The Writer’s Toughest Job? Managing Your Expectations

Writer's Block 1
Writer's Block 1 (Photo credit: OkayCityNate)

So I’m thinking Broadside is doing great — zipping along, adding new subscribers almost daily (yay!) — and up to 615 worldwide.

Cool!

Then I find a blog with 12,000 followers. That’s the size of my town. Gulp. Sigh.

(Hangs head in dismayed disappointment.)

I also found out this month that a dream I’d been a little excited about, a TV deal for “Malled”, failed to woo the person whose thumbs-up we most needed. Very deep sigh.

I recently sent my first pitch to Wired magazine, which if you haven’t read it, is a smart and interesting publication.

The good news? I heard back within a day or so. The bad news? No interest in that idea.

Every ambitious writer — and if you’re not ambitious, really, why waste the energy? — wants his or her work to find enthusiastic readers, listeners and viewers. Lots of them.

Like, millions!

I see some of the shite that fills the best-sellers lists — seriously?! — and gnash my teeth and rend my garments, even just a little. But when things feel like they’re going pear-shaped (as the British would say), I seek solace in context.

I keep up with what’s happening in my industry, (i.e. publishing, journalism), and read this week that adult hardcover book sales are down a whopping 21 percent.

It’s not just me.

And e-book sales are up a staggering 123 percent; one-third of my sales, so far, for Malled, my 2011 retail memoir, have been e-books, which surprised me and my publisher, Portfolio.

I was feeling low about my sales until I spoke with a good friend who works in the industry and knows it very well. They’re fine, she reassured me.

The endless quest for a terrific agent can feel wholly dispiriting, unless you know other writers at your level in your genre, and hear their war stories. Few writers I know are 100 percent thrilled with their agent, either.

I think the smartest moves a writer can make are these:

Show up and write. As Seth Godin says, keep shipping!

Know that finding an agent is even more challenging than finding a sweetie — you need someone you like, who likes you, is smart and tough and tenacious, who has a good track record, who is taking on new clients, who rep’s the sort of genre you work in, who “gets” you intellectually and emotionally. Someone you trust enough to help shape the next phase of your career.  No pressure!

Work diligently at your craft.

Know the bigger picture of what’s really happening right now in your industry, not just what you most hope for.

Talk frequently to as many publishing veterans as you can. What are they seeing and hearing? My friends now include two heads of publicity for major houses as well as a few agents and many fellow authors. Their collective wisdom helps me figure out the smartest current strategy for my work.

Have a very clear idea what you hope to achieve with your work, and by when. Do not listen only to the naive and unpublished hopeful or those who advise them. Much as I admire writer-advice blogs, they’re too often talking down, by definition. Be prepared to dodge and feint!

Reality-check your hopes against the marketplace, your skills and how much time/stamina you can bring to these projects.

Says one friend, now working on her first non-fiction book, with every writer’s dream — a pre-emptive bid from a major house — (after a year’s work on the proposal): “This business is not for sissies!”

Why There’s No “Bus Driver’s Block”

Painting The Writing Master by Thomas Eakins
Image via Wikipedia

When you tell people you’re a writer, and especially if it’s your sole source of income, the common reaction is one of envy.

Writing for a living seems to be something many people want to do.

Or say they want to do.

I try to be polite to those who say, carelessly, that they plan to “take up writing” after they retire from whatever professional work they are now involved with, as though (which it is, of course, for many people) it’s simply an amusing and relaxing hobby, like knitting or making birdhouses.

Too often, they quickly discover that writing well, often and consistently is work. Yup!

How many times have you gone to the “blogging”, “books” or “writing” tags, eager for inspiration and camaraderie, to find another whiny post pleading “writer’s block?” I’ve wasted many fruitless hours there only to find people posting (!) about how they have nothing to say or don’t know how to say it.

Enough already!

Bus drivers get into the seat, turn on the engine and drive. That’s their job. They don’t wring their hands about it or turn to strangers for guidance on how to do it or tell us they really don’t feel like doing it at all.

They don’t stand around the bus terminal waiting for divine inspiration or a muse to give them directions.

They just get on with it.

Yes, I’m being impatient and judgmental. But writing is work, and therefore requires discipline, focus, concentration, study, practice, reflection. None of which are cute, fun, easy or offer a guaranteed result of excellence.

Of course, I have days here my views fall off a bloody cliff. Tant pis. Nothing I can do about it but bang out another post and hope for the best.

Here’s a recent blog post that was Freshly Pressed on the value of blogging regularly.

Which writers inspire you?

Which blogs do you enjoy the most, and why?

Share the link love!

Information Overload!

17th January 2008 / Day 17 (382)
Help! What next? Image by Mrs Magic via Flickr

I admitted it aloud recently to a good friend. I’m reaching a point, which in some ways is exciting, of overload. I don’t even have kids or pets, but face so many choices and decisions it’s hard to know where to prioritize, focus and begin.

Right now, these include:

finishing and hopefully selling the proposal for my third book

opening and stocking my Etsy shop, AtlasoftheHeart

planning and marketing a writing workshop for next January in New Mexico

creating the photo book I began back in March at the Banff Springs Hotel

starting the proposal for my fourth book

getting “Malled” sold to some overseas markets

planning and executing a fund-raising campaign for a writers’ charity whose board I belong to

reaching out to new freelance clients to line up more work

following up with several amazing people I’ve recently met, with whom I hope to work

connecting on LinkedIn with all 65 people I just met at the retail conference I spoke at

following up in detail with three or four of them on a specific idea we discussed

finding more local speaking engagements for “Malled”

seeking and setting up readings and events for “Malled”

seeking and finding blogs on which to write guest posts to promote it

trying to repair — do I want to? — the non-speaking relationship with my mother

losing more weight so I can (shriek) schedule my hip replacement surgery

seeking and finding more paid venues at which to speak about “Malled”

staying in touch with friends worldwide

reading for pure pleasure

reading for book proposal research

long afternoons sitting with a good friend face to face

meeting new business contacts

mining my Facebook and LinkedIn connections

answering LinkedIn questions to stay visible within that community

choosing which cultural events like ballet, concerts, dance, theater to attend and getting tickets

staying in touch with several friends facing health issues, one whose Mom is quite ill

dealing more thoughtfully with my investments

Whew!

And that’s not even including writing this blog and responding to the many interesting people who comment.

The New York Times recently ran an interesting essay on the current paucity of “big ideas”, based on the current Niagara of data we have no time to thoughtfully absorb or process:

But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.

The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.

We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information.

Here’s a thought-provoking list of possible things to reply to from Seth Godin’s blog.

How do you handle or manage all the data and demands coming at you, personally and professionally?

How Many Irons Do You Keep In The Fire?

The various incarnations of Steel.
Image via Wikipedia

It’s one of my favorite expressions — having multiple irons in the fire. I’m not an ironworker or blacksmith, but a freelance writer and author. If I don’t have multiple income streams (21st century jargon for the same idea), I’m toast.

Now that one-third of us work permalance or as independent contractors or whatever you want to call people who leap from lily-pad to lily-pad to keep their bills paid, making small bets across a variety of disciplines, projects, clients and borders is now business-as-usual.

Even if taking risks makes us feel a little queasy emotionally (What if I fail?), we know it’s also necessary. By definition, not every project, no matter how well-planned or funded or filled with enthusiasm will succeed. Some will sag like an old balloon or blow up with  bang in our surprised faces.

But taking mini-risks remains essential to creative growth. So, every day, like so many others now do, I call and email people across the country, and across oceans, looking for ways to boost my income, add to my network of smart, hardworking, ethical people and see what shows up next.

A new book, “Little Bets”, by Peter Sims, addresses the reality every creative self-employed person must face: you’ve got to keep a pile of irons in the fire at all times. Some will be red-hot, others stone-cold. But as long as you have a dozen or so, (call it Plans A-L), you’ll be fine.

Some of these low-level risks, the little bets, won’t turn into anything. But, with luck, persistence, re-tooling, timing…a few will.

In my decades as a writer, several of them self-employed, I’ve seen this firsthand. I rarely panic about where the money will come from to pay my bills — and my monthly nut is four figures — because I am always exploring new avenues, making new connections and sealing a deal or two.

I’m not wealthy. It would be nice to worry much less and much less often, about money. But I have to be honest enough to admit — I enjoy taking (small, measured) risks.

It’s ironic as hell to me that, by taking a low-wage, low-status job working as a retail sales associate in a suburban mall, a desperation move to shore up my income, I may have opened more and better and much more lucrative doors than anything I’ve ever done in my life. By taking the risk of losing my clutch on middle-class life, wearing a plastic badge and folding T-shirts, I began to see many things more clearly, and wrote a book about what I saw.

Here’s The Wall Street Journal review of Sims’ book.

Tell me about the mini-risks you’re taking, your own little bets…

The Introvert’s Nightmare — Promoting Your New Book

Seated man reading a book
Solitude? It doesn't sell books!Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

Here’s a great piece by a writer friend in Psychology Today:

Writing seems a perfect career for introverts, since it entails many hours alone in a quiet room. That’s the fun part of the job. Easy, even. But once your book is published, the real work starts: Getting people to buy it.

The days of publishers spending big bucks on book promotion are long gone. Today, after you manage to sell the book to a publisher, you then have to sell it to readers. So people who have chosen the solitary life of the writer are forced not just to step into the spotlight, but to chase it down. Heck, you have to get your own spotlight, point it at yourself, and holler “LOOK AT ME!”

Ick.

But an author’s gotta do what an author’s gotta do. What’s it like? Here, from four introverted writers, is a mix of advice and fear and loathing.

Today is a day for me to sit still. I spent the last two days, from 9:00 to 6:30, traversing the enormous Javits Center, Manhattan’s conference center, attending the annual National Retail Federation Big Show.

There were 15,000 people attending and thousands of exhibitors, most of them people selling their products and services (from security cameras to signage to software) to retailers. As I stood in line to buy my coffee, Kip Tindell, CEO of The Container Store, a huge celebrity in this world, walked right past me.

But who should I address? What should I say?

One of the people I interviewed for my new book is the CEO of a software company who invited me to be the keynote speaker at his users’ conference — with major players in attendance like Kohls, Home Depot, Old Navy. Being a keynote speaker, while a fantastic honor, was scary enough, and I even did it while on crutches.

Scary or not, for my new retail book to take off — “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, April 14, 2011) — I need to do much, much more of this sort of self-promotion, meeting senior executives with decades of experience.

No one could possibly work the Big Show alone, so two friends — bubbly, outgoing blonds my age — also worked the room handing out postcards for the book. I paid one of them for her time, $180 out of my own pocket for her labor and energy.

It’s not easy!

Approaching total strangers hour after hour after hour to explain why I/my book are fabulous requires a sort of psychic stamina few people possess.

Barb and Hannah did a great job and I’ve made some terrific new contacts for speaking engagements and book sales.

The whole thing is a little terrifying to someone who — today — is writing this wearing a T-shirt and sweats, no make-up, uncombed hair, face unwashed.

Writers do most of our work alone at home, interacting with sources by phone or email because so many of them live very far away; even if they’re an hour away, we often can’t afford the two hours’ wasted time traveling to and from their location. (Now that gas is already $3.35 a gallon here as well.)

So the HeyhowareyaGreattomeetyou! of determined, ongoing book marketing and promotion can be a real a shock to the system. Most writers are fairly private people, attached to a computer and printer for months, if not years, interacting for their book primarily with three key players — your agent, editor and publicist.

All of whom are on your side.

Then — boom! — you’re shot out of the editorial cannon and into public view, criticism, questioning and judgment. Fellow journalists whip out their notepads and cameras and it’s my turn to be listened to and quoted. Gulp.

I now carry hairspray and a mirror. (I normally often forget to carry a hairbrush, let alone my cellphone.)

I was interviewed for two videos yesterday and, totally by chance, by a reporter from Women’s Wear Daily as I sat in a hallway.

Here we go…

On The Desperate Need To Not Write

A lake surrounded by trees and some wood
Image via Wikipedia

When you lie in bed — seriously — and are blogging in your dreams, and writing the headline.

I’m in northern Ontario for the moment, staring as I write this out the window at pine trees overlooking a lake. Two grizzled black dogs snooze on their beds. The sweetie is snoozing in a chair by the woodstove and our host, my best friend from high school, is making ribs for dinner.

The sweetie planned to play golf but (really!) came home after running into snow squalls, only to discover all the carts were being put away for the season.

So it’s a blessed afternoon of eat/sleep/read/repeat. Pat dogs. Stare into fire. Admire the autumn colors.

Not writing!

My brain is frazzled and fried: finishing up the final revisions of my memoir; blogging for four sites; planning events for the book’s release next spring. Like a farmer’s field that needs to just lie farrow for a while to re-generate its fertility, this week is desperately needed downtime for my weary head.

Soon…within three or four days…I’ll be up and running again.

How I Sold And Wrote My Memoir

 

Forever Books
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I’ve been having lunch with a good friend every week as she recently lost her job of five years. She’s worked in and around journalists and authors her whole career, but, like some people, still finds the actual process of getting from an idea to a finished book — where do you find all those words, she asks? — mysterious and hard to imagine.

I’m in awe of writers who create fiction. I think that a non-fiction book, once you have a clear idea what you want to say and who your readers might be, is not as overwhelming.

You need a clear understanding what the scope of your inquiry should be, how you’ll access the material you need — archives, letters, libraries, interviews, firsthand reporting — and how much time, money and travel this will require.

What I love about writing books is the time to deeply and carefully explore a subject. This is so rare! Unless you are in academia or policy work, no one is going to pay you to learn, synthesize and analyze an issue you find utterly compelling. Nor will you have the time to write, revise, think and repeat as necessary, for many months.

I love having the time to start to see patterns and relationships between the data I find, feeling my understanding start to develop.

Oh, and, yes, to write at length, not hemmed in by standard newspaper story lengths of 700 to 1,200 words or a magazine’s maximum of perhaps 3,000 words.

For this one, I hired two researchers, neither of whom I ever met, one in New Jersey and one in San Diego (both came highly recommended by colleagues) who helped me by finding data, setting up interviews, conducting some interviews and sending me the raw audio.

Here’s how my new book took shape:

September 2007. I take a part-time retail job selling clothes in a suburban mall.  I need steady cash, something manageable, and hope this is the right choice. I’ve never worked retail, and know it will be hard work. My writer friends all think this could make a great book, partly because I’ll be able to describe that world firsthand. I’m dubious, but listen to them nonetheless.

I’m too busy training to think about it much — but on the strength of their advice I do keep detailed notes of those first weeks.

March 2009. I speak on a panel in Manhattan about writing. A lively young woman in the audience turns out to be the assistant to an agent and suggests I write a memoir. She asks me to contact her boss.

June 2009. I sit down with the agent, a woman my age, who — unusual in my experience — takes more than an hour to explore this idea. She sees much more depth in this job and its narrative potential than I had previously considered.

Listening to her flesh it out as we talk it is like watching Batman’s car doubling in size and power. Wow, maybe there is a book in all this.

July 2009. I start writing a three chapter proposal which bounces back and forth with my agent several times to edit and polish it. It’s hard to do so much hard work without any income or even a guarantee this book will sell. That’s the price of a book proposal!

She’s a veteran and I doubt would waste her time, or mine, on something with few prospects. It takes a lot of trust on both our parts.

September 2009. The proposal is making the rounds. The rejections are pouring in — 25  of them. Ouch! She sends them along for me to read until I cry uncle and ask her not to. “Are they bothering you?” Yes. “Someone is going to buy this book. We just haven’t found them yet,” she says.

And someone does! We go into Portfolio/Penguin’s offices to meet the publisher, editor and publicist. It’s all pretty terrifying knowing I can blow the deal by saying the wrong thing (which is…?)

We have a deal. Cool!

December 2009. I quit the retail job now that I have my first payment on the advance. I start writing.

February 2010. I turn in 47,000 words. My editor finds them “whiny and negative” but knows this is “an early first draft.” Actually, it wasn’t. But I started too soon. I haven’t waited long enough to start trying to process this material from the events I’m describing, and it shows. I need more distance to be able to decribe it much more thoughtfully, not simply emotionally.

I can’t rush this.

January-May 2010. My arthritic left hip goes crazy. I can barely walk across the room and see five specialists, none of whom can explain why. I take powerful painkillers — managing to transpose the street address of a crucial interview subject (oops!) — then oral steroids. Life becomes a distracting blur of X-rays, MRIs and medical opinions. Writing a book is a lot tougher when coping with pain 24/7 , veering between painkillers (foggy brain) and exhausted lucidity.

Not what I need right now!

March-May 2010. Too intimidated to come back to this material right now, I read ten books on low-wage work and retail, and interview others about their retail experiences.  I’m still making good progress while gaining a deeper, wider understanding of the industry. But I still have to produce a total of 75,000 words by September 1. I will have to get back to it soon.

I can focus entirely on reading and thinking because my researchers, two young journalists, are keeping the material coming into my email inbox. It’s a huge relief to be able to delegate and to find terrific help even at $15/hour. The several hundred dollars I spend for their time is worth every penny for my peace of mind and ability to focus on other things.

My partner is trying not freak out. He knows I can write quickly and that I write best with a deadline staring me in the face.

May-June 2010. Writewritewritewritewrite. Forget social life and housework. I turn in the book at the end of June and take a two-week vacation.

July 2010. My editor has given me six pages of revisions to make. Can I do it? Do I have the skill? I talk to friends and my agent who all offer tough love and encouragement. The editor loves the last two chapters and suggests I use them as models for the rest. Luckily, her suggestions are all clear and helpful, about 80 percent of which I follow.

August 2010. Revisewriterevisewriterevisewrite. Cut the boring bits.

September 2010. Done, in, accepted. Whew!

(Start planning marketing, events and speaking engagements.)

Literary Siblings

 

Seated man reading a book
Image by National Media Museum via Flickr

 

That’s what I call them anyway.

I grew up an only child (I now have three step-siblings) so never had to fight for my share of my parents’ attention.

Now, as an author, I get a kick of knowing who my agents’ other writers are and watching their successes. Jealous? Sure, it would be nice to make The New York Times’ best-seller list or get short-listed for the hugely prestigious Booker Prize.

But I also know that writing success is a wild mix of talent, hard work, luck, timing, persistence, discipline. It’s not, as so many would have you believe, a zero-sum game — you win, I must lose. There are always many extremely determined competitors our there; some have helped me and vice versa. Score!

I see two sorts of what I call literary siblings — both the other authors sharing the same agent — and those who are published by the same house, maybe even by the same editor. (Which does she like better?)

I heard an author interviewed on the radio recently who is also published by Penguin/Portfolio, who will issue my new memoir, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” on April 14, 2011. Some of their authors have had huge best-sellers, like Seth Godin.

I root for every writer I like but also cheer for those on the same editorial team, even if I’ll never meet them. Our successes will (I hope!) keep our agents and our publishers thriving.

That’s a win for all of us.

Ten Reasons Rejection Won’t Kill You

 

Photograph of American poet Walt Whitman in th...
Mr. Whitman. Image via Wikipedia

 

It’s interesting watching how people react to criticism of their work or their ideas.

Too often, they mistakenly conflate a rejection of these for some more general loathing of them as people, whose real and enduring value to the world extends far beyond their professional definitions or creative aspirations.

Here’s a wise take on it from a fellow blogger on WordPress.

We all, as Walt Whitman wrote, contain multitudes. When someone (other than an editor paying me for it), hates my writing, I laugh. It’s one opinion, even if shared by thousands.

I’m still a loving daughter, a generous friend, a loyal partner, a talented photographer/athlete/cook/artist, world traveler, formerly nationally ranked athlete. My words aren’t (only) who I am.

Hate my words? It happens. They’re one part of my identity, and as carefully chosen and edited as any other of my public presentations.

If someone swoops in and flays you for yours, then what?

The same idea can be applied to virtually any creative endeavor, whether poetry or photography or cooking or designing a room.

A creator or innovator expresses their vision. Theirs. But it’s easy to forget that:

You are not your ideas. If you can’t divorce the two, you’re putting too many eggs in one basket. Your choice. What will you do and how will you feel when people reject them/you out of hand and possibly very rudely?

People have no idea what to make of the truly original. If an idea is so new or radical or game-changing as to challenge the current paradigm, it will scare, theaten, piss off or annoy people currently deeply invested — emotionally, intellectually, financially or all three — in it. They will shred you. This “rejection” is quite possibly then, about them, not you.

Rejection of an idea may require re-tooling it. Just because this iteration isn’t working out, maybe the next version will. (See: The Wright Brothers.) That’s why artists working on paper have A/Ps — artist’s proofs — to see how it actually looks. It might be lousy. Maybe you need to re-think or fix it.

Are they rejecting the idea or its execution? Many people now, unwisely, conflate effort with success. They did X so X must, simply because you made it, be amazing. No. Some Xs require training and practice to be(come) truly excellent or appeal to a wide(r) audience.

What (hidden, unknown) obstacles lie in its path? I had a brilliant new idea, (I hoped), and ran it past some people in that industry who know its specific obstacles. They liked the idea but explained why it might never fly — not because the idea is weak but because the execution of it is far more expensive that I realized. Now I know!

Feedback is merely information. Take it or leave it. Freaking out is a total waste of time. Take what will help you achieve your goal most effectively and leave the rest. Don’t personalize feedback.

Define your goals clearly and with a timeline and a measure of progress. You want to show your photos or art in a commercial gallery or local library? What steps have you taken on that path? Rejection along the way stings far less if you have aimed for a specific few goals, can be a little flexible about “success” and keep on plugging.

Timing matters. A lot. Many stunning works of fiction and non-fiction simply disappeared from public view, criticism and potential success because they were published on…Sept. 11, 2001. There’s no way anyone could have predicted that, but it hurt many people’s longed-for dreams as the world shifted focus.

You may be offering your work to the wrong audience. Every community has deeply held beliefs about what is valid, important, worth listening to and validating. If your ideas are consistently rejected and demeaned within a community you thought worth joining, find a better fit. Others exist. Make one!

You need the courage of your convictions. Allowing total strangers on-line who shout, shriek, curse — and rally others to their cause to join the chorus — to intimidate you gives them way too much power. Unless they can cost you your livelihood, health, home and/or the safety of your loved ones, (which is when lawyers and law enforcement come in handy), why surrender your peace of mind to the bullying of a bunch of ghosts?

I was lucky. I grew up in a family of people who earned their living — and a good one — through writing, directing and producing material for print, television and film. No one has a pension. No one had a “real job.” We all had agents, learned to negotiate, to live within or below our means because a steak year — success!! — could easily be followed by a hamburger year.

We all know the marketplace is fickle and frightening and so we all developed thick skins, back-up plans and f—k you funds so we can walk away from work and projects that are a time-suck and talent-killer.

Rejection? Hah!



Finding, and Keeping, A Literary Agent

Books Books
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Some of you have asked advice on how to find an agent for your writing. Having been through seven of them over the years, I have some experience with this.

So, here are some of my thoughts, albeit most suited to writers of non-fiction, as I do not write fiction. Most agents represent a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, children’s and young adult material. Read their list carefully and don’t submit any genres they don’t handle.

How do I know when it’s time to get an agent?

Do you have a manuscript ready? Or a full-fledged book proposal? (If you don’t know how to write one, read this book.) If all you have is an idea, or several, you’ll need very strong writing credentials, a platform (i.e. thousands of people who know your name and will possibly be eager to buy your book), media savvy, and the willingness to undertake the writing of a book proposal.

Why do I have to write a book proposal?

How else will the agent know what you hope to accomplish? In a few cases, an agent you are introduced to through a trusted contact may sit down with you to hear about your project — and if they’re intrigued they’ll ask you to produce a proposal. If they want the project, they’ll work with you on it. They are not paid for this time, nor are you. It’s a lot of work! Do it cheerfully and diligently. Even if that book does not sell (and that happens), you’re learning how to write this crucial document and will do it better next time.

How much work will an agent do on a book proposal?

As much as s/he thinks is worth it. They may love you and your idea, but they only earn a living when they sell a book and close the deal. They can only invest so much time on each project and writer. Don’t take it personally. Find someone to help you polish and edit the proposal if necessary. It is not unusual for a proposal to take months as you send it back and forth to your agent until they are totally satisfied with it. It’s their name and reputation that intrigues and attracts editors, not yours.

What do agents do?

They help you prepare a proposal and decide which editors at which publishers are most likely to find it of interest. They submit it and hope. If someone shows serious interest, they will come with you to the meeting with the publisher — which is common now so they can check you out in person. If an offer is made (or several) they will negotiate with the publisher and editor to get the best offer they can.

Do I have to pay them to read my work?

No. If an agent wants to work with you they will take 15 percent of your earnings after the book is sold. They will also take a percentage of all ancillary sales, such as television, film and possibly speaking engagements.

How should I treat an agent?

With respect! They are not your BFF or your Mom or your writing coach or English professor. They know what a tough game it is to be a writer, but they’re not especially eager to hold your hand. They expect professional behavior even if this is your first book and it’s all totally new to you. They will help you understand this new world, but don’t abuse their time and goodwill. I tend to check in every few months to say “hi” and hear what they’re up to on other projects once I’m mid-book. But once your book is sold, you’re essentially on your own.

How do I find the right agent for my project?

Consult the Association of Author Representatives. A reputable, experienced agent is likely to be a member. This site also offers a fantastic wealth of information; and this list of FAQs.

The way many writers find an agent is through their friends and colleagues who will recommend someone to their agent. The way for a new writer with few or no such contacts is to read a number of books similar to the one you hope to write and read the acknowledgments; authors always thank their agents. Write to a few agents whose authors’ work you admire and tell them why you and your work are a potential fit with their list. Read their websites and see what sort of people they tend to take on — Academics? Politicians? Celebrities?

One of the best ways to find an agent who might be a fit is to attend writers’ conferences like this one, where they often speak. You can quickly get a feel for their personality and can probably slip them your card.

What if my agent is new to the business?

This can be an advantage. New agents are hungry for new clients while (much) more established ones have their pick.

What if turns out to be a poor fit?

It happens.  Initial enthusiasm, on both sides, can pale. They can take too long to reply to calls and emails or sending out your work. They need to communicate with you clearly. There are others out there. Don’t stick with someone if it’s really not working well for you.

What should I be looking for in an agent?

Someone whose personality will work well with yours. They may be skilled and experienced and have a Really Big Name, but if they’re too brusque or intimidating or hurried or busy, move on. Someone who really gets who you are and what you do best and are excited by your project. I want someone who’s been around the block a few times, who won’t waste my time encouraging things that won’t sell. I think you want to like them enough to work with them, but they’re not your pal. They’re a business partner. Feeling cosy with them, however personally comforting, is less important than feeling certain they have your best interests at heart.

What sort of books most excite them? Sell well for them? Ask to see their list of authors and recent projects.

If you read it with a thoughtful eye, you’ll notice patterns. I saw that one agent’s list was heavy on academics — he likes smart and informed think-y books/authors (who doesn’t?) — but I saw in that a warning. Professors have salaries and crave acclaim from a wider audience, and can afford a tiny advance. I have different goals and need an advance I can survive on. Another had a list studded with celebrities and one-book-wonders. I want an agent who wants to run with me for years.

Here’s how I found the agents I’ve met and either worked with or considered:

1) Can’t remember. A NYC agent. Deal fell through after I flew all the way to Australia to do the reporting. Ouch. Costly error, fun vacation.

2) An adult student in one of my NYU writing classes knew an agent who gave me three names. One became my first agent.

3) A friend in Toronto, a former newspaper colleague, sent me to someone highly regarded there. She demanded 15,000 words and then blew me off after reading them with one sentence. Dick.

4) I play softball with a bunch of fellow suburbanites. One, the pitcher, is an agent. He read over a few of my non-selling proposals and diagnosed why they were going nowhere.

5) A friend whom I have yet to meet face to face (we met through an on-line writers’ group) sent me to his agent. She’s terrific and we discussed one proposal but I back-burnered it. This book is too similar to one of hers (a NYT best seller) so she had to decline it.

6) A friend admired an essay of mine and sent me to her agent. Not a good fit. One email was enough to show me this.

7) I spoke on a panel in NYC about writing and a passionate young woman in the audience asked a few questions. She was then the assistant to my current agent and suggested I write a memoir. Now I have!

My current agent is Kathleen Anderson. She’s my age, bloody brilliant and even harder-headed than I, which I didn’t think possible. We’ve had shouting fights with one another and equally fierce hugs. She’s got a NYT best-selling author right now short-listed for the Booker Prize, Emma Donoghue, author of “Room.” Cool!

Like dating, finding an agent can be a little challenging. It  can be a fantastic fit or a disaster. Or neither. I’ve learned not to be in awe of them. They’re people. They work hard. They love writers and ideas. They advocate for talent. If you find a good one, treat them well!