Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Wordcraft – Here be dragons: er, agents with gongs

Another DFW Writers Conference has come and gone, and with it, another Gong Show, a retro nod to the long-gone TV talent show whose performers had to quit the stage when judges signaled their fed-upness by striking gongs. In the writers’ conference version, contestants submit anonymous sample query letters. A panel of literary agents hits gongs to signal when they would stop reading the query if it turned up in their email inboxes. Three gongs, and a contestant is out, left to learn from the experience with the rest of us before sending actual queries. It’s one of the best attended events of the conference.

Except for perhaps two or three science fiction presses, most publishers refuse even to consider accepting a book length manuscript from a writer who is not represented by a literary agent, transforming agents willy-nilly into the dragons guarding the gates to traditional publication.

And so, let me introduce this year’s Gong Show dragons by species, name and agency: the Long-Maned Allison Devereux of Wolf Literary Services, Crimson-Crested Dawn Frederick of Red Sofa Literary, Tawny-Leonine Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary Agency, Palomino-Maned Alice Speilburg of Speilburg Literary Agency, the Yellow-Crested Uwe Stender of Triada US Literary Agency, and the Far-Northern Carly Watters of the P.S. Literary Agency.

Do agents have some sort of pre-conference get together each year to decide what their pet peeves will be? Because the one that occurred over and over this year was “too long,” and its variants: “sounds interesting, but it goes on and on and on”; “you have to know when to pull the joke”; “we were just revisiting the same hook”; and perhaps most horribly, but said more than once, “I lost my train of thought.”

Agency websites usually list guidelines for query letters, and there are also plenty of websites with more general suggestions, such as limiting the query itself to a single page, including a “hook” or “logline”; title, genre and word count; and a 2-3 sentence long synopsis. A brief mention of the writer’s credentials and his/her reason for sending a letter to this particular agent (“enjoyed meeting you at the DFW Writers Conference” or “I’m a fan of such and such a client of yours”) are also typically included.

But writers of the 22 queries chosen for reading obviously saw the Gong Show as their only chance to get their novels on stage. Agents repeatedly had to say, “keep it simple,” in response to queries that over-anxious writers had turned into almost blow-by-blow synopses of their novels.

That said, the use of clichés were among the issues that have appeared in previous Gong Shows. This year a poison pill was “magic necklace” whose mention in a query immediately elicited a gong; when the writer added that the protagonist received it from her grandmother in a dream, the gongs went wild. And agents still felt that vampires and other supernatural/paranormal beings were clogging the publishing pipeline.

A problem I don’t recall hearing before regarded inappropriateness for genre or age of readership. One manuscript described by the author as having a 12-year-old protagonist used several explicitly sexual terms and was gonged out, as was a query that “sounds like women’s fiction but turns out to be an urban fantasy.”

Another was a manuscript of the wrong length. Confronted with 134,000 words, the unanimous decision was, too long. Agents wanted to see something closer to 100,000 words (although one agent was willing to consider 120,000.) There was also a 55,000 word manuscript deemed too short for an adult novel.

And finally, what you’re dying to know: did any queries survive the gongs? Yes, actually, there were two. One was for a mythic card game (although it received one gone from an agent who thought, again, “too long”. The second was for a YA science fiction novel, which, less illustriously, simply “had nothing glaring about it.” (Or maybe the agents were just tired by then.)


I’ll post more next Tuesday about the 2015 conference, but in the meantime, consider the 2016 version in Fort Worth, April 23-24. Tickets are available at the super early bird rate of $190 through August 18 (or until sold out), at www.dfwcon2016.eventbrite.com.

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