Monday, June 11, 2007

Getting an Agent IV: Commandments (Part 3 of 4)

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Ah, at last--the Do's. And, hey, guess what?--there's ten again! This post will cover the first five...

1. Do have a reason for writing to each agent…and tell them. “I’m a writer and you’re an agent” is an insufficient motivation, like trying to get a date by observing that the two of you have compatible body parts. Mention any point of contact (“We met at the Hog Wallow Writer’s Conference…”) or recommendation (“John Grisham and Susan Sontag both insisted you are the ideal agent for this novel…”). Referring to the agent’s client list helps, but you should go deeper if you can: mention deals the agent has done, interviews they’ve given, articles or books they’ve written (but keep it down to a sentence or two; how's that for an impossible task?). An agent is more likely to take you seriously if you show you’ve done your research and have solid reasons for contacting them; and even agents are not immune to a little intelligent flattery.

2. Do try to figure out what the agent wants in the query package. In a reasonable business, this would be easy. In publishing, this is hard. Some agents do indeed itemize (on their websites, or in interviews, or in guides to agents) what they would like to see in a query package, ranging from query letter only to query plus synopsis plus sample chapters plus notes on the suggested audience. Some even tell you what your query letter should and shouldn’t contain. But the majority of them are silent on the subject; apparently they like their clients to be endowed with telepathic powers. (Don’t assume that what you hear about ideal query packages from speakers, or articles, or workshops, will suit everyone. These are good starting places, but try to find out what your target agent prefers.)

3. Do keep professional and organized. I treasure two form rejections from major New York agents where the form has been photocopied off-center, and is so light that the print can hardly be read. The fact that some agents are unprofessional and/or incompetent doesn’t give you the license to behave likewise; unfair as it may be, they’re the ones with the power. Unpublished writers need to make everything as perfect as possible in their submissions. Track your submissions—keep a spreadsheet of what was submitted, to whom, and when; tabulate the responses; keep your rejections for a while, especially if they are personal notes. If nothing else, all the mailing and e-mail addresses will be useful to your writing friends.

4. Do learn to pitch—even if it’s abhorrent to you. Most authors hate pitching. If they’d wanted to be carnival barkers and sidewalk shills, they would have taken that as the easier career path. Yet be prepared: I have heard too many agents say, “If you can’t grab me and hold my attention for five minutes of speech, or for the length of a query letter, then why should I assume that you can write a good novel?” Now, that makes no sense at all, like judging Van Gogh by asking him to paint a street sign. It’s an intrusion of Hollywood tactics into the world of literature, and tends to bring with it the same high level of intelligence and quality that we’ve come to expect from the movies. It’s a spillover from the age of the sound-bite in politics, and we’ve seen what that has done for statesmanship and political discourse over the last few decades. Pitches, high-concept log-lines (“It’s Bridges of Madison County meets Jaws!”), and sales handles (“It’s Thackeray with a Gen-X spin”) are at best stupid and annoying, and at worst are probably corrosive, eating at the foundations of the novel. Tough. You’d better learn to do it anyway. Oh, I know: Thomas Pynchon managed to be one of our most influential and widely read literary novelists while remaining a total recluse. But I also believe that there’s no way that Tom Pynchon would find an agent or publisher if he were starting out today. Not a chance in hell.

5. Do avail yourself of advice or help offered by agents. As mentioned in the Don’ts, you shouldn’t immediately start revising based on observations made by an agent (especially if they haven’t asked you to revise and resubmit); but if they’ve taken the trouble to offer advice or observations, you should certainly try them on for size. In addition, if they say admiring things about your work—especially if they’ve read an entire manuscript—but say that it’s outside the list of what they think they can sell, feel free to write back and ask whose list it might be right for. (I did this with one agent, and she actually told me to write to three other agents and mention she was recommending me. One was in the process of retiring, another had closed her doors to new clients indefinitely, and the other sent one of those cherished off-center photocopied rejections—perhaps she had her four-year-old do it, which is sort of touching—but the recommendation was a lovely gesture nonetheless, and might have turned the trick.)

Numbers 6-10 coming soon.

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