Meeting Agents

I’ve gotten agents all different ways. I’ve gotten agents through email and through snail mail and through a writer’s conference. My last agent, before my current agent, I found when I asked an author I was interviewing for her recommendation and she suggested her agent. He was a lovely guy who liked my novel and always responded as soon as I wrote him. That he couldn’t sell the book was hardly his fault. It wasn’t a book I was that interested in publishing in the first place.

I went to the PNWA’s Conference shortly after he and I parted ways. I couldn’t have been happier. I had started a new book, a different sort of book. I loved this book. It was the first book I had written in sometime where I didn’t feel like I had to pretend to be someone I wasn’t to write it. But it wasn’t close to finished, and so I didn’t need an agent, and so I could go to the conference without having to sell anything. What a pleasure.

I went to a little gathering for the agents and editors before the conference. An agent and a writer I knew were listening to an agent I hadn’t met complain about Obama. She was very funny complaining about him. She reeked of veteran New York agent, which is precisely what she was. When the party was over and it was time to go back the hotel, the veteran New York agent and I wound up sitting beside one another on the bus. She was a very interesting woman, full of stories about New York and celebrities, and very honest and observant. It was nice to talk to an agent as a person instead of someone I was hoping to court.

And then she said something that got my attention. Even though I wasn’t looking for an agent, I had thought to myself, “When I do find an agent for this book, it would be nice if the agent had a spiritual life of some kind.” The veteran New York agent mentioned that she had been the first editor to publish Buddhists. Then she explained that becoming an agent was a part of her own “spiritual journey.”

When we stepped off the bus, I told her I wasn’t looking for an agent, but I thought she might be my agent. I told her what my unfinished book was about. When I told her the title, she said, “I want to work with you on it.” It was so easy it felt like cheating. I hadn’t gotten her. I’d simply met her.

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Here To There

What the publisher of my first novel lacked in size they made up for in disorganization. When I asked them when the novel would be out, my publisher said, “November!” He was right, though not until a year later. He didn’t know this when I asked him, and so I said, “There’s something called Bookfest happening here in Seattle this November. Will we have books by then?” Of course, he said, sign up and we’ll send ‘em to you.

Since the book was still a year from publication, all he could send me were order forms for the book. Still, I’d signed up, and I went. I sat at a table for “local authors.” This meant self-published authors. The fellow next to me was selling a self-published coloring book called Captain Oink Oink. He wore a plastic pig nose. But at least he had books.

As it happened, we local authors faced the table where the big name authors signed books after their readings. That day, the author doing the signing was David Guterson, whose follow-up to Snow Falling On Cedars had just been released. He wore a beautiful black blazer and a crisp white shirt. I sat stewing in my own booklessness as I watched one fan after another line up for the chance to share a few words with Guterson. “How do I get from here to there?” I wondered.

Last weekend I met Ken Sherman, Guterson’s agent, at the PNWC. He was a nice fellow and we talked for a while about things publishing and not publishing. I can never hear Guterson’s name without thinking of that day at Bookfest. Where, besides at a table with a man wearing a plastic pig nose, did I think I was? Where did I think I needed to go?

The answers I would have given that day would have only guided me back to where I already was. As if there existed some road map from his chair to mine. As if I even wanted his chair. As I talked to Ken Sherman, I thought, I am where I have always wanted to be. I was there that day as well, though I couldn’t see it because I was too busy looking at all the pretty places I wasn’t.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Used Up

The 2011 Pacific Northwest Writers Conference wrapped up this past weekend, and while I wasn’t there to pitch anything, I spent a lot of time around people who were. In fact, while the conference featured great speakers (Steve Berry, Jane Porter, Deb Caletti, Robert Dugoni, C. C. Humphreys), and equally great sessions on the craft and business of writing, The Pitch becomes the inevitable focal point of many attendees’ experience.

And why shouldn’t it? After all, anyone shelling out hundreds of dollars to attend a writing conference is at least reasonably serious about wanting to become a published writer, and if you want to become a published writer, eventually one of these people called agents and editors is going to have to say “yes” to something you have written.

From my current vantage point, I realize that what I disliked most about Writers’ Conferences was the inevitable dynamic that arose from putting a group of people in the position of saying yes or no to something I very much wanted. The temptation not to see these individuals as people but only as something to be used to get what I want was great. I believe that secretly, beneath my desire and desperation, was the belief that once I’d used someone to get what I needed, once I had this thing called A Successful Writing Career, I would be able to stop using them and deal with everyone as people once again.

Whenever I use someone I feel used. Whenever I use someone I must lie, I must use that which I have developed as an expression of what I love—my language, my humor, my ability to listen—as a tool to get what I want. In this way, I am using myself, and in so doing I cease to be myself. When I cease to be myself, I feel unlovable, unworthy, undesirable. And this is what I hope to sneak past the gatekeepers, this is what I hope will succeed.

It never worked. Only when I forgot to use the agents and the editors, only when I forgot that they stood in the way of what I wanted and saw them as people looking for what they wanted too did I have what we call success. Such a relief to see everyone as a person. Such a relief to be one again myself.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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For years I noticed a certain pattern in myself. Something would happen that would disappoint me—an agent or a publisher would pass on my work, say—and I would feel the slump of despair. I would wonder what is wrong with me, wonder if things would ever turn around. For a day or two I would carry a duffle bag full of doubt and hopelessness with me wherever I went. This bag was so heavy it made everything I did difficult, and often the best solution was to do nothing at all, for what was the point?

Eventually I would wake up and forget to take the bag with me when I left the house. There was always a moment, as I put on my shoes or reached for the car door, that I would realize I had forgotten the bag. Yet instead of feeling relief, I would reach for the bag again, because it was always close at hand. I reached for the bag not out of habit, however, but out of loyalty.

To give up on the despair, it seemed to me, was to also to give up on something holy bound inexorably to it. The despair walked hand-in-hand with what I wanted, and if I said good-bye to the despair, I would have to say good-bye to his beloved twin as well. That was the arrangement; that was my duty. You must be unhappy if you are deprived of what you want, or else you must surely not have wanted that thing in the first place. And if I didn’t want an agent, if I didn’t want to be published, then why exactly was I writing at all?

Then one day I remembered when I was eleven and my New England Patriots had just been trounced in their first playoff game. I remember sitting on the couch afterwards and actually thinking, “Well, I guess I should be sad now.” Because I wasn’t. I had been a loyal fan, I had followed every game, but the fact that the Patriots’ season was over didn’t actually mean anything to me.

The Patriots would play the next year, and the year after that, and the year after that. And I would continue writing after every rejection. To view despair as an act of loyalty is like viewing suicide as an act of life. Despair is in fact disloyal, it is the betrayal of the mind, the soldier leaving the field at the first sign of conflict. Loyalty to something is expressed only in continuance, in showing up for the game—everything else is an empty prelude to admitting that life can do nothing but carry on.

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group conferencing.

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Find A Friend

Having just wrapped up the conference, I was reminded again of something I have written about from time to time in this space. One of my many assignments this year was to help run the speed pitching sessions. If you’re unfamiliar, in this format writers are given two minutes apiece with four agents, timed by yours truly. It seemed kind of exhausting for everyone involved—except me. I was having fun.

It is no coincidence that writers conferences borrowed a tool developed by dating services. The link between dating and agent seeking is profoundly direct. Because I am not looking for an agent, I was able to observe this experience from a comfortable distance, and what I determined was that most writers are putting themselves into an impossibly uncomfortable position.

I remember when I was a young man and I would go to a party or, heaven help me, a club. If I was single, I always felt a kind of disorienting insecurity. I never fully understood this feeling until this weekend. In those situations, I had decided that it was my job to make every woman at the party or club desire me. I wanted to be desirable, you see, and a desirable person, I thought, was desired by everyone.

I always hated my insecurity in these moments. If I just weren’t so insecure I would achieve a desirability that always seemed to elude me. But I had it all backwards. My insecurity was information. My insecurity was telling me I had asked myself to do something impossible. I might as well have required myself to walk on water. What I should have thought was, “Let me see if there is someone here who interests and excites me. Let me see if I can make a friend.”

And so the same is true of writers. There are times at writers conferences where I feel as if I am at a club again. Everyone is in flirt mode; everyone is trying to be desirable. It’s exhausting. Yes, to publish a book you probably need an agent; yes, there are agents at the conference. But as I have said before, you are not looking for any agent, you are looking for the right agent. Often, when you find the right agent, you have found a friend, because you are bound by a shared love—the love of a story you discovered and decided to tell. Your job is not to be desired by everyone. Your job is to remember what you love, and find those people who love it too.

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The Authentic Journey

In a few weeks I’ll be interviewing Yann Martel, who burst onto the literary scene in 2002 with The Life of Pi. In preparation, I’m currently reading his latest, Beatrice and Virgil, and quite enjoying it.

However, it is an odd book, and it took me a day to figure out why.  Most stories follow a basic pattern: the central conflict is established in the first third—if not the first page—and the rest of the story is spent resolving that conflict one way or another. So as early as possible a writer will reveal that John loves Jane but Jane is engaged to pigheaded Paul, that a killer is loose in a kindergarten, that Emily cannot let go of the guilt she feels for her broken marriage.

Not so in Beatrice and Virgil. I am halfway in and I really couldn’t tell you what the central conflict is. But I like it, and I like it quite a bit. Why? Because something is going on, and it feels like something important. I’ll have to wait until the end to see if Mr. Martel delivers, but in the meantime I’m enjoying the ride.

All of which is a long way of reminding me that formulas are swell and exist for a reason, but we must not be afraid of veering from them. I suppose it is easier to veer from the conventional narrative arc when you’re last book sat on the NYT bestseller list for 57 weeks, but then again, perhaps not. Beatrice and Virgil begins with a portrait of a writer whose last book was a smash success, involved animals (Life of Pi saw its protagonist stranded on a raft with a tiger, among other animals), and whose latest effort is unconventional and is rejected by his publisher. I will not put thoughts into Mr. Martel’s head, but clearly he understood that nothing is guaranteed.

In the end, every story has its own idea of what it must be. A writer’s job is to follow that idea along its most natural route. The worst thing you can do is to decide ahead of time what that route must be—to think, I must write something post modern and clever, or I must have at least three women between the ages of 35 and 50 appear by page 100. Most readers, most editors, most agents, despite what they might claim they require in a story, actually just want a story that feels authentic. This is great news. We don’t have to figure out what an authentic story is, we need only listen faithfully to the story delivered to us and we will be guided toward an authentic journey.

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Getting Your Attention

Literary agent Donald Maass and I spent a fair amount of time on the subject of voice in his interview. Don pointed out that a lot of things get lumped into that which we call a writer’s voice. Whatever it is, he concluded, when it comes to gaining an agent’s attention, it’s important. It’s more important than grabber, action-packed openings or unique settings. It can’t make up for a story with no conflict or unbelievable characters, but it can draw a reader in when little is actually happening.

The problem with voice, and the appeal of grabber openings and unique settings, is that the latter can, theoretically, be taught—or at least defined. The voice not so much so. There is no such thing as a good voice or a bad voice. If it works, it works. This is the point at which agents and editors begin to sound like models giving dating advice to men: If you want my attention, just be yourself.

But what if you they don’t like myself? Good question. But consider this: everyone in the world appreciates authenticity, and no one appreciates it more than the one being authentic. When you are speaking authentically, however briefly, you have shed the constraints of anyone’s requirements but your own. When you are speaking authentically, you are not trying to please an agent or editor, or your husband, or your parents, or your minister, or your professor; you aren’t trying to sound smart or clever or alluring or happy or sad or serious; when you are speaking authentically you are only trying to say as accurately as possible what it is you know to be true.

From this position you see that you are not speaking to gain a model’s attention or an agent or editor’s attention, you are speaking to gain your own attention. The first and greatest payoff of speaking authentically will always be relief—I said what I wanted to say and the world didn’t end. Next, and much later, might come dates with models or publishing contracts, but these will pale compared to the freedom of saying what you wanted to say.

The worst suffering in the world is the belief that we are not enough, that we must be someone else to succeed at anything. This thought is a kind of suicide. So Don Maass is right—voice is the most important tool in a writer’s toolbox. Without it, you aren’t even there.

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What Follows You

Jasper Fforde was born into a family of academics and had to overcome a belief that he couldn’t be a writer without any formal higher education. Seven books later he has concluded that the minimum requirement for writing is “being human.”

I couldn’t agree more. Writing schools (in the form of MFA programs) abound, and I imagine they serve a useful purpose. If nothing else, they get young and youngish would-be writers to write a lot under the tutelage of an experienced writer. Contacts can be made as well. Certain literary agents scour the ranks of Iowa Writers Workshop graduates for potential clients, and in her interview Zoë Ferarris described a soiree thrown by her MFA program where agents mingled with the new blood.

So all to the good. But in the end, all the writing classes in the world will never take the place of hours spent in the chair. Writing is not about a relationship between you and a writer teacher, or you and a critique group, or even you and your readership—it is a relationship between you and you. After you’ve written what you wanted to write is when the teachers and readers come in, and that is a particular relationship and experience unto itself.

The writing, however, is about you talking to you. Or, more accurately, you listening to you. Those hours in the chair are where you train your ear to hone in on your most authentic stream of thought and feeling. That stream is unique to you, and so it is ultimately impossible for anyone else to tell you where it is or what it sounds like.

Alone we are at our desks. Some of us fear this solitude, some of us are afraid to leave it. Yet there is nothing to fear, in leaving the solitude or in turning toward it. That silence and solitude is with you at all times, and if you train your ear well enough, you will hear it wherever you are—ending arguments, choosing the perfect gift, and putting you to sleep at night.

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Look Forward

I have found myself again and again talking to writers and agents and editors this weekend about marketing. Bob Mayer, an author of over 40 books and a prolific teacher and speaker, was particularly pointed on the subject. He felt that a lot of time is spent teaching writers how to write while not nearly enough is spent teaching writers how to be authors. I thought it was a great distinction, and absolutely germane even to relatively new writers.

To define my terms, I consider an author someone who has decided to make a career of writing.  Most new writers focus all their attention on just getting a book published. That seems hard enough; that seems like enough of an accomplishment on its own. Which it is. But I would encourage you to look ahead, and even if you haven’t published much yet, begin thinking of yourself as an author.

From a purely practical standpoint, it is useful, should you get a book published, to have an idea of what is going to be expected of you. You will save a lot of time if, before the deal, you learn about websites, blogs, speaking engagements, promotional materials, rewriting—all the nitty-gritty that comes with being published writer. We endeavor to teach as much of this as possible in Author.

But there is a somewhat less practical but equally important reason to view yourself not merely as a writer looking to get published but actually a writer in the process of building a career as an author. If you allow yourself to think about life after the book deal, you can begin to put publication into its proper perspective. Publication is not the end goal. It is nothing more than a milestone, pleasant to reach, but quickly moved on from, because life forever calls you forward.

Allow the goal of publication to shrink; allow it to become a small, attainable thing. If you do, you might be able to get a glimpse of what lies beyond it, all the wealth of choices this one opportunity provides. If you have set the trajectory of your life farther forward, you will be carried that much faster, and what once seemed like a final destination reveals itself as a simply the farthest sport of land you could see when you began your journey.

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Your Antennae

Trust your tuner, people. What is your tuner? It’s your antennae. You’ve got one, you know, and you’ve absolutely got to listen to it. It’s your first and best tool, aside from what editorial writers like to call “common sense”, for writing and publishing.

I just finished looking at an interview I did recently with Heather Barbieri, the edited version of which will appear in our September issue. Hers is not an unusual story. She needed an agent (a new one actually, as her old one had stopped representing fiction) and so set about her search, which involved scanning through listings on When she saw her eventual agent’s name, Heather for some reason thought to herself, “She might be the one.” And indeed she was. The agent took her on one day after receiving the query and sold her novel a week later. Talk about a good antennae.

But what is doubly interesting about this story is that when she began her search, friends – and by that I mean published writer friends – had recommended various agents to her. Conventional wisdom says, start with recommendations. But she had the idea that these recommended agents weren’t right. Whether they were or not, she certainly found an agent who knew how to sell her book.

You’ve got to trust your antennae. To be sure, in the beginning stages of your publishing career you won’t have the opportunity to meet face to face a lot of the people you’ll have to deal with. So listen closely. I understand that for some folks intuition on this level seems like so much transcendental hocus-pocus. Fair enough. But I have spoken with so many writers who have talked about information “coming to them” both for their books and when searching for a publisher.

So trust the antennae. Because it’s really just a muscle. And the more you trust it, the stronger it becomes.

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