Andromeda: The Agent Game

We’ve all been in writing classes or conferences where some brash, garrulous novice insists on putting the cart before the horse. Let’s call him Bob. Bob has spit out one or several or a dozen unrevised manuscripts, and may be talking about a series, and maybe even a movie spin-off, before he has learned how to control POV, or even how to spell or properly format a manuscript page. (He also has strong ideas about book covers and illustrations and who will be hired to star in the film version adaptation of his seven-book series.)

There will always be people like this, and agents surely must run screaming from them.
As someone teaching a 49 Writers clinic this February 11 on how to find an agent, I was tempted to make lesson #1 “Don’t go looking for, or speaking with, an agent too early.” That’s a good point, applicable to many writers. But it’s not always true, and success in writing and publishing is often about the exceptions.

The more true statement might be that a writer should spend much, much, much more time on craft than on marketing. But at the same time, one should be ready to pitch, to understand the market, and to make connections. Being ready is what turns luck (rare) into earned luck (less rare).

The truth is, people sometimes stumble into bagging an agent. They may think they’re not ready for representation, when in fact they are, or could be, or at least would benefit from early, low-stakes opportunities to pitch and receive professional feedback.

Let’s imagine another writer called Becky. Becky has been writing for years, revising for just as many, does not count her unpublished manuscripts as “books” (because they’re not) and may not even introduce herself at parties as a capital-W “Writer.” If she has a nonfiction project in mind, she may not be ready to commit to it publicly, out loud. She prefers to toil in private. Her house is filled with boxes of notes, outlines, and partial drafts. She may have traveled in order to do research. Maybe she has kept a blog detailing her trips or her research. Maybe she has earned a small grant. Sure, she has written several articles that received good feedback, but she isn’t going to brag about that.

Bob is not ready for an agent. Becky might be.

Here are two stories of Alaskans who got their first agents, almost by accident. They were not quite ready, but they got ready quickly. An opportunity came into view and they pounced.
Eowyn Ivey, whose much-talked-about debut novel, The Snow Child, was released on Feb.1, attended the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference several years ago. She wasn’t planning to pitch her novel but then the opportunity presented itself, and Eowyn’s mother Julie, also a writer, added some nudging encouragement. The agent, Jeff Kleinman, liked what he heard of Eowyn’s concept and asked to read her work. This wasn’t part of her fantasy, and she hadn’t brought the manuscript. She had to contact her husband back in the Mat-Su Valley, and get him to assemble a hundred pages to get into Kleinman’s hands quickly. By the next day, this top agent had read the work and liked it. The rest is history.

My own story is similar. Ten years ago, I attended a conference in Aspen, Colorado, and signed up for a 15-minute meet-the-agent session. The conference provided a choice of agents, and I had heard conference participants, including some top editors, buzzing about the intelligence and salesmanship of one particular agent present. Like Eowyn, I wasn’t actually expecting to sell anything. I had fifteen pages of a new novel on hand, but not the whole thing. Still, I figured it would be a good learning opportunity. I planned not to oversell myself, and to listen as much as I talked. I knew it couldn’t hurt to practice quelling the nervous butterflies in my stomach, and I thought this pitch session would teach me what I could do better the next time around, when it really counted.

Much to my surprise, the agent really liked those fifteen pages, as well as the entire novel concept, which—a surprise even to myself– I was ready to discuss with conviction. She asked for the rest. I didn’t have the rest. But I promised to get another few hundred pages to her if she gave me six months. I expected her to forget about me entirely, but she didn’t. In December of that year, I sent her the first third of the novel, and we signed a contract for representation. I didn’t finish writing The Spanish Bow for another two years. I wrote without any stars in my eyes, because the agent had warned me how hard it is to sell any novel. But when I did finish the novel, she sold it.

It is important, and commendable, to be realistic. It is also necessary to dream. Learning about agents and markets can be a motivating factor. You may not be ready for an agent, or you may be, or perhaps you want to be ready a year from now.

Two resources:

One, I am teaching a three-hour clinic about agents on Feb. 11. For the next week, registrants will have the option of submitting agent query letters to me. We’ll critique those letters together, in the class. If you don’t know what a query letter is, that and more will be explained in the clinic as well.

Two, this year’s Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, from June 8 to 12 in Homer, will feature 15-minute opportunities to talk with national caliber agent Jim Rutman. Maybe you’re ready to talk to Rutman directly. If so, do some homework. Learn his tastes, including who and what he represents. Read this great (long!) interview/roundtable in Poets and Writers.

Maybe you’re not ready for a face-to-face. That’s fair. But get ready to learn this June, so that you’re ready to pitch the next agent who flies up to Alaska. Attend Rutman’s talk, “What to Expect When You’re Expecting,” the description for which reads: “Gain a sense of the consideration process work goes through, in the hope of demystifying the opaque-seeming process that takes place in shadowy New York. How do agents evaluate the material that comes their way?”

There will be other great opportunities at the conference as well, including a chance to hear editors and at least one agent critique participants’ “first pages,” and other seminars, including one by our own Don Rearden about how to prepare for and deal with “the end times,”a.k.a. rejection. Knowing Don, he’ll deliver good advice along with much-need humor and inspiration.

Best of earned luck to you.

5 thoughts on “Andromeda: The Agent Game”

  1. This year at the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference we have James Engelhardt, poet and acquisitions editor for University of Alaska Press, and Jeffrey Shotts, Senior Editor at Graywolf Press, as well as agent Jim Rutman. Not to mention a host of amazing faculty members and a great conference!

  2. Thanks for the advice. I enjoyed the interview with Jim Rutman, and I look forward to the workshop!

  3. Like many writers (though certainly not all), I feel really awkward in "pitch" situations. I was not a good dater, either. My default in all situations where I am talking to "industry" folks is to talk about books. When I met with the woman who became my agent, I wasn't nervous because I didn't think of it as the time to talk about me. I asked her about a book she'd edited that I love, and we talked about our favorite books. After connecting over our similar taste, and enjoying each other as readers, she asked about my book. By that point it felt totally natural to talk about it, not "pitchy" at all. It helps to keep in mind that all of us–writers, editors, agents–ostensibly love to read. That's an endless and wonderful topic!

  4. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Anonymous: Good story and really excellent point. Aside from those scheduled (and sometimes, paid-for) pitching slots, one shouldn't necessarily harass an agent by pitching. Your approach is more appropriate. On a now-defunct blog (the old Miss Snark blog), I found these three tips for what to talk about with an agent, should you happen to find some table or elevator time and want to make the most of it:
    1. What are you reading now that you love?
    2. What was your favorite book as a kid?
    3. Can I buy you a drink?

    1. Can I show you my manuscript?
    2. What advice can you give me?
    3. Can I buy you lunch?

  5. Oh, now I'm supposed to be funny AND inspiring? Why not just say I'll be "funspirational" and totally just destroy all the street cred I've worked so hard to establish? Just because of you Andromeda, I vow not to say anything funny, inspirational, or spiral ring notepad worthy. In fact, I might not speak at all. I'll just sit there and stare out at the audience and grimace occasionally. Humorous? Not any more. I'll be the Chuck Norris of literary advice. See if you think that is funny while talking about agents in a headlock!

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top