Tag Archives: agents

After the Agent Pitch

Emerging writers flock to conferences like the one just held by the Pacific Northwest Writers Association because they’re looking for information–from presenters with tips on craft and marketing, from fellow writers on lessons learned, from the bulletin board that lists local critique groups, and of course from editors and agents who are broadly viewed to hold the keys to the palace of publishing. We practice our pitches, memorize our log lines and synopses, update with lightning speed our writing credentials for our bios, all in the hopes that some paragon of the industry–or new agent looking to sign unknown authors–will ask for a partial manuscript. We feel the onslaught of butterflies invade our intestines when we’re instructed to give a specific subject line in our email message, like we’ve just learned the 21st Century’s version of “Open, Sesame.”

Before you click on that send button, do a few things: Read More…

Why Agents Get Snarky

piles of lettersI understand the appeal of putting up the best of the worst queries that land in an agent’s inbox, of letting off a little steam of frustration and giving everyone a laugh in the process, I really do. There is no end, after all, to the pipeline of awful query letters. After reading through agent blogs, Twitter links, fan pages and the occasional Writer’s Digest article, I can even scratch out some categories of Terrible Queries:

1. The Delusional Query Letter—This is the best book evar!!! Nobody has my lyrical, lyrical, lyrical prose, and you, dear agent, whoever you are, will love it and love it and die happy for the reading of it. Pay no attention to the fact that it gives the same tired storyline, be it Eat, Pray, Love, or boy meets girl, or a hero’s journey. At least this writer is no stranger to fiction. Read More…

Breaking by the rules

I’m a regular reader of the various “How I found my agent” stories that pop up all over the Web at a slow simmering rate. Part of it is because I enjoy a good pick me up tale in the midst of all the mass-murder, spree-killing, pandemic-virus, certain-doom narratives that flood the information superhighway every day. But I’ll come to Jesus and add that I’m also looking for patterns, as anecdotal as the occasional agent article is. Is there something successful authors are doing that I should adopt as a practice? Is there any kind of aspect to their attitudes, their community base, their writing environment that I can leverage? Read More…

Persistence for Dummies

I went back to Whidbey Island yesterday to hear Corbin Lewars give a presentation: How to Persevere with Your Writing. One could argue that driving four hours round-trip was in and of itself “perseverance,” so why even drive out there? But then if one didn’t go, then they wouldn’t exactly be persevering and well, I think I just found a paradox. Or an alignment of truth. Whatever. I only passed that logic class in college because the TA took a shine to me, I’m sure, because there is no way that 50 points on each exam equals a C. Read More…

How not to pitch an agent

Call me Captain Obvious, but after reading a lot—and I mean a LOT—of advice about face-to-face pitching story ideas to agents, I wasn’t quite sure how to go about it when the time really came due. So much of it was contradictory, or impossible to do at once, or over the top, or not applicable. So here is my list, after taking myself to my first writer’s conference, of what not to do, as obvious as some of these items may seem. I’m not saying I did these things, but I or someone I noticed did each of the things in this list.

  1. Don’t use your pitch time or session for anything other than your finished work. They want to think you’re really into the thing you’ve written, and hello, you need to show you’re a closer and can finish a project.
  2. Don’t get so into memorizing your pitch that you’re a nervous wreck when you sit down to pitch. I’m going to put on my usability evaluator’s hat and remind folks that we humans hear differently than we read. A few interesting words are fine, but agents aren’t going to dissect your perfect language by ear. I like the notecard approach, personally. You know your project, be confident you’ll advocate for it well, and leave the memorization to the . . . memorizers.
  3. Don’t leave at the last minute to go to your pitch session. I don’t see how huffing and puffing and wiping sweat off one’s brow emits a glow of success. As I’m a classic overthinker, I also need to not give too much ramp-up time to myself, or I’ll work myself into a different kind of stress aura. Ten minutes beforehand to leave the workshop session, etc., is perfect.
  4. Don’t waste your pitch time blowing smoke up the agent’s ass. They have to endure this so often some may have mounted smoke detectors inside their underwear. Which I guess would make it hard to sit, but that’s not the point. I think there’s a middle range agents like to see—where the writer knows a bit about their client list and book selections, and can compare their work with each. But there’s no point to looking like a stalker-in-waiting. That’s just freaky.
  5. Don’t be an island unto yourself. Agents and editors and everyone in the book publishing business expects that writers are good readers—that we have knowledge of the other books in our genre of interest, that we know how to avoid duplicating other well known (or even somewhat known) plots and characters, that we want to contribute to the literature generally. Acting like we’ve been so well holed up in our literary caves that we don’t know what’s going on in the field won’t play well once the agent asks herself how we’ll market ourselves, because the answer will come back that we’ll look like asses.
  6. For email queries, don’t rush querying. I know, I finished my memoir and went straight to the “How to Query an Agent” blogs and books. It was like a hot potato in my pocket, that manuscript. Hey, I have big pockets, okay? Go back and make it tighter. Hack out sections that really don’t need to be there. Let it sit in the drawer for a while and in the meantime, go fishing, catch a movie or *gasp* read a book. When you finally sit down, after all of that, to write your query letter, spend some quality time with it. What was the point in writing the best book ever if you’re just going to send out a half-baked query? The query is the singer of the band—the bassist may be great, but very few people will get past poor singing to notice the bass.
  7. If an agent says no, leave them be and don’t hound them. One agent at the conference I attended says she receives the same query every day, starting more than a year ago. She’s never going to say yes to this person’s project. While that may be an extreme example, it’s a good reminder to respect an agent’s no. Keep refining your pitch and researching which other agents might be better advocates for your work.

I say all this in the midst of getting turned down for representation after the same agent asked for my partial manuscript, book proposal, and then full manuscript. That’s a long way to go in the process just to be rejected. It’s not easy, for sure, but I tell myself that if my project didn’t have any merit, I wouldn’t have heard back from anyone, much less the half dozen who’ve shown interest. And at least I know now that I should cut it down to about 80,000 words. It may be my baby, but heck, I’m trying to sell my baby, so who am I to complain about cutting it a little?

Okay, bad metaphor there. I do not encourage traumatizing babies, let me just point that out.

Writers, put yourselves out there. Keep pushing to be better. One of these agents, one of these days, is going to say yes.

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.

Long writing journey into something

Ever since I read in Stuff White People Like that Moleskines are a staple of white pretentiousness and posturing, I’ve been self-conscious about mine. Christian Lander had me nailed, right down to the MacBook Pro sitting next to it as I sipped at a non-fat latte in an overpriced coffee house. At least I hadn’t procured mine with a credit card—I’d scraped together cash from around the house, on the premise that if I only used loose change, it was like a free purchase, like how sucking on a mint after an outing to Sonic is free of calories. How idiotically white of me.

mocha latteTo make matters worse, this is not my first Moleskine. It is, in fact, my second. And if anyone cared to study this little black ruled book, they would discover a “2” written  in on the bottom, where the gold leaf should be, I guess.

Perhaps it’s better that I used up a whole book already, because at least I write in them, and no, they’re not just full of grocery lists and directions to IKEA.

I also don’t have anything in here worthy of da Vinci or Hemingway, two of the Moleskine’s more famous users, and Hemingway was a stuck up misogynist anyway. His best short story is six words long (his assertion, not mine).

No, I write in this notebook to keep track of query letter submissions, the inevitable rejections, submissions to journals, and the places I might submit to someday but for what I consider exorbitant submission fees (read, $10). I also keep track of my work in progress’ progress, scheduling deadlines for myself like an agent or editor would. That way I can have arguments with myself over why I’m giving excuses on missing important dates and don’t I know what this is doing to my career, and who is going to want to work with me after this?

I’m sure I still have my mind. It’s right in a box over there.

All of this ponderance about Moleskine notebooks comes because I’m sitting at PDX airport waiting to meet my mother who will be visiting us or a week. A technology professional is at the table next to mine, speaking loudly into his cell phone describing the apparently delicious and speciously nutritious drink he’s just purchased from Jamba Juice: a little bit of banana, strawberry, and mango, he declares loudly to his wife, plus some SOY PROTEIN! and ESSENCE OF WHEATGRASS! It sounds particularly disgusting to me, but then I’m the schmuck with a $4 nonfat mocha in a world-preserving, 100% recycled cup, so what do I know? And writing in a Moleskine. Damn Moleskine.

I don’t feel particularly pretentious, but then again, white people never do. We’re pretty much blind to it, save the very extreme examples—here I’m thinking of German avant garde artists from the 1980s, or say, people from Massachusetts named Biff Wellesley or Chauncy Milton who wear plaid shorts unironically and race in regattas around the Cape. Maybe I feel a bit incognito partly because I am sans my titanium Apple accessory this evening, and partly because I am in green cargo pants and a black hoodie. I fit right in to PDX, the city, not the airport. Come to think of it, who nicknames their city after their airport? I bet if I asked everyone in earshot who had a Moleskine to whip it out and wave it like they just don’t care, 39 percent of the folks here would be showing off their pretentiousness inside of 16 seconds.

The airport announcer is saying, for the fourth time, that Jesse Bauer really needs to meet his party at the Panda Express. Jesus, Jesse, get moving, their dinners are going to get cold.

I left Walla2 right after receiving notice from an agent in Seattle that they just didn’t quite connect to my manuscript, so they won’t be moving forward with me on this project. Moving forward. I note that they didn’t rule out moving left, or upward. Perhaps those options are still open.

My mind reads this rejection sentence and immediately thinks of a shoreline. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it goes back to that oft-repeated line about the footprints of Jesus as he carries his ignorant follower who somehow doesn’t get that hello, JESUS IS CARRYING YOUR DUMB ASS. I’m not sure with whom I’ll be moving forward, but if Jesus is doing any agenting, I’m open to the idea. I bet he could work wonders with publishers, yuk yuk.

She went on to say in her letter that it wasn’t me, it was her, and just, perhaps, a matter of taste. This Dear John letter tone didn’t sit well with me. A matter of taste? She was looking for a Prada clutch, and I was a Jacqueline Smith pocketbook on the clearance rack at KMart? Or perhaps it just wasn’t what she was looking for right now. Maybe three years from now humorous memoirs about klutzes who get sex changes will be all the rage. But why say perhaps? Doesn’t she know? It’s her opinion she’s offering.

Well, it comes down to platform, I get that. Mr. Dan Savage of the Stranger, another GLBT author working with a Seattle agent, has readership. So okay, I’ll work on having a platform and see if my words suddenly sound better, or become more connectable to people.

The second paragraph of her letter was just as brief. She wanted to encourage me to continue trying. I genuinely appreciate that. But why? Or more to the point, how? She said there was much to recommend about my writing. What, specifically? The font? The careful avoidance of split infinitives? The witty banter among urban dwelling queers? What? I’m left, as after my other rejections, in the middle of a guessing game. So far, my guesses have been wrong, if success is measured in contract proposals.

But I’ll tally ho and try again, because I am a writer with nothing to lose. JK Rowling got 13 rejections of her original Harry Potter book. I have just surpassed her with this 14th rejection.

Take that, JK!

Writing a giggle at a time

I had a very bad case of senioritis in college. All I could see was my world ending, collapsing around me like a crumbling plaster ceiling (which did, incidently, attempt to cascade on my head a couple of years later, as it turns out). What was I to do? The US was in a recession, and nobody held dual major psych/English graduates in any kind of esteem, especially for entry-level jobs. I wondered what it was all for.

But graduate school glowed in the darkness like a beacon, since it’s the job of beacons to uh, glow, in low or no lighting. I loved writing and talking about literature and writing, after all, and so hey, becoming a professor sounded like a way to keep doing just that, with the added bonus of a three-month vacation.  So off applying I went. For two full summers I read every piece of “literature” listed in the front of my GRE Subject study guide—250 books, poems, essays, and plays. This was on top of my regular reading, and in addition to the thousands of books I’d already consumed up to that point.

The morning of the GRE rolled around, and I was up before dawn, because I had to make the 90-minute trip to Ithaca from Syracuse (New York loves its Greek town names), as I had only been able to get a seat for the test all the way over at Cornell. For those of you keeping score, Cornell’s campus is about three times the size of Syracuse’s, and I knew it like I know how to navigate through Dhaka. Add to this a very up-and-down terrain with few outdoor campus directories, and I wandered around the grounds like a psycho Roomba. I was sweating so much by the time I found the classroom I had a hard time holding on to my two number 2 recommended to bring pencils. I sat down at 7:54, six minutes to get my glasses fog-free before the test began.

So I must really love reading and writing. I approached my studies with love and appreciation that someone cared to spell out a series of words enough to make a story. I had my preferences and interests. I greatly enjoyed some novels, eschewed others, felt the range of emotions that they wanted me to feel as a reader, or that they never intended, “death of the author” what it is.

But let’s get real here. There are a lot of books out there that suck. We read them anyway. Or we pretend to read them. For every person who has read Ulysses, there are 16.4 who didn’t make it past page 30. And while I’m not saying anything qualitative about Ulysses (I actually have read it twice), I think it’s fascinating to see how many literary agents and editors write and blog about the terrible manuscripts that come across their desks. I wonder, “how bad can they be?” I think I may already know the answer, from direct experience, even.

In high school, I was a judge for our literary magazine. I still recall one poem that stood out from all the rest, for the worst reason: because it stunk up the room. It went something like this:

I love you

But you hate me


I still love you.

I theorized that they’d been inspired in the girls’ locker room, which was known to hold all sorts of miserable sentiment upon the insides of the actual locker doors. As if opening up some random metal lever could expose someone to the awfulness of a very short relationship’s terminus.

So for me, bad high school poems are the ground floor of poor writing. I don’t have a lot of other experience with terrible prose, although there was one potential hire who included in his cover letter that he was the author of The Emerald Throne, which was, get this, a fantasy novel. One wonders why someone would reference an unpublished novel that smacks of bowel movements when looking for an office job, but the title alone conveyed a kind of unintentional hilarity that I was sure would have me in stitches by page 5.

I understood that I was a literary snob. Even so, I am exhausted from the monotonous chastisement of would-be writers. “Just Because Your Mom Loved It Doesn’t Mean It’s Good,” or some such, is the number one message coming out from the myriad of agents, editors, and publishers who blog about their lives online. Okay, I get it. There are as many bad writers out there as there are screechers filling up the Falcon’s stadium in Atlanta for a chance to be the next American Idol. But given that I’ve heard this message about coming to terms with one’s own literary suckiness for 20-plus years, I’m starting to wonder if relaying the message isn’t working. Anyone egotistical enough to think that because their dog likes the book makes them a prodigy, well, they may not give a fig what Agent X thinks about their rationale. As long as people think writing is a way to make easy money and/or be famous, misoverestimated authors are going to add to the slush piles of publishing houses everywhere (but mostly New York City).

In fact, it seems like there’s a narrow range of egotism that’s acceptable in the publishing world: one must be stubborn enough to keep writing, even in the face of repeated rejection, because any writer worth her or his salt understands that of course, nobody gets their first book published (except ZZ Packer). But you also don’t want to be the crazy person who keeps peddling a bad idea, written into 13 different novels. At some point the insistence turns into delusion, and there’s no blood test to indicate when one has crossed the threshold. The first Harry Potter book, after all, was rejected a dozen times by agents, but Gone with the Wind was rejected 133 times. I can’t imagine how many people told Ms. Mitchell it was a fantastic book. If she’d written it now, would she have self-published it?

Speaking of mixed messages, agent blogs go on and on about the traits of hard-to-work-with writers. They make sense, generally. I mean, I wouldn’t want to work with someone who missed deadlines, who screamed about any criticism received, who was a petty thinker, or unreliable sort. But we’ve screened out most of the sensible people, haven’t we, by making the writing the number one criterion for entry into the club, with the high bar filtering through people with a large sense of themselves. How many team players are left in that scenario?

Anyway, I’m writing. I’ve written stories since my Mom put a steel Royal typewriter into the freezing front room of the house, and I would type—well, bang, actually—out stories wrapped in four layers of clothing, a scarf, and a wool cap, since Mr. Wizard had said that humans radiate 90 percent of their body heat through their heads. I had some corrective tape, but mistakes mostly just got written in. At Powell’s Block of Books in Portland last week, I came upon another Royal. This one had two spools of ribbon: one, the mainstay black, and one red. Wow. How different would my world have been? It was nice to have my moment of nostalgia, my arms sagging from 7 or 8 books I’d claimed for purchase.

You know what? I am a writer. A good writer, if I say so myself. Not the best, because I’m not that stuck on myself. But I like the things I write, or frankly, I wouldn’t devote such energy to them. I’ve parsed my writing in workshops with some really alcoholic, published authors. I’ve submitted myself to the whims and folly of the fearsome writing contest, like an ant taking on a flaming red dragon. I’ve done peer swaps for critique, sat through writers groups that never got anywhere near to writing anything, even if they were decent places to vent. I’ve come up with 67 Ineffective Methods to Prosper over Writer’s Block. I think I’ve earned some street cred here.

I’m not all that good at navigating the publishing world, but I’ll get there. And I think there’s an audience for my work. Hopefully I’ve hit the sweet spot for writers—energetic, focused, self-deprecating, persistent without being blind to my own limitations.

Oh, and I’m also nice, even if I get lost on the Cornell University campus.

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