(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)
Okay, so now you have a fully revised novel or short story collection and you’re ready to test the publishing waters. Huzzah!
If you’re looking to go the traditional publishing route, I highly recommend having a literary agent represent your work. Unless you’re a literary agent yourself, or have some kind of special relationship with a publisher, an agent offers the modern author a unique range of skills and contacts they wouldn’t otherwise have access to. How so? Literary agents have a working relationship with editors at a variety of publishing houses. They know what editors are looking for, in what direction their personal tastes skew, and how to best approach them. They have lunch with editors, they chat on the phone with editors, they run into editors at parties and book fairs and super-secret publishing orgies. They also know how to handle negotiating book deals and can ably explain the fine print of said book deal. They serve as a buffer between publishing houses and the author, which can occasionally be very necessary. A good literary agent is a writer’s advocate, initial reader, occasional editor, fine print watchdog, and all-around champion in a world that doesn’t otherwise give a flip about an author’s fiscal success.
Also, many mainstream publishers won’t even look at your manuscript if you don’t have an agent. Right or wrong, they see literary agents as a form of quality control, keeping out the barbarians with their bad writing and stale plot ideas. If a writer has an agent, they reason, he can’t be too impossible to work with and, almost as importantly, the publisher won’t have to do any hand holding when it comes to negotiating the book deal and seeing it to press—the agent can explain all that.
I waited until I’d finished my fourth novel before I seriously attempted to retain the services of an agent. I’d been seriously writing for nearly ten years, but I started very young and I knew my work wasn’t yet up to publishing standards. Not until Book #4, anyway. This book I liked a lot—it really made me laugh. I thought maybe it had a chance. Maybe it was the book I could launch my publishing career upon.
I’d been enrolled in my MFA in Writing program for a semester and I had a vague notion of how the wheels of publishing turned. I read the current edition of Writer’s Market and Jeff Herman’s Guide to Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agents. I learned that agents usually preferred to receive query letters as opposed to a chunk of a manuscript (much less the whole damn thing) upon initial contact. I studied examples of query letters and carefully crafted my own. Since it was an actual letter, and not an email, I don’t have an exact copy of it now, but I’m guessing it read something like this:
Dear (Agent Name),
Greetings. My name is David Oppegaard and I am seeking representation for my novel KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL. A literary comedy, it follows the adventures of Wilson Scrags, an escaped mental patient on the run from the law in the suburbs. Suffering from an invisible “friend” who torments him, Scrags befriends an eccentric cast of characters as he tries to evade the police and find peace. The manuscript is 60,000 words.
Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon,
(My address, phone number, and email address)
Using Jeff Herman’s Guide to research every possible agent (my logic was since Writer’s Market was the most popular of the two books I’d go with the underdog, which might give me some kind of unusual angle) and I mailed out forty query letters with self-addressed stamped envelopes (good old SASEs). Weeks passed and the first “Thanks but I’ll have to pass” form letters began to trickle in. I ticked each one off the list I’d created, noting the personal letters, until the dark day came months later when the list was fully checked.
Then one day, when I was at work at my optician gig, I checked my Hotmail account and discovered this email:
Dear Mr. Oppegaard:
Further to yours of February 22nd, Re: KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL, unfortunately Douglas Stewart is no longer at Curtis Brown. However, I had the opportunity to review your query and sample chapter, and the story sounds quite intriguing. I am slowly taking on new clients at Curtis Brown, and would love to look at the next five chapters of your manuscript. If you would like to send me your material, please enclose a SASE for easier reply. I look forward to hearing from you.
Jonathan I. Lyons
Curtis Brown, Ltd.
At first I couldn’t fully process what I was reading. I thought it might be one of those spam emails trying to trick you into realizing all your dreams would come true. Then I reread it a few times and started pacing around the eye clinic, feeling like I’d slipped into a delirious fever dream. Then I looked up Curtis Brown, Ltd. on the Internet to make sure it was a legitimate operation (turned out it was one of the oldest and most venerable agencies in New York!). This was all real. This was all really happening to me—my forty rejections in the desert and now this!
Well aware that fancy NYC agents were always crazy busy, I kept my reply to Jonathan short and sweet. I knew I was an idiot who was prone to saying crazy shit all the time so I thought I’d stick to as strictly professional as possible.
Dear Mr. Lyons,
Thank you for your interest in Knocking Over the Fishbowl. I will send you the next five chapters within the week.
Only eleven days later (some kind of agent record!) Jonathan emailed me to say that he liked the additional five chapters and requested the entire book, which I sent to him through the post with all due haste (this was only 2004 but it sure feels a lot longer ago when you’re talking about mailing manuscripts).
I was beginning to get very, very excited.
This was it.
This was it!
Then, only two more short weeks later:
I’ve been agonizing over your novel for the past week, hoping that I might be able to find a suggestion that would overcome my reservations. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find that “one thing” that would push me one way or the other, and I felt that the delay in my response has become too great. Ultimately, I also concluded that you should have an agent representing you who does not need a “push” like this.
I really have no negative comments to speak of regarding KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL. I enjoyed all of the characters, and I felt that you smoothly went from person to person without losing track of the storyline as a whole. I also liked the humorous undercurrent throughout – and in this way I found your writing similar to Dave Barry, albeit a bit less farcical. You captured Wilson’s “insanity” accurately and poignantly, but never allowed the reader to feel sorry for him. The only narrative line that I felt needed some work was Officer Lance’s out-of-control antipathy towards Scrags and others, and the motivations for the behavior. Still, overall I felt you have created a wonderfully eccentric cast of characters and storyline.
Unfortunately, I just didn’t fall in love with the novel. While a few agents might feel that “enjoyed” is sufficient to take on a work, I feel differently. Getting a book published is becoming more difficult every day, and I really feel an author needs an agent who is so passionate about the work, so in love with it, that they will fight for it to the very end.
I am sure this is abundantly clear from my above comments, but even still, you should know that this business is a highly subjective one. I strongly suggest querying other agents, and I have no doubts that you will find one that feels as passionately about your work as you do. I wish I had better news for you, and I would be honored to look at anything else you might produce in the future.
Jonathan I. Lyons
Oh, the humanity! Even reading this now, having published four novels and this very book on writing, I feel my heart squeeze painfully in my chest and worry deeply for twenty-four year-old Dave Oppegaard. I can’t even remember how I processed the news, exactly, but it probably involved alcohol.
But what a generous rejection, right? Jonathan was so, so very kind and perceptive. It almost made it worse, knowing what an awesome agent I’d almost had representing me.
This was dark night of the soul, my friends.
A dark night.
I’ll have to give twenty-four-year-old Dave credit, though. He was young and stubborn and too dumb to fully realize the odds stacked against him. He knew he’d gotten tantalizingly close and he kept on trucking. He went to his graduate school classes and talked Mary Rockcastle, professor and chair of his writing program, into giving him notes for a rewrite. He took those notes, rewrote the whole book one more time, then sent out a fresh round of queries. He got interest from another agent, who read the entire book, and then, at the last moment, also passed.
Despondent and desperate, I sent one last email to Jonathan Lyons, remembering his previous kindness. It had been five months since Jonathan passed yet, miracles of miracles, Jonathan agreed to re-read the novel.
A few months later, after a check-in email or two, he got back to me.
I just finished reading the revised version of KNOCKING OVER THE FISHBOWL, and I think you’ve done a great job. The novel is still ferociously witty, with rich and endearing characters. You’ve really tightened it – the second half of the novel is wonderfully paced. It also seems as if you’ve concentrated more on one dominant theme –
which I think is a better choice. I do think there are a few areas that might need a bit more work – the conclusion could be reworked a little so that the ending matches more the tone of the rest of the work, a few characters seem to disappear in the second half of the novel, and there is a small section at the beginning (maybe fifteen pages) that moves a little slower than the rest of the novel. Still, overall I think the manuscript is much improved from before.
I’d like to talk with you more on the phone about that at your convenience and gauge your reaction to considering one more, much slighter revision. Is it ok if I call you tomorrow?
Of course I would agree to any editing suggestions! Holy fuck! We talked on the phone the next day (me all a-tremble) and suddenly I HAD AN AGENT. I gathered all my friends at O’Gara’s on Snelling Avenue and we drank like banshees. I even got all The Lord of the Rings and claimed “it was a red day”.
This was it.
This was the next step in the Grind.
Jonathan and I have been together ever since. He’s been an invaluable ally. Truly. He’s read twelve of my novels, offered critiques and/or line edits on all of them, submitted most of them to editors (and squashing a few I didn’t have the heart to squash, which in of itself is very valuable, though heartbreaking at the time), and he’s even taken me out to delicious New York City dinners twice. By my rough calculation he’s currently (as I type this essay’s rough draft) earned a grand total of about three thousand dollars, spread over eleven years, by representing me and my hard-to-market genre blending work.
Talk about an artist’s champion.
 You can tell this was a while ago. Most agents accept electronic query letters now and many have their own submission form on their website.
 Remember when I was talking about luck playing a part in the career of nearly every artist? Having an agent pick up a query letter from the slush pile of his predecessor, read and respond to it with interest is like winning the lottery while getting hit by a bolt of lightning that actually turns you into a psychic.
 I must have miscounted or something. Around thirty rejections in I started to grow lax in my record keeping.
 This is all true. I swear!