant date, I will find one of you at the helm of a wonderful magazine, and the tables will turn. Fingers crossed!
Meanwhile MuDJoB is looking for more great stories, and I hope you will consider it a worthy venue for exposure.
Top-speed reading of this (and will read again) and then of the comments below and while I know I have committed many of the 70+ 'sins' of first para. errors I also know that some of them work and as Rob so excellently indicates there are points beyond which one cannot/should not change what one has written.
But, the list DID identify some of the reasons I don't read beyond the first sentences of some 6S posts, which I'd lumped together as 'banality'.
I'll come back to this when I've more time! - AND read Toby's link.
But thanks Michael - this is an eye-opener
Sigh. I feel like I have a little insight to share here, having had one novel commercially published. But that's 1 out of 12 (and The Killer's Wife was, in my brutally honest estimation, one of my weakest), so take it with a heavy dose of skepticism. That novel was picked up not for anything that occurred on the first page (it actually opens with a snippet of unattributed dialogue--horrors!) but for its "concept", which apparently seemed fashionable at the time. Stephen King's new collection has a novella on the exact same subject, so I guess I really was onto something.
Most of the we-won't-read-on reasons cited in the linked article simply refer to good writing techniques. You really shouldn't start with cliches, etc. But as for getting a novel published or not, that's all bullshit. Think of all the crappy genre novels lining the B & N bookshelves--most of them probably break these rules. Many of them are stories you've heard a million times already, with cookie-cutter characters, most notably the (sigh) "strong female character." This is because the current target audience for the book-buying market (fiction-wise, at least; males supposedly buy mostly non-fiction nowadays. although whether or not they actually read it is an open question) is middle-aged women with families and income/time to spare on whatever Oprah tells them they should be reading. Current fashions apply as well--last year publishers were paying out high-$ advances for anything with a Swedish detective in it, based on the success of the The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series. I'm not making this up.
Now think of the truly great novels you've read in your life, the ones that had a lasting impact on you. The ones that changed you. For me at least, most of them didn't crank up the action until well into the story. Often it's simply the quality of the writing that draws you in. And most of them put paid to these stylistic rules, committing this supposed heresy of trusting the reader to not lose attention for 4-5 pages. Unimaginable in this day & age, I know. Hell, DeLillo directly addresses the reader in the opening of Underworld: "He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful." That makes me want to read on, how about you? Cormac McCarthy's novels often open with long descriptions or abstractions: Suttree follows the progress of a cat down alleyways (as well as promptly addressing the reader), and that novel is without question one of the most beautiful things I've ever read.
Here's the thing: there's this yawning gulf now between writing good fiction and getting published. To get published you need hooks and short chapters and strong female characters. The shelves are filled with them, and 90% of them are abject shit. Then there's the hyper-literary crew Crisman so succinctly captured in his comments, the Ivy League pseudo-intellectuals with their niche audiences of chin strokers. These writers are often fine stylists--as long as you're interested in reading about the vapid sexual or cultural hang-ups of Upper West-Side elites.
Write in your voice, how you want to write. It may not be a recipe for success, but I sold out once, got published in 8 different languages and won the Mary Higgins Clark award, and still couldn't get my next book picked up. I simply couldn't write another by-the-numbers thriller at that point, and when I tried to it turned out to be very poor indeed. I'm lucky enough to have an agent who will try to sell the good work I send him, but editors are another matter. For now I'm writing what I want, and hopefully I'll get published again, because it does matter monetarily and it is validating. But US publishing right now is a tough place to score with quality work, unless you're into zombies or Swedish detectives.
Bill - thank you. Thank you a lot for writing this because it does confirm what I feel and what, for the most part I do. But then I'm not expecting to get published. (because I'm not hungry enough)
Good luck to you for someone to see the light of sensible day.