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Talking About Books With Agents

A few weeks ago, I wrote about turning in pages of my new novel to my agent. I heard back from her and the news is neither victorious (“these are the best pages I have ever read and I already talked to five publishers and we’re holding an auction next week”) nor fatal (“you can’t write and I don't want to represent you and you should give up and find another occupation.”)

The news was, in fact, somewhere in the middle of those extremes – imagine that! Here is what she said:

  • There are some things working well with my story – a good premise, some good moments, a strong sense of timeliness, a strong sense of the “stage” ofthe story – why it happens where it happens, how it unfolds.
  • There are some things that are not working well with my story – the structure (the way the character actually tells the story – why she tells us what she tells when she tells it) may not be serving the story in the way it needs to; the character is not yet wholly on the page yet and therefore someone the reader wholly cares about; there are some holes in the story logic that need to be repaired.

In other words, if I want to write a book that a big publisher believes is worth investing in, I have a lot of work to do. There is no "good enough" in this game.

For about four hours after hearing this news, I was depressed and deflated. It was not what I wanted to hear. 

I thought about just not doing it. After all, who cares if I ever write another book? I’ve written eight. That is a lot. That is good run. And the world will not stop spinning if I stop writing. I have another job I love – two of them, actually. It’s not like I need to fill the hours of the day.

But I only entertained that thought for about an hour.

I don’t want to stop.
I love a challenge.
I love my story.
I love the work of writing.

For about three seconds I thought about ditching my agent and finding someone else who thinks that everything I write comes out of my computer ready for prime time. I’d show her!

A writer friend of mine who shall not be named got similar news last week from her agent. But she did not believe her agent was right. She was ready to fight, to argue, to defend her fledgling project.

But I had none of that fire, none of that urge. 

Because my agent was right. What she was saying resonated with me – which is the key thing every writer has to ask about every piece of feedback she gets.  

I’m ashamed to admit that the thought about leaving her lasted even three seconds long. I love my agent. I trust her opinion. She is smart and savvy and she has my best interests in mind. She has stood by me for almost nine years. I would be an idiot to leave her.

I shook off my nasty alter-ego and then recalled that in the midst of telling me what was wrong with my book, my agent said some very flattering things about me and my writing and our relationship and this story that will become my next novel.

I realize what a gift it is to have such a person on my side – and it is one of the reasons I still believe so strongly in traditional publishing. There are lots of very compelling reasons to self publish, and I will no doubt do it again, and I will no doubt support many of my clients who decide that it is the right path for their books, but being chosen by smart people who are in the business of curating the books that get promoted to the most readers is a powerful thing indeed.

The time I spent with my agent in New York this week was, in the end, totally galvanizing. We had oatmeal and coffee in a wonderful little coffee shop, and talked about books and writers and writing and the state of publishing and the state of my writing career.

I don’t want to let my agent down.  She is part of the reason I want to succeed. I would love nothing more than to make her a ton of money. She has supported me for so long with so little return. 

So onward I go.

What I will be doing next:

  • Doing an assessment of my schedule/calendar in order to make room to do the work I need to do. I need a schedule that supports my effort. I have been trying too hard to cram in the writing. Something is going to have to give.
  • Doing an assessment on when and how and from whom to solicit feedback. There are times in the writing process when having consistent feedback is critical and times when it’s best to just listen to yourself. I need to figure out where in the process I am.
  • Doing an assessment on the pages themselves – what is worth keeping? Any of it? And if so, WHY is it worth keeping? I’m sharpening the knives for sure. I am very tempted to start with a blank page just to see what happens if I let the 93 pages go and start over again.
  • Going back to the fundamentals of the story in order to work on the logic. Answering some hard questions about secondary characters and the protagonists’ origin story. Who is she, really?
  • Going back to the fundamentals of the story in order to assess the structure I designed. Measuring what is there to see that how it is serving the story and where it is not.

I share all this with you just to make sure you know without a doubt that even I – the book coach who just came back from a gala awards ceremony with a client, the editor whose clients have big books coming out over the next few months, the well-published writer with the wonderfully supportive agent and the editor at the big house waiting to see what I write next – doesn’t get a free pass.

And neither do you.

So if there's something you have not faced about your work, something that is holding you back, something you need to dig down deep to figure out, just do it. And know that I will be doing it, too.



Panicked About Pitching

I have a client who has written, revised, edited and polished a 500 + page epic novel, and who has just began to pitch agents. She wrote me this note this week:

"I got an immediate response from Agent A and Agent B! They asked for the entire manuscript!  I am not euphoric.  I am petrified. What if they both hate it???? I feel as if I am sticking my head into the lion's den."

I thought others might be interested in the response I wrote:

I get being petrified. I really do. It’s like in one second, they can dash all the hope you have nurtured for all these years. If you didn’t feel some paranoia about that, you wouldn’t be human!

So...what if they hate it? Well, first of all, that will just be their opinions. Other people might have other opinions. So if they hate it, you will move on to seek other opinions.

If they hate it, you will probably start to feel that you hate it a little bit, yourself. You’ll have to fight that instinct.

If they hate it, you may hate them a little. That’s okay, and only fair. It will probably pass.

At some point, if you develop a long history of agents hating it, you may have to take a harder look at it and see what they are saying about it and if it has any merit. You may decide to tweak your book, and start in on revisions again. You may decide to do more than tweak it. It will depend on how, exactly, they hate it. Do they just hate the first chapter? The first 30 pages? The last 30? The middle 300?


At some point, if you develop a long history of agents hating it, you may have to come to the conclusion that you did not write something worthy of agent love. That does not mean it is not worthy of READER love. And it certainly does not mean that it is not worthy of YOUR love. To determine whether it could be loved by readers, you would then have to self publish and see.

So at what point do you determine that you have developed a long history of agents hating it? After 20 rejections? 30? 50? That’s up to you and how thick your skin is and how determined you are. The annals of book publishing are filled with stories of writers who landed agents after 50 or 100 rejections and whose books went on to enjoy enormous success. To wit:

  • The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter was so discouraged by rejections that she published it herself. Her first print run was 250 copies.
  •   Margaret Mitchell got 38 rejections for Gone With the Wind before she landed a book deal.
  • Louise L’Amour got 200.
  • Jack Canfield got 140 for Chicken Soup for the Soul 
  •  Agatha Christie spent 5 years pitching and getting rejections before someone took a chance on her.

Google “famous book rejections.” It will blow your mind.

I just read an interview with author Dan Brown from the alumni magazine of a certain college that holds a prominent place in my household. In answer to the question, “Who is your ideal reader?” this is what he said:

“I write the book that I find interesting, that I find exciting. I’m writing to my own taste. I choose symbols and codes, or plots and locations, that I myself would want to read about. And then I just hope that people share my taste. Obviously you wish everybody loved what you do. That’s just not the way it is.”

Can we just stop and think about that for a minute? A man whose books have sold 200 million copies, and who is among the most successful authors of all time, said, “Obviously you wish everybody loved what you do. That’s just not the way it is.”

There is a profound lesson here for you as you face your first possible rejection. No matter how well you do, it will not be your last.

I can promise you that it hurts worse to do nothing. It hurts worse not to stick your head into that lion’s mouth, not to send it out, not to try. Silencing your book? That’s the worst kind of hate because it’s akin to self-hate.

So sending it out is an act of love. It’s an act of defiance. It’s the right thing to do and the brave thing to do. So just take a deep breath and do it.

I hope that helps.