I’ve got a new book coming out very soon — How can I find an agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers). In celebration of that, I thought we’d take the month of March and just answer the agent questions you’ve got. So if there’s something you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent, this is your chance. Drop a note in the “comments” section, or send me an email at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. I’ll try to get to as many questions as I can. So let’s get started with some of the questions people have already sent in…
A friend wrote to say, “I’ve noticed that agents at conferences will list several genres they’re interested in, but rarely see any specifications about the exact type of books that interest them. I write YA – can I pitch them ANY YA novel?”
The conference often asks agents to briefly list what we’re looking for. They usually don’t give us room to offer a lot of detail. So, for example, I represent romance novels, but there are some areas of romance I don’t really work with (paranormal, for example). There’s no method for offering much beyond a quick description, so I’m always happy to talk with any romance writer who stops by, and will try to help or steer him or her in the right direction, if I can. From my perspective, if an agent says he or she represents YA, then set up an appointment to go talk through your project and ask questions.
This came in on my Facebook page: “How do I get what’s in my head onto paper in a way that will grab the reader’s attention?”
Great voice… and that’s easier said than done. I’ve never been sure if we can teach an author how to have great voice. We can help writers improve, help them use better technique, better structure, a more active voice. We can help them come up with a stronger story, more interesting characters, and a better setting. But what sets a book apart in my view is usually the voice of the writer, and I’m just not sure we can make an author sound different (though I do think that, with practice, we can sometimes help an author discover his or her voice). To get a better handle on this, think about American Idol, which, as I write this, has just started to shrink their list of singers. All of the singers in the current 24 can sing. But some have a more interesting, more powerful, or more unique voices. God just made them that way. They all can train to improve their sound, or use better breathing technique or something, but the basic quality of their voice is God-given. I’ve often wondered if writers are the same way.
This also came in on Facebook: “What makes a ‘killer’ One Sheet?”
You may not like my answer: I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “killer” one-sheet. That is, they don’t land you a deal, they just help you take the next step. For those who don’t know, a one-sheet is a one page overview of your novel. It offers a brief description of your story, gives some detail on genre, word count, and audience, and tells something about the author. Often it’ll have some sort of graphic element to make it visually interesting. They tend to be used as a means of introducing a novel to an editor or agent at a conference. But they’re just an introduction – if they’re good, they will encourage the editor to look at the formal proposal. So I guess the best one-sheets are the ones that make the story sound interesting enough they get me to take the next step.
And this question was asked on my Facebook page: “Every agent I talk to says they can’t sell what I write. How do I overcome that?”
Um… write something else? I’m not trying to sound snotty, but if you keep hearing people say they can’t sell it, you’re either going to have to self-publish it, wait and hope to meet someone else, or write something they CAN sell.
Someone sent me this: “As an avid reader–about two thrillers a week–I am curious what your thoughts are about something. How does a poorly written book make it to the NY Times bestseller list, and riveting page-turners languish in obscurity? I just read a so called ‘thriller’ that has garnered close to 400 good reviews on Amazon and is on the NYT bestseller list. Besides the fact that the book reads like a rough first draft, as an ex-NYC cop I can attest to the fact that the author knows absolutely nothing about his subject matter, and even less about how police officers interact with the public and each other. On the other hand, I recently read two great thrillers by a new author who has garnered about 50 reviews on Amazon but no one seems to have heard of him. This sort of thing puzzles me. Thoughts?”
Life ain’t fair. Every agent can tell you of great authors he or she has represented that languished, and of weak writers who surprised us all by hitting a bestseller list. EL James sold millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I felt could have been written by a world-wise fifth grader, while Abha Dawesar’s fabulous Family Values is far more interesting and entertaining, written with polish and grace, and, while recognized by reviewers as a wonderfully written piece, has never hit a bestseller list. Like I said, life ain’t fair. Or, as the wonderful essayist HL Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”