Tuesday, October 16, 2007

What You Know, Not Who -- Really

By Amy

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.


Melissa Amateis said...

This is a great post to read, Amy, because it verifies that it essentially boils down to the work itself - and we are in control of that. Sure, there are outside factors - maybe what we're writing isn't selling right now or the agent we want has a full client list - but there's always hope. There are people out there looking for good writing and if you have it, you will find them or they will find you. At some point, it will come together - like it did for you! :-)

Lisa said...

It makes me hopeful to recognize that this business is a relatively level playing field. There are no shortcuts. But for a person with the talent, the persistence, the intelligence and the business savvy to do the work and to keep on trying, anything is possible. Thank you for this positive message.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Melissa, thanks, I think it's true. The writing has to resonate with the people who are putting themselves out there to represent it.

Lisa, It think peoplelike you and Melissa who've taken the time educate yourselves about the business of publishing and the writing itself will find success. I really do.


Carleen Brice said...

You were very kind to put it this way. I find it rather insulting when people assume that somehow it was easy for me and I should make it easy for them. In my experience a lot people want the shortcut not just because they wrongly believe politics are involved but also because they don't want to do the work. I've seen hundreds of pairs of eyes glaze over when I start talking about researching agents and taking classes.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Carleen,if I sound patient it's because I've been there, done that. Years ago, I'd finished about three chapters of my WIP and thought it time to query my then dream agent. I was writing humorous women's commercial fiction -- not well, mind you -- because that's what I thought I was supposed to do living in the 'burbs and all. Well, Jenny Bent sent me the most lovely note in response explaining the intricacies of publishing. I'll always be grateful to her for her patience and kindness.


Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Amy, You are very nice. I agree with Carleen that it is hard to deal with people who seem somehow to expect you to help them because you have made it. There is a sense of expectation from writers that I know who are all about who they can contact get to know and work on for a referral. I always find it very troubling that they are always looking for the shortcut. Yes I understand to some part who you know is important, but I think it is also how you approach and impress them with your work that is how it can help you. I would want them to offer to help me rather than asking for help. But that is my personality. And also, I tend to hate asking anyone for help ever. I guess I have to go through life the hard way.

Great post as always!

Eileen said...

Great post.
My agent, the divine Rachel Vater, found me in the slush. Last time I checked with her the majority of her clients all came from the slush pile. No one ever believes me about this, they are certain I must have had an inside track.

Deals are made in the slush- you just have to be brave enough to wade in.

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Ello, I believe in helping people, but only those willing to help themselves. The whole teaching a person to fish philosophy. Over the years, there have been many who've helped me and so I feel compelled. I just can't do it for them.

Eileen, I love your story. I remember reading Rachel's blog when she found this great manuscript in her slush, how excited she was to submit it. Her enthusiasm was huge! And UNPREDICATABLE will be too once hits bookstores. February, right? I can't wait!


mohanley5 said...

Great post, Amy. I cherish the things that I have, that were the hardest to obtain. As a kid, I learned that you can't expect to get what you want, just because you want it...you have to work for it. I respect your work ethic, and I believe that your agent does too. It certainly shows in your posts, so I can't wait to see it on "the pages" of your novel.

Some day, when the time is right, and I have done my due diligence...classes, conferences, revisions and such, I hope/pray/believe my efforts will be rewarded, such as yours have. If not, I'm pretty happy with what I have produced in the past 4 years. (I wish my 10th grade english teacher was still alive to read it...I think he thought I was a knucklehead, especially compared to my brainiac sister)

Thanks for the "fishing lessons!" :)

Lynne Griffin and Amy MacKinnon said...

Mo, it is sweeter when you do it yourself. Also, there's no second guessing that perhaps it's all due to someone else's coat tails.


mohanley5 said...

you are so right!