March 8, 2011
Writers seem to have a love/hate relationship with agents. It’s understandable. We need them to open the doors to the traditional publishing world. They are the ones that accept or reject our marvelous creations. Given the sheer numbers of people writing, it’s safe to say we, as individuals need them far more than they need us.
Agents all say, quite truthfully, that they need us. They need our words. But they actually only need the words they can work with. For myriad reasons, your masterpiece might not work for them. It might be, frankly, a lousy piece of writing. Their form rejections spare us this knowledge, though it might be better if we heard it. They might have another book in the works that is too similar, and they feel they can’t do well by two at once. They might like the idea, but not the development. They might not be interested in that style, or genre, or topic. We never know. So we feel vulnerable.
This is simple enough to understand, but then we go to a conference. “Send us anything,” some of them say. Others say, “I know I list specific genres, but if it’s good, I’ll take it even if it’s not on my list.” “Never send me anything that’s not on my list. Well, I have taken other works, but I’ll automatically reject anything I didn’t specifically mention.” “Only send me truly excellent writing.” I love that one. Whether it’s humility or ignorance I don’t know, but I wouldn’t dare send that agent anything. Maybe that’s her screening filter?
Then there’s the query itself. Every day of the conference one heard the plaintive cries of the writers: “What do you want?” “What format do you require?” “How do we know what to do to avoid automatic deletion?”
And every day the answers were: Agent A wants this format and no other. Agent B doesn’t care as long as it’s correctly addressed. Agent C wants either this or that font and query only. If you send pages, they’ll be trashed unread. Agent D says the same, but then adds, “Well, if you send me pages I’ll probably read them.”
Agents are people. That’s the total picture. They have quirks, likes, dislikes, moods, and foibles. That we, the writers, seek to pigeonhole them is as absurd as we feel it is for them to pigeonhole our books. But the nature of the business requires labels, if for no other reason than to cope with the sheer volume of material passing back and forth.
I cannot resist adding this personally experienced demonstration of their human fallibility. I asked agent A how to query a novel where ideas are important, given that one always reads that to mention ideas is the kiss of death. An expression of incredulous horror filled the agent’s face. I was given to understand novels were for entertainment, not ideas. Funny how my favorite novels are both. Anyways, later, I was querying another agent. Agent B wasn’t interested, but suggested I go to Agent A, who liked novels with ideas. I bit my tongue and moved on. What else could I do?
Agents don’t know everything. I was at first shocked at some of the questions or comments agents made, comments that showed real ignorance of a subject. And then I thought, why? Why should a literary agent be expected to know all about cell biology, or religious controversy in the Classical Greek era? That’s not their job. Their job is to recognize a book that is readable and marketable. No more, no less. That so many of them do so much more – work with their authors in editing, holding metaphoric hands as the author crashes, celebrating when things go well – these agents are an inspiration.
Don’t expect more of them than you would of any other expert in their field. You don’t go to a doctor for literary advice; don’t expect an agent to understand arthroscopic surgery.
So what do you do? Alas, you do the best you can. As all the agents said, do your research. Know who you’re querying and why. And don’t take rejection personally.
By the way, I don’t know about others, but for all the talk about chatting with agents in the halls during the conference, I saw one agent walking free. I think the others holed up somewhere. I did see a few sitting at tables during meals, but of the 5 meals provided by the conference, I never had an agent sit at a table where I was. Maybe I’m not aggressive enough, or my timing was always off, but do bear that in mind if you go to a conference. If you have questions, look around diligently, and take advantage of any fleeting opportunity to talk with an agent.
February 25, 2011
I went to my very first writer’s conference. I publicly acknowledged that I am a Writer (pause for effect). I went to diverse talks on diverse topics and learned far more than I’d expected to. It was beneficial and stimulating.
I also had the ironic, somewhat muted pleasure of helping hand the platter: you know, those people to whom life always hands things on a platter? I am not Hebe, but I can hand with the best. I am glad that I was helpful; not being a card-carrying saint, I cannot help but wish for similar easy recognition. Great things can happen at conferences. I have seen it.
I was not handed a platter, but I was handed a path, and for that I am grateful. I have been wondering how I should pursue my dreams, and now I see a clear path laid out before me. That frightens me. I am not by nature a direct sort. But out of all the talks, through all the workshops, and thanks to the mental acceleration of that intense weekend, an idea was born.
Sometimes, perhaps always, one must conquer one’s fears and one’s inertia and step out into a new world – a new way of living. To do otherwise is to stagnate.
This last year and a half has been one new step after another. It doesn’t get any easier: the steps get bigger. But the confidence that I can and will keep walking grows. Not yet the light at the end of a tunnel, but a path that might take me where I want to be.
And perhaps, just perhaps, that path is a greater thing than a life handed to me. I don’t know. I don’t have a choice or a way to compare. I do have the hope of achieving a dream through my own efforts. And after all, I have help. There are people who wish me well, who offer assistance, and who I can help, too. Despite my slightly sour grapes comments above, being able to help others and to help yourself gives far more of that contentment that is happiness than any amount of receiving. Self-respect comes not from being told you’re worthwhile, but from knowing you have accomplished something of worth.
amended: I meant to add this later on the day I posted this, but got sidetracked. I am aware that for most people who get the breaks, they have put in long hours of hard work preparing. But for every one who does all the work and gets noticed, there are dozens (thousands?) equally ready and equally capable who go unseen. That’s life. Yup. Doesn’t make it any easier. And no – I am not ready for my novels to be noticed. I am ferociously editing. In a month or two? Fingers crossed. My comments are mostly philanthropic, not personal.
February 19, 2011
This weekend I am attending the San Fransisco Writer’s Conference.
I have never attended such a thing before. In fact, I have never (except to a few family members and this blog’s readers) publicly announced I am a writer before. I have read that others have the same hesitance. Perhaps timidity, perhaps superstition, perhaps even ego (after all, how many times do you want to stammer excuses when asked, “Hey, haven’t you gotten published *yet*?)
It has been, so far, an experience of highs and lows. One very frustrating event where poor moderation led to a session that lasted far too long and ended with several people not getting their chance to shine; but for the most part, the speakers have been excellent and the range of information broad.
Social media dominates. Alas, we poor writers have to learn to publicize ourselves. Gone are the days of sitting in your nest producing fledglings books, and then letting others worry about the flying lessons. Especially if one goes with ebooks and self-publishing, which sound quite enticing after several workshops on the topic, one must find ways to Build One’s Platform. I cringe.
There is an element of excitement, the lure of the challenge, but it is to force myself out of my lifelong comfort zone. Worthy aspiration, terrifying prospect.
I am writing tonight because I am skipping out on the evening’s events. A fifteen and a half hour day around myriad bustling bodies, then six hours sleep, followed by a nine-hour day was too much. Veterans of various maths conferences, both my offspring wonder that I would go to all the sessions. “I’m paying for it,” I reply. For the conferences they’ve attended, they’ve been fully subsidized, which encourages a less stringent attitude. They did socialize extensively with all the other mathematicians who found beer and football more to their taste than the esoteric ramifications of the elusive equilibrium.
If asked if I would recommend attending a writing conference, I’d say, “Yes. Go to your second one.” Not to be facetious: truly, there is a mindset, a way of functioning that has to be learned, by me, at least. Some people are natural networkers and they seem to have met all the right people and gone to all the right sessions. For introverted types like me, and I went to a session today by Dan Poynter titled ‘Self-Promotion for Introvert’, it can be frustrating. I know I need to network. I want to network, but somehow I end up off in a corner all the same.
My poor networking skills led to the discovery that men establish bastions. Although there are a large number of them here, they seem to cling together. Lesson one on the first morning – do not, as a female, sit at a table where three or more men are already gathered. Other women do not arrive. Other men do, and they ignore you. Yes, yes – generalization. Allow me the luxury of writing for effect and not for total accuracy. I have had several nice chats with men; it’s not that they’re unapproachable, merely that they are more comfortable in a pack. It’s not just women who clump; the stereotype holds across genders, guys.
I must ascend the knee-boggling steep hills again to be at the conference hotel at 7:30 in the morning. An hour not fit for man nor beast, but one that has been decreed. So I am off to polish my pitch yet again, and get some sleep.