Monday, May 29, 2006

Agents 101

Fireworks arrived early this year, in the world of writing and publishing blogs. The website Absolute Write, which has been a wellspring of information on writing and publishing for several years, was shut down last week after a threatening phone call from a “literary agent” whose name appeared on AW’s list of 20 Worst Agencies (the AW site is back up, but I can't find their version of the list; so here it is on Writer Beware). This hasty plug-pulling of a respected, educational writers’ website caused a furious backlash among a number of writers and publishing professionals, including the anonymous NYC literary agent, Miss Snark, who issued a take-no-prisoners, bring-it-on shout out to the “agent” who started this whole brouhaha.

So what? You’re writing away in your cubbyhole, deaf to the distractions of the blogosphere. (In which case, what are you doing here?) You say to yourself: Tempest in a teapot, and why should I care, anyway?

If your goal is publication, you should care plenty.

Why? Because in your quest for publication, most likely you’ll be seeking representation by a literary agent. A GOOD lit agent can and will do all these things:
  • Help you polish your work, so that it is in best possible shape prior to submission to editors;
  • Formulate and carry out a submission strategy to these editors, using her extensive contacts and the relationships she’s built in the publishing world;
  • Negotiate the best possible publishing deal for you and your work (this goes beyond the bare question of advance money; this also includes which rights and subrights the publisher gets, the royalties you will receive, and a host of other details—most of which you’ve never heard of, but which can make a huge difference in your publishing experience);
  • Mediate any problems which arise between you and your publisher, from bad cover art to book promotion snafus;
  • Give you oodles of advice and encouragement, to help you shape your long-term writing career.

So what’s the problem? There are no degree certificates for literary agents, no government regulation, no exams to pass, no licenses to acquire. I could slap together a webpage today, order some business cards saying “Dog-Eat-Dog Literary Agency”, and voila! I’m a literary agent. (Perish the thought—I would be terrible). Many writers, many of whom have invested years in their novels, don’t bother to take the time to learn what separates the good agents from the bad. Bad agents know this. Operating under the time-honored truism that there’s one born every minute, these scam artists go a-hunting. And they catch plenty, with the result that the agent ends up richer, yet another writer ends up poorer (and bitter, to boot), and the book is no nearer publication than it was before.

Over the next week or three, I’ll post some more about agents: how to recognize the bad ones, how to find the good ones, and how to get the agent of your dreams.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Two weeks ago, at the Kentucky Derby, a big bay colt blasted past the other horses as if he possessed a top gear unknown to the rest of the field. But more than that, what caught my eye is how relaxed he seemed. His ears flicked from side to front to side, as if he had all the time in the world, there at the finish, to listen to everything around him. With those ears, in that instant, Barbaro had my heart.

I’ve been a horse junkie all my life (the fact that I grew up a city kid, with nary a fiery steed for at least ten miles in any direction, seemed like a particularly sarcastic joke on the part of the universe), and I’ve followed the Triple Crown races almost that long.

The Kentucky Derby. The Preakness Stakes. The Belmont Stakes. Three races in 5 weeks. Anything can happen, and so goes the old saying: That's why they call it horse racing.

As a kid I watched Seattle Slew, the little horse everyone laughed at, romp off with the Crown. Then, the very next year, Affirmed and Alydar slugging it out from Kentucky to New York, Affirm’s margin of victory growing narrower with every race, until that immortal Belmont Stakes: Affirmed and Alydar battling head to head down the homestretch, me jumping up and down in front of the family TV yelling, and at the end…Affirmed again, literally by a nose. The second Triple Crown winner in two years, the third in 5 years. All the "experts" proclaimed that the mighty Crown, the benchmark of equine greatness since 1875, was a benchmark no more. With snide condescension in their voices, they said, Modern horses are just too good. From now on, we’ll probably have a Triple Crown winner every two or three years.

That was 28 years ago. No horse has claimed the Crown since. But this year, as I watched Barbaro blow away the field at the Kentucky Derby, I thought with a thrill of excitement: This is it. This guy could do it.

Anything can happen. A jostle down the backstretch. A thrown shoe. A horse not up to his best. Sure. That’s why they call it horse racing.

We don’t like to think injury. Of course it happens; injury is a risk in any sport, with any athlete performing to the utmost. All it takes is one bad step. But these are horses. We love them. Injury is too terrible to think of.

Yesterday, barely 100 yards into the Preakness Stakes, Barbaro took a bad step. From wishing for a Triple Crown, now we pray only that he survives.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Enchanted Evening

Like most writers (and most veterinarians, for that matter), I’m an introvert. I take my socializing the way I take wasabi—small doses for flavor, carefully calibrated not to overwhelm.

Not only that, I’ve succeeded in avoiding most of the party-giving occasions of life. Given that my boyfriend is as introverted as I am, birthday parties—surprise or otherwise—are highly unlikely. (I should point out that avoiding parties is not one of the reasons I’m unmarried. I mean, I may be a reclusive geek, but I’m not so far gone that the thought of having a shower given in my honor sends me screaming for the hills).

Which made it all the sweeter when my writing group threw me a party to celebrate the publication of Tallulah Falls.

What a lovely, magical, amazing experience.

We thought perhaps 20 or 30 people might come; it was a Sunday, after all, and raining to boot. Instead, something like 75 people crowded into my friend Connie’s living room, mingling, chatting, and nibbling on adorable tiny homemade cheesecakes. And me? The party organizers sat me down at the head of the table and for over 3 hours, I signed books, chatted with guests (some of whom I hadn’t seen for years), and laughed, laughed, laughed. Ton of fun? You have no idea. In a fit of optimism, I’d ordered 45 books from a local bookstore, figuring we’d have some left over. We not only sold out—the next day I had to order more, for all those who’d paid for a copy but didn’t get one at the party.

Perhaps the most surreal aspect, though, was that for the first time, all my worlds collided.

People who knew me as a veterinarian met those who knew me as a writer, who met still others who knew me as a college instructor. The consensus I heard from everyone afterward: “You know so many nice, interesting people!”

Yes, I do. To everyone who came, thank you—I’m overwhelmed that so many of you took time out of your hectic weekend to come buy a book and share a laugh with me. Thank you also to Broadway Books, a wonderful independent bookstore, for ordering in the books for me—twice. And to my wonderful writing group, the Writers of Renown, and our fearless leader, Karen Karbo—novelist, memoirist, and indefatigable teacher—I am still floating on air. Thank you, compadres! The next party, in honor of the next one of us to get published, will be at my house. I can only hope to match what you’ve done for me—no way can I top it.

Champagne, anyone?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day

Mother’s Day used to be a day of phone calls, cards and flower-sending.

Now it’s a day of remembrance.

Today I found myself remembering the girly-girl things my mother taught me. Mom loved style, she loved clothes and make-up and shoes, and she had a particular romance with purses. I was her only daughter, and I am not a girly-girl. I used to think it’s because I grew up with older brothers, but I’ve met lots of women who did and who are passionate about girl stuff, so it must be something else: renegade DNA, a woogie bit of brain chemistry.

Whatever lay between that particular difference between my mother and me, it never stopped her from patiently teaching me the finer points of being female. Like how to do my nails. Mom was expert at manicuring her own, and ever since I was a little girl, I thought she had the most beautiful nails in the world. I still do. She kept them long, with perfectly symmetrical curved tips, the color almost always some gorgeous dark shade of red. I remember the lineup of little bottles—some kind of milky fluid, some kind of clear fluid, the polish itself (no red for me, not at 13; Mom started me off with clear, and later, pale rose). And then there were the tools—orange stick, file, the hangnail scissors in their own special green plastic pouch. I remember the burning-hair smell of nail filings, the sharp odor of acetone. I loved those evenings, Mom’s explanations and demonstrations, the sense of received knowledge, of wisdom passed down. As far as the nails themselves…well, I did learn, and for a while, I practiced. But I never have been disciplined enough to spend time on things that don’t interest me, and sometime during the intervening, nail-clipper years, I’ve forgotten the details of my mother’s technique. To me, that my mother’s nails were the most beautiful in the world somehow seemed enough.

Mom taught me how to put on makeup; how to buy clothes; how to scuff the soles of newly purchased high heels, to keep from slipping on a rain-slick sidewalk. But while I always learned willingly, I never felt passionately enough about these things to make them part of my daily life. Even now, when I see a woman beautifully made-up, right behind my admiration is the thought: There’s fifteen minutes of sleep lost.

I don’t need to be a girly-girl, though, to treasure the lessons my mother taught me. It’s part of her that I keep forever, her legacy to me made in an observation here, an admonition there, a funny story, an explanation, hundreds and thousands of them, over the years I was blessed to have her. I dream and I remember, and I long to have her back. I stand in a fitting room and look at myself in the mirror, and I hear her say, “Cute isn’t enough. What does it do for you?”

To all mothers, in this life and beyond: Happy Mother’s Day.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

And The Bell Rings For Round Two!

Like most unpublished writers, I had one goal in mind: publication.

Didn’t see much beyond that, except, of course, that life would become easier. As if the alchemy that would transform my hundreds of loose manuscript pages into a gorgeous bound book would also transform my working life into a smooth, clean machine. I would be a writer! Gone would be the juggling of schedules, the stress of too many tasks in too little time, the eking out of an hour here, a morning there, to work on my books. No, I would be a writer, and my life would be writing.

If the laughter you hear is a little shrill, well, that’s because nothing has changed—except now, I’m working under a deadline.

It was different for Tallulah Falls. In the normal course of publishing (we’re not talking Kaavya Viswanathan of Opal Mehta fame here—her path to publication was definitely the road less traveled), the only person invested in the completion of a first novel is the writer herself. I realized an important truth about halfway through the first draft: Nobody cared if this thing got finished or not. Except me.

The second book, though—that’s a different story. The second book has all kinds of people invested in it. It’s exciting, it’s life-changing. It’s scary as hell. It ought to be interesting—especially since, in this next year, I’ll also be spending time promoting Tallulah Falls. And of course working hard at my first love, veterinary medicine.

I’ll let you know how it goes.