Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
You thought I was going to say that in order to get my attention you need to write an outstanding book, didn’t you?
That almost goes without saying but we use that caveat so often I thought it important to clarify it. When I say I’m looking for a stunning novel it does not necessarily mean literary fiction. And when I say I’m looking for outstanding nonfiction I do not necessarily mean artful prose or an intellectual, erudite theological treatise.
So what am I looking for?
FICTION: I look for great storytellers who write the kinds of books readers devour. We call this commercial fiction. Does that sound crass? It’s not. Too many writers take a strange pride in the fact that they write books only an elite few will “get.” There’s almost an antisocial, self-congratulatory aspect to it. “My books are not for the unwashed masses.” I will admit I enjoy literary fiction every once in a while but too often I find so-called literary writing to be self-important– showing off the skill of the author at the expense of the storytelling. For the most part I will leave it to other agents to find the next Pulitzer Prize winner.
I want to represent writers who write the books publishers want to buy and readers want to read. That’s the formula for success. Yes we want to create fine books but we are also in the entertainment business. Commercial fiction doesn’t neglect that aspect.
More specifically, a book has to be in a genre I understand and enjoy to pique my interest. That’s why generally no Sci-Fi or Fantasy for me even though young readers gobble the genre up.
I’m always looking for writers who can make the past come alive in Historical Fiction, Historical Suspense and Historical Romance. Because this is what I often read for fun, I’m a tough critic. The historical detail must be carefully researched and serve the characters and the plot– no random detail dumps. And another personal aside— I am an historical costume expert. I can look at a costume in a photo and date the photo by it. I know textiles, laces and fabrics by era. I know which years ladies wore puce and when cotton was preferred over silk. I have an entire library of historical costume books. Does that scare you? It shouldn’t. If you write historical fiction these details give flavor and texture and you probably love the research as much as the writing.
And I’m not too proud to admit that I enjoy Prairie Romance. There’s just something about the struggles and challenges of carving a life out of the harsh realities of pioneer living. And I like Amish Fiction along with fiction featuring other cloistered people groups. Living in community has a distinctive cultural element that leaves us curious and wanting more. They’re like closed room mysteries– it all takes place in a unique microcosym– fascinating. And I keep looking for the rebirth of a Victoria-Holt-type Gothic Romantic Suspense.
When it comes to contemporary fiction I can’t seem to get enough good–really good–southern fiction and coming-of-age fiction. I’m not fond of “sassy” fiction– like chick lit– but I do love richly layered love stories. Do you see a pattern here? I tend to like the very things the core CBA reader likes. What we call commercial fiction.
NONFICTION: When I’m looking at nonfiction I’m trying to find the book that a reader is going to head into the bookstore and request. Not because they heard it was a good read but because they need it– sometimes desperately. We call that a book that meets a “felt need.” Unfortunately that means that the personal experience book is usually out. And I look for the book that has the potential to become the classic on a certain subject– the book that a bookseller would pick up and say, “If you can only buy one book on the subject, this is the one to get.” I look for the writer who, as my colleague Janet Grant says, can “put the cookies on the bottom shelf” because too many writers can’t put their ideas into an accessible form. I’m always looking for the writer who can present classic truth in a bright new way. In short, I’m looking for commercial nonfiction.
So do those specifics help you with every agent? No, of course not. We are all different. Some of my agent friends will likely make gagging and retching sounds as they read the things I like to see. And I might turn my nose up at their preferences. That’s why a writer has to do his homework.
Space is limited and I only covered a few preferences. They certainly do not cover everything I’d love to see. Do you have any specific questions? Do you hate the word “commercial” applied to your art? Do you want to make a case for literary fiction or erudite nonfiction? Discussion is good– please feel free to comment or to take me to task.