Suspend Your Disbelief

Shop Talk |

another excellent installment from P&W's Agents and Editors series

This time Jofie Ferrari-Adler talks to literary agents Anna Stein, Jim Rutman, Maria Massie, and Peter Steinberg.

Here are some tastes: What makes agents want to represent an author?

Let us inside your heads a little and talk about what you’re looking at and thinking about when you’re evaluating a piece of fiction.

STEIN: It’s really hard to talk about why a piece of writing is good, and moving—even if it’s funny—and what makes us keep thinking about something after we’ve read it. And it’s incredibly subjective. That’s why it’s hard for agents who represent fiction, especially literary fiction, to find it. It’s so rare. We can all talk about the things we don’t like. When I see clichés, for example, on the first page or in the first chapter of a book, that kind of kills it for me immediately. The romance and the chemistry is just over. That’s just one example of the negative side of that question, and I’m sure you guys have a million others. If I knew how to describe in language what makes me fall in love with something, then I would be a writer. All I can say is that if I read the first few pages of a novel and think, “Jesus Christ! Who the fuck is this person? Why are they letting me read this?” then that person is onto something. And we don’t have that feeling very often. But when we do see it, it’s so exciting.

MASSIE: Anna’s right. It’s like you have this moment of clarity and you recognize something that you’re so absorbed with. I read a lot of things that are beautifully written where I say to myself, “Oh, this is good,” but I’m not bowled over or sucked right in. It’s so subjective. I can read something and pass on it and I hear, two days later, that there was a bidding war and it sold for a ton of money, but it just wasn’t the thing that I was going to fall in love with.

STEINBERG: And you’re okay with that.

MASSIE: You have to be okay with it because it’s so subjective. I’m not necessarily going to see what somebody else sees, or read a book the way somebody else reads it. That’s one thing that writers who are looking for an agent should always remember: All agents are different. Everyone has different tastes. What I like to read might be different than Anna or Peter or Jim. That’s a great thing about what we do—there’s so much to choose from. And what you fall in love with is a very personal choice.

What makes them not want to represent an author?

What are some of the common mistakes you see in the submission process?

STEINBERG: Don’t say, “If you don’t like this novel, I have many other I could show you.” Don’t say, “This will make a great movie, too.” Don’t do that fake thing where you pretend you know all about the stuff I’ve agented. It’s funny because I think that’s a piece of advice that writers always gets—research the agent and talk about the other work they’ve sold. But it always comes off as very false to me unless you’ve really read something I’ve sold. And I don’t want you to waste your time reading something of mine just to write a query letter.

STEIN: I would say to go the other way around. Write to agents whose books you’re actually in love with.

STEINBERG: But what if those agents pass and you still want an agent?

STEIN: Then you should read more books. [Laughter.]

What else?

STEINBERG: Don’t talk about a character sweating on the first page or two.

RUTMAN: Sweating?

STEINBERG: Yeah. It happens all the time. The writer’s like, “He was sweating profusely….” It’s supposed to denote tension, I think.

RUTMAN: Also don’t write the phrase “sweating profusely.”

STEINBERG: I have a joke in my office where if a character is sweating in the first two pages, I go, “Sweating!” [Laughter.] Also, people are always “clutching” steering wheels in the first few pages.

STEIN: That’s the cliché thing.

STEINBERG: And don’t wake up from a dream on the first page. No dreams on the first page.

STEIN: It’s best to avoid dreams if possible.

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