I must have done forty-six drafts of this column because the subject is so . . . slippery. What everybody in PRO wants to know is how to get a good agent, but the assumption behind that is that there is one definition of a good agent, and that leads to unanswerable questions like:
Is a good agent one in a big agency or one who works alone or in a small agency?
Does a good agent call her authors every week? Every month? Never?
Does a good agent always live in New York?
And the answer is always the same: It depends. One writer’s perfect agent is another writer’s soul-sucking demon, and the only way to know if an agent is good for you is to know yourself.
This is the place where my drafts keep coming unglued because we’re getting into touchie-feelie country here, and that is not my strong suit. “Let’s all think deeply about ourselves” does not make for a snappy, incisive column. But it is absolutely crucial that you define yourself as a writer before you go out looking for an agent because otherwise the temptation to let the agent do it for you will be overwhelming. After all, she’s the publishing expert, right? She knows more than you do? It’s a short step from there to asking your agent what to write and that way lies madness. Your stories are part of you, not part of her; they are powerful because they tell the truth as you know it, not reflect the market as the agent knows it. You have to start by knowing who you are as a writer and what your stories are so that you can find the agent who understands and honors that, who protects and promotes that.
This does not mean that you are stubborn as a pig, refusing to accept criticism and grow. It means that you understand yourself and your work enough to know what’s important to you and what isn’t, what to protect and what to revise. It means you cut through all the assumptions you’ve made about yourself based on what everybody else has told you and look to see what matters. It means you have to do touchie-feelie stuff. I suggest you drink while you do this. There’s no better time to open a bottle of wine than before you open yourself up and start rummaging around inside.
Who are you?
Let’s start with you, the writer. Make a list of ten adjectives that best describe you and your stories. Forget about modesty; write down ten descriptions that just nail you and your work. Fast-paced, evocative, funny, suspenseful, snarky, sentimental, ironic, passionate, cynical, erotic, romantic, doesn’t matter what they are as long as they absolutely nail you as a writer according to you . Example: I would not describe myself as a funny writer, nor would I describe my books as comedies. I may be the only person in the world who thinks I don’t write comedy, but that’s okay because when it comes to defining me, I’m the only one who counts. I’ll take “sharp,” I’ll take “true,” I’ll take “obsessed with community,” but I will not take “comic.” That’s not me. So shut out all those other voices and look at your work. What does it mean to you? What do you see there? What are you proudest of, happiest about, what will you defend to the death although people try to take it from you? List ten words or phrases that best reflect your work, as you want it to be.
Make sure you identify exactly what it is that draws you to that aspect. If you love writing about cats, don’t put down “cat lover” until you’re sure that actually describes what fuels your writing. The agent that says, “Oh, you do such good cats, you should always write about cats,” needs to know that it’s not the cats that are important to you but the way people react to and interact with animals, and you can’t tell her that unless you’ve figured it out for yourself. Dick Francis wrote a lot of books about horses, but he never did a circus horse. That’s because he wasn’t interested in horses, he was interested in the racing world. Really think what these words and phrases mean, why they’re important to you and your work.
Now rank them, the most accurate to the least. Then look at the top three. That’s who you are as a writer, those are the things that are important to you, everything you want your stories to be. That’s what you’re going to hold onto when people try to define you. That’s what you’re going to say when people ask you to define yourself.
What are your influences?
What made you start writing? What did you read that made you want to be a writer? What are your roots and how have you interpreted them, who are your role models and how have you translated them? My biggest influence was Dorothy Parker, who made people laugh while writing the saddest stories I’ve ever read. I don’t think she’d have described her stories as comedies, either, but I can see how she used humor as a weapon and a shield, and I admire tremendously how she never sacrificed a character for a laugh. Look at your role models. What do you most admire about them, most want to emulate? What have you kept of theirs? What have you rejected about their work?
Write down what you took from your role models and how you’ve made those things your own as you wrote your own stories.
What was the first story you knew you had to tell?
It might not have been the first one you finished, it might still be floating around in the back of your head, waiting until you have the skills to tell it right, but what was the first story that bloomed in your brain, shutting out everything else? What about it did you love, and even more important, what about it did you have to tell? What things have stayed the same through every revision? What are you clinging to? Why is that story important?
Write down in a sentence or two why you have to tell that story, why that one is the book of your heart.
What are you writing next?
List three story ideas you’re going to write someday. Describe them in one sentence, not as pitches, but emphasizing what it is about them that catches at your imagination and refuses to let go, the things, if you will, that sold your imagination on them.
Now look at everything you’ve written down and try to find the patterns. If all the stories are about small towns, your pattern is easy. But what if some of them are about small towns, but one is about a detective agency in a big city and another one is about making a movie set in the middle of nowhere? Then look closer for the pattern: They’re all about small communities, relationships defined by environments. One of your books is about stray cats, another about drug addicts, another about people lost at sea: You write about saving the lost. Find out not what you think you should write or what the market says you should write but what you actually do write when you sit down at the keyboard. That’s your core story, the thing you return to obsessively even though you write it differently each time. That’s who you are as a writer.
What does that have to do with getting an agent?
A good agent will look at your work and love it for what it is and foster your vision by making suggestions that enhance the story you need to tell. A bad agent will look at your work and make suggestions that fit the trends of the time. The only way you’ll know the difference is if you know what your story is.
But knowing your story, yourself as writer, is not enough because once you sell a story, you take on a second career, this one in publishing. Writing and publishing are two entirely separate things, and you need to know who you are in both.
So pour another glass of wine and let’s do this all again so you can find out what kind of publishing career you want.
Why do you want to be published?
Did you have a story you wanted to tell at all costs and now that it’s done, it just seems logical to try to get it published? Did you want to be rich and famous and decide that being a writer would be a fun way to get there? Do you think that if you’re published, your family will finally respect you? In other words, is your emphasis on your writing (although being published would be great) or on your career (although you want your writing to be good, too) or on validating your existence?
To find out, list ten things you hope that being published will get for you. Then rank them from most important to least important. Keep the top three. Those are going to be the basis for your career plan so make sure you’ve been absolutely honest with yourself.
What kind of material environment do you need in order to flourish?
You get to define “flourish,” but you need to take a hard look at the material things you need in order to live a comfortable life. How much money do you need to provide for adequate (you define “adequate’) food, shelter, medical treatment, clothing, and so on? How much time do you need to devote to family and friends? What kind of space do you need to write in? How much are you willing to sacrifice to chase a dream you may never realize?
Look at your writing life right now. What’s causing the material problems you’re having? How could they be solved and what would it take to make that happen? What’s working well and what do you have to do to preserve those things?
Write a short, specific description of the material things (money, environment, time planning) that you need to survive (you define “survive.”)
What kind of emotional environment do you need in order to flourish?
What kind of support do you need from your family, your friends, your professional colleagues?
Make a list of the ten worst things anybody has ever said to you. Why were those things so devastating? How can you protect yourself from that kind of experience?
Make a list of the ten best things anybody’s ever said to you. Why were those things so satisfying? How can you shape your career so that you have more of those experiences? What is it you need from other people?
Where do you see yourself as a writer and your publishing career in a year? In five years? In ten years?
These are two different questions, one about your creative life and one about your business life. Creatively, a year from now, what progress do you want to have made in your writing? Remember, a good goal is always within your power to achieve. “I will have finished my second manuscript and figured out POV for once and for all, I will know how to write a good synopsis, I will have found a critique partner who understands and loves my work, I will be handling subplots better,” whatever. Then how about five years from now, in 2010? What do you want to have attempted and learned by then? 2015?
Then where do you see your publishing career in a year? If you interviewed an agent now, could you tell her what you want her to do for you beyond “sell my book”? Do you know what editors you’d liked to work with, can you pitch the kind of books you need to write, do you know how long you need to have between books, can you tell her how you feel about starting in midlist? Can you tell her where you’d like to be in five years, the improvements in money and contract terms you want to have by then, the kind of things you want to have happen over the next five years to make those improvement feasible? Do you know where you want to be in ten years, the kind of career and life you’re aiming for? Go back and look at the top three things you discovered in the “Why do you want to be published?” question. Those are your ten-year goals, and everything in your one, five, and ten year plans should be carefully and logically planned to get them for you.
Now make your career plan.
Begin by describing yourself as a writer and the stories you write. Be able to talk about these things as strengths, making it clear that these things are important to you so that an agent will understand the kind of writer you are. If she doesn’t understand or if that kind of writing does not interest her, she’s not the agent for you.
Be able to pitch not only the current book you’ve finished, but also the books of the future in such a way that an agent can see your patterns for herself and know how to market your career, not just your book.
Be able to list your overall career goals, emphasizing what’s most important to you. If money is the most important thing to you, tell her. If artistic freedom and support are most valuable, tell her that. Be honest about your priorities; of course you want it all, but where should an agent put her focus?
Then briefly lay out your one year, five year, and ten years career goals. If you can tell an agent where you want to be, she can tell you if and how she’ll get you there.
Finally, decide what kind of partnership you want with your agent. Do you want her to protect you from the business side of things, or do you want her to consult with you on everything? Does confrontation energize you or destroy you? Do you want to concentrate on your writing or on publishing?
Remember, any agent can tell you how she sells books; that’s easy. You’re looking for an agent who understands your vision, loves your stories, knows what you need, and can tell you how she’s going to get it for you. And she can’t do any of that unless you know yourself and your needs and can communicate them to her. As the years pass, those needs will change, and you’ll need to tell her that, too, but the foundation you lay in the beginning will determine whether you choose the right agent and how effective she is when you find her.
So sit down and do some self-searching, PROs. Because when it comes to finding the right agent, it really is all about you.