Back at it
March 6, 2007 | Written by admin
Well, I flew off to Florida to speak at a writers’ conference, and that’s kept me away this past week. Florida was interesting as always: ran into longtime publishing friends, saw an inordinate number of old men wearing white tube socks with sandals, and appreciated the wonders of the Florida climate in winter. It was snowing when I walked on the plane, and it was 80 degress when I walked off. I just don’t spend enough time in Florida. If I did, I would surely have remembered to bring some shorts and Hawaiian shirts (which, to be honest, are in short supply in most of the country right now). Saw interesting little gecko-like things, discovered a fabulous Italian restaurant, and basically acted like a man who got to escape the cold weather in order to spend five days in the sun. Nice. In the meantime, of course, people have been sending in questions…
1. Jessica wrote to ask, "Is it ever appropriate to call an agent who hasn’t signed you? I’m wondering because I got an email response to my query that said nothing. No message at all, just the agent’s name, address, and telephone number — all of which were on the web site. But the site says they won’t respond to queries unless they are interested, so I’m not sure what this means or what I should do about it. Have you heard of this being done before? Is it appropriate to call and ask if further material is being requested?"
I’ve seen this before, and I understand your confusion. You send a question to one of those busy agents, who responds with…um…nothing. Or at least nothing helpful. Now you want to know if the agent is looking for something more, if he didn’t understand your question, or if he’s using a trained monkey to respond to all author queries. Beats me. My suggestion is that you first try responding by email and asking for clarification: "I’m sorry, but I don’t understand your response. Does this mean you want to see my proposal?" If you get back the same thing (name, address, phone number), it means the guy is automatically replying to everyone this way. So you have a choice. You can either (1) send him your proposal and wait, or (2) determine that this joker is never going to have the time for you anyway, tell him to drop dead (figuratively speaking), and look for an agent who’ll actually respond to you.
2. David wrote to ask, "Where can a writer find a competent, willing mentor? Most classes seem like they are geared toward novice writers. Conferences don’t set you up with lasting relationships. Great writers are busy writing. And wannabe writers are many and running over with advice, but I need something more."
A mentor is somebody with whom you have a relationship — so it’s not as easy as wandering down to Mentors-R-Us and picking one up. Most of the mentors in my life have been people I got to know socially or professionally. We built some sort of relationship, and then I began to meet with the individual and learn from him or her. For example, I worked with Rick Christian (a well-known literary agent) for years. I got to observe him in various situations, ask him questions, clarify things, and see how he did his job. I didn’t pattern everything in my life after Rick, but I learned incredibly valuable lessons on the role of an agent in the life of a writer. Some of the folks who mentored me spent considerable time with me, others talked with me on the phone or shared some wisdom via emails and letters. If you’re expecting a mentor/protege relationship to spring from a one-time event, you might have a few too many expectations of your mentor.
Consider doing a few things… First, you might talk with the teacher of one of those classes you mentioned. The fact they that he or she is in that sort of role might mean he or she has the ability and the interest level to begin a relationship with you. Second, consider joining a critique group, where other writers get together to review each other’s work. Sometimes an experienced member of a group can give you some individual attention. Third, don’t shun a conference. Those can be a great place to get face-to-face with an experienced writer and begin talking books and words. And fourth, don’t insist on a Pulitzer Prize nominee right off the bat. All you’re really looking for is someone a bit further down the path — someone with more experience or wisdom than you have, who can help you grow. Over time, you’ll begin making new relationships, and find other mentors who can assist you.
One last thought: You, in turn, need to make sure and invest yourself in someone else, who is not yet at your level. I’ve found that I grow the most professionally when I’m giving myself away. There’s something about talking through the business that forces me to improve. Every writer I know has had the benefit of those who have gone before. EVERY writer. I write the way I do because I was influenced by a handful of successful authors. I had a couple of dedicated teachers who committed themselves to helping me improve my craft. I had writers around me who shared from their experience. That’s why I remind authors that all of us are creating things that are derivative — we’re all building on the books we’ve read, the authors we’ve admired, the wisdom we’ve received. It’s why I make it a point with the authors I represent to encourage them to share their own stories with other writers. I really believe all of us are helping build the next generation of authors.
3. In a similar vein, Trey wrote to ask, "Why do you spend time at writer conferences? Do you find many clients at those?"
Well, having just returned from one, I’m in a good spot to answer that. No, I don’t I really find many clients at writer conferences. The bulk of the attendees are beginners, and most aren’t ready for representation (though most think they are). I look at proposals and try to help the author make them better. Sometimes I teach a workshop on a topic, though I’ll admit I find many conference meetings to be of the "inspirational" variety, and I don’t need somebody leading cheers in order to get me pumped up. Still, I generally enjoy attending most conferences. It’s a good time to connect with people, to sit and talk books & writing with a few thoughtful types, and once in a while I’ll see something wonderful.
I suppose I go because, for me, it’s a chance to give back to writing. I believe in that process of mentoring that’s been a part of American publishing since the days of Mark Twain. I also go to see friends and colleagues — for example, at the conference I just attended, I went to dinner with my good friend novelist Davis Bunn, went to lunch with Denny Boultinghouse from Howard Publishing, and ran into acquaintances like Ginger Kolbaba and Craig Bubeck. I also met a couple of new novelists, and found one or two ideas that had merit. I was probably there too long, since I could have cut this back a day or two and still seen the people I needed to see, but it was good to take the time and hang around other writers. I figure if I find one publishable author, it was probably worth my time as an agent. That help?
4. I need to offer an update on something I mentioned in my last post… Cec Murphey and his wife are well, staying with friends, and expecting to rebuild their home. They’ve suffered a great loss, but Cec says they’ll get through it. Similarly, Philip Yancey is home and recovering well. I just didn’t want to leave anyone with loose ends on those two items.