Wisdom from the Writing Desk: Cracking the Code

By Erik Hane

Writers are very justifiably concerned with a fundamental question: will my book sell? It’s a question less about the author’s individual work than one focused on markets, on searching for a reason to believe that enough of a readership exists for a certain type of book to be appealing to agents or editors. Agents are frequently asked some variation of “Is it the right time for <insert whatever specific category, or style, or story elements an author works with>? And I get it, I really do; we all want this process to make sense and be logical, because once it’s logical, we can try to solve it.

The process, more often than not, is not logical.

Every time I’m asked something like this, I want to show that writer the conversations that I and many other agents have with editors about fiction. Yes, there are some standard considerations that can be tacked down pretty easily. All those craft things—they don’t need listing here—matter a ton when it comes to quality. But these conversations also include far more opaque concepts like “fit,” or “connecting with the work,” or trying to decide if one is “the champion this book needs.” When agents and editors talk about a book, they are trying to capture lightning in a bottle. We’re trying to catch each other at a moment of mutual enthusiasm, based on factors that we all weight and define differently. And so you can see why trying to assign logic to a process that usually just comes down to whether someone likes something might be close to impossible.

To be clear, I think it should be this way. This is art, not geology. Personal taste and feeling and connections we can’t quantify should rule the day, because that’s the reason any of us read good stories in the first place. And while it may not seem like it, I think this should be an incredibly empowering truth for writers: really and truly, we don’t know any better than you do. Just like any readers, we’ll think we hate a certain sort of book until you prove us wrong (though don’t start sending agents things they openly say they hate), just like we could love a certain style and then one day be sick of it. There is no code to crack. We are all making this up.

My advice? Write your book, in the way you want it written. Don’t let any supposed “gatekeepers” change your work before it’s done. Sure, there’s a time for market consideration and pitching trends, but that’s for later. Let your own creative vision be in charge of your work, because no “insider” knows some set of secrets you don’t.



Posted in