Archive | February, 2011

Finding A Literary Agent: Notes From AWP

22 Feb

At AWP, I attended a panel called “Love at First Query: Agents and Authors Share Strategies for Falling in Literary Love” in which panelists discussed how to find an agent and maintain a healthy relationship. The panelists included agents Paige Wheeler, Gordon Warnock, and Michelle Brower, as well as authors Bret Anthony Johnston and Matthew Gavin Frank. Here are my gleanings:

How do you get an agent?

Referrals (I would venture this is the best way), writing conferences, and queries (carefully researched and crafted!) are all good ways to initiate contact. Agents also read articles, stories in literary magazines, and blogs and contact potential clients when they see something they like. Johnston emphasized that it is actually quite easy to find an agent but hard to find a great agent: writers should be careful and make sure they’ve found someone passionate about their work and that always returns your calls. Never ever simply Google agents and never ever pay an agent: agents only get paid if they sell your book. Also, a good agent will not ask you to make changes to your manuscript without first offering a contract.

How do you research agents? What are some good resources?

Agent websites (Folio Literary Management’s site  includes a sample query letter), Writers Guide, Literary Marketplace, Guide to Literary Agents, Publishers Lunch, Publishers Marketplace (this last resource is more costly, but a useful investment right before you are ready to query, as it gives a thorough history of book deals). Also, the acknowledgement pages of your favorite contemporary books are a great way to find agents who might share an aesthetic with you.

What are agents looking for?

Agents on this panel emphasized voice: they want someone with a great writing style who knows what their story is about and can tell it in an enchanting way (even and especially during the two-minute elevator pitch). Also, this may seem obvious, but they want someone professional, honest, and with more than one book idea, in it for the long haul (although they advise against doing more than very briefly mentioning a second project in your query – focus on what is best and most ready to go). What else do they look for? Someone who can communicate, is willing to ask questions (they don’t expect authors to be publishing experts), and put effort in the relationship.

Two unexpected nitty-gritty bits I learned:

In the courting phase: It is common practice for an agent to ask for an exclusive look at manuscript. Since you will and should submit work simultaneously, all you need to do is shoot an email to the other agents saying that someone wants an exclusive look and let them know when that period will end (there should always be a time limit).

Early in the relationship and throughout the “marriage”: Find out how your agent prefers to communicate (by email? by phone?) and agree how frequent and how casual contact will be. Keep communication open. Sometimes relationships don’t work and it’s ok and maybe for the best to part ways, if that is the case.

And a note of hope:

Brower mentioned she does occasionally find clients in the slush pile. She sold two books and movie rights for an author who’d been rejected by 80 other agents!

AWP bits & bobs

5 Feb

I am thoroughly soaked with things AWP. Most treasured among my bookfair finds is a beautiful, beautiful book of short stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, from Archipelago, one of my favorite small presses.

Yesterday afternoon, I saw Mary Gaitskill and Sapphire read. Gaitskill read from a novel-in-progress, generating about her an unearthly hum; in one bit of the excerpt a woman noted how everyone must accept darkness, how much easier life becomes when one does so; and at one moment this question is posed: what is fertilized by a decomposing personality? I’ll be on the look out for that next book. Sapphire read from Push (I don’t think I was the only one on the verge of sob; in high school I think I bawled through most of the book). She interspersed this with poems by Lucille Clifton, Carolyn Rodgers, and Ai, poets that had influenced her work and died in the past year. Her second novel, The Kid, is coming out this spring. I can’t wait.

Finally, of the many panels I attended, I think I’ll most remember a very instructive anecdote Steve Yarbrough told during Politics in the Novel:

Back when he was in graduate school, his professor brought in a photo of a starving child in Africa – with a distended belly and all the things one might immediately think. He held up the photo to the class and said: “This is what’s wrong with sentimentality in fiction.”  A calculated move, directed at a student in the class who’d been in the Peace Corps. The student reacted angrily, as expected – how can you say that, etc.

The professor replied that the photo was reductive: you can only have one emotion in response to it. Then he held up another photograph. The second photo showed two children, also starving, from the same place, except it was not so focused on the starving body. The angle widened; you got a sense of the landscape. One boy was hitting another boy on the head with a tree branch. The photo elicited questions; what was happening between them, why the fight? One boy had been singing; the other told him,  “you have the ugliest voice I’ve ever heard.” This photo was complex and human; multiple emotions, multiple questions arose. Such a useful, helpful anecdote.

Those are the highlights. I have loads of other notes on the business of finding an agent, on epiphanic and episodic stories, on Robert Coover’s defamiliarizing the known so that we may see again (that was Brian Evenson speaking, at my professor Maya Sonenberg’s panel). Perhaps I’ll write more as other bits reverberate.

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