Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Literary Agent Victoria Skurnick of LGR Gives Top Ten Submission No-Nos

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: What do literary agents want? What are they looking for? (I'm not an agent and I get asked this all the time.) And what drives them absolutely bonkers?

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? 


  1. Well, no . . . adverbs don't really make me crazy unless they're used improperly.
    I chuckled through many of the no-nos even as I was nodding in agreement and decided that what Miss Victoria might need most of all was for the world to discover manners again . . . .

  2. I don't mind adverbs at all, he said lazily.

    Seriously, I know it's supposed to be lazy writing, but I don't get it. Maybe it's because the published books I see use them sparingly, but they don't even cross my radar.

    And half of those grammar rules I learned in school I can never keep straight these days. I just don't use them enough.

    (And I knew this reply was going to be brilliant before I even knew what the topic of the day was going to be.)

  3. "Fiction novel." I'm a member of a few LinkedIn groups that cater to those who want to be published, have self published, etc.-- mainly so that they will find me if they need a media lawyer. I constantly see self-proclaimed "professional writers" claiming to have written a "fiction novel." Sometimes I ask the same question Victoria Skurnick does: what other kind of novel is there? (Even Truman Capote's infamous "nonfiction novel" turns out to be an extrapolation of the facts, and thus a fictitious rendering.)

    Sometimes I ignore that gaffe because they are probably going to be victims of vulture publishers and so will undoubtedly need a lawyer soon (she says, smiling through gritted teeth).

  4. Very helpful! I'm glad I wasn't aware of the preponderance of "fiction novels" these days.

    I'm fortunate not to be in the hunt for any agent any longer, but when I was, the ones who never replied were the most frustrating. Thank you for being one who does.

    Language change in progress is a hard thing to take, but it's what languages do. And American English is losing case marking - people have no idea that it's wrong to say "He eliminated you and I." Sigh. Grates on me, too.

  5. It's a treat to find someone else who thinks civility includes replying even with a simple "no thanks" is still proper (and good business).

    Edith is right about changing language. I find I am now past the age when I recall my grandparents snarling at the black and white television, "Winston tastes good, AS a cigarette should."

    They lost that battle and "Me and Edith" are probably going to lose hers as well.

    I am not a fan of adverbs. Most hide a flabby verb.

    ~ Jim

  6. Welcome, Victoria!

    If it makes anyone feel better, we're raising the kiddo with proper grammar, although he says, "that's not how my friends talk!"

  7. "Fiction novel". At first, I thought you were joking. Wow!

    Each of my high school English teachers taught us that everything we wrote had to contain certain sorts of figures of speech. The class had to pick apart our essays or speeches, and we'd be penalized if we used fewer than four or five. My college freshman English professor taught us that all of those elements were wrong and were to never be used in anything we submitted to her. Talk about language changing! This was back in the sixties. I have no idea how composition is taught now.

    It has never bothered me to read a novel containing lots of adverbs, unless they are silly, and silliness was NOT what the writer intended. What DOES annoy me is the overuse of words. One author uses the word "frown", or variations of it, so often that I've sometimes counted how many times it was used in a page and a half. I came up with 8 in a page and a half in one book. Variations of the word appeared throughout the rest of the book but they weren't all crammed together. Whenever I read anything by that author now, I find myself counting the "frowns".

  8. LOVE THIS POST! Thank you Victoria! I'm in Yellow Sprngs right now at a writing conference, and finding one of the hard things to explain is that the novel needs to have a story line. Not this happens and then this happens and then this... but a connected series of things HAPPENING that cause other things to happen and propels us along... and makes us care about what's going to happen next.

    Confession: I met Victoria in (egadz) 1971? We shared close friends Eve and Joe Cimmet who lived in the same building as my husband me on West End Ave. She was writing jacket copy (yes?) at the time and I was teaching at PS 189.

    Love you, Victoria!

  9. I tend to be forgiving when it comes to grammar. There are just so many rules. ;)

    I think everyone makes mistakes at times, but I could never let the phrase "a fiction novel" slide. If an author doesn't know this is wrong, I am probably not going to enjoy their book.

    As for rude and arrogant - I don't care what industry you are in, you are not that special! (Well, unless you are a Jungle Red, then you ARE that special but you are most definitely NOT rude or arrogant.)

  10. Oh, Victoria - I think I love you! From the grammar to lack of professional response, we are kindred spirits.

    Thank you!

  11. Well, ya know, EVERYONE knows how to write, right? So, really, how hard can it be, really, to write a GREAT FICTION NOVEL?

    And my response to that would be, I can open my mouth and sing, too, but ain't NOBODY gonna pay me to do it!

    Craft. Paying your dues by learning the basics (i.e., grammar!), reading--lots of reading, writing, revising, writing more, writing lots more, throwing it all away and starting again. Polishing. And humility to accept help (i.e., a well-intended critique). On the other side of the coin, as so many here have pointed out--common decency and courtesy and manners--if you've taken the time to read an author's submission, surely you can respond with that simple "yes," "no," or "maybe."

  12. I'm with everyone else on the need for manners. Even if you can't send a detailed answer, at least acknowledge the fact that I got in touch with you - "I will respond later this week when I have more time." Ugh.

    I'm iffy on adverbs. If they are used on every single line - yeah, too many. But used sparingly? I'm okay with that.

    I have a BA and an MA in English. The grammar foibles I see in, oh, everything these days drives me crazy. One of my favorites was a local billboard advertising a sale, "every first Saturday of the month." Huh? And don't get me started on newspapers (that should know better).

  13. And oh - as someone who hopes to start submitting early next year, the list is very helpful. Thanks!

  14. Ah, manners! What a concept. Love hearing back from you and thanks for reading my rant. V

  15. Oh, how I love this Victoria! How pleasurable to read straightforward, unapologetic commitment to the properly written sentence. And she's droll too. (Has everyone noticed that it's no longer de rigueur to use a comma before "too"?) Lucky the writers who have Ms. Skurnick as their agent.

  16. Oh, sorry--I'm Lorrie Bodger, friend of Hallie Ephron and Betsy Carter, and I try to live up to Ms. Skurnick's standards on my blog, The Book Under Her Bed (www.thebookunderherbed), which was featured on THIS blog about a month ago. Appreciation to all.

  17. Susan-I had the same response: Must search for -ly words in current manuscript and edit accordingly. (See? They just happen naturally. Oops! There I go again.)

    Victoria, it's always nice to hear from the other side of the desk!

  18. Victoria, I have the best agent in the world and I'm sending this to her right now because she will love it.

    (No offense meant to you by the qualifier, of course, but I've been with my agent longer than I've been married to my second husband, and she has been my ONLY agent. The universe smiled on me.)

    Someday you'll have to share the things you love about being an agent, but I'm glad you had the chance to blow off a little steam here at JRW!

  19. Even though I already have an agent, I am interested in your comments, Victoria. They are a reminder of the human side of publishing - which feels all about big business and nothing more these days. Writing is about solitude, but publishing is about relationships. Thank you so much for sharing.

    PS - Right before my first novel went through its final edit at the publishing house, I asked a friend to read it. When she was done, she said, "You must get rid of all the 'justs'." I ran a word search and discovered more than 200 for no good reason at all. It must have been some kind of writing tic, and I'm so grateful to her. I removed them all just in time for the book to go to press!

  20. Lorrie - You have wonderful taste in friends. I hope we get to meet one of these days.

    And thank you to everyone who has left a comment. What a pleasure to write something for people who actually (ADVERB) read it. xxxVictoria

  21. Lorrie, I love the comma before too, too. : )

    Victoria (or as the kiddo and I call her, "Agent V") truly is the best. I think she decided to represent me because I wrote something in a proposal ending "with her and me." She actually pointed it out in her next letter/email!

  22. Loved it, Victoria. What about all those verbs instead of "said."
    "You!"She exclaimed
    "Who else!" he shouted
    "Why did you come?"
    she emoted
    "You know why," he snarled.

  23. Rhys - I'm a charter member of Elmore Leonard fan club when it comes to the verb (she opined.).

  24. Oh, verbs other than "said" or "asked." Sigh. I hit people all the time in critiques with those.

    What about the people who scatter exclamation marks throughout their manuscripts like confetti at a Super Bowl parade? A friend once told me I got to use one exclamation mark per novel, so use it well.

  25. "Truly unique" or, worse, "very unique." It's either unique or it's not. Even if the author makes grammatical errors, the editor should weed them out. One of my favorite unweeded errors of all time: "While having sex, the telephone rang."

  26. I love this post!

    I'm in a scary place: between agents with one novel out. The thought of querying like a newbie all over again fills me with part dread/part ennui.

    So many lovely agents out there in the in world though. Thanks, Victoria, for the reminder!

    Using "good" rather than "well" drives me batty. Also, "disorientated" -- what the hell is that? :-)

  27. Victoria, I'm happy to read that you favor replies, as leaving someone hanging is rude and often cruel, especially where a book manuscript is concerned. That manuscript means the world to its author, even if it's not the next great American novel. I'm a big fan of replying to people in general.

    The term "fiction novel" seems a silly mistake to make as a writer, and I have never used the term. However, for those people who haven't grown up as rabid readers or English majors, I have sometimes wondered if everyone is familiar with the word "novel" meaning fiction. Don't misunderstand. I'm not accusing people of being stupid, and I'm not defending ever using "fiction novel," but I think those of us ensconced in the world of novels sometimes assume that the whole populace is fluent in our jargon, albeit a basic word.

    Lorrie, I must have had my head in the sand to not notice the lack of a comma before too. I will never give up that comma. It is as ingrained in my writing as starting a sentence with a capital letter. Of course, I am also a hold-out for the Oxford comma.

    As far as adverbs are concerned, I recognize that a strong verb is preferable to a scattering of adverbs, but I am more forgiving than some on the use of adverbs. I had a creative writing teacher in high school who forbid the use of "very," so I try to avoid that one. When my children were teenagers, there was a popular song that used incorrect grammar, and I would continually correct it to the aggravation of my kids. I use "well" when telling my granddaughters that they did an activity in good form, hoping that every little bit counts. One grammar rule that I grew up with is to not end a sentence with a preposition, but that rule seems to have undergone a forgiving relaxation. I still try to observe the preposition ending rule, but I admit that I am more lax about it these days.

    Kim, I found your "just" usage interesting. I think I probably overuse that word, too, and I'm working on overusing "so." Hallie, I would love to sit in on your class about storyline. I would think that writers would be able to grasp the connecting events, although having taught writing to a younger crowd, it's always a revelation what should be a given and what isn't.

    Kristopher, I couldn't agree more that rude and arrogant are unacceptable whatever occupation you practice. Also, that one of the most endearing characteristics of the Reds is their humble demeanor in the face of all of their great writing. Mark, you made me laugh, but you are indeed special.

  28. Good grammar and good manners, along with good personal hygiene, can take a person about as far as they can go, I think.

    Susan, keep up the good work with the kiddo. Our girls were thought odd when they correctly used "whom". Now my middle daughter is considered, by far, the best writer in her tech company, and it has served her well. The ability to write a well-crafted report or business letter makes her stand out amongst barely literate nerds.

    Keep up the good fight, Victoria. It's a dirty job, I know.

  29. Naturally, I used the word "good" five times in the above post.

    It was for effect. Yeah, let's go with that.

  30. Naturally, I used the word "good" five times in the above post.

    It was for effect. Yeah, let's go with that.

  31. I love you I love you I love you.

    All I can say.


  32. I loved this post! And bravo to the writers who are now scouring their manuscripts for those pesky "ly" words. Now, it's back to work on my fiction novel manuscript. :-)

  33. What's really hard about being a parent who wants to raise a kid with proper grammar is none of the TV shows and movies use it. So I'm always shouting, "with Jack and ME — NOT with Jack and I" from the kitchen or wherever. (This is why I have high blood pressure.)

    However, the kiddo did recently throw out "I wish I were" so that made me happy....

  34. Thank you, Victoria--I just sent BC the link to today's JRW blog so she can enjoy you too (no comma!). And we'll meet; we must.

    One of the trickier tricks in the pub world is something (pernicious) called "house style." It's the parent of a slew of changes in usage, such as that disappearing comma before "too," as well as the serial comma in lists. I confess that I do like the serial comma, and I encourage my students, colleagues, and friend to use it.

    On the other hand, copy editing at publishers has become
    so sloppy and erratic that reading galleys has become as much about catching copy editing errors as it is about reading text. Sad but true.

  35. Susan Elia MacNeal - all is not lost. My daughter is working her way through her summer reading. So far, she's wanted to hurl both Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye against the wall for the "sloppy grammar." She said, "I thought these kids were supposed to be British. Them trees? No one says 'them trees' - those trees. Argh!" This from the kid who will not text without proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

  36. This is my favorite post this week. My boyfriend and I are members of the Oxford Comma club.

    I was reminded of my 6th grade class. We were required to write stories. I often used exclamation points and my teacher wrote "why are you using exclamation points"?

    I remember writing letters to my grandparents and other relatives. My schoolteacher parents would correct my grammar then I would write the letters again before sending the letters in the mail.

    I automatically edit myself as I write.

    Everyone, thank you for sharing your tips. FYI, I am in my mid thirties.

  37. Helpful article. I never really noticed the adverb issue in things I read or write. I will have to pay more attention to that.

    As far as grammar, as a teacher I will say that it is not being taught directly in school to the extent it used to be. The idea is that students will learn to write by writing rather than practicing grammar. I am glad I went to school before this became the norm. I would never say I am a grammar "expert", however people often asking me to proofread their memos, emails, and other things they write. I attribute this to having grammar "beat" into me in school.

    Having that said I am wondering if comma usage has changed over time?? In school I was taught that you separate items you are listing with commas, including the a comma before and. " I am buying peas, corn, carrots, and beans at the farm stand." Now it appears, people say. "I am buying peas, corn, carrots and beans.." The second way seems better to me, but sometimes out of habit I use the first. It is still correct?

  38. Adverbs are useful for splitting infinitives.

  39. Great post, Victoria! I laughed when I met her a week ago in New York at Thrillerfest. She has a terrific sense of humor. Number nine was a good one about humility. I think some of the greatest works of writing have come from an experience of humility. One thing I have found when meeting some of the most successful agents has been a sense of humility. This also goes for every other successful person I have met in the business world. The most prominent people in the world seem to understand this. I would like to think that my writing can be successful, but until it's actually published and received well, I can never really know.