MaxBarry.com
that guy, who wrote that thing

Max Barry wrote the novels Syrup, Jennifer Government, Company, Machine Man, and Lexicon. He also created the game NationStates and once found a sock full of pennies.

Blog

Tue 25
May
2010

Mind of the Agent

Writing I remember when I was desperate to find a girl but had no idea what they wanted. I knew what I wanted. I wanted them to take delivery of my package. But how to convince them? What did they want from me? Where could I find one with a good reputation, who didn’t charge fees?

Wait, did I say girl? I meant literary agent. I couldn’t find a literary agent.

Now there are tons of sites about literary agents. Some are by agents. My favorite is Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown, but there are plenty to choose from. There’s no longer any excuse for not knowing at least a little about how an agent’s mind works: what they’re looking for, how to approach them.

Still, the other day I received an email from a writer facing a quandary:

A Literary Agent has given me a favourable reply (ie: wants to see my entire manuscript from a lousy query letter), so I immediately panicked and sent it to a “professional editing” service (one listed on Australian Literary Agents Website) for a final Mr Sheening. Do Literary Agents have a time limit before they get miffed if you don’t send manuscript by return email? The Editing Service assures me that I have two months (?) to submit, as they have not started it yet, but “it is on the top of their pile”.

Help… please?

Yours in awe

Elle

Usually I can’t respond to emails, but I make an exception for those that sign off, “Yours in awe.” So I replied, and then I thought I might as well post my response here, because it was just that good. Or possibly not, but what the hell, it’s not like I’m forcing you to keep reading.

Hi Elle!

This is why you don’t query agents until your book is ready, of course. But I know it happens. I queried a few agents with my first novel then freaked out because what if they wanted to see it? I think I did lightning rewrites every time someone responded.

I see two issues. The first is: Are you damaging your chances if you don’t respond to an agent immediately? If we were talking about American agents, I’d say, “Maybe.” Most reputable American agents receive more queries than they can remember, and might not notice whether it’s been two weeks or two months since they asked to see yours. But they might.

For an Australian agent I’d say, “Probably.” They deal with far fewer writers and are more likely to wonder what’s going on.

But either way, I’d send them that manuscript. Agents want reliable clients, and if the first thing you do is delay, they’ll worry you are one of those writers who are forever six months away from finishing their next book. For this reason you should not reply with some pathetic story about how you thought your book was ready but now you think about it can you please have a few more months. Don’t do that.

You are worried that your book could be better; well, it probably could. They all could. Do you think yours has little flaws or big ones? If they’re minor, they’re unlikely to dissuade an editor who otherwise loves your work, and if they’re major, you’re dead no matter what: dead if you send in that piece of crap, dead if you wait for two months only to discover from this editing service that you need to spend six more on rewrites.

Speaking of which. There are very fine freelance editors out there but I don’t like the concept. In particular I think it’s bad for amateur writers with no idea what’s good and bad about their book to consult a freelance editor in the hope that this expert can explain it. It’s bad because (a) to rewrite well you need to completely believe in what you’re doing. Receiving advice you don’t really understand or agree with but feel compelled to follow anyway because it’s coming from an expert will crush everything unique and valuable about your book.

And (b) some freelance editors are delusional psychopaths.

By my reckoning, about one in four pieces of literary feedback are so wide of the mark they’re not just unhelpful but destructive. They want your book to be more like a completely different type of book, or prostrate itself before the altar of Strunk & White, or not imply things about hot-button issues you never even thought of, or go into depth about things nobody cares about, or not do this mildly felonious thing that someone tore strips off them for at their last story workshop, or stop reminding them of their ex-wife.

I’m talking about feedback from other writers and readers, rather than editors; you would hope freelance editors are less delusional than writers. But I don’t know. Why take the risk? This is why I advocate quantity: get your ms. read by at least eight or ten people before you show it to anyone in the industry. Enough to identify the outliers.

More on this here.

Obviously I haven’t read your manuscript (that wasn’t an invitation). I don’t know which editing service you’ve selected, or how experienced you are, or whether you’ve workshopped it already. But based on what I know: send it. You’re more likely to hurt yourself by not sending it than you are to help yourself by delaying for months in order to maybe improve it but maybe not.

Good luck!

Max.

Wed 05
May
2010

If you blink really fast it kind of moves

Jennifer Government Who do I have to hug to get a Jennifer Government movie made, that’s what I want to know. It’s been like seven years. Yeah, yeah, it’s hard to make a story work in 100 minutes when you’ve got six major characters and nine interconnected plots. Boo hoo. You know what that sounds like? “I’m a crappy screenwriter.”

In the meantime, here’s something almost as good: a wallpaper! I stumbled across this a year ago but it took that long to track down the original artist: it started as a sketch by Patrick Shettlesworth that had nothing to do with Jennifer Government until lordkelvos of deviantART reworked it and added a barcode tattoo, which I stuck in front of a background designed by Michael J. Windsor. That’s three different people who can now sue me for copyright infringement. But at least two of them said it was okay so here you go:

Jennifer Government wallpaper

It may help you enjoy this image if you imagine you’re a teenage boy. I don’t need to do that. But you might. Here it is in different sizes: 1920x1200 (widescreen), 1280x800 (widescreen), 1440x900 (widescreen), 1600x1200, 1024x768.

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