Finding the right question

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.

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