Living a week in an agent’s shoes

I recently had the opportunity to judge a writing contest.  I, and two other brave souls, volunteered to read all the anonymous entries, and choose one winner who would win “the pot” collected from the entry fees.

I am going to admit that this was a grueling experience at times.  I swore, somewhere around the seventh entry, that I would never do this again.  My relief when I’d finally read the last entry, and made my choice for winner, was overwhelming.

Then I got to thinking.  What I went through is probably not unlike what an agent or a submissions editor goes through every day.  They get a mailbox full of submissions, and they have to review them all and choose only one, or none.

Now, consider this.  The people who entered this contest paid an entry fee.  This is one of the reasons I volunteered.  I mean, seriously… if you are going to fork up ten bucks to get into a contest, you gotta know your writing is good enough to have a chance, right? I imagined my mailbox filled with fantastic, wonderfully imagined and carefully crafted stories.

Did I get that? Ummm… Not always.

Now, this is not to say that there were not some great entries. There were. But at times, I held my hand to my head and thought, “What was this person thinking”?

The good thing that came out of this is the realization that what you hear is true. There is a lot of poorly written or poorly executed work out there in the query-sphere.

If you can honestly look at your work and say:

1.       It has been edited multiple times

2.       It has been critiqued multiple times

3.       It has been beta read by multiple readers

4.       I have listened to critiques/beta comments and made changes without thinking “they just don’t understand me” and ignoring them.

5.       I have a story arc with a beginning, middle and end.

6.       There is a journey/change in the main character that makes the story worth reading.

7.       There is conflict.

I could keep going, but I’ll stop there.  If you can say “yes” to all of the above, then you at least have a chance of getting read by an agent or editor. If you work stands out as well written and conceptualized, you will be in the 25% or so that will actually be considered.  This is the place where good writing is a given. This is where you are in competition for the best story.

This is where you want to be. If you answered “no” to any of the list above, and you are querying and getting rejections, there is a possibility you are just wasting their time. (And yours)

What I realized judging this contest is that there must be hundreds of thousands of people out there that are wasting their time by submitting before they are ready.

Do your research. Make sure you have learned your craft.

Don’t be afraid to ditch a story you have worked on if it is not marketable.  Move on to something else. Every time you sit down to write you are better than the last time. Be patient until you can honestly say “This is my best work.”


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11 responses to “Living a week in an agent’s shoes

  1. I’ve had the opportunity of judging short stories for a couple of contests and found much the same sort of things as you’ve just mentioned. Writers must understand about marketability and listen to criticism and FOLLOW GUIDELINES! I know from experience how difficult it is to have your first novel ripped apart, but taking to heart the critiques of people I respected made each of my consecutive stories better until I was able to find a publisher – for my 4th completed novel – but only after hundreds of revisions and copious feedback from my critique partners. I’m still not sure my previous stories are salvageable, but I didn’t give up when it came to the piece of which I was most proud.

  2. I’ve judged small contests, too. Contestants complained that I marked them down for not following the guidelines. I was not invited to judge again.

    No skin off my nose!

  3. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  4. Goods reminders. It’s always tempting to push send in the first rush of finishing a draft.

  5. Sobering, isn’t it? I know that I have been guilty of sending out stories that weren’t ready. Funny thing is, at the time I thought they were (or hoped that someone else would think they were). My writing has improved dramatically over the past fifteen years, and I cringe when I look at some of my early efforts. Glad that work never made it to print! Thanks for such a thoughtful post!

    • Yes, it’s hard, but that’s why everyone needs to understand that beta readers are your life blood. They can see things that an author is unable to see, even if the author has worked the poop out of their story.

  6. It must have been interesting to see it from the other side. I can relate this to an occasional thing I have to do in my day job when we receive job applications and we have to sort through to decide who to interview. It makes you learn such a lot about how to apply for a job, just by seeing the odd things people do in their applications, like for instance over-emphasising skills they have which are of no relevance to the job they are applying for – it seems obvious, but we could all have a tendency to show of what we perceive as our strengths without thinking about the relevance. Similar to writing contests, it’s all about being sure you understand what the people who are making the decisions are looking for.