Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Stats on the writer’s voice



Right, so for some fun, I decided to play agent for a day. I went through most of the entries in The Writer’s Voice contest and I ranked them Yes, Maybe, and No, and boy I learned a lot.

If you’re having a hard time making your query and first page work, go read a hundred random queries, and you’ll know EXACTLY what does and doesn’t work in a query, there’s just one caveat: you still won’t be certain about your own query. That’s the problem with things like this, we are terrible at judging our own work, and the query is just that: our work. So even though I read more than 150 (and ranked them) I’m still not sure where mine is on the scale. C’est la vie.

Before I dive in, I feel the need to state some things. First, I’m not going to tell people what went wrong with their query and 250. I have no intention of linking to anybody to say “I thought this one was fantastic” or “This one was really bad.” I’m not doing that. If you are absolutely dying to know where you are on the yes no maybe scale, I recommend reading them all for yourself and then trying to make a judgment call, and I’ll tell you why.

I’d be a pretty lousy agent. I love some genres, and I don’t love other genres. I read outside my favorites, but I generally stick to Science Fiction and Fantasy (hence the title of this here blog). That means that right out of the gates, I’m already biased (I'm a scientist, this a big admission, here). There are stories I’d much rather read than others. That means a Yes from me might be a no from someone else. Dragons in space? From me, that’s a yes. From just about any self respecting agent? That depends (on concept and writing), but probably no. It’s as much about personal taste as it is about the craft. There were perfectly fine queries that were just for things I don’t like to read, so they got “no.”

Alright, and now for the scale:

Yeses ranged from “hunh, that looks neat. It’s cleanly written, so let’s see if the rest of it’s as good,” to “OMG HOW CAN IT BE LEGAL FOR HER TO JUST POST THE ONE PAGE!!!!!I WANT THIS BOOK!!!” So, um yeah, you can tell that there was everything from ambivalent optimism to salivating.

The No: it was really easy for me to put queries into the No category, and they fell into the bin of No-ness for only a few reasons. 

Not my thing: these could be pages and queries that are completely competent, and yet I’m not that into the idea of it, and it’s outside of the reading areas where I’ve had fun in the past (this should sound like “not in a genre I represent”). 

Writing not yet strong enough: if I look at a first page and find five cases of the dreaded double verbing (was running, were singing, am walking… try ran, sang, walk etc.), I’m guessing the rest of the manuscript is like that too. I’m not saying the occasional double verbing is the end of everything, but there’s a difference between a double verb every twenty pages and twenty on one page. Oh, and this includes you first person present tense writers. Double verbs are bad. Read Hunger Games and tell me how many double verbs she has…I think first person present was the biggest addition to my No category for double verbing alone (okay, I think you all get the picture, two verbs are much weaker than one, go forth and disseminate to all your friends). Weak writing was the number one trigger for making me pounce on the no.

Ho hum concept: the kiss of death was a ho hum concept combined with lack luster writing. Sure it was competent. It didn’t have the dreaded double verbing, but there was nothing to grab. The concept didn’t rock my socks and the writing didn’t have what I’m interested in for voice. This is really hard because if you wrote one of these, then there’s pretty much nothing your crit partners can tell you. On the bright side, I think that people have very different opinions about what makes a book good (I liked Interview with a Vampire way more than I liked Twilight—sorry Twihards—so I think you can see what I mean).

Then the Maybes. The maybes are agonizing. They have phenomenal concepts, but ho hum writing, or ho hum concepts, but their words tease the sunset off the pages and into my mind. Every maybe is accompanied with an “I just wish I could talk to that writer and let her(him) know where she’s(he’s) tripping up”. Most of my maybes came from awesome concept with not quite ready for prime time writing. It mostly boiled down to voice. Agents always talk about not being swept away, and wow, having read some that did? I know exactly what agents mean now.

So, I’ve tormented you all long enough.

Here they are, my stats.

Of the entries 10% were yeses (several accompanied by exclamation points).

25 % were maybes (sometimes with a maybe-yes or a maybe-no).

65% were no.

Here’s a pie chart. (hmmm pie…).
Packman eats Yes and Maybe.

I know my yes/no ratio is a little low compared to someone like the gatekeeper. I’m pretty picky, so I probably wouldn’t be a very good agent. Having said that, the majority of the Maybe pages would have gotten me to page two. The problem with the maybes compared to the yeses is bias. The Yes query/pages made me want to overlook flaws because of the shear awesome of concept and writing on the first page. With the maybes, I was already skeptical, picking apart word choices and in general not enjoying the story. I was already trying to evaluate it on a level other than “OMG I love this!” I was looking for flaws (did you see that, a double verb in the wild). So maybes would have gotten me to page two, but page two would have needed to be stronger than page one to keep me going.

Oh, and I didn’t even talk about story structure because I really don’t think 250 words gives us a very good indication of whether the story started in the right place or not (though it sure let us know when someone started with too much description).


*****Update******
With all the judges first picks out, I can now say how mine compare.

Of those picked for the contest:
 21% were Yes on my list
 47% were No on my list
 31% were Maybe on my list

Which basically goes to show that this really is about personal taste


 

16 comments:

  1. Wow, you've been busy. I think you'd be a great agent BECAUSE you're so picky. You'd be focused on what you love and would know what you don't immediately!

    This contest is so great! My agent is a part of it, and I'm following along for fun!

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    1. It didn't take as long as I thought it would. I'm actually pretty dyslexic, and I think that helps (strange, I know). If I can't follow it, I don't have the ten tries to make a sentence work in my head, so that's a no.

      And I like your agent's profile (and her answers when you interviewed her for your blog), and this is one of the few ways to get a query under her nose right now. Fingers crossed, but it's not looking good, I'm not on any teams yet...

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  2. This has been a really interesting contest to watch unfold. There is one I read where I LOVED the first 250, but the query really needed work. Last I know it had not been picked. Maybe it just wasn't their thing, but I wonder if the query killed this person. It's a reminder of just how important the query is.

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    1. Holy Copernicus, this has been amazing to watch unfold. I had one entry I was so certain of that I thought none of the blogessess had started putting people on their teams. Her query literally got three yeses in my notes (with accompanying exclamation marks!), and I thought for sure all I had to do was watch hers to know when to get nervous. She hasn't been picked yet! So yeah, now I'm hunting around and seeing team offers everywhere. How silly is it that I feel more nervous for the writer who got so many yeses in my notebook, than I am for myself? I must be cracked in the head.

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  3. This is really interesting. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. You're welcome. I'm a nerd who counts beans for fun...

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  4. This is SO interesting Rena! I'm planning on going through and doing an analysis of genres entered, vs genres picked. I must admit I am shocked at some many that haven't been picked, but i think I too have different taste than the team leaders.

    So... we shall see :) I'm super excited to watch the whole contest unfold though! :)

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    1. Oh, I'm really interested in the genre breakdown. The peeps on twitter have some, but I'd like to see it broken down into subgenres (fantasy, sci fi, etc.).

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  5. thats awesome! i wonder where mine falls...and i wish you could tell us some salivating yeses for posterity!

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    1. We'll see how the contest goes and then I'll consider it. In the mean time, one of my maybes was just offered representation on her novel, so she's out of the contest (hers was a maybe-yes, and she hadn't been picked for a team...).

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  6. Totally interesting stats!! Thanks for sharing ;o)

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  7. So many of the ones I thought would get picked, didn't. Your stats are interesting. I wonder where I fall...#103...????? :)

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    1. I could tell you on the sly, but you'll have to promise not to be upset with what I say. I've been a scientist for a long time "Just the facts, Ma'am."

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  8. This entire business is completely subjective. I marked a few that I was positive would be picked! But they haven't been. And then a few have been picked that I really wouldn't have been interested enough to read. So it all depends on who is doing the judges. Although, it seems these judges have the same tastes since they have chosen a handful of the same. But I do wonder where I stand as well *cough*24*cough* haha

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    1. You know, only one of my YES OMG WANT! made it into the contest. Hers was fought over, but only one. And hers didn't have as many yeses as my absolute top choice. So subjective.

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  9. I have never heard of this contest, it sounds interesting though. You might actually be a good agent, they do have to be very strict. Thanks for posting your thoughts. I'll need to watch out for double verbs in my writing. I've been working on using less verbs that are stronger :)

    Andrea

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