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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
How to Stay Sane While Querying Literary Agents
As I’m writing this, my search for a literary agent finds me with three agents having turned down the project based on my query alone, two agents rejecting the manuscript after reading it, three agents reading it, and two queries still unanswered. In other words, I’m at the very beginning of my search.
This is not my first time “shopping” for an agent. Back in 2005, I wrote a novel and set about finding a literary agent the same way I’m doing now—through queries and crossed fingers. Back then, I was living in Paris, France and didn’t know any other writers. The fact that I’m seven years older now, with writer friends and professional connections doesn’t make the waiting period any easier, or shorter. By all indications, the industry response standards haven’t changed much since 2005. From the time you send out your query, expect anywhere from two to eight weeks for an answer. Um, yeah. To your query. If you’re asked at that point to send the entire manuscript, book a trip somewhere. Most likely, you’ll be squirming in uncertainty for another two months.
I did get an agent back in 2005. It took me two months to get an offer with someone I admired, and I was freaking thrilled. Very soon after, we had an interested editor. Conversations continued that entire summer, with both my agent and potential new editor debating where I should live in Brooklyn when I moved there in the fall. Fort Greene, they decided. All of this editor’s writers lived in Fort Greene.
Well, I didn’t end up in Fort Greene and I didn’t sell my book. A week before I was supposed to go in with my agent to talk business with the potential editor, we got an e-mail from her. She’d changed her mind. She was sorry. The very next day, she quit her job.
The reason I’m sharing this anecdote is because I’m a very impatient person who has had to become very good at waiting in order to continue doing the one thing I love more than anything in life. Waiting to hear from editors can be awful, but at least you have an agent waiting with you. Querying agents takes an entirely different kind of stamina. Nobody’s got your back in this but you.
I hope these tips bring you a little solace, perhaps some entertainment, or in the best case scenario, both. Perhaps I’ll send an update at some point: “Hey, I got an agent!” But if I don’t, I plan to follow my own advice, take a shot of a distilled alcoholic beverage, and keep on failing better.
Get the hell off Facebook: When I say “Facebook,” I also mean Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, whatever. Simply get offline. In a line of work buttressed by rejection, there’s nothing worse than seeing that only one person “liked” the Walt Whitman quote you posted, while one hundred and thirty-seven people liked somebody’s cat. Or finding out that the literary agent you just queried Instagrammed a photo from his trip to a remote part of Nova Scotia and that this will be his last time online for weeks! Or that so-and-so just won a contest; just got a book deal; just got published in Harpers, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Granta….I don’t need to go on. There are enough articles these days asking whether Facebook makes you feel shitty to admit that yeah, it probably does. Don’t read about people’s good/bad news while waiting for your own.
If you can, vacation. You’ve finished something of a depth and breadth worth querying about, so if you can swing a congratulatory getaway, do. Try to go someplace without Internet access, and have someone babysit your phone. Until you separate yourself from the electronic instruments that allow you to maniacally check for phantom responses, you won’t find real peace.
Face it: they haven’t written back yet. Once your manuscript’s out with literary agents, you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that although this book feels like the most important thing in your life, it’s not the most important thing in theirs. Case in point: one agent has had my manuscript for three weeks now. I allowed myself to imagine that she was half way through it, maybe enjoying it? Almost finished? Done? A friend of mine ran into her and relayed this to me: she hasn’t even started it, and she left yesterday for vacation, without my precious book. So, yeah. Every second that you’re away from your inbox for the next two months is going to feel like the potential moment in which you get a response. But it’s not realistic. No agent is going to write you at 10:13 p.m. on a Tuesday. So stop checking so damn often. Step away from the computer. Step away…
Become a reader for a literary magazine. Once I started rejecting (or accepting) fiction submissions for the magazine I read for, it became easier for me to accept rejection myself. Sometimes I’ll read something that is well written, even engaging, but it doesn’t move me enough to want to see it in print. This is the equivalent of an agent saying that they didn’t “connect” to your work. Now, I’m not suggesting you start rejecting writers as some twisted form of catharsis, I’m suggesting you develop empathy for your rejector so that you can understand, and perhaps even appreciate, the thought process behind the rejection of your own work.
Get dressed in the morning. For those of you, like me, who work from home, it’s tempting to spend the query period waiting around the home office (a.k.a., the couch) in a pair of ripped Thai fisherman pants and a baggy t-shirt. Here’s the thing though: when the inevitable first rejection comes, it’s easy to sink into depression if you’re already dressed for it. Make an effort to put on clean, attractive clothes. If a rejection comes while you’re dressed thus, congratulate yourself. Take yourself out for I-survived-my-first-rejection cocktails. You don’t even need to change!
Exercise. Do not give depression a rent-free place to live. Force yourself to stay active. If possible, orient your efforts towards team-based activities or super complex dance steps so that you have to concentrate on something other than your book your book your book.
Write something else. If I’ve waited this long to suggest this, it’s because it’s really hard. But you must do it. Try writing long hand, far away from your computer. Try writing critiques of other people’s work—book reviews, for example, are a great way to ease back into your own writing while tricking yourself into thinking that you’re writing for someone else. Work on something in a completely different genre or format than the thing that you’ve submitted. Experiment. Have fun. Try.
Hire someone to be nice to you. Full disclosure: because of the nature of the project I’m querying about, I had to hire an entertainment lawyer before I wrote my book. Thankfully, in my case, this stranger has turned into a friend who actually likes my book. Nevertheless, it feels pretty great complaining about an agent pass to someone with “Esquire” after his name.
When it boils down to it, querying literary agents is about asking total strangers to help you with something, and not getting a yes. So find someone to help you. I’m not saying to get a lawyer, unless you find one who will occasionally accept payment in the form of grass-fed hamburgers, like mine. Just find someone who is neither a relative nor a sexual partner to help maintain your confidence during query period. Sure, it could be a psychiatrist, but you can also go on taskrabbit.com and find someone to send you encouraging text messages every day for like six bucks. The task itself doesn’t matter. What does is that however fleetingly, you have the sweet sensation that someone’s on your side.
Print out a talisman. It’s true that the only opinion that really matters about your writing is your own, but it’s going to be hard to remember this while you’re looking for an agent. Print out something nice that someone wrote about your writing and use it like a talisman when you’re feeling down. When you get a rejection, reach for this nice note. Keep on doing this until 1) You find representation 2) You don’t need to read someone else’s words to make you feel good about your writing because the only opinion that matters is your own.
Read slushpilehell.tumblr.com Reading the queries posted by an anonymous “disgruntled literary agent” will give you a new perspective on the things agents need to respond to, before they respond to you.
Read. Read all the time. Read everything. Read the very beautiful and the very, very bad. But mostly, read the beautiful. Because it is only through the joy of getting lost in a great story that you will recover that desire to burn your own way through a page again, to write something new, to set another challenge, to feel that particular form of visceral aliveness that comes from spinning stories.
Most importantly, don’t give up. No one can stop you from writing but yourself.
The humor columnist behind Electric Literature’s “Celebrity Book Review,” Courtney Maum is a frequent contributor here at Tin House, and sometimes we lend her out to The Rumpus and Bomb. You can find more of her work on courtneymaum.tumblr.com or on Twitter at @cmaum. Courtney’s just finished writing a novel. Duh.