On Saturday morning, I attended the Why We Still Love Fiction session, moderated by John Pipkin.
What Makes a Book Good?
When asked what the panelists look for in good fiction, Alex said he wants a book that’s a “transporting reading experience.”
While both agents mentioned that readers are looking for an escape right now, even if Alex is reading something edgy that’s not the kind of book one would normally read to forget the real world for a few hours, he still wants to be transported to the world of that book.
B.J. Robbins agreed with Alex. There were several times Alex answered first, and B.J. mentioned that she was writing down a note to say the exact same thing.
B.J. said she also loves the voice of a novel.
Things Fall Apart
When asked where they lose interest in a book, Alex said there are two things that pull him out of the transporting experience:
- Writers trying too hard with language and prose.
- Pacing issues.
If the writing is forced, you’re going to lose most readers. Many writers try too hard to sound like other writers, or what they think a writer should sound like when they write.
Alex said he’s requested manuscripts that start off great and then fly apart or lost all the momentum.
B.J. joked that Alex was climbing into her head and stealing her answers because those are things that also pull her out of the experience of reading a good book.
First Novel Advice
Alex admitted that most first novels he’s read haven’t hooked him. (There are, of course, exceptions.) His advice to writers was to get that first novel out of the way. Maybe even two novels out of the way.
If you approach him and say, “This is my seventh novel,” and you haven’t been published, that’s also very telling.
Truth is Stranger than Fiction?
Alex advised keeping autobiographical elements out of novels. (I was happy to hear that — I’m not a fan of that, myself.)
Alex and B.J. said that they have often questioned something in an author’s pitch, only to have the writer say, “But this really happened!”
Here, John Pipkin said one of my favorite lines from the session: “We have no allegiance to the facts.” I like the line because I’ve always felt people who say, “Truth is stranger than fiction,” aren’t reading the right fiction.
All three members of the session agreed that the best fiction is fiction that’s truly made up. Perhaps pieces of things the author experienced or heard about make it into a book, but basing a work of fiction on your life is usually not as strong as a writer may believe. This lead to a brief discussion about writing as therapy.
B.J. said writing as therapy is fine if you need to write for yourself to get things out, but writing as therapy usually makes for a book that’s only interesting to the person who wrote it.
Alex summed it all up with the line: “We are creating a piece of art for a commercial market.”
Most of us don’t live a life worthy of commercial art.
When asked what role dialogue plays in fiction, B.J. said it should move the story forward or illuminate a character. People talking just for the sake of talking or showing how well you can handle dialogue isn’t good, either.
Alex advised avoiding exposition through dialogue. It comes across as forced, and the role of a writer is to have a natural flow to a book–not have sections leap out because they sound out of place.
When asked for an example of good dialogue, Alex recommended Richard Price.
Both agents agreed that the way people talk in novels and the way people talk in real life is different. The goal is to be well read and understand how dialogue in novels works, and do that.
Both agents recommended finding writers who write great dialogue and figure out what they do that’s so great (but not emulate their writing).
Somebody in the crowd asked if people should avoid writing something if what they write has become a trend.
Alex’s reply: “Absolutely not.”
Both agents agreed that chasing trends is a stupid move, but if what you write with passion just so happens to be a hot thing at the moment, it doesn’t mean you should stop writing because it’s flooding the market. You should always write what you love.
Neither agent will look at your vampire book, but if vampires are what you do well–write about vampires!
When asked if people should write to trends, both agents mentioned the process of getting a book accepted to sitting on a shelf can take years. If you write for a trend, by the time your book comes out, that trend may be long gone and you’ll be seen as coming in at the end of a fad.
B.J. broke away from the discussion of trends and said, “Expose that weakness in a character that makes me care about them.”
If you do that, whether you’re a trendy writer or not, you’ve done a large part of your job as a writer.
Opinions about digital publishing varied from people I spoke with and listened to this weekend. When asked about digital self publishing, Alex said he recently discovered a writer who self published their work through Amazon on the Kindle. He decided to represent the writer and just sold a 3-book deal for them.
Now, this isn’t to say that if you self publish in a digital format that this will happen to you. This particular writer (he didn’t mention who the writer was), rose above others. Digital publishing isn’t the only solution to getting work out there, but Alex admitted that digital publishing gives writers more options than ever before.
Odds and Ends
A few things from my notes that didn’t fit into a particular topic:
Alex does a lot of editorial work with the writers he represents. He sticks with the people he believes in–if one book doesn’t sell, he’ll work hard to sell the next one if he knows he’s representing somebody good.
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John Pipkin said, “How hard you work is no testament to the novel’s quality.”
I liked that.
I’ve known a lot of people in all trades who think simply working hard is enough. Think about the person at the day job who regularly works 60+ hours a week, but gets less done in a week than you do. The artist who takes a week to produce a simple drawing; the writer who spends months on a 2,000 word short story.
If you’re not getting better with each new project, simply working hard is not enough.
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When he’s chosen to represent a writer, Alex wants them to communicate with him what they’re working on.
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Alex said there’s no way of telling how storytelling works.
He loves the writing of George Pelecanos.
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Both agents said they will only take on a book they love.
This was reiterated by every agent I heard speak at the conference.
While agents do consider the commercial appeal of books, they aren’t calculating creatures sitting behind a desk ticking off boxes on a checklist full of elements for commercial appeal.
Agents are people who work harder than most people can imagine. They spend their days wading through a lot of bad writing to find the things that make them and the rest of us still love fiction.