Lessons Learned as a Literary Agent’s Intern

by Rose Guildenstern

I served as an intern for a prominent literary agent for three years. Basically, it was my job to read full manuscripts that were submitted to the agent and give my honest opinion of them. I read manuscripts that made me weep at the end because I so desperately wanted them to continue, manuscripts that I struggled to even finish, and every sort of manuscript in between. This internship proved to be the most valuable decision I ever made as a writer for my own education—not in how to write, but how to understand why things are and are not published. I’ve written this article to share some of these insights that I am so thankful for learning myself. (These lessons are based entirely on my own experiences, and may not be true for everyone.)

  1. It doesn’t matter how many friends, beta readers, group critiques, or editors look at your book—until you look at books through the eyes of what today’s readers want to read and what sells, you are writing for yourself.
  2. An impressive educational background is, well—impressive. Knowing all the classics and having an MFA is wonderful for your own development as a writer and builds lovely networks and a luscious writing style, but you must be reading the books published today, to understand what people want to read.
  3. Meet people in the publishing industry, whether in person or online. There are many ways to do this: social media, conferences, workshops, and meet-ups. Relationships matter, not because who you know gets you published, but because the relationships you make along the way help you break out of your own way of seeing and branch out into seeing the pulse of the public, and it’s the public that the publishers sell to.
  4. Read books in your chosen genre—daily, if time permits. Not only are you supporting your fellow working artists, but it helps you begin to glimpse your own book through the eyes of a reader rather than a writer, and this will make all the difference.
  5. Until you can read your own work as though someone else wrote it and you’ve just picked it up off the shelf of your favorite bookstore—until you can read it this way and you cannot put it down because it speaks to you so profoundly, with such high stakes and tension and emotional truth that you can’t stop turning the pages—don’t send it to a literary agent. Because this is your competition.
  6. Let yourself fall in love with your own words as you write them. Just like the beginning of any romance, you must fall in love with your own words to have the beautiful foundation for all the hard work that is to come in any partnership, and your love affair with your work will carry you through the sacrifices. BUT don’t think you have a book worthy of publication just because you love it. Publication is like marriage, not falling in love: you will change and sacrifice things about your precious book in order to build a better publication. **This did not destroy your beloved, it developed it into something that will last.**

The most common mistakes writers make in their first novels:

  1. Lack of consistent tension to keep the reader’s attention.
  2. Conversely, believing that large events somehow make up for the lack of character development and emotional stake.
  3. A weak POV character that the reader doesn’t quickly care about. The voice must be engaging—if readers don’t care about your POV character within the first five pages, they won’t keep reading. This is even more important than starting in a moment of action.
  4. Conversely, nobody wants to read an angst-fest. If you spend 40% of your novel in your character’s head, telling the reader all about doubts, feelings, and internal struggles, you will lose your reader’s interest. Things must happen that matter to keep the reader turning pages.
  5. Believing that as long as the writer does one thing really well (writing style, language, plot development, characterization, humor) that this will make up for other weaknesses. It really, really doesn’t. All must be done well to sell.
  6. An ending that seems contrived or planned rather than the natural conclusion to all the elements that have occurred in the course of the story.
  7. A happy ending with no depth. If your novel doesn’t make the reader feel something, doesn’t deeply satisfy in some way what it is that we all share in the human condition, it won’t satisfy the reader.
  8. Regurgitating what has already been done, even if you think it’s better than the original. Give it your own inimitable twist, and keep tweaking from there until it’s unique. On the other hand, no matter how original and great the concept, it must be executed well or it’s just a good idea. Idea must be melded with craft to succeed. Clever is not enough.


Image and the Nature of Identity

by Rose Guildenstern


Our images determine so much about our identity.

The image is the identity, what we identify with vs. the reality. In each image, we find a part of ourselves, our identity right now, and it becomes a part of us. The image is always changing—as we tell ourselves stories…about our lives, what we think, who we are (and who we are not)—again and again—our identity and images blend together.

I wonder if what we really fear in death is being alone, bereft of our identifying images and relationships—loss of identity and what we believe we are?

Human love seems to me to be almost completely loving a person’s identity and our relationship with that identity, for we can only ever truly know what we perceive of them and the image we form of them within our own internal worlds. In death, we lose that identity. All the images that our dead had in their minds and their hearts are gone.

Spirit love (also called unconditional love) seems extremely rare, although it does occur. We almost need a different name for it, it is so extraordinary. For we humans love each other’s identities. Love beyond the body cannot be based on what we like or dislike about a person—not based on how they make us feel when we are with them, or how amazing they are, or how profoundly they’ve touched our lives. This precious connection is love, but not love of what is eternal. It is love of the image, the identity, the relationship.

Betrayal, harm, hate, reciprocity, beauty, rightness, feelings—none of these matter in spirit love beyond identity. Trust only matters in so far as survival and persistence matter, which is a physical thing, and spirits apart from bodies don’t care about such things. A love that physicality cannot comprehend, for survival and continuing are the foundation of life.

Human love is identity love. When someone dies, their identity dies, and so much if not most of what we loved and what loved us dies. We are pack/herd animals, and much of our identity is shaped by our partnerships, groups, and alliances which are only of this single lifetime—and so, the spirit sheds the identity of this lifetime, and we feel the broken connection.

We who are left behind a loved one’s death feel grief, poignancy, the deep acute ache of what was and shall never be again. But the prism of the universe laughs and rejoices for all came together and focused All’s attention for one glorious moment to craft the brief rainbow of an ineffable unique identity that other unique identities have the experience to love (or not-love) for a time. The All of us, the entire universe, was changed irrevocably for this passing light’s existence.

Identity love is human and precious and beautiful—it is not less because identities die, just as a life is not less because it ends. It is in fact the opposite—human love is so much more precious in one sense precisely because it is fleeting, passing, finite. The broader the love, the less intimate—the more personal the love, the less timeless. If you can lose love, then you must play the game of finding it, and we humans love the game of finding and experiencing connection. And so, we immerse ourselves in playing the games of connection and finding love (and separation and losing love) because we do not appreciate just how connected we already are in truth—you cannot experience a constant unless its lack also exists, for the lack is what makes us acutely aware of how very precious its presence is.

Most of us only call out to the gods when we are in pain, for in this pain we feel the lack of divinity in ourselves.

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