I just looked (for the first time in years) at the backlog of letters I sent to my then-literary agent back in the mists of antiquity – roughly two decades ago. Our association began when one of the founding agents heard me reading a contest-winning fantasy short story* at a big international SFF convention. It ended some seven years later, when we mutually decided that whatever I was writing, they weren’t the best agency to sell it.
That was, of course, the diplomatic version. The raw truth, which I would never have grasped back then: I wasn’t ready to be published. I wasn’t even ready for an agent.
They’re a solid agency; even now, they represent some major authors in several genres. That they took me on and actually tried was not only kind, it was a fool’s errand on both our parts, and I hope it didn’t hurt them. I know they tried. I saw the list of publishers they pitched for me. I have no idea what they told those editors, because I almost certainly didn’t deserve it.
My old letters reveal a person still unsure about the business of publishing, nervous and antagonistic about all the red herrings new writers fixate upon, and with very little sense of the true quality of her writing. I had what might charitably be called ‘raw talent’, but it needed honing and practice.
I needed Clarion or Clarion West, or similar workshop experiences. Funding was beyond me.
I needed a good local or online writers’ group. I wan’t fond of the local experience. I’d tried it several times, and wasn’t impressed with the politics. There were several online groups beginning at that time, but I wasn’t mature enough to benefit from them.
Perhaps if I’d focused on writing, I would have been more widely published a decade earlier. Instead, I took a break from writing original fiction, and embarked on an art career. I didn’t really start writing again until ten years later. That hiatus did good things for me. I needed the time away. I needed the part-validation that at least once before, a literary agent had been interested. I needed the independent validation of improving and selling my art. I needed the experience of commercial art marketing critiques, in which I learned very quickly that I was not my art. That problems in my art were not insults to my person. That no line or brushstroke was sacred, and everything was subject to revision.
Why am I sharing this?
Because most of my letters to my first agent contain the same regrettable things I see from new writers today, in online writing and publishing forums. I had the good luck to be flailing around just when the internet was beginning to spread beyond scientific and military communities, so my mistakes were for the most part confined to private emails and a few BBS groups.
Even worse, I see so many new writers following the same belief I did: that once I found an agent, most of the battle was over.
Yeah, right. All it means is that a writer has climbed into a harder level of the game. Having an agent isn’t a guarantee of a sale. A sale isn’t a guarantee of publication. Having one book published, or a few, is no guarantee of future sales. I have an equally-great agent now, who is also interested in pitching my work. We’ll see what happens.
* That short story sold to one magazine that promptly folded before publication, then sold ten years later to a publisher who also folded not long after. But the final version is out there, an urban fantasy story called ‘The Blood Orange Tree’, in the Meisha-Merlin anthology Such A Pretty Face. You can find it on Amazon here. It’s also available directly from the editor Lee Martindale, here. As my first real piece of fantasy writing, I’m still fond of it.