Still Wanted: Writing that Sings! (What Karen Ball is Looking For)

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Anyone who has jumped into the waters of agenting knows they’ll be asked one question, over and over and over:  “What are you looking for?” Well, now that I’ve got a couple of years of this amazing work under my belt, let me build on what I said when I started. Back then, I said I was looking, first and foremost, for books that glorify God, then for writing that sings, that speaks to the heart and spirit, that uplifts and challenges. Well, that’s all the same! But there are a few clarifications I want to make.  First, here’s the not so good news:

 

What I’m Not Looking For

Children’s & Middle Grade Books: As much as I enjoy reading these books (that’s one of the only perks to never having had children—I get all the kid’s books!), I am not representing them. It’s not that I don’t see the need. It’s simply that I’m not experienced with these kinds of books. My work lo, these many years in publishing, has been with adult books. Now, I have worked with Young Adult fiction and nonfiction, but I already have some great clients in that category and am not, at present, looking for more.

Academic or Theological books: I love the Word, and I love talking abut God and faith, but I’m neither an academic nor a theologian. These books are out of my real of expertise.

Poetry, Screenplays, and Graphic Novels: Again, love to read ‘em, but I don’t represent ‘em.

Okay, on to the good news!

What I AM Looking For

ADULT NON-FICTION
Yes, Virginia, I am interested in nonfiction! Especially what I call lyrical nonfiction, the kind written with a storyteller’s narrative voice. Below you’ll find examples of this style of writing. (And just FYI, I didn’t choose these books so much because they’re bestsellers—though that’s always nice—but because the tone and voice captured me.)

One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp. Beautiful, stunning prose that draws you in and leaves you changed.

Bittersweet by Shauna Niequist. Honest and evocative writing that lets readers know they’re not alone in their struggles.

Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. I love the way this book begins. It sets the stage perfectly for what he has to say.

Something to note on nonfiction:

I love memoirs, books like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. But if you’re going to write a memoir, you need to be sure you’re writing about universal truths as much as your own story.

ADULT FICTION
Fiction is, ever and always, my first love. I’m all about story, especially well-crafted, powerful story that directs readers to God. Not “preachy” stories, but stories that are authentic and grounded in the reality of what it is to be a follower of Christ. Be they romances or suspense, thrillers or Amish, contemporary or historical, I’m always looking for stories that transport readers and touch their hearts.

That being said, there are a few types of fiction I don’t represent. Again, I’m not saying these aren’t worthwhile books, just that I don’t have a place for them right now:

  • Stories set between the 1930s and contemporary time.
  • Stories about childhood sexual abuse’
  • Stories for children or middle grade readers
  • Stories that don’t have a clear spiritual thread

A note about fantasy and spec fiction: while I do represent a few authors in these categories, and while I love these books as a reader, the craftsmanship bar is especially high for these books because there are so few publishers working with them. 

With both fiction and non-fiction, I’m happy to consider proposals from new, unpublished authors, so long as you’ve done your homework (meaning you’ve been to writers’ conferences, had your work critiqued, done the work of revising and refining so that the craft is as good as you can get it, and been to our website to follow our guidelines for proposals).

So…comments and questions?

31 Responses to Still Wanted: Writing that Sings! (What Karen Ball is Looking For)

  1. Terrance Leon Austin February 5, 2014 at 4:02 am #

    Thanks Karen.

  2. Chris P. February 5, 2014 at 6:22 am #

    Thanks for the info! Just to clarify, you are only looking for books set prior to 1930?

  3. Jeanne Takenaka February 5, 2014 at 7:58 am #

    Fun post, Karen. It’s good to know what you do/don’t represent. 🙂 Thanks!

  4. J.D. Maloy February 5, 2014 at 9:44 am #

    Whoa. I was just talking with a friend about the word “sing” in reference to writing.

    I learned what the word meant 3 years ago when a well known someone in the writing industry read my work. He told me what parts ‘sang’ and asked if I could see why. At that time I couldn’t completely identify, but the parts he did reference were easier for me to write. Huh, a hint perhaps?

    Since that time, I’ve been learning, practicing and growing in the craft and now I can identify when the story finally takes shape and SINGS baby! I can feel it now. Like something was missing and then after taking a step back (sometimes it was a month or longer) it was clear. Sha-bam! And giving my work for people to critique helps too. They’ll let you know what parts they stop critiquing because they’re so enthralled in the story. That is a big compliment people.

    In my current WIP, it’s my two mc’s. When their in a scene together the story sings. Their chemistry is obvious to all my critique partners. Whoop whoop. My solution: to get them in more scenes together!

    Thank you for this fantastic reminder that we writer’s need to strive toward 🙂

    Rock on!

  5. Sandy Mauck February 5, 2014 at 11:30 am #

    Oh, that is so my heart. I want my writing to sing. I want those who read it to read it like they were singing a song. When I painted paintings, I had a whole music series: Garden Symphony, Floral Fugue, and Arbor Overture. Writing that sings- I will keep that in my heart- music inspires and does all that you said, Karen, why should the written word be any different. Thanks for the reminder.

  6. Karen Ball February 5, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    Chris P, for historicals, yes, prior to 1930s. Of course, I’m also interested in contemporary fiction. 🙂

  7. Catherine Hackman February 6, 2014 at 11:09 am #

    I feel that a lot of Christian fiction is really innocent–like children’s stories with adult characters. Bad things happen, but we gloss over them. People don’t kiss.

  8. Catherine Hackman February 6, 2014 at 11:13 am #

    Sorry, the comment posted before I was done. Main characters don’t make the mistake of having an affair or stealing, etc. Is a story with realistic problems of not perfect main characters who do eventually find a moral compass or slide away and come back difficult to sell on the Christian market? Do most Christian publishers want the innocent story?

    • Tamela Hancock Murray February 6, 2014 at 4:10 pm #

      Catherine, yes, I have seen characters have realistic problems in Christian novels, even in genre romance. For example, think of the single parents you find in many romance novels. I once wrote about an alcoholic coming back from the brink, although I didn’t go into gritty detail. Another author who tackled alcoholism is Debby Mayne in her Class Reunion series. She also dealt with a troubled teen. The tone of the series is light overall, but if you look at the plots, you’ll see that the message is still there, and deep. Different voices include, of course, Francine Rivers. Also consider Ginny Yttrup. Enjoy, and be uplifted and edified.

      • Catherine Hackman February 7, 2014 at 6:16 am #

        Dear Tamela,
        My blog theme this year is “Books The General Public May Not Realize Exist” (something like that). I’m going to check into the books/authors you listed, read the books, and post about some of them on my blog. I feel the stereotype I mentioned keeps many people from reading in the Christian genre. I’m not looking for an agent right now (so I’m not brown-nosing–lol), but I love your agency and this blog. Thank you for your answer.
        Catherine

  9. Tamela Hancock Murray February 7, 2014 at 11:15 am #

    Catherine, you are so welcome! Yesterday we had a lively discussion on the blog and if you care to take a moment, you can see many other authors listed in the comments section. Thank you for doing such a great service in making potential readers aware of more CBA titles!

  10. Shirley Buxton February 9, 2014 at 4:55 pm #

    Could someone help me understand how to show spirituality without being preachy? How does being preachy look?

    Thank you so very much.

    • LL. White September 1, 2014 at 3:12 pm #

      Shirley,

      I just heard an interesting quote from Pastor Jentezen Franklin. He said, “Preachers preach. Teachers tell.” Years ago, when I was trying to be a recording artist, my dad – who is a Bishop – was reading over the lyrics of some songs I had written. I said, “so what do ya think?” he replied, “Well, its not your job to preach. That’s my job.”

      I would say, if you are not a preacher, it would be best to leave that to those with that calling. “He that wins souls is wise.” Witnessing through writing takes wisdom. we never win people who walk away. Don’t lose the zeal!

      Blessings,
      L.

    • Francine Phillips July 22, 2015 at 10:51 am #

      What is preachy? Examples:
      “But daughter! You know the Bible says “Thou shalt not steal!”

      “Last night in Bible Study we prayed for a person caught up in shoplifting.”

      “Didn’t you hear the pastor say last week that if you love the Lord you will keep his commandments?”

      Alternative:

      Help me to understand what is driving this need to possess something? Is it the thrill of getting away with it? Do you need more things to feel good about yourself? .Do you feel poor compared to your friends? I’m here to listen, honey, not to judge.

  11. Karen Ball February 18, 2014 at 6:30 pm #

    Shirley, that’s a great question. I think I’ll address it in a blog, so stay tuned!

  12. Sara Kuntz February 21, 2014 at 12:53 pm #

    I was considering the great question that Shirley posted. . . how to show spirituality without being preachy. I guess it is really the same difference that exists between effective writing which draws you in and less effective which leaves you unmoved–the difference between showing and telling.

    If the reader is making the connections herself and captivated by the unfolding story, she will feel caught by the Truth rather than clunked over the head with it.
    Bottom line, if I think I may sound preachy, I probably am. Like right now, perhaps?

    • LL. White September 1, 2014 at 3:25 pm #

      Haaaa!!!

      Sarah/Shirley

      I was told my writing was too didactic, and to watch the diatribe. I had to look those words up! I’m with Shirley. How are we supposed to impart biblical truth without the bible? and doesn’t it all begin and end with the authority of the Word, including the message of salvation? Earlier Karen said something about looking for material that gives God glory. Really, that is my aim moment by moment. I see little point to anything else, especially as the time of Christ’s return draws near. Why must we edit out or dilute the Word while the rest of the world is being heard? At this point we ought to get radical and downright violent about the revelations of God.

      Ooops. It’s the P.K. in me.
      Blessings
      L.

      • Annette May 5, 2015 at 8:36 pm #

        Hi L.L. White. Yes, it all does begin and end with the Word. But in between, God went to all the trouble to send his offspring, Jesus, into our world. God descended to our level, and consequently knew for sure what we experience in our lives – love and attachment, hurt and loss, and ultimately suffering and death. These are the themes that the humans that I know care to read about.

        Annette

  13. scatterwisdom February 25, 2014 at 5:25 am #

    Steve,

    You might enjoy my blog article King Solomon and Creative Writers

    I would be interested in your comments about it.

    Regards and good will blogging.

  14. Sammy Beuker February 25, 2014 at 7:22 pm #

    Karen,

    I am glad and disappointed in this at the same time. I was just finishing a proposal for you that I now read you really aren’t interested in (setting in wrong time period). However, I guess I would rather know than wait forever for a kind rejection.

    One question I do have: what does a “clear spiritual thread” mean? Does that mean the thread is evident throughout the entire novel, or evident when you are done. Can God’s prodding be revealed through the main character’s experience, nonexistence at the beginning yet clear and real at the end?

    Blessings,

  15. Sam Moody April 1, 2014 at 12:09 pm #

    Do you take short stories (fiction) by chance?

  16. Stephanie Jay September 12, 2014 at 8:39 pm #

    Ms. Bell:

    If the majority of the 1st chapter of a story takes place in a modern setting, is it acceptable, as long as the bulk of the novel is a whole episode flashback that pre-dates the 1930’s? Thank you for your time.

    Stephanie

  17. Lenae June 8, 2015 at 12:28 pm #

    If I already have my book in paper back form, can I send you the actual book with my proposal or do you still want the first 3 chapters printed out? Thank you

  18. BL Whitney July 22, 2015 at 9:37 am #

    Karen, thank you for your thorough and clear post. I’m always excited when I read the request for a spiritual thread from agents who represent the Christian market, but my WIP doesn’t specifically mention God and has a slightly broader spiritual perspective. I’m not sure if it fits in the Christian market, but I think people with a spiritual mindset will like it (it’s fantasy and includes a woman who has healing touch and works with angels).

    My quest continues, but if you or anyone reading this knows an agent who might be a good fit, I’d appreciate any leads.

  19. Linda Riggs Mayfield July 22, 2015 at 2:42 pm #

    Karen,
    I know what you mean–sometimes text really does seem to sing, although I hadn’t thought of it that way before. If I read aloud something I’ve written, and it seems melodious, has a compelling rhythm or meter to it, and I enjoy it so much I go back and read it again, like I would after I read a good poem, then I think it is singing, and I can move on and write another verse of the song. (Sometimes the music is symphonic and sometimes it’s a hoedown, but it grabs the reader and drags her right into the concert hall or barn dance, and she doesn’t want to leave. (Can you tell how much I like your metaphor?) Thanks!

  20. Jessica Berg September 21, 2015 at 6:21 pm #

    I was just at the ACFW and was wondering what is the normal time frame to send manuscripts. I would like to have mine perfect before I send it. Is three weeks to long of a time span? I don’t want to be forgotten by agents that asked to see my work. Thank you!

  21. Lidia Hu October 23, 2015 at 5:59 pm #

    I didn’t realize how beneficial it is to come and read peoples questions and comments. It’s like a quick review a teacher gives the day before the test. I should come here and relearn the importance of writing a story that flows, guides, helps and sings without being preachy. like Christ parable.

  22. Peter DeHaan January 4, 2016 at 8:03 pm #

    Karen, you said that “if you’re going to write a memoir, you need to be sure you’re writing about universal truths as much as your own story.”

    Can you provide an example of someone who has done this well?

    Thanks

  23. Norma Brumbaugh March 22, 2016 at 9:03 am #

    Interesting. Helpful. Insightful. I can relate to what you are saying. Some writing has a musicality of expression. It makes us stop and ponder, it holds our attention, and it grips our imagination. I love it when the written word sings.

  24. Robin Melvin May 3, 2016 at 12:22 pm #

    Hi Karen, thank you for this infomative post. Do you have a preference for book proposal submissions? Email or hard copy?

  25. Dean A. James August 24, 2016 at 8:28 pm #

    Karen, I am really touched by the way in which you have described your joy in finding a book that “sings” to you. That is a unique and wonderful way to describe a catching, captivating and engrossing tale as told by an accomplished storyteller. I hope to be able to capture you in that very same way with a true story that I have recently completed and which I have titled “In the Footsteps of Lazarus.” I have already published this work and am searching for a literary agent to represent me because I am very dissatisfied with my present publisher. I have read the submission guidelines but would appreciate any clarification that you would be willing to give as to how I may best present such a project to you for consideration.

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