Monday, May 5, 2014

Wordcraft -- What agents & editors hit the gong for

One of the most anticipated events at each year’s DFW Writers’ Conference in Hurst, Texas, is the Gong Show. That’s the chance for writers to submit sample query letters anonymously for feedback by literary agents. Each agent has a small gong at hand. As the mellow baritone of reader George “The Voice” Goldthwaite intones each entry, agents may strike their gongs at the point in the query where they would stop reading if it appeared in their inboxes. If queries elicit three gongs, as they usually do, the reading ends, and the agents explain what provoked them.

Last year, for the first time in the history of the conference gong show, a writer avoided gonging out. This year, two avoided the common fate, two writers who have taken past gong show lessons to heart, crafting their queries to avoid the pitfalls. Goldthwaite was able to read one query from start to finish with only two gongs. And one, one golden query, made it all the way without drawing the sound of even a single gong.

What worked? What didn’t?

“It was so different I had to hear how it ended,” was the consensus of agents about the no-gong query, for the story of an elderly gardener who finds her precious tomato plants uprooted by a vintage Bentley conjured through an alien transport system. In a world overpopulated by stories about paranormal beings, teenage angst, and magical objects, this was something new.

The other query to escape gonging out, although by a narrower margin, was a young adult historical fantasy set in China. And every agent on the panel who handles fantasy wanted it. The query letter “went into clichés occasionally, but it worked,” said agent Donald Maass. Eddie Schneider of JABberwocky Literary Agency said he struck his gong because of some lack of clarity in the query letter, not because of problems with the underlying story, “which sounds awesome. I would be delighted to take a look.”

That lack of clarity and descent into clichéd statements, in fact, were two of the most common problems agents cited. Even some queries that received the dreaded three gongs had fans among the agents. But in most cases, if the stories behind the queries didn’t sound as wonderful as the Chinese fantasy, a signal for writers to polish their queries, and possibly their manuscripts.

Other common complaints included flat characters, excessive back story, and lack of apparent conflict in the plot description.

And then there was the “seen too much of it” complaints. These included ghosts, demons and the afterlife; magical objects; “chosen one” protagonists; boarding schools for wizards or other paranormal beings; and anything to do with mermaids, which agents say they see too often or know to be already clogging the publishing pipeline. And to that list, add extraterrestrial beings. Unless, of course, they mess with a crochety gardener’s tomato patch.

In addition to Maass and Schneider, panel participants were Emily M. Keyes of Foreword Literary, Sarah Negovetich of Corvisiero Literary Agency, Laura Zats of Red Sofa Literary, and editor Amanda Rutter of Angry Robot Books, who says, no matter how her colleagues feel, she’s “still on board for vampires, werewolves and angels.”

(Next Monday -- more from DFW, including tips from agent Donald Maass’s pre-conference workshop based on his latest book, Writing 21st Century Fiction.)

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