A friend asked me to call a man she knew tangentially, a man doing some work around her mother's house, a writer. A memoir, she said, though she couldn't say how far along he was in either craft or pages. I promised to call. I knew what it was to wander the maze, blind to the ways of the publishing world. It took me years to figure out what little I know today. After he described what he was writing, what drove him, I offered the basics about the role of a literary agent and how to find one. Then the business of finding an editor.
"Look, I know this is all about politics, it's all who you know," he said in so many words. "I don't have time for that. What do I have to do?"
Remember when you still thought that, when you believed it was simply a matter of a "publishing insider" you happened to know picking up the phone and -- viola! --you'd have a book contract? Maybe some of you still believe that. Fact is, for some it is true. The celebrity tell-alls or picture books are, we all assume, fast-tracked by insiders. How else to explain them? But for most of us, it's what we know, not who.
For the past 5 1/2 years, I've been writing with the intention of getting a book published. I've taken many classes, attended workshops and readings, wrote authors seeking advice, volunteered countless hours at various literary venues, and signed up for more conferences than I care to remember (all while working part-time and raising three children). Each of those experiences informed my craft, helped me understand the business of publishing, taught me about the writing life. I've met, and sometimes befriended, writers, literary agents, editors whose work makes me shiver with awe, who've been kind beyond measure. In all those years, though, only two writers have offered to refer me to their agents (once before and once after I was had representation) and two editors asked to see my novel when it was completed, one of whom had read the first three chapters at a conference. None of the people I've met in those 5 1/2 years led me to my agent or editor.
In some ways this must be reassuring to those of you about to embark on your agent search. A simple query letter, the first few pages of your manuscript will hopefully start the process. My advice is to research agents using every resource available to you. Start when you've nearly completed the first draft of your manuscript. Have your list of top twenty ready, read the books they represent, read every interview and profile you can find. When you're just about finished with the final draft, write that query letter. It will take only 20 minutes or so, I promise. You know your work well enough. As foolish as it sounds, have a dream agent.
The day before my agent submitted my novel to editors she said, "Tell me again how you came to me. It wasn't over the transom."
"It was," I said. "You pulled me from the slush pile."
I'm not sure if the writer I called believed me when I told him that. I do know he was a little put out that this wasn't a business that could be easily fast-tracked. That the journey to getting a book published requires trekking through that haphazard maze with its many dead ends and wrong turns. As Lisa noted in a recent post, it's not altogether linear.
That's okay. Knowing that it wasn't an insider's game gave me hope. Realizing it was up to me to figure out which way to turn, having the tenacity to forge on when I had no idea if I were headed in the right direction, believing it was within my power to figure it out was all I needed to know.
It's all within your reach, too, you know.
Tuesday, October 16, 2007