Guest Post: Literary Agent, Brooks Sherman

Hey, Writers Out There! If you don’t already have representation, then I have someone you should meet. Brooks Sherman of FinePrint Literary Management is the kind of up-and-coming literary agent that you should sit up and pay attention to. He has a great eye for stories, he can develop your work with skill, and he has already sold a number of amazing projects. That, and he’s smart and savvy, too. Which is exactly why I’ve invited him here to share some of his wisdom with you…
A quick disclaimer: this is my first attempt blogging since 2009, so please be gentle.

When I was first approached about writing a guest post for PubCrawl, I was both flattered and alarmed. I was delighted to join the ranks of accomplished writers and publishing professionals who write here regularly, but I was uncertain about what new insights I could add to the mix. Then I remembered a subject that has been on my mind a lot lately: the fluid and sometimes nebulous nature of category in fiction.

I recently read a submission that showed a lot of promise, a novel that the author had pitched as a young adult western with fantasy elements. After reading halfway through the manuscript, I came to the seemingly bizarre conclusion that this project was not YA at all, and that it was instead either middle grade or straight-up adult fiction.

That the author had classified this project as YA was understandable: the main character was a 15-year-old boy, and the general consensus these days is that teen protagonist = young adult novel. But the voice lacked the close perspective and self-awareness that I’ve come to expect in young adult fiction—it focused more on the immediacy of the adventure at hand, which works well in middle grade fiction (for readers ages 8-12, on average). At the same time, the graphic and violent plot twists had more of an adult feel to them. Ultimately, my response to the author was that this story showed promise, but that I disagreed with the contention that this was YA—I suggested that he either commit to the narrative style and make this a middle grade adventure novel (and perhaps make the main character younger), or further emphasize the darker tone to make the story solidly adult.

In the current publishing climate, the need to fit your story into one category can feel daunting, even arbitrary. It might seem like novels are divided up firmly into age-defined categories: middle grade, young adult, adult…and now the burgeoning category of new adult (or is it a genre? This question is worthy of an entirely separate post!). But keep in mind that these categories are not defined by the age of your characters so much as the style or manner in which your story is told. An excellent example of this is Karen Thompson Walker’s debut novel The Age of Miracles (Random House, 2012), in which the main character is a 12-year-old girl. At first glance, the age of the protagonist would suggest that this is a tale for middle grade readers; the story is solidly adult, however, which becomes evident once you consider the story’s narrative voice and tone.

Look, I’m not suggesting that age or setting has nothing to do with category, or that whether your story is YA or adult shouldn’t be something you consider while you’re writing it. What I am suggesting is that you keep an open mind about where your book might best fit on bookshelves—for marketing purposes, certainly, but also so your story finds its ideal audience. You can write with a category in mind, but don’t write to that category.

So, prioritize: suspect your category, but know your story!

brooks-pic3BROOKS SHERMAN is a literary agent with FinePrint Literary Management. He is on the lookout for adult fiction that runs the gamut from literary and upmarket to speculative (particularly urban/contemporary fantasy rooted in realistic settings, horror/dark fantasy, and magical realism), as well as historical and crime fiction. On the children’s side, he is seeking middle grade novels of all genres (but particularly fantasy adventure and contemporary), and is open to YA fiction of all types except paranormal romance. He would especially love to get his hands on a dark and/or funny contemporary YA project.

On a more personal note: Brooks is thrilled to be living once more in Brooklyn, after a two-year stint with the Peace Corps in bucolic West Africa and a one-year stint in the savage jungles of Hollywood. As befitting his chosen career in publishing, he subsists on a diet of breadcrumbs and bourbon. You can find him on Twitter at @byobrooks.


15 Responses to Guest Post: Literary Agent, Brooks Sherman

  1. Susan Jul 15 2013 at 10:10 am #

    Wow, really cool post. I’ve been critiquing some new writers lately, and I haven’t been able to put into words WHY some of the writing feels MG–but you nailed it with “the voice lacked the close perspective and self-awareness that I’ve come to expect in young adult fiction.” That’s EXACTLY what I’m encountering. I will totally be pointing these writers to this post. 🙂

    Thanks so much, Brooks!

    • Brooks Sherman Jul 15 2013 at 3:36 pm #

      Thanks, Susan! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Hope something I said here proves helpful to the writers you’re working with!

  2. Natalie Aguirre Jul 15 2013 at 11:57 am #

    This is a great post. Such great tips to try to be sure your story is geared to a specific age group. I wouldn’t have thought that a novel could be considered MG and adult. I can see why that would be a problem for agents and booksellers if the book gets sold.

  3. Erin Bowman Jul 15 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Fabulous post, Brooks, and I was actually thinking of THE AGE OF MIRACLES while reading through your thoughts! You can imagine how much I smiled when you mentioned it as a superb example of the age-voice-tone distinction. Thanks for stopping by PubCrawl! 🙂

  4. Rowenna Jul 15 2013 at 2:52 pm #

    Great points! I read somewhere once that YA isn’t a story about adolescents–it’s about adolescence. Which I think kinda speaks to this–that it’s not solely about the age of protagonists, but about what the story is about at its heart that helps define who the audience is.

    By the way, the fantasy western sounds like a lot of fun–I hope the author continues to work on this one and we see it someday!

    • Brooks Sherman Jul 15 2013 at 3:38 pm #

      I might have to steal that line–it’s a good one!

  5. Julie Eshbaugh Jul 15 2013 at 4:24 pm #

    Great post Brooks! The book I thought of while I read this was THE LOVELY BONES. The narrator is a teen, but that’s about where the link to YA ends. I read once that the difference between MG and YA is that MG protags are mainly concerned with their place in their families, and YA protags are mainly concerned with their place in the world. I find this to be generally true, but a bit more difficult to discern. (Not to mention, many books involve characters concerned with both!) Your discussion of the categories here is very straighforward and helpful. Thanks!

  6. Kim Jul 15 2013 at 7:16 pm #

    This is a really great post! I agree that simply because the character is within the typical age of MG or YA, that doesn’t automatically make it either of those. There are a lot of wonderful adult books that have MC that are MG or YA age. THE LOVELY BONES is my favorite example, which Julie already pointed out 🙂

  7. Christine Edwards Jul 15 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    Great insights into selecting the appropriate audience. Thanks.

  8. Carrie-Anne Jul 15 2013 at 10:15 pm #

    I’ve had this issue with classifying some of my books, since I write historicals that often have young people as the main characters. I’ve reached a point where I even wonder if YA historical still exists, with the current popular, commercial parameters of what YA is now considered. It’s also hard to pigeonhole a book into one age-based category if it spans many years and ages the protagonist and other characters from childhood to early adulthood, or from the early teen years to the late teen years. I also write third-person omniscient, which is probably a better fit for the adult market instead of what’s now popularly considered YA.

  9. jeffo Jul 16 2013 at 8:20 am #

    I have no problem with the broad category–Adult all the way–the trouble is whether it’s commercial or literary. That, to me at least, seems much more difficult to figure out.

  10. Jenny Forgey Jul 19 2013 at 5:16 pm #

    Brooks, once again I find myself thinking, “I’m so glad I met Brooks.” (For reference, we met briefly at the WLT conference in Austin in June.) Your advice always illuminates. Thank you for coming back to blogging, and for covering a topic that often has me baffled. This, especially, stuck out in a most helpful way: “You can write with a category in mind, but don’t write to that category.”

  11. Alexa Y. Jul 23 2013 at 11:02 pm #

    I like this post a lot! The last line is what really stood out to me as an aspiring writer (“… suspect your category. know your story.”) It’s a solid, good piece of advice, and I loved it. Thanks for sharing!

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