Monday, April 15, 2013

Looking for Mr. (or Ms!) Right Agent

The good news is, I finally finished the revision of my novel. It’s off to the publishers who requested it back in December, and I’ve returned to the chore of querying agents. I’m hoping that the fact that two publishers are looking at it will make the book more appealing – after all, if publishers are already looking at it, that answers the question about whether it’s commercial, right?

I know there are some writers who love this process – they’re the ones who are combing through the writer’s guide to agents before they’re even finished their first drafts – but I am definitely not one of them. (I would much rather be working on my next novel, or outlining that new idea I had for a screenplay, or reading someone else’s book.) While it’s gratifying that there are many agents out there who say they are looking at new writers and want to read women’s fiction, it still feels like an exercise in futility. I know the statistics on first time writers and the slush pile. I know how much work it takes for an agent to sell a new book by a first-time writer. Just those two factors are depressing enough.

Even worse is when I look at these agents’ web sites to see what specifically they’re looking for, beyond genre. They set extremely high standards and very low standards at the same time. They warn writers to proofread their work; not to depend completely on spell check. And then they say they’re looking for “exquisite writing,” “characters that move and inspire,” “amazing, unique voices.” I wilt in the face of these requirements. (I can proofread, however.)

I understand an agent, who receives hundreds of queries a month, wanting to represent only the brightest, shiniest properties available. As a reader, though I am not looking for the qualities that move them. I don’t want exquisite writing. I want writing that tells the story in such a way that the writing becomes invisible. (There’s a joke about movie reviewing; that appreciating the cinematography is a way of saying you didn’t appreciate the plot. I feel the same way about the “exquisite writing” comment. If it’s the fancy turns of phrase that caught your eye, what does that say about the characters or plot twists?) I don’t need characters that move and inspire; I want characters I can identify with. As for voice? I’m looking for plot.

Yes, I’m a reader/book reviewer, but when I take a look at the bestseller’s list, it seems to me that many readers agree with me. The biggest sellers are propelled by the best plot twists. If I were an agent, “commercial potential” would be the number one factor I’d be looking for.

And truthfully, my writing is not exquisite. I don’t spend a lot of time describing flowers or sunsets or the way the sunlight sparkles off my heroine’s hair like so many tiny diamonds. My characters are average women in specific situations. I believe my biggest strengths as a writer are dialogue and structure. Is that enough?

I have a list of about 50 agents, and I’m hopeful, but not too much. I know the odds. And at the same time, I’ve met a lot of women’s fiction writers through Facebook over the past year, and nearly all of them have gone the self-publishing route, and they seem happy. Still, I’m not ready to put that dream aside – the one where my book is published by a major house, where I’m not paying out of pocket for editing, cover design and distribution. And I’d much rather spend my time working on my next book rather than marketing this one.

Whatever happens, I’ll let you know.

PS: For those of you who are curious, here’s my one-paragraph synopsis of my novel, “Keeping Score” – women’s fiction at 89,000 words:

Divorced mom Shannon Stevens and her best friend Jennifer spend every weekend on the sidelines, cheering on their 9-year-old sons in their soccer and baseball games. When Shannon’s son Sam decides to go out for a summer travel baseball team, Shannon is sucked into a mad world of rigged try-outs, professional coaches, and personal hitting instructors. But it’s the crazy, competitive parents who really make Shannon’s life miserable. Their sons are all Derek Jeter and Bryce Harper, and Sam isn’t fit to fetch their foul balls. Even Jennifer succumbs to the competition, placing her son Matthew on a top travel team and keeping Sam from earning a spot. Sam winds up on a struggling team that constantly loses to Matthew’s, and Shannon winds up in a flirtation with Matthew’s coach. Can she really date the man who didn’t think Sam was good enough for his team? As Sam works to make friends, win games and become a better baseball player, Shannon tries to keep from becoming one of those crazy baseball parents herself. In this world, it’s not about whether you win, lose, or how you play the game… it’s all about KEEPING SCORE.

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