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Answering another question about agents

fiction_theory said:
Keeping all these things in mind that you have said, are there things that a first time, unpublished novelist looking for an agent should be doing to help themselves out in the search for an agent?

Meaning: are there mistakes the first timers make that hold them back from being able to make a deal with an agent? Are there things they should be doing that they aren't?

The obvious mistakes are ones that anyone who does a little research can avoid; they can submit in the format that the agent requests, they can make sure they're submitting to an agent who is open to what they write, etc. I am absolutely certain that no one who is reading this would send a Western to an agent who primarily handles romances, or send hard copy to an agent who has decided to accept only e-submissions, or address a letter to "Nate Brandsford", for example.

And, as usual, I hit that little thing that says: Too many characters when replying.

Beyond the usual very boring -- but completely necessary -- advice that individual agent sites give? Keep writing. I realize that that is not in any way a helpful answer, because it seems so glib. But it's not.

I want to segue briefly.

If anyone hasn't read Nathan Bransford's blog, particulary the posts that culminated with this one, I urge you to do so now. It will take, however, a lot of time because he posted 50 queries over the course of one day, in order to give writers/readers and, well, critics of agents, some sense of what an agent contends with in terms of queries, all of which come on top of the things he does for actual clients, as opposed to potential ones.

I thought it was a brilliant idea, and it must have taken a crapload of work on his part to get those queries and put them up. He also gave readers three days to deal with one day's worth.

He cheated a little, in my opinion, because he asked for 50 volunteers, and those 50 were people who read his blog all the time; they're not people who are going to make the mistakes that result in an instant desire to vaporize the hardware on which you are viewing them, among other things. So what we were looking at there represented the queries that you would not give a 5 second auto-pass.

At the outset he said three of the fifty had been sold; they were books that were, or were going to be, published. Agents for a day were allowed to ask for only 5 partials, from the fifty queries, and if you requested the three that had sold, he offered a free critique of something-or-other (sorry, I didn't pay attention to that part). In his closing comments, though, he said that he himself had given a pass on one of the books that did sell when it came in as a query (or partial).

It was interesting to me because it made clear, again to me, that so much of the initial impulse to continue--or not--is the exact same impulse I have when I pick up a book in a bookstore, while browsing. I have literally thousands, or tens of thousands in a big box store, of books to choose from. The back cover blurb, or the inside flap if it's a hardcover, tell me what the book is--sort of--about. But only if that blurb catches my interest do I open the book up and peruse it.

For a writer, querying an agent is basically delivering into their hands that blurb--either back of the cover or inside dusk-jacket--without the benefit of design, graphics or art that characterize a book's most immediate and notable feature: the cover. If the query is good, or it intrigues the agent, they'll then ask to see a partial--which would be our version of opening up a book and flipping to the first page (or, if you're an old usenet reader, page 117).

How many books do you do that for, and then put down, while you're browsing in a store? I know I do it a lot. The blurb can catch my attention, but if the book itself fails to hold it, I put it down. This doesn't mean the book is horrible; it means it didn't hold my attention at the time.

So queries are useful, yes. But if you spend all your time polishing a query and not enough on polishing a book, it's not ultimately very helpful, because while a good query will get the agent to pick up the partial, the partial itself needs to be at least as promising as the query. And if the partial does sing? And the book totally falls apart after those first three or five chapters? No go.

So... the big mistake that I think people make, and this is from a writer perspective, is: they don't spend enough time on the writing. They worry a lot about the agenting, about the publishing, and not quite enough about the actual book.

Agents always say, when asked for advice: Write a good book!

This sounds flippant. It really isn't. The problem with the word "good" is that, like anything else, it's very subjective; what they want, though, is what a reader wants: they want to find something they can't put down; something they click with, and want to stay up all night reading.

I could send partials of my published work to a bunch of agents, and I can all but guarantee that I'd probably get less than a third who wanted to see the full books. Actually, given my ability to write synopses or queries - a skill I never learned - maybe less than 20%.

Let's pretend that I can write a decent query, though, for the sake of this example. I send that query out to my dreamlist of possible agents, and what will I get? A pass, in all probability, from most of them. If I am lucky, I will get a pass from only half of them. The fact that the books are, demonstrably, publishable wouldn't make much difference.

Writing is a process of learning that never ends. I look at my older words, and I see things I would absolutely change now, and I think that's always going to be true. I know people who wrote twelve novels before they sold their first one; I think one author on LJ has said it was his sixteenth that finally sold. I know that we all learn at different speeds, because it takes us time to absorb writing lessons, to gain enough objective distance to be able to critically evaluate what does, and does not work, in our own writing. Because of this, it's hard to know for certain when we've hit that first mark, when we've actually arrived at a place in our writing where we're good enough. Even if we have, we can't and shouldn't stop.

Because each agent has different tastes, just as each reader can also have different tastes. The agent's taste and inclination is part of what they offer to their clients and the editors they deal with; editors have a sense of what the agents will like, and offer. Agents know what they can, and can't, work with. Do they make mistakes? Well, yes. We all do. Do they pass on things that go on to sell? Yes. Do they kick themselves for it? Well, yes. But they also keep going. As writers, we have to do the same; the most important thing we can do is keep writing. Keep learning, keep struggling with the words.

So: Write your book. Make it as clear, as accessible, as compelling, as you possibly can. Write it for readers, even if you're not entirely sure who those readers are yet; you know yourself, you know your story, you know what you like and what you love. When it's as good as you can make it at that time, write a query. Polish a query, workshop it, do whatever it takes to make it sing -- but be aware that it's the book and only the book that will get you that offer of representation.

I know that agents are necessary; I know that finding an agent is an ulcer-and-anxiety inducing search. But sometimes I think we spend too much time and intellectual energy on that search, when in the end, spending it on the book and the words is actually a much better use of that time and energy.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 27th, 2009 10:07 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
Apr. 27th, 2009 10:59 pm (UTC)
I'm sorry =/. I know it doesn't actually seem all that helpful as far as advice goes.
May. 4th, 2009 06:51 pm (UTC)
I think it's very helpful advice, summed up superbly by your final paragraph.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )