Back in the dark age of superhero movies, when Batman and Robin had nipples, a producer named Jon Peters insisted on three stipulations for a thankfully ill-fated Superman reboot:
Superman would not wear his suit.
Superman would not fly.
Superman would fight against giant spiders.
What surfaced instead was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. While it wasn’t exactly met with critical acclaim, at least it didn’t make us want to dig our brains out with a spork.
Sometimes movie producers overstep their creative bounds; I propose the same might be said of literary agents.
I recently met with a trio of agents while attending the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. The procession imposed more humility than a Catholic ceremony. For $45 a pop, I got to learn why my manuscript was unworthy—meaning it cost me $135 for the privilege of hearing this three times in a row.
I’d presented them with a plot synopsis and the first five pages of my manuscript—a young adult novel about a seventeen-year-old space princess who wants to be an astro-racer pilot. The collective result? They said it was too edgy for little kids, but not edgy enough for older kids. They went on to suggest I could fix this one of two ways:
Allow my protagonist to remain a space princess, but lower her age to twelve and aim for the middle-grade audience.
Allow my protagonist to remain seventeen, but make her a crack-addicted, interstellar socialite contemplating suicide.
Neither idea appealed to me. I had just finished writing my second draft of the damn thing, and by this point, I thought it was damn perfect. My ego deflated faster than a bike tire coasting over a pool of chicken wire. I sought consolation by imagining these agents were just a bunch of failed writers who were unwilling to acknowledge my brilliance—jealous, self-absorbed, power-tripping gatekeepers. I’ve met many writers who believe likewise—if not continuously, at least while commiserating over beer.
This is, of course, pure defensive horse poop.
Most agents are quite good at what they do—not to mention flat out good people—and the role they play is invaluable to cultural artistic integrity. There’s a reason self-published books have a stigma: They bypass the approval process, allowing rivers of crap to pour out of the Amazon. Agents smell the crap when it’s beneath their nose, and they spare the masses of its stench. They sift through the muck in search of the treasure. Moreover, since they receive such a surplus of mediocrity and almost-good-enoughs, only the rarest of diamonds are worth their investment. They want to be utterly blown away by what’s offered to them. And to be fair: Who doesn’t?
I was merely offering them a Bryan Singer Superman. In this regard, they were right: My story still wasn’t good enough. They spared potential readers from wasting their time, and convinced me that I needed to improve it further.
But as far as the suggestions they gave me for how to fix it? I admit, I gave significant thought to applying their first option. For the past couple weeks, I’ve mulled over the idea of shaving five years off my protagonist and aiming the resulting product at a different demographic. I can certainly see why they suggested that, from a marketing standpoint—as it is, even I have a hard time telling anyone who this story’s target audience is! But the result of such a drastic change would be a story I never set out to tell. It wouldn’t be the concept that originally compelled me to put pen to page—or rather, fingers to keyboard.
And then it hit me. Of course I know who my target audience is! It’s the same target audience for anything I write: My target audience is me.
As long as I stay true to my idea, and as long as I write it well, there are bound to be those who will want to read it. There may even be an agent out there who will want to back me on it—a different agent than the three I met with. Demographics be damned, if I build it, they will come.
Neil Gaiman once said that when someone tells you your story doesn’t work, they’re usually right. When they tell you how to fix it, they’re usually wrong. So true.
But especially true if they tell you to add giant spiders. If they tell you to add giant spiders, wear earplugs, run away as fast as possible, and fix it yourself.