How to Find the Agent Who’s Right for You: How much rejection can you take?

I want to be published because I want the whole world to experience the world I’ve created, but that world isn’t any less “me”, it’s no less unique, it’s no less art, if it’s not published.

I recently taught my second seminar on how to find the literary agent who’s right for you at The Muse in Norfolk, Virginia.

Just thinking about looking for a literary agent makes me feel sick to my stomach. I always called that part of trying to get published “the business part,” something us creative types loathe. I would sit down and mark eight to ten agents to query. At the time, 2004 to 2008, they all wanted snail mail queries, so I would send my letters out with their SASE and wait for the rejections to arrive, hoping that one of the agents would ask for the first chapter or the first fifty pages. Then, I’d be off to Kinkos to make copies, and off to the post office to mail them.

I queried every New York City agency accepting unsolicited manuscripts A-Z, not once, but twice! I had close to 1,000 rejections. (I managed to query the agencies twice because I had rewritten the novel.) I would get excited over handwritten, as opposed to form-letter, rejections. Even a signature would shoot me to the moon. “Wow! He took the time to sign his name and write, ‘Best of luck.'” I was up and I was down more times than I can remember.

I also had a lot of close calls: one agent called to ask me not to accept any other offers, she was so in love with the book, then emailed me a day later to say, “Never mind.” She didn’t like the end.

I had another agent say that she wanted the book, only to tell me six months later that she hadn’t been able to find an editor who would take it, but that her husband was a book doctor if I wanted to hire him.

One of the greatest lessons I learned is that you have to find the agent who is really passionate about your work, who feels invested in what you have to say, and THIS IS NO EASY FEAT. (Yep, I’m shouting. It’s fucking hard, near impossible.)

This individual has to know deep down in her bones that she can sell what you’ve written. That’s the only way you’re going to get published. Find someone who can’t imagine the world without your book in it. Yes, the work has to be that good.

If an agent wants to represent your book, she should have a game plan. She should know where she’s going to take it, and how she’s going to produce buzz about the book.

After so many rejections, I would take anyone I could get. I am very fortunate that my agent had a game plan. She told me that in order to represent my first novel, The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, she would need me to rewrite it. She gave me specific feedback on what was missing. I went to work. She gave me two weeks. She said that as long as she could get it into editors’ hands before Thanksgiving, she could sell it, and she did. We had two competing offers on November 8, 2008. Pinch me! It was an incredible day: the highest of all the high/up days.

Of course, since it’s a book about lightning strike survivors, and I am one, the day wouldn’t have been complete without a terrible storm, lightning splitting the sky in two, the hair on my arms standing up, and a near-death experience. I was on vacation in Hatteras. I knew that I was going to get struck: it was just my luck. Fortunately, I survived.

Later that day, my agent said, “It’s a good thing you weren’t struck. Publishers won’t publish first-time authors posthumously.”  She’s very funny!

To anyone who wants to publish traditionally, I say, Never give up. This means NEVER stop revising, never stop rethinking the structure, plot, characters, and momentum of what’s on the page. If you ever think that what you’ve written is perfect and deserves to be published, and there’s something wrong with the agents in the world, not you, not your book, because your friends like what you’ve written, well, you’re only fooling yourself. You’re delusional. Books are never “finished”. They’re never perfect. They are only set aside because the author can do no more at the time to make it any better. But, I guarantee, any author worth her salt will pick up a book she’s written months or years ago and find something to improve upon. We’re artists. We’ll see a new angle.

Be resilient. Persevere. Remember that the art, the gold, the manna, the life’s blood, all of it, is in the act itself. WRITE. Hell yes, I want to be published because I want the whole world to experience the world I’ve created, but that world isn’t any less “me”, it’s no less unique, it’s no less art, if it’s not published.

Go forth and be brave. You got this.

I’m speaking on “Balancing the Art and Business of Fiction Writing” Friday, May 15, 6 pm, at Christopher Newport University’s 39th Annual Writers Conference. The conference includes Agents, Fiction, Nonfiction, Music, Mystery, Poetry, all for adults and children: Virginia is for Writers.

This Writer’s Life… writing the next book, process, and telling the truth to the reader and yourself

Things happened, characters acted in ways I never anticipated, and I felt like I had no control over them. That’s when you know the writing is really good. That’s when the subconscious, the muse, the monkey-mind, the soul (whatever you want to call it) is at work. All inhibition and second-guessing have been lost. The good stuff is pouring out.

I started writing my fourth novel three years ago this month, maybe this very day. It’s been titled George Glass Loves Lily Snow, The Reinvention of Amy Brown, the working title The Reimagining of Amy Brown—because the whole thing needed to be reimagined, and finally, The Hummingbird. My past three novels have had long titles, so maybe it’s time for a short one.

What do I want now?

I want to show you the seven-plus notebooks with every page full. I want to show you early drafts with telekinesis and doors exploding off hinges. I want to tell you the life story of every character in my novel because I know them. I want to tell you how Elisenda swallowed the emeralds and held them in her gut until she soaked in a tub in Barranquilla and passed them into the lukewarm water.

I want to tell you that the main character’s mother used to be his grandmother, and after I made this change—from grandmother to mother, the members of the novel-writing group I was leading, were sorely disappointed. They really liked the grandmother. I’d liked her too, but writing is a process, and one of the things I realized was that this book was my most autobiographical, and I was afraid to make George’s grandmother his mother because it was too close to the truth, to holding up the mirror, and as you know, nothing is better than the truth. The core of all good fiction is its truth. Novelists tell more truths than memoirists. We just don’t admit to anything.

George’s mother wasn’t sympathetic like his grandmother. She was selfish how mothers can sometimes be.

At one point in the evolution of this novel, George’s foster mother was his sister, but again, it was like I was writing around what needed to be written, what had compelled me three years ago to abandon my historical novel-in-progress to tell the story of George Glass, a boy who loses his mother and has to navigate the world without her. Not only does George lose her, but it turns out she was never the woman she claimed to be. He, and the police, have no idea of her true identity.

I want to tell you how much my father’s cancer and his passing influenced this novel, and how much my love for my son, and my willingness to do anything to protect him, influenced this book. I want to tell you that I know, like the dead woman in my book, that I am selfish, that if I could keep my teenager young forever, I would do it. I’d consider consequences, but it doesn’t seem so bad—despite Tuck, Everlasting—no one growing up, no one getting old, no one dying. This might be the most honest novel I’ve ever written.

With every new book, there’s a new adventure. Every time, I hope the process will get easier, but it never does because each book is its own beast, its own treasure, a unique act of discovery. If you’re not putting down layers and scraping them away, you’re not really learning anything. You’re not, as John Gardner wrote in The Art of Fiction, making art.

This novel, like all of them, was an adventure.

2017

I want to tell you about the miracle that happened when my father died, the miracle I was in too much grief to admit to for over a year, because a miracle flies in the face of anger. A miracle crushes anger. I was reading from The Collected Poems of Robert W. Service, a book my father used to read to me early in the morning when he had his instant coffee (and late in the day when he had his beer). My father was dying. We were alone in his room, and I’d woken that morning wondering what I could do to get through the day. I got out a rocking chair and that book, which had seemingly disappeared until just that morning (I’d looked for it the day prior), and I sat across from my dad. I said, “We’ll start at page one,” even though “The Cremation of Sam McGee” was our favorite. I was reading from the poem, “The Three Voices,” (p. 8)

But the stars throng out in their glory,

And they sing of the God in man;

They sing of the Mighty Master,

Of the loom his fingers span,

Where a star or a soul is a part of the whole

And weft in the wondrous plan.

 

Here by the camp-fire’s flicker,

Deep in my blanket curled,

I long for the peace of the pine-gloom,

When the scroll of the Lord is unfurled,

And the wind and the wave are silent,

And world is singing to world.

My father and I were alone, and I knew he was gone. I knew that he had wanted me there to help send him on his way. I knew that he was a part of that firmament.

I want to tell you that this novel is for him. It’s for all of us who love, who grieve, who mourn, and who survive.

I don’t think I’m very good at “writing blogs” because I like to disguise my truth in fiction, but I needed to share the process of writing this novel and how important it is to me and what a journey it’s been thus far.

And I have lots more to share. To be continued…