With Rigorous Application and Faith

Old post officeDoes cold weather make people hungrier? Does it make them poorer? This afternoon at the Food Bank we had an unusually large number of people coming in. I’ve known Fridays when we would serve 20-25 familes in three hours. Today we had almost 60, and I worked nearly an extra hour to get food out to everyone’s car. The director told me that about half of these people were new coming in. I did recognize some familiar faces, though, including the morose Nazi, who always makes a point of wearing an item from his collection of white-power T shirts. He must hate having to stand patiently with people who are inferior to him when he comes to the Food Bank to get free food.

I was given a new mental framework this week that I think will be helpful. I am not unemployed—I am starting a new business, and of course new businesses do not make money at first. That would explain why I’m so busy so much of the time. And certainly there is truth to this. In addition to what I do sitting here in the apartment, I’ve been out to four meetings this week, no five, trying to make things happen. I made a presentation to about 25 people at a volunteer fire department about why they need for me to create a website for them (result unknown). I also met with a woman from the local newspaper who decided that instead of having me writing a health column for them, I might be an occasional reporter on health and science articles (which “pays” in a sense, though a low sense).

The best meeting this week was with a couple of people who are part of a consortium that creates large websites. They were looking for a writer to fill out the talents of their small group, and perhaps I’m it. I don’t know how much work this will result in, but it sounded good, and I felt very enthused when I left there. So we’ll see.

It is perhaps from a general feeling of positive energy this week that I was able to overcome the inertia of horror and repulsion to again try to market my writing, which I haven’t done in several months. In spite of computer problems this week that have been severe at times, I printed a story and cover letter and got the story off to a magazine. Submitting to magazines is something I’ve done several hundred times over the years, so I know the routine. I also, after months of delay, again contacted literary agents. Only two. But that’s 200% more than in the last six months. Or something percent. When I need to do math I turn religious and ask for help.

It is a very meticulous business, contacting literary agents. For one thing, it is unnerving to know that while they are merely human beings like the rest of us, checking their Facebook accounts and taking the dog for a walk, they also sit like serious deities on Mount Parnassus, occasionally reaching down to pluck a scribbling, anxious mortal up to be judged for sales potential.

Contacting agents is furthermore a meticulous affair in knowing that one must Do Exactly What They Say. If an agent wants only snail mail, don’t try to slip something in by email, lest ye be judged a halfwit. If they only want a synopsis, don’t send chapters And be interesting, damn it, and compelling. Plus spell everything correctly.

If you know what you are doing, you will check what you are doing, by consulting the agent’s website—recognizing that incredibly, it is not unknown for some to have no site. By checking the site, you can make sure you aren’t addressing a letter to someone who no longer works there, you can verify exactly what they are asking for and how they want it sent, and you can see that you are not sending a synopsis on a novel about a man and his daughter traveling in the past to an agent who prefers to only market Christian romance novels.

There are, as I see it, three components that may be sent to an agent. First is a letter addressed to the agency and to an actual person when possible. Second is a synopsis of the novel. Both of these things must be perfectly written, with a cold eye to professionalism and business, yet generating a heartbreaking desire to read the book, and there are many people who will give you contradicting advice on how to do this. Follow that advice.

The third component, which must be included or not included according to instruction, is a sample chapter, or three sample chapters, or five pages, or ten pages, or nothing at all unless you are asked for it.

Thank God most agents now will accept submissions by email, which means you can sit at your computer in your underwear, if that’s what you wear, surrounded by empty beer bottles, and conduct yourself professionally. There are, however still quite a few agents who will not accept anything by email, and then you must print it, get an envelope, put it all together with a stamped, self-addressed envelope (called a SASE), make sure you include the SASE, make sure you sign the letter, make sure you have the right letter in the right envelope, and make sure you are sending what they ask for, then drive to the post office and stand in line behind the woman who isn’t sure if she needs insurance for her package, well no, or yes, maybe she should. And do they have any Christmas stamps?

Within the last year I read on some chat room a person complaining that literary agents ought to all join the 21st century and use email submissions. I can sort of understand, however, that agents are in what may still pass for a genteel profession. But let me step off my logical path here (you probably didn’t notice that I was on one) and say that literary agents are better than English professors in recognizing what century they are in. English professors mostly still live in the 19th century, if you disregard their excited application of oh-so-hip vocabulary colonizing the discursive space and paradigmatic nuances of academia.

I digressed. I have read of some writers telling of how they walked uphill in the snow to the post office to send mail to literary agents, relating their amazing tales of hardship in order to contact forty, count them, forty agents, before getting one and selling the novel. When I read that I think “Oh, so you didn’t have to try very hard.” By now I’ve used the process I’ve described above to contact, with one novel or another, at least 200 agents. Except for the sake of this blog I’ve simplified the process.

But I don’t give up. Once every six months, I’m contacting two agents. I just have that kind of steely diligence.


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