Agent Interview with Brandi Bowles: A Comprehensive Look at What Makes Her Accept or Reject a Manuscript

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I’m so excited to welcome my agent, Brandi Bowles of Foundry Literary + Media, to The Ball today. Brandi and I met nearly four years ago at the Writers’ League of Texas Agents & Editors Conference in Austin, Texas, when I pitched her my book during a one-on-session. In those short ten minutes (and in the time we’ve been working together since), I learned that Brandi’s an incredibly sharp and editorially hands-on agent; she has a knack for knowing what a story needs to get to the next level.

I asked Brandi to join us today and give us a peek at her process—from reading a submission, to deciding she loves it (or not), and where she goes from there. Not surprisingly, her answers are enlightening, for querying authors and published authors alike:

Can you walk me through the process of what makes you request a partial? How quickly do you know whether or not you want to read more, and why?

Based on the fiction categories I represent (commercial and women’s fiction) I’m unlikely to request an extremely literary or quiet novel unless there’s something unusual or quirky about it. For me it’s all about the hook. I look for plots that can be summarized in just a sentence or two, books in which something exciting or interesting happens, and especially books that are going to teach me something besides just a moral lesson. I’m judging query letters the way civilian readers judge flap copy – does it sound like an entertaining read? Is this where I should invest my limited time? If the query letter is appropriately short – it should only be a few paragraphs – I know immediately if I want to read more.

Let’s say reading the partial goes great and you ask for a full. What’s usually going through your mind then—are you cautiously optimistic, or do you try not to get too excited?

There are two kinds of submissions for which I’ll request a full – projects which have potential, but for which I am well and truly on the fence, and projects that make me super excited, and I can’t wait to read. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know which I will most likely represent. The truth is, if the idea is fantastic and saleable, and the writing is good, I can work with the author to edit the book into shape. If I’m feeling cautiously optimistic but I still need to be convinced, or if something about the writing feels off, that’s a riskier proposition. I’m a career-minded agent, and I’m already wondering in the back of my mind if I want to enter into a long-term partnership with this person. Is the author at the right point in his or her career to have an agent? Do they have the skills to pull off the plot, character, and pacing challenges that manifest in a full-length novel?

What are some of the things that, at this point, would make you either stop reading, or make you read all the way through but decide to say no?

There are a litany of things that can make me stop reading. The plot meanders. The characters begin to feel one-note. The stylistic problems (bad dialogue, clichéd writing, and boring tangents or scenes) which I had perhaps hoped were occasional turn out to be persistent throughout. Often, there is a problem with pacing. Or I sense that the author hasn’t fully explored the potential of the plot that hooked me in the first place (more on this below). If I make it all the way through the novel, either the plot is wonderful or the writing is wonderful, but not both.

Since these things can vary, can you maybe discuss two or three common problems you “diagnose” at this point? How can writers spot them for themselves and try to fix them?

The biggest problem I see, besides writing, is with plot and pacing. Many authors try to work these out in writers groups, but either their peers aren’t critical enough or they are so married to their scenes they don’t take the advice. Writers need a brutally honest reader to say, hey, this just wasn’t interesting to me, and then they need the courage to fix the problem, even if it means major rewrites. Pacing can be improved through a combination of action, dialogue, and summary. If any given chapter does not contain a question to be answered, you need to build that in. You could consider giving readers a questionnaire about each chapter, gauging their level of investment.

Then there’s the problem of a plot (or world) not reaching its full potential. I might hear a great high concept pitch for a book…in fact I can probably come up with several of them. Channel Stephen King: A dome falls inexplicably over an entire city. A woman discovers her autistic brother can communicate with the dead. A baby is born with wings. In the last instance, if we were to imagine how that story would play out, we’d all imagine different things. For me, a book where the winged baby grows up to become a stockbroker is much less interesting than a drug-addled stockbroker, versus a drug-addled stockbroker with a cult-y religious family, or who becomes a reluctant religious leader himself. Or perhaps the book focuses on the baby’s parents. You have to ask yourself, what are the most interesting characters and circumstances I can create to serve this primary plot device? You almost can’t be too ambitious. Too often, I hear great ideas for worlds that aren’t fully explored, characters that aren’t uniquely challenged, or mysteries that are too one-note.

If your manuscript suffers from less than stellar writing, there are manuals, guides, and workshops that purport to help. It is likely your novel needs a complete rewrite, or to go back on the shelf. Writers benefit from (endless, torturous, obsessive) practice, and you can always come back to it later. Constant practice and heavy reading are the only cure.

Your best chance in diagnosing any of these issues lies in finding brutally honest readers – not your spouse or friend, but a well-read peer. Much of it is about self-awareness as well. Are you shortchanging yourself, or settling for “good enough” There is so much competition out there that only the most dedicated, hardest-working writers will make it to the top.

Do you have any advice for writers who may have gotten several rejections on requests for partials or fulls, but not a lot of feedback as to why?

For fulls, it’s ok to ask the agent why they are passing, but only once per agent. If I’ve passed on a full, and the writer asks me for a reason, I’ll try to respond with something brief but useful. Of course, you as a writer have to learn to read between the lines. We don’t know if you’re sane or not, so we’re more likely to say “the writing didn’t work for me,” than go back to the manuscript and try to recall what was particularly flat or cliché or just didn’t flow. It’s often a combination of little things, or simply lack of spark and engagement.

If you ask the agent, you have to accept the answer and level of detail, of lack thereof. But for fulls, many agents will give you that one-note glimpse into why they passed, and you can work from there.

If you’re getting request for partials but no one is following up to ask for the full, it’s probably the writing. To some degree that is subjective, but if agents are passing on partials over and over again, you might need to do some major reworking, or even hire a freelance editor to help you figure it out.

Anything else I haven’t asked that you’d like to mention?

Only that good writing takes a lot of self-awareness and brutal honesty with one’s own work. Writers who are defensive or don’t take initiative with their own rewrites are not only diminishing their own craft, but they aren’t the type of people that agents and editors want to work with. When you’re facing a critical review or frequent passes from agents, take the time to consider rewriting, or even putting your novel away and coming back to it. I’ve long believed that the best insights for fiction occur when you aren’t elbow deep in revisions, but when you’re thinking of other things, and you’re mind is still working the puzzles out subconciously. Working on multiple projects and in different mediums will also provide new character insights, eureka moments, and plot twists you might not have thought of before.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Brandi!

Learn about what Brandi represents and her submission guidelines here.

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Natalia Sylvester

Natalia Sylvester is the author of the novel CHASING THE SUN (Lake Union/New Harvest, June 2014), about a frail marriage tested to the extreme by the wife's kidnapping in Lima, Peru. A former magazine editor, she now works as a freelance writer in Texas. Visit her online at nataliasylvester.com

7 thoughts on “Agent Interview with Brandi Bowles: A Comprehensive Look at What Makes Her Accept or Reject a Manuscript

  1. “If any given chapter does not contain a question to be answered, you need to build that in.” This is such great advice, as I’m venturing into edits on my 2nd book.

  2. Incredibly helpful interview, thank you Natalia and Brandi — and I agree with Susan that this is something I’ll carry with me: “If any given chapter does not contain a question to be answered, you need to build that in.”

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