Wednesday, February 18, 2015

LITERARY AGENTS-Good, Bad, and Ugly

It was always difficult for a writer to get a good literary agent. My first one, I suspect, didn't even submit my novel. It wasn't a very good novel anyway, so maybe he did me a favor. And then I fired him.

My second literary agent tried to talk me out of finishing my novel, WIREMAN. Write something like THE THORN BIRDS, he said. I tried to explain that wasn't the kind of fiction I wrote. The suspense of WIREMAN is what I wanted to write.

Once off the phone I wrote him a letter and fired him. What good was he if he didn't realize I was already writing in the area I should? I knew it, why didn't he know it?

I was without an agent for almost a year and then I heard of a new agent hired on at the William Morris Literary Agency in NYC. I was too shy to approach him, even by mail. My husband, an audacious man, called the agency from work (I didn't know) and someway got through to the agent. He proceeded to tell him his wife was the best writer in Texas and she'd just finished a new novel. The agent said this was highly irregular, but my husband was to tell me to send it in, he'd take a look. He warned, "We only take the cream of the crop, you know." My husband told him that's exactly what he was going to get.

When he came home that afternoon and told me what he'd done I was shocked and embarrassed. You didn't call them! You didn't say that about me being the best writer in Texas!

But he had and it paid off and I had to mail out the manuscript to the most prestigious agency on earth. Within two days of receiving the manuscript the agent called me. "I want to sell this book," he said. "I like it a lot, it's great."

My husband Lyle got me in the door and the book cinched the deal. Within a couple of weeks it was sold and they offered an advance for my first litle novel of $3500. I told my agent I had to have more. The computer I wanted for writing cost $5000. (Imagine that!) He said, wait, let me go back, see what I can do. He came back in less than hour to say they'd raised the advance to $5000.

I, of course, was ecstatic. I'd reached a dream. I'd sold a novel. And now I could afford a computer. It was 1984 and the only persnal computers in my area of Houston for sale was a big, clunky CPM operating system machine with a green cursor and it cost almost $5000. I bought it. CPM was before DOS, even, and I had to put a big floppy in with a word processor on it, take it out, and put in another floppy for the word processor to write a file to. Oh God, I loved it. No more white-out. No more typewriters. No more carbon copies. It was heaven.

Now today I don't know it's any harder to get an agent as it was in 1984. If it's harder, that's bad. It was hard enough, despite how it worked out for me in a serendippity way, that no one else in my novel writing club was able to get an agent for years more.

I was with the Wm. Morris Agency until I stopped writing in the mid-90s (more on that some other time). They sold all the novels I wrote. They believed in me and when my novel, NIGHT CRUISE, didn't bring home the Edgar, my agent was livid. He believed so strongly there was no contender.

I loved my agents there. I had two, the first one who became Vice President of Wm. Morris, then another agent who is still my friend today, though he's moved on to another agency. The treatment and care of a good agent is to always treat him with respect. If  you disagree over something, do it politely. He wants the best for you because if you do well, he does well.

The moral of this true story may be that being brave and audacious might work. But the product has to stand on its own. No amount of charming banter will save a bad manuscript from being rejected.

You never know when you'll find the right agent, but don't be afraid to fire one if the fit is bad. When you do luck into a good one, hang on tight and do good work.  A career can last for years, for your lifetime, if you know how to nurture it and do most of the right things. Or at least a few of the right things. None of us can be perfect.


1 comment:

  1. We're not supposed to still be writing on CP/M machines? HAHA! Glad you're writing this blog. Best, Chuck Wharton from Houston