Does a new writer need an agent to get a publisher? Generally speaking, yes.
Once upon a time, publishers accepted manuscripts sent in “over the transom,” and best efforts—usually, and maybe not all that best—were made to give these submissions attention. Interns and other junior members of the house read through the “slush pile,” evaluated a script for its commercial or esthetic appeal and responded to the writer. The response was usually a form rejection, though very occasionally a gem considered suitable for publication was plucked from the pile.
Publishers now, almost universally, insist on considering only represented submissions. So an author must acquire an agent, who then must acquire a publisher. For a new writer, this is good news and bad news.
The bad news, or more accurately the deeply discouraging and depressing news, is that it’s hard to get an agent. Very hard. The experience of one novelist I’ve worked with recently is typical. She did her homework, drawing up a list of reputable and respected candidates from Literary Market Place and from the recommendations of her writing friends. She eliminated those agents who indicated on their web sites that they were not accepting new submissions or they clearly weren’t interested in the kind of book she was writing.
I often think of Herman Melville’s editor presenting this doorstopper novel about whaling to his colleagues: “But it’s also an allegory and an adventure and with deep characterization. Totally unique.” MOBY DICK was grudgingly accepted.
At the final level in a closed door meeting in a publishing house, a project may be accepted—many are not—and a few might be held for more information or stronger reading reports.
Stephen King’s first showing was a script called GETTING IT ON, the story of a maverick student who held his class at gunpoint. More character study than plot, the action was mostly interior, with the nerd proving himself or the football captain wimping out. I’d asked Mr. King to do a rewrite on it, prior to circulating the script for those crucial early critiques. He delivered beautifully, but the book was deemed too quiet, too insular, too unrealistic (!), and I had to tell this author his work was declined.
Your novel has a slam/bang conclusion. And you, author, are in a hurry to get there. You’re itching to lay on the reader the big payoff in the final pages, even if it means throwing logic out the window or dragging in extraordinary coincidences to move the story along. Or, maybe you’re not quite sure how to wrap things up.
Your hero and heroine are trapped in a burning building, you don’t know how to get them out, and so….turns out it was all a dream. Or, the hero finds a diary, never previously suspected, that just magically opens to a page on which all is explained. The end.
One of the most frustrating challenges a new writer faces is the passage creating a conversation between at least two people. How can you resolve the he said/ she said interchange in order to identify who is saying what and how they are saying it?
Here’s what I often see in a stretch of written dialogue:
Amateurish. In a misguided effort to avoid “repeating oneself,” the writer comes up with a variety of these identifying verbs, some of which don’t even accurately relate to the dialogue.
In fact, if you have carefully established your characters, running dialogue should not need the he said/she said clarification. For years, Elmore Leonard, with whom I worked on GLITZ, before becoming best-selling author Elmore Leonard wrote original paperback westerns that filled a small but decidedly limited space on
Dialogue is people talking. It’s critical to write this copy in a way that sounds as if real people are doing it. In one of John Grisham’s novels the death row redneck was speaking with a young boy, and their voices were interchangeable. I never “heard” either one. This needed to be fixed. I don’t mean dialect (that’s another trap). I mean dialogue that’s true to the person.
Let’s say your character is an 18-year-old female high school dropout, street smart, tough as nails, cagey and suspicious in any human intercourse. There comes a point in the script when you want to get across certain information, back story perhaps, to advance the plot. Suddenly the tough kid is talking in long, articulate, emotionally revealing sentences. Where did that come from? It’s jarring to the attentive reader. The character loses a bit of credibility.
Michael Connelly, the hugely successful author of almost two dozen novels centered around detective Harry Bosch, sets his books in Los Angeles. That’s where Bosch lives, loves, broods and works his dangerous job. We come to know Los Angeles as intimately as we know Harry—the neighborhoods, the winding road into the hills, the ocean views, the crowds at Dodger Stadium, the look of the klieg lights sweeping the night sky over Hollywood.
Discussing Connelly recently, a novice writer said to me he was annoyed by all the car action. “You’re always reading, ‘Bosch drove east on Santa Monica and west on Ventura and caught the freeway heading north at,’ etc. etc. I don’t live in LA,” the writer said, “this doesn’t do anything for me.” It does do something for the book, however. The accumulation of specifics adds verisimilitude to the story. Bosch is not doing his thing in a generic city, anywhere U.S.A., but in LA. That helps us take him seriously.
There was a time, not that long ago, when certain Anglo Saxon words simply did not appear in print. They didn’t appear in conversation either, unless the speaker didn’t know better—a kind of social misfit.
Norman Mailer’s classic WWII novel, THE NAKED AND THE DEAD, posed a serious problem to his publishers. Mailer’s characters were combat soldiers, a mixed bag of men with nothing in common but fit bodies and compulsory military service. Mailer captured their voices brilliantly; we heard them brag, complain, grunt. They talked the language of men among men. But how was a publisher to present this talk to a reading public used to more polite exchanges?
(Mailer, whose book would be acclaimed as the definitive WWII novel, was accused by his envious peers as the author who couldn’t spell “fuck.”)