Nothing beats the thrill of having a literary agent – and a local one at that – at the mercy of a pack of writers. That was the scene at this month’s meeting of the Southwestern Chapter of Mystery Writers of America as agent Jim Donovan opened the floor for questions. Donovan could sympathize with our angst – he’s the author of the bestselling A Terrible Glory, the story of George Custer’s last stand, and more recently, The Blood of Heroes, about the fall of the Alamo. He’s also worked as an editor and book buyer. But more pertinent to his audience of writers, he has more than 20 years of experience as a literary agent in Dallas.
As readers may guess, he’s partial to American histories and biographies; in fiction he also likes “big” political thrillers, international thrillers and “gritty urban noir.”
He admitted (a dangerous thing in an audience of people steeped in ways to commit murder) that he actually takes on relatively few mysteries: “it’s a good market, but it’s a tough market”. And although he likes reading good memoirs, he doesn’t agent them: “the toughest writing to do,” he said.
He will look at some Westerns, and also sells occasional books on health issues. What he’s specifically not looking for are “old-style (mysteries) set in the 1940’s or 1950’s. And especially, “if you’re writing a cozy, I’m probably not the right person.”
Quipped a writer, “Does (a cozy mystery) have to have cats and crafts?” Donovan replied, “they usually do.” The bigger issue, however, is the low level of violence in so-called cozies.
Think that means he’s only interested in things that go boom? Not so, he said. “The number one thing is that readers like to read about people. You might have great plots (but it) the characters are cardboard --” and he paused to make a throat-slashing gesture.
Equally important for writers in every genre (and of some comfort perhaps to writer of cozies) he emphasized that “to get a book publisher for your writing, you’ve got to master the art and craft of writing. And I think it is a craft that you can learn to do. I recommend taking one of your favorite books and reading it not as a reader, but as a writer.” (John Le Carré’s The Night Manager is among his favorite books, “a spy story, a thriller, a love story.”)
Big musts for Donovan as well as for every other agent I’ve heard speak are: dialogue and action – the best way to reveal those memorable characters. And “chapter one has to start with a punch, a scene.” (If the first page is description, he skips it.)
He also recommended releasing information as slowly as possible. “Readers like to figure things out.” His personal writing mnemonic is RUE: “Resist the Urge to Explain.” “Readers,” he states in his personal 15 Most Important Things to Remember in Writing Fiction, “like not knowing everything, since it makes them curious and keeps them turning the pages to find out.”
So that’s one of Donovan's rules. What are the other 14? I’ll mention a few in next week’s post, although an email to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, an address available at his author’s site, may net them as well.
He also accepts literary queries by email. For those who believe they meet his requirements, he wants a query that includes a paragraph or two about the story, a one-two page synopsis, including the ending (no teasers, please) and the first 30-50 pages of the manuscript.
And his final advice to the questioner who asked how to get on the New York Times bestseller list (and to the rest of us as well): “Write a good book.”