The other day on the radio an accomplished author was asked the eternal question, "how do I break into fiction?" He gave an impatient answer: "These days, you really need to find an agent. It's too bad, but that's the way it is." It is a misleading answer. Yes, you do need to find an agent. But before you can find an agent, you have to find a number of things in yourself.
From my now-considerable experience as an unpublished book-length author, here are some things we all need to find in ourselves before we find an agent, ranked in order of importance.
(Above: Collaboration on the Great
American Hippo Novel.)
1. We must have a story to tell. This may seem obvious, but many writers are under the terrible illusion that what they write will be interesting to a lot of people. Agents and publishers are looking for concepts, hooks, unusual situations-- what they call "fresh." My friend Stephanie Fletcher had a hit with her novel, E-mail: A Love Story just at the beginning of the online craze. It was written entirely in email messages.
It's most important to have a story. If you don't, you can submit till kingdom come. You won't get an agent.
2. We must be in the right place at the right time. Often, we can't have control over whether who we know, where we go, what we do, is going to make a difference in publishing success. But as motivational speaker (and aspiring author) Susan Hite tells everyone, "Prepared people are lucky people." The more you live intentionally to promote yourself and your story, the more likely will be that "lucky break" that seems to come to so few of us. A friend told the story once of an unpublished author who went to New York City. He began to help out at literary events. He swept up and scraped plates for people with connections. A year later his novel was agented. Extreme? Who knows?
3. We must have resistence to rejection. Online you'll see a thousand sites which tell you to "keep on keeping on;" genius is "one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration." True. If you can't be at the right place at the right time, then hard work and persistence can be a substitute. Certainly, without "luck," you need persistence.
4. We must have writing talent and a willingness to revise, learn, get better. Some might put this at the top of the list. Not me. It doesn't matter if you can write like an angel. If we don't have a story to go with talent, or connections, or stubborn persistence when idiots reject us, there will be no agent or publisher. Besides, we've seen the junk that gets published by people who have a trendy story to tell and never spend much time on their craft.
I believe that cream does rise to the top eventually. But sooner for the self-promoters and the stubborn persisters than for the neurotic, brilliant-- and shy-- geniuses.
5. We must have time to work. This is least important, but still important. A friend of mine quit his job as a freelance journalist and became a stay-at-home dad. He devoted himself to his novel. Years later, it is agented. There is an advantage to having an intention for your writing and dedicating time to it. It may be at the expense of other things in life. That's the price we pay.
In the past weeks I've examined two novels (Iokaste, Pompeii) published in non-traditional venues. Both have considerable strengths and have sold larger numbers of copies than many traditionally-published books. If an agent passes on our book, we can't assume it's bad, and shelve it. I like to think if we work and cultivate the 5 elements above, we will eventually have, if not a published book, then a worthy book.
And that, in the end, is what's most important to me.