Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Novel Update: Adventures in Agenting!

In my last novel update, where I gave an overview of the genre (neo-Victorian historical fiction) and plot, I also briefly discussed my plans for selling Rage and Regret.

The past month or so, I have been signing up for all sorts of "how to sell your novel to agents" events.  Two involved listening to an agent's webinar and getting feedback on the query letter and opening pages.  One involved attending a local pitch fest and getting to talk to some agents and editors in person.

All were informative and gave me a much better sense of what agents want, and the market, below.

Pitch Fest

Not wanting to spend $500 or more on a writers' conference, I was pleased to learn that for a much more reasonable price, I could attend a smaller pitch fest sponsored by a local women writers group.  Be in a room with real-live agenty people who could give me more specific feedback than "It just didn't grab me"?  Where do I sign up?!

So I got up on a rainy Saturday and went to the four-hour event.  The first hour, the mixed group of women and men divided into a few different groups to work on our pitches.  Not only was it interesting to hear other people's story ideas (damn, the human mind is limitless), but also a relief -- no one else was doing my idea!  In fact, I spoke to only one other writer doing Victorian England, and his was a YA set 20 years earlier.

My pitch?

Rage and Regret is a neo-Victorian, upmarket historical novel.  High-concept-wise, it is Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South meets The Godfather.  [Or alternately, "The Godfather in crinoline."]  It involves a clash between growing industry and the traditional English countryside.

I then go into the basic details about "wealthy young Isabella Warpole" and her desire for revenge on the factory supporters she blames for her mother's death.  Basically a very stripped-down version of the plot.  I talk a little about her journey from anger to character growth.  If I have time, I also mention:

It is the first of a proposed six- or seven-book series, where ironically, we see Isabella begin at one extreme -- hating, blaming factories -- and end at another extreme -- one of the most powerful industrialists in Victorian Britain.  While the book stands on its own, part of the future pleasure would be watching Isabella's journey from one place to the other.

The most disappointing aspect of the pitch fest was that I did not have enough time to sit face-to-face with every agent I wanted to meet.  I got to speak with only three who represented my genre.  One asked me to send her the first 10 pages.  The other two appeared to like the genre and basic storyline, but thought that my novel needed to be shorter.  Because it turns out that the average historical novel is, in fact, even shorter than I thought: 100,000 words max.

Here is what I felt when I heard the news:

While it's true that only two agents told me this word count (actually one preferred 90,000), I'm sure this is the preference on the whole.  I thought it would be tough to cut my book down to 120,000, the high end of "acceptable," but I don't think my novel would survive shedding 40-50,000 words.

That said, there was a certain comfort in hearing such a cold, bloodless reason for rejecting my novel.  I could see that

  • It wasn't because "that genre doesn't sell."  If anything, more than one person's eyes lit up when I mentioned I had written a neo-Victorian novel.    
  • It wasn't because "the story doesn't grab me" or "I don't see how I can care about the protagonist."
  • It wasn't because it was "too quiet."
  • It wasn't because I hadn't done a good job selling the novel.

It was length, pure and simple.  Lengthy manuscripts are tougher to sell to editors of publishing companies than manuscripts in the "acceptable" range, and are more expensive to produce.  Doesn't matter if your story is great.  Simple economics.

It's easier for me to accept that publishing companies don't want to spend more to produce books than that agents and editors suffer from unreasonable prejudice toward people who write long, automatically assuming long word counts equal lack of editing or discipline.  I hope they don't think that way.

Some other things I learned:

  • There are some pre-conceived ideas of Victorian/neo-Victorian novels that really need to be present for people to be interested.  One of them is romance.  Like Jane Austen novels, Victorian country house novels are associated with inheritance and romance.  Luckily my novel has a pretty significant romance between Isabella and her cousin, Arthur. 
  • Scenes that start with someone's funeral are not great novel openers.  So said one agent/editor I spoke with briefly, the only one to glance at my opening page.  It's possible that he was just trying to sell his own approach, but maybe not.  I'll have to see what the agents to whom I sent my query/feedback think. 

Agent Boot Camp

My other recent agent experience involved a Writers Digest boot camp with agents from a notable literary agency.  We were each assigned to an agent, with whom we had a two-day Q&A session on a message board.  Then we sent our selected agent our query letter and first five pages for them to critique.  My agent had until April 7, but she sent me her feedback ahead of schedule.  

She said both the query letter and the first five were well written overall, and suggested that I be more specific with some details for my query letter.  She had a couple of suggestions for my first five, both of which were fairly minor.  (Anyone who wants to see an earlier version of my first five pages can go here.)  Other things I learned:

  • Unlike the agent at the pitch fest who read my first page, this agent really liked that I started with a funeral.  Different strokes for different folks.
  • She also said in the Q&A that she likes first five pages that show "voice," set the scene, and added a mystery that compelled the reader onward.  Since she liked my first five pages, I guess they did those things, even if the main character was not in the first chapter.
  • She really liked the revenge aspect.
  • Finally, she commented that my manuscript should be shorter.    


I still have feedback from another agent pending, but that might not be for another month, so I'll leave it there for now.  My agent experiences have netted both positives and negatives.  On the positive side, my story and genre seem to generate natural interest.  My query letter and first five pages (at least) are generally well written.

On the minus side, there's the length issue, which is even worse than I thought.  I just joined a well-respected writers club, so I will try to get someone with experience to look at the manuscript and see whether it could be realistically tightened without chopping everything to pieces.  If so, I would make those alterations.  Otherwise, it may be off to Plan B or C: either sell my novel series to a small press, or write another (shorter) book altogether.

Special thanks to the good person at fanpop!, where I found the Paperman .gif.