The Debutantes are dancing like mad this week:
Debutante Review! Publisher’s Weekly says Debutante Mia King’s Good Things (February 9, 2007) has a “plucky protagonist;” a tale of a “domestic diva” who goes “from princess to pauper” with an ending that ”will please…!”
Guest Blog! Debutante Kristy Kiernan has the great honor of being the guest at Murderati, as well as Killer Year, this Friday, Dec. 1, 2006. Drop by and say hello so she’s not dancing alone!
New Stuff! The Debutante Ball is thrilled to offer our first Worldwide Debutante! If you read Swedish, check out Johanna, who blogs from Sweden. We’ve also added a new grog, Drunk Writer Talk and two new blogs: Maureen McGowan and Slightly Savage.
Deb Friends! Friend of the Ball, Gail Konop-Baker, has her second Bare-breasted Mama column up on Literary Mama.
Other than being able to juggle a bit and touch my nose with my tongue, I don’t have any odd talents. There is a long list of things I greatly admire and wish I could do: bagpipe playing, fire eating, sword swallowing, magic in any form, escape artistry, and having psychic abilities (maybe I can get some tips from Debutante Eileen on this one!).
I am very into things that involve special instruments, tools or props. Someone drags a beat up case of any sort out and opens it up before a crowd and I’m hooked. There used to be a guy who performed escapes up on the street in Burlington, Vermont. He’d lay everything out first: handcuffs, ropes, chains, locks, straight jacket, and as he was doing this, a crowd would gather. I loved the act of unpacking — the way he carefully laid each object of restraint out on the white sheet. There was a promise that something wonderful and dramatic was about to happen. This guy was going to let strangers lock him up, truss him, put him in a straight jacket, then, by some miracle, he was going to get free. It was the miracle we were all there to see. Someone was going to do something that seemed impossible.
When I was ten or eleven, my grandmother gave me a magic set. It came with a hat full of secret compartments, a marked deck of cards, a rope trick and some brightly colored scarves. I read the book it came with. I practiced. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror trying desperately to make coins disappear. I was terrible at it. Try as I might, I was clumsy, full of self doubt, and never good at the patter that my book told me was necessary to help distract the audience. The magic hat got stuffed to the back of my closet along with the abandoned rock polisher, chemistry set and a half-finished hooked rug.
Now the only trick I know is the one I do with words, but you know what? It’s enough. I don’t have a box of props: just my little laptop, and some days, only a notebook and pen. But once I get warmed up, I can still work a little magic. I can get the guy into and out of the straight jacket and give him a thousand little histories, and reasons for doing what he does. I can make that once clumsy ten-year-old girl pull white doves from her magic hat. I can write about sword swallowers, even allow myself to become one for a little while without risking internal injuries. And often, when I walk away from the desk, I feel a little like that escape artist — like I’ve just pulled off the impossible.
Being the selfless creature I am, I’m going to bypass my own fairly odd talents (I can wiggle my ears, find a 4-leaf clover in any clover patch and sniff out scents like a bloodhound) and focus on my sister’s. When she and I were young, we forced ourselves to play a terrible game of survival that we called The Kitchen Experiment, where we would make each other mystery snacks and wait to see if the other survived. There were only two rules—nothing in the kitchen was off limits and you had to finish your entire snack.
It was always more exhilarating if we had cousins or visiting friends of the family over to share in the horror and ultimate fate of whoever was unlucky enough to be “It”, but we never foisted our nastiest, most evil concoctions on them. We saved those for each other.
Being chosen to be It first was highly desirable—you wanted your snack before anger and revenge turned the game even uglier. Once you were chosen, you had to decide whether you wanted a solid or liquid snack made for you, and then you were banished to sit on the prickly, ice-cold bricks of the family room hearth and anxiously await your secret victuals.
My sister played the game like a master. She made things even more unpredictable by sometimes whipping up a perfectly normal snack—a small dish of ice cream with sprinkles or Cheez Whiz on celery. You just never knew what you were in for.
Typically, though, a gaggle of open-mouthed children would follow my sister into the kitchen and watch her create the very worst liquid or solid creation she could fathom. Even back then, she shone in the kitchen. Her concoctions were, all at once, artistic, ingenious and repulsive.
A typical liquid concoction I’d have come up with might have been ketchup, olive juice, soy sauce and uncooked eggs mixed up in a juice glass. Uninspired. Predictable, even. My sister would have topped that off with a stealthy squirt of Palmolive and a couple of granules of Tide, stirred it in a martini shaker and served it with a smile.
My solid recipe might have been made up of vitamins, butter, parmesan and spoonfuls of black pepper over a dried-up butterscotch pudding base. My sister would never have bothered a jejune combo like this. Way too obvious. She’d have swirled a thick dollop of peanut butter between two Ritz crackers and offered me a glass of milk to wash it down. And just after I’d swallowed and congratulated myself on having not been required to ingest shoe polish, she’d announce the peanut butter was laced with Alpo. Or—as I just found out this week—cigarette ashes.
Incredibly, neither of us ever got sick. Nor did we ever tell. And when our little brothers grew old enough to beg to be included, we didn’t dare subject them to our twisted experimentation.
In spite of this (or maybe because of it), Pam grew up to be an incredible cook. If she serves homemade ice-cream cake, you can bet she’s even made the ice cream herself.
But can you blame me if I still sniff it first?
Wonderful actors supposedly struggle with the skill — supposedly, even Sir Lawrence Olivier couldn’t do it. So why I — a writer not particularly prone to tears who isn’t nearly masochistic enough to have ever wanted to be an actress — can make myself cry is beyond me.
I’m not exactly sure when I discovered that I had this talent. It wasn’t when I wanted a better grade, got pulled over for a ticket or needed to make sure a guy didn’t break up with me right then. The skill is, in fact, utterly useless in those types of situations because it takes a good five minutes of full concentration — minutes that simply don’t exist when, say, you’re watching the cop walk from his car up to yours.
I’ve really only used it as a party trick. And oh, what a party — watch Anna cry! It actually goes over amazingly well with children, especially the already cynical ones who’ve seen all the standard adult tricks (ear wiggling, double jointed finger moving, juggling, etc.) and are hungry for some original ones. “Are you thinking about something very sad?” they always ask, their fascinated faces peering closely at mine and waiting to see when the liquid will start pouring.
The truth is, I don’t think of anything sad. I don’t think of anything at all — beyond the fact that I’m trying to push tears out of my eyes. I’ve told many — usually the ever-inquisitive children — that you simply push the tears out of your eyes using the same muscle that you use to yawn. Start to yawn, and then push tears instead, I always say, unable to explain it any better than that. They yawn and then look at me like I must be leaving something out.
But I’m not. That’s what I do. Maybe I magically accessed the tear-generating muscle somewhere near my esophagus one day and then, through exercise and practice, made it something I can now use easily. Maybe I was meant to have gotten better at it before those times I got pulled over so I really could have gotten out of those tickets. Maybe the writing thing won’t work out and I’ll decide to pursue acting.
Although just the mere thought of that is enough to unleash the real waterworks.
I found my agent like I’ve found a lot of things in my life; through a bizarre series of odd coincidences and happy accidents. First off, let me state for the record that I had no connections in the publishing industry. I have no MFA. In fact, I don’t have any higher degree at all. I had no relatives, friends, friends of friends, kind of/sort of connections, period. I was a complete and utter novice. All I had was a completed novel and an Internet connection.
I used that Internet connection to research agents. There is no secret handshake, there is, however, Google. Use it (or, use Good Search, which contributes a small amount to the charity of your choice for each search). I searched for literary agents. I learned the basics of what to look for (sales, no fees, enthusiasm) and what to avoid (reading fees, conflicts of interest), and I learned about the AAR‘s Canon of Ethics. I learned about Publisher’s Marketplace, and various writers’ boards where writers exchange tips and information. I learned about query letters, what works (well written, succinct, honest) and what doesn’t (flowery, pathetic, eleven pages long).
And then I got down to business. I made lists, I made spreadsheets, I grew overwhelmed. And I withdrew. I sent out a query or two. Maybe three. And then a friend, Sara Gruen, who had a wildly different approach than I did, flew down and stood over me while I sent out a ton of queries. (I still occasionally hear “Send, send!” in my nightmares.) There was one agent in particular I was interested in, but a friend had been a client of the same firm, and I, always determined to be above board, was hesitant to mix that up.
But my friend thought I was an idiot, and so, still not totally comfortable, the agent went on my maybe list. Then, the bizarre coincidences started. First, I was researching an idea for a novel and came across the term “camera obscura.” This might be a common term, but I swear I’d never heard it before, or I’d never taken note of it anyway. But it stuck in my head.
The next day, my husband, an art dealer, picked up one of the gallery’s artists from the airport and we went out to dinner together. His conversation revolved around his technique: camera obscura. I spent the following day sending out more e-mail queries to agents. That night I couldn’t sleep, what with all the angst over my agent search. Finally at about 3 in the morning I turned on the television, and started watching the biography of Vermeer, considered the father of? Camera obscura. Seeing a trend here?
The next day I thought I’d send out a few more queries. I checked Publisher’s Marketplace, searched for “Debut” and lo and behold, what pops up? The sale for Miranda Beverly-Whittemore’s brilliant debut The Effects of Light. Only that wasn’t the original title. The original title, the title it sold with was, of course, CAMERA OBSCURA. The agent who sold it? Anne Hawkins of John Hawkins Literary Agency. The same agent I’d been so interested in but had held off on querying because I was worried about too many connections.
My fingers had never flown to the “Send” button so fast.
The next week was the most exhilarating week in the entire process. I got requests. For partials, for fulls, for phone calls, for e-mail conversations. From several agents, from several big agents. In that heady week, Anne Hawkins asked for a partial. Then she asked for a full. Then she called me. It was a Sunday. I liked that.
She had some questions though, and my heart fell. This wasn’t an offer. This was a feeling out. But her questions revolved around the one point in the manuscript that I wasn’t happy with. And that was when I knew for sure. I told her I wanted to work it out, and then I asked if that meant she was my agent.
Her answer: “Of course!”
Don’t rely on coincidences, but don’t ignore them either. And do your homework. And ask questions. Of me, of the Debutantes, and of your prospective agents. Heck, ask them right here, we’ll answer! Good luck to each of you!
With the publication of my first book looming, more and more I get questions from other writers who are starting to navigate the publishing waterways. They have a mistaken notion that I have some secrets or know what I’m doing. One of the most common questions I hear is:
“Where did you get your agent?”
Why WalMart of course – the aisle near office supplies.
No – don’t be foolish, Rachel Vater (Lowenstein and Yost) is much more of Tiffany’s type agent, you wouldn’t find quality like her in the mass market stores. She is unique, one of a kind.
So how did I find her? Honestly? I found her in a Writers Digest article. I read an interview with her. I liked what she had to say. I met one of her colleagues at a writer’s conference who confirmed my impression. This is how the process went:
- I sent her a query letter.
- She requested a partial.
- I sent the partial and produced more stomach acid than a bomb squad guy with palsy while I waited to hear back.
- She requested the full manuscript.
- I sent the manuscript and spent days chanting and praying full time like an entire Buddhist monastery.
- She called. We discussed the book, what I wanted in my career, her approach, our expectations of each other. She offered to represent me and I accepted.
Despite what people hint from time to time I can promise the following:
- I did not know her before I queried her, nor did I know any of her family or friends
- I had no “connections” in the publishing industry
- I did not hold any pets or distant cousins of hers hostage while suggesting that “bad things” could happen if she failed to offer to represent me
- No money exchanged hands (nor chocolate, flowers or other bribes)
I did do the following:
- Tried to write a good book
- Got some assistance (thank you Kristin Nelson) to write a snappy query
- Took the time to try and learn as much as I could about the publishing industry and the role of agents
- Was honest with myself about what I wanted/needed in an agent
- Sold my soul to Satan in a Faust type deal (no I didn’t – I just wanted to see if you were paying attention – besides no one wants my soul – no rhythm)
I have no doubts that I work with one of the best agents in the business and the very best agent for me. I greatly value Rachel’s input and professional judgment. I appreciate her ability to talk me down when I’ve wound myself up (this happens more than you might think). I admire her business savvy and boundless enthusiasm for this business. I love her for loving my books and those of all her clients. I absolutely ADORE that she knows Miss Snark – which is almost as good as knowing her myself. I feel very fortunate to have not only a good business relationship – but also to really like my agent as a person.
If you are looking for an agent – keep looking. Don’t settle for any agent – find the right agent. They are out there. They are looking for you too.
Debut fiction author, about to be published, seeks literary representation after ending it with current literary agent. Must be willing to discuss possible story ideas, be open to light editing or comments. Similar philosophy on writing, publishing, and marketing preferred. Has time for me. Laughs at my jokes (I promise to laugh at yours!). Firm but flexible. Responds promptly. Current list should be impressive but manageable, with a view that adding me would be a wonderful complement. Able to sell foreign, dramatic and audio rights (bonus if rights are sold prior to publication). Must be excited to be working with me, excited for my writing career, and loves being a literary agent and helping authors get published.
Yes, it’s true. I am agent-less. A little over two years since I first signed on the dotted line, I have ended it with my agent. Don’t get me wrong: she’s a good agent, she’s been in the business a long time, she accepted me as a client (always a nice thing), she sold my novel to a great publishing house, and on this day of all days, I am thankful for her. Really.
But I didn’t really consider if we would be a good team for the long haul. We’re not. There’s lots of reasons why, and I won’t get into it since my reasons will differ from yours or anyone else’s. Suffice it to say that I’ve agonized over this for almost a year. Releasing an agent is almost as hard as finding one.
Future published writers, don’t learn the hard way. Get your writing as good as it can get, choose your agent carefully, research potential agents thoroughly, work on a kick-ass query and keep refining it until someone on your short list says YES. Then interview them. They need you as much as you need them (I know it doesn’t feel that way now, but it’s true).
You need to believe in yourself and in your writing, and that you deserve to find a literary agent who is the right fit for you. This is not something you want to settle for, trust me. The right literary agent is like the right marriage partner, and all the work you produce and sell ARE your children. Do this now, because if you desperately sign with the first person who says yes, you’ll be in the same boat as me, and it’s tough. For starters, you never really “end” it with a literary agent who has successfully sold your writing. You will continue to be married for as long as that literary property is receiving royalties. She will forever be able to negotiate rights on that property. Getting a divorce is yucky, especially if there are “kids” involved. My former agent and I will be co-parenting GOOD THINGS for a very long time.
I’m still processing and trying not to panic (Did I make a mistake? No! Yes! No!), and despite the title of this post, am not quite ready to jump back into the find-an-agent scene. But I’m still a lover of a good agent-author relationship. It’s out there, somewhere, and I hope every author, including myself, finds it.