Thursdays with Amanda: 10 Things I’m Tired of Seeing
Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
(I’m taking a break from all-things-marketing for the rest of 2013…so if you’re here for posts on platforms and promotions, stay tuned…they’ll come with the new year).
I did something like this on my Facebook page awhile back, so I figured I’d try it here!
10 Things I’m Tired of Seeing
1. Opening scenes that involve the main character (and his village, family, etc.) under sudden attack from the bad guys (within fantasy fiction). I’d say 70% of the fantasy novels I look at start this exact way. The second most common opening scene in fantasy involves a similar attack, except the focus is on a person or group who is trying to rescue a baby.
2. Books that promise “5 Secrets” or “10 Reasons” but aren’t clear what those 5 or 10 things are within the text (within nonfiction).
3. Salvation stories (within religious fiction). When it comes to a spiritual arc, this is ALL I SEE. It’s as if interesting plots only happen to characters who aren’t yet totally on board with Christianity. Authors need to push themselves to go deeper with their spiritual threads. There is an entire life AFTER one’s conversion. Show me that.
4. Love that is really just lust (within romance fiction). I see it all the time and I’m sick of it. It’s like one moment the characters are casually talking, the next they’re fantasizing about one another’s bodies while claiming to be entirely smitten. Come on. You want me to believe that they’re meant to be? Have them fall in love for reasons other than how attractive they find each other. It makes a better story…and it’s harder to write.
5. Illness stories (within memoir). These stories have value…they just don’t have readers. I mean who wants to read about someone’s cancer journey? Typically, those in the midst of a cancer situation want to escape. Those who have come out of it want to forget. And those who haven’t been impacted by it are living blissfully unaware.
6. Bully stories (in children’s fiction). Yes, bullying is a serious topic. But a story that revolves 100% around a bully plotline just isn’t going to cut it. Kids are smart, and they know when they’re being “educated.” Find a different way to work a bully angle in your story without making it front and center. It’ll have a much stronger impact.
7. Authors who don’t know what’s available their own genre. A prime example of this is within the religious young adult genre. Every conference I run into someone who is complaining about how there isn’t any good fiction for Christian teens…it’s all bonnets and prairies and perfect characters who have scripture memorized. This person then goes on to explain to me why their book will connect with teens because it’s about real life and real struggles! By this point, I’ve already tuned them out because they clearly don’t know what’s available in their own genre. Meaning they probably don’t know what “real life” for teens these days entails either.
8. Thrillers and suspense stories that just aren’t thrilling or suspenseful. If we know the bad guy’s every move, chances are the book isn’t going to be a page-turner. Similarly, if the characters are more focused on their budding romance or their personal lives than they are the danger that is lurking around them, the book isn’t going to deliver. This has to do with knowing the rules of your genre.
9. Books that are a mashup of what’s already out there. You get this a lot with the genetically engineered teens (X-men) who must train at a distant, magical academy (Harry Potter) before being pitted against one another in a deadly game of hide and seek (Hunger Games). I want to see something original!!
10. Authors who hand me their self-published book and expect me to not only be impressed, but to be able to DO something with it. There’s nothing I can do with your self-pubbed book, folks. Not unless you sell 100,000 copies in a year.
I could go on…characters that are flat in Women’s Fiction and Literary Fiction novels, writing that sounds like everything else already on the market, nonfiction that is bone dry and lifeless…
But I’ll spare you.
When it comes to critiquing others’ manuscripts, what annoying things have YOU noticed time and again?
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You have provided a wonderful list of what NOT to write about, but I do have to respectfully question #5 where you say no one wants to read illness stories. While I agree there are many people who remain blissfully ignorant of the hardships of dealing with a life threatening illness, I think it depends on how the situation is presented and the spirit in which such a book would be written. I offer as an example THE LAST LECTURE by Randy Pausch. There is much to be learned through reading about his journey and the legacy he hoped to leave behind. I know his book focuses more on his observations of life instead of his impending death, but I wonder if he would have written such a book without the diagnosis and would millions of readers have gone in search of his book if they weren’t interested in his particular journey?
Donna L Martin
You know, the main reason readers were interested in Randy’s journey was because he gave a lecture that went viral. It was this talk that got tons of media coverage and was shared by thousands that led Randy to write a book. The people who bought his book were interested in his life because of the speech. So his journey to having a successful illness book is actually very unique.
When something like this happens…when something goes viral or when something is backed by a person with considerable sway or celebrity, then all bets are off. But if he would have written his book without all of that previous attention, he wouldn’t have seen near the sales that he did. Furthermore, I doubt a publisher would have picked it up.
So yes, his story is worth reading and very valuable. Many illness stories also have that value! But they just don’t get the traction without the platform component. At least this is what I’ve seen in my experience in publishing, so that’s why I listed it.
I agree with all your points…especially your comment about the platform component. That alone should be a prime example why everyone should buy your book, THE EXTROVERTED WRITER, like I did. Then new authors would be fully prepared to take advantage of all the opportunities which may come their way to increase sales for their books…;~)
Donna L Martin
Every time I stumble across a Christian romance where the main characters are NOT gorgeous twenty-somethings, I’m happy. Older, average-looking, even overweight people fall in love all the time. And the added maturity can add some new & interesting plot lines.
A while back, I met a writer who told me about her book &, for some reason, I pictured her main character to be about her age – around 60. I thought it sounded great! Then she told me the MC was 22. And it didn’t sound as interesting anymore. Sigh.
I realize most people find their significant other in their twenties so of course we shouldn’t stop those stories all-together. But more variety would be good too.
Some say that “baby boomer fiction” is trending…so maybe your wish will soon come true!
Since the main characters in my novel are in their 40s, I hope you’re right! 🙂
I would agree with you on all your points, but I wish you’d rant at the publishers too. They are as much a part of the problem and key to the solution as we writers. When I write about real life in teen fiction (which means dealing sex and all its ramifications, lying to parents and being secretive, and all the “real” things kids do) the publishers say, “this is too secular”. I have a great manuscript about a bullied kid that rescues a horse from slaughter, his sister has a crisis pregnancy and he lives in a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father. Dealing with the horse teaches the kid how to deal with bullies. First thing two prospective agents and one publisher said, “the pregnancy is problematic and the alcoholism might be a problem”. The story finaled in the Genesis, but the crisis pregnancy, alchololism and family dysfunction still brought up their red flags. So Chip, what’s a guy supposed do? We’re damned when we do, and damned when we don’t.
I’m the one who wrote this top 10 list, so if you don’t mind I’ll reply to your comment. I understand the frustration of having a project that is too edgy for the Christian market. But it IS labeled the “christian market” for a reason. While they do want to present real-life stories, they also have to be careful with what they put in those stories. Otherwise they won’t make money because the Christians won’t buy the books. It sounds like you may need to jump over to the general market if these are the themes you’re focusing on in your books (as opposed to spiritual themes). And you may also want to read the new Blink line by Zonderkidz. They’re putting out some really great stuff for teens, including RUNNING LEAN by Diana Sharples. It’s about anorexia and other tough issues.
It is so good to hear from you. Enjoyed your session at the Indianapolis conference. Right now, my story is sitting on the computer of Zonderkidtz awaiting a response. I’m also trying real hard to help Diana Sharples get her book into some of the curriculum used for teaching children’s and YA literature at the University I work at. I have read her book and enjoyed it.
You bring up an interesting point, about “edgy.” I’m going to interchange “church people” with “Christian,” even though my theology doesn’t necessarily equate the two as interchangeable.
After 19 some years as an ordained ministry, I have discovered that church people have crisis pregnancies, church people have children on drugs, church people are addicts and alcoholics, church people get divorces and commit adultery, church people even get abortions, church people swear, church people get hooked on pornography, church people practice astrology, church people steal – you get the idea. This is real life and very much a part of the “real” Christian walk. Why shouldn’t our fiction address all of these in a realistic way. The power of sin has been broken in our lives, freeing us to make better choices, but the struggles haven’t gone away. The struggles have gotten more intense. I see no reason why our fiction can’t reflect real struggles.
My biggest complaint is that no seems willing to articulate what they mean by “Christian” in any meaningful way, which makes me think that “Christian” publishing brings with it a “false balance” that says life resembles an episode of Ozzie and Harriet or Father Knows Best. Things haven’t been that way in a very long time.
Thank you for your kind response. Be blessed.
Eyebrow dances. When people try to show not tell, they use the eyebrows to convey what a character is feeling. I’ve seen a lot of eyebrow waggles. I understand the temptation, in my stories, eyebrows furrow quite a bit. I have to watch out for that.
I am so number 10. I believe a mutual friend of ours handed you a copy of my book at an ACFW conference last year. For far too long I tried to get an agent to be as excited about my book as I am. Now I know that is not possible. After reading your book “THE EXTROVERTED WRITER” I have a better understanding as to how the system works. It is my responsibility to market my book and I will continue to do so. Will it ever sell a 100K copies? Not likely. I do have other books in the works and with them I will attempt to find a hungry agent. Keep up the good work, Amanda.
LOL! Thanks for the candor, Donald. Yes, your self-pubbed book is your responsibility. But keep writing! Maybe the next book will grab an agent’s interest and attention.
“Thrillers and suspense stories that just aren’t thrilling or suspenseful.” <– This made me LOL.
I see these manuscripts all the time…you have no idea.
I’ve actually had an opposite pet-peeve in literature than you have. One that has always bugged me is the Christian character traveling to far-off places and just happening to find another person who shares his/her faith. You see, where I grew up openly Christian individuals are not easy to find. So when literature drops them in the character’s lap, I bristle. What?! Are you kidding?! That just didn’t happen in my life. My church wasn’t very active and the activities they had usually resembled the non-Christian activities (drinking, drugs, etc and etc.). The members didn’t take their faith seriously–at all!!! So when confronted with writing a romance where two people meet for the first time as adults, I found it hard to make both of them openly Christian. The one character is a new Christian (central to the story) who is in grad school and doesn’t have time for church groups, so she has no opportunity to meet others within her faith. Her job at a State university certainly doesn’t increase the probability. Another character (different ms) goes to a very small church which leaves him few choices for love. For these two people to become equally yoked in the end (in each story), someone may have to want what they have (salvation). Still, I don’t like this to be the central theme of the story. However, to make it realistic in my world–it would likely have to play a small role. Yes, I could write characters who meet at church–and I do–but that would get old to me after long. There are soooo many wonderful testimonies out there. I’ve found I like to collect them. They are not because some person made the right argument. They are because God met them individually, exactly right where they are. If an author can take the reader to that point, each testimony can be an amazing revelation. But yes, there is more to the Christian walk than that moment of being born again. However, part of my Christian journey involves knowing and loving others who will at different points also experience that moment as well. If I don’t tell THAT story–of knowing others at that point (since most people I know are at various spiritual places)–I will miss a critical point of their stories.
I love your post. I don’t read many of the genres you referred to: romance, YA, or fantasy. Within suspense, I agree with your #8. MAKE me turn the page, stay up late, can’t-put-the-book-down. Make the stakes high. Make me worry. Make me wonder about the bad guy. Layer the writing with depth.
Wow, Amanda. As a reader, I found myself nodding my head with every example you named. I still harbor the suspicion that, as Christian writers, we wear a sort of legalistic straight-jacket where the CBA is concerned. I hope I’m wrong and that minds are opening to God’s unlimited world and the multitude of ways He speaks. Honestly, as well-intentioned as creating an atmosphere for literature within a Christian world-view is, I almost wish we were just back to one big domain, with no set distinctions.Let folks read, discuss, and THINK for themselves. Let’s not white-wash the fact that we’re still sinful humans saved by Grace, for pete’s sake. That’s crazy-making. Not to mention terribly unattractive to any non-believers we might want to help. Thank you for your honesty.
Somebody needs a vacation, stat! Merry Christmas!
Thanks for this interesting post. As always, I enjoy your perspective on the business; however, I am confused by point number 10. (And I mean truly confused.) I know many agents feel the way you do–that unless a self-published book is hugely successful, agents wouldn’t be interested in them. But there seems to be a growing number of agents who are, in fact, willing to take a look.
At the recent Writer’s Digest Conference I attended in LA, Susan Finesman of Fine Literary said there’s nothing wrong with approaching an agent and saying, “I’m self-published. I’m getting sales traction. I need help.” Then, just today, I see an offer from Writer’s Digest Tutorials that has Literary agent Jody Rein offering advice to that same end. Here’s two snippets from her offer:
To get the attention of a traditional publisher, you need a literary agent—but many self-published authors believe that agents don’t respect self-published books and, in fact, may dismiss them out of hand. Literary agent, Jody Rein sets the record straight, tells you what agents really think, and how your self-published book might just be the key to getting representation.
Amanda, this could be one reason why self-published authors are approaching you. The signals are so mixed in this fast-changing industry that it’s difficult for newer writers to find solid footing. It’s difficult to know if standard rules even exist anymore.
The situation you described is actually one that I’m perfectly fine with. But what I don’t like is when authors put a self-pubbed book in my hands and then act like I should be really excited and impressed. Usually with these books the sales are at about 500 copies over two years. Another thing I don’t like is when self-pubbed authors come to me doing exactly what you described, but then insisting that I shop around their self-published books. I can tell from experience it’s much better to leave those books as-is and instead shop something new. I LOVE shopping new projects from self-pubbed authors who have been successful on their own, and editors are much more likely to respond positively. Does that clear things up?
As a mentor to writers coming up through the learning process, I heavily stress critical reading—this isn’t just sitting down with a book and reading it and putting it aside. It’s sitting at a desk with a book, Post-it Notes, pens, and highlighters and taking notes and marking up the book as if it were a textbook. What are the themes, the structures? How does the book fit within the constructs of the genre; how does it diverge? Unfortunately, critical reading isn’t a skill that’s taught anymore (I started learning it in my AP English courses in high school and then had it drilled into me in grad school), but it’s one of the best ways for writers to sit at the feet of the “masters” and learn the skills necessary to build compelling stories.
Fantasy novels that info dump about their world instead of weaving details organically throughout the action! (I was recently a contest judge…)
Haha yes. I can’t even stand when Tolkein does it.
Protagonists with no flaws, and I don’t mean just leaving the cap off the tooth paste. It was one of the hardest things for me to learn to do and still keep my heroine likable. But I don’t like reading about perfect people. Especially in inspirational fiction. I like to see people like me, who have personality flaws – yeah, I’ll admit it – and see them grow and overcome those. That’s what gives readers hope that they too can overcome.
And conversely, protagonists with too many flaws! There has to be a balance!
I rarely read romance because I usually feel like the hero and heroine fall in love too quickly, and their reasons for not being together are contrived. I know they can’t get together until the end of the book, but the reasons have to make sense.
Robin, I’m an avid romance reader (and I’ve written a few, too), but, like you, if I pick one up and within the first few pages there’s “insta-love” (in inspirational) or insta-lust (in general-market), I put it down. It’s the same with “fated” relationships, whether in romance or fantasy or other genres. They’re “fated” to be together; therefore, nothing is going to be able to tear them apart, so why should I care to keep reading?
I’m a huge fan of the slow-build. I wish I could say with certainty that this is how I write my stories, but I’m too close to them to be able to state that. But the authors I’ve found who can do that—who can make me fall in love with each of the main characters as the story progresses—typically end up on my favorites/keepers shelf.
I agree entirely. It’s just as annoying when the hero and heroine hate each other–for sketchy reasons–and then fall in love–or in lust, as is the case in the general market. I much prefer real people with real issues. Not that I’ve mastered it as a writer, but I know what I like as a reader.
I’ve seen plenty of Christian market books in which the “insta-love” is really just lust. Sure, there aren’t the super sexy descriptors and yeah the characters don’t get together until the end, but if the author relies on physical attraction to communicate “love” it’s really just lust in my opinion (and pretty unbelievable lust at that).
From the author’s chair, we never know for sure what all the other authors out there are doing. Fascinating to gain a glimpse of the multitudes through the agent’s eyes. Thanks, Amanda.
Great post, Amanda! I’d bet money that a lot of those problems could be rectified if novice writers actually read more novels and read more widely.
Almost all of the posts I read ignore humor as a genre. Is humor dead?
Depends on the humor, I would think.
I don’t think humor has ever been a strong genre. It’s more of a sub-genre under, say, memoir or romance.
When I ask authors “What is the best book you’ve ever read?” and they tell me the title to their own book.
…Do you pride much?
Ha! I love it!
To quote Cormac McCarthy: “Books are made up of other books.” But come on, people! I’m pretty sure he meant that the themes and voices and characters our heroes present live on after the story is told, and impact the stories we then tell, not take a look at what’s trending and knock off a wannabe. Sounds to me like a lot of writers aren’t investing themselves in their books, not writing their stories, not presenting themes that matter to them.
You’re writing the story of my life? 😛
Heck no, I got the idea from a dwarf in a Santa Clause suit with whiskey-breath. He got stuck in the chimney and his beard was on fire when I pulled him out. He had all my guns in his sack, even the muzzleloader! When I threatened to turn the Chihuahua loose on him he started pitching stories at me. Little bugger had a major league arm on him…
On #10., if they had self-published and sold 100,000 units, why would they actually need an agent or a publisher? Especially if they were above the price mark on Amazon where they were receiving 70% royalties.
Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey are two who were selling self-pub like crazy but went the traditional route for very good reasons: http://www.mediabistro.com/So-What-Do-You-Do-Amanda-Hocking-Author-and-Self-Publishing-Powerhouse-a11476.html
Lee’s links are great. The authors I’ve spoken with who are successful on their own but want traditional deals are usually driven by, and this sounds horrible, but they’re driven by vanity. They want to see their books on store shelves. They want to see displays and ads and notoriety beyond the Internet. Simple as that.
I agree that it is usually vanity that drive this move… you are no longer more likely to sell more units through an established publisher (because they spend very little money and time on marketing new authors), nor will you make more money (the shrinking to almost non-existent advances can be dwarfed by moving a few thousand units on your own).
In my experience, authors do sell more through traditional publishers, but yes the royalties are lower. This article may interest you: http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeremygreenfield/2013/12/09/how-much-money-do-self-published-authors-make/
I’ve read all these references to “self published.” For my education, do you or anyone else commenting here mean works that are truly “self published” by the author who came up with the book cover, either edited or hire and editor, and then paid someone to format the book properly, or did it themselves, if so, then I understand. There is however another ebook that is published by a small house in which the book is contracted by a publisher, with no royalty generally, then the editor edits it or hires an editor, and the publisher hires a professional cover artist, then pay for formatting and then puts the book on the market. Now, to me, the latter is not “self publishing” since it goes through the same rigors as a traditional publisher. So, which is it, a truly “self published” book or one that is epublished by a small publisher? I’m tired of seeing the word “self published” used and I have to figure out if it truly is. Just something to think about and discuss.
If it is published by a small publishing house, then it is not self-published… self-published implies that the author releases it (now, that usually means they release an ebook on Amazon). They may not do all of the important “grunt” work, like designing the cover (I’ve met very few authors that had enough skill to do this well) or editing (if they’re smart, they’ve hired out for this).
Thanks, I agree with you. Now, how can we get folks to note the difference instead of lumping all of improperly prepared books with those that have had a rigorous editing.
Thanks for this discuss and exchange of ideas.