by Annabelle Robertson
“How can I get an agent?”
That’s what every wannabe author wants to know – the question posed most frequently at book-signings, and the one readers always ask published authors about. It’s an important question. You can’t get a book published without an agent, after all. Not really. And landing one – a good one – is no easy task.
But, for the vast majority of hopeful writers, asking about an agent is a bit like a new flute player asking how to get an audition at Carnegie Hall. It’s just way too early to be worrying about that.
Years before my book, The Southern Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You’ve Caught Your Man, was published, I dreamed of being a writer. I had been the editor of my high school newspaper, and I longed to be a journalist. Because we moved to Europe when I was 18, however, I didn’t go to journalism school (that's kinda hard to do when you don't speak the language). But during college and graduate school, however, I wrote plenty of short stories and essays. The A’s and professorial praise were enough to fuel my dreams.
I wrote about what I knew, as I was told to do. I’d practiced international law in Switzerland, working for the United Nations and as corporate counsel for an American bank, so when I began my first novel, my main character was an American lawyer from the South, who just happened to living in Switzerland.
Of course, I never thought I was Pat Conroy or Rick Bragg. If anything, I was afraid to write, for fear that I wouldn’t live up to the awe-inspiring Conroy- and Bragg-level standards. But, deep down, I knew I could probably write a book and get it published, if only I worked hard enough. How hard could it be?
A lot harder than I imagined.
I began by reading about 50 books on the writing craft – everything from dialogue and plot books to tomes on theme, voice and characterization. I highlighted the pages of these books and did all the exercises. Then I bought more. I was determined to make up for what I hadn’t learned at the University of Geneva.
Next, I taped a sign above my desk that said, “Writers Write.” And then I wrote. Five nights a week, from 9 to 11 p.m., and all day Saturday, every Saturday, I slogged it out in our crappy walk-up duplex in Decatur, which had no central air-conditioning. Week in and week out, I worked on that novel. I even wrote on vacation. In fact, I took vacations, alone, just to work on my book.
Two years later, I called my husband into my home office as I typed those greatly anticipated words, “The End.”
I was thrilled. I figured I’d have an agent within a few months – a year at the most.
It took me five.
What I didn’t realize at the time (although I had been told many times) was that no matter how talented a writer may be, every first draft – from every writer – is bad. Usually very, very bad. And mine was no exception. Author Anne Lamott, in her book, Bird by Bird, which talks about the writing life, calls them “shitty first drafts.” And, as any good writer knows, first drafts truly are. But we don’t really get that until we’re established. We novice writers think our work is pretty darn good, and we don’t want to hear otherwise.
For some reason, we tend to wear blinders – big ones – when it comes to our work. “Talk to the hand! I know it’s good. My best friend said it was!” We want to get to center stage as fast as possible, and we tend to believe, rather naively, that writing is something that can be mastered easily and quickly. As Rita Mae Brown says, however, “It takes as long to learn writing skills as it does to become a neurosurgeon.”
This, I have learned, is an understatement.
I know just how disheartening this learning period can be for writers. After all, I was there myself, not that long ago. But consider this: Your book must compete with the 200,000 others published each year, of which a mere one percent sell more than 5,000 copies. A full 98 percent of all books published, in fact, sell less than 1,000 copies.
So, to be a success (a task that has become monumentally more difficult in the past two years), your book simply cannot be mediocre. It has to be phenomenal. Not only that, but when it comes to wowing an agent, you’ve got one shot, and one shot only. Do you really want to take yours now?
Perhaps you do. You’ve work-shopped that manuscript (or book proposal) to death. You’ve rewritten your book, again and again. You’ve put in the time, and you know you simply could not make it any better. It’s ready to go and it’s very, very good – or so say all the non-relatives and unpaid friends who’ve critiqued it.
Well, if that’s your case, darlin’, and you’re pretty sure you’re ready for the big time, then congratulations for gutting it out. I have no doubt that with a little perseverance, we’ll soon be reading your book – and you can stop reading here.
For everyone else, I invite you to pull up a chair and pour yourself some sweet tea. Sweet tea is good. But experience is better – much better. And if there’s anything we Southern Girls like to do, it’s share our experience and hand out advice – especially if we can save someone a little heartache.
Here’s my take, for what it’s worth, on what you really need to do produce the kind of manuscript that will wow an agent:
1. Read books about writing. You can get them online, from the library or a book club. I joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club and, thanks to their generous “buy four get one free” policy, now own a small library of writing books that I still refer to. These books were not only great fun to read; they also fueled my inspiration, giving me lots of ideas about characters, plots, themes and other literary devices. As I read them, I not only learned to write. I wrote my book in my head.
2. Read books in your genre. If it’s Southern fiction you love, read everything written by the authors on this site. They are phenomenal. Then move onto the bestseller lists. Examine these books just as an editor would, studying their structure, style, content and voice. Successful writers will not only give you fresh ideas; they’ll also improve your vocabulary and teach you how books work – everything from characterization and the all-important plot arc to inserting back-story and that illusive concept of “voice.”
3. Hang out with writers. Writing is a lonely discipline, and you’ll need likeminded people to encourage and teach you what’s what. Visit bookstores, where you’ll find future authors lurking in the coffee shop or in front of the reference shelves. Check out the local library or the classified ads section. Run an ad. Go to author readings. And don’t be afraid to talk to published writers. I used to do that, and I made friends with some of the very writers I now count as colleagues. They helped me tremendously, and it’s wonderful to see them zooming to the top of the bestseller lists, many years after just getting published. Now, when people approach me, I merely see it as “paying forward” all the help I’ve received.
4. Attend writer’s conferences. You’ll learn lots about the craft and the business of writing, as well as the all-important publishing industry. You’ll also meet published writers who may mentor you and perhaps even give you a quote for your book someday – which agents and editors love. Network. Listen. Take notes. And learn as much as you possibly can.
5. Find or create a writer’s group. My group, which I formed after we all met at a local writing conference, consisted of four other writers at different stages of their novels. They taught me things I could never have learned otherwise, and pointed out mistakes that I should have seen in my work, but didn’t. They encouraged me, supported me and gave me wonderful suggestions – especially when I got bogged down. Our weekly evenings spent laughing, dreaming and scheming are, to date, some of my happiest memories ever.
6. Have your writer’s group critique your entire manuscript. Then rewrite the book. You need their objectivity (and they need yours). Be especially sure to take their advice when they’re all in agreement.
7. Give your latest rewrite to at least three other people who are not afraid to tell you the truth. These volunteers should not be close friends or relatives, who will be tempted to equivocate – and who will unconsciously read your speaking voice into the manuscript. They must be objective. Have them edit it, line by line, and provide a written critique (if they will). If their advice is vague, ask probing questions like “What did you like best?” “What did you have trouble believing?” and “What would you change?” Make rewrites accordingly.
8. Be open to criticism - very, very open. After rewriting my novel no less than three times, a published novelist (now a 10-time New York Times bestselling author on this site) read my manuscript and loudly pronounced me a “future bestselling author” to anyone who would listen. I was thrilled. But, before I could bask in the praise, she brought me back down to earth with a few “suggestions.” Those suggestions required yet another rewrite of my novel. But I didn’t hesitate. I went straight back to the drawing board.
When my author friend heard that I was rewriting the book again, her jaw dropped. “Do you know how rare that is?” she said. “For a wannabe writer to accept that kind of critique? Much less put in the work?”
“No,” I replied. “I’m just doing what you told me to do. I figure you know what you’re talking about.”
She laughed. Then she said, “And THAT is why you’ll eventually be published, Annabelle.”
She was right. Nowadays, I’m a fulltime journalist, so I get edited every day, and the thought of rejecting those edits seems pretty strange, indeed. In fact, because of my career, I now know the difference between a good editor and a bad one. A good one improves my writing. A bad one says, “Way to go.” The problem is, the better your writing becomes, the harder these editors are to find. Yet we still need them – all of us.
So don’t fight the critiques. Embrace them. And remember that most people who read our writing have a huge investment in our feelings. When they give us feedback, they’re trying to be sensitive, so they usually couch things in roundabout ways. This means that when they do tell us something isn’t working, it probably isn’t. In fact, the problem they’re describing is probably much, much worse than they’re even willing to admit.
Writing is a business, and if you want a career in the field (as opposed to that hobby that takes up all of your free time, pays nothing and bores your friends to death), you will just need to accept that there are certain requirements to succeed. Remember, no one is asking you to change the color of your hair. They’re telling you what you need to do to succeed in the industry of your choice.