Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Q&A With Agent Molly Friedrich

Poets and Writers has a great oft-linked article on veteran agent Molly Friedrich. I heard about it from many different sources, but when I saw a brief summary of it on PubRants, I decided that I needed to read the whole thing.

And wow.

Remember that scene in Harry Potter 4 when Fred and George are talking about Moody, and they're all like "He knows, man, he knows, he's been there." Yeah, she's like that.

She said it better than me:
[On starting out in publishing]
I honestly had nothing better to do than to be ferociously ambitious. And there was nothing stopping me.
How perfect is that? Whether you're an editor, an agent, a writer, a monkey-trainer, whatever...doing something with ferocious ambition...that's the way to be.

[On what's most important in a book]
First of all, is there anybody out there who doesn't know that the easiest thing to sell is plot? But the thing that everybody wants is an original voice. And the thing that's kind of stuck in the middle is character.
What a perfect summary. Sometimes, I think I focus too much on plot+character=story. The voice is the sticking point. This is just a brilliant line. And, of course, she goes on to explain just what voice is:

[On voice]
Now, what is an original voice? Well, think of it like this: Go to Bonfire of the Vanities and close your eyes and pick a page and have someone read you two paragraphs. If you can't identify those paragraphs as the rhythms and cadences that belong to Tom Wolfe, you're finished. I'm convinced that eight times out of ten, with Melissa Bank, you could do the same thing. Now that is saying something. ...

I fell in love with Terry's writing because she had an original voice. Go back and read the first page of Mama, when Mildred, the mother, is wielding an ax. It's like, "Whoa!" It springs off the page. That's why it happened. But Terry built a career by believing in herself more than anybody else did. She really worked hard.
Could you open your manuscript up right now, look at a random page, and hear a distinct voice coming from every word? Could you send your mom page 54 of your manuscript, page 54 of your friend's manuscript, page 54 of a published book someone else wrote, and know that your mom, who should know your voice and style better than anyone, could be able to pick out which page 54 is yours?

[On making it in publishing]
But when this person started sobbing and saying, "What can I do?" I was very gentle with her. I said, "The thing is, it's not easy."
Friedrich is talking about an editor/agent thing here, but it still applies to anyone in the writing business. The thing is, it's not easy.

[On determination]
I think that's how it works. You hang around long enough, and you insist, like Scarlett O'Hara just before the intermission, "As God as my witness...this book will sell!" And if it does sell, and you were right, and everyone else was wrong, then you build up credibility. But it takes time. Here I am, thirty years later. I'm old! I'm fifty-five years old! But seriously, it is a business of staying with it long enough to really build up credibility and respect and a reputation for honesty. Always for honesty. God, this is a small business.
I once had a professor who said that I reminded him of Scarlett O'Hara, and that really made me mad...I hated Scarlett! She's a self-obsessed b! But...she got her way. I'd be Scarlett for my books. I don't want to be Scarlett in life, but in books, yes, that's what I'd be. That's what I probably have to be.

[On what sells]
[Question] Tell me what you're looking for when you're reading a first novel or memoir.
[Answer] That's so easy. I'm looking for the first page to be good. Then I'm looking for the second page to also be good. Really! The first page has to be good so that I will go to the second page and the third and the fourth.
This is what it takes. A page turn. When I first heard about agents wanting only the first five pages with a query, I was mad. Recently, after a rejection, my husband was trying to console me: "They just read a few pages! How could they know how good you are by that?" But it's true. You can know whether a book is good or bad by whether you turn the page. Look at how many books you put down after the first page in the bookstore.

[On writers in the technology age]
Which was partly bad, obviously, but it was also a good thing because they really got to focus on their work and confront what was on the page. They weren't distracted and hyped up by too much information.
This hits close to home. If I had written my most recent manuscript without the Internet, I wouldn't be so worried about whether it's MG or YA. I'd just have written it and been done with it. How good is too much information? I've certainly spent hours--days--questioning my genre--questioning the label! ...but if questioning the label means questioning the writing means improving the writing...maybe it's not a bad thing. I'll compromise: as long as something done with writing, it's worth something.
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