Author Topic: Confused about agent feedback  (Read 5783 times)

Offline Mavia

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Confused about agent feedback
« on: October 09, 2013, 10:49:22 AM »
Okay, so today I received a rejection from an agent based on my query and the first chapter. Her assistant sent the email, and said there was too much telling in the first few pages. I don't know - maybe she's right, but I haven't had that feedback from anyone else, and I'm wondering if she's on to something, or if this is just a form letter. I have my full MS out with five agents who read the first three chapters before requesting the full, and no one mentioned it. It seems like a strange comment to have in a form letter, but it's got me a bit upset. I don't really want to revise if it doesn't need revision, but I like to take all critiques into account. Any suggestions, input, or thoughts from anyone?

Offline Tabris

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #1 on: October 09, 2013, 10:58:22 AM »
First, go look at the agent's QT profile and look in the comments to see if that's the agent's form rejection. Most beginning writers put too much telling in the opening pages, but a lot of agents will overlook that if the writing is good in general.

Second, if you want to send me the first five pages, I'll take a look and see if I can find any hidden "tells" that you're not recognizing as tells. Or, alternatively, I can tell you to ignore the agent's feedback because there's no telling. ;-)  Some agents will flag things as "tells" or "backstory" when they're not really, just because thye're working on a different set of definitions than the writers. And that's okay. Ultimately it just means "not for me." But I'll look over your first 5 if you want me to.

Offline MookyMcD

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #2 on: October 09, 2013, 11:05:00 AM »
I seriously doubt that is a form letter. It may or may not be a valid criticism (I have been told two, mutually exclusive things during my brief adventure in queryland). I'll make the same offer if you want another set of eyes on the chapter.
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Offline bodwen

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #3 on: October 09, 2013, 11:18:16 AM »
Do you have your first five posted?  I'll go look.

It sounds like a personal taste thing.

Offline Mavia

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #4 on: October 09, 2013, 11:20:59 AM »
You guys are awesome!! Thank you so much!! I just reposted my first five here, but I'll post again, because it didn't show up for some reason. Give me a minute to format.

Offline Mavia

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #5 on: October 09, 2013, 11:24:07 AM »
First five pages:

               My hands were visibly shaking as I slid them off the counter, out of view from the receptionist. After stumbling through an awkward explanation of who I was and what I was doing at the police station, she pointed me to an eerily vacant waiting room. The walls were stark white, completely devoid of pictures, and I sat in a hard plastic chair. After waiting no more than five minutes a ruddy-faced, slightly overweight officer entered the room.
“Dr. Forssmann?” His grip was solid and his hands were massive and rough. “I’m Detective Andrews. Thanks for coming by.” He led me through the station to his surprisingly spacious office. “Can I get you something to drink? Coffee?”

   “Oh, no,” I said as I patted my extremely pregnant belly. “No caffeine for me. Maybe a cup of water?” If I was going to be viewed as a lousy psychiatrist at least I could make myself out to be a decent parent. As Detective Andrews was fetching water for me I took the time to assess his office. The diplomas on his walls were evidence of a distinguished military career, and the photos framed on his desk and bookshelf suggested he and his wife were the parents of two sons and one daughter. They all appeared to be college aged, and there was no indication any of them were married or had children of their own. A collection of commendation awards and certificates decorated the walls and with so little empty space left I wondered where he would put the new ones, should he ever receive more.

   Detective Andrews closed the door behind him, placed a coffee stained mug of water in front of me, and settled his stocky frame behind the faux mahogany desk that separated the two of us. When he sat his shirt collar squeezed his neck like a tourniquet. “So, tell me what brought you here today.”
What brought me here today? I took a deep breath and slowly exhaled, before replying in a forced polite tone. “My office manager, Rachel, received a call that there was a letter for me to pick up from one of my patients.”

   “What was your patient’s name?”

   “Sylvia Woolf.”

   “And what business did she have with us?” After another slow and controlled exhale, I realized my deep breathing tactic wasn’t working. My husband, Will, described this pregnancy as an emotional seesaw, which also ticked me off, but I suppose he was right. I had been utilizing a deep breathing technique I often suggested to my patients, but could finally see why most of them said it was useless.

   “I’m sorry,” I replied sarcastically. “I think maybe I’m talking to the wrong person. Someone from this department called me to come down here to pick up a letter written to me from my dead patient, Sylvia Woolf. Dead because she committed suicide, even though I treated her yesterday.” My voice became louder with each word, and I was on the verge of tears before I took a sip of stale coffee flavored water and leaned back in my chair, unable to speak without breaking down. I looked Detective Andrews in the eye feigning control of my emotions. His face softened and his expression was full of pity, but it didn’t anger me; it was actually quite comforting.

   “Dr. Forssmann, I’m sorry to have to question you like this, but it’s an active investigation, and I can’t release any information to the public. If you bring information to me we can discuss it, but I can’t give you any specifics of the case.”

   “You already told my office manager the name of my patient, and that she killed herself and left me a letter, so that’s obviously already public knowledge.” The burning question in my mind that I dared not ask: why is there an investigation into a suicide?

   “It’s not really public information. We didn’t have any way to reach you, since Rachel wouldn’t give us your cell phone number, and told us you were gone for the day. I thought about sending an officer to your house to bring you in, but I didn’t want to get the local rumor mills buzzing, so I figured this would be the most effective way to get you here as soon as possible.” My mind was racing, and I couldn’t stop hearing ‘bring you in’. Was I a suspect in Sylvia’s death? I wondered if there was some new law that made psychiatrists culpable for their patients’ suicides, and how I could not know about it. Detective Andrews seemed to sense my fear and calmly tried to reassure me. “You’re not a suspect in this case,” he said, apparently amused at the thought.

   “Then why did you need to bring me in?”

   “Sylvia’s death is not being investigated. We’re ninety-nine percent sure it was a suicide. The autopsy report will be done in a couple days to make us one-hundred percent sure. The content of her letter to you is what is being investigated. Until we find out what it means we can’t discuss or release any information about her death.”

   “Okay, well I guess I need to read it then.”

   “I can’t let you read it.” For the first time Detective Andrews appeared uncomfortable. “It’s considered,” he paused a moment as he looked at his large, calloused hands resting on his desk and finally added, “evidence.”

   “Evidence of what?” We were obviously no longer talking about the suicide.

              “I’m not really sure yet. This is a very unusual case, and I was hoping you could shed some light on Sylvia’s state of mind.” I had the urge to tell him everything about Sylvia’s psychotic delusions, but knew better.

   “Because of patient confidentiality laws I can’t tell you everything without…” My voice trailed off.

   “I understand, and we’ll get a subpoena if we think it’s necessary, but I’m kind of thinking that Sylvia was just…well, kind of crazy. The things she wrote in her letter are really bizarre, but there are some things concerning enough for us to investigate. If you could just give me some details about your interactions with Sylvia outside of the doctor-patient setting I think it would really help. I mean, did you see her interact with other patients in the waiting room, or with Rachel? Anything you can tell me would be helpful.” Just as I was convincing myself this letter was merely the ramblings of a psychotic woman I remembered the interaction between Sylvia and Rachel. I considered not even mentioning it, since I didn’t want Rachel to get dragged into this, but it kept nagging at me, and Detective Andrews quickly picked up on my uneasiness. “You look like you’re deep in thought about something.”

   “I didn’t see Sylvia interact with any other patients, but there was an unusual exchange between her and Rachel, as she was leaving the office after her last appointment.”

   “Tell me about it.” Detective Andrews finally opened the notebook in front of him and started scribbling notes.

   “After the appointment I walked Sylvia to the front office so she could make a follow up appointment with Rachel. I noticed when she looked at Rachel she seemed almost…disgusted. Well, I usually don’t hang around while patients schedule follow-ups, but I was curious about her expression, so I just stayed in the doorway.”

   “Did Rachel seem to respond to the look Sylvia gave her?”

   “I don’t know. From where I was standing I couldn’t see Rachel’s face.” I imagined Rachel smiling at Sylvia despite the glare she was receiving, trying to make her feel more comfortable. She had a knack for putting angered patients at ease, but that was not the case yesterday. “After they made the appointment Rachel handed her a reminder card, and Sylvia handed her some sort of religious card. It had a crucifix on one side and some writing on the back.”

   “Could you see what it said?” Detective Andrews was listening attentively and feverishly writing every word he heard.

   “No, but I’m pretty sure it was something from the bible, because she quoted some scripture to Rachel before she left.”

   “What scripture was it?” Shame crept in as I realized my lack of biblical knowledge was about to be exposed.
 
   “I can’t tell you exactly what she said, but I can tell you what I thought it meant.”

   “Like I said, Dr. Forssmann, anything would be helpful.” No apparent judgment from the detective.

Offline Tabris

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #6 on: October 09, 2013, 12:30:36 PM »
Okay, after a quick glance over the first five, I think what the agent means isn't what we mean by "telling." When we're saying "show don't tell" on this forum, we mean things like "Balzor was proud. Looking out over the city, the wicked demon swelled with amazement that he'd done such a good job corrupting the city."

The "telling" in your segment seems to be that the backstory of the novel is dumped into the dialogue of the detective and your MC. In other words, there's no action but a couple of talking heads who are discussing what happened in the fifty pages before the opening page ever happened.

So a less "telly" version of this opening would perhaps involve her just going up to the counter and saying, "I'm here to pick up the letter from Sylvia Woolfe." And when the receptionist looks confused, "Sylvia Woolfe. She committed suicide yesterday. You called that I needed to pick it up."

And then as she's being led to the detective's office, she can remember the last time she saw Sylvia, wonder what's in the letter, castigate herself for not seeing any warning signs of suicide, and remember that weird exchange with Rachel at the end. Then she gets into the Detective's office and he starts grilling her, and she wonders if there's something more or maybe she's a suspect. In fact, maybe she shouldn't even wonder if she's a suspect: maybe she should say, "I'm beginning to think I need a lawyer present."

The tricky thing here is that of course during a police interrogation people are going to tell a whole story. But you need as the writer to keep as much of it shown as possible. That means setting a stage and remembering that last exchange with Rachel so you can narrate it as a scene without it being in dialogue. And then, "After I related this to the detective..." etc. But in narrating Sylvia's exchange with Rachel, we'll see a little of Sylvia's last day, we'll see her for ourselves, we'll see Rachel for ourselves, and we'll be able to draw our own conclusions. We'll see the MC interacting with Sylvia in a way that her own dialogue is not going to convey.

So my opinion: you're several lengths above "Belzor was proud because he'd hurt people, and he had no empathy," but OTOH, you can now take your characterization deeper by taking some of these details out of dialogue and putting them into her head.

eg your original:
Quote
“After the appointment I walked Sylvia to the front office so she could make a follow up appointment with Rachel. I noticed when she looked at Rachel she seemed almost…disgusted. Well, I usually don’t hang around while patients schedule follow-ups, but I was curious about her expression, so I just stayed in the doorway.”

   “Did Rachel seem to respond to the look Sylvia gave her?”

   “I don’t know. From where I was standing I couldn’t see Rachel’s face.” I imagined Rachel smiling at Sylvia despite the glare she was receiving, trying to make her feel more comfortable. She had a knack for putting angered patients at ease, but that was not the case yesterday. “After they made the appointment Rachel handed her a reminder card, and Sylvia handed her some sort of religious card. It had a crucifix on one side and some writing on the back.”

If you take that out of dialogue:

Quote
Yeah, those last minutes I'd ever seen Sylvia -- I didn't realize, I didn't realize -- she'd been making her follow-up appointment while I was getting another cup of coffee from the Kuerig. Rachel sounded a little uneasy, so I turned, and Sylvia had looked disgusted. The machine beeped, but I didn't grab my coffee, just watched over Rachel's shoulder as she handed Sylvia an appointment card.

Sylvia had groped in that purse she always carried, the one that reminded me of Mary Poppins' carpet bag, and pulled out a laminated card with a crucifix. She thrust it at Rachel, who took it with, "Um, thanks."

I said to the detective, "She wasn't religious. But the last thing she said to my receptionist was some quote from the Bible. At least, it had a lot of Thees and Thous in it, and it sounded like something I may have heard before."

Now OBVIOUSLY I'm just pulling stuff out of my head, and I'm not suggesting a 1:1 replacement (please, no) but I'm trying to illustrate how you can do it more of a showy way than a tell-y way.

Does this make sense? BTW, because this is in the opening pages, if I were reviewing this, I'd assume you don't do it very often in the story, but you're struggling against a need to provide some backstory, and this is a fair way of getting around it. It's also something most agents would assume could be massaged out and would be okay with going back over it with you during edits, so not on its own a reason to reject. This particular agent felt otherwise. Pick up, dust off, move on.
« Last Edit: October 09, 2013, 12:32:44 PM by Tabris »

Offline Mavia

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #7 on: October 09, 2013, 12:58:16 PM »
Oh my! Thank you Tabris! Not sure I'm ready to make too many changes just yet, but I found the agent profile comments section you were talking about. I could waste all kinds of time in there! Turns out, someone else recently received the same rejection letter. So, WTH? Why would they send out a form letter like that?? Unless they have an assortment of form rejection letters and pick the one that fits best. I'm still confused!

Offline slightlysmall

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #8 on: October 09, 2013, 01:02:22 PM »
FWIW, I love your FF. I think they work much better than earlier versions and don't see a ton of telling going on in them.

Offline bodwen

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #9 on: October 09, 2013, 01:05:22 PM »
I didn't find the writing all that tell-y.  Not compared to most commercially published books out there.  Here is another theory.  (And it is just a theory.)  Is it possible that since this is being shopped as a thriller, the agent's assistant was expecting to see more mayhem in the opening pages?  By too much "telling" she might have meant that the opening relied too much on internal and external dialogue to advance the story rather than intense action or gory description to get the reader's blood racing.

It's just a guess, since I tend not to color within the lines as far as genres go, but most of the thrillers I've seen have pretty gruesome openings.  Like describing a corpse on the first page, or a bomb, or a plane crash, or a shadowy figure plotting some evil deed.  My theory is that people who buy thrillers skim the first page or two before deciding to buy, so publishers like to see a lot of action packed into the beginning.

Can someone with more experience than me in the thriller genre tell me if I'm right? If I'm right, rather than coming in to pick up a letter, might she have been called in by the police to identify the body?  Then she can start by describing the corpse, the markings on the neck, how she looked while alive, and that should sustain the reader's thirst for blood and the rest should be fine.

Offline Tabris

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #10 on: October 09, 2013, 01:08:54 PM »
Oh my! Thank you Tabris! Not sure I'm ready to make too many changes just yet, but I found the agent profile comments section you were talking about. I could waste all kinds of time in there! Turns out, someone else recently received the same rejection letter. So, WTH? Why would they send out a form letter like that?? Unless they have an assortment of form rejection letters and pick the one that fits best. I'm still confused!

Absolutely, don't make changes based on one person's questionable feedback. And never, never NEVER make changes you don't agree with.

This is probably just one of their standard forms and you didn't quite fit any form and this was the closest. or they picked the wrong form letter rejection to send. Whatevz. One agent. One rejection. One opinion.


Offline Mavia

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #11 on: October 09, 2013, 01:29:59 PM »
SS - thank you. That meant a lot!

Bowden - That made me laugh. Perhaps I should market it as a mystery instead of a thriller. Although, there is some gore and blood in there!

Tabris - You have the right idea. I should just brush it off. Even if it was directed specifically to me, whatever. For now I'll just see what other agents have to say, and if it becomes a pattern, I'll address it then.

Offline MookyMcD

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #12 on: October 09, 2013, 01:54:11 PM »
For now I'll just see what other agents have to say, and if it becomes a pattern, I'll address it then.

 :agree: ...with the advice you are giving yourself on this thread.
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Offline chylu

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #13 on: December 05, 2013, 06:05:17 PM »
This thread seems pretty well wrapped up and I came to it a bit late, but reading through it and seeing the awesome feedback and encouragement everyone gave, I have to applaud you all.

Mavia, it must've been hard to receive that email, but I agree with what the others have said. I'm slowly getting my feet into these forums and I'm so impressed by the supportive community. Sorry to butt in, but I felt it needed to be said!  :clap:

Offline Sarah Ahiers (Falen)

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Re: Confused about agent feedback
« Reply #14 on: December 06, 2013, 07:46:41 AM »
The good news regarding Mavia, too, is not too much longer after this post, she signed with an agent!
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