what am I looking for – a quandary

So, the other day I posted about two client books that were released when I was away on my vacation. Nestled into that post was a question to which I have so far received only one reply. And actually that reply didn’t answer the question but was about the content of one of the reviews I used in the post (and I don’t necessarily disagree with their point but want to pursue this other topic for the moment).

The question was essentially “what do these two disparate books have in common?”

mcurry said to me in conversation that answering the question based on the reviews when one hadn’t read either of the books was a bit of a challenge. (Okay. Fair enough.) Even reading the cover copy or having heard me mention the books, all he came up with was that they were both set in California. Hardly something to base an answer to “what are you looking for?” on since other books I represent are set in other states, other countries, other worlds….

Yesterday, I had lunch with matociquala and discussed the same post with her. Her answer was to tell me that my taste was “eclectic.” She recommended crafting an answer based around that to use on panels and so forth, but I suspect many in the audience may find that unhelpful evenso.

At the root of this is something that I’ve been trying to quantify for a very long time. “What am I looking for?” I get asked this question in nearly every interview, and on nearly every panel in which I participate. And I find it a frustrating, sometimes even exasperating question. It’s not that I don’t understand why people are asking it. They want to know if I might be a good fit for the book they are working on; if querying me might yield results. And, yet, I stumble…

One of the very great downsides of this question to me is that any answer one gives seems to lock one in. If I say I am looking for one thing, a number of people will assume it, by definition, excludes something else. Which it doesn’t necessarily, in my opinion. There have been occasions when a manuscript came across my desk and I fell hard for a story that I never knew I was looking for. Case in point: Donna Ball’s A Year on Ladybug Farm (forthcoming in March 2009). This is a story of three women at turning points in their lives who decide to buy a house together and chase dreams they never got to fulfill. The author herself said she didn’t think it was my kind of book. But I loved the writing. I fell hard for the house, a character unto itself. And the journey of the characters swept me under. But. It would never have been an answer I would have given on one of these panels because I just hadn’t yet realized it was a story I was looking for.

So, what is one to do? I can list genres (even subgenres) that I like or dislike (even though in the past there have been times when certain books have changed my mind). I can continue to give vague answers. You’d think after this many years of reading, including those prior to working as an agent, that I’d be able to nail it down better. What it seems I haven’t found is a way to describe specifically the key that unlocks that synapse that generates not just the “I can sell this!” part of my agent-brain, but the “I love this!” part of my reader-brain.

23 responses to “what am I looking for – a quandary

  1. In my experience as your humble, bottom of the list client, you are looking for a certain intangible quality of voice. That’s what I see all over your stable of authors. It’s sufficiently elusive as to defy definition, but it’s real.

    • Thanks for that thought, my most humble of clients.
      Voice is another one of those things I suspect many at the query stage will find a frustrating characterization of “what I’m looking for” and even then – there are some novels that have a strong and unique voice but still don’t resonate with me personally. So, then the question becomes which quality of voice am I trying to pin down?
      Today is introspective day.

      • I have spent a lot of time over the years thinking about this exact question, or my version of it, at any rate.
        The only answer I’ve come up with is useless for your purposes, but possibly a worthy discussion starter. A poor phrasing would be:
        “Voice is the one aspect of the art and craft of writing which cannot be taught outside. It must be discovered from within.”

  2. I admit this used to frustrate me because I am one of those people who like to query specifically and logically. No need to waste my time or the agent’s time if they despise epic fantasy or historicals.
    However, I have come to realize the story and the voice are what speaks to most people.
    I blogged about buying horses and the writing business a while back and I think I am on the right track. When I find a personal horse I want, we make a connection. It’s something intangible, but very real.
    So I feel it will be with my perfect agent. They will read my work and it will touch them. The agents who don’t connect with it aren’t the right ones. That’s why the thought of rejection doesn’t really bother me.

  3. I wonder if there is really a more specific answer than “a good story with good characters and good writing.” I know that as a reader, I too have things I tend to like and dislike, but there are always books that are so good it doesn’t matter if it’s something I’d tend to dislike — usually because they did things differently and, as far as my tastes are concerned, better. It seems like it would be hard to definitively rule anything out.
    I know I have seen agents say that they will consider anything outside their general preferences if it’s exceptional, but I’m guessing that tends to open up the floodgates to more bad submissions than good ones. If you don’t mind wading through submissions that are a poor fit for you to find something awesome that you might not have found otherwise, maybe it would be worth it to say something similar. I can only imagine how much work that would be, though. :-/ Is your purpose in pinning down what you like to avoid that, or so you can be more helpful to people who ask, or for your own curiosity? (Or all three?)

    • Is your purpose in pinning down what you like to avoid that, or so you can be more helpful to people who ask, or for your own curiosity? (Or all three?)
      More the 2nd and 3rd than the first.
      re: #1 – I’m not afraid of the search. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I like used bookstores. Really big ones. The hunt itself can be appealing. Of course, this last weekend, I went to a favorite store I used to haunt frequently, and didn’t find anything, and that was incredibly frustrating. And even made me a little sad. I never used to be able to leave any bookstore without buying.
      re: #2 – When one gives a vague answer on a panel such as “a story I both can sell and also fall in love with that has a unique voice” – one can almost feel the wave of dismay and/or disapproval radiating back from the room. And I want to find the authors that are a match for me, of course.
      re #3 – Looking at my list and trying to find the common thread that brings it all together would certainly tell me something interesting, I think.

  4. it’s like dating
    It’s like when I get asked what kind of girl I like to date. Some people have a type–only red heads, or French girls, or what have you. But those people seem limited, or unable to grasp the more important aspects of a person. If you look at the girls I’ve dated, they have very little in common on a superficial level.
    But there -are- common attributes that have drawn me to them. A sardonic wit. An ability to enjoy themselves fully in the moment and let go of worries and stress. A driving passion. These are intangible, harder to quantify, but they’re there.
    So perhaps when looking at the books you’ve accepted, you might find similar, frustratingly hard to pin down attributes. You’ll never be able to simply say you like vampire novels (and that’s a good thing), but you might be able to give a more nuanced sense of what unites them.

  5. Ahh, the elusive aesthetic component. In engineering, we give it a bullet point on the slideshow and then punt it to the Human Factors group.

  6. I agree, Voice is the thing that hooks readers and sells books. So talk about the Voices that resonate with you. Do you like evocative writing? Writing that surprises and excites you? Or do you prefer writing that’s flowing and descriptive? Do you like suspenseful fast paced writing? Do deep conflicts grab you? Lots of action? How about emotional, angsty writing?
    Talking about genre is fine, but if you describe the kinds of voices you’re looking for, you may get a better response.
    I have a question related to this. Do you ever recommend writers take classes and workshops? There are a few very good ones out there that can help writers hone their voice. Mary Buckham’s pacing class, Laurie Schnebly’s characterization classes and Margie Lawson’s EDITs class are three that immediately come to mind.
    Cheers, Julie Rowe
    julie.rowe@shaw.ca

  7. That actually Helps!
    The Answer you gave about what you are looking for actually helps, and as a fellow reader of many genres, it is one that I fully understand. While I love Fantasy, for this is what I write, I love to read in many genres and fall in love with many different kinds of books and authors. This posting should provide some hope for writers who send you manuscripts, b/c if you fall in love with it, then it’s for you!

  8. I have not read books by all of your clients, but the ones I have read seem to be intelligent and dangerous or complex in the problems they present. The characters that drive the stories I’ve read are grappling with more than just the usual and expected struggles, which leads me to suspect that you are less drawn to reassuring and familiar stories than some people. I’ve also noticed that romance (especially of the HEA variety) is not a focal point in most of them, whereas compelling puzzles, or moral dilemmas often are. This is limited at best, and I could be way off, but it’s the best I can come up with in tangibly qualifying terms.

  9. Something else I picked up from that post (and that I’d guess from having read things by your clients) is that you like stories that throw a lot of different challenges at their protagonists at once, and protagonists that can stand up to that.

  10. What it seems I haven’t found is a way to describe specifically the key that unlocks that synapse that generates not just the “I can sell this!” part of my agent-brain, but the “I love this!” part of my reader-brain.
    I haven’t found that, either. It seems like the endeavor of a lifetime. The best you can do is, as you mentioned, tell people what genres you like–and perhaps some general stylistic qualities you enjoy.

    • Your comment just reminded me of the episode of “No Reservations” that I was watching the other night where Tony Bourdain was in Japan and asked the soba noodle makers, the flower arranger, the knife forger, etc. whether they could ever achieve perfection in their craft and they all said basically the same thing — they hadn’t yet but would spend their life trying.

  11. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a Potter Stewart definition of what you want — You know it when you see it.
    Except for (relatively) easy definitional boundaries like genre/subgenre, it seems to me that there are too many variables, and too many possible mixes of those variables, that create (or don’t create) resonance with a reader. Trying to distill them down into something specific seems fruitless.
    For example, I love Chuck Pahlaniuk’s writing on the one hand, and JRR Tolkien’s on the other. Their writing is quite different, to say the least. Were someone to ask me why I love both (or were I their agent, looking at my client list and trying to determine some commonality as to what I like), I could rattle off a bunch of things about both of them, but few of those things would overlap (not even their characterization is similar). Tolkien is a world-builder, a lover of elaborate, if not baroque language with less than subtle characterization. Pahlaniuk’s prose is about as subtle as a gun, but his characters are the most fully realized oddballs in most surreal of real situations that you’ll ever read about. The work of both writers resonates with me, but not (near as I can tell) for any reason common to both. I just know it when I see it. 🙂

  12. what you want
    Well…to be honest, I remember when I was querying agents that I read your blog regularly, but never really considered querying you because it seemed as if you had defined what you were looking for and I didn’t fit in. I actually like the idea of being more broad and listing what you DON’T want. If I were an agent, I would probably want to be open to many things, but I definitely would not want any horror or true crime. Janet Reid says what she likes, what she thinks will get her attention, and then she finishes with, “but send me anything”. I think if agents have too many guidelines then writers start thinking, “hmmm…not sure if I fit..I don’t want to piss them off…or waste anyone’s time…” and so they go on to someone else.

  13. after further consideration
    You know…I was honestly trying to answer this question and then I read your comment: one can almost feel the wave of dismay and/or disapproval radiating back from the room.
    It got me thinking…the truth is that no matter what you say, no one is going to be able to second guess if their manuscript is good for you or not. They can hope, they can try and send it places where agents rep writers who write in similar styles and all that, but the truth is, there is no magic answer and you, as a writer, really just have to suck it up and query widely. That’s all there is to it. Write the best book you can and query, query, query. And put your trust in whatever it is you put your trust in and know that this is a hit and miss business and go for it. Sighing with dismay because an agent or editor can’t give you the magic answer is just a waste of time.

  14. I’m always surprised (you’d think I’d be used to it by now) when agents say send them only this or only that. Because, as you say, they will GET only this or that. Among other unpleasant side-effects of which is: they get clients who are competing against one another. It’s one thing to find out your agent is spending a lot of time hawking Client X’s vampire-elf Western, when you yourself write airy midlist stuff. Of course!, you can tell yourself, That’s not taking time away from MY work, which has to be marketed differently! (and probably, ha ha, more “interestingly”).
    But for many authors, I’d imagine, it’s quite another thing to find out about Client X’s favored treatment when they themselves have vampire-elf Westerns parked with the same agent. “What am I — chopped (elfin) liver?!?”
    All of which needs to be hedged around with signs reading, No, I Do Not Have An Agent. Personally, I can’t imagine taking myself so seriously as to be in the chopped-liver-phobic bunch.

  15. I think that ‘what you’re looking for’ is hard to settle upon because there are some stories that don’t stick to a particular genre. If it wows you, then you want to represent it, no matter the category. Like the book you mentioned (Ladybug). It’s really something you can’t quantify. It’s like you’ll know it when you see it, so to speak. 🙂
    ~Tyhitia
    http://obfuscationofreality.blogspot.com/

  16. How they are similar
    As was observed, this is extremely difficult just from the reviews. To do it correctly, one would have to read the books themselves in their entirety. Also, good writing is a participatory endeavor. The reader ideally is as much involved in the imagineering (to invoke a Disney term) of the story as was the writer, thus making the final result different for each person. In short, this is an art, not a science, and applying the scientific method can, therefore, be very frustrating.
    With that (rather lengthy) disclaimer, let me have a go…
    You seem to be drawn to vividly painted, multi-dimensional characters that are placed into realistic, compelling and challenging situations. It’s all about the characters, not the scenery. You’re not a ‘special effects’ lover — you’re a lover of sharply-etched protagonists that leap off the page, grab a hold of your imagination, and drag you, kicking and screaming into the depths of the story, never to surface until the final page is consumed.
    No?

  17. My impression when I read the initial post was that you liked distinctive characters, no matter what the setting. Both of those books had strong MCs who seemed to me (based solely on the reviews) to pull the story along in their wake.

  18. What do you want….
    I think, though, that you have pegged an interesting problem here, and that is that what you want has nothing to do with genre, BUT you can find it more easily in certain genres. That might be why so many agents only ask for one type of work or another, because they know what they are looking for is more readily, though not exclusively, found in those places.
    You are looking for something that makes your heart sing when you are finished. Voice is part of it, the voice can make a story easier to absorb or harder depending on what you find more interesting. I think though that characterization and tightness of story probably contribute as well.
    You’re looking for that *thing* we all found when Star Wars was released in the 70’s and in hopes of finding that *thing* again we watched the rest of the works even though they weren’t quite able to catch it again.
    And the truth is, that *thing* is a little different in all of us and our ability to connect with it varies wildly 🙂
    Please don’t *ever* answer the question “What do I want” because as soon as you put it out there you will get NOTHING in your in-box but pedantic, choppy, formulaic stories that pander to what people think you are saying. And that would suck. A lot!
    -Ingenue
    http://www.bushi-go.com

  19. “what I am looking for”
    I re-read my favorite novels. Once I read them, the surprise is gone, but I get drawn into the language — how the prose sounds in my head. C. S. Lewis felt something like this, too:
    “If you find that a reader…goes back to his old favourites again and again, then you have pretty good evidence that they are to him a sort of poetry. The re-reader is looking not for actual suprises (which can come only once) but for a certain surprisingness.”
    (“On Stories”)
    Perhaps what you are looking for is that “surprisingness” — and it’s something you can go back to again and again (which I imagine you have to do as an editor). If it wasn’t there, I’d think you’d go crazy!

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