This blog will be more difficult for me to write than anything I've ever written. But the emotionally squeamish needn't fear: the reason I will have so much difficulty is because around five o'clock today, I almost cut my finger off while trying to snip the stems off some black-eyed Susans my neighbor had thrown away. And I was using scissors. I really got myself good, though: I had to go get stitches (my daughter let me hold her blanket for courage), and I had to get a tetanus shot. I now have my left middle finger wrapped heavily in gauze, so please forgive any typos.
But here's what I want to say: in the previous entry, I wrote about how much I love connecting with readers while doing readings and visiting book clubs. And I really do love to hear their questions, with the exception of one question, which is asked at almost every reading:
"How did you get your agent?"
Now, there is nothing innately irritating about this question. My irritation with it has more to do with the way it is often asked ? with narrowed eyes, with I-know-how-this-business-really-works-Missy cynicism, or with this-is-the-beginning-of-a-relationship-with-someone-who-can-open -doors-and-pull-strings-to-help-me-publish-the-novel-I-haven't-even -written-yet opportunism. (Can you believe I typed all those hyphens with this thing on my finger?) If someone asks this question in one of those ways, he or she is generally unhappy with my response, which is the truth:
1. I finished my novel. I had read that it would be easier to get an agent to take on a finished work rather than an unfinished one. (If you need time/money to finish your idea, I suggest you go to grad school or try for a fellowship. I did both. An excellent fellowship for unpublished writers is the George Bennett Creative Writing Fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy. There's another good one at Colgate.)
2. I combed through The Writers Market to learn exactly how to contact an agent, how to choose an agent, and how to avoid the mistakes writers often make when contacting an agent. The Writer's Market can be found in the reference section of any library. The Writer's Market also lists contact info and areas of interests of agents.
3. I asked all the writers I knew how they liked their agents. A lot of writers don't like their agents, or they at least think their agents could be doing more for them. I wrote down the name of the agent who was most enthusiastically recommended (Jennifer Rudolph Walsh at William Morris), and I contacted her, taking care to follow the suggestions I'd found in The Writer's Market. (If you don't know any writers, you can usually find out how much an author likes her agent based on the acknowledgements page in one of her books.)
That's pretty much how I did it. But a certain kind of person does not seem pleased with the answer, which is basically that I plotted, worked, and followed guidelines. In a great book review of Shoot The Widow in The New Yorker, critic Louis Menand points out the illusory magic we often give to the idea of fortune, epiphany, and the chance encounter:
People like the notion that a little luck is involved in success ? that becoming famous could be sort of like winning the lottery. One day, you're riding along on your donkey or in your Honda Civic or whatever, a voice speaks to you, and suddenly you are on the way to being St. Paul or Leonard Bernstein.
Now before anyone gets huffy, I want to make it clear that, even with painkillers coursing through my veins, I know I am not St. Paul, nor Leonard Bernstein. I know I'm not even famous except among very dedicated readers of a certain type of fiction. But I was, in fact, driving a Honda Civic and living in a sketchy part of Portland, Maine, when I got the call from my very hard-working agent telling me that my first novel would be published. If you want to completely chalk that call up to luck and secret handshakes, you can, but I think you're wrong. I will never know how much of the wonderful experience that is my current vocation can be owed to being in the right place at the right time. But I do know that if I had hoped for fortune, and fortune alone, to help me reach my goal, I would probably be doing something else for a living.
For the record, I do want to say that I believe in bad luck, blameless misfortune. I also know that agents, when deciding whether or not to take on a client, have to consider what will sell, not just what is good; sadly, that's not always the same thing. And it is true that a lot of the really good agents are so good that they have stopped taking on new clients. But there will always be someone young and hungry out there, and a good agent will be able to spot what she can sell. But I want to put one myth to rest: you really don't need a published writer to 'introduce' you to an agent. I have 'introduced' several people I think are good writers to my agent, and she hasn't taken on any of them. That's kind of a bummer for my friends, but at least it shows that cronyism isn't the rule of the day. My experience with the publishing industry is that it is much more open and democratic than many people believe. What I mean is to be encouraging.