Pub Rants

Crucial Component

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STATUS: Just my luck that a huge thunderstorm rolls through Denver right as I’m finishing up for the day and the broadband goes out. I’m typing this from home. If it’s not up by tomorrow, I’m going to have to call Comcast so as not to lose Monday as a work day. Just what I need during this busy time.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? I DON’T WANNA TALK ABOUT IT by the Indigo Girls

I really do want to revisit the idea of analyzing bestsellers and really encourage readers to simply note what elements make them tick—what caught hold of the reader’s imagination. Even if you only use it as something that’s at the back of your mind.

I mention this because so many writers seem to write in a vacuum—that they simply write the story “of their heart” without necessarily thinking through the elements that could make the project universal or cross genre or age boundaries.

What happens then, as an agent, is that I end up reading stories where I think, “it’s just not big enough” or “there doesn’t seem to be a strong enough idea to carry the whole story” or “this is solid but it seems to be lacking that extra oomph.” It’s about the writing and this indefinable but crucial element that makes the difference between a pass and a yes.

And it’s also about timing. (You’ve heard that about relationships too, I know. It’s true for that as well.) And writers hate to hear it but timing is often the crucial component for a sale happening. I can’t count the number of sales where the project just happened to land on the editor’s desk at exactly the right time. Maybe an author on their list couldn’t make a deadline and a slot has opened up. The editor is scrambling to find that special manuscript and boom, it lands on his/her desk.

It happens. In fact, it has happened for me and one of my clients this year.

Maybe an editor is thinking “wow, I’d really love to see an XYZ project and the next day I just happen to call about a novel that’s going out on submission, and it’s suddenly like a gift has dropped into the editor’s lap. They read it overnight or whatever.

The crucial component.

27 Responses

  1. Stephanie Feagan said:

    This is, most truly, the weirdest business. Talent, perseverance and a multitude of other elements make all the difference in any writer’s career, but that wee element of luck is so often the deciding factor. In my other life, I’m a CPA, a world made up of distinct parameters, solid lines of right and wrong – no subjectivity with the IRS! – and clearly definitive objectives. As much as I am tired of CPAing it, as appealing as writing full time is to me, there’s a certain comfort in not having to bank on any amount of luck. 🙂

    Kristin, I’m throughly hooked on your blog – certainly because you’re wise and wonderful, but also because I’m anal and halfway to OCD, so your punctual, daily posts appeal to me. I confess, I’ve checked back 3 or 4 times this evening, and wondered why you hadn’t posted.

    Thanks so much for doing what you do. And I hope I didn’t scare you by being a fangirl in Dallas – I’m ordinarily not so effusive. That CPA thing, yaknow. 😉

  2. JDuncan said:

    It’s sad to think just how many wonderful books out there have languished and are collecting dust on shelves somewhere, have all those elements that make them marketable and would likely do well, but never got there because the timing wasn’t right. How many authors out there have lamented the rejections of, ‘there’s nothing wrong with your story, but I can’t do anything with it at this time.’ Sometimes this business of writing really is just a wee bit cruel.


  3. India Carolina said:

    Part of me thinks you can’t analyze magic. It’s there, or it’s not. But recently the optimistic part of me has taken hold of the idea that maybe you can–a little.

    So I’ve begun reading my favorite authors with a set of multi-colored sticky tabs at hand to mark the places they worked magic with dialogue, setting, tension etc. And it’s been triggering some aha moments. So I guess I’ll keep doing it. Good topic.

  4. Rose Green said:

    Thinking of the most fabulous crossover series of all time (Harry, for anyone who’s been living under a rock), I’d say that sometimes, to be universal, you have to be specific. I’ve heard a few people unhappy that it didn’t involve wizards outside of Europe, outside of Britain much, even, and that they wished it had been a bit more international. I love it in part because it feels like it’s happening in Rowling’s back yard, like she knows these people personally. So, universal themes of love and sacrifice and courage, but with a very specific, accessible trapping. JKR is richer than the queen–she must know something about crossover bestsellers!

  5. Kimber An said:

    Personally, I think it has to do with tapping into the human spirit itself. To do that, I highly recommend a thorough reading of world mythology and folktales. Did you know the English tale of St. George and the Dragon is almost identical to a Japanese tale with the dreaded Orachi as the dragon? Do you have any idea how many cultures around the world have a Cinderella story? Did you know there’s a Chinese version of Little Red Riding Hood? These stories evolved thousands of years ago and thousands of miles apart from each other!

  6. Kristin said:

    There is always that interesting discussion amongst writers about the ‘next big thing’ in the publishing industry. Right now there is a lot of discussion about paranormals sans the vampires and werewolves. And Sci-Fi romance (thanks to your fabulous author, Linnea Sinclair, Kristin!)

    But can you really figure out the whys and wherefores of bestsellers? Not all the time. I think a lot of it has to do with publisher promotion. Those books they choose to stand behind, and those who are left to self-promote as much as possible.

    But some books just hit the right note at the right time. Like “The DaVinci Code.” For some reason, questioning the validity of Christianity is a hot topic right now. With so many Catholics around the world, there was bound to be a lot of interest in this book’s “theories.”

    But to figure out how to write a bestseller? I think all you can do is write the best book you can and hit all the right notes: interesting characters, original plot, unexpected developments, etc. And just hope the timing and the promotion is right.

  7. Anonymous said:

    Yeah, for one thing, when you try to analyze reasons why some books hit it big, one thing you notice is none of those books were requested by an editor to an agent to “fill the open slot.” The books that hit big are the ones no editor even knew to request. I know this is an obvious point, but how many times while agents and editors are scrambling to fill the next open slot with predicable books fitting tired trends have they ignored books that would’ve made all those “slot-fillers” seem like jokes? My guess is it happens every day, and most editors don’t realize this, because most of the books that would establish new trends are rejected at the query stage, because they don’t fit the open slot editors have told agents to fill. That’s a formulaic approach designed to play it safe; and then those same people gripe when the books they publish bomb with the public. Dare I say there’s a relation between editors playing it safe and having most books make no profit?

  8. Anthony S. Policastro said:

    Hi Kristin,
    You are so right about this. The one thing that grabs me the most in a book is the writing. If the writing engages me from the first sentence, then I’ll buy the book and read it. About a year ago, my family and I were helping with a charity yard sale and I picked up Memoirs of a Geisha from the pile of books for sale that day. I read the first few sentences and bought the book on the spot. Prior to this I had no particular interest in Geishas and their lives. While I was reading the book at home, my 12-year-old daughter wanted to know what I was reading. I showed her the book and she, too got addicted to the book. She wouldn’t give it back! I had to buy a second copy of the book for her. We both finished the book and then rented the DVD of the movie. This is what I consider a successful book and it all started with the writing.

  9. jjdebenedictis said:

    Anonymous, I think you have a fair point, but I also think the vast majority of books written that are really fresh have the same flaw as the vast majority of “slot-fillers” – they aren’t brilliant.

    Writing a mind-blowing, deeply enjoyable book is freakishly hard. Most authors can’t do it, regardless of whether they write books based on tired ideas or fresh ones.

    The trend-creating books you mention are two things: deeply enjoyable and deeply imaginative. It’s that combination that blows the market away. Being inventive is only half the battle, just like creating an enjoyable read (which the “slot-fillers” that sell well do) is only half of what’s required to make a smash success.

  10. Kim Stagliano said:

    Pat Wood’s Lottery and John Elder Robison’s Look Me In The Eye both seemed to have been sprinkled with fairy dust.

    I’ve been fortunate to have read ARC’s of both books – the fairy dust was well spent. Pat debuts next week and John in late September.

  11. Moniker said:

    Sorry to bring up something completely off topic, but I’m looking all over the internet, and I can’t figure this out, so I’m looking everywhere again. Is it possible for a nobody to get a short story published in the New Yorker? Most blogs and comments say it’s impossible and you shouldn’t even bother. Some people say it’s just a matter of voice and stucture and style,—all the things that make a good story. Does anybody know if this is a meritocracy or not? This really bothers me.

  12. Termagant 2 said:

    Timing–crucial, yes, but one more factor on the long list of things the writer cannot control.


    I say, write the best you can, send it out as much as possible, sign with an agent if you can actually find one who “gets” your work…and then keep writing. I can’t waste my time & enery worrying about all these factors I can’t control. My job is to do my very best on the stuff I CAN control.


  13. Allison Brennan said:

    anonymous, I think you missed the point of Kristin’s blog. It’s not that editors are asking for something to fill a slot, it’s that sometimes in publishing timing and luck plays a factor so that there may come a point where a slot comes available and the “perfect” book hits the editor’s desk. NOT because they asked for it, but because the agent had the skill and experience to target the right editors.

    Publishers tend to be conservative and buy what they know will sell, but they don’t buy bad books (yes, some books WE might consider bad, but SOMEONE liked them enough to pay money for them). At the same time I can think of dozens of books that were a different and innovative and bucked the trends and ended up selling well or being bestsellers. (WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, HARRY POTTER–yes, before JKR was big, FINN, and many more.)

    I think Kristin’s point was, if you read bestsellers try to figure out WHY it became a bestseller. Pacing, description, fabulous characters, whatever. What makes it stand out? Is it an exceptional example of that genre? Is it a fun read? Light read? Dark? Is it a standard story but with a strong authorial voice? It doesn’t mean to follow a formula, it means to understand what draws readers to books in large enough numbers to put the book on a bestseller list.

    One hit may be a fluke, but if an author continues to hit something about the books resonate with readers. I’ve read a lot of bestselling books I didn’t love, but I could see why other readers loved them.

    And plenty of books sell and don’t hit lists but do well enough that the publisher will buy more. And if genre books aren’t your cup of tea, you can always write a “literary” novel. And if that’s what you want, I’d look at authors who are considered more “literary” but have had great commercial success and try to figure out what about those books resonated with readers. Not to copy, but to understand.

  14. Ryan Field said:

    Once again I can’t find a flaw with this post. Timing, good writing and something that will “crossover” seem to be the magic ingredients. And to do that it may (or may not be)be crucial for writers to study the big books and what is selling. Writing from the heart is important, but you have to combine it with knowledge of the business, too.

  15. moniker said:


    I didn’t know agents bother with nobodies who never got published. I’m trying to get into the New Yorker to get an agent, etc.

    Somebody should write a book summarizing the atmosphere in the publishing business, but not to compromise good writing for big sales. (The tone of the Writer’s Market betrays the author’s intentions.) Where does profound beauty fit in? I don’t mean, flowery purple shallow beauty, but the serious ironic structural beauty that comprises classical literature.

    I think I understand the problem. Most people are bad writers, with low self-esteem, and they write ninety-nine percent of the blogs and articles I happen to read. My frame of reference has been mutilated.

    I’m not worried about anybody “getting” my work. I’m not that kind of writer. I want everything to make sense, every sentence to be interesting. That’s not disabling perfectionism. It’s artistic rigour.

    Oh, well… I have a great future ahead of me.

  16. Josephine Damian said:

    As I gear up to start my next novel, I’ve been asking myself the same question: What elements did my favorite books have that made them my favorite, and how can I incorporate those elements in my WIP?

    It wasn’t so much the writing or “voice” (oh-so-important to agents), but that the main character had to made a choice – not an obvious no-brainer like choosing to do good or evil, but to chose between two hugely significant matters that either way will severely impact their life and the lives of others.

    The book that is at the top of my list of “Best books I’ve read this year – so far” on my blog
    is about a character who must make a life-and-death choice about herself, a choice that profoundly effects others. And, oh yeah, the writing is exquisite too.

  17. julia said:

    If you keep writing and sending out, the chances of your MS being that magical project landing on the right desk at the right time gets better and better.

  18. jason evans said:

    …the next day I just happen to call about a novel that’s going out on submission, and it’s suddenly like a gift has dropped into the editor’s lap.

    The winning-the-lottery scenario. But, as they say, you won’t win if you don’t play.

    I’ll buy a ticket.

  19. pixy said:

    I read and re-read the books that capture me. And then a read and re-read the books that seem to capture the masses too.

    But in the end it has to be my own sort of magic, I think. That’s what makes a world/book come alive. That special unique magic that only that writer has.


  20. Janny said:


    “I’m not worried about anybody “getting” my work. I’m not that kind of writer. I want everything to make sense, every sentence to be interesting. That’s not disabling perfectionism. It’s artistic rigour.”

    Not to be unduly picky here, but someone has to “get” your work for it to sell to the New Yorker…

    Just a thought.


  21. Moniker said:

    But I’m not worried about it. They go by an ironic formula. Everything in the magazine follows the same thread of opposite unexpected elements doing opposite unexpected things. All it takes is pattern recognition to fit in.

  22. Kaytie M. Lee said:

    Hey Moniker, FWIW I got an agent without previous publishing experience. It does happen. We haven’t begun to try to sell my novel yet, so there’s no knowing how that will pan out for me.

    Also, it’s worth noting that the New Yorker often publishes novel excerpts without labeling them as such. That might skew the results on which you are basing your intention. Or maybe you already know that.

    You won’t hear me criticizing your plan–there are many roads to publication.

  23. Moniker said:

    Is your agent the best agent in the world? I want my agent to be the best agent in the world. My ambitions are slowing me down.

  24. pixy said:

    If the agent know’s his/her stuff, and you work together well, then he/she is the best agent in the world.