Thoughts on Having an Excerpt of My Novel Read By a Literary Agent

I’ve always believed that I’m a good writer.  But at the same time, I’ve always believed I still have much to learn.

At the intersection of these two opposing ideas is the place where I wonder whether, at this moment, I’m good enough for traditional publication.

Whether my historical fiction WIP, which I’ve believed in long enough to have now gone through three (soon to be four) drafts, is now good enough to at least pique the interest of a publishing professional, let alone snag and hold that interest for the duration.

At this intersection is also the place where an opportunity presented itself to receive feedback on a bit of my WIP by a literary agent.

This occurred by way of #PubforPR—a weeklong online charity auction of goods and services from authors, agents, editors, and other members of the writing and publishing community.  The proceeds of this event would all go toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico following the devastation from Hurricane Maria.

Items up for auction included signed books, box sets, book club appearances by authors via Skype, full and partial manuscript critiques, query letter critiques, phone consultations with agents and social media specialists, and even the opportunity to attend a writing retreat with a bestselling author.

After perusing the more than 300 available items, I zeroed in on a 10-page manuscript critique from an agent who represents historical fiction, which I bid on and subsequently won.  Here are my thoughts on first preparing for, and then actually receiving, this feedback.

1) I had to want it

I’ve long known that I can talk myself into or out of just about anything.  I thus had to spend several serious moments asking myself if I really wanted to bid on this critique at all.

Did I really want to open myself up to feedback from an industry professional before my WIP is technically finished?  Was I prepared emotionally to deal with the outcome, particularly in the case of negative feedback?

And if so, did I really want to secure that feedback by way of an auction, which by its very nature often elicits, especially in the final moments, crass displays of money and one’s perceived deservingness of the prize over others?

Ultimately, the fact that this auction was for charity was the only thing that convinced me to participate.  However vehement I might become in the moment, I reasoned, it would benefit Puerto Rico that much more.

And so once convinced that yes, I did want to do this, I planned my winning strategy like a military tactician, spending days figuring out how to time my final bids and how else to access the site if it crashed in the final minutes before the auction’s official close.

2) This is a test

Another reason I decided to take part in the auction—indeed, the reason I chose the specific item that I did—is because someday soon-ish (by next spring at the latest, hopefully), I plan to begin querying agents.

I’ve never done this before, but know from the relatable experience of applying for jobs, asking guys on dates, and giving portions of my work to fellow writers for critique that putting yourself out there like that can be a nerve-wracking experience.

By winning this agent critique, it offered me the chance to feel the feelings of nervousness and self-doubt and impatience in a controlled environment of knowing that a response actually would come eventually (we’ve all heard about how some agents just don’t respond if they’re not interested).

What’s more, by offering up only 10 pages—in many cases the same sample size upon which agents base their decision to either request more or pass—I’d get a good sense of how my writing might be received were this a real query.

3) Life goes on

This relates to point #2.  I agonized over every detail of my submission, desperate to ensure that I’d cut out all the filter words, and that I’d obliterated all the run-on sentences, and that I had no typos in the text, and that it was in proper manuscript format, and that each part of my title page had the correct number of spaces between it.

I then clicked send and promptly stopped thinking about it.

Because life doesn’t stop for a novel query; at least mine didn’t.

I still had to go to work, and work two Saturdays of overtime, and carry on with the volunteer consulting work I’m doing, and continue working on the rest of my WIP’s line edits, and continue researching Ancient Greece for my next novel, and continue working on my application to the research methods and evaluation program I’m applying for, and call my mother every Sunday, and cook dinner every night, and clean my apartment, and go to the gym, and buy my niece a birthday present, and meet up with friends, etc. etc.

I thought I would obsess over my email waiting for the agent’s reply.  But I was so darn busy, when the reply came, it took me completely by surprise.  Admittedly, the wait was not very long at all, but I think I could have happily carried on in my same manner for weeks.

I’ve heard from many different sources that the best thing to do while querying is to keep yourself occupied, and this experience has helped prove just how valid this advice really is.

4) The moment of truth

The email came in the afternoon of a workday just after I’d returned from a noontime class of cardio boot camp at the gym.

I had to read it three times in a row before my exhausted, ravenous brain could parse its meaning, my heart thudding in my chest like I hadn’t left the boot camp class at all.

For the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.  She said my language was lovely!  She said my characters had layers!  She said the action was exciting!

It was not all choirs and fireworks, of course.  She also offered tips on things to watch out for, and advised I take a second look at a certain part (hello infodump, my old friend).

But more so than not, the feedback was praising, validating, and very encouraging.

5) This changes nothing—and everything

As pumped as I was to receive this feedback, I need to take care against reading too much into it.

It was, after all, only 10 pages—not even a full chapter. (The chapter had another page and three-quarters to go, but following agents’ guidelines was also something to practice in all of this, so I followed them to the letter).

Just because I got the novel off to a good start doesn’t mean it hasn’t gone sideways at any point from page 11 onward.  As well, this is only one person’s opinion.  A different agent mightn’t have enjoyed my pages at all.

Still, as my mother was quick to point out, the agent was the most professional person to read any of my novel to date, and she liked what she saw.

I’ve always believed that I’m a good writer, and I now have at least a bit of proof that this is in fact the case.

As for whether or not I am indeed, at this moment, good enough for traditional publication, that continues remains to be seen for a while longer yet.

What convinced you (or what will convince you) that you’re a good writer?  What does validation as a writer look like for you?  Let me know in the comments.

(Image source #1, #2, and #3)

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8 thoughts on “Thoughts on Having an Excerpt of My Novel Read By a Literary Agent

    • Thanks, Kay. Good feedback is always a win in my book (no pun intended)! It is nice to support a good cause while at the same time getting a little bit of validation from someone in the industry. I do sometimes worry about being the literary equivalent of some of the people you see on American Idol – those who don’t realize they sing worse than average person in their shower.

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  1. That fundraising auction is a great idea. I’m glad you were able to get some valuable feedback simultaneous to being a good global citizen.

    I don’t subscribe to the “good enough for traditional publication” mindset. Lots of crappy books get published, and many great manuscripts don’t. It’s a business. I’m not sure there’s a detectable threshold for “good.” Commercially viable maybe.

    Whether you find an agent and get signed to a major, go with a small press, or self-publish, your novel will be a success merely for the painstaking effort you’ve put in. Has the world learned the title yet?

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    • I’ll have to take some time to contemplate what success will mean for me. While I was still writing the book, success was just getting to the end. Now that I’m getting close to querying, the goalposts have shifted, as they perpetually do.

      I agree there isn’t really a detectable threshold for “good”, if for no better reasons than tastes are so subjective, to say nothing for the additional need for commercial viability that has the potential to stifle art and innovation. Still, I think that writing can be objectively bad and I really haven’t come across many traditionally published books that are. This isn’t to say I believed my writing objectively bad, but sometimes in the cold, dark hours of the early morning, your mind entertains strange possibilities. A lot of those terrible singers we see on shows like American Idol genuinely can’t recognize their shortcomings.

      I’m still pondering my title. I have one in mind but want to discuss it with my critique group, which after an interminable amount of hustling and waiting is finally started this coming Monday. Does your next book have a title yet?

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  2. Nice Janna, happy for you. I can’t imagine that you’d have easily brushed off a damning critique. If you weren’t driven enough before this will certainly reinforce your belief.

    Me? I simply don’t care enough about my writing. I sent one MS to one Irish publisher and was surprised to get a response, never mind a kind one 🙂

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    • Thanks, Roy. I’d like to think I’d remain open to a negative critique that was constructive and instructive. After all, I survived having my critique partner who is also one of my best friends tell me that she couldn’t even make it through an earlier draft of chapter one because my sentence structure was too dense. Once I got over initial shock and sting, I was able to accept that she was right and to make the necessary changes to my writing style.

      Still, after all the revision I’ve already done, I’d also like to think I’m pretty much there. That was the inherent danger of participating in this critique to begin with. So yes, in that regard, a damning critique would have been difficult.

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