Have what it takes?
First of all, I love to watch the dynamic we see between an aspiring performer and the entertainment professionals. I've wondered how can they possibly know whether someone has what it takes in only a 90-second audition? I was an aspiring singer throughout high school, I have a solid knowledge of music, and despite having to do auditions like this many times myself I still wondered this.
While watching a string of blind auditions for The Voice the other night I decided to try it. I would keep my eyes closed and just listen, then only open my eyes when I felt like--if I were a coach--I would turn my chair. It was interesting to me that sometimes I "turned" super early, and other times I matched one or more of the judges, and yet others just didn't interest me enough.
First of all, this shows just how subjective art is. Second, the more I listened the more I was able to recognize what I liked in a voice and what I didn't, who was trained or experienced and who wasn't, and who had the *spark* and who didn't. Ninety seconds is not much time to show off your abilities, but these professionals know their craft, and they know what they're looking for.
Can you see where I'm going with this?
Agents and editors in the publishing industry are the same as these judges on The Voice. They see hundreds of "auditions" every day in the form of queries and first pages. They know what they like, they know what they're looking for, and they can tell--sometimes within a sentence or two--which submissions have what it takes.
Sometimes a singer will come on a show and audition with a song that just doesn't fit them. And the judges can always tell. Sometimes they can sense there's talent, but it's not the best performance. For the performer, that's frustrating. It's hard to know sometimes how best to showcase yourself. The same holds true for writers. It's why we absolutely must surround ourselves with *other* writers. People who--as closely as we can get--mimic those judges, the agents and editors, and can give us the feedback necessary to know how to showcase our talents within a query and first page.
Sometimes the judges/agents pick people with FLAWLESS performances/pages, other times they choose people who obviously need work but have amazing potential. Again, they can tell. Why? Because they are constantly taking in so much content of so much variety. It's one of the biggest reasons writers are told to read so much. We have to gain at least some level of knowledge as to what works and what doesn't so we can be our best.
There are some moments where you can see the judges looking to one of them in particular to press their button, because they know that person will be the best judge for that person. Agents do this too, sharing submissions with their colleagues when they feel like that person will be a better fit. Other times, agents fight tooth and nail for a writer, just like the judges do on the show.
Watch this audition and see (starting at about 1:45) how much the judges fight for Wé McDonald to join their team.
I mean, the one advantage we have as writers is that we can ask for a week to decide if we have multiple agents offering representation. *wink* Regardless, you want someone who will fight for you like those judges did for her. You want someone you connect with the way Alicia Keys did with Wé.
Agents, like these judges, are very selective about the books and people they take on. As John M. Cusick says in this post, agents aren't looking for good books. They're looking for something they love too much to NOT represent it. They're looking for manuscripts and writers they can champion.
These are the special auditions that are not only great enough to get the judge to turn around, but also showcase a performer unique and special enough once seen that they impresses all of America and succeed throughout the competition. That special something, that spark, is what the judges--and agents--are looking for. They take on the singers/writers/manuscripts they truly believe in, and they work with them to make them the best they can be.
Watch this video of Jordan Smith singing "Somebody to Love." He ended up being the 2015 winner, but this performance came during the middle of the competition. Throughout this performance, Jordan's coach, Adam Levine, is cheering him on. But watch how at the end, from about 3:10-3:43, Levine's enthusiasm really comes out. You can see how insanely proud he is of Jordan, how excited he is that the song went well, and--I think--happy to see Jordan succeeding and having fun while he does it.
I'm planning to start querying again in the next couple of months. Fellow writers, we only get a query or a few pages to show what we can do. We need to make the most of it. Work at it, read a lot, get feedback, practice your query the way a singer would for an audition--try different things, arrange words in different ways and see what works for you, what makes you feel confident. The agent or editor you're querying will absolutely know whether (a) you've got what it takes or not and (b) whether they'll love your work or not, based on how you arrange those few hundred words.
Don't take it for granted. Enjoy it. Good luck.