Miss Snark the Literary Agent has her crapometer back in action for the holiday season. For those of you not familiar with Miss Snark, she's an anonymous agent blogger who occasionally allows readers to send her various things that an agent might see--synopses, opening pages, etc.--and then comments on them. I entered last year with my synopsis for The Sergeant's Lady, and her feedback showed me how to strengthen it significantly.
This year she's looking at hooks--the meat of a query letter or verbal pitch designed to entice an editor or agent to read more of your work. I didn't enter this time around, because to do so seemed vaguely rude to my own agent, not to mention taking up a slot that might be more useful to a writer at an earlier stage of the journey. But it's a fascinating read, and I can usually tell when a hook is strong enough for her to request more material (winners get to send her their opening pages for critique) or spot the flaws in the ones that don't pass muster.
At the RWA National conference last summer, I sat in on part of a workshop where a pair of agents and an editor listened to a designated reader read opening lines of stories contributed by the audience, then told us at what point they'd stop reading and why, or, in very rare cases, asked the writer to send more material. (Actually, one of the agents would actually shout, "Stop!" at the moment she'd decide to send a form rejection--often the very first line. Not a workshop for the thin-skinned.) I didn't enter my work mostly because I already had an agent and TSL was on the desk of another editor at the same publisher, so there didn't seem to be much point, but also because I couldn't quite trust myself not to leave the room in tears if my work got an immediate "Stop!" And I'm pretty sure it would've been gonged off the stage before the reader even reached my opening sentence--I have a log line naming the setting as "Spain, June 1811," and the agent wasn't even remotely open to non-traditional settings.
Anyway, again I could almost always tell which entries would generate requests for more material. Good writing really does leap out at you. The major difference between my evaluation and Miss Snark's and the RWA panel's is that I'm looking for a book I'd like to read, while they're looking for that, AND a book they think they can sell. The agent at RWA would reject a story that opened in, say, Venezuela, because "romances set in South America don't sell." As a reader who's tired of the same-old, same-old, I'd consider the Venezuelan setting a plus. A story might be rejected because no one buys traditional Regencies anymore, which is perfectly true, and is why I comb used bookstores looking for them, because I love them and wish the market hadn't died. On the other hand, if we go twenty years without a single book more involving sinister conspiracies within the Catholic church, or, over in romance land, another series about a brotherhood of Regency-era spy dukes, it'll still be too soon for me. But those books sell, and so editors and agents are all over them if they're decently written. It's frustrating, because I wish my tastes were more in line with market trends--I'd have better luck finding good books to read, not to mention an easier time selling!