A special kind of love

Finding an agent, so I keep reading, is like falling in love. If query letters to agents are like little love missives, the idea is that the agent will be spellbound, struck with wanting for more from the would-be author, desperate for that partial manuscript or book proposal. When their love connection is made, they can ride off into the sunset of the publication industry. Wait a minute. Something’s not right here.

I think this is a strange model for a business proposition. Of course I would want anyone interested in representing me to like my work. It couldn’t happen any other way. But there’s something about the rhetoric around finding representation that turns my stomach.

Maybe it’s that I’m really bad at dating. High school was a bizarre experience, with my school enforcing the “only guys ask girls out” code and me of the girl set who only got asked to make out behind the bleachers so nobody would know we’d “dated.” College didn’t make life any easier—half the guys I thought were interesting and attractive turned out to be gay. This apparently, by the way, is a common straight woman’s complaint. They make whole movies and books out of this stuff.

  • There was the date in which I arrived on time and he was late by an hour, the time during which I got to have an interrogation, excuse me, a chat, with his mother.
  • There was the guy who really did break out a calculator to see how much tip he should pay the waiter. Boy, you need to learn to do math in your head if you’re going to be a cheapskate.
  • There was the one who asked me to build him a bed frame because he’d “always wanted to watch a butch do carpentry in my living room.” And yes, I built the frame.

So forgive me if I’m not a little trepidatious about doing anything on a “dating” model.

I sent out my first, second, and third round of query letters, starting way back last August. I figured it would be like entering a contest; I’d send out my hopeful scouts into the literary world and I would just sit on my hands and wait for the responses to come back. Do de do, I hummed, I’m sure they’ll just reply in no time. . . .

Plink! I got an email! With burning fingers I pounded the mouse button to open it. Someone had fallen in love with me! Me!

Thank you so much for your query. While your project certainly has merit, I’m just not the right agent for this material.  I wish you the very best in your search for representation.

Warm regards.

Oh. Oh, okay. Well, so that wasn’t the response I was looking for, but she said it had merit. But what did that mean, just not the right agent? I remembered some article or other that I’d read about how writers over-parse the responses from agents. Don’t over-parse, don’t over-parse. That was like being told to think about anything except little green monkeys.

Two days later, I got another response:

Thanks for your query. I’m afraid, however, that I don’t think I’m the best agent for your work.

I wish you the best of luck in your publishing endeavors.

Afraid? That was strange. But okay, I got the point. Nobody was falling in love with my query letter. I went back to the drawing board, tried not to think about wallflowers at high school dances, and rewrote it. And I changed the title of my memoir.

Batch after batch of query letters came back with mostly nice but regretfully not in love responses. I did still more research online, akin but not akin to figuring out how to meet Mr. Right or the Next Hot Momma. I tried to improve my query some more, changing it from 3rd person to my own point of view. Condense, shorten, personalize each query with the name of a book I’d read that said agent had worked on. Thank goodness I’m an avid reader.

I discovered agent blogs. Now, not every agent has a blog, but a lot of them do, so instead of continuing to shoot arrows into the dark I’d stick with agents who revealed something about themselves online, and I’d try not feel like a stalker while doing it.

I had become something of a fisherman with an elaborate bait box. Heeeeere, agent agent agent, try my juicy strip of squid! You’ll like it! You’ll fall in love.

At some point my insanity level decreased, to the delight and relief of my friends and family. I went back to writing and took a break from querying, and in the process, wrote and revised three short stories—two in the speculative fiction/sci fi genre, and one straight literary. One story made the rounds of sci fi journals, rejected every time, with a bit more terseness than I’d received from my memoir query letters, but with enough positive feedback that I’ll probably try it at a few more at some point.

I’d learned, it seemed, to be patient. Or at least more patient. At a few points an agent would write back asking for a full manuscript, or my book proposal. So I learned to write a book proposal. I would become excited with possibility, only to be disappointed when they’d write back again saying they just weren’t the right agent for me. Now I understood that this phrase was code.

One agent only took submissions through a Web form, and I was aghast that I was only allowed to fit 400 characters into the submission. Four hundred characters? My first paragraph of this post is more than that. I snipped, no, I chopped out whole sections of my query. My beautiful words, falling to the floor, and the final result resembled nothing of my careful prose. I pressed send, figuring I’d never hear from her again.

In the meantime, I submitted my memoir to my regional writer’s association literary contest, and registered for their annual conference in July. I knew I just needed to meet other writers, talk to some agents informally, see what I could do to make myself more appealing. I had heard a lot about having an online presence, and I already—as an unemployed person in the middle of nowhere—had an active Twitter account, Facebook account, and this blog. I started dreaming up things I could write about, like local restaurant owners in Walla Walla, that could get me more visitors to my Web site. In the spring I hooked up with a couple of writers I’ve known online for years who were starting a blog on pop culture. And social commentary via pop culture analysis started humming out of my keyboard on a near-daily basis. I really was working on an audience, even though at the time I just was excited to have some fun writing this stuff and reading others’ work.

And then I got a one-line response from the agent with the very limiting submission form: Please send me the first three chapters of your memoir.

Ho-hum, I thought, now the pessimist. I’m sure she’ll write back in three weeks and tell me she doesn’t feel the love. But okay, here are the first three chapters. Have at it, Ms. Agent.

She wrote back again. She really likes it! What? Please send my book proposal. I took a brief look at it, punched it up a little and updated it (because I really never stop revising something once I’ve written it, and if that’s wrong, well, I kind of can’t help myself) and sent it on. I was reservedly hopeful.

A few days later I heard back from her again. This time she had questions for me. Questions! That’s kind of exciting—it felt like I was sending text messages to Orion and back. The twinkling heavens have questions for me. How could I not answer the twinkling heavens?

I received word from the literary association that my memoir was a finalist in the literary contest. I passed this happy news onto the agent. She thanked me for sending it, and she had some things she wanted me to change to my book proposal. It was the first specific feedback or insight I’d gotten from an agent in this whole process, and I was thrilled to receive it. Even if she later decided not to represent me, I at least had this great experience and knew that I wasn’t just a crazy person with word processing software.

In the middle of last month, she asked for my full manuscript. I went to Kinko’s while on vacation in DC and mailed it out to her. I haven’t heard back from her yet, but I feel like I’ll hear something, and I’m happy she’s going to this same conference in a couple of weeks.

I still get uncomfortable with the romance model of finding an agent, but at least I understand now why people are using it.

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Categories: ev's writing

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2 Comments on “A special kind of love”

  1. July 10, 2010 at 6:33 am #

    Hey- My friend Tony Mayes sent me your direction. I loved your post. Querying is such a headache isn’t it? I read on one agent blog the letter should be no more than 250 words. That’s a huge scale down from what is likely to be a 80-100,000 word novel. I wonder about the ability to be brief sometimes. It’s hardly in my blood.

    What conference are you headed to? I’m looking at South Carolina’s in October. The thought of a pitch session is killing me.

    Congrats on the full request, I know memoir is a hard seller, so kudos to you.

    If you like the agent blogs I’d suggest Query Shark, Janet Reid’s blog and Agent Kristin Nelson (her’s is called pub rants) They’ve been illuminating for me.

    Cheers,
    Sarah

    • evmaroon
      July 10, 2010 at 8:18 am #

      Anyone who is a friend of Tony’s is a friend of mine!
      Part of my nervous laughter around querying comes down to the loads of contradictory advice I’ve read about the process. Most of it is congruent: keep it short, be specific, think about your hook, don’t go negative, keep it punchy. So I considered that my main target and aimed for that. It took a while to realize that even rejections are a good sign, because at least they took the time to write back. A number of my rejections said things like “keep writing!” or “keep searching,” and I took that to mean that I should in fact, carry on the good fight.
      To boil down my query letter, I took the starting and ending scenes and used them as bookends, then in the middle I wrote up the stuff that is different about my book from the usual narrative. Saying “it’s boy-who-used-to-be-girl meets girl-who-usually-only-dates-other-girls” was a way to show the humor, explain the book, and highlight how it both varies from the standard storyline while referring to it so the reader can better identify with it. Writers like seeing the seams of the genres, after all.
      I’m going to the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference in Seattle. That’s the only one I’m planning on attending right now, as these things cost beaucoup de bucks.

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