An Explanation: Where I Have Been

Mailing my Literary Contract (September 2011)
Eight months ago, I signed a contract with a literary agency--and then I sat back and waited for my fame and fortune to come rolling in. I had scored a literary agent, after all. I was part of the 2% club, and all my hard work was over. Right?

Wrong. It turns out there's tons of hard work on the other side of the curtain, and it turns out the world of literary agencies is complex and imperfect and ever-changing--just like everything else in this life.

Literary agents really are just people. Sometimes, the variables change for them, too.

My brand-new literary agent was a wonderful person. She was friendly and approachable and invested in my success, but she had a life outside of her agency, too. When she unexpectedly got pregnant and quit the business, I was incredibly happy for her.

But I was also two months into our contract, and I was in the middle of submissions.

I was assigned to another literary agent in the company, but it became clear very quickly that there was no future for me there. This is when I realized how important it is to not only have a literary agent, but to have a literary agent who is passionate about your career and invested in your success.

Without this level of commitment, your career is most likely never going to get off the ground. It doesn't matter how powerful the agency is or how many books the agent has sold. If the agent doesn't have his or her heart and soul behind you, you will be lucky to get anywhere.

Of course, there's always the "spaghetti theory" of novel submissions. A literary agent takes on a bunch of new clients, does very little editorial work with them, and then throws their novels out into the world and hopes at least one sticks. If it does, great. If it doesn't, no worries. At least he or she didn't waste too much time working with them beforehand.

Now, this works for some novels. I wouldn't be surprised if many successful novels started this way. They had what it took, so they stuck. Nothing in the world could have stopped them from making it out into the world.

But... I don't know about you, but I don't like the idea of my hard work becoming one of those novels that didn't stick--one of those novels left abandoned on the floor because it wasn't quite ready, or it hadn't had quite enough TLC to shape it into what it was supposed to be.

I'm not saying literary agents are miracle workers. Sometimes, a novel just isn't supposed to make it, and there's no amount of love or TLC in the world that can save it. But sometimes... Sometimes literary agents really can do amazing things. They can recognize the potential in a client's storytelling ability, and they can help shape them into making the appropriate edits and changes themselves.

Sometimes, it's all about building confidence. Many first-time novelists are so insecure about their abilities that they subconsciously hold back. They don't want to get burned, so they "play it safe" with their storytelling. They don't pour their souls into their words, because they don't want to risk someone trampling on them.

Other times, writers make rookie mistakes. They aren't sure how to structure things correctly, so they over-complicate or over-simplify. They hang on to a literary tic. They rely on adjectives or gerunds, or they turn their villains into cartoon characters because they are so excited the climax is finally happening.

I understand literary agents can't waste tons of time shaping a novel, because they don't get paid until we get paid. We can't--and shouldn't--expect them to tell our stories for us. That's our job, and we need to be able to do it ourselves.

But we don't want to relegate literary agents into middle men, either. Some of the literary agents I have had the pleasure of interacting with have been some of the most insightful, creative and encouraging people I know.

And--just like we can tell when a teacher genuinely cares about our success--we can often tell when agents are in love with the projects they represent. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and that energy often leads to beautiful things.

So where does that leave us? It leaves us with the realization that we need to look at more than just agency reputations and book sales when we discuss potential partnerships with literary agents. We need to look at things that can't be quantified quite so easily: compatibility, enthusiasm, passion, and the drive and determination necessary to follow-through--not just for one book, but for the duration of our careers.

After all, it's that intrinsic, abstract quality of "rightness" that is often the difference between success and failure. And in a business as competitive and unforgiving as book publishing, I will take every advantage I can get.

P.S.- So where do all these developments leave me? You may have noticed my extended absence from the world of blogging for the past several months. Beginning in February, I picked myself up, dusted myself off, and poured my heart and soul and everything I had into a brand-new project. It's a YA novel called ESSENCE, and I just put the final touches on it a couple of weeks ago. It's in the hands of my beta readers now, but I plan to jump back in the game as soon as it's ready. And this time, I know exactly what I will be looking for.