Category Archives: Secret Agent

Looking for a literary agent, and how much fun that is.

Here On My Planet We Love My Book

River with green and gold treesImagine 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.

Space alient

I write human interest stories

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.

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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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Write Just Because You Like It?

Do you keep a diary (or “journal” since we are serious writers)? Strangely, I did for years, and I say strangely, because I always hated it. What kind of idiotic behavior was that?

Is there any satisfaction in speaking when no one hears what you say? Sometimes, probably yes. Human beings have an innate need to express our thoughts and feelings. Why this is true is a complete mystery to me. Why is it not sufficient, if we feel something strongly, to simply feel it inside? But if we are to be healthy, those feelings must literally come out of the body. That exit may be through frowning, screaming, throwing plates against a wall, painting a picture, writing a poem, or calling a friend on the telephone.

Sometimes when thoughts or feelings have come out of the body, we feel relief and are satisfied. Writing in a diary that no one will ever read is enough. But at other times we need more, to feel that someone heard us. Then mere expression is not enough. Then we need communication with other people.

I have been told to take satisfaction from writing just from the pleasure of doing it. Honestly, though, it’s not that pleasurable. It really is work, and often I force myself to do it, both physically and mentally. I do not know why I write. I know I must do it, however, or I will, by God, throw furniture through windows.

And it is not enough to simply do it. I cannot be satisfied with writing without readers, and not just a couple of friends who will tell me they really like it. Publishing is necessary, and unfortunately, publishing literary writing is extremely difficult. The difficulty can be diminished by working with a literary agent, but the drawback is that one of them has to actually agree to work with you.

So I seek an agent. I’ve gone through three periods of intensive agent search. The first time, after 70 letters, I actually signed with an agent, who I was with for about three years. I felt comfortable with her, and we worked well together, but nothing came of it, and we parted amicably. I thought she honestly tried to help me, but she was also new as an agent, and probably had few contacts. I do not hesitate to add that what I gave her was perhaps not very sellable.

I later tried to find an agent with a second novel, but after sending out around 90 letters, I grew discouraged and stopped. Now I have drastically revised the first novel into a different book entirely, and I am trying again. If I had written a different kind of book, it would be easier to sign with someone, as another book might be perceived as easier to sell, and of course that is what an agent is thinking of. However much that person may love literature, they also must pay their rent. Trying to find an agent is a debilitating process, emotionally draining at times, and if you wish to shed some of the baggage of self confidence, I highly recommend it.

Here are some aspects of my own process. I began with a well-known book from the bookstore, Literary Market Place, which I had first looked at in a library, when I knew nothing. From that book, I chose as many agents as I could find who seemed suitable and I began sending them letters and a synopsis of the book. Later, I went online and found websites that listed agents, so I expanded my list and stopped using the book.

Now I have a list of around 200 agents, with contact information, what they want, and so on. Previously I have contacted agents ten at a time, pushing to contact as many as possible as quickly as possible. In my current situation, spending the days looking for a job, there is only so much of this shit I can handle, so I contact agents more slowly, several a week.

And then I wait for them to tell me no. Or to tell me nothing. In a later post I will go into more detail about this process, to talk about useful websites, writing a synopsis, and so on. If, in the meantime, you are anxious to go ahead and experience what it is like, take a hammer and hit yourself in the head every day. This will give you some sense of the daily satisfaction it brings.


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