What the heck!
I agree. What the heck! isn’t exactly a profound philosophy for life – or writing. But it’s as near as I can get to the kind of carefree “Give it a shot” mindset that I love to see in authors. Because that’s the attitude that takes risks, that doesn’t mind giving it a go, even if the attempt (at whatever) is ultimately torn up.
It’s easy to try and play it safe as a writer – and I see that all the time in submissions. Ideas that are similar to ones that are out there already, tried and tested tropes, stock depictions of characters, language that is serviceable but not unique or powerful. And of course, genres that are perceived to be currently successful and in demand (though the truth may be that they were in demand, but aren’t so much any longer). I don’t see a lot of risk – but then, of course, you aren’t in the position of knowing what we agents DO see, or what I might deem exciting risk.
I know how much writers want to see agents’ wishlists. You want guidance in the dark. Just a hint of what might float our apparently capricious boat. I’m never entirely sure about wishlists, though. Once, a writer tore up their WIP and wrote something entirely based on what I said I was looking for. When she submitted it to me and I turned it down, it was clear she felt really aggrieved and that she’d been misled. “But you said in your blog you wanted . . .” Um yes, but I never meant you to totally redirect yourself to fulfil that comment, and anyway it was months, if not a year, ago!
You see what I mean about wishlists.
I’ve read three books recently that made me think about wishlists. Because none of these books would have triggered an easy categorization. Because all three of them are in some way unique, a little mesmerizing, a touch strange, and very much about language and/or structure. I don’t represent any of them, but they all reignited my excitement about being a literary agent, being a reader. And that, in short, is my wishlist. I wish to be reignited!
So what are these books? The first is THE STRANGE AND BEAUTIFUL SORROWS OF AVA LAVENDER by Leslye Walton (Candlewick). A strange family history, a girl with wings. Violence and beauty. Magical realism that is definitely risky, definitely out there, but impossible to ignore or forget. There’s a scene that smacks you in the face because it’s so devastating . . .Whoa, now THERE’S an imagination and a risk-taker.
The second is Jandy Nelson’s Printz Award winner, I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN (Dial, Penguin). I have met Jandy, and aside from being rather beautiful, she appears to be a regular human being. Which is surprising because she writes like a cross between a mad dervish and an angel of light. Ransom Riggs said, “her pages practically glow in the dark”. It’s hard to describe this story of love and loss, pain and self-discovery, other than that it’s an explosion of language which stops you like a deer in the headlights and burns its way into your heart (sorry, but it’s also the kind of book which makes you mix metaphors.) This is a book that takes risks, big and small, on every page.
The third book is one I’m still only halfway through. THE BONE GAP by Laura Ruby (Balzer & Bray, Harper). People are going slightly nutty about this novel. Author Mike Jung does a daily Facebook post to tell people TO READ THIS BOOK, like he’s been anointed by it. Again, it’s a little strange, mysterious, magical and other-worldly; it combines beauty with really chilling scariness, and it doesn’t give you every answer you think it will. The author is telling you just enough. Booklist called it “bewitching” and that’s just the right word.
I’m not saying that any of these books are perfect. What does perfect even mean? But they light you up as a reader. They make you think about questions big and small – from the meaning of life to the use of a phrase. If you’re a writer, seeking your path, they should never be copied (as if one could) but they might open a window to a revelation of your own, authentic risk taking. Because authorial risk is very personal – you have to find your own on a road less travelled.
I can tell you many kinds of books that I’m seeking. I can say I want “contemporary with a hook” or “middle grade adventure” or a “stunning new chapter-book concept” or “an unreliable narrator”. All true. But ho hum, these narrow definitions don’t excite me much.
What I really want is to be filled with glory. To be reminded again why I have the best job in the world. Because I want to bring your voice to readers, believing it will shape their lives. Not every book can smack us in the face, but maybe, just maybe, yours could.
Today, as you sit down at your laptop, try shouting, “What the heck!” Put it all (everything that’s in you) out there, take your risk, give it a shot, stretch your creativity, your voice, your language, like an arrow from the quiver. Sure, you’re ultimately going to have to craft it like a silversmith, but first you’ve got to find your molten metal.
What the heck!