There is nothing more pressing for all aspiring authors than figuring out what agents are really thinking. We toss all our hopes in the form of a query letter into the river of possibilities. We wait for replies. We hope for success, which means I have to encounter some type of Vulcan mind meld with someone who holds the keys to the world of traditional publishing.
But just where do we find out agents' thought processes? Here is a great source. Put your fingertips to a Google search and ask for "interview Kleinman Barer Zuckerbrot" and you will be directed to a roundtable interview published in 2009. Those taking part are Jeff Kleinman, one of the founders of Folio Lit; Julie Barer and Renee Zuckerbrot, who have agencies bearing their names; and Daniel Lazar of Writers House. Those are familiar names to any of us who have tossed our hopes into that river. (I have filed with three of them, and the results are ... without matching names to results ... 1) no reply at all, 2) a polite letter from the agent's assistant saying no, 3) a request for a partial, then a rejection because I did not have the proper voice for which the agent was looking.)
The interview is rich with detailed information supplied by each agent, but one comment caught my eye more than any other. It came from Jeff Kleinman. Here is the section: "I have three criteria (for accepting a project). The first is missing your subway stop. The second is gushing about it to any poor slob who will listen. The third is having editors in mind immediately. ... I want to be thinking, 'Oh my God, I've got to send this to so-and-so. So-and-so would love this.' "
That final part is what caught my eye. It is so elemental, but so many aspiring authors overlook it. We concentrate on the first part: The writing has to be good enough to lure an agent who is inundated by material from creative people. But that final part is a bit of gospel truth: It's all about the business.
Part of me accepts that without flinching. An agent has needs (paying the bills, making sure the integrity of the work being sold meets his or her standards, etc.) We as writers have to meet those needs by producing literature of a high enough quality.
But here's what troubles me. Does that previous agent/editor connection result in literature that doesn't push the envelope and challenge barriers? If an agent knows an editor to whom he or she can sell, is it only because they have sold something similar before? That gets back to one of my fears in this business, that the need for an agent to sell and pay the bills keeps him or her locked in established parameters. We see the same old stuff wearing a different mask ... vampires, wizards, similar detectives, similar spies, similar romances, etc. As I've said before on this blog, there hasn't been a truly revolutionary bit of fiction published in the past decade-plus other than the Harry Potter series. Is this a big reason why?
I am not touting myself as that magical writer every agent is overlooking. My first novel aims straight for the heart of mainstream America, and my writing style is very mainstream. I have journalistic training, and that is what we aim for. I want to touch readers' sensibilities by confronting them with the familiar, albeit with characters and situations that are adequately literate. I wrote the first novel to tell a story, not to present something that is easy to pigeon-hole. (I will admit that my second novel, which is about a quarter of the way to acceptable skeletal structure, is designed more for a genre. You see, I have to pay the bills, too.)
Keep believing. Keep creating. Keep casting your hopes into that river.