Without further ado, I'd like to introduce my beloved agent, Victoria Skurnick of the Levine-Greenberg-Rosten Literary Agency (formerly Editor in Chief of Book of the Month Club and also a novelist, under the pen name Cynthia Victor, herself), to give you the inside scoop on what agents don't want.
Take it away, Victoria!
VICTORIA SKURNICK: I was all set to write a lovely piece about the daily activities of an agent, how wonderful it is to find an unknown author and contribute to his/her work becoming known, how much I adore the agency I’m lucky enough to work at, the intelligence and warmth of my colleagues. I was going to exclaim over the greatness of my clients.
And it’s all true – every word I say above is real. Yet, as I sit down to write this piece for Jungle Reds (and especially for my beloved Susan Elia MacNeal), I can’t bring myself to do it. You guys are experienced writers, so the last thing you need is a laundry list of agents’ complaints. And yet, I find myself longing to write a top ten (or maybe three or fifteen or twenty) list of the things that drive me crazy. I guess I’ve been longing to do it, and you guys are the unlucky recipients of my carping. But you might share a bunch of these, so - who knows? - maybe it will be downright pleasant. Here goes….
1. Referring to a novel as “a fiction novel.” I hear this about twenty times a day – I have written a fiction novel, 180,000 words, etc. Who, I ask you, is going to read 180,000 words when the assumption is you’re not James Michener? But mostly, what other kind of novel is there? Novels are fiction. Nonfiction is not made up of novels.
2. Stephen King in On Writing did a perfect hatchet job on adverbs, but they have not disappeared. They are alive and well – except where they belong. E.g., “I’m so fearful of what might happen if we take the car,” she said worriedly. “Go fuck yourself!” he said angrily. And then there are the thousands of “softlys” and “slowlys” and “reallys” and “justs.”
3. And now for all the places adverbs belong, but are rarely used. “The ballerina moved really good.” “I love to eat healthy; it makes me feel light.” What happened to moving well and eating healthfully? (Yes, I’m a crone, an anachronism, a woman of a certain age who had a great English teacher in the seventh grade.)
4. The disappearance of good grammar in general. And, by the way, this applies to the most successful and famous editors I know. One doesn’t lay down (unless one was especially tired last Wednesday); one lies down. You don’t feel badly; you feel bad – intransitive verbs do not take adverbs. He didn’t eliminate you and I; he eliminated you and me. And on and on. I sound older and older, huh?
5. “I’m definitely going to be on Oprah.” It wasn’t true in her heyday, and it certainly isn’t true now that Oprah’s barely on Oprah.
6. Editors who won’t call back, write back, or answer questions in any form. When I left my job as editor-in-chief of Book-of-the-Month Club seven years ago, my best friend, a publisher, warned me that going from buyer to seller meant my phone calls wouldn’t be returned with the alacrity I had grown used to. Well, if by “alacrity” she meant NEVER, she proved prescient. I am lucky; I hear back from editors at least most of the time. My younger colleagues claim that trying to find out what’s happening from an editor is like whistling into a canyon – all the noise is of your own making. Some call this behavior inefficient. I call it rude. And ultimately stupid, since I have long stopped submitting manuscripts to those editors who have too little time to write the word “no,” or, “maybe,” or “still reading.”
7. The phrases “buttery soft” and “abject fear.” I guess my antipathy comes from their being clichés, but it feels bigger than that. I swear. I don’t use the word “buttery” even when I’m talking about butter. Merely seeing the word turns my face a buttery shade of green.
8. “Oh, sure,” he said dryly. If I could elect the single phrase I hate the most, it would be anything that uses the adverb “dryly.” It’s a cliché, it should be unnecessary, it’s overused. It deserves a dual grave in hell right alongside “buttery.”
9. Authors (and agents and editors and everyone else on earth) who lack humility. “At one point did you know this novel was going to be a phenomenon?” I asked the author of an execrable but very popular novel during his Main Selection lunch at BOMC. “Ten minutes into writing it!” he answered in a tone of voice so smug it elicited looks of horror from even my most polite colleagues. When did you realize what a piece of junk it is, I felt like offering as a follow-up question, but did not out of a strong preference for keeping my job.
10. I’ve saved the worst for last: I hate hearing about agents who never get back to their clients. These are often the same people who demand “exclusives” for submissions. It’s rude, it’s unprofessional, and, most of all, it’s cruel. I’ve been an author; I know what it’s like to wait. But waiting for something that never comes, especially something that is the agent’s job, is unforgivable. I’ve heard many an agent rail against clients who are “too demanding.” Well, how about us? Are agents not subject to the rules of society? Do we not bleed?
Uh oh, the last phrase is the surest signal that I should stop right now. Thank you, Jungle Reds, for giving me the opportunity to rant — and my piece about the joys of being an agent is available upon request.
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Victoria, thank you so much! (And now I'm going to do a search and delete for all words ending in -ly in my manuscript...)
Reds and readers, what do you think? Do adverbs make you crazy? Have you been through the submission process? Are you thinking about it? Are Victoria's top ten no-nos helpful?