Sunday, February 8, 2009

Agents of Change

literary agent--a former book editor; an individual who represents authors with publishers; someone to whom authors are required to assign a limited power of attorney, authorizing payments due the author be made to them; an individual who may have been the scape goat (fired from a publishing company) when sales figures sagged; an individual who often becomes a writer's scape goat when a project does not sell well; an author of form letters suggesting no new clients are being accepted.

The literary agent is the first hurdle the writer must pass; because of his or her expertise, informed judgment, and taste, the agent believes what all characters believe--the agent believes the agent is right. Often it will take more effort finding an agent to represent the work than a publisher to publish it.

NB: literary agents are not career coaches or MFCCs; they are skilled editorial workers.


subplot--a secondary plot line in a larger work of fiction, possibly involving different characters than those in the main plot; a thematic counterpoint of action to the major events of story; often a related series of events taking place in time past relative to the setting of the main plot; usually a series of events involving characters below front-rank status.

Because of length constraints, short stories are unlikely to contain subplots, but in the works of Louise Erdrich, which seem to have been carved from novels or have their origins as platforms for later novels, this construct is an anomaly; ditto Alice Munro. Novels with extensive layers of subplot emerge as being more dramatic and theatrical; this is particularly true of novels with multiple-point-of-view narration.

If the reader is not able eventually to see a reason for the presence of a subplot, the reader will likely regard it as padding. A good "excuse" for the inclusion of a subplot is parallel development, in which differing groups of individuals are subjected to the same dramatic situation.


theme--the metaphoric or symbolic message of a story; an abstract representation of authorial intent; a lesson, moral, or observation to be had from considering the consequences of various options.

Theme is similar to authorial style in that it is what remains resonant after the story had been written, revised, and published. Authors are often surprised at the emergent theme of a work after it has been written, an observation that is thematic in itself.

Most themes, when reduced to their basics, tend to sound banal: The brotherhood/sisterhood of humanity; Self-interest, Nihilism, Twilight of the gods, Man's inhumanity, etc. Fabulists, moralists, and academics eager for broader audiences, tenure, or both, added verbs to the equation, resulting in the apothegm, such as Art is long, life is short, or Blessed are the meek, or A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.

4 comments:

Querulous Squirrel said...

The idea of "what remains resonant" is far more ineffable than the idea of boiling themes down to banalities. I have always had a problem with that. Resonance makes one feel like a musical instrument, or listening to a musical instrument. Hearing the theme in a piece of music cannot be put into words. In some paradoxical sense, in many ways for me, the theme of a story written in words is equally wordless.

marta said...

The idea of the agent being the first hurdle is depressing. I preferred thinking of them as being a hurdle about a third of the way through.

But then I'm good at wishful thinking and less good at jumping.

Scott said...

Shelly,
I enjoy your blog a lot. I am prob going to check out some of your fav books that you mention on your site. I wanted to post a link to your blog on my site, would you be interested in a link exchange?
Check it out: Http://scottstipoftheday.blogspot.com

Kate Lord Brown said...

Hello Shelly - yes, wise words as always. Having scrambled over the first jump it feels like I'm lying on the other side, winded, gazing up at Beecher's Brook. Does it get any easier?