Um…What’s An Agent?

It turns out blogging isn’t easy as I initially thought it would be. I started with the grand idea of blogging twice a week, then twice a month, and then, well, life got in the way. I may have neglected my little blog here, but I haven’t forgotten it. I’ve been so caught up with revising my manuscript that every time I’ve thought about a blog post my brain has rebelled. “No!” the cells holler. “We can’t think of anything else! Our limited supply of witty and clever and interesting things has been used up. We’re a dry inkwell, leave us be!!”

Well, today I gave those brain cells a what-for and returned to my dear blog. Take that brain!

So, yeah, I’ve been immersed in revising my manuscript, which inevitably comes up any time someone (usually Hubby) mentions my writing. The conversation usually goes like this:

Hubby: “I can’t wait for Sarah to finish her revisions and get a big book deal so I can quit work and play golf all day.”

Me: “Yeah, that’s not how it works.”

Friend: “Revisions, what for?”

Hubby: “Her agent wanted her to rework some things.”

Friend: “Agent, what’s that?”

Since I’ve signed with a literary agent (still not old, squeeee!!), that last question is the one I encounter second-most. (The first being, “what’s your book about?”) Friends, family, people I don’t even know that Hubby mentions my writing to (I know, I should be glad he’s proud of me, but quiet, mousy Sarah usually just wants to stand against the wall and not be noticed, so Hubby bringing up my writing induces an “eek! hide!” response. I’m working on it.) none of them know exactly what an agent is or what one does. Now, I could talk at length about what a good agent does, especially my agent, who is fabulous beyond words, but with the average attention span growing shorter and shorter, I find myself with a one to two sentence window to break it down for them.

“It’s kind of like a real estate agent, except they choose you, and it’s really competitive. They’ve got all the industry contacts and shop your book around to the right publisher.”

This answer usually gets the “Oh, you’re getting published!” response. People hear publisher and run with it, despite my, admittedly quiet and soft-spoken, protests of “No, not yet, but hopefully” before letting it go. (I can’t help it, I just don’t have a loud voice and I’m easy to talk over. At work when I pass someone in the hall and they say “hey,” I always end up doing this embarrassing thing where I say “hey” back, but no sound comes out, so I’m really just making some weird mouth movement).

I’ve tried a different approach. “It’s like a sports agent.” Which brings blank stares from people who don’t know how a sports agent works, or nods and smiles from those who are pretending. Honestly, I’m not surprised the sports comparison doesn’t turn on cartoon light bulbs. The closest most people have come to a sports agent is Jerry Maguire which, let’s face it, doesn’t really compare to the literary world that much. (I’ve yet to hear my agent yell “Show me the money!” Although, I have to admit, it would be kind of cool).

I’ve even tried “It’s sort of like Greek mythology. Publishers would be the gods on Olympus, writers–mortals–can’t get to them, so they need agents–demi-gods–to act as intermediaries. The agents get lots of requests, though, and can only represent a small number of mortals.” That’s not so great either, though.

Frustrated with my lack of a good response, I asked some *writer peeps. “What is an agent?” Here are some of their responses (with their permission of course):

“A substance that can bring about a chemical reaction or a biological effect.”

Hmm, perhaps I should have been more specific.

“They pick you based on talent and represent you because they have connections and the publishing companies don’t have time to deal with loads of peons. A talent agent gets you gigs and a literary agent gets you publishing deals.”

Closer, but let’s go deeper.

“They’re sales people (to publishing houses), lawyers (contracts), editors (self-explanatory), psychics (predicting market trends), accountants (fees and royalties), marketing assistants (this will sell/this won’t sell/this will this more palatable), translators (the editor means this…the contract means this…) and babysitters. As well as gods/goddesses.”

Yes, yes, yes to all of this. Agents wear many, many hats and roll sevearl jobs into one. I think it’s hard to wrap your mind around how much they do if you’re not neck-deep in the publishing world. How to break this down more simply, though?

“An agent is definitely a middle man. But I kind of think of mine as a representative.”

I love the word “representative.” I think it combines a lot of those hats into one big, ten gallon Stetson. Someone else used the term “advocate.” Love it.

There were a lot of excellent responses, but I think these capture an agent best.

A literary agent is someone who spots a talented writer with a great story, takes what the writer created and shows the writer what needs to be done to make their book the best they can write, what needs to be done to make it marketable, and pushes the writer in that direction. Then the agent takes that best book to the publishers and tries to show them the beauty they saw in the work. If things go well, the agent negotiates the resulting publishing contract, then sees the writer along through their career.

Of course, this varies slightly from agent to agent. Some are more hands on, they like to be involved in the writing and editing process. Some are only interested in one book, or one series, not the writer’s whole career. Some don’t do much at all (I recommend staying away from these–See Writer Beware and Preditors & Editors when you’re looking for agents). A writer has to decide what they want in an agent, what sort of relationship they’re looking for, and seek out the agents who fits them best.

If I have to boil it down to future people Hubby may blather about me to (he means well and I love him for it, even if I may want to sink into the furniture at the time) I think I’ll say this: agents are advocates, who believe in the writers the choose to take on as clients enough to devote their time and effort into helping those writers succeed. They have the publishing experience and contacts the writers lack and represent the writers to the publishers to sell their books.

It’s not some jazzy dressed up metaphor, but I think it conveys the gist of what an agent does. If the person I’m talking to is interested enough, I’ll keep going and explain all the hats the agent can wear, in particular my agent.

What do you think? How do you see an agent?

For some common misconceptions about agents, check out Literary Agent Carly Watters blog post on the subject.

*Special thanks to the writers at AW who contributed their thoughts, especially “SomethingOrOther,” “Maramoser,” “The Ink Goddess,” and “missesdash.”

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Featured! Agent-Author Chat

Hey guys! I’m really honored to be featured on Krista Van Dolzer’s latest Agent-Author Chat. Scoot over there and check out my query for DOOR NUMBER FOUR, the manuscript that caught my agent, Mandy Hubbard’s eye, as well as some great advice from Mandy herself.

While you’re there, follow Krista, because she’s pretty awesome.

Is Your Manuscript Ready? 10 Tips to Help Figure it Out

When is your manuscript ready to query? It’s the question every writer asks at least once. I don’t know about you, but I’m incredibly impatient, so I tend to want to hurry up and start querying. I queried my last manuscript too early. It still needed work, but I thought “hey, I’ve got a good second draft, let’s see what happens.” I got some requests, but no bites, because it wasn’t ready.

So I’m forcing myself to go slow with my current WIP. I’m on my fourth draft and I’m still not sure if it’s ready. The ugly impatient gnome in my head keeps popping to the surface. “Just do it,” he whispers. “It’s fine. It’s good enough. Query already!”

I have to smack him back down like I’m playing Whack-A-Mole at Chuck-E-Cheese. (Side note: I love that game! My college roomie bought a hand held version one night–cause that’s what we needed to spend our money on–and we played it constantly). The gnome has me thinking, though. When will it be ready? How will I know? I mean really, I’m my own toughest critic. I could probably tweak and change and edit forever and never think a manuscript was good enough.

So, how do you know?

I have no idea.

I think it’s a gut thing, but there are a few guidelines I recommend following.

1. Don’t submit a first draft. Please don’t. Not even Stephen King runs with his first draft.

2. Have someone else read it. Not a relative, not a friend, not even anyone you know. If you want to know if your work is actually worth reading, give it to a stranger. There are plenty of forums like Absolute Write and Agent Query Connect to find good beta readers and critique partners. Let someone who doesn’t know you from Adam read it–they’re way more likely to be honest.

3. While you’re at it, grow thick skin. I had a beta recently who was nervous to point out some flaws in my manuscript. I’d told her I have thick skin, but a lot of people say that and don’t mean it. It’s not easy to receive criticism, but that’s the only way you’re going to get better. It’s like pouring alcohol in a wound. It hurts like the dickens, but you’ll be better afterward. In C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the characters, Eustace, turns into  a dragon. The only way to become a boy again is for him to scratch off the scales. It’s a long and painful process, but he does it, and when he comes out, he’s a better person. Now, that scene is a metaphor for a lot of things (namely, Christianity– Paul’s statement that you must die to yourself), but it fits here. In sports, many coaches sum it up as “no pain, no gain.”

4. Write your query and synopsis. It’s not fun. At all. But writing the query can, a lot of times, help you find flaws and plot holes in your story.

5. Edit. A general rule of thumb: if one person gives you a comment, take it with a grain of salt and use you judgment on whether to change something. If multiple people give you the same comment, you should probably change it.

6. This part sucks. Go through another round of betas. I always try to have at least two rounds, and they should be different people each time. Get fresh eyes on your newly edited manuscript to make sure your edits work.

7. Edit again, incorporating any changes from the latest betas. If there are still big issues to fix, you may have to go through a third round. If it’s small things, you can move on to the next step.

8. Nit-pick edits. Read your manuscript aloud. Yes, people will look at you weird if you do it in public, and your dog/cat may be entirely confused if you do it at home, but the best way to catch the cadence of a sentence and find errors is to read it aloud. Your eyes tend to skate over words like “the” “and” and “your/you’re.” You catch these things easier reading aloud, even if you’re just mumbling to yourself like a crazy person at the back table of the coffee shop. Just tell people you’re a writer–we have a history of being a bit nuts.

9. I like to run my manuscript through websites like YA Story Analyzer. This thing is amazing. You plug in your manuscript–it will take up to 60,000 words at a time–and chose what you want it to do: basic summary, sentence summary, repetitive sentences, highlight homonyms, pacing and flow, etc. Then it analyzes your entire text. The basic summary, for instance, finds cliche phrases, tells you the frequency of overused words (like “just” and “really”), gives you the percentage of “be” verbs and redundant phrases (“but yet” “up until”), and ends with your word count and grade level. I love it. It can be time consuming, but I think it’s so worth it.

10. Listen to your gut. If you feel ready, then query. You can’t sit around on a manuscript forever. Make it as good as you possibly can, then send it off into the world and cross your fingers, or pray, or turn in circles shaking your lucky pens over your head, or whatever you do. Then go work on your next manuscript to keep your impatient gnome at bay while you wait for a response.

That’s my process. Everyone is different and everyone will have different advice. I’ve learned so much since I wrote and queried my first manuscript (which definitely wasn’t ready!) and I’m still learning. My current manuscript isn’t quite ready to query, but I’m close. I can feel it. Hopefully soon I’ll be praying and shaking my lucky pens while I wait for a response.

Your Love is Like, a Roller Coaster Baby, Baby, I Wanna Ride

The song “Love Roller Coaster” has been in my head.  The Red Hot Chili Peppers version, not the Ohio Players.  (Yes, I had the “Beavis and Butthead Do America” soundtrack and yes, it was awesome.)  I feel like I’ve been stuck on this ride, but I can’t get off because no matter how many ups and downs there are, I still love it.  Writing is a roller coaster.  Every bit of it.  At least, it is for me. From start to finish I have so many ups and downs I feel like a pogo stick.  From the story idea, to putting it on paper, to changing the idea, to changing the order of chapters, to writer’s block, to character development (you go through a whole separate coaster ride along with your character), to revisions, to querying.  Everything goes up and down, up and down, up and down–highs and lows.

I experienced this roller coaster in one day recently when an agent (a dream agent) rejected my full manuscript because it was too similar to something the agent already had.  Low: rejection.  High: the agent liked my concept.  Low: but the agent didn’t want it.  High: there’s something similar, which means my story is (maybe) marketable.  Low: there’s something similar, which means my story isn’t as fresh as I thought/hoped.  High: I don’t know how similar.  Low: it doesn’t matter, the agent rejected me.

I spent one good day and night wallowing in my rejection, then pulled myself up by my boot-straps and kept plugging on.  I’m going through one more round of revisions before submitting my manuscript to a contest (fingers crossed!).  Three days after I decided on the contest, I experienced another high when another agent (a dream agent) requested my partial.  Then quickly a low when I realized the agent asked for a synopsis too (eek!).  Fortunately, I think I got my synopsis in decent shape (see my post on the horrors of the synopsis here).

Right now I feel like I’m more in the  middle of the roller coaster, or the big incline at the beginning.  I’m slowly click-clacking my way to the top, unsure whether there will be a big drop on the other side, or whether the track will run flat for a while first, or maybe there will even be another hill to climb.  Regardless, I’m in for the whole ride.  That’s the thrill, right?  Not knowing what’s coming next.  It’s a good thing I love roller coasters.  As soon as I get off this one, wherever it may stop, high or low, I’m ready to step on the next and start all over.  Because that’s what I have to do.  It’s what we all have to do if we truly want to be writers.  This business is full of ups and downs (mostly downs), but its the ups, those few glorious moments, that make it worthwhile.

The Waiting

There’s a Tom Petty song called “The Waiting” that has been running through my head for the past few weeks.  The chorus goes “The waiting is the hardest part, every day you see one more card, you take it on faith, you take it to the heart, the waiting is the hardest part.”  Isn’t that the truth?  For me, waiting is sooo hard.  I even have trouble waiting to give people presents. I want to see their reaction, I want them to go ahead and enjoy their gift.  I can never hold out on my husband; it never fails that I buy his Christmas or birthday presents early and get all proud of myself for my foresight, but then they sit in their hiding spot calling to me, begging me to go ahead and give them.

Patience is something I’m constantly working on.  My husband helps me out with this a good deal (i.e. forcing me to be patient when he leaves coffee rings on the white counter or takes off his shoes in the middle of the floor and leaves them there), and I’m getting better, but I have to make an effort.  One area I’m having to exercise some real patience is querying agents.

I am an inquisitive person by nature, I think that’s one reason I’m a good attorney.  I have to know things.  Where, when, what, why, how?  I ask questions and feed on the answers.  In court, that’s how you move forward.  Each question propelled by the answer before it.  What happened? So you ran into another car, how fast were you going?  Okay, at 65 miles per hour, did you try to brake?  You hit your brakes but the roads were wet, did you skid?  I drive my husband crazy sometimes with questions.  I’m not sure why I need to know, I just do.  That’s the way I’ve always been.  It’s why I hate math so much.  Yeah, okay, you multiply these numbers by these, but why

So patience is especially hard when I’m waiting for an answer.  I just sent out a batch of queries and was thrilled that I got a couple of positive responses right off the bat!  But now I’m waiting again.  Waiting to hear from the agents who haven’t responded yet, waiting to hear from the agents who are reading my stuff, just waiting….  I try to forget about it.  Put it into a box and shove it to the back of my mind, but my stupid inquisitive nature pokes its little puppy nose under the lid, anxious to know what’s inside and what’s coming next.

I’m doing better than I used to though.  When I queried my first book I was a wreck.  Constantly checking my email to see if I had a response.  Then re-checking in case someone responded while I was looking away and the screen hadn’t refreshed.  Back in June I submitted a work to a writing contest.  It was difficult to put it out of my mind, but I’ve more or less been able to do just that.  Mostly because I knew it wouldn’t do any good.  The results are being announced this coming weekend.  That means I’m getting nervous again though, soooo ready for this weekend to be over so I can know the results, but mostly so I can get my submission back with the judges’ critiques.  More than anything I want to know what they said about it  and what I need to work on.  For me, it’s better when I have a time frame.  “We’ll post the results in October” or “We’ll get back with you in six weeks”, but by October, or week 6, I start checking and re-checking my email again.

How do you handle the waiting?  Work on something else?  Pretend you aren’t waiting on anything?  Darn some socks?  Or are you a wreck too?