Beware Advice From "Agents" - So-Called "Gems of Advice" Can be Dangerous!

by Michael Neff

It's been some time since this blog posted a note about the "gems" of the Backspace conference (see below or link above) derived from agents who appeared there. I'm here to tell you that some of these gems are not gems at all. Whether taken out of context or just plain foolish, they can lead a writer in the wrong direction, or at least produce lots of confusion. I will counterpoint in a manner that is hopefully not too snide.

As follows:

Make your prose unique.
Confusing. The vast majority of publishers are looking for high-concept genre work, whereas "unique" prose usually considered to be more literary, and the only way to write outside the boundaries of commercial fiction prose is to create a work of literary prose - often shunned by most commercial editors for being too dense, or not sufficiently accessible to the general public. The best advice is to study the prose boundaries and potentials set by your chosen genre.

Polish your voice
Vague. What does this really mean? A snappy first-person voice will open doors, yes, but in order to be competitive, in-depth research and practice is required. Polish, yes, yes, but more needs to be said ... "Voice" also depends on the genre--more of a consideration for humorous women's fiction or Tom Robbins, much less so for thriller or romance novels.

Make us care about your characters
Well, of course ... Novel Writing 101. No surprise here.

Don't jar the reader with overlong or complex sentence structures, strange word choices, inappropriate language
Oh, really? You mean like Emperor's Children by Claire Messud which was praised by New York literary establishment and contained some of the most confusing and outright stupid sentences ever written? Well, the rules apply to some and not others, right? In general, they're saying, keep it on a Sue Monk Kidd level at most. Don't tax our brains, please!

Nix the backstory
Bad advice. There is no story without backstory. You do not "nix" it, rather, you parcel it into the story intelligently!

Reconsider your prologue - they tend to slow the pace down
For people with ADD. Seriously, it depends on the novel. Prologues tend to work better with certain genres. They are overdone, but should not be dismissed.

Be careful with your poetic writing
Hmmm, doesn't this contradict "Make your prose unique"? Perhaps, but what they're saying is don't write prose that takes you out of what is acceptable for general commercial fiction. Regardless, such "advice" might not apply to you at all. If you can write poetically, then utterly ignore this comment.

Minimize description
Um, this is just stupid. Sure, don't go Robbe-Grillet on us. Take your inspiration from the likes of Annie Proulx and F. Scott Fitzgerald. This is typical bad advice from "agents" who know nothing about prose writing.

Do you homework on the agent(s)
Yes, and don't choose agents who give bad or confusing advice on how to write.


Write What You Are Willing to Learn - Advice from Jodi Picoult

By Anthony S. Policastro

If you think you spend too much time researching your novel, take a look at NY Times Bestselling author of fourteen novels, Jodi Picoult, who says she spends as much or more time researching a book than writing it. She even went to a remote Eskimo village with no running water in January, the coldest month, to research Eskimo culture for one of her characters.

She shares her humorous and enlightening stories on how she came up with the ideas and how she researched three of her favorite novels in the free Writer’s Digest video webcast at the 2007 BookExpo America/Writer’s Digest Books Writers Conference.

She is a great speaker who talks rapidly and gets right to the point so make sure you have 49 minutes to do nothing because you will find that you cannot stop listening. Her best advice is to “write what you’re willing to learn” rather than write what you know. Definitely a must see.

Jodi Picoult's latest novel