The Reality of Author Idol
- By: Jessica Faust | Date: Jan 26 2016
Last year I attended a conference that had Author Idol on the schedule. For those not familiar with this workshop (for lack of a better word) here’s how it goes. A panel of agents and editors sit in the front of the room facing the crowd. A moderator is given a stack of pages, usually the first page of the manuscript submitted by anyone brave enough to volunteer. She reads a page out loud while each member of the panel raises her hand at the point she’d stop reading. When all members have raised their hands, the moderator stops reading and panel members discuss their decision/reaction.
While Author Idol can be a lot of fun for those in attendance, it is brutal and I do not envy the authors who volunteer. It also gives an incredibly skewed look at what agent’s and editor’s do because it assumes that there’s one point or a specific thing that makes us stop reading a manuscript or reject it. If only life were that simple.
Too often I’m asked by an author how far I read, but how far I read doesn’t mean that’s where the problems started. Sometimes I’ll keep reading just because I’m curious, even though I decided 20 pages back that I’m rejecting.
Sure, there are times when there is one thing that pushes us over the edge, but it’s usually one mistake among many. Sort of like when your husband sets his spoon by the sink instead of putting it in the dishwasher and you completely go postal on him. No? Never happened to you? Well, when it does (and it will) it’s usually not the spoon that sets things off. On a good day you won’t even notice the spoon. It’s the spoon after you tripped over his shoes on your way in the door from work where your boss yelled at you because your coworker failed to complete her task, you forgot your lunch and your train was delayed. After a day like that, the spoon is the one thing that makes you raise your hand.
Author Idol shouldn’t be about that one tipping point in your manuscript, it should be about listening to agents and editors and the thought process of reviewing manuscripts. I hope in any Author Idol I’ve contributed to, we were entertaining enough to soften the blow of five raised hands.
I’ve sat in on Author Idols – once as an audience member and once where my ms was read out. It was very enlightening and while also traumatic (my nerves were shot, lol), it was great insight into my ms and the things agents and editors look for.
I realise now it isn’t just the little things leading to the straw (as in the one that broke the camel’s back). There’s also ‘already have a similar one on my desk’, ‘not looking for that right now’, ‘don’t want any stories with xxx at the moment’ (substitute anything for xxx – cats, angels, peanut butter), ‘that’s a hard sell’… turned out there was a long list of these other reasons.
I think it’s important to remember when you are subbing that just because you got a rejection it may not be because of the writing. I think this is where the importance of CPs and beta readers comes in.
The other thing I got from it is that for every ms read out, on a panel of about 5 or 6 there would often be 3 or more very different reasons for not going further. Or for the odd request (and there were some who asked for a real submission based on what they heard) everyone else had been a no. It’s personal.
So the other thing I took away is there is an element of luck in this business. Getting your ms on the right desk at the right time – and the only thing you can do to try and get this research!
As writers on the receiving end of the criticism, I think many of us have to weigh the options of taking advantage of expert advice and sacrificing our own pride. On the one hand, we writers have the rare opportunity to receive feedback from professional agents and editors. On the other, like ancient gladiators, we subject ourselves (and our writing) to very public distress. I wish I had the courage or the skin thick enough to endure a round of Author Idol. Mistakes brought to the writer’s attention provide more effective learning opportunities. This time, I’ll have to settle for a nice, cushy seat in the audience, slightly left of center, toward the back. With a box of tissues ready, for the tributes.