I recently had the pleasure of once again enjoying the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference. This year I took advantage of their one-on-one agent meetings and submitted the first 5 pages of both a manuscript and a screenplay. If you haven’t done this somewhere in the past, I highly recommend it. Of course I felt that the 10 minutes was too short; but in reality, 30 minutes would have been too short. (Are we really able to put a limit on the time we want to spend with an agent?)
The review and feedback were very different, as agents are very different. (If they weren’t, we’d all be reading the same thing!) Agent #2 read all 5 pages, and provided one and a quarter typed pages of notes. I got some good suggestions, and the meeting revealed two misconceptions that I needed to clarify. My focus here though is on what to get out of a one-on-one, and how to read between the lines, so I am only going to use Agent #1’s feedback as an example. Just as an aside, I absolutely loved both agents and found the whole experience much more pleasurable than I anticipated. I would submit to them in a heartbeat. I am not using their names strictly because I never asked them, and wouldn’t do so without their permission.
Okay, on with the groaning. Agent1 reviewed my young adult novel. I received a full page of notes, and they were very helpful. One thing that was immediately clear as we began talking was that Agent1 had only read the first 2 of the 5 pages. I answered some of the questions, and thought to myself, of course if you had read just a bit further that would have been answered. So as I left happy and disheartened at the same time (yes, that is possible), I wondered. I paid $35 for each of these 10-minute meetings. That’s $210 an hour. Don’t they have a responsibility to at least read all of the 5 pages we are asked to submit?
After walking and mulling it over a while, I decided…no.
Yes, that’s right – no.
Back to the what-to-get-out-of-a-one-on-one: I decided to accept that in two pages, Agent1 was not clear on whether my story was humorous or serious, was not clear on a few important questions about my protagonist, and was not engaged enough to continue. That last was the one that was most important to me, and hit home. I knew my story was good. I knew it was funny. I knew it was well-written. Except for the first 2 pages, apparently. And without that, I may be the only one that knows these things. It is after all, my job to make Agent1 want to read all 5 pages I submitted. Any other agent out there that I query has no obligation to even read the first paragraph. Perhaps if Agent1 had read all 5 pages and hadn’t asked the questions they did, I would not have gotten the needed information to successfully get my story read by agents who want to see it published.
What I took away was that I really needed to move some information up. I needed to start where my reader would be riveted – or at least entertained. By the end of the conference, I decided that for this story, I actually needed to change the entire point of view – from first person to third, and from one character to another. I could immediately see the way the story would work with these changes. When I returned home and told my husband, his first comment was “…But isn’t that a lot of work?”
Yes. Yes, it is. But the story will be so much better for it.
And that is why we write.