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Dark Sim
04-19-2006, 12:35 AM
How strict are agents on absolutely perfect grammar?


I’ve had about seven rejection letters so far from various English Literary Agents, all of whom have either said that they do not see a market for my novel, or are unsure of the standard of writing. Without wishing to sound boastful, I hold several degrees in various subjects and would consider myself proficient in the use of the English language as well as being able to write in a scintillating style to keep readers interested.

However, in my manuscript, I have chosen a particular literary style which is somewhat more colloquial in expressions and turns of phrase. Furthermore, it does not always strictly obey the rules of grammar, but might be more similar to the way one might either speak or think. For example, I might start certain sentences with “And” or “But”, as in the following example (off the top of my head):

She searched everywhere for the torch. Where was it? Did it really matter if she went on without it? But she needed it. Yes. She couldn’t go on in the dark, for she could stumble over something and injure herself. And how would that help the others if she did that?

Please ignore the fact that this may not be brilliant writing in that paragraph. I simply came up with it in less than a minute in order to illustrate certain stylistic traits. What I’m really trying to analyse here is the following:

a) Do agents like sentences which are brief like that above? – I have written it in that almost staccato style in places to simulate the sudden surge of tension and rapid-fire thoughts that might go through a person’s head in a panic situation.

b) Do agents frown upon sentences which start with “And”, “But”, "Because" etc or are they discerning enough to realise that this was done as stylistic device? Or would they simply think that I am unable to construct a sentence properly? [see, I’ve done it even in this paragraph starting with “Or” for effect.]

c) Would the agents prefer it if I wrote in a very formal English style or is it acceptable to write colloquially/ conversationally?

d) What about ending sentences like: “who could she give it to?” as opposed to “to whom could she give it?” which could end up sounding rather stiff?


The problem is that the agents haven’t specified exactly which parts of my writing they do not find up to the standard required to be sent to a publisher. Should I try to change the style to a more strict, grammatical style or should I leave it as it is? And what if the short, staccato style/ starting a sentence with “And” etc is a style they like and I get rid of that, leaving the novel written in a rather dry manner? [see, here’s another example of starting with “And” again, (I could’ve started it with “but”) because it sounds more effective than having it all as one sentence].


What do people here think?

I would be grateful for your feedback.



Thank you

Maryn
04-19-2006, 01:14 AM
Agents have absolutely no problem with less formal writing when it fits the book's genre and intended market. You have but to pick up a mass market paperback at the drugstore or airport to see that 'errors' like your deliberate style are in the majority.

I can only speak to my own preferences, but I would find "to whom should she give it" decidedly off-putting. I much prefer a narrating voice that feels like speech, and friendly, casual speech at that, rather than someone's dissertation.

Maryn, pleased to meet you

reph
04-19-2006, 01:50 AM
If anything, the writing in your post is so correct that it'd be too formal for the novel market during the past hundred years. Maybe that's the stylistic problem the agents are talking about. Of course, I can't know that you use the same level of diction in manuscripts as in posts.

Jamesaritchie
04-19-2006, 02:41 AM
Agents want perfect grammar in a query letter, and usually in a synopsis. In a manuscript, however, agents and editors both want grammar that matches the story and the characters. Sometimes this means perfect grammar, and sometimes it means inmperfect grammar, but it always means the right grammar at the right time.

Now, agents do not want formal writing, unless the story and the characters call for formal writing. If the novel you send them happens to be set in 19th century london high society, and all the characters are ones that would speak only in formal tones, your novel should reflect this. If, on the other hand, the novel you send an agent is about an illiterate country bumpkin, every line of his dialogue, and probably of the narrative, should reflect this.

Which is just a long way of saying agents want grammar and style that matches the story you're trying to tell, and the characters you use to tell it.

As for short sentences, too many in a row gets very annoying. It makes the writing choppy, and choppy is almost always bad, except on rare occasions when a group of short sentences is used for specific effect. Sentences should vary in length, else the pace flow are hurt, and poor pace and flow stops any reader dead.

Now, there is also the down side. You write: "Without wishing to sound boastful, I hold several degrees in various subjects and would consider myself proficient in the use of the English language as well as being able to write in a scintillating style to keep readers interested"

Holding all the degress in the world doen't mean you have a clue about how to write fiction. Nor does being proficient in the use of the English language mean you know anything at all about writing fiction. Degrees are nice, and using the English langauge well is a fine thing, but neither really has nearly as much to do with writing publishable fiction as unpublished writers often believe.

As for scintillating style, it ain't style readers want, and it ain't style that keeps readers interested, it's story and characters and good dialogue. It's pace and flow, mood and tone, description and tension, etc. Because of this, it's also what agents and editors wants.

"Standard of writing" can mean several different things, but if it isn't talking about grammar and punctuation, is usually means they don't like the way you tell a story, and possible don't like the characters you fill the story with, and may hate the dialogue you put in the character's mouths.

I don't know how much fiction you read, but reading is the best way to understand what agents and editors want. It's really the only way to understand what agents and editors want. Agents and editors both want what you find in bestselling novels. Read them, study the pace and flow, the mood and tone, the grammar and punctuation, the story and characters, and the dialogue and description.

The contents of these novels are exactly what agents and editors want, and the only real way to give it to them is to read bazillions of such novels, then go and do likewise.

I don't know nearly enough to say for sure, but it sounds like you're concentrating too much on the writing, and too little on what the writing is supposed to be doing. It also sounds like you may be over-styling your writing. . .too much style and too little attention to story and character, and just what ittakes with both to make a novel publishable.

Is theer any way you can post a decent sample of your writing in the share your work section?

Dark Sim
04-19-2006, 02:43 AM
Thanks for the initial feedback. Yeah, it's difficult to assess what the agents don't like, or whether that is even a response drafted by them to find any kind of excuse to reject the manuscript.

And yeah, the paragraph in my post above was drafted quickly without much colour etc - really to demonstrate the context of the "ands" and "buts" in the sentence. It's also difficult to know the correct balance between formal English and something conversational enough for today's audiences. I have read widely, paying close attention to the style of many books written recently. However, what if the agent is a stickler for formal English and hates split infinitives, ending sentences on words like "to" or "of" etc? Or on other hand, what if they hate really formal, dissertation-like English? Whichever way you go, you could be falling foul of the agent, but equally, trying to cater to both schools might mean you end up not developing your own style.

I've tried to avoid the use of filtering in my sentences (eg "she realised she was wet"). I've tried to make everything more immediate rather than mediated, so that even the sentences in between the dialogue are indicative of the person's thoughts. I've also cut out any crediting of thoughts (eg: "Wait a minute, he thought." - those aren't speech marks here but quotations marks) - I've phrased it more like "Wait a minute" - ie, indicating thought merely by italics, dropping the "he thought" bits. Surely that should be clear enough without having to attribute it to the thinker?

Essentially, I've tried to keep everything conversational - I really don't know what the agents are referring to specifically, because they did not say, and I don't think they really wish to, or have the time to provide further feedback.

Any further thoughts on this matter appreciated.

Dark Sim
04-19-2006, 03:20 AM
Agents want perfect grammar in a query letter, and usually in a synopsis. In a manuscript, however, agents and editors both want grammar that matches the story and the characters. Sometimes this means perfect grammar, and sometimes it means inmperfect grammar, but it always means the right grammar at the right time.

Now, agents do not want formal writing, unless the story and the characters call for formal writing. If the novel you send them happens to be set in 19th century london high society, and all the characters are ones that would speak only in formal tones, your novel should reflect this. If, on the other hand, the novel you send an agent is about an illiterate country bumpkin, every line of his dialogue, and probably of the narrative, should reflect this.

Which is just a long way of saying agents want grammar and style that matches the story you're trying to tell, and the characters you use to tell it.

As for short sentences, too many in a row gets very annoying. It makes the writing choppy, and choppy is almost always bad, except on rare occasions when a group of short sentences is used for specific effect. Sentences should vary in length, else the pace flow are hurt, and poor pace and flow stops any reader dead.

Now, there is also the down side. You write: "Without wishing to sound boastful, I hold several degrees in various subjects and would consider myself proficient in the use of the English language as well as being able to write in a scintillating style to keep readers interested"

Holding all the degress in the world doen't mean you have a clue about how to write fiction. Nor does being proficient in the use of the English language mean you know anything at all about writing fiction. Degrees are nice, and using the English langauge well is a fine thing, but neither really has nearly as much to do with writing publishable fiction as unpublished writers often believe.

As for scintillating style, it ain't style readers want, and it ain't style that keeps readers interested, it's story and characters and good dialogue. It's pace and flow, mood and tone, description and tension, etc. Because of this, it's also what agents and editors wants.

"Standard of writing" can mean several different things, but if it isn't talking about grammar and punctuation, is usually means they don't like the way you tell a story, and possible don't like the characters you fill the story with, and may hate the dialogue you put in the character's mouths.

I don't know how much fiction you read, but reading is the best way to understand what agents and editors want. It's really the only way to understand what agents and editors want. Agents and editors both want what you find in bestselling novels. Read them, study the pace and flow, the mood and tone, the grammar and punctuation, the story and characters, and the dialogue and description.

The contents of these novels are exactly what agents and editors want, and the only real way to give it to them is to read bazillions of such novels, then go and do likewise.

I don't know nearly enough to say for sure, but it sounds like you're concentrating too much on the writing, and too little on what the writing is supposed to be doing. It also sounds like you may be over-styling your writing. . .too much style and too little attention to story and character, and just what ittakes with both to make a novel publishable.

Is theer any way you can post a decent sample of your writing in the share your work section?

Thanks for the feedback. Actually, while it may appear I'm concentrating on the style on this post, that's because it's merely addressing that particular point since that was something raised by the agents. However, I have spent countless hours/days/months chewing over other people's novels and what makes a good story/characters etc. I simply haven't addressed this (and therefore it could seem from this post that it is something I overlooked) because that wasn't something which the agents themselves raised.

In fact, everything you have given as advice are the very things which I have already considered. While I understand that you are simply trying to help and I appreciate that, as I said, my post can easily give the impression that I have only concentrated on style rather than content simply because I have narrowed in on that particular aspect in this post as I did not feel that the other elements were something that bothered the agents.

I do sincerely believe my characters are well-drawn enough to keep readers interested, while the plot is well structured etc. Anything really you can think of in a piece of writing you'd expect to see, it's there - a 3-act structure with various twists and turns; a strong middle section; characters going on an emotional journey that changes them from one person at the start of the story to another person by the end (or by the end of the 2nd act where they are faced with a decision); cliffhanger endings for each chapter; various hooks etc ... and so on. In fact, not only have I read other books, but analysed in detail both good and bad films. In some ways, my novel is even more modelled on a cinematic structure than a book in the sense that it has attempted to cater for film-going audiences rather than just a literary audience.

As for the "choppy" sentences - well, that was just an example in a particular place. Of course not all of my writing is like that. That would be more in places where I want to speed up the pace or suggest action. When I want to slow down the pace or in other places, I write in much longer sentences which aren't broken up in that particular way. I was merely demonstrating an example of a style which surfaces at times which I was wondering whether the agents would disapprove of. In fact, the style was partly developed from seeing other writers using it for pace etc, and I thought it was effective, but I also was aware that the really strict agent could frown upon it too.

And as for the mention of my degrees - yes, I realise that all the education in the world will not help you to know what makes or write good fiction or how to tell a story. I am fully aware of that. The reason I mentioned it is that, again, with regard to style (since this is what the agents mentioned in their rejection letters) perhaps they might think that I cannot construct a proper English sentence or have very poor grammar if I wrote in the way I demonstrated in my earlier post. I was merely, by referencing my education, saying that I am proficient in the English language and that the writing style I used was merely a choice rather than it being something which I could not help.

So again, while I appreciate your feedback on the other aspects, and I don't mean to sound as if I don't wish to be told anything, I would be grateful if you could perhaps concentrate merely on the narrow limits of the post as a topic of discussion. I was just wanting second opinions on that particular aspect of my writing for the moment since this was the section of the board on grammar.

reph
04-19-2006, 04:28 AM
I’ve had about seven rejection letters so far from various English Literary Agents, all of whom have either said that they do not see a market for my novel, or are unsure of the standard of writing.What did the agents who gave the latter reason say, exactly? They may or may not have meant grammar.

unthoughtknown
04-19-2006, 04:35 AM
What about beta readers? Do you have these already? Could you perhaps get some feedback from beta readers to indicate what your story needs/doesn't need?

Dark Sim
04-19-2006, 08:17 AM
What did the agents who gave the latter reason say, exactly? They may or may not have meant grammar.

What they said exactly was "we do not feel the standard of your writing is high enough to send to a publisher", or "we did not feel confident of the standard of your writing." As vague as that, and therefore easily able to be as widely construed as possible.

The reason I tried to single out the grammar was because that was something that crossed my mind (ie, writing in the not-strictly-perfect grammatical style) that could potentially be a stumbling point for me with regard to the agents. The other stumbling block (which I have raised in a different thread altogether) is that the dialogue, characters and even style of writing could be seen as more American than typically English (the whole story, plot, characters etc is really quite American and not English at all - even the sorts of "current affairs" it concerns is actually more American and international). Neither of these, however, I can really assess with any accuracy without having any further or more-detailed feedback (which I don't have).

On the other hand, it is possible it could be a standard rejection response too that can be as widely construed as possible so that they either don't have to give any more specific reasons or can write something which is a catch all.

It is fair enough if they gave specifics, and something I can actually work on. Here I am left guessing in the dark and can only speculate, but I know that I did work on all the typical storytelling elements one would expect to work on for over 18 months.

jen.nifer - not sure I understand the term "beta readers". Perhaps you could explain as I'm not familiar with it?

veronie
04-19-2006, 08:19 AM
I would think that when agents read submissions, they can get a good feel for who is strong in grammar and who isn't. While someone who isn't strong in grammar might still be a terrific writer on one level, someone who knows grammar will demonstrate a higher level of professionalism and seriousness.

Let's be honest, there are a lot of people who want to be writers, but few have a love of the language or the perseverance. It's logical that if you are serious about the craft of writing, then you will, by necessity, be familiar with how to use the tools at your disposal.

What would you think of a cabinet maker who doesn't know how to read a tape measure, or doesn't know how to use a miter saw? It follows that if they are serious about making cabinets, they would know the ins and outs of all the tools at their disposal. No cabinet maker says, "I will just put it together as best I can, and I will leave the exact adjustments to some other carpenter to work out. I don't really need to know how to use all that stuff."

That being said, is a superior knowledge of grammar needed to be a professional writer? No. But why, I have to ask, wouldn't a writer know grammar, or at least be in the life-long process of improving their grammar?

As a side note, Marlowe, I have no idea what the real reason for the rejection is. It probably isn't grammar.

Sage
04-19-2006, 08:36 AM
What they said exactly was "we do not feel the standard of your writing is high enough to send to a publisher", or "we did not feel confident of the standard of your writing." As vague as that, and therefore easily able to be as widely construed as possible.

<snip>
On the other hand, it is possible it could be a standard rejection response too that can be as widely construed as possible so that they either don't have to give any more specific reasons or can write something which is a catch all. Bingo. Sounds like many a standard rejecton I've heard quoted (I have not received only because I have not submitted). You are absolutely correct in that it is general enough to fit any number of reasons, ranging from horrible grammar to horrible plot to just not a story they think can sell to a publisher/the public. There is an interesting article on interpretting rejection letters here: http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/004641.html


jen.nifer - not sure I understand the term "beta readers". Perhaps you could explain as I'm not familiar with it?Similar to a "beta tester" for products, a beta reader would test your novel. They're someone (with no reason to stroke your ego, so not a friend or family member) who reads the novel & gives you constructive criticism.

unthoughtknown
04-19-2006, 10:03 AM
Similar to a "beta tester" for products, a beta reader would test your novel. They're someone (with no reason to stroke your ego, so not a friend or family member) who reads the novel & gives you constructive criticism.

Thanks Sage! Yes, it's important to choose readers who are not afraid to tell you the truth... (as well as someone that reads frequently and widely).

poetinahat
04-19-2006, 12:10 PM
"Standard of writing" can mean several different things, but if it isn't talking about grammar and punctuation, is usually means they don't like the way you tell a story, and possible don't like the characters you fill the story with, and may hate the dialogue you put in the character's mouths.
That's what struck me as well. If you've received comments on the standard of your writing, there's nothing to indicate that their reservations have anything to do with grammar.

As you and Sage say, it could mean anything. The use of the term standard may be spurious as well, when they just don't see a fit. Maybe they just find it easier to say it's your fault, when in fact your writing is up to the mark in every way -- except that they don't want to represent it.

Aconite
04-19-2006, 04:18 PM
What they said exactly was "we do not feel the standard of your writing is high enough to send to a publisher", or "we did not feel confident of the standard of your writing." As vague as that, and therefore easily able to be as widely construed as possible.

The reason I tried to single out the grammar was because that was something that crossed my mind (ie, writing in the not-strictly-perfect grammatical style) that could potentially be a stumbling point for me with regard to the agents. It's really not. Agents aren't looking for perfect grammar; they're looking for a great story, well told. No agent is going to reject your fiction manuscript because you split infinitives.

Much more likely is that they're referring to the other aspects of your writing. Just because you have all the elements of a good novel doesn't mean they've all come together well, just as having all the ingredients of a good meal in a dish doesn't mean it's good eating.


The other stumbling block (which I have raised in a different thread altogether) is that the dialogue, characters and even style of writing could be seen as more American than typically English (the whole story, plot, characters etc is really quite American and not English at all - even the sorts of "current affairs" it concerns is actually more American and international).I think perhaps you're making a beginner's mistake, namely, finding esoteric reasons for rejection when the matter is actually much simpler. Odds are good--especially if this is your first completed novel--that your writing simply isn't yet up to publishable standards. Painful to face, but nearly always true. Our early efforts are rarely as brilliant as we think they are at the time.

I'll second the recommendation to post a portion of your novel in the appropriate Share Your Work forum for feedback. Good luck.

Carmy
04-24-2006, 08:05 AM
First, I don't think perfect grammar has anything to do with the ability to tell a story. Few people have perfect grammar, especially in dialogue. Few people with perfect grammar are able to convey things well to a reader. Reaching out from the page to touch the reader is what writing is about. I doubt that high-faluting perfect grammar could do that.

Now here's what I see in the following:

She searched everywhere for the torch. Where was it? Did it really matter if she went on without it? But she needed it. Yes. She couldn’t go on in the dark, for she could stumble over something and injure herself. And how would that help the others if she did that?

At this point we are inside her head. She would think the way she speaks. This is internal dialogue and I doubt any editor would reject a manuscript because the character isn't thinking in perfect grammar.

When it comes to narration, unless it's a first-person story, I think the author should have reasoably good grammar and vocabulary but always remember to use words that reach out to the reader. If it's in first person, the narration should be in keeping with the character's place in life. A Negro slave would not speak in the same way as an Oxford Don and I think most editors would accept that as the author getting inside the character's skin.

Short sentences serve a purpose in conveying urgency to the reader. In the paragraph you quoted (I know it was a spur-of-the-moment piece of writing) I would chop the sentences even further.

Just my two cents.

Carmy

Jamesaritchie
04-24-2006, 08:34 AM
However, what if the agent is a stickler for formal English and hates split infinitives, ending sentences on words like "to" or "of" etc? Or on other hand, what if they hate really formal, dissertation-like English? Whichever way you go, you could be falling foul of the agent, but equally, trying to cater to both schools might mean you end up not developing your own style.



An agent who automatically hates either of these things is a bad agent, and won't be in business long. You do not cater to either school because neither has a school.

All agents want novels written in the best way for that particular novel, and for the particular characters within that novel. Most of the time, you shouldn't split an infinitive, but doing so is often the best way to write something, and every agent knows this. And most of the time, you shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition in thrid person narration, but doing so in dialogue is fine, if it's the way that particular character would say something, or if you're using a first person narrator.

You need to stop thinking about agents and start thinking about telling a good story in a good way, and filling that story with good characters. This is what all agents want. They do not divide themselves into schools that love formal or informal writing.

"Standard of writing" can mean either good grammar or bad grammar. It can simply mean they don't like the sound of your sentences, that your sentences are too stiff and do not have good flow. It can mean they do not like your plot, your characters, or any of a dozen other things. Most often it means simply that the agent did not like your writing.

Look, good writing is usually invisible. If an agent sees the writing instead of the story, your writing fails. If an agent sees your writing instead of hearing your characters speak, your writing fails.

I know it's less than helpful, but what any and all agents want is neither correct grammar nor incorrect grammar. What they all want is appropriate grammar. If the grammar and style of your writing matches the story and the characters, then it's good writing. . .though if it's a bad story, an agent still won't like it. If the writing and the grammar are inappropriate to the story and the characters, the agent will not like it.

You're worrying about all the wrong things. You simply cannot think about agents or editors while writing a novel. You must think only about the story and the characters. Every sentence you right needs to match the story your trying to tell, and the characters you're using to tell the story.

If you can do this, editors will love you. If you can't do this, editors will simply reject you.

It really does sound like you're worrying about what agents will like or not like, rather than telling a story in the best possible way. Forget agents. Think story.