Writing is more creative thinking than style – what agents & editors want

writingIt’s tempting for fiction writers to get enraptured by their own style, for memoirists to “over-love” their own story, and for nonfiction writers to get caught up in their marketing ploys.

But style without substance is an over-dressed affair. And what an author’s readers deserve is what many agents, editors, and publishers want – substance.

In the realm of traditional publishing, there are quite a few “Guardians of the Threshold,” as Joseph Campbell or Chris Vogler might call them: people who guard your getting into the cave where the treasure is. In this case, the guardians are agents, aquisitions editors, heads of sales, and publishers. Guardians aren’t necessarily a negative role. By providing gates an heroic author must pass through, in the best situations the author is challenged to rise to her best potential – although we know that plenty of talented and heroic authors never get through these gates (For more on where Joseph Campbell-meets-Tracking Wonder-meets-Psychology Today, read here.).

Find the right agent, though, and that agent becomes an ally to help you get into the cave. So, I’ve had conversations with and studied interviews with quite a few agents to help my clients understand what agents want. And it’s not entirely all about marketing and platform. What they want might surprise you. See what you think, and share your views and experiences.

Now, it’s true that many agents like mine want to see a few key things from the author – creds, platform outreach, connections within his or her field, marketing smarts. But almost every agent or editor I’ve spoken with or read talks about qualities of the book itself, first.

Inevitably, an agent will mention a voice she wants to fall in love with or a mind at work on the page the agent wants to engage.

Peter Rubie is one such agent. CEO of Fine Print Literary Management with ten agents, his agency’s clients include Elizabeth Norris whose novel Unraveling recently got optioned for film by MTV.

Here’s what he says about the matter in a recent interview:

“We Americans, in particular, reinvent ourselves at an alarming rate. And in the act of reinvention, talented and imaginative writers can show us how to view anew things that are familiar to us. This is not a matter only of age or ethnicity, but of flexibility of thought….

It’s a mistake to think that writing is about putting words on paper. That’s technique. Writing is about thinking. So when we [agents & editors & publishers] speak of finding a fresh new voice, we are talking about a writer who can not only think originally and commercially, but who can also capture that in elegant, sexy language on the page. There’s nothing we long for more.

Publishing professionals primarily stay in the industry because we have an enduring love affair not just with books, but with ideas. It’s a heady thought, but the publishing industry is really a marketplace for ideas, especially those with strong emotional impact….

[W]ell-conceived content is what publishers are looking for these days. That is why books that aren’t that well-written often get published (because they had interesting premises if not particularly well-executed).”

What do you think? What holds you up from executing and selling the book you want and need to write, the book your fan packs deserve? What or who are your own “Guardians of the Threshold”?

See you in the woods,

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