You Can’t Always Get Know What You Want

By Stephen Barr – Writers House
Conference Faculty Member

Literary agents are lucky folk.

In fact, I’d say we’re spoiled. It’s our responsibility to march around, shouting into the air, telling anyone who’s willing to listen (writers, mostly) what it is that we want (Military history? Illustrated memoir? History of the armoire?), and then those listeners and writers try over and over again to give it to us.

Sweet gig!

And the questions come up especially often in shouting distance of a conference…“What are you looking for? What do you want?”

Luckily, part of me knows the answer to that question.

I know that I want memoirs from people whose voices aren’t exactly what you’d expect from their stories…humor from the downtrodden, humility from the lopsidedly gifted, etc. Weird books by and about weird people who come from places that onlyseem normal (please allow me to shamelessly plug my client Jared Dillian’s upcoming memoir of bipolar disorder on the Lehman Brothers trading floor, the wicked and wonderfulStreet Freak).

I know that I’m a sucker for unrequited love…in life, yes (alas!), but also in between the covers of a book, and I know that I’d thank my lucky stars if I could find a contemporary young adult novel with zero paranormal activity and oodles of longing, my own littlePaper Town(s).

I know that I want author/illustrators who think (or perhaps understand!?) that less is more when it comes to picture book texts and illustrations (check out Press Here if you like excellence!)

I know that I want ghost stories where the writing’s haunted, too.

I know that I want a comic novel with a dreadfully serious plot.

But I also know that last week, after 25 years of doing everything in my power to avoid math (because my brain sucks at it), an article on Gawker about scientists allegedly disproving the possibility of time travel sent me on an entirely unanticipated math binge, which led me to the text of a lecture delivered by David Hilbert to the International Congress of Mathematicians at Paris in 1900 about the 23 most pressing mathematical problems facing the 20th century, and now I’m weirdly obsessed with finding a quirky math novel…maybe something about a kid who lines up his 23 most pressingreal life problems (the bully, the unattainable girl, the increasingly distant best friend, etc.) against the 23 most pressing mathematical problems that his University Professor parents are fixated on (the compatibility of arithmetical axioms, etc.), none of which our hero understands, but all of which he’ll try to compare hisown problems to in a search for parallels.

That’s a pretty specific craving, I realize, but my point is, up until a few days ago, I most definitely didn’t know that I wanted a novel with a bunch of math in it. But now I do, and the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that what Ireally want is something that I didn’t know I wanted. For instance, I tend to clam up pretty seriously around paranormal YA, but odds are there’s a writer out there who’s taken the exhausted genre and reinvented it in a thousand ways, and that’s what I want—a writer who takes enough risks in his or her writing to give readers what we didn’t know we wanted.

Seriously, though, no jokey middle grade novels where farts play a central role in the story. I will never realize that I wanted that.

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