Lessons from Sociology

I took a class this quarter called the Sociology of Rational Decision Making. While the subject matter is somewhat self-explanatory, thinking about decisions themselves allowed me to reconsider some of the decisions I’ve made without even thinking about them as decisions, and it provided me with some insight about query-reading that I think could be useful for all aspiring writers.

Last summer I interned with a literary agency and was in charge of reading the slush pile. Since I am also an aspiring writer, I often found myself straddling two different identities, which is something I think most agents deal with.

When I am wearing my writer cap, I know the pain of condensing your masterpiece into a mere paragraph for a query or summarizing it in a bland synopsis; of searching through agent websites and wondering if they will be good enough, or if they will deign to read your work; of waiting and waiting and waiting for a response only to get a dreaded rejection.

But when I open a query letter, the writer in me is on the backburner. I am thinking of what will sell, of what looks interesting, not of what the writer has gone through to get that query in my inbox. My sociology course talks about bounded rationality: when people make decisions, they do not evaluate all the alternatives, but go through each alternative until they find one that is satisfactory. In each query, I have to make multiple decisions.

As you can see, saying no takes a lot less time than saying yes. My sociology class also says that people have selective attention because they cannot possibly pay attention to everything presented to them. That means I am trying to limit how much attention I give this query, so I am sometimes hoping it will be a no so I can take care of it more quickly. The tree illustrates that it is only once I get to the actual pitch that I am indifferent about whether it is good or not. Before that, it will mean less work to say no than to say yes.

When the writer in me sees what the intern in me is doing, it is horrified. I want agents to give my query the benefit of the doubt when they are reviewing it. But it’s not that I am cold-hearted and don’t care about finding good fiction. I simply need to manage my time. Many crime shows show the difference between the theory of innocent until proven guilty and the reality of having to prove innocence; in the end, it is just plain easier to look for a reason to reject than to look for a reason to accept.

The takeaway, then, is that to get past bounded rationality and selective attention, the query needs to answer yes to all those questions: to be well-researched, well-revised, and well-written. Don’t give them a reason to reject, and they might just have to request more.

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How the Agent is like the Author

Once an author writes a book and decides s/he wants to get it published, s/he must then revise, revise, revise (at least, I hope that’s what writers do first!), and then submit, submit, submit. Assuming the writer is going the traditional publishing route, he must first procure an agent in order to procure a book deal. So the first hurdle is finding the agent who likes the book and wants to represent it. Some authors assume all agents are created equal, with the same likes and interests, and that just because they say they are a literary agent means that they will want to represent any book. Not true. Agents are people, and they each have certain genres they like or dislike. They also have certain genres they want to sell, or they don’t want to sell. So when finding an agent, a smart writer will target submissions to agents who will be good fits. The writer will compile a list (or some other way of organizing) of applicable agents, and then s/he will send out a query letter.

I already knew all that going into my internship. What I didn’t know is what agents do with a book once they’ve agreed to represent it. To my surprise, it is a lot like what the writer was doing. First, we go through books and databases (and rely on previous experience) to make a list of editors who would be interested in the book. Then, a pitch letter is sent out. I got to work on a few pitch letters, and guess what? They are a whole heck of a lot like query letters! There’s the hook, the conflict, the hint at resolution, and a short (relevant) author bio.

So what the agent does is actually very similar to what an author did to get the agent. Which means it’s a long, intensive, and sometimes-painful process. The biggest difference is that where the author has birthed this manuscript and cares for it like a parent loves a child, the agent is at best an aunt – and quite possibly more like a mentor – who cares, but will not risk life, limb, or bottom line, for the manuscript. For me, this is a compelling reason to write an emotionally powerful novel that will make the agent part of the family. It is also a reason to screen your agent to make sure that s/he actually cares for the manuscript.

I am home after a wonderful summer interning with Andrea Hurst and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. I will continue to be a reader for Andrea Hurst Literary Management. In a few weeks, the school year at Northwestern will start, and I’ll use this blog to summarize what I’ve learned from my Introduction to Poetry Writing and the Art of Fiction classes.

How fictitious is fiction?

Several queries I’ve read recently have said “My novel is 99% true life” or “My novel is based on the events in my life” or “My experience as a schizophrenic in jail – just like the protagonist – makes me the perfect person to write the novel.” This makes me nervous.

I suppose on the one hand, using life experience is good because it makes your writing authentic. I wrote a short story that takes place in Warsaw and I used all my knowledge of the city and Polish culture to make it as real as possible. But the story wasn’t about my experience or even anything I’d ever done in Poland. It was more 3% experience and 97% fiction. Because if I had tried to make it a story about what I had experienced, I think it would be an absolutely horrible story. Once you commit yourself to trying to convey your experiences, you lose some of the autonomy of fiction. You will stick too closely to the facts of what you experienced and forget to create. Worst, in revisions it will not only be about fixing your writing but changing your experience. All in all, too much truth in a story makes for a bad writing experience. And once you’ve gotten one book published about your experiences in Panama, where will the next one come from? Will you even know how to create a story of your own?

I know I take this to the extreme; I never consciously base any characters on people I’ve met in real life. People always tell me: oh, you must have so many ideas to write about! Or, that was a bad experience, but it will be great in a novel someday! Or, oh, Whidbey Island will be great for writing because you can have your pick of horses, boating, biking, hiking…! And I smile and nod and try not to roll my eyes because I really make it all up as I go (sorry to break the news to those of you who’ve ever said something like that to me). Of course, I’m no expert and I know people really do use their experiences. But I don’t think it should be a claim that you put in your query as if to prove that somehow it makes your story better. If anything it makes it less of a novel and more of a memoir. Which one do you want your book to be?

Rejections

One thing I do daily is read query letters. We usually get about 10 a day, and whichever intern gets to them first gets to read them and decide whether to request more, reject, or assign them to a different intern. I try to err on the side of requesting even when I’m pessimistic about how it will turn out. Query letters are hard to write, after all, so I might as well give the writing a chance to speak for itself. Besides, the biggest thing I’ve learned so far at this internship is:

I hate rejecting people.

The query letters that I reject tend to be non-fiction where the author has absolutely no platform (in other words, is just an average Joe with no followers) because that is a MUST in non-fiction, even for memoirs. Then it’s easy for me to reject (although my heart still breaks a little for the author) because there’s really no way of getting around that.

But I have a harder time rejecting fiction queries. If the idea doesn’t grab me, I try to pass it on to another intern to see if it will grab them. The fiction query letters that I do reject are usually the ones that come with sample chapters (which, by the way, the writers are NOT supposed to send). I’ve also been rejecting partials that I or another intern requested. Generally, the partials I read will have an interesting plot concept or appealing characters, which is always good, but the writing is just bad. Plain and simple, they need to take writing classes. Or give up and get a ghost writer. Some of them are a stage or two away from having good writing, but it’s still painful for me to read because of their cliches or the way they’re trying too hard to sound like a writer.

But even though it’s obvious from the very beginning that they’re writing is bad and I’m going to have to reject them, I always read the whole thing. Why? Because I keep hoping it’s going to get better. Because I want to believe that they just didn’t revise the first page well enough and they’ll hit their stride once the story really picks up.

So far it hasn’t happened.

After reading the twenty or thirty or fifty pages, I put it down and know I have to reject them. But still the thought lingers in my mind: what if the rest of the book is better?

I’ll reject it in the end, of course, but it’s still really hard for me because I know the writer will receive the news and get discouraged. I might be the first person to reject them or the thirtieth. Either way, it’s not going to help them believe in their work or in themselves as an author. And who wants to destroy someone else’s self image?

Not me. Those of you who went to high school with me might remember a few teachers who I absolutely despised. (No names, please!) But at the end of the school year or after I graduated, did I ever tell them how I really thought? Did I even ignore them? No. I gave them each a smile and told them how much I had enjoyed being in their classes. Because I just can’t bring myself to hurt someone else’s feelings on purpose.

So rejecting people is really hard for me. But it’s not just the person side that’s tough. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have passed on a story because the idea was really good and if only the author revised it (a million times) it might be sellable.

That’s not going to happen. Part of this desire on my side to work with the author comes from my experience in writing, which has been in critique groups where we work together to help someone make their story better. And I know that writers really want feedback from agents on how to make their work better. They want the agents who read their partials and fulls to also edit their partials and fulls.

But Andrea told me something earlier in the week that really helped me (at least to rationalize my actions to myself). We’re not here to help people become better writers. We’re here to sell people’s books. Sure, when I reject a full I’ll give them reasons why, but that’s not the reason agents exist. Agents need to find manuscripts that are ready to be sent to a publishing house without needing lengthy edits (maybe some pinching here and there and a copy edit, but that’s it). If a writer really wants to get a professional’s help in revising their manuscript, they should hire a freelance editor.

So please, writers, send me good partials and fulls so I don’t have to reject you!