Monday, November 2, 2009

Literary Agent Appreciation Week

Sorry for the delay. Laptop is still flaky. It reboots itself about every five minutes or shuts down and stays kaput for several hours. Given that this post maybe have to come in installments. Therefore, I'm changing the scope of the event from day to week.

First off let me say I'm surprised at the number of emails and comments I've gotten that fall on the bitter side. One of my goals for this idea was to remind unagented writers, (such as myself) that agents do not exist to be dream killers. These agents have very difficult jobs and they are unpaid for much of that work. Matter of fact the only chance reputable agents have of getting paid is to find writers of quality work and then to sell that work so saying no is not what they want to do.

I have been there and understand the sting of rejection. The closer I get to landing an agent or book deal the harder those rejections hit, but I understand this is a business and I truly believe my writing career would be better off with a knowledgeable agent guiding, negotiating, and partnering with me for the ride.

Now to the stories ...

Being that this is my blog, I am starting with my own.

Several years ago I was attending a week long writing workshop with a dozen other writers. As part of this workshop we honed our pitch and had the opportunity to pitch to agents and editors.

This workshop did not use the regular five minute pitch concept popular at so many writing conferences Rather we, the twelve writers pitched in front of the entire group, and to multiple agents and editors at a time. I usually comfortable speaking in public but this was an extremely talented group of writers and every last one of them had better credentials than me. There were multiple MFA grads from very impressive universities, professional journalists who had served as white house correspondents, and multi-published authors. Here I was a bullshitting Texan who'd taken a few classes at my local community college. I was feeling a bit intimidated but i refused to let it show.

The pitches began and these weren't the garden variety I'd experienced at other conferences. if the agent or editor didn't like the hook or premises they said so rather than offering up the same standard smile and reply of, "Send me the first thirty pages and I'll take a look."

But like I said these were very talented writers so there had been quite a few requests and even some "send me the full manuscripts."

Two spots before me, an editor from a small but well-respected press said to one of my peers, "I like your premises but what's the story behind the story. What made you want to write this novel? and what's going to make a reader keep from putting it down?" Addressing us all, she said point blankly said, "If you can't answer those questions without hesitation I'm not interested in anything you write."

With only one person pitching before me I began concentrating on my answers.

All too quick it was my turn. Most of the others were pitching literary novels. I was pitching women's fiction.

I pitched my novel which at the time I had dubbed A River Without Water. It is the tale of a young woman who ran away from home at seventeen and spent the last decade blaming her father for forcing her to have an abortion. Out on the road she meets a man who has spent several years grieving for his wife who died in childbirth. A large part of him wishes his wife would have had an abortion. Neither character knows of the others past yet they recognize a common sense of loss and not only do they forge a relationship but as the truth unwinds the two of them realize the toughest questions in life rarely are black or white.

The pitch was much better and more precise than that but it's been a while since I focused on that novel and given my computer woes I can't go dig up my old query right now.

So after my pitch came the question. "Why did you write this story?"

And my answer, "I wanted to write a a novel with a pro-life slant that dealt only with the human psyche and not the legality or morality of the issue."

"So your novel is intended for an inspirational audience?"

"Not at all," I explained. "The characters are too worldly to be embraced by that audience and I purposely avoid any debate on the morality, or even legality of the issue."

"But you said it has a pro-life slant."

"That slant is very subtle and not the crux of the story. It's primarily a relationship story. The conflict stems from the two protagonist relationship with each other and their family. It's a story of healing for both my male and female protags even though they have polar opposite backgrounds and beliefs on the issue."

"So what makes it pro-life?" Was the editors next question.

"In the end, the male protag realizes that his daughter is not to blame for his wife's decision and that by loving her and being a part of her life he can be reminded of the love he and his wife once shared."

"And your female protag? The one that had the abortion. I suppose she is left on the outside feeling sorry for herself." The editors tone had turned hostile, but I tried not to let that faze me.

"Not at all. The novel is in no way judgmental. If it was I'd be throwing my main character to the wolves. Part of her character growth is realizing the choices in her past were every bit hers as much as her father and that the only way she can deal with her own grief is ..."

That when things turned ugly.

"Grief!" Shouted the editor. Why must she have grief. Not every woman who has an abortion spend the rest of her life regretting it. Not every woman ends up in counseling. Not every woman should have to explain or apologize for making a choice."

"I'm not saying every woman does. But my character does have a good bit of grief and I spent lots of time researching this story and character. i interviewed two woman who have had abortion. One who regrets it and one who does not. I have also read numerous books on both sides of the issue."

"No one with a penis between their legs has the right to write so much as a single word on the issue of abortion."

It was at that point I knew my pitch had somehow gotten personal so I simply said, "John Irving did it quite well with Cider House Rules." I then sat down.

Needless to say that editor made no requests. Matter of fact she spent to next ten minutes declaring why my novel had zero market except to Midwestern farm wives engrossed in their religion.

And then an agent spoke up. A female agent I might add. She said, "I think it great that you would tackle a book like this. And I love the concept of these two characters and their varying backgrounds on the subject. Do you have any pages with you?"

I said yes, I have the first fifty with me right now.

"Great I'll read them over lunch."

Still feeling somewhat battered I handed the pages over.

After lunch the agent approached me and said, "The writing is very well done, but I'm more impressed how you handled yourself while being unfairly attacked. I'd love to read the full manuscript."

I sent off the manuscript. Several weeks later I received my first phone call from the agent. Matter of fact it was my first personal call from any agent. We talked about the book she expressed a few concerns and asked me to rewrite a few things. I did so and while she ultimately passed on taking me and the novel on she did so again with a personal call. She told me to please keep writing as I had a wonderful voice and that she would love to look at my next project.

Yeah it hurt like hell to get rejected after such a close call but I appreciated her taking the time to call. and more importantly I appreciate her having the courage to differ from that very vocal editor and stand up for me as a writer and my project. That agent could have easily went along or said nothing. And if that were the case who knows what my writers psyche would have been like coming away from that workshop.

Part of my wants to use the agents name but given there is a minute chance the editor at that small press could read this I will not. the last thing I want is to incite animosity between myself and the editor or even more so the agent and editor.

More stories to follow. Feel free to send yours to my email travis AT traviserwin DOT com.


AM said...

Complex subject matter. It takes guts and confidence to tackle such an emotional and polarizing topic. Bravo to you and the agent who asked for pages.

And if you executed it as well as you pitched it, then one day, after you've published, I bet you'll be blowing the dust off that story.

I'd read it.

Thanks for sharing.

CKHB said...

I'm so glad I saw this post! I had forgotten to send you my "good agent" stories...

But let me just say that I would LOVE to read that novel. I'm pro-choice and not religious, and that editor was RUDE and WRONG and I'm delighted that there was an agent who stepped up for you.

I'm just going to give a shout-out to Rachelle Gardener here. She has an amazing blog with so much helpful information that encompasses all areas of the publishing industry, not just the CBA portion that she is more closely involved in...

And she has gone out of her way to answer my questions in her blog, and to specifically welcome ME as a commenter. Why is this special? Because she knows, from my comments, that I don't write the kinds of novel she represents.

In theory, the agent who requested your pages that day might have decided to represent you, and have made money from that relationship. But there is NO WAY that Rachelle could ever make a dime from my writing, because she doesn't represent my kind of book. And yet, she has repeatedly addressed issues of concern to me, and made a point of welcoming me and my differing views to her website, stating that she thinks the range of opinions makes for a richer dialogue.

She's a class act, to be sure.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

That editor was absolutely wrong. Clearly it touched a very sore spot for her. But I truly resent the sexist nature of her remark to you. And your answer via Cider House Rules was absolutely wonderful. By the same token, no woman should write a book with a male protagonist because we don't have a penis! Totally wrong and sexist of her.

And I'm sorry to hear that you've gotten such negative comments on this topic as I think it is a wonderful idea. There's a lot to be learned from stories like these if people would just open their eyes.

ssas said...

Just by her reaction, I'm guessing the book would be a big hit. Think how many people THE DAVINCI CODE offended, and how many copies it sold!

Eric said...

Travis, great post as always. I envy you, in that you've already had some experience with this process. On the other hand, I'm also really glad I haven't been ready to go through it yet either. It's rather safe to not have a completed story that I then have to create a query for. Yes, I'm taking the easy road with that position, but right now the easy road is just fine (until I get my current WIP done, of course). Oh, and the editor in question had obviously forgotten the golden rule - never take things personally.

Tana said...

That was riveting. I'm sorry you were so rudely attacked. As a woman, I have no problem with you writing about whatever you want, nor do I take offense to the subject matter. I'm really glad the agent spoke up and boosted your moral after that. You're right, who knows how that could have shaped you if she didn't. Point in case, we should spend more time building each other up. Well done.

Mary E Campbell said...

I'm not sure to what to write. I'm just so touched that you wrote that kind of story and had the courage to stand up for yourself and that an agent had the courage to ask for it. Outstanding example. Don't give up. You do have a very appealing writer voice.

Debbie Barr said...

Wow. I am impressed that that editor would let her personal feelings get so much in the way. As if men can't write about women, or women about men!

But I'm so glad that the agent helped you out so much. You definitely have a good writing voice, and both people have certainly helped your perspective.

Looking forward to the rest of the week!

Robin Lemke said...

Wow - so proud of you Travis. I think that's a fabulous premise for a novel.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

Wow! I've heard snippets of this before and I'm impressed with how you held your ground without getting defensive. I'm sorry it didn't work out for you, but I imagine that agent will always remember you.

Jackie Brown said...

I can't believe the editor's spewing insults at you and your work in such an in-your-face manner. As was stated earlier, she made the situation (a pitch session, for God's sake) personal by striking out at what was obviously a reference to an unresolved issue from her past and, in doing so, demonstrating her inability to separate the personal from the professional. Who would want to work with such a person?

Hurray for keeping your cool--you just kept pitching your story and answering her questions. Hurray for your soon-to-be agent for stepping forward and standing alongside you.

You will meet the editor again: you, on your way up; she, headed in the other direction. Blow her a kiss in passing.

WordVixen said...

Wow! And in public, too! Still, as a pro-life woman I can tell you that women are not exempt from acid spewing whatever-they-are's. We may actually get it worse since it's seen as a "betrayal of womankind", just as being a housewife "sets us back 50 years".