Saturday, April 21, 2012

Advice to Writers about Agents

Know who you are.

This is the most important part of finding an agent.  Not the book, not the query.  You.

Okay, the book is definitely important.  You have to have a great book to get an agent.  Not a book that's okay or a book that's good enough, but a book that is great.  A book that you've read at least twenty times and know—KNOW—is as perfect as you can make it.

And the query is kind of important.  Though I'll argue that most writers spend too much time worrying about the query and not enough time worrying about the book.  A great book can save a shitty query but a great query can't save a shitty book.

But the most important thing you have to do prior to finding an agent is know who you are.  Know who you are as a person, as a client, as a writer, as an entrepreneur.

Can you get an agent if you don't know those things or haven't ever thought about them?  Sure!  I did.  But it can really mess you up later.

I'm not particularly needy, but I do crave some form of validation, especially with my writing.  I know what I want to say and I have extremely strong feelings about my ideas and what sorts of books I want to write, but I'm still open to discussing them.  At the same time, I will get to a point where I feel strongly enough to stick to my guns about a thing.  I'm a principled person.  I'm willing to bend, but I'm also willing to put everything on the line for what I believe in.  I enjoy writing things that make people laugh, but I also want to write things that make people feel.  I feel that writing comedy is a limited career path, especially in YA, and that balls-to-the-wall humor books are the sort of thing that an author can get away with once, maybe twice in a career.  My interests vary wildly, so my ideas from books vary wildly too.  I am flighty with my ideas, and I will get super-excited about one, telling all my friends that THIS IS THE ONE, until the next day when I come up with something better.  It's the ideas that I don't talk about that I generally end up writing.  I am self-aware in that I know these things about myself but am not particularly able or willing to change them.  I don't take criticism well but I do take it to heart.  When criticized, I will either shut down or attempt to come up with a solution that takes my story to an extreme, all the while quietly attempting to figure out a good solution.  When I brainstorm with others, I usually don't want to hear their ideas as much as I want them to act as a reflective surface upon which I can see my own ideas. But I will listen to other people's ideas.  I respect people who respect me.  The best way to get me to do something is to be honest and tell me why I should to it.  The worst way is to give me an ultimatum.  I am equal parts logical and emotional.  Though I frequently respond to things in an emotional way, my logical brain is always behind the scenes, working through the problem. Sometimes my sincerity comes off as insincere because I really want people to like me.  I'm really horrible at interacting with people.  The more I respect a person, the worse I am at interacting with them.

That mess up there?  That's me.  It's not particularly flattering.  But it's honest.

The right agent for me is someone who can guide me without being patronizing.  Someone who can give it to me straight without being threatening.  Someone who understands that I may need to hear an idea three or four times before I realize it's the right thing to do.  Someone who gets that it often takes me a while to come around, and doesn't hold that against me.  Someone patient, but firm.  Someone who's willing to bend but isn't a pushover.

See what I mean?

The wrong agent can be a disaster.  It can make you miserable.  If you're needy and you sign with an agent who hates neediness, then you're always going to feel terrible.  If you know that somewhere down the line, you might want to try your hand at writing sci-fi or fantasy, but your current book is contemporary, then make sure you sign with an agent who is open to sci-fi and fantasy down the road. If you know that you're never going to want to change an idea once you've written it, then don't sign with an agent who is more editorial.

My point is this:  writers spend too much time focused on the wrong things.  We get so focused on finding the agent and selling the book that we don't take the time to find ourselves.

If you can be honest about who you are, then you'll have a better chance of finding the right agent.  And you'll be happier too.

But you still have to write a kick-ass book.  There's no getting around that.


  1. Here, here. As an agented writer who has yet to secure an elusive book deal, but who has had 11 agents offer rep and has had conversations with oodles beyond those 11, and has parted ways with one agent only to turn around with another project and sign with another agent, I can say you are completely correct. You need to know who you are, what you want (long term), and I'll add that you need to realize agents aren't gods. That's big, because way too many aspiring authors look at agents like they are gods, and as a result, give in to every whim an agent has. The good agents don't want that. They want you to know who you are, who you are as a writer, and they want you to be confident in that. Like you, I know myself, and I know I can't appease every whim of my agent because I kind of, you know, have a backbone. My current agent likes and respects that. My former agent didn't. In the end, I will write what I want and do it how I want, but will accept the guidance of my agent not because she is a godly agent, but because I respect her just as she respects me. I always took you as that kind of dude, too, Shaun. I know you don't need me to tell you this, but I will anyway: stay that way. As Johnny says to Ponyboy, "It's a good way to be."

  2. Great point. Lots of people think that agents know everything, but they're people like we are. Fallible and subject to their own whims and tastes. Like you, I've seen writers rush off to make changes at the request of an agent without stopping to ask themselves if the changes will best serve the book.

    I was talking to an agent once who asked me to make a change to a manuscript because a certain aspect wasn't working for her—she wasn't engaged by it—and I took the book back and thought about it. I finally decided (after about 5 months!) that it sucked that she wasn't engaged by that aspect, but that the story wouldn't be the story without it. I could definitely make the change, but it wouldn't be the book I wanted it to be. That's a choice every writer has to make for himself. But only a writer who knows what he wants and who he is will be able to make well.

    Great hearing from you again!

  3. Love the new layout. I can't really relate, because I've never had an agent, but everything you're saying makes sense. I wonder if I can actually stick to my guns when the time comes, or if I'll be too desperate?

  4. Matthew: It's difficult, you know? Most of us are writing because it's in our souls. Because we've dreamed about it all our lives. Having agents interested in us (especially the first time) is a validation in so many ways. Here's someone who reads FOR A LIVING!!! And they think I'm good!!!! It's difficult not to get caught up in that sort of joy.

    But the thing is, agents are not infallible. Neither are writers, for that matter. Agents, no matter how sweet or nice or amazing they are, are doing what's in their best interest. They have bills to pay and mouths to feed. If they don't think they can sell a book, then it's not in their best interest to take it on. And I think that's where a lot of new writers falter. They see an opportunity slipping through their fingers, and, scared, they take it without stopping to think about whether it's right for them.

    The right answer for the book usually lies somewhere at the intersection of art and commercialism. When my editor at Pulse asked me to make Ollie and Ronnie's relationship in Deathday the focus of the story, I initially had reservations. I thought they were trying to push the romance angle in order to make the book more commercial. And I didn't want that. But a great conversation with my editor proved that, while that was a benefit, the reason they wanted that focus was because it was already there. The believed Ollie and Ronnie were already the core of the story and that the book would be stronger for focusing on them more.

    They were right.

    But before I realized that, I was ready to walk away if I didn't feel like I was doing the best thing for the book.

    Anyway, I think you'll stick to your guns. That doesn't mean being inflexible, but if you know what your book is about, and you know who you are, then you'll know when someone asks you to make changes that you don't think are right for you.

  5. And thanks about the layout! I was trying for something that was a little more serious but still fun. Getting the dead head on that typewriter key was a pain!


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