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Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business

When your agent leaves the business, what do you do?

In June I wrote my friend and YA author Gordon Jack when I was in the bluest, most Anne Shirley depths of despair. “My agent is leaving the business,” I said, feeling as if I were delivering the worst and most shameful of news. Maybe it was because Gordon and I had slogged together in the querying mines many moons ago, and after many rejections, he now not only has an agent but also a two-book deal from HarperCollins. (Check out The Boomerang Effect in its awesomeness and satirical humor about high school homecomings and pre-order Your Own Worst Enemy if you need a good laugh about high school elections. Trust me: you’ll want it before midterms.)

Me, I’d worked in the last ten years with a first agent, and then worked with a second agent who was amazing, and together we had two different books on sub to editors. Two books I poured my heart and four years into, books that she edited like a goddess.

Now, the day of my writing Gordon, I had none of these things.

I expected support and empathy from him, which I definitely got, and then he said:

“You know I’m on my third agent, right?”

I’d totally forgotten this—how his first agent left the business, how another parted ways with him amicably after not being able to sell his first novel, and how today, he’s represented by a great agent. In my self-pity, fear, and worry, I’d forgotten just how tough his road was to publication. I got starry eyed when I heard “book deal” and forgot how fraught and undependable the rest of the process was and is.

I also forgot all the books I’ve published as an indie author and what readers tell me about them. Somehow, I shoved any good thing that’s ever happened, that I’ve ever done, aside to dwell on what couldn’t seem to happen now.

Best-selling authors V.E. Schwab and Stephanie Garber recently shared their powerful stories about transitions with agents and publishers on the podcast 88 Cups of Tea. Then the other day, another friend with 10+ books published told me after I shared my tale that her agent, a person she loved, just retired.

In other words, it happens. A lot.

This was one of many messages I and other authors recently shared at the North Carolina Writers’ Network publishing panel, Patience, Passion, Strategy: Choosing Your Publishing Path and Finding an Agent. Nancy Peacock related how she had to part ways with her first agent and how her current agent helps her now. Russell Johnson shared how 150 queries and querying different novels found him his current agent. Stephanie Moore, a successful screenwriter, talked about how she once had two agents—one film, one fiction–and just parted ways with her fiction agent. She and I both just applied to Pitch Wars. Tara Lynne Groth is just embarking on her query journey and has a strategy you should check out. If one clear message came through from all of us, it’s that this business is full of variables and constant change. It demands great patience and great adaptability.

I got the courage to tell my story at this same panel—courage, because so much social media, my own included, is full of self-praise and celebration, as if nothing ever goes wrong. I mentioned the journey of the last decade. I also shared this quote:

“If I stop one person from quitting by being transparent,

then I’m doing a good thing.”

– V.E. Schwab

I shared the formula I’ve found—it takes talent and perseverance and luck, AKA timing and/or connections and/or resources. When I mentioned that formula to the friend whose agent just retired, offering this formula as if required all equal-part ingredients, she laughed and said, “Oh, it’s more than 50% luck.”

So if that is indeed the case, then luck shows up for those who show up all the time, right?

I won’t stop showing up.

“Success is a thing so largely out of our control.

Overnight Success is almost always a myth.

Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit.”

– V.E. Schwab

 

In a future post I’ll talk in more detail about my Swing Away campaign (and much thanks to Liz Gilbert for helping me come up with the right tagline). How I’m back in the querying saddle again, using Publisher’s Marketplace, Manuscript Wish List & #MSWL website, and QueryTracker. I’ve got my agent lists, my query polished to a high shine, my synopsis, and a more-than-ready manuscript for my latest book. My first book is getting another look as well, and it actually may get a lot better thanks to that second look. When we began subbing it out in 2016, #MeToo and Trump had not yet happened, and when you write a book about journalism and sexual assault, it needs to be timely and eternal. I have some ideas for some upgrades.

It’s all good, as they say around here in North Carolina (draw out “good” to a three-syllable word, if you please). I mean like my husband’s song, “It’ll Be Alright.” I’ve got ideas for what to do should none of this work out, and 50 pages of a brand-new novel I’m very excited about. A lot is happening in my life right now, and it’s all happening for very good reason.

If you’re in the middle of a deep valley of Writer’s Limbo…and if that valley is storm-cloud full of the shadows of death, here’s what Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear that helped me. Why must you do this writing thing? Can you ever NOT write? Try to stop. I can’t.

Look what I wrote when I already had an agent and was beginning the book that I had to discard and start over and that just got subbed out—and am now querying again. I had to find a way then to keep going with a brand-new project, even as my baby I’d spent three years on was being subbed out. The writing challenges never end.

Embrace and adore the bumps as much as the tiny bits of glory that come your way. You must find, as Gilbert says, just which “flavor of shit sandwich” you prefer.

Because trust: that person who tells you it’s all one big glory ride? Who has nothing but great news to share? They’re either extremely lucky, or they are lying.

 

Did you know there’s even a hangout spot on Twitter for those rejected? #ShareYourRejections

 

“This is an opaque industry. It’s designed to make you feel like an island. So that when something goes wrong, you feel like the only one going through it. The pressure on authors is to put forth only good news.

You must come in with the mental and psychological preparation.”

– V.E. Schwab

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins.

Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”

– James Baldwin in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

 

All you storytellers out there? Hang tight. Stick with it. It’s all going to be okay.

 

 

 

Make Defeat Your Fuel

More than halfway through my latest novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I keep going. Writing is a business full of few favors, lucky breaks, or sudden hits.

One thing I’ve figured out after many years in this game is that defeat is my fuel.

Wins? They’re my booster rockets.

Whatever you’re striving for now, how have you transformed defeat?

Let me know how you get past quit. Share below!

It’s a Marathon? Yes and No

We’re all charmed by the debut novelist’s story, that bestseller so swift and effortless in its rise. It’s the Very American Dream of Young Thing Makes It Big. We’re most thrilled by the young and pretty ones who finish first, and we’re much less curious about the marathoners right behind them—sweaty ones who’ve been in this game a while.

I have a writer friend who “hate reads” work by celebrity authors under 30. She’s not yet 35. I laugh and tease her about it and yet I completely understand. The nature of this game inspires envy and competition. Hard work and all the countless hours logged while your skin wrinkles and your hair grays—that’s not a sexy story that our culture tends to celebrate. And if that’s where you’re living, in Hard Work World, it’s easy to believe no one really cares about what you’re up to.

The publishing race is a very narrow path, the tightest of pipelines, and so where the marathon metaphor breaks down is the assumption that the first to finish is always the best.

Actually, all those bringing up the rear might be bearing gems—it’s just they can’t get attention. Publishers tend to look backwards when gambling on a book—what’s hot now? What’s the trend? Let’s go with what worked before.

Most of us who make it go hard and get defeated for years. Not just two or three. Decades, friends. Decades of hearing no or not now.

Like one editor said about my novel, @NervesofSteel, that’s been on submission:

Both hazing and sexual abuse in its many insidious forms are issues that are important to me to talk about, and feel especially important with the public conversations happening right now. But I want to approach the topic with care, as much as I also want to support transparency…I don’t think I’m the right one to champion it—and I fully believe a project like this deserves to have a champion.

Now I could take this feedback and tell myself to shy away from tough topics like hazing and sexual abuse. They’re a hard sell, right?

But instead I say to myself: This is not defeat. This is a chance to find a way to write about these issues so that editors want to sell it. How do I do that?

Or maybe it’s my strong genes of Italian rage that makes me throw these gesticulating hands in the air and holler

Minerva, AKA @NervesofSteel, she deserves a home!

Trust she’ll get one, one day. Getting mad revs me up and sends me back into the fray.

Believe Your Art is Meant to Be

The trick is in believing your art is meant to be. Refuse to believe you’re cursed, that you’re destined for last, or that your work has no place in the world.

There are signs to quit, and there are signs to keep going.

Maybe I should have seen the 100-some rejections back in 2009-2010 from various agents as a sign that a) I’d never get an agent and b) just go ahead and accept defeat.

Instead I paid close attention to the personalized rejections, the request for partial reads, and the requests for full reads. I took notes, asked questions, and kept querying.

In 2010, I signed with my first agent.

But maybe I should have really seen the signs back in 2011 when she missed several emails and I had to re-send them. When she tended to speak in generalities when reading my work, saying, “Where’s the story?” instead of “Try this/fix this.” I started to question my novel. Maybe my writing wasn’t worth attention if she didn’t answer my emails or couldn’t tell me exactly what to edit. Maybe I needed to take the hint and stop? (The same book we were ripping up, it was a runner-up in the 2011 James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest.) Maybe I should have packed it all in right then.

Instead I did three rounds of revision with her and when there was no sign the book was going to get subbed out, I chose to part ways, amicably. I knew in my gut the latest revision was worth something, and that it was time to tie a bow on it and go indie.

So I applied for a Elizabeth George Foundation grant and received a large one.

I used those funds to build a professional website, to fund the publishing of three books—developmental editors, copy editors, cover designers, and book formatters—and to fund a book trailer.

How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought from Lyn Fairchild Hawks on Vimeo.

And that’s just the novelist part of my journey.

Keep Submitting

Parallel to all this, I was writing literary short stories, study short stories in my own private, personalized MFA program, and querying various literary magazines. Maybe I should’ve seen the signs screaming STOP when I struck out on several magazines—sometimes waiting six months to a year to hear—or hearing nothing.

Instead I listened to the times I became a finalist in contests—like “The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future” winning first prize with AROHO and funding my first Macbook Air, which felt light as a feather and sticks with me to this day. That same story just made it last month to the quarter-finals of the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story contest.

 

I didn’t make it to the semifinals, but guess what? I’ve entered a few more contests. My short stories have won and placed before. Don’t stop believing.

Or there was a time I got a call from Stanford Magazine. That short story that didn’t win our creative writing contest, might there be a potential memoir piece buried there, one you’d be willing to try? the editor asked.

I’m in, I said. The editor saw the autobiography within. That led to “Gramma’s Day.”

 

Make Fail Your Fuel

Maybe all the stresses of the day job and step parenting—countless frustrations and fails on those landscapes—should have told me to ease up, relax, and chill on my weekends instead of scraping and scrapping after this writer’s dream.

Instead I held book signings and entered contests and applied for grants.

Maybe my indie publishing experience, which has taught me that no matter how great you think your books might be, you must have the time and resources to market and promote—maybe that realization should have shown me the door to this business. Hey, you! Woman with the day job, you don’t have time to write and hawk your wares. Try something else.

But instead of writing all my indie work off, I used it as part of my bio to query agents again with the latest novel. And after many a query, I landed my amazing agent, Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency.

Now I get not only timely critiques that made @NervesofSteel and my current project, No Small Thing, tons better, but I also get an answer to my email in under 48 hours—usually 24. Stunning. I watched her sub out a book we both believed in all last year—always its champion.

No Small Thing right now might be the next big thing. Gambling on it.

I’m still at this? Are you?

Let me know how you get past quit. Share below!

 

Or watch some athletes tell you how to make defeat your fuel. Michael Jordan and Serena Williams and Peyton Manning all get you to your feet in this video about how losing can be the biggest motivator.

Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.

Remembering Fred Fairchild

Now that’s a ring-tailed doozy.

 –Fred Fairchild

This past October 11, my Grampa would have been 100 years old.

A jokester, singer, and actor, my grandfather had a way with words. My father remembers holiday dinners with my grandfather making speeches that would begin like this: “Now that we are all stuffed with sage, I would like to introduce the sage stuffed with turkey.” I would make Grampa repeat his famous expressions, “ring-tailed doozy” being my favorite. “Grampa, what’s a ring-tailed doozy?” I’d say. He’d give a deep, hearty laugh because he found my constant questions amusing. I don’t recall his exact answer, as it’s one of those idioms beyond exact definition, but I can imagine him saying,  “A doozy, now that’s something. But one with a ring tail? Then you really have yourself a problem. Hoo boy!”

Grampa composing a Christmas poem

Grampa composing a Christmas poem

Grampa was a smart, generous, ethical man. He couldn’t stand bullies, so he had no trouble telling off those of his youth or the fearsome father-in-law. He ran a dairy seven days a week (open on Christmas Day, too); was a Kiwanis member for 29 years; and also was a Mason and a Shriner. A Dale Carnegie student and instructor, he preached the power of mind over matter. You make your life and no one else. He said that if you wanted to be a good conversationalist, all you have to do is let people talk about themselves.

He sang in a men’s choir through his late seventies. His deep baritone would have made a great radio voice. The story goes that he met my grandmother, Madelyn, in D.C. when they were both auditioning for a play.

“She’s for me,” said my grandfather’s friend, pointing at the very attractive maiden who happened to be a model.

“No, she’s for me!” Fred said, and made sure he got that gal. Handsome and witty, my grandfather no doubt nabbed her attention in an instant.

Soon after they were married, he left his D.C. job with the Department of Agriculture to return home and help my grandmother’s family at their dairy in the small town of Wheatridge, Colorado. It’s a choice that made sense in the 1930s, even though D.C. might have been a place where both he and my grandmother, also a government employee, might have found great careers and artistic success. His generation faced an economic meltdown, world wars, and social mores that could easily thwart those with artistic yearnings. It was a time to buckle down at a guaranteed job, do your duty by your family, and shove that safe money under a mattress. I wonder if Grampa would have taken to the stage or studio if he had come of age in the 1980s with all my options.

My sister got the singing voice and performance gene, and I got the way-with-words gene. We were encouraged from a young age to pursue our artistic dreams. Now we find the only things blocking us are time, laziness, and fear—though I suppose the right dose of luck wouldn’t hurt either. No matter what, I’ve always felt that my life has had options rather than directives. As Grampa once said, “Only the individual can change his life.”

Fathers' Day, June 16, 1990

Fathers’ Day, June 16, 1990

After he visited us in 1982 while my parents were on a trip, I sent him some of my poetry. I was 13 and already full of writerly ambitions, and Grampa was so good at making up verses on the spot, I wanted to know his opinion of my work. The other day, when I was going through a shoebox of mementos, I discovered the letter he wrote me back.

If you can write poetry like you do at your age (and sober) imagine what you could do if you partook of a little bubbly (or grape). I am not suggesting that you start drinking but I love your free style in writing and your active imagination. It’s beautiful.

Not being an expert, I cannot criticize your writing but I do suggest as soon as possible that you get professional advice from a writing expert to steer you in the right direction and give you some of the finer points in context as well as style.

You probably have a better start now at your age with your innate, natural ability than many do in their twenties.

I sometimes wonder if Grampa had my same deep ambitions to make art. He certainly had enough talent in several arenas. We think now that he fought unspoken depression at the time he wrote me this letter, and even long before that, but you would never know when you read his words. He had weathered a number of setbacks by 1982—the loss of my grandmother, health issues, and investments gone bad. He didn’t have the energy of a man who once was president of the DC National City Players or who led the Denver Dairy Council. He didn’t speak of his struggles, like many men of his generation. He didn’t blame anyone but himself for events in his life. He kept cracking jokes. And he found a way to send encouraging words to a 13 year-old who dreamed of one day writing a book as good as Anne of Green Gables.

Grampa's one known modeling stint, for Bolle sunglasses, with the perfect caption: ATTITUDE IS AGELESS.

Grampa’s one known modeling stint, for Bolle sunglasses, with the perfect caption: ATTITUDE IS AGELESS.

I wonder what Grampa would say now if I could show him my books, share my worries, and tell him about my dream to spread my stories.

I think I found the answer on a questionnaire my sister gave him for her high school genealogy project, in response to a query about difficult obstacles and how he faced them.

He wrote: “To thine own self be true. Believing will make it happen. Don’t give up.”

Grampa, I won’t.

Plus, if I did? Hoo boy! Now that’d be a heck of a ring-tailed doozy.

Meeting C. Hope Clark

When C. Hope Clark announced the debut of her first novel, Lowcountry Bribe, she shared in her weekly Funds for Writers newsletter her plan to tour writers’ groups.

What a great idea, I thought. Since her weekly FFW emails share contests, grants, agent/publisher resources, and editorials on market and craft, she’s able to talk not only books but also about every aspect of the writer’s life. I wrote her immediately, since I already belong to two groups and am starting a new writing partnership. I teamed up with my parents, not only writers but also consummate hosts, and offered Hope a place to stop along her tour.

Last night we saw yet again why many view Hope as “the Oprah of the writing world.”

  • She’s a wonderful storyteller. As a friend commented to her, “You had us mesmerized.” Hope talked easily about the grueling process of birthing this book (14 years!) and personal events that inspired the novel, such as being offered a bribe while working for the government, pursuing criminal investigations, and working alongside federal agents. 
  • She’s been through it. Let me say it again: 14 years. This is the story that most writers relate to, as not many of us are Snooki and Kim Kardashian who can say, “Book?” and poof, someone writes it for them. For years she shared her work with local critique groups and an international online writers’ group even though she was told her first draft “sucked.” She kept showing back up with new drafts. One of the most encouraging stories was about the very first draft of the novel. She deleted it off her computer to resist the temptation to repurpose anything, but she did shelve it in hard copy. When this past year her publisher, Bell Bridge Books, sought a title, she stumbled on the infant draft. The publisher had just sent her “Lowcountry Bribe” as a possibility. Hope, 14 years prior, had thought to call her work, “Lowcountry Bribery.” There was a collective “ahhh” in the room when we heard this story, and here’s what I got out of it: No matter how bad that first draft, believe that its existence in your writer’s life serves a purpose. 
  • She can laugh at herself. She noted how every trauma she’s been through has ended up being useful later on. Writing can make meaning out of the mess we call Life, and Hope talked about taking horrible moments and reconstituting them as fiction. She also admits to being a shy writer who’s figured out how to talk to large groups. You have to have a sense of humor to overcome that kind of discomfort. You can check out The Shy Writer, one of her first books, to learn about how one overcomes the fear and challenges of getting outside the writer’s cave.

I read Lowcountry Bribe quickly–ate it up like a good meal–and know I’ll buy the next book. You can read my Amazon review here. Let’s just say that Hope’s Carolina Slade is a the perfect protagonist writers need as a model for big choices, big action, and big trauma. She is the opposite of the meandering, in-your-head, do-nothing characters that plague many novice manuscripts. I add Carolina to my list of writing prompts of how to kick start your pathetic characters.

I loved the book, and I’m not a mystery reader. I just did a genre switch–unlikely for someone in their fourth decade of reading–and I credit Hope as a person. Hope, the encourager of writers, is the reason I bought her book. I felt like I had gotten to know her over the course of newsletters and blogs, and I cared about her success with this book. 
Hope’s story and how her work hooked me is a great example of 21st century reading experiences and how flat our world has become. I would never have met Hope without the Internet. Maybe a subscription to Writer’s Digest in old-school print format might have made the connection, as she’s written for the magazine and also won Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites for Writers for 10 years.  But the relationship we have built through her blog, e-newsletters, Facebook posts, and tweets, and her answers to my emails, is a product of today’s online publications and social networking.
Hope walked out of the car, a four-hour ride to our side of the world, talking about the edits she’s doing on the second book. After several hours of hob-knobbing with fellow writers and fans, she got back on the road to edit some more. When I wonder if I can get up the energy to take up my manuscript in revision yet again, I will think of Hope, get hope, and start again. 
Writing Prompts:
  • Have you met an author lately? Attend a book talk at your local bookstore and meet someone new.
  • Have you crossed a genre line lately? Read a book outside your typical tastes and see what happens.
  • Have you subscribed to Funds for Writers? Check out Hope’s list of contests, publishers, agents, her advice and editorials, and other resources, and make a commitment to follow through on a bit of advice.