Wednesday, July 15, 2009

What Are You Looking For?

Often when I attend writers conferences the first question I am asked is, “What are you looking for?” You’d think I’d have it down by now. That succinct but illuminating response that perfectly describes my tastes and hopefully reveals a little wit and personality. But I find that the answer I give varies each time, and that I’m rarely satisfied with it. New ideas I’ve never considered before fly from my mouth. For example, “I’d like a post-apocalyptic cookbook. Sort of a Paula Dean meets Bladerunner concept.” What? My God, I think, What am I looking for?

Over the years, my response to this question has varied from, “a lusty beach read,” to “meticulously researched historical fiction” to “a fast-paced international thriller” to “anything with an animal in it that makes me cry.” I’ve described myself as a lover of magical realism, a die-hard romantic, and a sports-junkie. And, to be fair, all are true. One reason I love my job is I’m able to read across several genres and learn about a breadth of diverse subjects. My projects have included mysteries, literary biographies, spirituality and self-help, and even an illustrated gift book.

I like mixing it up. It keeps my work fresh and fun, but I can understand how this might make it more difficult for writers to know which projects are right for me. I have an agent friend who is fond of saying, “How can I know what I’m looking for until I’ve seen it?” Fair enough, I think, but can’t we be any more helpful? Is it possible to give a more accurate idea of what we agents do and don’t want without being Negative Nancys?

Well, the answer might be no, but I’m going to give it a shot. Here are a few items on my current wish list:

1. Mystery novels that break free from being purely genre books by incorporating a particularly fascinating setting, or historical research, or a unique plot twist. A perfect example from my list is Rebecca Cantrell’s A Trace of Smoke. I loved the book’s setting (1931 Berlin), and was also intrigued by the heroine’s situation – that she was a crime reporter writing under a man’s pen name. I wanted to know more about her life.

2. Novels that hit that sweet spot between commercial and literary fiction. By this I mean well-crafted stories with strong plots. Beautiful prose isn’t enough. There must be a gripping story, filled with tension, emotion and suspense. Think Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife.

3. Sophisticated Young Adult Novels with the potential to cross over and attract an adult audience. I am mainly interested in contemporary settings and protagonists in the 12-16 yr age range.

4. Lively, fun nonfiction that feels edgy and current. I would love to find a strong pop culture or pop reference title. I want quirky! Of particular interest are Do It Yourself titles that might explore topics such as home brewing, urban farming, etc.

5. Serious nonfiction with a strong intellectual bent. I’m looking for authors who are experts in their field. Award-winning journalists, college professors, notable scientists… I would welcome projects with academic origins as long as they have enough accessibility and commercial appeal to attract a broad mainstream audience. Think Malcolm Gladwell or Jon Krakauer.

And a few items on my Desperately Seeking Not to Receive This list:

1. Any fiction that could be described as “quiet.” As Cormac McCarthy proves, literary fiction can be big, loud and tough like any other genre. I’m not seeking major pyrotechnics, but I should feel drawn into a strong story within the first ten pages. No flowery prose please. Lyrical is okay, flowery is not.

2. “Misery Memoirs.” Examples of memoirs I love are Don’t Lets Go to the Dogs Tonight and Reading Lolita in Tehran.

3. Thrillers with plots based on terrorism or American politics. No hardened cops, FBI or CIA agents who team up with beautiful young protégés, please.

4. Fantasy. I’m facing the truth; it’s just not for me. Unless you’ve written something bleak and fascinating and post-apocalyptic like The Hunger Games, the Handmaid’s Tale or Never Let Me Go. In that case, I want to sign you immediately.

5. Novels from an animal’s perspective. I have one on my list that I love, and I’m not seeking any more. I do love animals though, and wouldn’t mind more nonfiction about them!

Please note that the items on this list are subject to change, and through our handy new blog I’ll try to keep everyone posted while avoiding reporting every fleeting whim (Vampires in Tudor-Stuart England). Thanks for reading and till next time!