Friday, December 15, 2017

R&R versus "just nice comments on a pass"

I have several fulls out (holy hell) with respectable NYC literary agents (no, you're not one of them because you don't rep my genre). In the last week, two agents rejected - but with very positive feedback. The few criticisms I received could be fixed with an easy revision. This makes me wonder: what prompts an agent to ask for an R&R versus rejecting it entirely? If you can give some perspective on this thought process - it would help me sleep better. Well, that and a nice 20-year old Scotch.

I'm not one of them because very few people would call me respectable (barroom floozy that I am) Respected might be the better word for what (other) lit agents are.

But I digress...

I can only speak to my own practices here and I really don't know how other agents do this (it's not a topic at the DisReputable Bar and Grille where I hang my hat at 5pm)

I ask for a revise and resubmit if there's a structural problem that can be fixed. Examples of this are plot holes or inconsistencies; lack of chapters (my newest client had this!); a more compelling ending.

Structural problems that need a general overhaul generally are passes. Examples: no sense of the protagonist's code; the plot didn't have any kind of twist or surprise element; lack of a narrative arc (more common in non-fiction than fiction); lack of tension.

As to your situation: you don't know if the "few criticisms" are the extent of the problem. When I pass on a manuscript I'll generally give the writer an idea of why, but it's NOT an editorial letter that lists ALL the things that need to be revised.

This can lead to authors thinking if they fix the "few criticisms" the agent will then have a novel ready to go on submission. That's almost never the case.

Instead of trying for a revise and resubmit here, look at the feedback you have. Is it consistent? If so, that's definitely something to fix.

And read the manuscript with fresh, critical eyes. Does it have twists? Can you identify the main character's code?

But mostly, keep querying. I've signed and sold things that other agents didn't want.


Unknown said...

The main character's "code?" I'm not sure what this means. Their character arc? Voice? Consistency? Or, is this something new I need to fix?

OP, congrats on finishing, querying, requests for fulls, and positive feedback. You're almost there!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I'm with KATHY, what's "code".
So much to learn about fiction and so little time.
Have a nice day boys and girls.
Day one of fulfilling a promise.

Ellen said...

I teaching creative writing and I'm also stumped by the term "main character's code." Google didn't help, so I'm currently crowd-sourcing it among my writer friends on Facebook. So far, no insights ...

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Ohoh. I'm with the others. When the word code is used, I think code of ethics.

And congrats, OP, on getting some requesteds. Wishing you luck and perseverance as you sort through what you need to do with the criticisms and the passes.

Megan V said...

I read main character's code as a criticism I once received.

It's a 'who is your character' and 'why does your character act/feel the way they do' comprised of motivation, ethics, experience etc.
Their actions and reactions should be consistent with their personal code (which may change as they develop as a character) In other words, your characters decisions generally need to make sense for your character. (which can only happen if you have a good sense of WHO your character is, voice, background etc.)

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Interesting. I am hoping my book has all that or grows it over the holiday. Or something. So who snatched my coffee?

Unknown said...

I suspect code means "the whole MC package."

OT: I submitted a story to quantum shorts, a contest that required short entries based on quantum physics principles, and that had to include a specific sentence. Every day, new entries are posted after they've been vetted. (Mine's not up yet.) Entries are from writers, physicists, and in between, with a wide variety of, um, let's say, experience. I'm finding reading them to be a great exercise in understanding what makes a story successful. If you're interested: quantum shorts

Timothy Lowe said...

I think code is what drives the character. For instance, Hannibal Lecter's code is to eat only the rude. One of his attendants claims he calls them "free range rude." This elevated him from a bloodthirsty serial killer to someone we can root for, even if we don't like him.

You need something to differentiate your character, to give him/her purpose. It can be simple, like the teacher who believes in personal expression and exploration (Dead Poet's Society). Oftentimes, it's best if it's in opposition to the character's environment. Mr. Keating is up against the administration in the application of his code. That's what creates the conflict.

Just my 2 cents. Code can also entwine with character arc. Not sure Keating or Lecter have an arc, but other characters in those stories do (Todd Henderson and Clarisse Starling). In Henderson's case, his arc is informed by Keating's code.

Sorry for the long post. Janet is one of the few who has mentioned code, but I think it's really valuable to consider.

Craig F said...

Has my Queen been seeing a psychologist?

I have seen a few things about Emotional Code recently as motivation. I guess there has finally been some people in that field who have gotten past the idea that every move is not to gain power over someone else.

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...


Epiphany time.

I've been getting few requests and lots of rejects, with no two agents saying the same thing. This used to frustrate me because i couldn't pinpoint what was wrong so i could fix it.

Now I know. Everything they mention is wrong. All of it. Even the agents who claim their list is rather full and they're not taking on new clients. This means my work is nowhere near stunning enough to make them break their rules. That's a problem.

Cool. Problems identified. Now to figure out how to solve them.

Colin Smith said...

I would define the protagonist's code as what makes them tick. And I think Megan pretty much summed up what I mean by that.

My understanding of comments without an R&R is that these are helpful pointers to improve the story, but it's not something the agent wants to take on. Comments with an R&R indicate to me that the agent is interested in the story but feels it needs a bit of work, and is on the fence about taking the project on. The R&R could show the agent a number of things, e.g., how well you handle revisions, whether the suggested revisions really do fix the story (at least for her), whether the amount of work still needed outweighs her willingness to invest the time to see it to publication, and many other things no doubt.

I'm intrigued by Heidi's comment that some agents respond by saying their list is full and they aren't taking on new clients. Janet: Why wouldn't these agents just close to queries?

Congrats on the responses, Opie! All the best with your querying. :)

Bonnie Shaljean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bonnie Shaljean said...

I read "code" as being the protagonist's moral code - which drives the choices they make and the actions they consequently take.

[Sorry, deletion was me doing a mulligan]

Dr. Krag Churchill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
James Leisenring said...

In the past 2 months, I’ve read 3 books and thought, “I liked it but not enough to read the second one.”

And then it hit me: Oh. THIS is how agents feel! “I liked it but not enough to take it on.” People ask agents “What makes you say no?” Well maybe an agent is just NOT saying yes.

I look at it this way: We don’t need millions of people to love the manuscript. We’re looking for ONE agent who loves the story. Then we need one editor who loves it. After that, we can worry about selling it to the rest of the world.

Finding that agent/editor can still be extremely difficult. But for me, it’s a bit less intimidating looking for two people than for millions.

Sarah said...

Unlurking for a sec because I've enjoyed reading what folks have said about the MC's code.

It seems to me that so much of the internal drive of a story centers around that code: what's worth fighting for, sacrificing for, the lines in the sand the MC tells herself she won't cross. It's not description, it's the wellspring of every action.

And, an example of that poorly executed is the Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets movie. It was gorgeous and I really wanted to like it. Anyway . . . there's this pivotal scene at the end where Valerian is asked to do something and he says he could never disregard the rules of the agency he works for.

There was not a single hint of dialog or action that backed that up. I'd have been less surprised if he'd decided to indulge in interpretive dance. All the emotion of that scene was lost because I'd never guess it was an issue in the first place.

Also, there was a TON of As-you-know-Bob dialog in the movie, too.

Colin Smith said...

Hello, Sarah! Nice to have you unlurk for a moment. :)

Speaking of Sarah, a quick off-topic aside: my Sarah, FirstBorn the Cake-Maker, celebrates her birthday today. She is now as old as my wife was when she gave birth to her. So I'm feeling decrepit. On the bright side, she has insisted on making her own birthday cake. Chocolate ganache is involved. :D

OK, back to regular programming...

Kregger said...


My list is full is part of the nice auto-rejection litany.

Instead of closing for queries, the sentiment could be interpreted plate is full, but I'll always consider dessert.

And, of course, I'm rhubarb pie made with the leaves.


Please forgive my alter ego's previous post.

Happy B-day to Colin's oldest Cake-Maker!

Sarah said...

Colin, you had me at chocolate ganache. And nothing in your comments would suggest anything decrepit! I hope your family has a wonderful time celebrating Sarah tonight.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Congrats to Colin’s Sarah. My Kate’s birthday was Tuesday. She turned half my age. She did not make a cake. She was given one by the cast & crew of the show she works on.

And after Christmas, she leaves for LA to work on her first feature film. With two of our all time favorite actresses. But not allowed to say who.

Kids- they grow up so fast.

RachelErin said...

OP, some agents also don't do R&Rs. If they think the problems are fixable, they offer. If not, it's in the "I don't love it enough" or "I don't want to fix it" box. I recently saw this on another agents blog. So maybe some of your comments are from folks who don't find the R&R useful.

Karen McCoy said...

Joining the legions asking about character code. And congrats to Colin's Sarah! My mother just celebrated her 75th.

Beth Carpenter said...

Sarah, I love your example. This drives me crazy in stories, when a character is ready to fight to the death over some line-in-the-sand in one scene and casually ignores it in another, unless that's part of the character arc AND we've watched them get to that point. Real people are often inconsistant, but that drive me crazy as well.

Steve Stubbs said...

You wrote: "I ask for a revise and resubmit if there's a structural problem that can be fixed. Examples of this are ... a more compelling ending."

The ending is easy. Just write it after you write a good beginning. Do the middle last.

The "very positive feedback" is probably just Rejection Letter Boilerplate. If the agent says it just needs a little extra dash of je ne sais quoi to jet ski to the bestseller list, that says essentially nothing. Get a critique from a critter.

This reminds me of going to a "psychic fair" several years ago for laughs. Walking in the door I met a woman who told me all those people must really be psychics because they all told her the same thing. Imagine my surprise when they all told me the same thing as well. I did not conclude from that they were all real psychics, because what they told me was what they told the aforementioned woman. They all told the same thing to everybody who walked in the door.

Well, all but one. One of them is a prophet. He predicted the sun would rise tomorrow the way it always has for millions of years. Bingo! And he predicted that California would not slip into the sea, despite having Jerry Brown for a governor. Bingo bango!

There was not much there to parse.

So if you invested in beachfront property in Nevada, you got took.

John Davis Frain said...

I was going to throw in my thoughts on code, but Timothy Lowe already said what I would have attempted, and he said it much clearer than I ever could have.

So if I can just get my parking pass stamped, I'll go write a practice 30-word story. NOT. OMG, that first sentence was 31 freakin' words. I'd edit it, but then I'd have to edit my previous sentence and pretty soon ...

A wonderful & apropos quote from James Michener: "It takes me eight pages to say 'Hello.'"

Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting perspective. It appears to answer the conundrum of why writers get such conflicting comments as feedback. No one agent is giving an exhaustive list of problems, just picking a few that are easily or quickly pointed out. YIKES. Picture me abandoning my hamster wheel at the edge of the woodland and retreating deep into the darkly forested center, rather than risk querying only to find out EVERYTHING IS WRONG.

Kidding. Sort of.

OP, you have every reason to be optimistic and sleep well at night. Having several full requests is remarkable. I suspect an R&R and/or offer is on the near horizon for you. Best of luck!

Re, code: Yes, I agree with Timothy and John-- code is a non-writer's (sorry, Janet) term for source of conflict. A common type of conflict is two dogs/one bone. What each character is willing to do to get that "bone" is determined by their personal code. And that creates conflict, especially if one of the characters is willing to cross a line the other considers non-negotiable, which forces them to reexamine their own code. This code becomes apparent in various situations leading up to the final showdown, at which point we'll worry for our protag, knowing s/he will be tested sorely and have to make a hard choice.

Anonymous said...

Lest anyone think the protag's code must be honourable and admirable and above reproach, remember that Macbeth is the protagonist in that story. (an example -- of many, really -- that made me stop using the terms hero and villain)

Lennon Faris said...

OK, I was assuming Janet was not talking about the m.c.'s cardiac arrest history, but I wasn't sure what 'code' was either till I read the comments. Good to learn new stuff! And very interesting post.

I like this 'code' talk. When a character is presented with a situation and they react in a totally believable (not predictable, just believable) way, it is so satisfying.

And of course, vise-versa as Sarah pointed out.

Unbelievable inconsistency ruins a story!

Panda in Chief said...

Peeking in from my current post as (Panda) Lurker in Chief. Great discussion today.
Thank you. I needed that.

Timothy Lowe said...

Frain: I tried writing a 30-25-25-20 at 4am. Impossible. It's going to be interesting.

Kd - what makes Macbeth interesting is that he is caught in a constricting boa, yet he still thinks he's calling the shots. His code is interesting because he abandons it.

I spent a few minutes today looking over old FF entries I didn't wind up entering (it usually takes me 3 tries at least). I think there is a lesson in There for me for 2018, if I choose to learn it.

Gingermollymarilyn said...

Opie, what a great question, thanks for asking it. And, thanks, JANET, for your truly invaluable insight.

E.M. Goldsmith - Your daughter's life sounds soooo exciting - can't wait to find out more!

John Davis Frain said...


Regarding 4 a.m., which is generally regarded as four hours AFTER midnight:

"Nothing good happens after midnight."
-- Mothers around the world

Stacy said...

Reacher is such a great example of a guy with a code. Another one is Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch--only his is stated in the series: "Everybody counts or nobody counts."

Her Grace, Heidi, the Duchess of Kneale said...

Like Kregger says, some agents are full, but open to dessert. Perhaps they suffer from a professional kind of FOMO, or they're driven by a necessary form of optimism.

Cheyenne said...

Engaging lurk-off mode for a second here to say, wow. I am always amazed how awesome and kind this group is. On no other website do I actually smile and enjoy and feel better for having read the comments. Everyone is respectful (with the exception of some other lurker who made a comment when I was an OP once... but I digress) and gives such considered replies. And I always learn. This is nothing new, but I just felt compelled to say how lovely it is to see amidst the backdrop of the rest of the internet, which is a mighty depressing place most days. Happy Holidays, folks.

And thanks for talking about code, Janet. Definitely been a timely and applicable discussion!