Thursday, April 1, 2010

Big Apathy vs Yoda, The Perfect Literary Agent

By Andy Straka

Andy Straka is the author of the Shamus Award-winning and Anthony and Agatha Award-nominated Frank Pavlicek novels. A licensed falconer and co-founder of the popular Crime Wave at the annual Virginia Festival of the Book, Andy is also the author of Record Of Wrongs, which Mystery Scene magazine calls "a first-rate thriller." The latest book in the Pavlicek series is titled Kitty Hitter (ISBN 1594148120 Cengage/Five Star $25.95).


Once upon a time, there was an unassuming writer from an unassuming town who dared to write a great novel.  At least she thought it was a great novel.  It had words and pages.  Lots and lots of words, and lots and lots of pages.  She thought they told a pretty good story.

Our unassuming writer had worked diligently on her prose. She had visited her local library regularly since she was a child and read more books than she could even remember.  She especially loved novels, and so she thought she might try to write one herself.  Maybe someday people would enjoy the story she had written the way she had enjoyed so many stories written by others. Sometimes, she even read a page or two of her novel for her friends.  They all told her she had an incredible knack for writing.  She felt she was destined to find a huge readership.                                                                                              
Meanwhile, in a galaxy far, far away (a/k/a New York City), the Book Wars slogged on.  The virtuous Federation of Writers was pitted against the Evil Empire of Apathy.  Fatigue and frustration fueled by budget cuts and other changes at publishing houses had replaced joy for many.  The book industry was flooded by manuscripts, far more than it could ever publish and hope to survive.  Tired, overworked editors and publicists searched often in vain for bestsellers and “breakout” books that would bring in enough sales to support the rest of their lists.  Elsewhere, bookstores and libraries were faced with the overwhelming task of sorting through thousands of new titles published each month.  Jaded journalists and book reviewers found themselves more and more bombarded by hype, and the reading public had begun to grow numb, drowning in a tsunami of new books, not to mention other entertainment choices.

Enter Yoda, the literary agent of our unassuming writer’s dreams.  Small but powerful, Yoda had gained a oneness with the publishing universe.  He often dined with influential publishing executives.   He wielded Publishers Weekly like a heavenly staff. Once in a while, he even entertained editors in his tiny tree house for tea. (They never minded stooping.) Yoda communed with trends.

Our unassuming writer gathered up her courage and mailed off her manuscript to Yoda’s exclusive tree house location.  (She found the address in the annual George Lucas Guide to magical literary agents.)  A few weeks later, the busy Yoda read her novel and instantly fell in love with it.  Hooray!  Success!

But, sad to say, not much has happened since then for our unassuming writer.  Her novel has apparently “made the rounds” and no one has bought it yet.  There are still a few possibilities, and Yoda remains cautiously enthusiastic about her prospects.  Keep writing and be patient, Yoda explains.  The photon torpedoes of rejection keep dropping and Yoda teaches her things.

Does the story of Yoda and the unassuming writer sound familiar? It’s purposefully trite and overly simplistic, of course, but I made it up because I occasionally need to remind myself of why I started all this writing foolishness in the first place.  The reasons, for most of us, aren’t all that complicated.  Wouldn’t we all like to have a Yoda in our corner, no matter where we might be parked at the moment on the ladder to success?  The story is incomplete though because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in nearly fifteen years of writing, the story is never over until you (the writer) says it is.  There is always another story, always another chapter, always a new beginning.

Not long after my first novel, A Witness Above, was published, a writer from Publisher’s Weekly asked me a question for a feature article they were doing on my book along with new titles from a handful of other crime writers. (The book was orphaned from the get-go when my original editor left Penguin and also suffered the misfortune of being published only four months before 9/11, yet still managed to go to a second printing.)  The magazine writer wanted to know what I, as a new author, thought about “the intensely competitive landscape of commercial crime fiction” or words to that effect.  I can’t even remember what my answer was, but it must not have been very quote-worthy because it never made it into the article.

Now I realize I may have misunderstood the question.  I had been an athlete in college and worked in medical sales for years.  I thought the man wanted to know if I felt intensely competitive toward other authors, if I thought I’d figured out some magic formula to claw my way to the top of the heap.  The truth was I hadn’t even made it anywhere near the top of the heap, not even made much of a dent, if indeed there was even a heap to climb.  I didn’t feel competitive toward other writers and still don’t.  I just had yet to learn the reason why.

My story is not that different from many others.  It took three years to finish my first book, another two years, and dozens upon dozens of rejections and rewrites before I was able to find an agent to take a chance on me.  Nearly ten years later, I still haven’t figured out any magic formulas, and sometimes I find it more difficult than ever to keep getting published, to stay in the game.   But I have been extremely blessed to have had not one but two wonderful literary agents.  (I made the painful decision to move on from my first agent to my current agent because, as fabulous as she was, she wasn’t as focused on the markets for which I write.)   And guess what?   Neither of my agents have been Yoda.  Nor have I ever really expected them to be.

If you’re in the category of searching for a literary agent, I don’t think you should be looking for a Yoda either.  Why?  Because he’s a figment of our romantic literary imaginations.  Because, agented or not, you still have to pilot the x-wing fighter yourself.  You still have to try to make the impossible run down the gauntlet of the death star of apathy and make the impossible shot.  You still have to make the magic and write the book. (If you have no idea what I’m talking about, go watch the movie again.)  The fact is the best agent in the world is going to have a difficult time selling any manuscript that isn’t all it’s meant to be.

So that then is where the competition lies.  Not with other writers but with ourselves.  Writing and writing and writing.  Searching for a better story, that elusive tale, perfectly told.  Becoming the writer, I personally believe, God intends us to be.

As I mentioned, I spent many years in sales, so I think I have at least a little bit of an idea what a busy agent’s day is like.  My number one rule when dealing with my agent is this: I respect his time.  I try very hard not to pester him with phone calls or emails or bother him about details I can figure out on my own.  My second rule is to never try to expect him to be responsible for my success.  I must retain that responsibility myself.  My job is to try to continue to provide him with the best quality work to sell, and to keep trying to make it better because I’m the one wielding the light saber . . . er, pen.

Big Apathy doesn’t care much about yours or my dream of being New York Times bestsellers.  An agent can be an important friend and ally in the jungle to help you in your writing, a critical link along the way.  But a good agent can never be a Yoda; he or she is simply a pro, and he or she will try to tell you like it is and try to point you in the right direction and then still have to sit back and root for you to make that impossible run.

And what if you don’t yet have an agent, yet, and you just can’t seem to find one?  Don’t despair.

Always remember it’s your writing that can take you where you want to go.  Nothing else.  Oh, and a trusty R2D2 laptop computer as you're traveling down that death star might just come in handy, too.

Teach you, I will.

* Plush Yoda Doll      
I'm jumping back online right now and ordering my $10 Plush Yoda Doll pictured above.   Partly in hopes that these nice folks won't sue me for using the image of their doll and also to remind me of the lesson of Yoda, The Perfect Literary Agent.


Patrick Brian Miller said...

Listen carefully I did.

Anonymous said...

This was an amazingly clever post. Made me laugh out loud.

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Andy,

I appreciate the good advice. I haven't met Yoda either. In fact, haven't managed to attract any agent at all.

I do know as a fellow Five Star author, that your novels get consistently excellent reviews. So I expect to see you on the bestseller list shortly.

All the best,

Jacqueline Seewald