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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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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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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Be Where You Are

In Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell describes his first experience of battle. He had spent some time thinking about how he wished to behave once the bullets actually started flying, and he was determined that he wouldn’t duck. It seemed pointless (it would be too late) and amateurish. Yet, as he lay in his foxhole, the enemy lines within rifle range, and that first crack echoed across No Man’s Land—he ducked.

What can you do? I remember my first meeting with a flesh and blood literary agent. It was at a conference, and try as I may to be level and cool about things, I was quite petrified. I had an idea that I would sit down with her and she would take one look at me ask why I was wasting her time. I had even prepared a “How dare you!” speech. Honestly.

I ducked, you see. I couldn’t stand stories of how timid and uncertain people felt in these situations, and I had always thought, “Not me.” Oh, well. I don’t need to tell you that she was perfectly nice, and quite polite, and even asked to see my novel. Reality asserted itself upon my fears and all was well.

It does no good to sit around predicting what is going to happen. Good or bad, you will always be wrong. I ducked because I let my imagination wander unguided into the future and return with this monster it named Literary Agent. It was terrifying, but I did not recognize it for the phantom that it was. There is so much unknown and unknowable in the writing business. In life too, obviously, but it is easy to carve out some familiar paths – to and from work, to and from the grocery story, the school, your favorite restaurant – that events take on the illusion of predictability. In writing, it is much harder to fool yourself this way. Even novelists with a dozen published books under their belt don’t know how the next will be received.

This is why writing, for me anyway, is such a lesson in living in the moment. It is the moment that provides me with my inspiration, that guides me, and that, in the end, keeps me safe from all the monstrous nightmares of possible outcomes. All that could be isn’t yet if you are where you are.

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To Find an Agent

The first time I got serious about finding an agent – and this was in the dark ages of the internet when chat rooms felt like ghost towns – I posted a question about the best way to narrow my agent search. I’d tried pulling names at random from the listing books and wasn’t impressed. No one had any ideas, which astonishes me now as there are in fact some very basic steps you can take to refine your list of prospective agents.

First is the acknowledgement page. Find a book you like, preferably of an author whose work is reasonably similar to yours, and see if the author thanked their agent in the acknowledgements page. If the author did not thank their agent, you can also Google “that writer” and “agent” and see what you come up with.

Speaking of the internet, I highly recommend the site QueryTracker. This is an intelligently designed listing of hundreds of agents by their genre, complete with links to the agent’s website, as well as links to authors they represent. What’s more, the site includes online software for, as the name suggests, tracking your queries.

Another good site along these lines is Litmatch. The database for Litmatch seems to be slightly larger than that for QueryTracker, but I have found the layout and overall flow of QueryTracker more intuitive and responsive.

And of course, there are writer’s conferences. There’s no substitute for actually meeting the agents face to face. When Zoë Ferraris finished her MFA program, she attended a party where agents and newly hatched writers met to size one another up. Zoë had been writing and submitting for years, and so many of the agents at that soirée were agents to whom she had once submitted work. Upon actually meeting these agents, however, she realized immediately how wrong many of them were for her novels. It’s like online dating: just because you and a prospective date like baseball and chardonnay doesn’t mean love will soon bloom.

Finally, go to the agency websites. Agents will publish info about themselves, about their preferences, their peccadilloes, even pictures of themselves. See if you can glean something between the lines. And trust your gut. If you see their picture and read their bio and something tells you they’re not right for your work, in all likelihood they are not.  Not to worry.  There are plenty more where that came from.

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The Query – The Summary

You’ve written your greeting. It’s short, professional, and explains why you have chosen to approach this particular agent. Now it’s time for the meat of the query letter – the summary.

To begin with, remember this: It is not the job of your query letter to make every agent want to read your book. The job of the query letter is to help the right agent recognize your book as a project he or she is capable of representing with enthusiasm. No one likes everything and nothing has ever been liked by everyone. Therefore, when summarizing your book, attempt to reveal what it actually is, and even, to some degree, what it is not.  Be honest. It’s the best way to find the right agent.

I am now going to deal more with fiction and not non-fiction. Non-fiction is typically sold more on the idea of the book and the author’s credentials. A professional query letter is still important, but requires a bit less finesse. For fiction, you’ve got to reveal the nature of your book without having to tell the entire story.  How to do that?

First, if you’ve got a hook of some kind, lead with that. If your detective is a one-armed midget, if your story is told backwards in Farsi, if your protagonist falls in love with a cat—get it out of the way. Such distinctions will probably go a long way in determining if your book is right for an agent. Otherwise, make sure you establish right away when and where the story is taking place, and whom the story is about.

Next, conflict. Somehow, your summary must describe conflict.  In fact, beyond defining who and when and where, conflict should be the whole of your query. If your story revolves around one central conflict – the hero must return the Crown of Reckoning to the Tomb of Earth; your heroine is looking for love after losing her husband and daughter in a plane crash – then your job is made somewhat easier. Here is my protagonist, here is his or her conflict, here is how it is resolved.

Not all stories are so simple, however.  Mine never managed to be, and so I learned to choose a variety of conflicts that gave a feel for the entire story. It didn’t matter so much whether the agent understood the plot or not; it was only important that the flavor of the story and nature of the conflicts be expressed.

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