The Stories We Tell the Agents We Tell Them To
December 27, 2018 § 8 Comments
Literary agents: can’t find one, wish you had one, wonder if yours is the right one. The web is full of complaints about agents, but fuller of questions about how to get one.
Anyone have experience with agent X, Y, Z? Is he/she trustworthy? Will they get behind my book and pitch it to publishers?
Then there’s the followup:
She loves my memoir but wants me to revise it.
He says my childhood needs tear-filled nights and more drugs.
They want Dad to swear and yell but he didn’t.
Those are harder changes for a memoirist than a novelist, who at least has latitude to invent. But how far should one go to meet an agent’s vision when it defies your own sense of the story you have to tell?
I must have been rejected by forty agents while querying my novel, Temper CA, about a woman, Joy, returning to the Gold Rush town where she grew up to attend her grandfather’s funeral. I wrote to agents who represented books like mine; agents recommended by a matching service (for a fee); agents I approached with recommendations from well-published friends.
Then I thought I’d found my soul mate. I sent Agent A my manuscript on a Friday and he emailed me on Monday: “Dear Paul, I read your novel through in one sitting. It’s very, very well done. My wife … thought it read like an Elizabeth Strout novel.” He sent the book out immediately to a publisher he was sure would be interested.
That was in February 2016. The publisher said no. Another publisher found the book too “quiet,” too slow out of the gate.
Agent A asked me to revise. Instead of Joy’s psychological crisis, A suggested an anti-heroine: “Everyone’s looking for literary fiction in which the heroine has an unapologetically dangerous side. Books like Gone Girl…The Girl on the Train…” His idea: Joy kills her grandfather but implicates her father. “Have the stakes build as she reveals some dark childhood story about the relationship between her, her father and grandfather… Crime novels are a much steadier market than ‘literary’ novels. If Camus were writing today, we’d no doubt market him as crime fiction.”
Keep the setting, keep the names, write a new novel.
When I got done with self-pity I set to work. I spent three months creating crimes, motives that crossed and double-crossed, secrets behind secrets behind secrets. What I didn’t do was turn Joy into a murderer. My agent’s disappointment was clear: “It’s been a long time since a novelist without a fiction-publishing track record took so little of my advice.”
I was hurt and angry, but I tried again. An alcoholic Joy killed her grandfather and implicated her bastard of a father. I felt like I was writing pornography.
To counter that self-betrayal I simultaneously wrote a second, parallel novel, closer to my original story, and sent him the thriller and the not-thriller. Maybe I could convince Agent A that my book was worth his time by letting him read it alongside his book.
The thriller grabbed him in the opening chapters, he told me, then it flagged. Too much backstory, memory, psychology. No publisher would be interested. He read twenty pages of the not-thriller and dismissed it.
I was done. A year after signing, we parted ways. I returned to earlier drafts, incorporated ideas from my year of inept revisions and rewrote once more. I made the novel mine again.
This story has a happy ending. A friend connected me with a former small-press publisher who wanted to represent a few writers. She liked my manuscript and offered suggestions about where I might slow down, dive more deeply. I had a residency at Playa, a beautiful sequestered landscape in Oregon’s high desert. I altered some stories—true and apocryphal—from oral histories of the Oregon outback and melded them into my Gold Rush town. I left Playa in September 2017 with a 60,000 word draft and spent the next month whittling to just under 40,000 words. I submitted my revised Temper CA to a novella competition—and promptly forgot I’d entered. So many years of contests and rejections: this one seemed as hopeless as the rest. In February 2018, I told a friend the book was ‘dead in the water.’
The next morning I found out Temper CA had won the Miami University Press 2018 Novella Prize. As I cried on the phone, I realized I didn’t know which version of the manuscript I’d submitted—there had been so many.
Temper CA, will be published in January 2019. Miami has been extraordinary in their editorial work and I feel lucky to have landed where I did with a book I’m proud of.
This is not the book Agent A read two years ago. The story did need more volume, though poisons and patricide weren’t the right noisemakers. I did need to get out of the gate faster but that didn’t mean a hundred-page dash. Joy isn’t always a trustworthy narrator, but that’s part of what she herself needs to learn, not a way of deceiving a reader. Temper CA is the story I hoped to tell about family and landscape, failure and forgiveness. Agent A praised the book I wrote, then told me it didn’t work. Thanks to his misguided suggestions, I produced a book he would not like.
Agents are the gatekeepers of the publishing world and as fledgling writers we’ll do almost anything to get in. But not quite everything. Learning what we can’t do teaches us about what we can, who we are, and what we want our literary worlds to be.
Paul Skenazy taught Literature and Writing at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He has published essays, stories, and book reviews in a range of newspapers and magazines, as well as critical work on James M. Cain and other noir writers. Temper CA will be available January 8, 2019. You can preorder the novella through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and your local indie bookstore.
Photo credit: Shelby Graham