Monday, February 23, 2015

Querying Update: Life in the Slush Pile

In November, I announced that I’d be querying literary agents with my new women’s fiction novel, THE SEESAW EFFECT, about a professional Democrat who loses her job after the wave election, only to watch her husband become the next Rush Limbaugh. (That post and my query letter is here.) I ended up querying only those agents who’d read KEEPING SCORE, so it was a pretty short list. (Plus two who had favorited my tweet about the book during a Twitter Pitch festival.)

The stats: 15 agents queried. Eight asked for pages, while four said no thanks and only three did not respond at all. Of those eight agents, seven have passed on the project. Here are their reasons:

I’m afraid though that the story fell flat for me. The hook just wasn’t there and I didn’t think the ante was big enough to keep most readers reading. In a nutshell the story felt a little too familiar.

I'm afraid this doesn't seem like the right project for me, but I'm sure other agents will feel differently.

Although I was intrigued by the initial premise of the story, in the end, I just didn't feel the writing was what I was looking for. For me, it came down to a purely subjective decision. While I thought the premise was there, the writing itself just didn't connect with me enough.

The subject here just leaves me cold. It just doesn’t sing to me.

While your pages are interesting, unfortunately, I have had several editors tell me lately that they didn’t think political fiction was working well on the market and unfortunately, I didn’t see another hook in this story to get us past that hurdle.

While your novel has merit, I am forced to give serious consideration to the realities of the marketplace when deciding which writers to represent.

While I do like the premise here and thought the back-and-forth dialogue between Erin and Jack was fun and well-written, I'm afraid I'm going to have to pass on going further with this project. Reading through these early pages, unfortunately I just didn't connect with the narrative voice the way I had hoped to.

I really appreciate these agents reading my pages and taking the time to get back to me with their reasons why they passed. As someone who reads for an agent, I know how difficult it to is to find that project you love and that the marketplace will embrace. I’ve passed on so many novels, it’s karma that my own book is now the one being passed.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King advises writers to give their manuscripts to early readers for feedback. If one person has a specific complaint it’s safe to ignore it, but if three or more come back with the same point, you have to pay attention. He didn’t have any advice on what to do when the feedback is different but the result is the same.

I sent out these queries knowing that the book would be a tough sell, and indeed two of the rejections seem to point to that. Others seem to say they like the story but not the writing; some agents liked the writing but not the story.

I know every published writer has a long list of rejections they received before they signed with that one agent who plucked them out of the slush pile. But for every writer whose dreams of representation came true, there are dozens of writers who never got picked.

How do you know when to keep going with a specific story, or when to give up and concentrate on the next one? I have a friend with strong story sense giving THE SEESAW EFFECT a read right now … hopefully she’ll be able to come up with some major ideas for a rewrite. Nibbling around the edges isn’t going to cut it. I’ve recommended several books that had problems, but if I really enjoyed the premise and characters, a few minor problems weren’t an issue. Obviously this book has major problems … I just need to find out what they are and fix them … if possible.

In the meantime, if anyone has some wonderful “I got rejected by a hundred agents and then agent 101 loved it” stories, I need to read them!

Monday, February 9, 2015

Relying on the Unreliable Narrator

The first Agatha Christie book I read was “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd” … and it was almost the last. I was about 10, and ready to give up my “Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators” and “Trixie Belden” books for some adult mysteries. I picked up “Roger” one day in the library. With only an hour to read, I got through the first few chapters, and then skipped ahead to the end.

Spoiler space in case you haven’t read the book and someday might ….

The last few paragraphs of the book are the narrator cackling to the reader how he was the one who killed Roger. I practically threw the book across the room. I hadn’t even read the entire thing, and I was still furious.

A novel – especially one written in first person, as “Roger” is – is a personal dialogue between reader and protagonist. The reader assumes that the protagonist is giving the reader all the information needed to follow the story, in a mostly unbiased account. When that trust is broken, chaos ensues. Apparently “Roger” was very controversial when it was originally published.

With the success of “Gone Girl” and the current release “The Girl on a Train,” unreliable narrators are coming back in fashion. I’ve also read several in the slush pile for the agency I read for. (These were not done well.) If you’re considering writing a novel with an unreliable narrator, be advised that this is one of the hardest gimmicks to pull off in fiction. And it is a gimmick. When done well, the narrator’s inconsistency will be just another feature of the book. If done poorly, the entire book will revolve around this sleigh-of-hand, and readers will feel cheated.

In written fiction, the unreliable narrator is very similar to the trick ending in movies popularized by M. Night Shyamalan – and he was only able to get away with it once. Basically these movies hinge on the fact that the protagonist doesn’t know the truth about his identity, whether it’s that he’s a ghost or he’s mentally ill. Similarly, the unreliable narrator works when there’s something about her life that the protagonist doesn’t know, or she’s lied to herself so completely that her lies seem like the truth – for instance, how a stalker ex-boyfriend might view his ex-girlfriend and her new family.

If you’re considering an unreliable narrator, ask yourself a few questions:

Will my story work just as well with a conventional narrator? The answer here should be yes. If not, the unreliable narrator is a gimmick.

Are there other aspects of my story that will clue in the reader that an unreliable narrator is at work? Again, the answer here should be yes. You want your reader to end the book by hitting herself on the head, swearing that she “should have seen that coming,” and immediately re-reading the book to spot the clues she should have seen in the first read.

When is the best time to reveal that my narrator is unreliable? There is no one definite answer to this – a talented writer could pull this off in the first paragraph. “Gone Girl” alternates between Nick and Amy’s point of view – Nick is revealed as an unreliable narrator when his previously unmentioned girlfriend texts him from outside his sister’s house; Amy’s revelation comes when her faux diary ends. The first reveal lets the reader know it’s possible Nick did kill Amy after all; the second assures the reader that he did not. However, most books using an unreliable narrator save that reveal for the end.

Is the only thing noteworthy about this book is that it features an unreliable narrator? The answer here needs to be “no.” The plot has to be compelling without that feature.

Am I using an unreliable narrator to get away with not having to give the reader certain information or fully develop characters? Again, the answer here needs to be no.

Having an unreliable narrator can be a fun twist that makes a book unforgettable. It can also be a gimmick that frustrates and annoys readers. It’s a very difficult trick to pull off, but with careful plotting and studying, it can be done successfully.

Goodreads has a long list of books featuring unreliable narrators; check it out here.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Try a bit of That Old Black Magic!

Lizzie Hart is back—snooping, lying, and chick-fighting to uncover the truth, hoping not to break any hearts along the way…especially her own.

Caroline Fardig’s It’s Just A Little Crush was one of my favorite mysteries of 2013, and I’m so excited her heroine Lizzie Hart is back with another adventure!

Lizzie Hart hoped her first day back at work after nearly being killed would be uneventful. No such luck. Before she can finish her morning coffee, Lizzie and her co-workers find a dead body on the rooftop of their office. Media vultures that they are, the Liberty Chronicle employees are psyched to have first-hand news to report. Lizzie, however, is devastated when she realizes that the victim is her ex-boyfriend’s brother.

When evidence begins piling up against one of Lizzie’s friends, she reluctantly dons her detective hat once again, determined to find the real killer. She’s not thrilled about chasing another psychopath around, but she’ll do anything for a friend. Lizzie’s love life is rapidly becoming a hot mess, too. Her latest attempt at sleuthing isn’t leaving much time for her budding romance with town hunk Blake Morgan. Add that to the fact she’s hiding a secret so big it could rock the very core of their relationship, it’s no wonder that Lizzie’s in a tizzy.

Poor Lizzie ends up juggling a murder investigation, a wacky Wiccan coven, and two men vying for her attention—all while nursing injuries left over from the last time she decided to play Nancy Drew. It’s a good thing she always has a few tricks up her sleeve.


a Rafflecopter giveaway

In honor of the release of THAT OLD BLACK MAGIC, Lizzie’s first book (IT’S JUST A LITTLE CRUSH) will be on sale for $0.99 all this week!

Buy links:


Barnes & Noble



Barnes & Noble