It’s Wednesday and it’s already been a pretty productive week for me. Among other things, I’ve signed up a new client… *waves* I’ve read two full manuscripts and two partials (I don’t usually get in this much reading time in a week), and written up editorial notes or rejections (sigh) as needed. I’ve reviewed and signed off on a contract and done a veritable ton of other random paperwork. I’ve attempted to reorganize my office bookcases for the influx of new books that have just been released or are just about to be released. They still have no room on them, but they at least look better.
And I’ve stared at my journal wondering what to write about. And I’ve read a few other agents’ journals to see what they are discussing. I’ve noticed that my entries have trailed off in the last couple of months and I’m not sure why. Sure, there are some non-agent things that have been taking up time, thought, and energy/angst, but even if those are contributing factors to occasional bouts of distraction, I don’t feel like it’s the answer. Is it that I’ve been keeping this journal for almost three years and I’m beginning to feel as if I’m repeating myself? Maybe it’s a phase. Last night while I was reading queries, it felt remarkably similar to how they seemed the previous week. There were some good ideas that didn’t appear to be supported by the writing, there were some very articulate sentences that didn’t seem as if they were supporting solid enough concepts, and there were a number of things somewhere in the middle. And I felt vaguely frustrated by this.
I was talking to a colleague yesterday and she was lamenting the fact that she has almost nothing on the market. She sounded outright desperate to find a new project that made her sit up and take notice. Where’s the excitement? Where’s the thrill? she asked me. I realized I didn’t have an answer for her. I’ve signed up two new clients this year. And I’m extremely chuffed to have the opportunity to work with both of them and with the remarkably talented list that I assembled overnight (like people who become best-sellers overnight after publishing over a dozen novels). But, despite this, I still feel like I’m not discovering enough. Is it greed? I want all the best projects all the time? Is that so wrong? And coming on the heels of Kelly Link’s thought-provoking letter, I realize that maybe it’s just the way this works. I’m seeing a lot of competent work in the submissions I receive, but only a rare bit that excels that measurement. And why settle? Either as a writer, or as an agent? I should keep my hunger alive for those queries that stand out and the writing that resonates. If it takes a thousand to find the one, so be it. It’s one of the reasons — one of the biggest reasons — I’m into this.
Publishing offers mixed and conflicting signals. Like the girl across the aisle who keeps glancing your way, but it turns out she only wants to borrow your pen. Agents and editors on the conference circuit constantly talk about writers identifying their own voice, finding their own niche, and so on and so forth. But at the same time they preach that there are writing and genre conventions to be respected. Plus, it turns out that it is really hard work to write a story that breaks rules and isn’t also itself broken. It’s a catch-22. The question is whether it’s actually an inescapable fate for most writers, which leads us back to Kelly Link’s observations that much of what is available is competent, but lacks the kind of ambition and risk-taking that makes a work a standout contribution.
But, I do want all the best projects. So do all the other agents. There’s already an inherent risk in sending something out on submission. The writer is exposing themselves, both to the possibility of rejection, and to that glimpse of their soul on the page (not to wax too poetic here). I’ve met more than a small number of writers who seem to be self-sabotaging on that front. They always appear to have an excuse for why they don’t have something on the market. Last week, I got a thank you note from someone in which they let me know that my reply to their submission was their first non-form rejection. And they were thrilled. They considered this a milestone. But I wondered how many of those form rejections this author had collected in their pursuit with this first novel, or how many more there would be. And I hoped they wouldn’t let this stop them. That if they could already take this one risk that perhaps in their next novel (or in revising this one), they would take a sufficient risk as a writer to become that one in a thousand.
And if you’ve read this entire interior monologue, thanks for listening. I’ve now given myself a pep talk and I’m going back to the trenches….