Jennifer Geist is an agent and panelist for the All Write Now! 2016 Writers' Conference who will give you excellent advice on how agents work.
Bill Hopkins - For our readers who've never seen a real, old-fashioned slush pile, tell us what it is.
Jennifer Geist - While slush piles are moving toward the digital realm these days, they are relatively still the same—unsolicited manuscripts/queries submitted to a publisher which need to be sorted through, reviewed, and replied to. Publishers can have anywhere between dozens and hundreds of manuscripts in this (physical or digital) slush pile, and sometimes being on the receiving end feels like trying to find a needle in a haystack. The needle, in this case, is a “perfect” query—a professional query letter, a submission which follows all of the submission guidelines, and a one-of-a-kind manuscript that matches the press’s or publication’s mission.
This is all to say—you shouldn’t necessarily be discouraged by one or even many rejections (unless you’re getting specific feedback about what’s not working with your manuscript). Most editors receive many more submissions than they could ever accept, even if they were all perfect. I would say a third to half of what we reject isn’t badly written or in need of significant editing. We receive a lot of manuscripts that I would consider “good,” but they don’t match any of our imprints. In other words, do your homework. Check out the press’s backlist or pick up a copy of the literary journal you’re querying. A little bit of research upfront, following the guidelines, and only querying imprints/journals where your work fits in should do wonders for your success rate.
BH - Finish this sentence: "I loved this manuscript from page one and I loved it until...."
JG - . . . it became a little too risqué for our press. There’s only one manuscript that comes to mind for this one; most of the time, I might be vaguely interested in a manuscript until problems crop up (POV issues, story arc issues, plot goes nowhere, etc.). This particular manuscript was very well written, witty, and seemed to fit with our press’s mission . . . until the POV switched to a very different character with different, ahem, motivations, and the rest of the manuscript continued in that manner. It was a bait and switch—literary fiction turned into erotic literary fiction.
BH - What is your definition of literary fiction?
JG - Literary fiction tends to be one of those “I know it when I read it” genres. In more specific terms, literary fiction tends to focus on characters over plot, internal struggles over external struggles, prose over action. There are certainly novels that have an intriguing plot that can be considered literary or at least crossover (Cormac McCarthy is a great example), so to a certain degree whether something is literary fiction is somewhat up to opinions and marketing decisions. Personally, we’re only going to publish something under Brick Mantel Books if we feel a strong connection to the characters and overall story. Literary fiction, to us, is about empathy, about allowing readers to gain a stronger sense of humanity and the world through our books.
BH - [Bill--The following is one of my favorites.] My novel is ready and my mom and Aunt Susan who went to university for two semesters, think it's great. I don't need an editor, do I?
JG - Ha! One of my favorites, too, Bill. I think gone are the days of the reclusive author. For small presses, especially, the author needs to be prepared to help with marketing, and ideally, they’ll already have a platform to stand on—an email list, an online presence, connections to their local communities, etc. But even if you land a contract with a Big 5 Publisher, you’ll be expected to put in your fair share of work, too, since your publicist will likely only devote a couple months to your book before moving on to the next author. In short, don’t wait until you’re querying agents and publishers to start building your platform. Create a website (which is so very easy in this day and age), pick at least one social media site or a blog and post regularly, join a writers’ or independent publishers’ group to get tips on marketing your work and join a community who will help you, attend readings and conferences, whatever you can do. All of this requires time (an investment in itself), but no to very little money. Aside from your manuscript, having an established platform and marketing plan can make you really stick out from the slush pile. Make it easy for a publisher to accept your work.
BH- I've loaded the beginning of my novel with tons of interesting backstory about how the early Spanish explorers in America fought off mosquitoes. That's bound to be a big seller, right?
JG - Yikes! There are some books that it might work in, (none come immediately to mind, which might tell you something), but for the most part, readers need to be immediately interested in your story and invested in your characters. There’s a reason publishers generally ask for the first x number of pages with your query. (Hint: It’s not just because of inbox space.) If they don’t want to read more, readers likely won’t, either. What do you do when you're browsing for books in a bookstore or library? You read the back or the jacket flap and might read the first page or two. What happens if it sounds boring? If the writing style doesn't suit you? You put it back and move on.
This isn’t to say you need to plop the reader in the middle of the action with no clue as to what’s going on, but there’s a wide gulf between thirty pages of exposition at the beginning and not letting the reader in on anything. Exposition, generally, should be spaced out a bit. Whether it’s action or emotional investment in your character(s), you need a hook.
BH - What's the BEST way to get my query to you deleted from your email?
JG - There are a few: not following our submission guidelines, continually submitting the same work to us (we keep records!), having an unprofessional or rude query letter. We once received a query letter written as a poem, which told us that the poet wasn’t interested in helping with marketing, and that editors are what’s wrong with the publishing industry. Most of the time, we’re very nice and respond to queries even if the work isn’t quite the right fit for our press, but if we’re not interested in your novel in March, we will still not be interested in it when you resubmit the exact same manuscript in April.
BH - What's the best hook you've ever heard?
JG - This is a hard one! It’s hard to pick a favorite. I’ll say I was immediately drawn into Cynthia A. Graham’s Beulah’s House of Prayer, which we’re publishing this July. Here are the first few lines, which instantly transport the reader to the setting. There’s not much about the narrator (or her mother, whom the story focuses on) in the first paragraph, but I think you’ll be immediately empathetic.
“I was born in 1936 on a ragged, wasted little strip of land known as the Oklahoma panhandle. Barmy, Oklahoma, dawdled on the eastern edge of Beaver County, amongst places called Ralph, Hooker, and No Man’s Land. They were desperate times and although everyone had been told the only thing they had to fear was fear itself, they knew it wasn’t true. There was drought and hunger, insects and sickness, but the most fearsome thing was the dust that would fill the sky and rain down like snow on everything.”