It was a topic that came up repeatedly during the writer’s conference I recently attended. “What is the agent’s role? Do I really need an agent? Can’t I get a book published on my own?” Some of the questions I heard were questions I also had, at least at some point in my writing journey.
If you’re a writer, especially one who is hoping to get published in the near future, you might have a few questions about agents.
I am not an agent. At the moment, I do not have an agent, although I am perfecting my work-in-progress with the intention of contacting a few agents soon. My perspective is limited and not from a standpoint of vast experience. But here are three personal observations about agents from the perspective of a writer.
Agents Have Experience
In the writing world, questions are bound to arise. “What’s the best publishing path for me to take? How do I know whether this contract is what I want for my book?” Agents might not be able to tell you the exact route you should take for your writing journey, but they can offer some good advice.
They’ve been around the block more than once. They’ve seen the end of the road for a variety of publishing options, and can advise accordingly. They’ve seen contracts, so although we might be thrilled to sign that first contract no matter what it says, agents would likely have helpful advice to offer. An agent’s experience can be vital in navigating the vast waters of the publishing industry.
Agents Have Connections
Writing tends to be a solitary activity, and writers often tend to be solitary people. That used to be okay. Emily Dickinson rarely left her house and remains one of the most famous American poets. But today, connections are big. The more, the merrier, it seems. Even if more is not better: all you need is that one connection. Your “way in” to a particular publishing house or other opportunity.
Agents are often agents primarily because of their connections. They know people. They’ve been authors or editors or played some integral role in a publishing house or related company. They can read your proposal and often know straight off who in the publishing industry is looking for a similar title or genre or how-to. An agent’s connections can be just what you need to publish your manuscript.
Agents Have Insight
In the good ol’ days, writers wrote. That was pretty much it. Okay, some fell under the category of starving artists, but it was easier to focus on solely writing and make a living from it. I’m still getting over my envy of an author who lived 300 years ago, because I read that he was sponsored for six years to do nothing but study and write. Nothing but study and write for six years? I can’t even get six days!
These days, a serious writer also needs to develop a platform, understand and utilize social media, be tech-savvy, and hone their business skills. That’s a tall order, and it can be daunting to know where to start. An agent can offer insight as to what platform a writer might focus on. They might suggest a budding author focus on a particular genre and build up a readership in that target audience.
In summary, if you love to write, and you hope to make a lifelong career (even part-time) of writing and publishing books, your next step might be researching the agent that is the right fit for you. As writers, we need help. From editors. Sometimes from illustrators or web designers or graphic artists. And often from agents, for their experience, connections, and insight. And for their friendship. After all, writing can be a lonely world; it’s nice to have someone in your corner. To advise you, pray for you, and encourage you along the way.
Who knows? Maybe you can offer them encouragement too. That’s what friends are for.
Writer’s Conference Series, Part 2
Four am. I woke up to the van’s alarm. At a writer’s conference in a lovely mountain setting, I knew the sound might disturb the occupants of nearby cabins. I jumped up to switch off the alarm, checked out the window to make sure the van was secure, and settled back into bed. I had a good two hours of sleep ahead, three if possible.
But my mind refused to comply. It was early morning on the third day of the conference. Questions jumbled into my head. “Where do I go from here?” “Is my book ready?” “What else should I do?” “Which agents should I follow up on?” “How do I know I’m making the right choices?”
How do I know I’m making the right choices?
I tend to be a perfectionist. This trait can be good, and it can be bad, depending on what I’m applying it to. When I’m editing the work of another, it is good to have a high level of professionalism. I have never heard back from an author whose book I’ve edited with a comment like, “You’ve given me way too many comments for improvement” or “I think you over-edited my book.” I’ve also never received negative feedback, and clients are usually very happy with my edits and suggestions.
But when it comes to my own writing, specifically my long-term works (aka books), my perfectionism can be a problem. Anne Lamott’s statement in Bird by Bird comes to mind:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life … I think perfectionism is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping-stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it.”
So I’m not really afraid of dying. But I’m terrified of making the wrong decision about my manuscript. I got the idea for my current work in progress (WIP) in 2012. In 2013, the first draft was complete. Since that time, I have revised and rewritten it after input from friends, other writers, and even an editing client or two. But it’s still not ready. So while finishing the manuscript, I have been thinking about other aspects of the writing process … particularly the publishing.
And I keep drawing blanks.
These days a question for a lot of writers is, “Should I traditionally published or self-publish?” I am not going to delve into that topic here, as it would be a blog post on its own (coming soon). But it is one subject I’ve spent hours of time reading, discussing, and praying about … for the last three years. It still is not clear.
Another question that has risen time and again is, “Should I get an agent?” And on its tail, “How do I know who the right agent is for me?” A fair bit of air time during the conference was devoted to the topic of agents, and my thoughts grew muddied and confused. I’ve been considering the subject for two years now. And it still isn’t clear. (Another upcoming post.)
I had also spoken to an agent the previous day who mentioned that the particular style of book I’m writing is … well, he gave me the word picture of a funnel. Hundreds, thousands perhaps, of writers producing those types of books. They cannot all be published, especially the traditional route.
So that morning, thanks to a rabbit and a car alarm, I tossed. I turned. I rearranged my pillow. I rearranged my blanket. I thought. I prayed. And I grew more confused. I began to cry, as quietly as I could.
“Why,” I asked the Lord, “after so much time trying to find clarity, am I still not sure? I don’t even know how to find the right path for my book, much less which direction to go to publish it.”
It seems silly writing about it now, crying over my book. It’s not like I got a rejection letter or a negative critique. My own thoughts and obsession with making the right choice had me in a tizzy. I knew I had to get to the core of what was bothering me so much. And it came to me.
I was afraid.
Terrified of going in the wrong direction and regretting it later. What if I self-published and ruined my chances for traditionally publishing? What if I signed on with an agent and later discovered he is not the right one? What if? What if?
I was not just afraid; I was paralyzed by fear.
But at least I had seen it. Now what could I do about it? My tears refused to cease as I asked God to help me. I didn’t want to be afraid anymore.
I felt the urging in my heart: Go back to the beginning. The beginning of what? And then I knew. The beginning of my writing journey for the book. It was an experience that had left me in tears in the parking lot of my college campus. That day, sitting in my car, I had begun to write. And those words were the dawning of the book.
A promise was its core. “If I be lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men unto me.”
Self-publishing. Traditional publishing. Blog posts. Facebook posts. With an agent; without one. My mission remains the same. It isn’t really about the questions. Yes, study. Yes, research. Yes, do the homework and the cost-counting. But when all is said and done, I am called to one purpose.
I write to lift up the Cross.
Writer’s Conference Series, Part 1
The most exciting moments of a writer’s conference is the appointments. A month before attending a long-awaited conference, I submitted a list of the top ten people I would like to meet.
I spent the week leading up to the conference preparing a proposal and practicing my “elevator pitch,” even though I knew if I had fifteen seconds to convince someone of anything, the only thing they’d remain convinced of would be my inability to speak coherently.
On the first day of the conference, I received my schedule of appointments. The fifteen-minute slots that would take place during workshops or other sessions. Two of my appointments were with authors; three with agents. I looked up the names of the agents to make sure I knew what their agency represented. I looked up the authors to figure out what I could talk with them about. I was ready.
The appointments took place in a large auditorium. Authors, editors, and agents sat here and there, names written on a folder placed on the seat next to them. I arrived a few minutes early for my first appointment. I stood a distance away, browsing a table of books for sale, slowly flipping through the pages. I finished the table, glanced at my phone for the time, checked to see if the previous appointment was over yet. It wasn’t. I moved on to the next table.
Five minutes passed. Ten. The agent and conferee continued chatting. I glanced at my phone again. I had three minutes left. The person stood. They shook hands. The person walked down the steps, and someone else walked up. My appointment had been squeezed out!
Whoa. How did that happen?
But it was okay. I had appointments remaining. I realized that I needed to cancel one appointment, as the workshop during that time slot was important to me. Three to go.
I met with an agent, who requested that I send my proposal. No promises, but better than nothing. Two to go.
That afternoon, I attended a workshop given by the senior editor of a large publishing house. The advice he gave and stories he shared seemed directly for me. I decided I should try to get an appointment with him. I headed to the appointment desk and heard the lady in charge telling this same editor that he had an appointment canceled. He nodded and left the room; I made a beeline for the appointment desk. It’s a God thing, I told myself. I now had an appointment with an editor who could make my publication dream come true!
The next morning, I had two appointments. Remember that first appointment? Waiting awkwardly, browsing books, glancing over at the conferee and agent talking, glancing at the time on my phone. Watching as my fifteen minutes were swallowed up. It happened again … twice!
But it was okay, because I was meeting the editor of a publishing house on my “most wanted” list. Everything would turn out. Those disappointments were tests. I had passed them, right? I hadn’t thrown a fit or pouted.
Five minutes before appointment time, I entered the auditorium. The editor was speaking to another conferee. I waited near that table of books I knew so well by then. The conferee rose. On time! I breathed a sigh of relief and put down the book. Then the editor stood up. He walked down the steps and left the room. He just needs to use the restroom or get water. He’ll be back. I waited five minutes. Ten. Thirteen. He didn’t return.
He didn’t return!
I pictured the book I had been writing, and then perfecting, for three years. I knew … I know … that it is good. But I did not have the opportunity to get in a word. Never mind an elevator pitch; I would have settled for a single breath to get across my book’s concept. But I didn’t have it. The conference ended.
Did I do something wrong? Is there hidden evil in my heart? A blockage to good things? Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a writer. Maybe I’ve been kidding myself all along. Is this still a test? All these questions, and more, filtered their way through my muddled mind in the days following the conference.
And I haven’t discovered the answers yet. Okay, so it’s only been two weeks since the conference ended. A few things have become a little clearer. Others are still murky. Ultimately, I have two options: keep writing, or stop writing. Which means I really have only one option.
Keep writing. Through disappointments. Through questions. Through self-doubt.
The answers will come in time. .
I came across something as I read this morning:
“Waiting is not simply another religious activity to be added to the rest. … Waiting is more than physical silence. It is a movement of the heart, a stance we take before God. Waiting is an inner acquiescence, releasing our striving and abandoning our lives entirely to the work of God. Quieting our whole selves, we surrender our activity, our plans, and our dreams. When we wait, we yield up our expectations of what God should do … Waiting is totally submitting to God and inviting God to move in our hearts with complete freedom.”
God, help me wait. Move in my heart with complete freedom, which only comes through full surrender. Inspire me to continue writing, blessed with the knowledge that writing is its own reward. Its own gift. Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from You. Help me remember the purpose for which I write. Let me write to lift up the cross. If that is all I do, even to bring one person to the cleansing grace of the Savior, it is enough.
In Luke, Jesus tells a strange story. At midnight an unexpected guest arrives. He is hungry, but you have nothing to feed him . So you go to the house of a friend to borrow some food. “Don’t bother me,” the friend says. “The door’s locked. The children are all asleep. I can’t give you anything now. Go home.” But you keep on pestering him. You are so persistent that he finally gets up and gives you what you want.
Then Jesus adds, “For every one who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.”
And his point seems to be that the secret of prayer is persistence. Keep at it, keep speaking into the darkness, and even if nothing comes, speak again and then again. And finally the answer is given.
It may not be the kind of answer that we want — the kind of stopgap peace, the kind of easy security, the kind of end to loneliness that we are apt to pray for.
Christ never promises peace in the sense of no more struggle and suffering. Instead, he helps us to struggle and suffer as he did, in love, for one another. Christ does not give us security in the sense of something in this world, some cause, some principle, some value, which is forever. Instead, he tells us that there is nothing in this world that is forever, all flesh is grass. He does not promise us unlonely lives.
His own life speaks loud of how, in a world where there is little love, love is always lonely.
Instead of all these, the answer that he gives, I think, is himself.
If we go to him for anything else, he may send us away empty or he may not. But if we go to him for himself, I believe that we go away always with this deepest of all our hungers filled.
Originally published in The Magnificent Defeat