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Monday, September 17, 2012

The pounding of hooves


It’s Fall.  A new school year. There’s a freshness in the air and an itch to find The Talent.

Who is The Talent? It’s YOU! All of you people out there labouring over your laptops, revising and doodling, swearing loudly at the wall and lobbing screwed-up manuscript pages into the trash; talking to yourselves as you wrangle your plots into submission, inching forward down those endless paragraphs with fear, sweat, and a great shining hope.

I have one message for you: Keep going!

Out here, in Agent Land, it’s an incredibly busy time of year. We, the big-game hunters, are out in force, ready to fire our Darts of Desire at manuscripts that catch our fancy. We’re out on the plains circling the wildebeest and we hear the sound of your hooves thundering in the distance.

Um, yes, you are the wildebeest. I know it’s not flattering, but what can I say?

I could sit down with you and talk for hours about what one learns as an agent – about writing, about stories, about people. About how three lines can captivate me, and why – and yet other writing can leave me untouched. About the calm certainty that lodges in my chest in the most mysterious of ways when I know I’ve found The One with my name on it.  It may not have someone else’s name on it, but that doesn’t matter – it spoke to something in me.  That is Agent Gold – that visceral sense of somehow having ‘come home’ to a story, a voice, that almost bypasses my intellect because I’m so sure about it, the way it imbues me with that sense of personal conviction. The certainty that I MUST represent this one. That I would march up to strangers in the street, grab them by the shirt, and tell them about this manuscript. And probably will.


But that feeling also leaves me vulnerable. Because if I feel that, then there’s almost certainly others out there – other hunters – who will be sniffing around too.

Maybe you think ‘vulnerable’ is a funny word for an agent to use. Like, hah, agents are robotic People of Power who largely only exist to mete out disappointment and hard knocks. Isn’t it we the writers who are vulnerable, you ask, not you hardened agents?

Well, I’ve got news for you. Wanting to represent an author, a story, very badly, is a painful thing – until you know you have it. There are a hundred agents out there, and I don’t want a broken heart. I have fired my golden Dart of Destiny, the dart from the quiver of my heart, at a story, a writer, and I don’t want it to be handed back to me in a couple of pieces, even if it’s on a charming plate of courteous rejection. I like to win, and that’s one reason I’m an agent.

Trust me, if you’re an author you want an agent who wants to win. 

So what is it that gives me that feeling about a story? Can it be analyzed?  I talk about this stuff constantly at conferences, but if I deconstruct that kind of reading experience, I will always find permutations of these ingredients:

An idea that intrigues and fascinates me, that I haven’t seen before, and which engages my interest for some reason.  I often see that as early as the query letter pitch, but not always.

A voice, a voice, a voice. So I can tell that the author gets that this is music they are crafting; that words have a cadence, a rhythm.  I like ambition in a writer – ambition to do something different, to be brave, to understand that this is something glorious in which they are engaged.

Characters who I would swear are real and living somewhere out there in the world. I met them, I know them, I won’t forget them, they are my friends!


A story that ends up being bigger than the sum of its parts. So it is exciting, absorbing, surprising – and yet also makes me think of big things; so there are moments when I set it aside and stare out the window, just thinking about a line, a phrase, an idea. I want your story to set off big thoughts in me, big feelings, so it leaves me with fresh insights about life, about love, about faith, about meaning – about something that will make the world feel changed.  So I turn the final page and don’t want to read it too fast because then I will be bereaved.

I have felt things like this about big YA manuscripts. But I have also felt it about young fiction, which goes beyond the obvious. I have felt it about dark, scary stories that reveal a chink of light to grandeur and humanity. And I have felt it about work that is funny, but which contains the poignancy that is the shadow side of comedy.

I come with no preconceived ideas, no genre-search. I come to your query wide open to being amazed. Wide open to falling in love.

You are the wildebeest. I am the big-game hunter - but a very kind one. 

Please turn your shining hooves in my direction and fly to me across the plains.


Pix: All these shots were taken in or near the Somme Valley, France, in the towns and villages made famous by the carnage of World War 1. Sadly I have no shots of wildebeest, so I) is the Newfoundland Memorial at Beaumont Hamel.  2) Stained glass of Amiens Cathedral.  2) One of the poppies that are everywhere in the Somme Valley.  I chose these shots because they are all places of great beauty, and imbued with strong emotion. An unforgettable experience to visit.

Posted by greenhouse

Comments (9)

All is good, and I hope that you will win as many times as you can. I still don’t get this elusive concept of the Vocice, a voice, a voice. Everyone talk about it, everyone looks for it .. but veryfew can define what it is, so that authors can aim to have the voice in their novels. I have no idea if my two novels have a voice or not. Again, best wishe sin winning.

Posted by Giora  on  09/17  at  08:25 PM

I really enjoyed this post.  I think because I’m about to take a stab at another re-write.  Hope I can be a better wildebeest.  smile

Posted by Kristen Brakeman @SandwichGenMom  on  09/17  at  10:26 PM

I just wanted to say thank you, thank you, thank you. Your posts never fail to make me smile. Can’t wait to query you, when the time is right. Thank you, again.

Posted by  on  09/18  at  01:11 AM

“… and why – and yet other writing can leave me untouched...” sounds like something worth learning about for any author!
What you look for in a story sounds pretty daunting! (Will I ever be able to acchieve that?)

Posted by Karin Bachmann  on  09/18  at  07:18 AM

I can honestly say I have never been compared to a wildebeest before, however if you are circling the plains then all I can say is what a wonderful animal the wildebeest is.

As a writer I would like to think that I have all those ingredients, the idea, the voice and the characters. Doing something you love and knowing that what you are writing or have written is bringing enjoyment to a reader is worth all the insanity. The random scribbling on the back of shop receipts, the talking to myself, Insomnia.

Well another blog I have enjoyed reading and I am now off to shine my hooves in readiness for my flight across the plains.

Posted by  on  09/18  at  02:04 PM

You never cease to amaze me, Miss Sarah. I had the pleasure of sitting in on two of your panels at Mid-South SCBWI and loved every minute. I even nervously shook your hand. Bit of a fan-girl moment.
You are a highly polished stone (I daresay gem) in the rough waters of the agent search. Your words of wisdom, your endless love of literary gold, and the lengths you strive for in piercing the hearts of the Next Great Find are what keep people like me writing. Your open approach to every query is beyond refreshing. Your excitement, your passion, your humor, your...well, Sarah-ness, drives me to perfect my Pace, my Plot, my VOICE!
I want to one day be a wildebeest, as unflattering as it is. I can do unflattering. *grin* I want to be that writer you, or someone like you, cannot bear to see scamper off into the wild unclaimed.
So until that days comes where hunting horns blow and stampeding hooves stir up the dusty plains, I will continue to write, to read, to learn, and above all, to listen.

Posted by  on  09/19  at  07:58 PM

This was just the “shinning hope” I needed to go with my sweat, fear, and double-shot of espresso this morning.

Signing off and charging back in with renewed vigor and the sound of hooves pounding around me. 


Posted by Paula McLaughlin  on  09/22  at  10:30 AM

The wisdom and insights into agentdom and writing for children that you shared at the Midsouth conference inspired and encouraged me.  But your comparison to a big-game hunter has created a “pounding in my heart” as I seem to be compelled to write stories that include topics scary to the faint-hearted. Thank you.

Posted by  on  10/01  at  07:26 PM

Ha, Just thought it was so strange that the story I just sent you has a reference to a wildebeest in it as a child is being stalled by teacher to read aloud in class-
Kit Grady

Posted by Kit Grady  on  10/18  at  03:26 PM
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