April 21, 2014

How to get an agent

My last post about writing advice came with a few questions – namely, if you can’t tell us how to write, then what the hell are you good for, anyway – so I thought I’d write a post about the one piece of advice I probably can give with good conscience: how to submit to an agent.

The underlying theme of this post, as you will see, is Be Professional. You know how the Cub Scouts have “Be Prepared”? It’s kind of like that, except elementary school kids have actually shown some success at being prepared, whereas most writers out there are seemingly allergic to being professional. This may have something to do with being stuck indoors all day making shit up, but it still speaks to the big point of this piece: there’s already lots of factors contributing to an agent sending you a rejection, you don’t want for your own damn self to be one of them.

Anyway. On with the listcicle, or whatever they call them these days.

1. Finish it.

Agents are, on the whole, busy people. Either they already have a full roster of clients, or they’re helping out their agency, or they’re trying to build their roster as much as they can. In short, their time is limited, and they aren’t going to want to spend their time on an idea. They’re going to want to spend their time on a book.

Yes, a real, finished book. Not an outline written on a church flyer. Not a handful of pages. If they’re gonna look at it, they’re gonna want to see the whole thing.

So, finish your book, first and foremost. Don’t put the cart before the horse. Not finishing it would be akin to trying to get investors to sink money into an innovation that you haven’t even gotten to work once yet.

2. Cut it. A lot.

Chances are, if you’re a burgeoning writer, you’re probably not too sure of yourself right now. No writer really is – writers are some of the most insecure people I’ve ever met, probably because of the alone-in-a-room-all-day thing I mentioned above – but when you’re first starting out, you haven’t had a myriad of people tell you with surgical, professional detail which parts of the thing you made are completely terrible.

As such, you’re probably not too sure of yourself, so you’re going to overdo it to compensate.

I want you to think of something: think of a mason building their first wall. They’re laying bricks, but they’re not quiiiiite sure if the bricks are sitting right. So what do they do? They slap on mortar. Lots of it. And then, you know, the mortar looks a little uneven, so what does the mason do? They slap on more mortar. More and more and more, because they’re really nervous this wall isn’t going to stand up.

So what do they have at the end? A lumpy-ass wall with hardly any brick visible.

There’s about a 60% chance this is what you wrote in your first draft. Probably greater, but I’m being nice here because you’re cute and I’m getting soft in my old age.

Here’s the thing: with writing, less is more. The reader is doing almost all the work for you. They’re the ones putting flesh on all the faces in their heads, they’re the ones coloring in all the CGI explosions. All the extra shit you’re throwing in there just to make sure they Get It? You don’t need it.

Cut it. Cut it all. Cut it to the bones, then cut some more. Keep cutting. As Le Carre put it, the point of writing is to distill the essence of a whole cow in a cube of bouillon.

3. Stick it away somewhere.

Okay, so you wrote a book. Yes. It’s a big deal, something most people never do, so pat yourself on the back. Seriously, give yourself a spiritual thumbs up. Have a second glass of white wine before reading the New Testament tonight, because you deserve to have a little fun.

Now stick the thing away somewhere in the dark and don’t read it for a month.

Now, I can hear you getting impatient – you want to be successful right now, I get it – but you don’t want to give your prospective agent a possible shitshow, do you? You want this to be totally and completely the best thing you’ve ever done, right?

Then you need some distance, especially at this stage in your writing career. You’re all bound up in this thing. You can’t be trusted to look at it with a critical eye – chances are, if you look at it right now, you’ll just slap on more mortar. You need distance. You need some breathing room.

It’s like a one-night stand or a whirlwind affair – take some time by yourself outside of this relationship before you return to it and decide if this is really something, or if it’s just meeting a base, immediate need.

And it’s okay if it is. Writing is like painting: the first few are likely stinkers. You’re not Creating A Novel, what you’re doing is building up your literary muscle and connective tissue. Because listen, you’re not going to just jump in a pool and perform a perfect butterfly stroke the first time out. This takes work.

Something to keep in mind during this Time Apart period:

1. DON’T get any bright fucking ideas for mixing up your novel. DON’T read something cool and say, “Yeah, I’ll throw this in, too!” It either stands on its own or it doesn’t.

2. DON’T start doubting yourself. You wrote a book. You must have thought it was good. It’s not like radioactive material, decaying and turning shitty in some cupboard in the dark.

3. DON’T start anything new. Usually what you’ll be doing is something similar enough to what you already wrote that the two will lean on each other like drunks at a bar, like chimera twins.

4. Cut. Again.

So, you’ve let it sit. You’ve got some distance on it.

Now come back to it and read it like a reader.

This is hard. This is maybe the hardest part. You’ve got to read the thing that’s a product of you as if you’re somebody else. It’s like watching a sex tape with you in it – you can’t get too embarrassed, and you can’t get too defensive here, either. You need to stay impartial and detached, and find the flaws in what’s on the page. (This metaphor kind of fell apart but I don’t care.)

Your instinct will be to add more. Don’t. Cut instead. Your instincts will find weaknesses, but don’t put on more words. You need to be a sculptor, shaving away excess to reveal the design beneath.

5. Let someone else read this puppy.

Now’s when you get it beta read.

If you’re having ANY doubts right now – any “I can’t let someone see this” kind of total panic attacks – you’re not ready to be a writer. Because if you actually break in to the industry, a whole, whole, whole lot of people are going to read your stuff, and they’re gonna read it hard. I don’t know if you need to take a spiritual journey to find your self-confidence, maybe go on a road trip or find your spirit animal or whatever, but if you can’t send someone who’s a good, hard beta reader your stuff, then you’re not ready for primetime.

Now, make sure to pick your beta reader with care. Absolutewrite.com is a great place to find someone who’s not a complete asshole, but also isn’t a total softy. In fact, maybe go get an account on the forums there now and just hang out for a year or two. That’s where I started.

Some bloggers beta read, too. In fact, they get requests nonstop. So, if you want them to beta read you, and take you seriously, read their reviews thoughtfully and engage them. Talk to them, leave comments. That’s crystal meth for most bloggers.

Now, your beta reader is going to come back with comments. And Neil Gaiman once said a very true thing:

When someone says there’s a problem with a book, they’re almost always right. That thing is a problem.

But when they say how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong.

So take their concerns seriously, but take their advice with a grain of salt. Be polite, but don’t let them write your book for you. But the odds are, the solution is somewhere in what they’re saying. And sometimes you realize you’ve been thinking of the solution all along, you just didn’t know.

INTERLUDE: Being a worrywart

Okay, so you did some tough edits, you let someone beta read, you took their comments seriously.

Now, if you’re still uncertain, go through steps 2-5 ad nauseum. Do it until you’re confident of your work. You need to actually believe that the thing you wrote is The Thing, because that confidence will show through: it’ll make you research your agents more, it’ll make you make your queries more professional, it’ll give you the stamina you need to see this through to the end.

But don’t be too insecure. Some writers get stuck in this stage forever. Again, if you’re content to dither and fret, you’re not ready to be a professional writer. At some point in time, you got to cut the umbilical cord.

7. Research your agents.

Agents are sort of the border mavens of publishing, in a way: some edit, some don’t, but all of them essentially exist because their heads are (hopefully) giant rolodexes and encyclopedias of what editor is where, what imprint is looking for what, what did well, what didn’t, what overseas publishers are hungry for this, that, or the other…

And so on, and so on, and so on.

Editors are much tougher to pitch to. This is because editors are busy advocating for their books, and when they’re not doing that, they’re listening to agents. Agents are the personal advocates of The Writer, in any state – unpublished or not. Editors are advocates of The Book, but chances are they’re only advocates of The Book That’s Been Bought. The Book That’s Been Bought has gone through a lot of stages first. And a lot of those stages start with an agent. That’s why you need one.

Now, agents do a lot of stuff. Not all agents are right for you. This is when that confidence comes in: this is something you slaved over, right? You’re looking for the person who could carry not only your book but your whole career into the constellations themselves, and set your figure among the stars next to Orion, right?

So make sure you’re not picking a chump. You’re worth it.

Also, don’t try and bring someone something they don’t want to buy. Don’t bring SFF to a YA mainstream agent. Don’t bring a book of poetry to someone doing Weird Fiction. Agents multitask and sell a lot of things, yeah, but try and get their tastes down first. This is what they spend their days and nights on: they are almost CERTAINLY unlikely to make an exception for you. I know you’re a delicate, special snowflake and all, but the odds are very, very, very low that they’re going to undertake a book they don’t do just out of the goodness of their heart.

8. Follow the rules, and be professional.

Okay, you picked out your top 10 agents, right? Now’s when you start querying.

Agents will have explicit instructions on their website about how to query them. If they don’t, they’re not what you’re looking for. (Or they aren’t taking on any new clients.)

Follow those rules. Follow them oh, oh so carefully. If they say they want the first ten pages, give them that. If they don’t ask for those, don’t give them that. This SHOULD be simple, but most newbie writers are desperate, so they’ll do the equivalent of asking their classmate to prom by playing them a lute solo in the middle of lunch at the cafeteria.

You want to be totally radioactive and untouchable? Don’t follow the rules. Assume you’re special, and your book is special and you both deserve special accommodations by these seasoned professionals. That’s a great way to never get published.

This is when work experience comes in handy. Have you ever had to send an email to 15+ important, busy people about a big project? That’s how professional you want to be.

The problem is, most writers aren’t professional. Writers – even ones making money – seem to exist in a state of arrested development. They want to think everyone’s a fan of the stuff they like – and, sure, agents and editors wouldn’t be in this if they weren’t fans, but this is how they make their living. They have people gushing at them all over the place. What they want is something straightforward and by the numbers. They want to see that you know the rules and you’re willing to follow them. They want to see that you’re stable and dependable. No one wants their lawyer or accountant be a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, so the same goes for you, Mrs. or Mr. Professional Writer.

Here are some pointers:

1. Don’t be cute. For the love of fucking God, don’t be cute. Don’t start your query with something like, “Darkness is falling in the realm of Cantilverde…” or any of that bullshit. Talk to them like a possible investor. This is a business proposal, not a performance or a god damned magic show.

2. MAKE SURE you get their name right. E-blasts will get you blocked, and rightfully so.

3. Practice your pitch. Pretend like you’re talking to someone at a party, and the subject of your book organically comes up. You like it, right? You think others should read it, right? So practice communicating what’s fun about it. OR: imagine you’re discussing someone else’s work, and you’re advocating on their behalf. That’s what you want to write in your query.

4. Don’t withhold the plot. Spoil away. Like I said, they want to see everything they could be buying.

5. Don’t talk about yourself or your family unless it’s really important. “My mom likes this” is such a turnoff. Unless you’re an Iraqi war vet or your dad was Ghandi or something, odds are no one cares.

6. Personalize your query. You’ve done your research, right? Mention the other books they’ve agented – which you’ve read now, right? – or some of the blog posts they’ve done. This is a professional way of saying, “You’ve attracted my interest because of your personal qualities and features, and because of this I have something that might be of interest to you.” Most will not do this. Most writers will come at them like, “I VAGUELY UNDERSTAND YOU ARE A GATEKEEPER TO PUBLISHING, PLEASE IMMEDIATELY MAKE ALL MY DREAMS COME TRUE.” This is a god damned working person on the other end of this email. Value and treat them like one.

9. Do whatever they hell they say. In the most professional manner possible, of course.

If they ask for the first three chapters, give them those.

If they ask for the whole thing, do that.

If they say no, don’t beg and plead and whine. It’s over: let it go, and move on.

And from this point on, act like a real professional, someone whose time is valuable and who recognizes everyone else’s time is valuable too. Be professional in how you treat them, how you respond to them shopping your book around – don’t call them crying on the phone – and in how you act online about this whole experience.

Writing means art, but professional means business. People want their professionals – in all industries – to be courteous, considerate, prompt, and dependable. They expect the best of you because it’s your job to give the best. It’s their job to give the same.

But don’t forget: being professional not only means that you understand other people are valuable, but that you are, too. You have something you do well, something you worked on, something you’re serious about. Don’t undersell it.

Good luck.