In every sado-masochistic relationship, the participants agree on a safety word, the one word from the whipee that will tell the whipper to stop with the whipping already.

So, dear readers, I have to ask. When do you move on? When do you shit-can a project that's not selling, an agent who stops returning your calls, or an editor who wants to change your masterpiece about the reanimated hooker into something for the YA market? When, in this S&M relationship we call publishing, do you use your safety word?

Recently, a young friend landed an agent for his first novel. I've read a fair chunk of the ms and if I had to categorize it, and we always do, I'd say it's a suspense novel as written by Peter DeVries. It's funny, the characters are loveably left of center, but there is a dark note that plays throughout.

For a little less than a year, his agent has tried to sell the ms with no success. That's not all that surprising. But what intrigued me, and made me want to solicit your opinion, was a note the agent sent to my friend. I'm paraphrasing it so that I won't get my friend into trouble, but here's what the agent said:

"I've heard from a reliable source that some agents send a ms. from a new client to only 8 editors. If those editors reject the ms, that project is dead and that client stops getting his calls returned. I'm not like that. I really tried to place your ms with every editor in the known universe and no one bit. It doesn't look promising. Editors who bought humorous suspensers in the past aren't buying anything new. What they want now is non-fiction. No suspense, especially with male protagonists. Women's fiction and erotic fantasy or romance still sell and the buzz on the next big thing is urban fantasy."

Then the agent tells my friend that if he writes anything non-fiction or urban fantasy, to let him know and they'd talk.

My friend asks my advice and I'd suggest moving on to the next book and letting this one go. I'd also start looking for a new agent when the new ms is done. I think what we have here is a first novel that isn't quite ready and an agent that isn't enthusiastic about future work, both so common in this business as to be near universal.

My questions to you, dear friends, are these:

1. Have you heard of agents flagging new clients and soliciting a select few editors?
2. Is suspense with male protagonists dead? After reading Ray Banks, Sean Doolittle, Ken Bruen, Jason Starr, Victor Gischler and Jim Born in just the past few weeks, I'd say no, but maybe things are changing.
3. What would your advice be to this young writer? Should he move on to a new novel and a new agent, as I've advised? What would you tell him?
4. What the fuck is urban fantasy?

I've referred my friend to this space so he'll read your comments. I appreciate your help.

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Jesus, that's a harsh lesson.

I parted company with an agent some time ago when I realised that all he had done was stop anything positive happening. I'd stopped submitting and writing because it was time to wait and see. He was... wrong. For me, anyway. When he stopped submitting something I had thought needed work but that he claimed to be enthusiastic about (after about a dozen rejections) and began advising me to self-publish it (!), I saw the light. (Don't get me wrong - there's nothing wrong with self-publishing, it has an honourable tradition, and in the right circumstances is a viable option - but I needed help with my effort!) By then I had done the 'Och, well, let's put it down to experience' thing and submitted to him something I felt was stronger. He allegedly put it out to a reader who was enthusiastic (he sent me a report), and yet resisted binning the first effort and championing the second. I walked. I wasted time and am still buggering about, despite positive chunterings from someone I respect and admire.

Is suspense with male protagonists dead? Is it bollocks!

I was recently advised to plot a ms retrospectively. In other words, take something you've already written and plot it out, chapter by chapter. This will show you the path of the story and will help highlight flaws and errors. I don't doubt, when I have completed the exercise, it will prove to be incredibly useful. It may prove to me that I ought to bin the project; then again, it may give me a sense of purpose with something I have found difficult to love just lately.

Urban fantasy, as far as I am aware, is horror by another name.

As far as your friend is concerned, my advice (for what it is worth) is: take it on the chin; move on - and despite the temptation to keep in touch with something familiar, don't look back; trust the judgement of readers/writers you know (like David, you lucky person!) and believe in yourself. My most frequently used mantra is 'I'm so crap'. This kind of behaviour truly helps no-one. And the biggest difference between the published and the unpublished writer is perisistence.

Go for it, and good luck!
1. No, not exactly. Doesn't mean it isn't true of some agents, but it isn't something I've heard of. I was 'back-doored' by an agent, for lack of a better term. When I was first trying to get an agent a couple years ago an agent took a full manuscript. I hadn't heard from them in terms of representation. Then, when I did hear from them, they said they'd taken the manucript around to some editors and these were the responses (and included a couple notes about "Canada?" and expressing a distinct lack of interest in my setting). This is a serious problem because they didn't represent me, I had no awareness they were taking it to anyone, and meanwhile there were other agents talking to me. WIthout a list of submission venues, it can make other agents nervous about taking on a book then, and possibly putting it in front of someone who's already turned it down. It was basically the death of that book for me, in terms of getting an agent for it. The agent you want to have representing you is one who'll sign you on because they're enthusiastic about your work, and they'll stick with you through a few manuscripts, not one who's only in it for a quick sale. (Do they know nothing about publishing? I'd venture a guess the average time on selling a manuscript must be 4-6 months, though I don't have a stat there.)

2. Absolutely not. I'll stop reading if they are, but I'd venture to ask if the person has heard of Rebus, Bosch or Reacher, to name but a few more. And then there are the authors you already touched on, plus Stuart MacBride's series...

3. Probably new novel and new agent. It doesn't mean the present one can't be revisited, and it's possible it just didn't get on the right editor's desk. But at the very least, new agent. This one doesn't seem to have the passion needed to sell him. There may also be smaller presses this person should consider. I wouldn't discount the value of building a readership through publishers such as Poisoned Pen Press, Bleak House, etc.

4. When you find out, let me know.
Eek, what a story about that agent. Isn't it typical to sign a contract with agents so you both know where you stand? Otherwise you get into this kind of situation, where you have other agents who are leery of taking on a writer not knowing where a book has been submitted already.

As for "Canada?" - I hope that doesn't persist. US publishers seem to have finally discovered the rest of the world (or at least have discovered US readers actually like reading beyond US borders). I predict Canada will be the hot new location.

And male suspense protagonists will be hot.

And Urban Fantasy will be so last week.

Mind you, I have no idea what I'm talking about, but at least I'm honest.
I have no idea what I'm talking about, but at least I'm honest. LOL Barbara!

Yeah, it was a bad situation with that agent. Yes, you should have a representation agreement. I had no idea they were doing that until they sent me a letter with the various responses. And a lot of agents do want to know who else is considering/has considered you or if you've had representation... As I said, it pretty much killed me getting an agent at that point. And unfortunately, they're a 'respected' agent with a good reputation.

I don't think "Canada?" will persist. The other criticism, actually was "RCMP". And the hilarious thing is that in the past couple of years there have been so many scandals to rock the RCMP that they've just been giving me material. It's practically gift-wrapped! But there's a stereotype about the RCMP, and Canada in general, that's been an obstacle, but things change. As others have said, the writing will win out sooner or later.

And yes, male suspense protagonists will be hot! Last book I read had a male protagonist in their early 30s.
As to #2: No genre is dead. Ever. It's complete bullshit. It's all about timing. Anyone who claims a particular genre or even subgenre is dead is an idiot. An agent saying they can't sell a particular genre because "it's dead" is a lazy agent, or an agent that is being too nice to say, "It's not good enough."

In TV and film your #1 query is certainly true. I have no idea if it is in publishing. IMHO, it means an agent that is lazy or doesn't fully believe in the writer or project, and is simply tossing it out there to see if he/she can make an easy deal.

As to #3... it's a cliche, but I feel that, in film, TV, books, poetry, short stories, whatever the hell, you only write at your best when you're writing what you feel inside. If it's commercial and timely, gravy. If it ain't, you still gotta write it. Good writing will find a home. If you write to the marketplace, you will usually be wrong, or late-or-early, and even if you actually make a sale, it won't be your best writing, and the first book to hit the stands is so important to a career in this ADD day and age.

Oh, and my safe word is "apricots."
1) After reading Miss Snark's blog for a while, I noticed that she doesn't solicit just a few editors on projects, but in the comments columns a number of replies were from authors who said their agent had done just that with their project. I've also read at an agent's blog that with some things there are a very limited number of places you can submit projects in certain genres, so I guess it just depends.

2) Huh? I wouldn't think so.

3) I certainly hope he's been working on another project while waiting to hear back on this one. I'd set it aside for now, finish the other project, find a new agent, and when the agent starts ask what else he's got, dust the older one off, run through it to see if anything needs fixing, and send it in. If there's interest, then discuss what happened before. Markets change, and editors change houses. He might have a better chance with it later. Also, it wouldn't hurt to make sure he's formally parted company with his present agent, in writing. Some agents will try to claim a piece of whatever you make on a project that they've previously represented, even if they aren't the ones who actually sold it. If he's got a written agreement with the agent, he needs to check and see what the terms are.
I can't believe any genre's dead. It might be out of fashion, but that doesn't mean it won't be in fashion some other time when something interesting and new comes around.

I think it wouldn't be a bad idea to shelve this for the moment. He might have better luck with a different agent. Either way get to work on something else.

And Urban Fantasy is all those magic, vampire and werewolf stories taking place in the naked city. Laurell Hamilton, Charles DeLint, etc.
Mind you, the market is horrid. I also have male protagonists, so that statement scared me. I do know that women's fiction sells better, but I'd rather eat nails than write women's fiction. And I am occasionally pressured in that direction.
I do have a wonderful agent, but she has just informed me that my publisher will not take a short story collection and that nobody else will either because they don't sell. I like the book and don't know what I'll do with it. However, the fact that she only submitted it to my current publisher is unusual. She normally submits my novel mss to some 20 or so of the big houses, I think.
I agree with Paul Guyot and shall always write what I want to write. Unfortunately in my case that tends to be not what the masses want.
As for switching genre: that I have done. But I'm still writing what I want and it isn't women's fiction or urban fantasy or any of the other fads.
Suspense with male protagonists dead? I very much doubt it! So next year we are only going to get books with female protagonists who are werewolves? I certainly hope not. I would like to think that any book that has great characters, excellent writing and a good plot would sell, but maybe I'm just being Pollyanna. And I certainly wouldn't recommend your friend writes an urban fantasy. For a start, unless his heart is in it it will be flat and soulless. I don't think writing for the market works unless it's something you actually WANT to write. Besides, by the time he's finished, urban fantasy will be sooooooo last year, and the next big thing will be 17th century historicals featuring pantaloon wearing pigs who talk in rhyme. And Jools, give me my mantra back :o)
1. yes
2. no
3. yes
3a not every good project sells. Move on.
4. no dragons. think Charlie Huston for girls. (I'll probably get my ass kicked for that, but I'm not much of an expert on it either)

PS the phrase is "safe word" not "safety". The only safety in s/m are pins....
Jim Butcher is urban fantasy. For a TV example, think Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. It's fantasy (magic, paranormal or supernatural activity, etc.) set in a modern, technologically-advanced world.
1. Yes, but only through hearsay.
2. Hah! Really? That's quite a big switch the agent is asking your friend to make.
3. Exactly what you did, but what do I know?
4. Urban fantasy is like Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a novel. Think Laurell K. Hamilton and L.A. Banks. Kinda gritty fantasy set in a real-ish sort of urban landscape.


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