I can try. Someone in a group setting asked me to describe what I was looking for, and since I was afraid I'd have to start doing drugs if I had to face a bunch of writers who wanted to tell me about their Amish romances, that's what I came up with. I'd love to say I labored over it, but... well, it's not bad. I do a lot of literary fiction -- probably more than most of the other CBA agents who attended. But I've learned that literary fiction sells best when it's tied to a high concept, rather than another one of those "Christian woman faces a difficult struggle which allows her to ruminate on her crappy life" type of literary novels. And I'm moving more and more toward the general market, so... that's what I said.
Now. How would I define it? Um, how's this: I like contemporary fiction that doesn't easily fit into some common genre category, but still offers a big enough story to make me pay attention. I suppose I need it to sound more artsy. Literary novelists sometimes have to be reminded that (a) I have to like your lead character if I'm going to keep reading, and (b) there has to be a big enough story to actually have a book, and (c) it has to seem enjoyable enough at the front end that I'll want to read the whole thing. Therefore I tend to look for those things in literary fiction. When you look at some of the literary novelists I represent (Lisa Samson, Susan Meissner, Claudia Burney, Gina Holmes, Ginger Garrett, Joyce Magnin, even Kimberly Stuart, who is lighter than the others but crafts a wonderfully entertaining story), they all fit those descriptors. Does that help at all? You're welcome to rent my definition. This lousy economy has created a glut of literary definitions, as you know, so some of them have been on the market for months.
And several people wrote to ask, "What would you do to improve the conference experience for writers?"
Hey, I love writing conferences. I don't do as many as some other agents because I just can't take the time to go to a bunch of them any more -- Ive got authors I represent who need me working on their behalf. Still, I try to make it to a couple each year, and do the best job I can of sharing information. Frankly, the ACFW is as good of an annual conference as there is. The faculty are professionals, the topics are good, and the whole thing runs like clockwork. I've been happy to be part of it. So let me offer my thanks to the ACFW staff first.
A few things people who are planning writing conferences could keep in mind? Well, think about going to the local newspaper and asking them to send a workshop leader. Most papers have someone who does community public relations (they will do this for free). A workshop on "writing for the newspaper" would be nice. You could also consider talking with local magazines -- they offer real-world opportunities, and would be available to come for a day, so there are low travel costs, an no need to put them up. In addition, most states have a list of publishers. If you were putting on a conference, you might try linking to a local publisher. It'll build the list of publshers participating, and will give authors wider chances to talk to publishers. Similarly, if the local University has a press, you could ask them to send an editor.
I still like seeing an author interviewed, rather than just offering a presentation. I've had some great experiences where an author shows up, does a short reading, and just takes questions or is interviewed by someone skilled at asking insightful questions. And I'd love it if agent panels were more focused -- like five agents talking about romance novels, or about digital rights, or... whatever.
If someone local has written a play or a movie, ask them to come in and speak. Show the movie (or invite people to attend a performance of the play), then let everyone talk with the author. For that matter, you can always ask local writers to show up and speak (which will save the conference money). You can also ask a writer to bring one chapter of a work in progress, put it up on a screen for all to see, and have them go over it, showing writers how they rewrite and make changes. (I've also seen this done with a writer and editor doing it.) If there are writing groups in the area, or bookstores that host writing groups, don't forget to invite them. Getting some involvement with a college would be nice. Have them inform the students, especially the students in writing or English or journalism. Maybe give full-time students a discount, but the big deal is to have them help you advertise and promote the conference.
Those are my random thoughts. If you're looking for a conference to attend soon, I mentioned the Southwest Writers Studio yesterday: www.swcws.com
There is also a writing conference coming up in Indianapolis the weekend of November 6 (the same weekend I'm doing my one-day "perfect book proposal" seminar in Richmond VA). So you've got plenty of options. And if you're tired of reading serious stuff and simply need something funny to check out, by all means visit the Landover Baptist site: http://www.landoverbaptist.org. Some of it is in bad taste -- but some of it is very funny, and will make you laugh out loud. (Thanks to ACFW'ers for showing this to me!)