When I was in New York last month, a canny editor asked me how I’d describe the projects I represent. Most agents don’t set parameters that are too narrow: we all love to read, most of us love to read a variety of genres, and, not to be vulgar, but we have to represent a variety of projects to maximize our sales.
But you can tell a lot about a person than by asking what they like to read, right? It’s the foundation of the agent-editor relationship: the agent needs to know what sorts of books the editor likes so that she can target her pitches accordingly, and the editor needs to know whether the agent’s taste complements her own. Asking me to find the common thread in the projects I rep was a clever way of asking me what I value most in a book, and when I took a few seconds to think about it, I knew what my answer was.
If you read many interviews with agents, or look at their submission guidelines and wishlists, you’ll see endless variations of phrases like “I love a strong voice and a story that I think about long after I’ve finished reading it.” “I love heartstopping romance, really scary thrillers, and witty contemporary stories about real teenagers.” “I want something that feels really fresh and surprising.” Yeah? Get in line. We ALL want these projects. Cliches like this weren’t going to tell this editor anything about me or what she can expect from my clients’ work.
So I told her: “Place–a really strong sense of place. I need my books’ worlds to feel dimensional and real, like I’m right there with the characters, and the stories need to be so deeply rooted in their settings that they couldn’t happen anywhere else.”
And it’s true. My client roster is packed with talented authors who all have a gift for showing us around and making us feel at home. Michelle Madow’s THE SECRET DIAMOND SISTERS (HarlequinTEEN, March 2014) gives us an insider’s view of Las Vegas, a place I’ve never been and never knew I wanted to visit until I read her manuscript. (My notes were full of things like ??? Is this hotel for real? and Michelle’s answer was always Yes! I’ve been there!) Simon Clark’s EREN (Much-in-Little/Constable and Robinson, Fall 2014) is set in an unnamed little English country town, but having lived in a little English country town, I recognized it immediately: the weathered old house, the chilly summer night, the stars huge and clear over the dark, dark forest. And Kat Ellis’s BLACKFIN SKY (Firefly Press (UK), Spring 2014/Running Press (USA), Fall 2014), which is set in a town that only exists in the author’s imagination, but feels as real as Twin Peaks did–and just as spooky.
I don’t get to travel as much as I’d like to, so I rely on books to make my world bigger. If you’re an author, I want you to be part storyteller, part tour guide–show me everything I need to know about your setting without making me feel like you’re lecturing me or rattling off facts. Need inspiration? Try P.G. Wodehouse or Jilly Cooper or Marilynne Robinson; Gabrielle Zevin’s Birthright trilogy or Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain; Nancy Farmer’s THE EAR, THE EYE, AND THE ARM; Jonathan Lethem’s MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN; Jack Gantos’s DEAD END IN NORVELT; Vikram Seth’s A SUITABLE BOY. I want to feel as though you could drop me in the middle of your story’s setting and I’d be able to find my way around.
Place matters. Your story won’t feel real without it. What are some of your favorite books whose settings you’ve never forgotten?