thinking out loud – an agent’s perspective on the challenge of finding new projects

It’s Wednesday and it’s already been a pretty productive week for me. Among other things, I’ve signed up a new client… *waves* I’ve read two full manuscripts and two partials (I don’t usually get in this much reading time in a week), and written up editorial notes or rejections (sigh) as needed. I’ve reviewed and signed off on a contract and done a veritable ton of other random paperwork. I’ve attempted to reorganize my office bookcases for the influx of new books that have just been released or are just about to be released. They still have no room on them, but they at least look better.

And I’ve stared at my journal wondering what to write about. And I’ve read a few other agents’ journals to see what they are discussing. I’ve noticed that my entries have trailed off in the last couple of months and I’m not sure why. Sure, there are some non-agent things that have been taking up time, thought, and energy/angst, but even if those are contributing factors to occasional bouts of distraction, I don’t feel like it’s the answer. Is it that I’ve been keeping this journal for almost three years and I’m beginning to feel as if I’m repeating myself? Maybe it’s a phase. Last night while I was reading queries, it felt remarkably similar to how they seemed the previous week. There were some good ideas that didn’t appear to be supported by the writing, there were some very articulate sentences that didn’t seem as if they were supporting solid enough concepts, and there were a number of things somewhere in the middle. And I felt vaguely frustrated by this.

I was talking to a colleague yesterday and she was lamenting the fact that she has almost nothing on the market. She sounded outright desperate to find a new project that made her sit up and take notice. Where’s the excitement? Where’s the thrill? she asked me. I realized I didn’t have an answer for her. I’ve signed up two new clients this year. And I’m extremely chuffed to have the opportunity to work with both of them and with the remarkably talented list that I assembled overnight (like people who become best-sellers overnight after publishing over a dozen novels). But, despite this, I still feel like I’m not discovering enough. Is it greed? I want all the best projects all the time? Is that so wrong? And coming on the heels of Kelly Link’s thought-provoking letter, I realize that maybe it’s just the way this works. I’m seeing a lot of competent work in the submissions I receive, but only a rare bit that excels that measurement. And why settle? Either as a writer, or as an agent? I should keep my hunger alive for those queries that stand out and the writing that resonates. If it takes a thousand to find the one, so be it. It’s one of the reasons — one of the biggest reasons — I’m into this.

Publishing offers mixed and conflicting signals. Like the girl across the aisle who keeps glancing your way, but it turns out she only wants to borrow your pen. Agents and editors on the conference circuit constantly talk about writers identifying their own voice, finding their own niche, and so on and so forth. But at the same time they preach that there are writing and genre conventions to be respected. Plus, it turns out that it is really hard work to write a story that breaks rules and isn’t also itself broken. It’s a catch-22. The question is whether it’s actually an inescapable fate for most writers, which leads us back to Kelly Link’s observations that much of what is available is competent, but lacks the kind of ambition and risk-taking that makes a work a standout contribution.

But, I do want all the best projects. So do all the other agents. There’s already an inherent risk in sending something out on submission. The writer is exposing themselves, both to the possibility of rejection, and to that glimpse of their soul on the page (not to wax too poetic here). I’ve met more than a small number of writers who seem to be self-sabotaging on that front. They always appear to have an excuse for why they don’t have something on the market. Last week, I got a thank you note from someone in which they let me know that my reply to their submission was their first non-form rejection. And they were thrilled. They considered this a milestone. But I wondered how many of those form rejections this author had collected in their pursuit with this first novel, or how many more there would be. And I hoped they wouldn’t let this stop them. That if they could already take this one risk that perhaps in their next novel (or in revising this one), they would take a sufficient risk as a writer to become that one in a thousand.

And if you’ve read this entire interior monologue, thanks for listening. I’ve now given myself a pep talk and I’m going back to the trenches….

23 responses to “thinking out loud – an agent’s perspective on the challenge of finding new projects

  1. It’s all about…
    Isn’t it?
    And these little glimpses are just as valuble as the pithier entries. Both to yourself and to your readers.
    It might be that ‘every five year’ thing. Where you look at where you’ve come and where you want to be and feel like it’s all a big circle… if that makes sense?

    • Re: It’s all about…
      It’s interesting that you bring up faith as an element of this. Not that long ago I was having a conversation in which we defined “complex faith” and “simple faith.” The latter is the kind you have as a child where you don’t question why things are. But in complex faith, you challenge your own faith to see if it can withstand further tempering. And you keep doing it. That does seem pretty applicable to the different things I was thinking about earlier today. Food for thought.

  2. As a writer, sometimes it’s difficult within the daily grind of writing, to figure out what exactly risk-taking would be within your manuscript.

  3. Pep away. We all ask ourselves these questions or their close analogs.
    You do good, you know.

  4. I understand what you’re saying–it happens to me as a reader, too; I pick up something that’s got everybody excited and it’s just same old same old. Some of that is burnout, but some is a reflection of commercial reality. The writer’s dilemma is always with us: “If I write something too far out, it won’t sell, and if I write what’s really in me, it’s totally not commercial, so if the point is to get published, I’d better play it safe.”
    The question I ask my agent when we’re brainstorming is, “OK, here’s my latest hot! new! idea! Can you sell this?” And often he says, “No, right now this kind of thing is totally not getting any takers no matter how good it is.” Then I have to keep trying until I find something else that will sell. It’s the classic situation: agents and editors want fresh, new, original–as long as it’s just like everything else that’s selling like crazy this week.
    And of course, true brilliance is to be able to do this not just competently but excellently–to write from the heart even while you’re writing for the market. Writers who can do this are thin on the ground. Maybe we’re seeing more competent writers because of the prevalence of the Internet and the ease of finding and participating in groups and workshops, but the really great ones have always been rare and always will be.

    • This is the one point where I have an advantages as an unpublished writer – the thing I’ve got out at the moment is unconventional, but I like it, my first reader (who has a long -standing publishing career) liked it, and while it probably won’t sell, it’s out there taking its chances.
      But even so, I’m now concentrating on writing something that – hopefully – is more commercial.
      As for finding the next bright new thing (to read, in my case, to sell in ‘s) I’m suffering slightly from fatigue as well. I’ve read _too many_ stock fantasies, and I think I’ve overdosed. The last newwriter who made me sit up and take note was Joanne Harris (of Chocolat fame); but I’ve slogged through a lot of books to get there.

    • “If I write something too far out, it won’t sell, and if I write what’s really in me, it’s totally not commercial, so if the point is to get published, I’d better play it safe.”
      I used to be a member at a writing community where the admin — a multi-published SFF author — advised writers not to write things that were “too weird.” I specifically remember one workshop where she told one writer that his robot novel would never sell, because people couldn’t identify with robots and they were “too weird.” Scary thing is, I’ve seen similar “advice” being tossed elsewhere around the net.
      It’s always seemed to me, at least, that while writing “safe” and competant *might* get you published … it’s not going to result in a “breakout.” Or even continued publication, depending on how well you sell.

  5. First–congrats on the new client!
    Second–this sounds to me like it might be the agent’s version of “augh I’m a hack I’ll never write anything worth reading everybody’s going to find out I’m a fraud maybe if I run away to Belize and hide beneath a coconut tree for the rest of eternity no one will find me and expose me, but AUGH I don’t even know if they HAVE coconut trees in Belize…!” that writers go through. Very frustrating, but if you hang in there, it too will pass.
    But boy. Man. You’ve got me thinking all over again what a crap shoot this whole biz is. šŸ™‚

  6. Speaking as someone who’s been sitting on a manuscript for the last six months for assorted reasons (but who is holding it pending making a face to face query on it at Writer’s Weekend), seeing this sort of thing is encouraging. Please do keep it up. Sometimes we writers out here need repeat reminders. šŸ˜‰

  7. Congrats on the new client. And congrats TO the new client, if they’re reading.
    Good post. It’s interesting to see an agent’s take on Kelly Link’s letter.

  8. It’s not greed, not at all. It’s your job to want to represent the best work submitted to you–it’s your passion, clearly. Why settle for a run of the mill story when you can be exposing significant writing to the audience that craves thought and originality?
    It’s important for writers, too, to learn that run of the mill doesn’t need to be reiterated. I’d much rather have a mediocre story rejected so that I know to infuse it with depth and sincerity, than have it published and do okay but slide out of common knowledge after a few years. (And that’s even a lot to hope for, really.)
    This risk taking in writing, I’m not so clear on what it intends. Breaking rules without ruining a story, granted; but that’s mainly a technical point, it doesn’t mean the story is inherently good. There’s writing to shock, to expose or to break untread ground, but these are gimmicks more than tools, and that sort of petty and aggressive writing gets tiresome quick, I find. And there’s those catch 22s–opening or defying genres without losing appeal, pioneering an original style, trying not to be the next Tom Clancy or whoever–these I don’t have much bearing on, either because they come naturally or due to isolation from popular fiction and the mainstream market.
    The closest understanding I can come to is that it’s a risk of time and effort. I’ve spent years drafting (since highschool, so many of those years didn’t even see decent work produced; years, still), invested countless hours and energy and thought and etc. etc. etc. And all I’ve gotten from it is the delight of having on paper those stories I’ve enjoyed having in my brain. The risk is exposing them to an audience–not because it’s exposing myself via my writing, a la LeGuin: quite contrarily, that’s the point. No, the risk is that maybe no one represents it, maybe no one buys it, maybe no one ever reads it, or maybe it just doesn’t do well. Maybe that time was wasted.
    But honestly–honestly–I don’t consider that a risk, or a waste. I’m happy to have written. Writing and publishing I see as quite distinct. Inexorably linked, etc., of course, but distinct creatively. My goal in writing is just to write, because I love it; my goal in publishing is to earn some form or degree of livelihood by selling my art to an appreciative audience. Either satisfaction is independant of the other. Writing especially so, because I could write, never be published, and still be happy.
    (But don’t get me wrong: I love, love love love, the prospect of having countless people read my work, getting movies made of the stories, even just holding an advance copy in my hands, etc. And I’ll work myself to the bone to see it happen.)
    If you ever find yourself with a moment to spare (ha ha, I know), I’d love to hear your thoughts on risk in writing. As always, it’s a pleasure to read. You’re a great humanizing face on a hitherto ominous, inevitable business. Thank you, truly.

    • “There’s writing to shock, to expose or to break untread ground, but these are gimmicks more than tools, and that sort of petty and aggressive writing gets tiresome quick, I find.”
      It depends. Yes, they can be used as gimmicks. But they’re not always. Mercedes Lackey deals with what have been considered “taboo” subjects in her fiction; so does Piers Anthony, Storm Constantine, etc. It’s *how* you deal with the subject that’s the question — not the subject itself.
      If the author is using it just to be gimmicky, then yeah, it’s boring and often annoying because the author hasn’t got his shit straight in the first place. At the same point, if the story needs that component and the author can write it well enough, IMO, it’s incredibly strong.
      But a lot of people will omit certain things in their books when someone tells them “it won’t sell.” Vampires, shapeshifters, GBLT characters, robots … I’ve heard just about anything that isn’t “normal” in the field slapped with an “it won’t sell” sticker.
      Thing is, if you wipe everything that’s *your* unique touch out of the story, you end up sterilising it. And who wants to read a story that’s as spotlessly clean as a hospital?

      • Oh, there are certainly exceptions–most notably those that are well written. That’s why I said “gimmicks more than tools”, rather than being absolute. ; )
        And I completely agree. I’d rather never sell a book than sell a million copies of a story that isn’t truly mine.

  9. Seems like I’ve read a lot of things like this … and I’ve thought it myself: is the desire to be published twisting the life out of what I write? Then I realize I’m delusional and really need to learn to write better before I worry about stuff like that. But I did remember that I started as a poet and need to keep to my roots, go with my strengths, and all that jazz.
    It’s nice to hear that people are actually looking for quality and that it’s not a who-you-met-and-schmoozed-at-some-con sort of thing. It’s actually encouraging (seeing as I’m not real good at schmoozing LOL).
    Here’s to taking risks. šŸ˜€

  10. I read Kelly Link’s letter with interest, and found something to take away from it. However, I thought that what she was looking for was not risk-taking, but simply writing that was not in the same old molds. (And I suppose it is a risk to break the mold.)
    I think the reason why you don’t see fresh stuff is that to be different you have to think differently, and people who can do that aren’t born every day. Or maybe they aren’t educated every day.
    I have more thoughts on this, but it’s probably boring.

  11. That if they could already take this one risk that perhaps in their next novel (or in revising this one), they would take a sufficient risk as a writer to become that one in a thousand.
    I suspect that many submitters are so focused on their own work that, while they think they’re fresh and innovative and taking risks, they don’t realize you’ve already seen that idea three times this week. And it’s only Tuesday.
    Of course that observation–well, really it’s a guess since I don’t have any data to support my theory–doesn’t really help make anything better for you or anyone else. But I have to say something once in a while or you’ll think I don’t love you anymore. šŸ˜‰

  12. I always suspected agents wanted to sell my soul and now I have proof! But seriously thank you for writing this and for all your posts. It encourages me to read about your passion. I bet you’ve attracted great clients through your journal. I hope your post brings you another new client soon.

  13. thanks for sharing
    it is indeed a hard line–for those of us on both sides of the fence. It is nice to catch a glimpse of your world through your journals.

  14. I think everyone in the industry wants the best….writers want to write the next bestseller…agents want to represent those writers…and editors want to buy that book for their house. Perhaps it’s just the nature of the beast.

  15. Thanks for the hope. Walking into a book store is daunting — so many books and not all of them that good. Searching for an agent and sending out queries and partials is even more daunting. It’s easy to get lost in the quagmire, but writing is what it’s all about. I will keep trying and writing to the best of my imagination and ability. EA Monroe

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