Imagine yourself six stories high, on a bright sunny day, surprisingly warm for the end of September. From where you stand at that height, on a flat roof in the open air, the greenery of the Washington Mall stretches out in front of you, and to the right a curve of the Potomac River glitters in the sunlight. The Lincoln Memorial from that height is unobstructed, appearing almost close enough that you could touch it. To the right, across the river in Virginia is Arlington Cemetery, and to the left are the Washington Monument scraping the sky and farther still the Capitol building.
A few days ago one of my colleagues at the American Pharmacists Association took me onto the roof to have lunch, where panoramic delight took me by surprise. Lunch paused momentarily while I immersed myself in that leafy green and sunny gold view, accented by white monumental buildings. Afterward we ate lunch with pleasant small talk, then my friend went back downstairs, while I finished out my lunch break looking at pages I had carried up with me, making notes on them.
I’m working more intensely now to finish revising Benedict and Miramar, and for about a week and a half now I’ve followed a practice of printing out 10 or so pages in the evening, which I take with me to work. Sitting on that amazing roof, I only spent 15 minutes working on the book, but in any case, some day I will be able to say that for one tiny moment that book got written looking out over that view.
There are two reasons I’m now going to the trouble to print pages from the novel and carry them around. One is that I spend enormous amounts of time in transportation, three hours a day. That would be a fat 3, like the little pigs, like the bears with porridge, like the magical kingdoms of Russian fairy tales. For magical kingdoms maybe three isn’t all that many, but for hours a day on public transportation, it adds the hell up. I decided I could be making better use of that time than just sitting and reading (not that sitting and reading is a bad way to go).
The second reason I carry pages with me is that an act of serendipity has rushed my time frame. I was figuring I’d take a couple of months or so to revise the novel, then look for an agent. But I met someone who is an agent (for children’s books), and she referred me to a couple of agents she knows. One of them said that my book sounds derivative—and yeah, time travel, it’s been done, but not with the delightful characters and unbelievable level of witty repartee that I’ve used. She missed that part. Plus I used a lot of punctuation.
The second agent agreed to look at the first chapter, so I sent it. Now, I know you’re pushing your computer back to rush to the kitchen and take that bottle of champagne out of the fridge, to pop that cork out and turn the bottle up and chug a victory gulp in my honor. But hold on. I’ve been here before, had agents ask for chapters. So far it has always been the case that the next morning, nursing a hangover and filled with remorse, the agent has looked at what I sent and thought “Good God, what was I thinking asking for this?” And then told me no.
So…even though, guaranteed, someday an agent will say yes, I do not know whether it will be this agent. Nevertheless, if she does say she would like to see more, then I will need to send her a book that is at least real darn close to done (i.e., completely done).
Thus I print pages and take them with me. I work on the bus (which I catch at 7:10 a.m.), I work on the train, and now I work during lunch. If you want some idea of what it is like to revise on public transportation, the next time you write something by hand, ask another person to come over and shake the table every few seconds.
I had intended eventually to talk more about the Agent Begging Process, but since I have jumped in sooner than I expected, I’ll say something here. When you look for a literary agent, unless you know someone who knows someone (which is best, if it works), you start by finding the names of agents. That used to be done with books, particularly Writers Market, though obviously online sources are taking over that function.
From the list you pick out an agency or agent who handles the kind of thing you write (no point in sending science fiction to someone who only handles romance novels). Ideally, you learn things about the agency, about the agent, what they like, what they’ve done before. And VERY IMPORTANT, you pay attention to exactly what they want you to send them. Unless you’re very inexperienced or very stupid, in which case you waste your time.
Is that sounding like it could potentially be a lot of work? I’m not getting into writing a synopsis, or crafting a good cover letter (there are workshops you can take on doing those things, if you want), I’m not describing creating writing samples of one chapter, or three chapters, or 50 pages, or whatever the agent asks for, and I’m skipping over keeping really careful records of who you contacted when.
I’ve been through this process three times, sending out about 70 or more letters each time. Delightful? You bet it is. I also skipped the part where you investigate an agent before you send them anything, to see if they seem legitimate, if you still have the correct address, if they’ve actually sold anything. I don’t always do this part, though I do check addresses with their websites, except in the 21st century some agents do not have websites.
Yet people look for literary agents. By the hundreds, by the millions. People are coming here from other planets just to query literary agents. And some of them are successful. That’s why I always try to sound like I’m from another planet when I write a letter to an agent.