Feedback from a Literary Agent: A Tale of Two Stories

Glinda the Good Witch

Glinda the Good Witch

This was one of those weeks where I got to make someone’s dream come true and put a “perma-grin” on their face for a few days. But I’m afraid I also dashed some hopes. Perhaps that’s the case every week, as I go through queries, and for some I request a deeper peek and for others I just decline. But the fact that as an agent I have that “power” is never so in my face as when I hear pitches at a conference, or like last night, when I gave feedback on authors’ query letters at the WNBA-NYC Query Roulette.


Holy Picture Book, Batman!

Holy Picture Book, Batman!

First, the wish-granting story

I offered representation to a wonderful children’s book author earlier  this week! Not only does this guy clearly have talent, but we seem to share the same quirky sensibility and sense of humor, and he has done the things he needs to do to hone his craft. It’s not always about degrees and letters after your name, but let me tell you that going for that MFA has the potential to really kick your writing up a notch and have you stretch in ways perhaps you didn’t know you could. I may have to get me one of them myself. (See my post about writers educating themselves.) I can tell already my new client and I are going to be a dynamic duo. And I can’t wait to share his work with editors!

url-2Then there’s the hope dashing story

I hate that I am sometimes the person across the table that says something to an author about their manuscript that will make their lip quiver, their eyes brim with tears, and have them take a deep breath just to hold it together. And then that author may or may not have been heard crying in the bathroom. Oh my. That is not the power I want to have.

Unfortunately though, because I have a commitment to making dreams come true, I also am committed to telling the truth to authors. Especially authors who seek me out specifically to get feedback about their work. If I don’t think your work is strong, it’s my duty to tell you. If I think your query letter needs work (a lot of work), it’s my obligation to point out where. If I share what a tough market it is for what you write (memoir, picture books, a particular subject, etc…), I’m doing my job if I tell you the truth.

Your job as an author is to take it. Take the feedback, input, critical commentary, and use it. Use it to make your work better, or build a stronger platform, or perfect a pitch. Use it to put aside your current project and write your next manuscript. Or use it to help you decide that perhaps writing isn’t for you. Or to decide that writing is for you, but getting published really isn’t so important. But your job is to use it.

Of course though, telling the truth to authors doesn’t make my job easy.

How do you handle hearing the truth about your work?




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12 responses to “Feedback from a Literary Agent: A Tale of Two Stories

  1. Oh yes. The “I-loved-this-story….but.” The hopeful smile fades, the doubts surface, and the clouds dance on top of our sunshine. Then again, there is always the circuit rider approach: climb back up on the horse and say, “This isn’t the first rodeo I’ve done.” Ah, conferences and reveling in wound licking. Portland’s a great conference…I think I sat in on one of your sessions…sorry, you don’t do picture books

  2. Well, I can be honest about the fact that I was one of the people’s whose hopes you decided to dash this week. I was thrilled that you were interested in reading my manuscript, so it did sting to get that rejection. But, after a day of moping, I looked over the feedback you gave me, talked to some friends who had read my story and spent some time sorting through what I needed to do with it. Ultimately, I decided that you were right (I’m sure you are surprised by that!) and spent the next several days ignoring the world while I revised. When I finally finished I told my husband that while it hurt to be rejected, it was helpful because I really like what I added to my story and I do think it made the plot stronger. My critique partner is going through it now, so we shall see!
    Rejection hurts, but oddly enough it can be helpful. Thanks for your feedback!

  3. Samir

    Well said. Honesty is too valuable a commodity in this business and it’s what makes all the difference of quality in the long run. It’s wonderful to have people like you out there filtering the process.

  4. Mia

    Really good point you made here, and I have to say that I always, ALWAYS appreciate honest feedback (especially if there’s a reason with it, because then I can reassess my work and try to improve my craft).

    I have been extremely fortunate in agent responses to two of my manuscripts (very new to querying, but a 30% request/etc.). One of the reasons why I felt so fortunate was that nearly every agent I queried, regardless of whether they requested a full or a straight out R, gave me personalized feedback about what they liked, what they didn’t like. There was even one case where a very nice agent who requested both manuscripts suggested that I convert one from literary fiction to young adult because he feared that it wouldn’t sell as literary fiction yet would have a very viable market as young adult. Those sorts of replies are absolutely invaluable.

    So, thank you for being someone who is willing to help writers. Honest feedback sometimes is hard to hear, but it’s better than being delusional about one’s work, or just wondering, “What’s wrong with it?” if it’s a case of a tough market. Maybe some day I’ll get the balls to query you. 🙂

  5. What’s rejection? Just kidding. What Michael G-G said.

  6. Sometimes you can’t help crying in a bathroom. That just cleans us out though, so we have room for all the great (though sometimes hard) advice. If you remember that all this advice will only make you better it’s easier to be objective.

  7. I remember when I first starting writing seriously (many years ago now.) I was at a local gathering of writers, reading our work, and one of them asked me “has any one ever told you you are any good?” The implication in her voice was that I wasn’t.

    Now, the fact is that many people had been encouraging to me. I knew I had rudimentary talent, an adequate number of voices in my head, and I knew how to use a comma. What I realized (going back to your previous post) is that one can always improve–that writing is a craft that can, with diligence and persistence, be learned. Now, I can say with pride that I am the king of craft books, an avid conference goer, and the member of two critique groups. Writing is my study, my vocation, and the source of my joy–and that does not depend on whether I am published.

    This is a long-winded way of saying that the “truth” about a writer’s work is not that one should, on the advice of any one person, give up. It is important to know that writing for publication is an arduous task, but writing and writing for publication are two distinct beasts. What we should all be telling our fellow writers is “Struggle, strive, sweat blood, learn, go into the dark places, refuse to take the easy way out, believe.”

  8. mistytucker

    Smash my face into my desk for a few beats, cry enough to fill several wells (rivers are overrated), then soak in the bath for a couple of hours-slowly mulling over, and eventually accepting, the (in the end) useful critiques.

    Actually, I’ve moved beyond the tears and face smashing (I keep my baths…I’m not completely insane). My armor is dented and chafes but still proves useful. I now appreciate and crave any/all useful professional criticism.

  9. I too had my hopes of glowing praise smashed in an instant at a pitch slam. Not just once, but from every agent I approached. When I went back to my manuscript I realized how accurate the agents’ honest feedback was. It needed a total resuscitation. I appreciated the candor and constructive comments I got. Thank you.

  10. Ah yes, the god dang truth. Before starting my most recent round of revisions on my almost/maybe/one of these days it might be published book, I was told I have ‘the possibility of being the next Sarah Dessen’ and then two days later told my manuscript is ‘unpolished and unprofessional’. Same manuscript, two different agents takes. So, the truth is subjective (more so in writing than just about any other creative field, perhaps?). But when an agent, writing buddy, editor, or even my hyper-critical but well read husband gives me honest feedback that gets my writer brain thinking, ‘yeah. I see that. that would make it better. I could do that…’ then I’m actually pretty stoked. All a long way around saying, nice truth with possibilities feels better than dead end truths with nowhere to go.

  11. It’s always painful to hear criticism of your work. Especially when you feel you have poured your heart and soul into it. I always try to listen through the criticism to find the things that I can improve upon. The whole Idea is to become a better writer. Otherwise, why ask for the abuse in the first place.

    • Diane

      For me, the key is listening . . . really, really listening even when, or especially when, what I’m hearing isn’t what I want to hear. Does this make any sense? A writer can dismiss negative feedback or learn from it. I choose to learn!!