How to Get (and keep) a Literary Agent
I’ve been involved in a lot of tough gigs in my time. Medicine is full of twists and turns, and bluegrass music is even more unpredictable. There are fellows who wash dishes in Nashville and can play circles around me on the mandolin, so as far as music, I know I’d best hold onto my day job.
But of all the ventures I’ve ever been involved in, the writer journey is the least predictable of all.
Take finding a literary agent. I tell ya, these guys are hard to come by. Last year, in the whole state of N.C. there were only three lit agents in my chosen sub-genre of Modern Medical Bluegrass Grit Lit, and now we are down to two. The other one left for Arkansas, and did not leave a forwarding address.
In a way, you can’t blame him. The song says there are thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville, and with writers there’s even more folks than that with a dream and a prayer.
At least in the music thing, most parents try to convince their kid to come home and get a job. In the lit biz the situation is even worse ’cause every one of the writer’s mamas (just like mine) love them, so the agents are inundated with upwards of tens of thousands of applicants, and have to deal with a whole bunch of mad friends and relatives when they turn someone away.
If you’ll notice, nowadays every one of these secret agent folks will only take on new clients who are already published. Now, how are you gonna do that when no one will publish you unless you have an agent?
The way I saw it, I had two choices. I could lie, but I didn’t want to do that ’cause I figured that would be bad for my rep as a doc, so I chose the less onerous route of paying someone to put a few of my articles in things like the Southern Ladies Azalea Quarterly (my wife got me that gig- I didn’t know a thing about it, but she was a good coach) and then moved up to coverage of the local music beat, which I was somewhat of an authority on. I caught a break at a bluegrass festival when I heard the rumor a touring band had fired their publicist. I went backstage right away, handed them a card, told them I was a writer, and got the job for their ad copy and CD liner notes. All of a sudden I was in- an official author. (Definition: Writer whose work is published three different places.)
My first agent fired me when I could not develop a more romantic voice. (My Miss Marfar laughed and said that was impossible.) I persevered on, though, and then managed to get published in the local paper and a couple small music mags, patched together a resume, and voila, after a couple more fits and starts, found me an agent.
As it turns out though, acquisition of an agent is only the start of this business. To keep one, you better turn out some good original stuff, and commit “Self-Editing for Fiction Writers” and “The Elements of Style” to memory. And brother, if you take to using a bunch of ing-lys as you are thinking and wondering, you are toast.
All in all, it is imperative that your correspondence with your agent be of the utmost of accuracy, and your grammar and sentence construction must meet the highest professional standards. Your re-writes of your re-writes should exude enthusiasm and originality, and even more important I think……
Oops, gotta go. My wife called. My agent was supposed to be gone, but she heard he was down at the Piggly-Wiggly buying groceries, and I better go help him unload his car. The more I think about it, I don’t reckon I ought to tell all the secrets, ’cause my agent might fire me and get a better client. So far, his proceeds from my work are neck and neck with my songwriting royalties, and I think he has a young-un in college.
I’d better not give up my day job just yet. But, a man has to have his dreams, and I figure I’m only a story away from pay-dirt for me and my agent- at least that’s what I’ve told him. Should ya’ll run into him, I hope you’ll tell him if you like my stuff. I’m gonna need all the help I can get.