Remember that self-aggrandizing goofball I linked to earlier? (Hmm. I guess that one was LiveJournal only. Anyway…) Some of the commenters there, at the Agentfail blog, and elsewhere has been full of anger and resentment. In that first link, you can read a comment from agent Nathan Bransford stating that the amount of anger he’s been seeing lately makes him very nervous.
So. Author Beth Bernobich suggested an #Agentlove post. I think it’s a great idea.
Except, you know, I’m not going to talk about “love” because I’m a married, she’s married, and we have a business relationship. And I know very well that the author/agent relationship can be fraught–some writers can be a little crazy about it. So I’m skipping over the word “love” here.
Let me start off by saying my agent is a former editor–I get fantastic notes. Seriously, I have two editors working with me to iron out the trouble spots and check for flubs. And one thing I learned with the back and forthing over the end of ELBD is that, even if she disagrees with the choices I want to make, she’s on my side.
I’m really, really lucky to be working with her. When she sold my book last year, I about fell over at the deal she got me. It was utterly outside of my expectations, and I’ve been trying damn hard to be worthy of the work she’s done.
Another great thing about working with her is that she always gets back to me quickly. When I have a question about how the publishing business works–Is this a good thing? How rare is this? Should I try this or not?–she gets me the info I need promptly.
And she laughs at my jokes, mostly.
For the record, I didn’t sign with her because a pal of mine got me an in. I didn’t pitch to her at a conference. I didn’t do any of the crazy things people say writers should do.
I wrote the book. I wrote the query. I revised both thoroughly. Then I queried widely and carefully. Out of sixty I sent out, eight responded with a request to read more. Of those, three offered to sign me. It was all textbook, people. I went to Miss Snark’s archives and followed her directions step by step. And now I’m doing this professionally.
My agent is made of awesome, and I’m damn lucky to be working with her.
Hey, if you want to talk about how great your agent is, or if you want to sing the praises of an agent who did right by you, please do so.
12 thoughts on “#Agentlove”
Dear Harry Connolly,
I am the self-aggrandizing goofball to whom you refer in this post. Due to the miracle of modern technology, a pingback is sent to me when my blog is mentioned, so I have read your comments about my essay on The Militant Writer here on Twenty Palaces, and those from you and your fans on your livejournal site.
Since must obviously have a superior approach to getting an agent than I do, I thought I would send you my current Pitch and the first chapter of the novel I have been having so much trouble getting agents to read. I thought perhaps you could assist me to revise it in order to make it more marketable, or at least point out its shortcomings. Many people have commented that if I would just write better pitches and fiction, I wouldn’t end up writing an essay like the one I did about agents. So I would like to address this issue head on.
I am perfectly serious here. I will include the items in a separate message so that you can choose to suppress one or both of these messages.
The novel title: FINDING RITA
When Rita Turner finally stops dieting and actually starts losing weight, it’s not for any of the reasons she expected. It’s not due to her extraordinary ability to set herself new weight-loss challenges. It’s not because she’s managed to resolve any of the dozens of domestic problems she’s apparently brought upon herself (well, in truth they’re the fault of Graham’s beautiful, perfect dead first wife).
Rita’s return to her toned and slender former self also has nothing to do with the insults that are hurled at her by the fascinatingly handsome but darkly vindictive Dr. Graves—for whom she feels a deeply erotic attraction from the instant she sets eyes on him.
It is, in fact, a series of family crises that drives Rita to make the desperate decisions that alter her views about everyone and everything—changing not only the direction of the needle on the scale, but also the course of her life.
By turns comic and moving—and ultimately deeply inspiring—this latest novel by an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction will resonate with anyone who has ever tried to extinguish a moment of misery by reaching for a chocolate bar.
FINDING RITA: CHAPTER ONE
Yesterday morning, sitting out on the third-floor balcony of Noreen and Harry’s house in Muskrat Hollow, Rita sorted through the credit cards and old movie tickets and other little pieces of paper in her wallet until she found the folded note on which Chloe had written down the phone number to Dr. Graves’s office. Chloe—Dr. Frederick’s unkind little office nurse—had wanted to know why Rita wanted the number, and Rita considered it one of her early triumphs that she had not explained but also had not given up. She had simply repeated that Dr. Frederick had told her that she could get the number from Chloe, and then stood her ground in front of Chloe’s desk until Chloe gave it to her.
That had been back in May: four months—and at least twenty pounds—ago. Not that she’d been ready to call Dr. Graves at that point. She was hardly more ready now, but now confronting him felt like something she had to get out of the way before she could figure out what the next thing she ought to do might be. Her injured feet seemed a perfect pretext for seeing someone who was not her regular physician: they presented a straightforward, curable medical condition that would likely involve nothing more than first-aid skills and maybe an antibiotic, and require no follow-up visits.
She sat for several minutes holding the little square of folded paper in her fingertips, looking out toward the river, summoning the courage to get up onto her torn feet and make her way down to the phone.
The river was blue and cold-looking, despite the warmth of the sun. There were more and more yellow leaves in the aspen trees every day, and the sky was the amazing bright blue-gold that comes to the prairie only in the autumn. Every year Rita found herself looking for the first yellow leaves of autumn shortly after her August birthday, but this year she’d barely noticed them. She shook her head. Hanne had once told her that turning thirty was going to be no big deal: that when she finally got to it, it would be like turning a single page. But it has been far more than that for Rita. It’s been as big as a change of season.
Reminding herself that if she didn’t act soon Noreen would come home and overhear the phone call, Rita stood up, and slowly—transferring as much pressure from her feet to walls and banisters and furniture as she could—made her way into the house and down the two flights of stairs to the main floor. Pushing her nervousness aside, she lifted the receiver on the phone beside the couch and dialed the number. Almost immediately she got a message telling her that the number was out of service.
This was good news in a way. She’d noticed while she was dialing that the number’s prefix—418—indicated a location out in St. Therese, a bedroom community half an hour beyond the city limits. She’d have had a few problems explaining to Noreen why she needed to see a doctor way out there. She found the phone directory, looked up the administration office at the University Hospital, and managed to track down Graves’s new number that way. Within another few minutes she had the address to his office, and an appointment for two o’clock today.
So now she is peering out of the passenger window of Noreen’s Subaru, comparing the numbers on the buildings they are passing to the address on the piece of paper in her hand. Noreen is a confident driver who knows her way around the city, but they have had difficulty locating the address Graves’s receptionist gave Rita. Now, as they drive by the same bored-looking hooker for a third time, it becomes clear that a dilapidated stucco one-story is the building they are looking for: there is no more-professional-looking medical facility anywhere nearby.
They are in a run-down section of the city, not far from the city centre, not far from the men’s hostel, not far from the main police station, not far from the food bank. Noreen pointed out each of these landmarks in a cautious tone as they went by them, her work with various charities over the years having given her a geographical knowledge of the poorer parts of River City. The building itself looks as though it might have been a corner grocery store at one point, or a beauty salon, or an insurance office. Its dirty store-front window is covered with wrought-iron grilling to prevent the glass from being smashed. Behind the glass, the venetian blinds are closed.
“Are you sure the address is right?” Noreen asks, peering across from the driver’s seat.
Rita glances back at the older woman. “It’s right,” she says. “Fairway Medical Clinic. There’s a card in the window.”
She suddenly feels exhausted. How she would love to just fall sideways across the seat into the arms of this self-possessed grey-haired woman, and let herself be encompassed by all that soft, strong maternal warmth. But she can’t do that—Noreen would be astonished—and she must not let Noreen see how reluctant she is to get out of the car alone.
She looks back toward the run-down little building where she will finally face Dr. Graves again.
“And you have seen this doctor before?” Noreen asks.
“I have,” Rita says, opening the passenger door, turning her body and lifting her feet one after another down onto the pavement. “But not here. Like I said, it was at another office.”
As she works herself into a standing position, pulling herself up by the car door and the frame, a small elderly man dressed in a badly stained tan-coloured quilted vest and wearing a baseball cap comes out of the clinic building. He stops and looks at Rita’s feet with interest for a moment— over the bandages, she is wearing a pair of fuzzy pink mules Noreen lent her, the only shoes she could get on. Without looking up at the rest of her, the man wanders slowly away, weaving a little as he moves along the sidewalk.
“Do you want me to come in with you?” Noreen asks.
“Not at all,” Rita says, her eyes on the man, who has now stopped to chat with the hooker. “You go ahead and do your shopping. I’ll see you in an hour.”
(all text copyright Mary W. Walters)
Thank you for your time, Harry.
Mary, I’ve approved both your comments and will respond in a couple hours. I have a number of other emails that need replies and I’m day-jobbing today.
I don’t know if I can add anything useful, but what comments I can make I will offer gladly.
Mary, let me venture into commentary now. I’m going to comment on the chapter first, because I have less to say about it.
Opening with the words “Yesterday morning,” is an unusual choice, because you’re opening the book with gossip. I tried to find a link to the specific definition of “gossip” I mean, but my Google Fu was weak–it’s a term from improvisational theater, and it refers to characters who talk about people and things that are not right there in the scene. “Remember that blender we bought yesterday?” I’m pretty sure it came from a book called Impro by Keith Johnstone, which has lots of interesting stuff in it about making and presenting stories, even if it’s not all perfectly applicable.
Gossip works in novels–mine has plenty–but to lead with it makes me wonder why the character is talking about some other day rather than today.
Then the narrative jumps back four months. I was waiting for the character to hit the current time, and I thought I’d found it when I read:
(Digression: I have a terrible problem with word echoes, too. It’s very difficult to catch those in our own work)
When I read those two “nows,” I thought the narrative had jumped forward to the today of the story and that it was in third person past tense. And I kept asking myself whether she’d returned to the balcony the next day or where she was.
When the story switched to present tense, I was thrown out of the story, since I had thought we were already in the now.
So I didn’t have a sense of where and when, and I kept stopping to reread and decode what should have been perfectly plain text.
Otherwise, it’s fine. Once they get to the car, the story feels tangible and has a nice flow.
I think your pitch is all wrong.
Bear in mind that I’m not an agent, so I don’t evaluate queries for a living. I’m also not likely to be a reader for this sort of book (understatement alert!). So take what I have to say with a shaker full of salt.
What does Rita want?
What goal does she have?
What gets in her way?
I’m guessing that the book is not the story of a woman’s struggle to drop a few pounds, which she only manages because her aunt asks her to move some furniture to the basement.
But presumably, Rita spends the book trying to accomplish something. She has something she wants. The pitch should mention that clearly. *Your* pitch is all about the troubles in her life, and how they don’t melt the pounds away.
What I want to read in a pitch, though, (see the para above that begins “Bear in mind”) is who the character is, what she wants, and why I would want to spend hours of precious book-reading time with her.
Once upon a time, I horrified a writer trying to work up a description of her book by presenting her with a Mad-lib. It was this: [Title] is the story of [Name], a [Description of protagonist] who struggles to [Goal] to prevent [Consequence of failing to achieve goal].
I think that’s close to the Mad-lib I gave her, anyway.
Now, you would never want to include a sentence like that in a query, obviously. I certainly didn’t; my query synopsis is in the post linked above as “My books.”
Also, it doesn’t cover every type of book out there, Pikachu knows. However, it is a good way to clarify what your pitch will be about. It covers the who/what/why succinctly.
Then you take that information and craft a couple compelling. Let me reiterate: The Mad-lib is just a tool to clarify the pitch. You would never want to put it directly into a query letter.
As for the letter you have, here’s what it tells me your book is about: “Rita Turner, a woman with many vague problems in her life, struggles to lose weight and only succeeds when undefined family crises force her to do an unnamed something. The unnamed something also fixes her screwed up headspace. Additionally, there’s a handsome doctor who’s probably a stalker.”
(Digression, redux: “Vindictive” probably isn’t the best word here, unless he really is a creepy tire-slasher, or something.
What are the family crises she faces? What does she have to do to solve them? How does her meat-computer complicate things?
Here’s another way to look at this: The blurb on the back of a book usually focuses on the first 30-50 pages of story. It covers who the characters are, what their situation is, and what event changes things for them. In many books, the big precipitating event falls right around then, and the goal the protagonist will need to reach/problem they’ll need to solve is clear to the reader.
A good pitch only really needs to cover the early part of the book that clarifies the main theme of the book.
Okay. I have to stop typing now. I had to go to a meeting in the middle of the previous sentence, and things are getting hectic. Also, I’m having the three o’clock nap-slump.
So I’m going to post this comment without revising it or even reviewing it. Since I live and die by revision, I’m sure there are awkward and unclear parts of this post. Let me know if I should clarify anything.
Thanks so much, Harry. Your comments are thoughtful and helpful. I have printed them out and will consider them closely when I do my next revision.
The time you took on this is much appreciated.
Congrats on your forthcoming publication. Child of Fire sounds intriguing.
I’m agreeing here with Harry as a reader of the genre…the hook doesn’t really do your story justice. After reading your chapter, I’m definitely interested, but the hook didn’t give me enough information to draw me in. Explaining what she wants and what’s in her way is a great place to start. Good luck!
After considering your comments over the weekend — and again I appreciate particularly the feedback re: the query letter and am starting to develop a new one — I do have one question. Why do you protest so much that you “are not likely to be a reader of this sort of book” adding terms like “understatement” and repeating again later that you don’t read this sort of thing? Is it because the protagonist is a woman? The books I am currently reading — three that I have on the go, or am about to start, are by Chuck Palahniuk, Robert Bolano and Christoper Moore — all have male protagonists. That doesn’t deter me. Why are you so insistent that this isn’t your kind of book? You make it sound like we have cooties.
Now you’ll probably describe me as a self-aggrandizing goofball feminist, which is your privilege. But I think you are dismissing my book as “chick lit” because of its subject matter. And even if it were chick lit, which it isn’t commercially enough written to be, I don’t think that you can fairly dismiss an entire genre the way you have. That’s as narrow-minded as my saying I’m not seeing Gran Torino because I don’t get off on cars. Isn’t it?
Mary, I have no idea why you conflate I’m also not likely to be a reader for this sort of book (understatement alert!). with you have girl cooties. Actually, maybe I do, but nevermind.
It’s pretty standard for a beta reader to warn a writer when said reader isn’t well-versed in the type of novel the writer has written. That way, there’s no confusion if the reader is unfamiliar with the conventions of the genre. If a reader says “Your book is nothing but a series of conversations!” the writer can respond “That’s because it’s a cozy, and cozies are structured that way” without discounting other potentially-useful comments the reader might make.
As for your “cooties” remark, honestly, what are you thinking? Every book has a segment of the overall readership who will not be interested just because of the subject matter. Me, I am not going to read a novel about a woman struggling with her weight, especially if you throw a “fascinatingly handsome but darkly vindictive” doctor into the mix. It’s a turnoff.
There are other readers who switch off their interest in my novel because it has magic in it. No big, right? It’s perfectly natural.
But for you to suggest that my disinterest in this specific story means I’m disinterested in all books by/about women is appalling. Not only because of the insult to me, but because it implies that the only thing that matters about books about women–the single box in the “Interesting?” column that might be checked–is that it is about woman.
Is the protagonist an independent-minded private eye in the 1980’s?. Is the protagonist a young, mixed race woman looking into her twisted, haunted family history? Is she a insecure woman desperate to shed a few pounds? What’s the difference, right? They’re all about women, so they must all have equal appeal. Right?
By the way, that last bit? Sarcasm.
Look, I know you don’t believe that all books by and about women are the same, just as I know that you don’t think “I wouldn’t want to read this particular story” is the same as “I would never read a book about this group of people. That’s why I think you shouldn’t be using that argument as ego defense.
Hi, for the final time,
As you know I’ve published three books of fiction so far, and numerous short stories in literary magazines. I’ve evaluated more manuscripts than you have seen in your life, I’m sure, and I’ve taught creative writing at the university-extension level for many years. I have also been a writer-in-residence at a community college. I’m fully aware of the fact that we need to warn writers if we do not read widely in their genre. However, saying “I don’t read fantasy,” and then adding (“and that’s an understatement”) says more about my opinion of the genre than it does about my reading habits. I’m just suggesting you be more careful about inadvertently revealing your biases — I realize you did this evaluation out of generosity (or guilt after publically calling me names) but the principle is one worth noting as you set out on your literary career.
There. Enough of this. Think I’ll go write something inflammatory on the Militant Writer site. Maybe about women’s lit. But I won’t mention any names. :)
To reiterate: you took my statement that I would not be interested in reading a novel about a woman who wants to lose weight and tried to turn it into a claim that I wouldn’t read any book about a woman. It was specious and inflammatory, and if you don’t understand the difference between “I don’t like fantasy” and…
Let me simplify it for you. “Fantasy” is a genre. “Books with a female protagonist” is not. It’s pretty simple.
But to be fair, you have given me a lot to think about as I “set out on [my] literary career.” Maybe I should write a post about ego, and the way it sabotages writers.
Given that her last post:
deals with cozying up to published writers in order to get an agent, I’m not surprised by the hostility.
I’m guessing this is the reason that agents stop giving feedback on rejections. It’s probably also a reason not to Mary Sue yourself into your story. Because rejection sucks.
Yeah, I saw that, too, especially the “Tah-dah!” section.
But I have a rule that I only comment on posts after I’ve read the whole thing, and her “Writers have to network nowadays!” post was utterly skimtastic.
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