Archive for January, 2009

Finding the right question

January 21, 2009

I have begun compiling agents. From acknowledgment pages, from people, a few here and there: the list is short, but I’m beginning to find places to look. I’m researching the names I have, which begins straightforwardly if they have websites. I have more work to do along these lines, likely a lot of it, but I’m getting on to the next step, and that’s the hard part.

It’s the one most of the guides I’ve found don’t talk about. When I was job hunting, the first part was self-reflective: defining what you were looking for. The second part was networking. You have to ask questions — but you have to ask the right ones. What I’m looking for now are the questions to ask.

The best way to find an agent or a job is to know someone who knows one. When I was looking for a job, I learned how to ask for help so that I didn’t intrude. The right question was: would you talk with me for ten minutes about what you do or do you know anyone I might talk to?.

When it comes to agents, there are two standard approaches I can see. The better and harder one is to find a person who can recommend me to an agent. The other is the query letter. In the first, in some cases, a variation on the job questions may work. In the second case, I think the right question is a variation on: may I tell you about my book.

It isn’t would you publish my book. I’m guessing here, but I know it frustrates me when someone gets in touch with me at work and says, ‘would you write a story about about me?’ I can’t answer that question until I know more about them; it’s no good asking until they have told me what they are doing and why it’s exciting.

And I want to make the offer. I just put that into words, and there are reasons behind it. I want to feel confident in any story I assign. Anyone is welcome to give me story ideas, but no one is welcome to press me to commit to a story in a hurry. What I run is my responsibility, and the people who want stories from me don’t know the constraints I’m working under.

Once, I asked for information from a PR rep, and she wrote back to say she had set up an interview for me. This put me in an awkward position; I had wanted color to fill out a press release, but there were a number of reasons why I could not have written or run a story about her organization and event then if I had wanted to. I had to write and tell her to cancel the interview.

Some questions can close a discussion before it begins. So I can appreciate that it is important to ask the right question. Ask it as well as possible — ask it at the right time — ask it knowing that agents want good books the way I want good story ideas, and that we both want good writers. But find out how to ask it.

I say this humbly. I’m a brown trout in a beaver pond, and I like it that way; I know these are pilot whales and humpbacks and belugas I’m trying to call, and that’s why it feels so large. But whale song is a marvel when you can hear it right.

School’s in

January 11, 2009

My weekly magazine hit 40 to 48 pages a week shortly after my last post here. It stayed a weekly magazine, 16 to 24 pages, through the first week in November. And then I plowed through the last five chapters of the fourth draft of my novel. So my prediction in June came out right, and likely will as long as I have this job: in summer, I’ll have less time to write here. But now it’s a new year.

And I have a book to sell.

Yes, it still needs work. But there comes a time when you have to try to do something with it regardless. It has a structure now; it has the shape of the book it will be. Revisions won’t mean taking it apart and putting it back together, as the last three drafts have done. So it’s time to start working on the next part.

I went down to the local library and checked out most of its books about literary agents. That makes four, all five to ten years out of date. (Any that look useful I’ll look for in an updated edition.) I’m trying right now to get a sense of how the process works. It’s huge, and I’ll need to break it into manageable pieces, but I can’t cut it til I’ve got it assembled. (Like pie.)

So I’m going to be talking a lot about it here. As I figure out what I want to know, especially if the books won’t tell me, I’ll be thinking things through here, trying to figure out how to act on it and what questions to ask.

Here’s a start. (more…)