Tuesday, June 12, 2007

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

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and, the last 'Do's":

6. Do say thank you if you receive a personal reply. Any personal note from an agent—even one scribbled on the margin of your query letter—deserves a thank-you letter in response. Reading time is at a premium for agents, and writing time is an indulgence that most of them expend only with reluctance. Thank them for it—after all, you may be coming back to them some day. Thank them for it despite the fact that their comments seem off-target, wrong-headed, or even on the nasty side; in fact, you should thank them especially if their comments are on the nasty side. This puts you in a position of moral superiority. Novelist Carolyn See calls this response “emotional jiu-jitsu,” and she’s right; it gets that oppressive feeling off your chest and, with a little luck, dumps it back on its source with interest.

7. Do get involved with the literary life, such as it is. Don’t let classes, workshops, or conferences become substitutes for writing, but don’t avoid them, either. Even if you live in Elk Snout, Montana, population 9, you owe it to yourself to saddle up ol’ Bess and ride off to at least a few conferences where you can talk to people—agents, editors, and fellow writers. Meeting agents face-to-face improves the chance that they’ll bother to read your query letters; and editors sometimes invite you to submit directly to them, bypassing the entire agent system. (You may still want an agent—but it’s easier to get one if you’ve already got a publisher.) Fellow writers are an underestimated resource; they can give you leads on agents, and they can also warn you which folks to avoid. Get embedded in the writing community.

8. Do build up your fiction resume. Win awards, contests, prizes, or fellowships, if you can. Publish short stories, or, if you can’t manage that, publish magazine articles. Attend retreats, or, if you can, get into a writer’s colony. These things may or may not help your writing, but they do add to your credibility. As John Gardner observed, what people in publishing really want is to be able to claim they discovered someone, while simultaneously betting on a sure thing.

9. Do stay optimistic. This is far, far easier said than done. Rejection is to be expected—relentless, ego-crushing, soul-draining rejection. Unless you’re psychotic, it’s hard to avoid despair. Give in to it if you must, but don’t send out queries when you’re at the bottom of the pit. Few people in publishing respond to a cry for help, and everyone in the business can smell despair the way dogs smell fear, and that scent makes them back away lest they contract your disease. Wait for your brief psychotic breaks, those moments where you are nutty enough to believe there’s hope, and send your queries out then.

10. Do move on with your writing. This is what distinguishes a writer from someone who has written. There are a surprising number of people out there who finish their first novel and then spend years trying to market it, assuming they shouldn’t move ahead with their writing until they’ve successfully marketed their first book. The truth is, most ‘debut novels’ aren’t first novels, though they are often presented as such; there are usually two or three earlier works stashed away in drawers. Hemingway said the way to learn to write was to “Write a million words.” (That’s ten to twenty novels-worth.) Even Stephen King, who seemingly can sell anything up to and including his grocery list, completed four novels before he managed to get one published. “Courage,” Rollo May says, “is not the absence of despair; it is the courage to move ahead in spite of despair.” If you want to be a writer, write.

Somewhere out there, I’m sure, is someone who, in recent years, wrote a good novel and then found an agent and publisher on the basis of nothing more than a solid query letter; someone did this without awards, or a publications list, or recommendations, or contacts, or even good research on agents.

Somewhere out there, too, is the winner of the State Lottery. For most of us, it’s more complicated than that. The rules presented above will at least keep you from getting in your own way. The rest is up to your writing…and a whole lotta luck.

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Sam Taylor said...

(really long post, sorry!)

Very solid advice. It makes a lot of sense. A lot of what you're telling me helps me cut through my fears and doubts about the agent/publishing game. I'm sure it will help others, too.

It's amazing the tricks your mind can play on you as you write. It's a lonely process.

Recently I've found myself fretting (about once every week) over whether I should submit my short stories for publication. I'm sure after a couple-dozen rejections, they'll get published. I know they're good, and I have no doubts on that. That's not the fear.

The fear is that if I get my short stories published before my novel is bought, then I'll only have short stories as ammunition for the Campbell (best new writer in SciFi) award.

Every time I think about it, I know it's madness. There's a billion holes in that fear (not the least of which is the incredibly arrogant assumption that I would get nominated.)

The reason that I mention this is that what you mention about getting an advance that's too large sounds very much the same--valid, but an unlikely worst-case scenario where your own success destroys you.

I'm sure it has happened. But it seems to me that if a house pays a large advance, they are going to promote the hell out of te book. They don't want to lose money either. There's always a chance the book won't catch on. But with a strong marketing campain, the odds are on our side.

How often does this tragedy happen? How many authors can you name that were destroyed by it?

Just wondering,

David Isaak said...

Hi Sam--

Feel free to lay down as many words here as you like--those little bytes don't cost anything.

Actually, I don't find your strategizing over "new author" awards to be weird at all. You only get to debut once!

As to the issue of advances--yes, plenty of high-advance books go down in flames, and the last year has been very bad. The sad fact is, publicity campaigns don't seem to sell books very well. Readers are a skeptical lot.

If you want to check out some of the disasters in the last six months, check out my >earlier post. (Hope the HTML worked there!)

David Isaak said...

Or, if that link doesn't work, go to the sidebar under "Looking For These?" and click on "Advances". Then jump to Part IV.

As you can see over there, it's been a nasty year. And, as you can see over there, big advances and big PR budgets don't always sell books.

I think the "Big advances represent a commitment to the book" argument was invented by agents to justify an otherwise unjustifiable position. It's hard to find another argument to justify advances rather than just royalties...

Sam Taylor said...


Thanks for the real world data. I appreciate it :)


cate sweeney said...

Hi David
Really great informative stuff. I'm just about to haul myself into rewriting rejected MNW novel with a view to finding an agent, so this is useful info. Have you got an agent. Forgive my ignornace if it's somewhere on your blog. When you coming to UK to do launch stuff?
Best wishes

David Isaak said...

Hiya, Cate!

I and my agent parted ways over whether to send my novel to publishers in the UK; she insisted it was "too American" to be saleable over there. She also didn't want to send it to any but the top US houses--she insisted it was a big commercial book and wasn't worth publishing except with the largest presses.

I was beginning an agent search in the UK (a little tricky, as many UK agents don't want to be the primary agent for an American writer) when MNW took my book.

I'm guessing that the book launch will be around the scheduled pub date of Sep 7, if we haven't slipped. I'm passing through London a couple of days next week and will meet Will and Sophie; I'm guessing I'll know more after that.

Good luck agent hunting. Selfish Jean should make a great calling card in snagging one.

Pink Ink said...

Very helpful thread...thanks!

*Even if you live in Elk Snout, Montana, population 9, you owe it to yourself to saddle up ol’ Bess and ride off to at least a few conferences where you can talk to people—agents, editors, and fellow writers.*

I live in a small town, too, and it wasn't until I began networking with other writers that my writing too off.