Knowing When to Start a New Project: The Agent’s Perspective by Jennie Goloboy

As you have probably already guessed, this month at 5writers.com, we focused on the theme “Knowing When To Start A New Project.” We all had our ideas on this topic, but one thing we couldn’t answer is this: What advice does an agent have on this topic? To answer the question, we turned to “the other Jennie that spells her name correctly”:

In Fall 2011, Jennie Goloboy joined Red Sofa Literary as an Associate Agent. Jennie Goloboy has a PhD in the History of American Civilization from Harvard. She is also a published author of both history and fiction, and a member of SFWA, RWA, SHEAR, OAH, the AHA, and Codex Writers Group. Her funny, spec-fic short stories appear under her pen name, Nora Fleischer. Jennie was promoted to Literary Agent in December 2013

Agent and part time statue

Agent and part time statue

Knowing When to Start a New Project: The Agent’s Perspective

by Jennie Goloboy

I feel like I’m an expert in this because I am currently nearing completion on a book I’ve been writing for over a decade. (Some writers are slow writers.)  And yet I’ve also seen many writers polishing projects again and again when I can tell that they’ll never sell.  So when do you know when it’s time to walk away?

1.  You send out query letters, but you can’t get anyone interested in looking at your project.  You’re getting lots of form rejections.

Either your query letter is dreadful (Is it addressed to Dear Agent Who Probably Won’t Read This Anyway, Why Am I Wasting My Time?), you’re sending it to the wrong people, or you are trying to sell a project that is out of fashion.  Looking at what’s for sale in your local bookstore is misleading– remember that in general it takes a year between signing a contract and publication, so what’s new on the shelves is not what editors are buying right now!  (TV and movies are usually even farther behind.)

Things that are tough to sell include dystopias, paranormal YA romance involving vampires and werewolves, books with vampires in general, and books about unusual British boarding schools.

I feel that if you’re caught in this trap, it’s probably time to shelve the project.  And yes, this is painful– but it’s a better outcome than having it published by a press that you can’t trust, and who may take your book and never pay you what you’ve earned. (This happened to me personally before I became an agent, and it’s no fun.)

2.  You can’t get anyone to read your full project after they read a sample.

Typically this is an issue with your writing, and either a professional editor or a peer-run writers’ workshop can help you.  Issues I often see include

  • The voice isn’t appealing– the hero is whiny or otherwise unlikeable.  I’m not sure I want to spend a whole book with him.
  • The voice doesn’t sound accurate.  The ten-year-old boy sounds like a hectoring parent.
  • The story starts in the wrong place, which suggests that the entire book needs a good structural revision.  Are you overloading us with worldbuilding before we get to the plot?
  • I’m not sure I care about what’s at stake in the story.  Why should I care about whether Cinderella gets to the ball?  It’s just a party!

You should never be in the position of saying, “My book gets a lot better after page 100.”  Your book should be as wonderful and engaging as possible starting from page one.

3.  People who read your manuscript keep giving you detailed revision notes.

Paradoxically, these are a good sign!  You have engaged an agent or editor and made him care about your work.  He doesn’t think your writing is good enough yet, but he likes the concept.  This is either a “revise and resubmit” or a chance to submit your next book to the same person (with a “remember me?” type note).

***

And one final note– if it’s really taken you ten years to write your masterpiece, you don’t need to mention it in your query letter…

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