I am currently an intern for [redacted] Literary Agency. I read your blog post about switching genres when writing, and it made me think of a question that I have been wrestling with. I am in the process of becoming an associate agent, and my strength is fiction. However, I want to continue to improve in non-fiction and memoir. Other than reading a lot of best-selling non-fiction and memoir, what are some ways that I might gain a really good sense of the genre. With fiction, I just know what works (plus, I have an English BA and MA (creative writing emphasis). I want to get to that place with non-fiction and memoir. Ideas?
After having a number of interns come through BookEnds, roughly three or four a year for five or more years, I've gotten a better understanding of what it takes to make a good agent. Certainly reading is big, but so is instinct. I'm not sure how else to describe it. I've seen some of the most well-read people come through and yet have no understanding of what makes a book work or what doesn't. It's not about properly placed commas, it's about pacing and market, plotting and characterization. And of course it's about voice.
I think to a certain extent agents have an instinct for certain genres and, yes, I think some of it comes from what we love, but it's also a basic understanding of why certain genres work. I credit most of my knowledge from working in the business. For five years I was an editor, and every week for five years I sat in an editorial meeting and watched and listened to editors discuss books. Not only did we discuss books that were published, but of course we discussed books we were hoping to publish. For almost every book an editor wanted to acquire she had to have others read it and discuss it in front of everyone in the meeting. Some of those discussions were brutal, but all were passionate. I learned more from those weekly meetings than I ever could from reading on my own.
We have similar meetings at BookEnds, but I'm afraid we don't discuss as many books we offer representation to as we probably should. Instead my interns are required to read and write a lot of reader's reports for me, and I make a concerted effort to comment on those reports and discuss the books with them myself. I ask them to write revision letters for me on books I already represent. Sometimes they'll see something I missed and a lot of the time it's a way for me to teach them what they should be looking for.
There's no magical way to understanding a genre. Read, talk to agents about books, ask for second reads on manuscripts. That's probably the best advice I can offer. However, I really think that if it's a real struggle to understand a genre, it's probably just not the genre you should be focusing on.