"As an agent, I turn down 'good enough' ideas every day. The distance between 'good enough' and 'great' may not be huge, but …"

Ever whipped up a half-hearted proposal, or penned a “just-OK” chapter? Here are a few words of advice from former agent Jennifer Lawler, the latest from Promptly’s Top 20 Tips From WD in 2010 series. (A regular prompt follows!)

No. 7: Good Enough Vs. Great
After writing for a number of years, I’d occasionally find myself thinking, I’ll just throw a couple of thoughts together and send them out to see if anyone bites. When no one bit, I’d think, Good thing I didn’t break a sweat. What I should have been thinking was, Maybe if I’d broken a sweat, this idea would have generated interest.

“As an agent, I turn down ‘good enough’ ideas every day. The distance between ‘good enough’ and ‘great’ may not be huge, but if you go that extra 10 percent, I can tell. So can everyone else. ‘Great’ has me making lists of editors I should pitch as soon as you sign with me. ‘Good enough’ has me thinking about how much work it’s going to take to get the project to where it needs to be—and frankly, I’d rather eat ice cream. I’m going to do above-and-beyond work only for people who have fantastic ideas and/or credentials, who I’m convinced I can work well with, or whose names begin with Oprah Winfrey.

“You can bet as a writer I’ve sworn off my ‘good enough’ ways.”
—Jennifer Lawler, “Lessons Learned From an Author-Turned-Agent,” March/April 2010 (click here to check the rest of the issue and article out)

[And, here are a few more observations from the piece …]

“Here’s what happened recently: While reading the umpteenth slow-starting novel manuscript that crossed my desk one afternoon, I found myself practically screaming, ‘Throw away the prologue! Just throw it away! I never want to see another prologue in this lifetime!’ In fact, in all the submissions I’ve looked at, I have yet to read a prologue that has improved a manuscript. Good stories should start where they start, and not before or after. You need to work the backstory into the story, and not just shove it into a prologue.”

“I already knew that publishing could be a heartbreaking business, and becoming an agent didn’t make it any less so. In fact, now that I submit on behalf of my clients, getting rejected is actually worse, because I feel like I’ve let down someone who has faith in me. In the past few months, I’ve had more interactions with more editors than I did in the previous decade. As a writer, I’ve always felt lucky that I’ve worked almost entirely with good-hearted people who I like a lot. What’s impressed me about being an agent is finding out this is not a fluke. Practically everyone I’ve been in touch with has been kind, even editors who’ve never heard of me or the agency. Everyone is looking for good work, and they’re happy I have some, even if they end up passing on it.”


Feel free to take the following prompt home or post a response (500
words or fewer, funny, sad or stirring) in the Comments section below.
By posting, you’ll be automatically entered in our occasional
around-the-office swag drawings. If you’re having trouble with the
captcha code sticking, e-mail your piece and the prompt to me at
writersdigest@fwmedia.com, with “Promptly” in the subject line, and I’ll
make sure it gets up.
“It was a wig?!” she screamed. “This whole time?”

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6 thoughts on “"As an agent, I turn down 'good enough' ideas every day. The distance between 'good enough' and 'great' may not be huge, but …"

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  5. Mark James

    Glad you didn’t give us a break, Evelyn . .

    “Do as you’re told.”

    I knew it was stupid to question a vampire, especially since it was starting to look like I was dinner, but Reggie wasn’t getting away with talking to me like that.

    “Bite me.” I flinched. Dumb. Really dumb.

    “You’re not my type, Curly Top.”

    “Don’t call me that.” With the sun just below the horizon, the crypt was cold enough to make me shiver. And dark enough to make me think of every horror movie I’d ever seen. “Think I’m scared ‘cause you’re all fanged out now?”

    “I wish you were.” He leaned against a grimy wall. “Why didn’t you leave when I told you, Em?”

    “Because, hello,” I wiggled my fingers in the fading light, “we’re in a graveyard so big it’s like Dead Island. I don’t hear any city sounds, big brother, do you?”

    In a blink Reggie leapt over the stone coffins separating us and clamped his cold hand over my mouth. I didn’t struggle because I heard it too. The slow footsteps stopped outside the door of the crypt. I was sure every grave would explode in a big whoosh of dirt and gravel and wilted flowers, because my heart was thudding hard enough to wake the dead for miles and miles.

    Long white fingers wrapped around the edge of the door. Reggie picked me up so my feet weren’t touching the ground and jumped backward. We landed at the top of the stairs at the back of the crypt. “Go, little sister,” he murmured into my ear.

    “No freaking way.” My voice was low and hoarse because that’s all I could squeeze out of my tight dry throat. “You go down first. Light a torch or do some vampire thing.”

    The door creaked and let in a sliver of blood red light that sliced across the side- by-side coffins.

    Muttering curses in a low continuous string, Reggie swung me over his shoulder as if he was hauling a sack of wheat. “We’re jumping,” he whispered, “stay still.”

    Jumping? I thumped his back. “Hey, can you see in the – – ”

    Yeah. He could see in the dark because we landed at the bottom and he set me down. I thought I’d seen pitch black riding the subway underground when the train lights flashed off, but this was different. It was as if I was in a place where dark was all there was, all there ever had been.


    His voice came from right next to me and that spooked hell out of me because I realized for the first time, in my gut, that my brother didn’t breathe anymore.


    “You remember senior year, Halloween, when I dyed my hair green to win our bet?”

    I’d bet he wouldn’t dye his hair green. I ended up cleaning his room for a month.

    “It was a wig,” he said.

    “It was a wig?” I screamed. “The whole time?”

    Reggie took off running. There might have been something scary coming down the steps after us, and maybe I was about to run into a wall or a million year old skeleton, but my brother was dead. Again.

  6. Evelyn

    I was going to give everyone a break from my posts, but the sight of “Comments [0]” kept haunting me.

    It had been ten years since Santa’s workshop had been operational. The North Pole attracted a few science explorers, people measuring melting glaciers and counting polar bears and penguins, but the elves were long gone. Santa and Mrs. Claus moved to Las Vegas, and Christmas Town’s ghostly hollow structures propped up snow drifts, and collected stray pieces of tinsel in their jagged broken beams.

    Except for the howling wind, the landscape was a still stretch of desolation, but an innocent observation from a small child would soon change it all.

    Poolside relaxation had been a healer to Santa, wearied by years strenuous sleigh riding, chimney climbing, and gift-sac hauling. Now clean shaven, and 100 pounds lighter after exchanging his gumdrop extruder for a juicer, Santa was hardy recognizable as the jolly old soul he made famous.

    Retirement wasn’t an easy choice, but Santa had come to accept it. Even though the phony Santas shamelessly commercialized Christmas, no one but the Clauses seemed to mind. Nine years of Christmases came and went, but during Christmas vacation number ten, sadness began to overtake Santa. Despite his lower cholesterol and suntan, he couldn’t find much to “Ho! Ho! Ho!” about.

    Mrs. Claus had become sullen too, and wondered if they needed more antioxidants, or maybe a new hobby. They took up golf, arranged their furniture in Feng Shui style, and spent hours harvesting crops in Facebook’s Farmville. But she longed to stroll again down Candy Cane Lane. She missed Rudolph, Yukon Cornelius and even the Abominable Snow Monster.

    On Black Friday the Clauses visited the mall for some Jamba Juice, but when Santa saw the pitiable imitation of his old self harassing an innocent child for her Christmas wish list, he lost his Jamba appetite. As the child leaned toward imitation-Santa to whisper her wishes, she noticed a dark curl of hair peeking from beneath his disguise. “It’s a wig,” she screamed, “This whole time?” That’s when Santa knew the world needed the real-deal.

    Faster than you could say, “Holly-Jolly,” Santa headed for the Cinnabon counter. “Time to equip myself with a protective layer of insulating fat!” Santa exclaimed.

    Soon the Clauses had packed their trunks and headed back to the top of the world. The howling north wind swept the melody of “Santa Clause Is Coming to Town” through the winter barrenness. The new digitally enhanced workshop, financed by the Clauses 401k investments, was readied to rock and roll. The elves came out of retirement too, and soon Christmas Town was all a bustle with good cheer. Even the few remaining polar bears happily greeted the returning reindeer.

    Santa now realized that though he may need a vacation break now and again, the children of the world needed him, and retirement, like a wig, was something only for posers.


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