Monday, September 29, 2008

Sending agent part of an unfinished manuscript

An email I received just now, seeking advice:
I have contacted an agenency in New York that likes to see the first five pages of a manuscript first before anything. Would it be acceptable, or fair to them rather, to send the first five pages even though the whole thing is not finished. If they liked it, it would give me a little more encouragment to keep going with it.
My response:
Yes, it would be unfair -- and it would be a waste. If they like it RIGHT NOW, and are enthusiastic about seeing it RIGHT NOW, then your best career move is to send the rest as soon as they ask for it. Six weeks, six months, or six years from now that agent may no longer be taking on new clients, whatever market trend the agent might have perceived your work as fitting into may have passed, and so on. You can't grouse later on, "But you SAID you wanted to see it!" If you don't have a finished manuscript ready to go to market, you and an agent have no business to do together, and it isn't fair for you to take time out of his or her day.

Also, your encouragement must be internal to you: you need to want this so badly that you can't STOP writing; if you think you will be coddled every step of the way by people patting you on the head every time you write a few pages, you are sorely mistaken.

The Robert J. Sawyer Web Site


At September 29, 2008 5:49 PM , Blogger robotdog said...

This idea is already embedded in Robert's last paragraph, but I kind of thought it was worth expanding on it...

One of the most insidious aspects of creating commercial art is that individual reactions to it are not very informative.

This works in both directions. Just because a producer LOVED your script doesn't mean it's gold. And, for godssake, just because an agent didn't respond to your script doesn't mean it won't win an academy award.

(i am in film/tv but the principle is the same)

But what this all means is that when one is evaluating the quality of a piece of writing, the only thing that holds information is the aggregation of critical response.

So, yes, as Robert says you can't expect to be coddled. But it also means that even when you are coddled or... uh... the opposite of coddled... neither one of those events holds much information.

This is further complicated by the fact that it's not always true. Some individuals are more gifted than others at guessing what the aggregate response is and so their individual response is informative... but even those individuals aren't nearly perfect.

And in general high-information responders (say, an experienced and successful agent) are much better at avoiding false positive than false negatives.

In other words, if the best agent in the world says your script is great, then there might be information in that. But if he says that it won't sell or that it isn't good, this is much more likely to be just another noise-filled response.

And it's also complicated by the fact that we often unconsciously change our criteria for what makes a script "high quality." Sometimes our criteria is "did it sell?" Sometimes it's "did it get me an agent?" Sometimes it's "do I like it?" or "does my wife like it?" Sometimes it's "did it make a lot of money?" Sometimes it's "did it win a bunch of awards?"

All of this chaos and noise leads most writers to either go insane or to, somewhere along the line, decide to stop looking too hard for outside confirmation that they are a good writer and instead to focus on doing what they love to do every day... write.

At September 29, 2008 9:21 PM , Blogger Larry Hodges said...

This is one of the major differences between fiction and non-fiction books. In fiction, as Robert wrote, unless you are an established writer with a strong track record, you have to write the entire book before submitting to an editor or publisher. In non-fiction, many first books are sold based on the first few chapters, a synopsis/outline, and the writer's qualifications. Some writers know about the standard for non-fiction, and make the mistake of thinking it applies to fiction.
-Larry Hodges


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