Guide to Literary Agents: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published (Market) (2015)
CRAFTING A NOVEL AGENTS WILL LOVE
How to grab an agent with voice and flair.
by Donald Maass
You’ll never meet an author who admits to publishing a “failed” novel. You will, though, encounter authors in bars and on blogs who will loudly tell you what’s wrong with the book industry. They’ll chronicle in detail how their titles languished on the shelves because their publishers screwed up and failed them.
But accept blame? No way. If sales were disappointing or an option was dropped, it’s the fault of weak “support,” a lousy cover, awful back-panel copy, bad timing, distribution mistakes, lack of subsidiary rights sales, or a host of other common publishing woes.
How can it be the author’s fault? After all, he wrote a book that was good enough. It was published. It met the standard—one that sometimes seems impossibly high. Any poor performance was therefore not the author’s doing but someone else’s, right?
But if that’s true, then why do some novels become successful in spite of the sting of small deals, minimal press runs, little promotion, forgettable covers, bland copy, distribution snafus, and the absence of movie deals or translation sales?
Take timing and distribution troubles, for instance. In a recent interview in Writer’s Digest, British author Chris Cleave related that due to a terrorist attack in London on the publication day of his first novel, Incendiary—which happened to be about a terrorist attack in London—the book was yanked from bookshop shelves after only about 90 minutes on sale. Talk about disasters! Yet that book later found its audience and was successful, even becoming a feature film. Cleave went on to write the mega-sellers Little Bee and Gold.
And what about awful covers? Do you remember what was on the covers of Mystic River or Empire Falls? I didn’t think so. It didn’t matter. In fact, think about any great novel you read in the last decade and ask yourself this: Was the reason you bought or loved that novel the flap copy, the Italian edition, the movie option, the author’s Twitter feed, or the news of her honking big advance? Probably not.
I’m not saying that the industry is perfect, or that authors can’t help their sales with smart self-promotion. (Although my experience has been that the boost is typically smaller than evangelists would like you to believe.) If you want to distract yourself with those issues, go ahead. I won’t stop you. But you’ll be missing a critical point.
As a literary agent who’s helped guide fiction careers for more than 30 years, here’s what I’ve learned: Runaway success comes from great fiction, period. The publishing industry may help or hinder but cannot stop a powerful story from being powerful. Conversely, the book business cannot magically transform an adequate novel into a great one.
You may not like every bestseller (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?), but if a book is selling well then it’s doing things right for many readers. By the same token, less commercially successful novels are not doing enough of those things, even if they were good enough to get into print.
What are those critical factors, then? Let’s take a look at some of the most common.
CULPRIT NO. 1: TIMID VOICES
Great novels not only draw us in immediately but command our attention. They not only hold our interest but hold us rapt. They cast a spell. A snappy premise and meaty plot can hook us and keep us reading but cannot by themselves work that magic. It takes something extra: voice.
What is voice, anyway? Narrative style? Character diction? A set of subject matter or a singular setting? All of the above? Pinning it down can be difficult, but start with this: We primarily experience stories through point-of-view characters.
To put it differently, voice in a novel is not the author’s thoughts or vocabulary but the sum total of what her characters observe, think, feel and express in their own unique ways.
First-person narrators automatically have a voice, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s strong. Victims, whiners and passive daughters often have weak voices. On the flip side, snappy narrators who fire off zingers every page or so don’t always leave a lasting impression, either. Have you ever met a government-issue alpha male or central-casting kick-ass heroine whose name you forgot as soon as you turned the final page? Then you know what I mean.
Lorrie Moore’s bestselling literary novel A Gate at the Stairs is the coming-of-age story of Tassie Keltjin, a 20-year-old student and daughter of a potato farmer. As the novel opens, Tassie is on a term break and needs money. She is looking for babysitting jobs.
I was looking in December for work that would begin at the start of the January term. I’d finished my exams and was answering ads from the student job board, ones for “childcare provider.” I liked children—I did!—or rather, I liked them OK. They were sometimes interesting.
Tassie is about as ordinary as characters get. She’s a student. She needs a job. She has no odd talent, paranormal ability or backstory secret. The only reason we’re compelled to read about her is her voice, her take on things. Her take on herself is wry. She’s a future babysitter trying to talk herself into liking kids. That wry voice makes her engaging enough to lure us forward into the rest of her tragi-comic story.
Third-person narrators are a step removed from the reader, true enough, but when their inner experiences are both vivid and different, then their voices can become strong. It’s not just language. It’s not only getting into a character’s head. It’s how you use both of those things to create a strong voice.
Erin Morgenstern’s bestselling literary fantasy The Night Circus is a three-ring carnival of voice that’s all the more remarkable for using not only the third person but the often icy present tense. Open her novel at random and see. Here’s Lefèvre, the circus manager, practicing knife throwing by aiming at the byline of a reviewer in a newspaper clipping:
The sentence that holds his name is the particular one that has incensed M. Lefèvre to the point of knife throwing. A single sentence that reads thusly: “M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre continues to push the boundaries of the modern stage, dazzling his audiences with spectacle that is almost transcendent.”
Most theatrical producers would likely be flattered by such a remark. They would clip the article for a scrapbook of reviews, quote it for references and referrals.
But not this particular theatrical producer. No, M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre instead focuses on that penultimate word. Almost. Almost.
How often do you use the words thusly and penultimate in your fiction? Not often? That’s OK. I’m not saying that stuffy diction is the way to craft a strong voice. But in this case, it makes the repressed anger and obsessive perfectionism of M. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre wonderfully distinctive.
STRENGTHEN THAT HARD-TO-DEFINE VOICE:
· What’s your protagonist’s initial view of the main story problem? Evolve that understanding in three steps. How is it different at the end? Put each stage on the page.
· What’s your protagonist’s opening opinion of a secondary character, the story’s locale, or era? Open with that … then change it by the end.
· Pick anything ordinary in the world of your story: for example, a vehicle, a sport, or a topic of public debate. Give your protagonist a fanatic view. Write his rant.
CULPRIT NO. 2: UNTESTED CHARACTERS
If voice comes from a character’s way of looking at the world, a character’s continuing grip on the reader comes from what she does, why she does it, and who she is. It’s not enough for your characters to simply have actions, motives and principles. Those drivers can be weak or they can be strong.
Let’s start with actions. The weakest action is inaction. You’d think this is obvious, yet many scenes, indeed whole novels (yes, even published ones), can pass without a character actually doing something. Reacting, observing, and bearing what is hard or painful are not actions. Running away is active, technically speaking, but it isn’t as strong as facing up, confronting and fighting.
More compelling are actions that show spine, take courage, spring from high principles or bring characters face to face with their deepest fears. Strongest of all are self-sacrifice, forgiveness and other actions that demonstrate growth, grace and love.
What about motives? In life our motives are many, deep and intertwined. Unfortunately, in many novels characters are motivated in ways that are single-minded and simplistic. Generic motives make for cartoonish characters.
You can see that in some genre novels. Detectives have codes, romance heroines seek love, and fantasy heroes fight evil. Is that bad? No. Codes, yearning for love and fighting evil are good—but as characters’ lone motives they’re also generic.
What makes characters’ motivations genuinely gripping, then? There’s a hierarchy. Mixed motives make characters real. Conflicting motives make characters complex. Most gripping of all are motives that reveal to us characters’ innermost cores. We’re shaped by our hurts. When a character’s hurts are unique and specific, what propels them on their journeys—motivates them—paradoxically becomes universal.
Think of it this way: The deeper you dig into what drives your protagonist, the more readers will be able to connect.
What about principles? They are the rules we live by and the beliefs we hold. These too can be weak or strong. Generic principles are common and obvious. Do unto others is a fine but commonplace rule for living. Compelling principles are personal, a twist on what’s familiar. Build a bridge to everyone you meet—then walk across it, is somewhat more personal. That’s especially true if the protagonist who lives by that rule is a bridge inspector.
When actions, motives and principles come together the effect can be profound. Jamie Ford’s longtime bestseller Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is set largely in Seattle in 1942. It’s the story of Henry Lee, a sixth-grade Chinese-American boy who falls in love with Keiko Okabe, a Japanese-American girl in his class. When Keiko and her family are removed to an internment camp, Henry is distraught. That would be enough for many literary novels. The romantic tragedy has happened. The political point is made.
But Ford has his protagonist do something: Henry gets a job as a kitchen assistant to the school cook who has been contracted to feed the prisoners at the internment camp. He goes looking for Keiko.
Another language barrier Henry ran into was within Camp Harmony. Just seeing a Chinese kid standing on an apple crate behind the serving counter was strange enough. But the more he questioned those who came through his chow line about the Okabes, the more frustrated he became. Few cared, and those who did never seemed to understand. Still, like a lost ship occasionally sending out an SOS, Henry kept peppering those he served with questions.
“Okabes? Does anyone know the Okabes?”
Henry’s search poignantly shows the strength of his character. He rejects his father (who tries to force a Chinese Nationalist identity on Henry), ignores social prejudice and defies the odds. His actions, motives and principles are high, more so because he’s only a kid.
PUT YOUR PROTAGONIST TO THE TEST:
· What’s the biggest thing your protagonist could possibly do, but can’t? By the end of the story, have her do it.
· The story problem bugs your protagonist like it bugs no one else. The real reason connects back to something from childhood—what? Build that into a dramatic, character-defining backstory event. Let it underlie every scene, but reveal what happened only late in the story.
· In what way are your protagonist’s operating principles unlike anyone else’s? Boil them down to one precept. Drop that in early, and then depict, challenge and deepen that axiom at least three times by the story’s end.
CULPRIT NO. 3: OVERLY INTERIOR OR EXTERIOR STORIES
You’re the god of your story world. So there’s no reason not to play god with your story.
Certain story patterns are pretty much guaranteed to lead to fiction of underwhelming force. That’s often true of novels built on delay, suffering and being stuck. Even plot-heavy yarns can leave us yawning. Stupendous plot turns don’t necessarily have a stupendous effect.
Quiet authors need to create a disturbance in church. At the other end of the spectrum, razzle-dazzle storytellers need to recognize that a burst of flash powder doesn’t cause the audience to feel deeply. More simply, interior stories need more dramatic outward events; by the same token, dramatic outward events need to create a more devastating interior impact.
If you shy away from that cheap gimmick called plot, I applaud your integrity—but try focusing on the inner state of your main character at any given moment and finding a way to externalize it. Make something happen. If, conversely, you focus on keeping your pages turning at a mile a minute, good for you—but try sending your protagonist on a mission not just to save the world but also to save himself.
In a practical sense, playing god with your story means making your characters do bigger things and, conversely, feel bigger things when they experience something small.
Earlier I mentioned Fifty Shades of Grey. It’s hard to find anyone who thinks this mainstream erotica is especially well written, yet its blockbuster status suggests that millions nevertheless find it easy to surrender to it. Why is that, then?
The novel’s heroine, student Anastasia Steele, falls under the spell of a man with a dark sexual side, entrepreneur Christian Grey. Anastasia at first resists his magnetic appeal. The slow breakdown of that resistance generates the tension in the novel’s early chapters. It’s an internal tension, though, and to work it must infuse every routine encounter.
In an early scene Grey comes into the hardware store where Anastasia works and he buys cable ties, masking tape and rope. Anastasia renders polite customer service, but inside is intrigued, confused and quivering. When he leaves, she narrates her feelings in this passage:
Okay, I like him. There, I’ve admitted it to myself. I cannot hide from my feelings anymore. I’ve never felt like this before. I find him attractive, very attractive. But it’s a lost cause, I know, and I sigh with bittersweet regret. It was just a coincidence, his coming here. But still, I can admire him from afar, surely. No harm can come of that.
While the prose may not be the most artful ever written, notice in this passage the push-pull of Anastasia’s feelings. She submits to her attraction but immediately rejects it. She dismisses his visit to the hardware store as a fluke. (Really? Masking tape?) Her decision to admire him from afar is an amusing piece of foreshadowing. Most significantly, her response to Grey’s hardware shopping is overly large, as if a godlike master has dropped into a humble hardware store from on high—which for Anastasia is true.
PLAY GOD WITH YOUR STORY:
· Your character is stymied, suffering and stuck. She phones a crisis hotline. You answer. You’re trained to convince callers to get help. What should your protagonist do? Make her do it … then make it fail.
· Your action hero races ahead at top speed. Throw up a roadblock. Force a one-hour delay. During that hour, ask your hero the following: Why are you racing? Why does it matter? You’re racing but also running from—what? Write it down. Fold it in. There’s time to deepen your character.
· Rain a punishment on your protagonist, and simultaneously test his inner conviction. What’s the hardest possible test for him? Add it. What’s being tested? Make that clear.
A MEASURE OF SUCCESS
If there are no pink slips for published authors, how do you know you’ve “failed”? The fact is that there is no failure per se; there are only disappointing sales, dropped options, unreturned calls, panic and anger. A bruised self-image is painful.
Recovery starts with examining first how it is that you define success. If it’s by selling a lot of copies, then you’re setting yourself up for failure, because you’ll always lose to the heavy hitters like Harlan Coben. Indeed, I’ve found that focusing on selling a lot of copies is almost a guarantee that you won’t.
Likewise, blaming the publishing industry for your disappointment will not heal or strengthen you. It’s a mental trap. Book publishing is a big industry. It’s dominated by a handful of big conglomerates that put out roughly 6,000 new works of fiction every year. Things are bound to go wrong.
While the industry isn’t without blame, the fact is that you can’t change the business. You can only change your writing.
When you make it to that happy place called published, remember that as a writer you have the same strengths and weaknesses that you did before. Your strengths have grown strong enough to get you over the first hurdle; your weaknesses have lessened enough that they didn’t stop you from jumping over the bar. But you still have growing to do.
If you encounter disappointments in your publishing career, don’t despair. That happens to pretty much every author. The trick is not to simmer but to learn. Learn what? How to become a more powerful storyteller.
The good news is that when you do, industry flaws become less bothersome. In fact, you’ll run into fewer of them and finally none at all. Your books will succeed—not because you’ve beat the odds but because you’ve become a great novelist.
DONALD MAASS’S literary agency sells more than 150 novels every year to major publishers in the U.S. and overseas. He is the author of several books on writing, most recently Writing 21st Century Fiction (WD Books).