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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.

 

 

 

What’s Behind Your Query Letter?

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Remember that famous line from Professor Marvel while he scrambles in his hidden cubby to yank levers and work a mic that make the big and scary Wizard of Oz bellow?

 

In the world of Authors Ready to Query, Professor Marvel = author and his little cubby, the real deal of the novel. Bear with me here. You might not see it just yet.

The Scarecrow calls him a humbug. Dorothy informs him he’s a very bad man. Professor Marvel’s built a huge fantasy that’s terrorized and controlled a city for ages, never mind our four adventurers, and they’re more than mad.

But man, what a show it was, right? Dude, that took some doing! I who’s watched this film probably over 50 times has a different take: all the machinery Professor Marvel had to set up to fool so many was actually quite impressive. He took an idea and an opportunity and built a whole narrative. And all of Emerald City bought the story.

Find Your Man

When we shop out a novel to agents, we better have a man behind the curtain. I’m talking tons of levers and smoke machines and mics and amplifiers. The bones of the thing must be strong and all the buttons need to fire at just the right times.

When an agent starts reading beyond page 10, things better be more than spell checked. When someone yanks aside that curtain, there’d better be something there.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!

 

It’s tempting to start querying before you’re done-done. By that I mean, on a third or fourth draft. Beta read and tested and reworked after that. Unless you’ve been cranking out books for years, you need to pace yourself and make sure all the wiring works and the nuts and bolts are tight. Developmental editors and beta readers are key to this endeavor, and they do cost. Either in cash or time—editors, professional ones, will need to be paid, and if you don’t offer your beta readers a token gift, you should definitely swap with your own beta reading time.

Before I signed with Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency, I worked with editor Angelle Pilkington. She saved my story from the muck and mire where it was frankly wallowing. I couldn’t see how to take it to the next level. Angelle helped me remove the first third and make the action urgent. By the time I queried Amy, I had a fourth draft of my novel truly ready for agent eyes. Now Amy gets all the fun of helping me wade and fortunately she’s got thigh-high boots for the gig.

What’s Behind the Curtain

Here are elements of substance expected in the YA world. Your genre may have different features, but good writing cuts across forms. And let me assume that when you decide to query an agent you are looking to build a career with some commercial success—i.e., some revenue for all this effort—and therefore you care what the market will bear and what the purveyors of literature think.

  • A hook: an opening scene that presents a problem for your protagonist
  • A driving need for your protagonist
  • A back story that may be hidden but erupts at just the right times to explain certain moments—without sounding like you’re explaining. Author and coach Kristen Lamb talks about The Wound and she will help you see why is matters so much. Round out your character till you know what’s hurt them!
  • A heady, healthy pace rooted in A Problem to Solve. If you’re writing a novel that’s one suited to of the commercial genres, think of your story this way.
  • A plot with a satisfying arc—catalyst and rising action, crisis, falling action, and resolution (see above)
  • Characters who intrigue—worthy companions for the reader’s journey
  • Voice—the unique tone and lilt and volume and features of the storyteller’s angle on the world
  • Just-right descriptions—not too wordy, not present to impress but present to seal an image in the brain

In It to Win It?

A career is built on substantive work. In this age of people cranking out a book a month, know the truth: unless you’ve got elves, you need time and grit and devotion to build a book. From cornerstone to roof, the thing’s gotten stand for the ages. So if it’s daunting to consider all this work, ask yourself: am I in this for the long haul? Do I want to build books forever?

No one ever gives Toto any credit, but if he hadn’t yanked aside that green silk curtain, we’d never know, would we? Know that the agent is even more dogged than a cute Cairn terrier. She will find out whether the stuff behind the show you put on in your query is for real. And if you’ve done the work, the right work, trust you will be hearing from someone real soon.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!

 

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.

How a Query Can Help You Write Your Novel

When I headed to the Chicago Writing Workshop to pitch agents, you can bet I brought my best boots, a big smile, and a query letter–polished to a high shine. Better than that, I had a complete manuscript. The complete manuscript came courtesy of years of hard work and several drafts of that query.

Butterfly boots by Justin. Lyn Fairchild Hawks' favorite boots.

These boots are made for pitchin’–in all kinds of weather.

A query letter forces you to figure out just what your story means and why it deserves to have a place in the market. It’s a great exercise–and a great break from the writing process–when you feel mired in the muck that is your novel and feel like pitching it over a cliff.

What have you learned about your novel while writing your query? Share below!

Story in a Nutshell

Questions you solve when writing the query:

  • Does my story have an arc that satisfies the reader?
  • Does my story have stakes?
  • Does my hero transform?

When you’re crafting the query’s brief synopsis paragraph and when you’re crafting a logline (2 sentences, max), you definitely need these answers.

Questions like these make you go back and start an outline if you have none or revisit the one you have. Because “logline” is borrowed from the screenwriting industry, I highly recommend Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for authors who aren’t sure there are stakes or arcs or transformation. The beats of a screenplay keep me sane when I am full of scenes, characters, and words. Beats are the bones I hang everything on.

The hero’s journey, which is Snyder’s essential inspiration, may not be your cup of tea. I understand. But in this age of story when many agents and publishers you’re pitching want to know how your novel can appeal to the widest swathe of readers, understanding this classic plot trajectory won’t hurt. In fact, knowing what tugs all human heartstrings is a huge advantage when revising your novel.

Appreciate that Audience

You’ve been spending all those hours alone, you and the pages. I start to feel a little odd, myself. By the third day of straight writing, conspiracy theories make a whole lot more sense to me. Because in our fevered writer brains, everything connects, right? Themes abound and machinations, webs, and intersections are constant. Our story makes all kinds of sense–in our heads. Audience? What audience?

Writing a pitch to the remote agent, the distant grail/prince/princess you desire, makes you a better storyteller. After hanging at their bird’s eye vantage point and attempting to explain the view, you see whether there’s a mountaintop (arc) and a crisis slide down the other side–fraught with rocks that rip up your protagonist’s derriere. Is there a Catalyst? An All is Lost moment? A Dark Night of the Soul?

Then when you get back to the page, you are writing for that agent, that publisher, that person who will fall so in love with your story she will sell it to many.

I write for myself, sure. I have burning urges of self to express. But I also really really REALLY want someone to listen.

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.