Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Interview with Writer's House Agent Stephen Barr

Stephen Barr is an agent with Writers House and attending the June 17-19th Crested Butte Writers Conference

1. Which categories do you currently acquire? Which category has a special/constant place in your heart?

Answer: I'm a pretty omnivorous agent, but at the moment, I've got a particular hankering for unexpected memoirs with itchy voices, narrative nonfiction that tackles hard-to-tackle issues, wry and rarely paranormal YA, laugh-until-you-squirt-milk-out-of-your-nose middle grade, sweet and wacky (but still logical) picture books from author/illustrators, and fiction that rewards the reader line-by-line and gets to know at least one character really, really well (recent favorites include Jeff In Venice, The Lazarus Project, Diary of a Bad Year, and Horns, which was awesome). I'm also willing to be a sucker for smart, unconventional thrillers, mysteries that bend reality, ghost stories that blow reality to hell, fictional or not-so-fictional portrayals of abnormal psychology, and humor that's more than just an infinitely repeated gag in sheep's clothing.

2. What length synopsis do you prefer to see with a partial? Single spaced or double?

Answer: Anything longer than a (single spaced) page tends to make me antsy, truth be told…if the basic premise of the book (the sort of thing that can fit into a paragraph or two) intrigues me, I much prefer to find out the rest by reading the thing itself, and not a summary or greatest hits collection of scenes!

3. In terms of submissions, what are you sick to death of and what would you like to see more of?

Answer: I’m trying not to be sick to death of anything just yet (it sounds like an awful condition!), but I will say that I’m much more interested in personal demons than ACTUAL demons, who seem to be littering the pages of young adult literature (and a fair amount of adult suspense) like confetti. Personally, I find paranormal touches to be more effective when the reader’s not exactly sure that whatever’s going on is, in fact, paranormal…when there’s an ambiguity that touches upon our everyday fears, as opposed to the much rarer fears of, let’s say, fire-breathing angels, or who knows what. I like being scared, but I prefer to be scared of what’s real.

4. What are the most compelling elements you feel are necessary for a good read? What particularly grabs your attention?

Answer: For me, I can’t really get fired up unless a) the writing, line by line, is a joy to read independent of the story it’s telling, and b) the characters feel authentic and interesting and interested in the world around them. After only the first page, if there’s already a charisma to the language and a character I want to know more about, odds are I’ll make it pretty deep into the manuscript to find out if the potential holds up.

5. For you, which elements in a fiction submission are terminal problems garnering automatic rejections and which are tempting and fixable meriting a look at a revision if a talented author is willing to accept your advice?

If there’s an engaging voice, sharp writing, an interesting plot, and at least one character I give two shakes about, then I’m willing to work hours on end to fix just about any other problem, whether it be a fuzzy ending, a wonky structure, or even a parade of iffy scenes.

6. Does meeting an author face-to-face at a conference make a difference in your response time, the submission process, or the rejection process (ie. Form letter vs a few sentences of advice)?

Answer: Ultimately, I’d say the difference between my sending a form letter and something more substantial lies in my connection to the manuscript—if there was a glimmer somewhere, an idea that seemed to be worthy of exploration, and I felt that I had something truly constructive to say, and that I wouldn’t be averse to seeing a revision, then I’ll break from the form letter, absolutely. If my brain fails to click with anything particular in a submission, though, then I’m probably not even the right person to be giving advice, anyhow. That being said, forming even the briefest of personal connections face to face with an author inevitably increases the odds that I’ll push myself to look harder for that glimmer if it doesn’t make itself immediately apparent.

7. Besides the writing, the story and the talent, what are the most important elements you look for in an author, ie. contest wins, cooperativeness, affiliations to writers organizations, knowledge of publishing industry, promotability, etc?

Answer: After the quality of the submission itself (which is, of course, 99.9% of the dance), I’d say I’m just looking to see if the author is someone I have a chemistry with, which is usually hinted at outside of their manuscript, in their OTHER forms of communication…does their regular ol’ everyday voice (the one they use in a simple e-mail or a simple phone call) put me at ease or put me on edge? Formality is less important to me than personality.

8. Do you have any pet peeves?

Answer: I don’t deal well with moodiness (though maybe that counts as a form of moodiness?)

9. What are you addicted to?

Answer: It used to be rice pudding (no fooling). I’m still figuring out what my next obsession should be, or if I should just relapse back into rice pudding (have you tried it!?)

10. What have you always wanted to do?

Answer: Be a dad!

11. Do you have a favorite quote?

Answer: There’s no king of the hill for me, but I like this one a great deal: “It is difficult to be confused.” – Zheng Xie


Vince said...

Hi Stephen:

These are great questions.

I enjoyed the interview.

I have one question: all things being equal, that is you like both works equally well, what length of book would you prefer to see?

This has important marketing considerations.


Christine said...

Thank you for the interview! I enjoyed reading the answers because they made me think outside my personal "writing box."


Theresa said...

Glad you guys enjoyed the interview. Stephen sounds like an interesting guy who LIVES outside the box.
Vince, I asked Stephen your question--I'll post the answer when he gets back to me. He wasn't expected to stop by; he filled out the questions beforehand.

Donnell said...

T, I'm so looking forward to meeting this man. One, I love rice pudding, and some lucky kid would do well to have such a man with a sense of humor for a dad.

Thanks for fielding questions for us. Interesting, sounds like he loves paranormal mysteries.


Theresa said...

Vince I asked Stephen your question, and he wasn't quite sure he understood the question, but here's his answer.

"If he’s giving me a hypothetical where I have two submissions, both of which I like just about the same, but I have to choose one based on length, well, I’m not sure I’d be capable of that, or why I would do that…barring the extremes (a 400,000 word epic or an experimental frou-frou 14 word novel), length doesn’t mean that much to me…it’s not a perfectly reliable indicator of quality, right? Some stories ought to be short, some stories ought to be long, and it’s the story that matters!"

Vince said...

Hi Theresa:

Thanks for getting me an answer. I guess from an agent’s POV any really good author is worth having, period.

However, from a marketing POV, I think there are many advantages of writing frequent short books. I just wrote a post on 20 of these advantages today on my blog.


Theresa said...

Vince, what's your blog addy again? Are you a member of CB Writers? I was going to look there for your bio and link to your blog.

Vince said...

Hi Theresa:

I’m a member of ACFW. I’d sure be a member of the CB Writers if I lived their but I think the atmosphere is too rarified for me! Literally not figuratively. : )

My bolg is: http://vmres.blogspot.com/


Nightingale said...

Inside the head of an agent. Interesting place to be. Thanks for the interview.

LindsayWrites said...

this guy freakin rocks!