Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley, California Office
A good agent will have a well-developed nose and an instinctive level of taste. Let’s look at these one at a time.
John Q has always had a nose for a good story. He can almost smell it coming. A good agent will understand story structure. He will know which editor and which house will like what story. In nonfiction he needs to instinctively recognize great content. Even more, he needs to know how to take the author’s content and help build a compelling book.
He also has a nose for recognizing good writing—very important for an agent. Sometimes writers get frustrated at a writer’s conference when they sit opposite an agent who takes a quick look at the first page or two and tells the writer, “This needs more work.” But that’s what makes a good agent. When we talk about “having a nose” for something, we’re talking about instinct. A good agent has that sense of what’s good and what’s great.
And it’s not just the writing, a good agent can sniff out a good idea and immediately recognize a high concept when he sees one. Part of that comes from so much reading. It’s easy to see the clichéd concepts when you see so many queries and proposals. That’s why high concept— an idea which can be described in a handful of exciting words—appeals to him.
The mouth, with its taste buds is also an important part of the agent anatomy. John Q’s own taste needs to track with reader taste. If he were crazy about Christian slasher novels, say, it might be a problem. I’m guessing there’s not a big market for that genre in CBA. If John Q kept offering projects of questionable taste to editors it wouldn’t take them long to start discounting anything that comes from him.
So, to sum it up, our agent needs:
- A nose for a good story or a great nonfiction book.
- A well-developed understanding of story structure and how to build a nonfiction book.
- To be able to sniff out good writing almost instinctively.
- Recognize high concept
- Smell an over-used plot.
- Sense a fresh idea
- To have a finely honed taste level.
So how about you as a writer? Do you need a well-developed nose and a highly evolved sense of taste?
Why am I craving a robust cabernet?
I think writer’s do need to have a nose and taste for awesome writing. And I’m pretty good at spotting it out there in the world. The challenge is being subjective about my own cooking!
James L. Rubart
Wendy asks, “So how about you as a writer? Do you need a well-developed nose and a highly evolved sense of taste?”
Yes. It’s critical. If an author pitches three ideas to an agent or editor and all of them are close variations on books already in the marketplace, the writer will look naive (“Hi, I’m a newbie!”) or unwilling to do research. Neither gives a good first impression.
Same with taste. I might like syrup covered broccoli for dinner but if no one else does the tables at my restaurant will be empty.
Michael K. Reynolds
Does this prompt the conversation when the writer says to the agent, “My, what big teeth you have?”
I have found all of the literary agents in my plastic bubble of the CBA to be so…wonderfully pleasant. Real quality people.
But, as our agents, and the watchdog of our careers it’s nice to know they have a little bite in them as well.
I LOVE that my agent is so well respected that you wouldn’t imagine people messing with her clients.
It is a double edged sword really… on one hand you have people saying to be creative and come up with fresh ideas and then you have other saying…well that is not what is selling in the market today…. duh… it’s fresh and new! 🙂
Sometimes a well-developed sense of taste can be a burden. The tale of the writer or agent who has been forced to hold their nose while they sold something has made for many a good round of after-dinner discussion about the nature of the craft and the industry.
Of course, there are also those who will call you a snob or a simpleton depending on where your tastes venture. Never has stopping to smell the roses been so fraught with peril!
“I might like syrup covered broccoli for dinner…” that made me shudder, Jim. 🙂
Another interesting post, Wendy. What I find amazing is how close the skills are for writers and agents; not that any writer could waltz in and become an agent, but that to be successful, you must have some of the same traits.
All the points above are important for writers. While judging one’s own abilities can be a challenge, you know when you’ve read a great book that meets the needs listed above.
Thanks for another fabulous post.
James L. Rubart
So we’re clear, I DO NOT like broccoli covered with syrup. Cheese? Yes.
But fun to know it made you shudder. 🙂
What is the one connection you need to have if you want to be a great writer, editor, agent, or mom?
Read, Read, Read, Read, Read.
and then read some more…
Melissa K. Norris
Sarah nailed it here. The challenge is being subjective about my own cooking!
If you ever have the chance to take Jim Rubart’s class on how to develop a high concept idea with spiritual heft, do it! 🙂
A writer has to be able to take feed back and apply it. If your book is just good, make it great. Take those rejections, even if they’re from just one page, and learn from the.
Great writers became that way, their first draft wasn’t super. It’s all in the learning, at least for me.
I think writers need well developed noses and taste buds because what we are what we eat. If we have good taste, we are more likely to write good novels.
Southerners speak with a southern accent not because they study it and practice it. They are immersed in it and they naturally mimic it.
It’s the same thing with good writing. If you immerse yourself in lyrical writing you’ll be better able to write it. If you read a lot of high-concept commercial novels, you’ll have a feel for a gripping plot.
The nose and mouth are rather connected in the digestive system. And so it seems with the writer’s smell and taste of a story with that ever-needed “gut feeling” and sense about writing.
Very interesting and relevant points!