I’ve written a middle grade novel and am querying agents. Last month I received a request for a full manuscript.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to gloat and tell you how excited I am to be represented by a big-name publisher or how you can download a copy of my book.
Nope. Nothing of the kind. After reading my manuscript, the agent decided to pass. But she did give me something I’ll never forget: valuable constructive criticism, which in the end might turn out to be even better than an offer of representation.
(Bear with me … I’m trying to see the silver lining.)
What she said was that my character didn’t have that “unique flair” she was looking for.
My initial reaction (after telling myself that I hadn’t expected her to like it anyway) was irritation. I’d heard that publishers are looking for “edgy” characters these days, but I didn’t want to give my eight-year-old protagonist suicidal thoughts, nose rings, or tattoos. This edginess is just a phase, I told myself. Surely it will pass.
But then I got humble and gave myself a minute to see the book through the agent’s eyes. When I did, I had to admit that my character was a bit on the bland side. Not much of a personality, actually, except that she’s shy, lacking in confidence, and has a good imagination. She needed something more. That agent was right. My character needed flair.
But what exactly is flair?
No, that’s “flare.”
According to my best friend Merriam (last name Webster), “flair” is a special skill or ability, a style, or even — in the old days — an odor. (The word “flair” comes from Latin, French, and Middle English words for scent or fragrance.)
So, if I’m to give my character a unique flair, how do I do that? Should she have some hidden talent, unique mannerisms, or — how unique would this be — a special smell?
I’ve decided to revise my book (again), keeping an eye on all the ways I can enhance my character’s unique flair. I don’t mind doing this. I think I’m going to love my character more when I’m finished with her. After all, isn’t a character’s uniqueness what we love about them, what makes us root for them, and why we’re sad when the book ends?
Think of some of your favorite characters in novels. The first one to pop into my mind is Holden Caulfield; the second is Aza Holmes. I loved them both, for totally different reasons. (And after reading the article about Holden Caulfield that I just linked to, I love him even more.) But the thing both Holden and Aza have in common is personality. They had unique flair, no doubt about it. That’s what I want for my character, and I’m going to try my best. I’m no J.D. Salinger or John Green, but I can sure as hell try to be a better Lori Bonati.
It’s like when I edit photographs. After some initial gross adjustments like cropping and straightening, I work on more subtle enhancements such as vibrancy, clarity, and color. Here’s an example of a photo I took recently before and after editing. This simple little photo was taken through the windshield of a car while it was moving. (Don’t panic, I wasn’t driving.)
No flair at all. But check out that unique angle and dashboard reflection!
The second photo sold online in one day. If only I could say that about my book.
Have you ever received feedback from an agent? If so, did you follow it?