Most new writers dream of getting a high-powered agent and editor, and as a new author I was no different. As an older writer, I’m a bit more skeptical.
I got my first agent fairly easily. After winning the Writers of the Future Contest and having the award ceremony atop the World Trade Center in 1986, I was approached by eight different publishers who asked to see my first novel proposal. I really didn’t know who to go with, so I did some research on agents and found one who had several big-name clients that I admired. I called her on the phone and introduced myself, but it turned out that she had heard about me from another writer and agreed to represent me on the spot. I faxed her my proposal for my first novel, and she sent it to several editors and within a two days we looked at offers from three publishers and had a deal.
Really, I had no idea what I was doing. In the thirty years that I’ve been publishing since, I don’t know of another writer who has entered the publishing field quite the way that I did. The idea that a new author would sell a novel on the basis of an outline is pretty absurd. That just doesn’t happen. And to have three publishers bidding on it? That really doesn’t happen. Most new writers have to write the novel first, then shop it around to an agent for a few months or years, and then let the agent try to make a publishing deal. I got lucky.
I have to say, that I also feel that I got lucky with my editors, too. I’ve worked with dozens of them, and nearly all have been great most of the time, but agents and editors are also human. They get sick, burn out, go through divorces, and so on.
For example, my first agent was brilliant and did a fantastic job, but a few years into our relationship her health began to deteriorate. She was suffering from diabetes, and something else. She began to have strange, paranoid delusions, and would read things into emails and letters that weren’t there. Literally, she would scan the message, circle particular words at random, and then try to decipher the “hidden” meaning of the words. Afterward, she would write angry and incoherent letters to me demanding explanations and apologies for my intentions. Sadly, there was little that I could do to save our relationship.
This was in the mid-1990s as I was writing my Golden Queen series, and at the time I was just trying to keep things steady. As a father, I was raising my family and supporting them. I recall changing a lot of diapers, worrying about my children’s school a lot, taking kids to sports practice and singing classes and acting classes. I also worked as a Scout leader and held various positions at church. In short, I was pretty much an average dad.
I worked part-time as the lead judge for the Writers of the Future, and spent a lot of time helping to discover and train new writers. I worked on writing a novel every year, along with a few short stories, and in my spare time I sometimes took on odd jobs writing or editing manuals for computer software. In short, I was a very average dad in that I held down four different jobs (writer/editor/teacher/contest judge).
But like my agent, I began to have my own health problems. By the mid-1990s I had pretty much recovered from my chronic-fatigue syndrome, but the truth is, you never get over it completely. Now another problem cropped up. I’d suffered from severe allergies in my teens, so I took allergy shots and was able to get over most of them. But in the mid-1990s they came back with a vengeance. In fact, while I was writing The Courtship of Princess Leia, I had Han Solo win a planet in a card game, and after he visits it, having many adventures, he begins sneezing so much that he begins to wonder is he’s allergic to the entire planet. I felt like that. Pollens, molds, foods, chemicals—I began fighting allergies to all of them, but this time the allergy shots didn’t help. I found that flying was difficult because I had allergies to jet fuel—and to the hairsprays, perfumes, deodorants, and skin lotions of the other passengers. I couldn’t go to hotels because of the cleaners and air fresheners they used. Couldn’t be in crowds, and so on. I’ve always loved dogs, and after winning grand champion status with my Irish setter, I had to find him a home. The list of symptoms to my allergies included a lot of normal things: itching eyes, sinus congestion, sneezing, rashes, hives, stomach cramps, and so on. I began going into shock when I got genetically-modified corn in my food (including corn starch or corn syrup, which is often hidden in ingredient labels). And there is a certain perfume that even caused me to get severe stomach cramps and weakness so bad that all I could do was lie in bed after exposure and wait for the symptoms to pass.
We of course tried everything—air filters, allergy shots, vitamin therapy, acupuncture, wholistic medicine and so on. Eventually I found something that works pretty well, some allergy shots called LDA that don’t quite have full FDA approval here in the U.S.
So writers are human too. Plan on it in your career.
And in addition to my agent, I had an editor with problems. I began to see it early in my Golden Queen series. The first inkling came when he called one day, outraged that a Canadian book distributor had purchased 12,000 hardcovers and then had placed them in a warehouse, where they laid forgotten, until the distributor discovered them, then sent them back to the publisher for a refund. The editor shouted at me for several minutes, as if this were somehow my fault, or as if perhaps I should volunteer to pay for the books. Now, I sympathized with him, of course. Every publisher in New York guarantees sales on books, and if stores don’t sell them, the publisher takes the loss. It can be a costly process. But hey, I didn’t place the order. It wasn’t my fault, and the idea that he would shout at me over this was outrageous.
Our relationship further decayed just a few weeks later. The deadline for the second novel in my trilogy was coming up, and he called worried that I wouldn’t make it. I assured him that I was nearly done, and he asked to see the manuscript now, to see where I was. I went ahead and emailed it to him because he was so flustered.
Three days later he called and said, “Oh, my gosh, this has so many problems. This is a disaster!” Well, I actually write pretty clean first drafts. They might be wordy, and I sometime put notes to myself in the manuscript on how to fix a scene, that kind of thing. I know award-winning authors whose first drafts are far messier than mine. I told him, “It’s not a disaster, it’s called a first draft. I’ll be through with the draft and rewrites in three weeks.”
When I turned the book in (on time), I gave him the weekend to read it, then called him and asked, “Did you have a chance to read it? Is it all right?”
He answered sheepishly, “Yeah, I read it. It’s really, really good.” Sure, he had some editorial notes, but they were minor things that I was able to handle in a single afternoon.
So, what are my takeaways from this?
- Your agent, even the best agent, is only human. Treat them as if you are business partners and collaborators. Share your ideas with your agent, but don’t try to be his or her boss. And don’t let them treat you as if you’re an employee, either. You’ll work best as a team. Lay those out as ground rules from the start.
- Recognize that sometimes life gets in your way as a writer. You may get to deal with all kinds of horrendous problems—physical, mental, relationship. Don’t stress out about it. Stressing only leads to writers’ block on a tale and makes it worse.
- Never give an editor a manuscript until it’s done.
- Your editor, like your agent, is only human. Try your best to be a good partner with him or her, too. I’ll have a lot more on this later.
My online writing workshops are open, but temporarily. You can check them out here.
I also have my Australian workshops coming up in fall.
And we have a new success story up:
A Screenwriter Wins at Prose Fiction Writing - "I wrote my million words of crap blissfully unaware of the 'rules.'