Sunday, August 05, 2012
WHAT I DO AND HOW I DO IT
No blogs from me for a while now (thanks to those who said they missed me!). Vacation, catch-up, a bad cold, then busy with three deals – and counting. Those babies take time and priority!
I’ve taken on two new clients in the last month or two and have gone through literally hundreds of submissions. And realized afresh, in a more analytical way than before, that there’s a process to the decisions I make, even if parts of that process are almost unconscious. Given how capricious agents’ decisions must sometimes seem – if you’re the one seeking representation; or indeed, newly represented – I thought you might like me to extrapolate how I go about my treasure hunt for new clients. Hopefully it will provide a little insight into the way an agent (this agent, at least) sees things.
So, what happens as I click through to my submissions inbox and start scrolling and reading – or turn on my Kindle and begin a manuscript?
Welcome to Agent Sarah’s innermost secrets!
THE SPLIT PERSONALITY:
As I read, there are two people living in my head. One of them is a ‘regular’ person. The other is a ‘professional’.
Ms Regular is a creature who just lives life. She has a past, she was brought up a certain way, she has tastes and passions, loves and hates, all kinds of idiosyncratic experience of the world. She’s emotional, she loves to read, and she just dives in and . . . responds to what’s on the page. Unfettered, Ms Regular says it how it is in a primal sort of way. She can be really dismissive; she rolls her eyes and says very rude words. But she can also well up with emotion at the beauty of a phrase or giggle aloud despite being crammed into Seat 14C on an airplane with a screaming baby next door. She doesn’t ask for perfection – she’s just looking for SOMETHING.
In other words, does the writing provoke a reaction in Ms Regular (disturbed, charmed, repulsed, angry, mesmerized) – or a low-level indifference? Would she rather vacuum the house than read 10 more pages? That’s an acid test.
I love Ms Regular and listen carefully to what she says about a query or manuscript, because she speaks the truth, her own truth, and she doesn’t care a hoot what anyone else thinks – certainly not anyone in that dumb publishing industry. This girl don’t answer to no one!
When Ms Regular has read a piece of writing, I collect the response and store it in a glass vial in my mind. Often I will take that vial out later on and look at the contents again. Eg, Hmm, yes, I remember how that manuscript made me shed a tear; very interesting because that’s an unexpected reaction given I’d just worked a 12-hour day and had to pack to fly next morning . . . Hmm, significant.
Ms Professional is a very different lady – and reader. Ms Pro reads with all her faculties on red alert; her little receptors quiver in the breeze as submissions scroll by. Her job is to make great decisions for the business; ones that will lead to satisfied, successful clients and effective use of company time. This lady has to be cautious, savvy, alert, smart, and sensitive to an external marketplace. She’s a fierce one!
Ms Pro looks at the big and the small. Demons and fallen angels? On their way down. Orbs, portals and Elements? See them all the time. Fractured dystopian societies? Sorry, got them. Talking toadstools? Please, no.
This one’s pitching an 8-book series? Way too much. This young chapter book is 80,000 words? Too long. Another girl waking up from a post car-crash coma and realizes she’s actually dead? Try getting that past editors who saw it five times today alone. A good story but lacking that final tweak of distinction? Tricky, judgement call.
Ms Pro is the professional treasure-hunter, looking for a niche – for something she’s not spotted before that has roughly the dimensions (word count + age of protagonist + plot + concept + pitch + crafting) that might add up to something that could fly. She’s looking to put the ball into the pot; the ace service game; the hole in one.
If she feels she’s scented this golden beast, Ms Pro is already matching it up in her mind with a list of editors, running like tickertape through her head as she reads. And if she can’t come up with possible destinations for the manuscript? Then she’s got to go back and confront Ms Regular about her response, give it a little analysis, ask some tough questions.
OK, so I’m a schizophrenic. As I read, I’m pulling in all parts of my brain, emotions, and experience, and I’m looking for a mind-meld between Ms Regular and Ms Professional. These two readers aren’t infallible, but I respect them and they’re all I’ve got!
THE DECISION TREE:
I carry a permanent sense of strategy and timing in my head, and it comes into play as I move into the second phase of a new-client decision.
This mental tree has branches going out all over the place, giving me a map of how my next few weeks/months are likely to go. Am I about to do several deals? Do I have a big manuscript arriving in 2 months time? Am I already working very closely with new authors, which means that taking on more could be a step too far, given I prize my close relationship with existing clients?
Most importantly, does this manuscript I’m considering need work before it goes out?
Almost always, the answer to that is yes. Most new authors are not born fully fledged; they need some help finding their wings. Also, I am all about ADDING VALUE. Can I help this rough manuscript to sell? Then I will. Do I think it might sell for $10,000? Then maybe there’s a way to turn it into a $100,000 sale? And if I can help to do that, why would I not?
The problem is, that approach means work – often a lot of it. Converting the potential of a raw manuscript into real commercial value. It can mean tweaks, it can mean significant revision, it can even mean full rewrites for the author. I love this kind of interaction with writers – so stimulating, so exciting. And oh my goodness, it works!
However, experience has shown that working in editorial depth with 2 new people is the most I can do at any one time (bearing in mind I’m already very busy on behalf of existing clients). If I’m already up to my personal limit, it means that any manuscript I now take on will have to be virtually ready to go out as is. Or I must walk away.
I have a dread of having tons of clients whose work is unsold (or actually, any!). I guess it’s a cautious approach, best summed up as: Do the work, sell the manuscript, make your author very happy – and only then think about moving on. Beware overstretching and being unable to deliver.
However, if my editorial ‘bandwidth’ has vacancies I will look at submissions through a more creative lens. Is there something in the inbox (or on my Kindle) that I really think could work with some help? If the time’s right, if I have the mental space, if I’m very drawn to a particular story for some reason, then the stars align and I will hone in on it, even if there’s risk attached.
So that’s more or less it. A great big cauldron of thoughts and ‘what ifs’, judgement calls and risks, strategies and passions, caution and aplomb. Lob into that seething mass a shrug of the shoulders and ‘Well, let’s give it a shot’ and you have an idea of my process. It is simultaneously both precise and flamboyant, micro-managed and emotional.
And the bottom line? I am going to read your manuscript a lot of times if I represent it. And I am going to get to know you very, very well. To do all this without any guaranteed result or remuneration, I have to fall in love.
And love is the first and last piece of the process.
I love windows; they make me think about possibilities and boldness, openness and beginnings. These were taken in France. 1) Haha! Spotted in Barfleur, Normandy. 2) In the cathedral city of Amiens, Picardy. 3) I think this was in Bayeux Cathedral, Normandy again.
A great post as always Sarah. We do await each one. And what a great shot through the window in Normandy. So many possible stories there!
Fascinating. Thanks for sharing these insights into your decision making process. Love the idea of the Ms Regular / Ms Pro split!
Love your forthright presentation. Do you accept submissions for teens and baby boomers?
Wow! That’s a bit crazy and I’m not just talking about the leg.
I’m like that when reviewing books or films. Regular me enjoys the story and feels it all. Then if I put on my professional hat I look in depth and pick holes in it!
Ahh, interesting post! Thank you for those tidbits of info. So cool to read about your process!
Thank you so much for a great reminder as to how much work a literary agent has to do! It is far too easy for writers to take each rejection personally and not place ourselves in your shoes.
Love the windows - I feel that way about gate!
I really enjoy how much you pick apart the process of the publishing industry. It’s so enlightening for those of us on the writer side. Thanks for the insight.