Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Guest Author Alythia Brown: Silence After the Partial Request—What is the Agent NOT Saying?

By Aly Brown, @AlyConnerBrown

Please help me welcome Aly Brown to the blog today, to chat with us about that scary time between hitting send and hearing back from an agent, and what might be causing that silence.

Aly Brown is a newspaper editor and author represented by BookEnds LLC. She recently inked a deal with Feiwel & Friends / Macmillan for a nonfiction middle grade book on Alvin Submersible called The Last Unexplored Place on Earth. Release date 2023.

Take it away Aly...
You did it! Finally, after months and months of querying and countless form rejection letters, you managed to get an agent’s attention and she actually asked to read more of your manuscript. First, you probably held some kind of party-of-one celebration in your office. Second, you sent the work over as quickly as possible to avoid slipping out of the agent’s mind and losing the chance forever. Third, you checked your email every day (or hour) for about a month. Your fourth step in all of this is possibly where you are right now: wondering why you haven’t heard from the agent who so enthusiastically requested to read a portion of your book. That empty inbox stings every time you open your email. So what does the silence mean? After ruling out computer mishaps or vacation schedules for the agent, you may want to ask yourself some questions.

How’s My Voice?

Does your main character have a strong narrative voice? I don’t just mean someone who can throw around swear words in a weak effort to come off as tough. I mean, someone who can paint a complex picture of who they are. You don’t want to lose their flavor while consuming yourself with other details. A Plain Jane voice will lose the agent’s attention and emotional investment.

Are My Characters Consistent? Are they Cliché?

Readers get annoyed when they find inconsistencies. They’re also easily vexed by clichés. Remember that agents are readers! They are big-time booklovers who became agents because they’re passionate about literature. So, when you submit your work to an agent, you are submitting your work to someone who has probably devoured books since kindergarten. They’re going to notice if your MC said his favorite color was green when he already mentioned it was blue. They’re going to spot one-dimensional, cookie-cutter bullies who demand lunch money or else. If your book already has replicas with weak development within the first fifty pages, an agent will probably pass on reading much more.

Does Anything Drag?

Many writers have a talent for setting an intriguing stage and steadily building steam for the first three chapters or so. But it’s a hard act to keep up and, sometimes, the work can fall into a lull. Dear Agent may have nodded off. Although you need a smooth balance of serenity and excitement, all scenes should serve some kind of purpose in the great scheme of things and continue to engage the reader. Down time could simply be an opportunity for two enemies to sit together and begin to overcome their differences. It could be the time for developing romantic relationships. No matter the nature of the scene, you need to ask yourself if it’s necessary or if it’s just a bit of fat that needs trimming. Don’t make the agent wonder where is this going again?

Does My Punctuation Annoy People?

Do you use too many question marks???? Maybe you’re always excited! Perhaps—you—love—these—things—but—you—kind—of—forgot—how—or—when—to—use—them—so—you—use—them—all—the—time. OR YOU CAN’T STOP YELLING! Agents spot amateur moves right away. Frankly, they don’t have the time to correct your bad habits before shopping your book around to publishers. Do yourself a favor and take a refresher course on Mr. Semi-Colon and his friendly punctuation pals. While you’re at it, ask yourself…

Grammatically Speaking, Am I Behind?

This is a similar problem to the punctuation issue above. Review, review, review!

Is this World-Building or Data Dumping?

This issue is especially huge for fantasy writers. You have an insanely vivid imagination that allows you to create a world with unique creatures, cultures, vehicles, races, planets, or anything you intend to weave into the story. The only problem is that, because you’re so excited for your readers to understand your fantastical realm, you inadvertently dump tons of information into the beginning. The reason the term is world “building” and not world “dumping” is because you are expected to tactfully dispense information when needed. Your audience should feel sucked into this world, not confused, flipping through pages to piece it all together. If your introduction is a ten-page back-story explanation, the agent will spot this easy-out move and call your work a pass.

Will This Make People Laugh or Roll Their Eyes?

Everyone has a scene they write into their story, thinking it’s the most hilarious thing ever, only to review it a month later and cringe at the stupidity. Don’t worry. The cringe is a good thing. It means you’re accessing your work with a cold eye and trying to improve. Obviously humor will differ from person to person, but try to spot and remedy areas that don’t quite… work.

Did I Earn That Tear I’m Going For?

Writers, let’s just get it out there and admit that we like to make people cry. We want our work to move people. We want it to make them laugh, get angry, and, yes, cry. If I had to rate the ease of gaining these emotions from readers, they would fall in that order: happiness, anger, and sorrow. Why? Because laughing is a socially acceptable behavior. People do not guard that emotion. On the contrary, they often feel forced to fake it. Anger, however debatable, may come next. But the tears, in my humble opinion, are the most difficult to trigger because they make people feel the most vulnerable. As a writer, you will probably have an easy time making readers laugh. Making them angry is also pretty easy, especially if they’re protective of your protagonist. But tread cautiously in the tear department. If you have not delicately set the stage for high-impact feelings such as grief, loss, or blissful tears that come with unfeasible triumph, you will end up with an insincere scene that’s more of a desperate attempt to withdrawal unearned emotions.

Now for my questions…
  • Did any of this speak to you and your current WIP?
  • Without naming names, are you currently/optimistically/desperately awaiting an answer on a partial request? What helps you take your mind off the pins and needles?
  • How long do you like to wait before you give the notorious nudge? 


  1. "Did I earn that tear...?"
    I'm not to that particular scene yet, but I have at least two that I really, really want to be heartbreaking. I'll keep this post in mind as I write; thanks, Alythia!

  2. World-building is good. Data dumping is a turnoff. This is where novels either hook me or lose me. Also cliché characters will little range of emotion. Great post!

  3. Thanks, ladies!

    @Rachel: I think it's definitely easier to get worked up as the writer because we're emotionally attached to the story and have a warm, fuzzy eye. Being mindful that our readers have cold eyes for the work is helpful!

    @Christine: Agreed! I returned a library book without finishing it for data dumping. It irritated me that the author expected me to know everything about their world from the beginning. It wasn't alluring--it was too much. Some confusion around the building mystery is great because it makes the reader interested in putting everything together. But a constant hurling of information that a reader will forget and need to return to later is annoying.

    Thanks for commenting!!

  4. This is a very helpful guide. I can be guilty of info dumps. To cure them, I try to use objective criteria, like the ones you gave us, but I also let the work settle for a bit and go back to it. Usually, in the places where I'm a tad bored, I realize I have been "explaining" too much and not showing.

    Another genre that suffers from info dumps, IMHO, is historical fiction. As with fantasy, it's easy to fall into the trap of dumping data about the time period, which can be as foreign to the reader as a fantasy world. Whether 1630s Finland or Hogwarts, the reader will need info. My WIP is historical fiction, and I fight trying to set the tone with random, mouth-running facts. I try to build that horse ride or long day on the farm into the conflict and goals of the scene. Not always easy though!

    Congrats on the book! Good luck with it!😃

  5. Wonderful point, Deborah! It's one I never thought about because I haven't dabbled in historical fiction. I especially loved this line:

    "As with fantasy, it's easy to fall into the trap of dumping data about the time period, which can be as foreign to the reader as a fantasy world."

    Thanks for sharing this perspective, along with how you overcome data-dumping!

  6. Amazing post!!! I'm a few months away from sending mr Manuscript back to the editor... If I don't see red all over this time I hope to rake your advice over VERY carefully!!!!