August 28th, 2008

books

what am I looking for - a quandary

So, the other day I posted about two client books that were released when I was away on my vacation. Nestled into that post was a question to which I have so far received only one reply. And actually that reply didn't answer the question but was about the content of one of the reviews I used in the post (and I don't necessarily disagree with their point but want to pursue this other topic for the moment).

The question was essentially "what do these two disparate books have in common?"

mcurry said to me in conversation that answering the question based on the reviews when one hadn't read either of the books was a bit of a challenge. (Okay. Fair enough.) Even reading the cover copy or having heard me mention the books, all he came up with was that they were both set in California. Hardly something to base an answer to "what are you looking for?" on since other books I represent are set in other states, other countries, other worlds....

Yesterday, I had lunch with matociquala and discussed the same post with her. Her answer was to tell me that my taste was "eclectic." She recommended crafting an answer based around that to use on panels and so forth, but I suspect many in the audience may find that unhelpful evenso.

At the root of this is something that I've been trying to quantify for a very long time. "What am I looking for?" I get asked this question in nearly every interview, and on nearly every panel in which I participate. And I find it a frustrating, sometimes even exasperating question. It's not that I don't understand why people are asking it. They want to know if I might be a good fit for the book they are working on; if querying me might yield results. And, yet, I stumble...

One of the very great downsides of this question to me is that any answer one gives seems to lock one in. If I say I am looking for one thing, a number of people will assume it, by definition, excludes something else. Which it doesn't necessarily, in my opinion. There have been occasions when a manuscript came across my desk and I fell hard for a story that I never knew I was looking for. Case in point: Donna Ball's A Year on Ladybug Farm (forthcoming in March 2009). This is a story of three women at turning points in their lives who decide to buy a house together and chase dreams they never got to fulfill. The author herself said she didn't think it was my kind of book. But I loved the writing. I fell hard for the house, a character unto itself. And the journey of the characters swept me under. But. It would never have been an answer I would have given on one of these panels because I just hadn't yet realized it was a story I was looking for.

So, what is one to do? I can list genres (even subgenres) that I like or dislike (even though in the past there have been times when certain books have changed my mind). I can continue to give vague answers. You'd think after this many years of reading, including those prior to working as an agent, that I'd be able to nail it down better. What it seems I haven't found is a way to describe specifically the key that unlocks that synapse that generates not just the "I can sell this!" part of my agent-brain, but the "I love this!" part of my reader-brain.