Hey, now that Chip's off sunning himself in Maui, I figure it's a good time to jump in and answer a few questions. I'm Sandra Bishop, the other agent at MacGregor Literary.
Here's one from Angel: "It seems like the books that do well and are worth reading are those which are big surprises. Is it really possible to set out to write a breakout novel? Don't breakouts just happen because a publisher decides to get behind a book and doggedly promote it until it gets noticed?"
There's some of that going on in publishing — Chip wrote about the practice of "Making a Book" not too long ago. But that, obviously, is out of a writer's control. I'm guessing what you really want to know, Angel, is how to write a book publishers are willing to get behind.
For those who don't know, literary agent Donald Maas wrote a great book in which he goes into the why's and how-to's of writing a breakout novel. In his book, Maas covers the reasons, mechanics, and philosophies behind doing so. It's worth a read, and definitely worth the money. If it's mechanics you want, go get his book. But I'm guessing you're not necessarily asking about mechanics with this question. We get this a lot in many different forms, and most people seem to be asking, "Is it really possible to make it big as a writer, and should I bother spending my time trying?"
Here's my short answer to that question: If you're crazy enough to try, go for it. Seriously. Publishing is a crazy business in which to try and make a living. But if you're willing, and have talent, and the energy to keep after it without losing your marbles, more power to you. Lots of people talk about and work at writing, but never really get down to honing the craft. The thing is, we can plan and strategize and project all we want, but we work in a creative field where the tail pretty much wags the dog (meaning the customers ultimately decide what's successful and what's not). That's why, ultimately, the credibility of the industry rests not in the hands of marketing folks, nor on the shoulders of publicists or booksellers, nor even pub boards and (thank the Good Lord) agents. It rests in the sweaty palms and hunched up shoulders and aching behinds of the authors who care enough about their craft to learn and practice and write and rewrite until they produce material worthy of giving the dog something to wag about. (Sorry — runaway metaphor.)
We may all think we know what readers and editors want, but then something gets picked up or pushed through that defies convention and surprises us all, and we're all left scratching our… er, heads, and wondering "why don't more people write like that?" You know of which books I speak — those I call genre busters: Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird" or Donald Miller's "Blue Like Jazz," Lisa Samson's "Quaker Summer" (no, it's not an Amish knock-off, folks — you should read it). I'll even venture to add "The Shack" by Paul Young to the list, though I have to confess I'm one of the six people on the planet who has yet to read it.
My guess is, though, the reason it broke out is because it shares something in common with the others I mention. The secret mix of ingredients that set it apart and cause the kind of stir and lasting impression every author dreams of. You ready? Excellent writing, unique voice, a compelling story, and a commitment to the craft. I'll venture to say not one of these authors set out with a plan in place when they wrote their book. I'll bet they didn't do plotting spreadsheets first (not that such things are bad) or work out a complete outline (again, not a bad step in and of itself), nor did they call every one of their friends to ask "what do you think of this idea?" before beginning (note the absence of my remark about this not being a bad thing). They just sat their butts in their chairs day after day (or night after night) and chipped away at their masterpiece until their fingers cramped up. And they didn't submit it until it was polished and ready.
No amount of longing to be a great author will get you there. If that's what you really want — to write a breakout book — then you have to be wiling to drain yourself every day and get up and do it again the next and the next until you've created something worth the fuss.
That's my take.