The Millions is delighted to welcome new staff writer Marie Myung-Ok Lee, whose first piece for the site publishes today. Marie is the author of Somebody’s Daughter and a novel about medicine forthcoming from Simon and Schuster. You may have seen Marie’s excellent writing in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and many other venues. She teaches fiction at Columbia.
Typing THE END on your first novel is nearly as epic as saying I DO. Similar to an exchange of vows, after the champagne has been chugged and the celebratory cheers have faded, you wake up to a reality loaded with questions. Most notably: Where do I go from here? This isn’t a paper Jenga on my desk. How do I get my book published? These were my questions, at least. My published author friends answered: find a literary agent.
This is no reinvented love story. Many of you are at this juncture now, so we can be honest with one another. When you have your first manuscript in your arms and are querying agents, you aren’t particularly picky. The focus is on the end result — getting the book to a publisher. So you rush the agent “dating” process. I was guilty of that. I viewed finding an agent as yet another hurdle on my way to the printing press.
I welcomed every agent suitor. Sure, I scanned credentials, but querying from El Paso, Texas, everyone in New York City looked flashy and impressive. Every agent had a Bestseller in his or her clientele list. All sounded enthusiastic in email and on the phone. Frankly, I didn’t want to sit around pondering if I emotionally clicked with my agent or not, so long as they took my novel to Publisher’s Row. I was holding my first “book baby” and eager to get it to the next developmental stage.
“Why not fly to New York to meet the prospective proxies?” one of my friends asked. I laughed. Like, spittle-flying laughter. I had mortgage payments, utility bills, student loans. I barely had two quarters left at the end of the month to buy gum from a candy machine. Fly to New York to meet these people? Only on Santa’s sleigh.
So I did the best I could from afar. I gratefully signed with an agency, and we sold my first and second novels, The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico and The Baker’s Daughter, to Random House/Crown in a two-book deal. But within twelve months, the blush of first love rubbed off the bloom, and I discovered that my first agent was not my match. In fact, we were remarkably unmatched. I now empathize for the swept-off-their-feet celebrity nuptials that end in tears and divorce.
Your agent relationship is akin to a marriage. Emotions, finances, and trust are all tangled up and can be easily wounded if you aren’t careful. Similarly, that agent can be one of your most loyal and cherished people on earth. Your literary spouse of sorts. I spent nearly two years silently observing and developing friendships with a select handful of admired agencies until I was ready to “date” seriously again.
This month, I celebrate my one-year anniversary with my new agent and it still feels as if we’re in our honeymoon phase. I recently saw her at one of my book events. To use a canned metaphor: we went together like peanut butter and jelly. She’s editorially brilliant and has the business prowess of a tiger, yes. But more importantly, she gets me and my writing. She believes in my work even when I doubt myself and encourages me to set my sights past the moon to the brightest star. She pushes me, using compassion and insight to buoy me forward, never backwards. She’s someone my husband loves. Someone I will introduce to my children when I have them. Someone I can’t imagine not having in my career or my life.
This is what a good author-agent relationship should be like. Still, I am but one author with a subjective experience to share. So I polled fellow author friends on what makes a good literary agent, in their experience. I ended up with the three essential C’s.
1. The Click.
Definition: that intangible zing through your core alerting you this is no ordinary meeting; the kinetic energy between two people; the magnetic draw that makes you want to not just go into business with this person but invite them into your life.
Beth Hoffman (author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt):
There was an immediate “click” between us. We chattered and laughed as if we’d known each other for years. She has integrity and exudes confidence and professionalism…I trust her completely.
Matthew Dicks, author of Memoirs of An Imaginary Friend:
My agent falls only below my wife in terms of important women in my life (when my mother-in-law is in the room, I assign her the #2 spot, but it’s a lie). She is one of my most honest critics and also my biggest fan… In short, my agent is my friend above all else.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise: Stories:
I live in rural VT and [my agent] is my lifeline. I love her energy and her smarts. I trust her deeply…
Sarah Pekkanen, author of These Girls:
Like dating, authors need to find someone who feels like the right fit before taking the plunge into a committed relationship. I definitely found that in my agent. Before we even met, she cracked some very funny jokes—a sense of humor is high on my list of desirable qualities…
Lydia Netzer, author of Shine, Shine, Shine:
Having an agent that will be honest with you is wonderful. Having an agent you can be honest with is even better.
Definition: the quality of being gutsy, both personally and professionally; someone who will go to the mat with you every time, as a partner, a cheerleader, a Mr. Miyagi to your Karate Kid. (I’m showing my age here.)
Christina Haag, author of Come To The Edge:
Guidance, honesty, expertise, and chutzpah… She brings an excellent mix of instinct and business smarts to the table; she’s able to nurture a project, as well as fight for it.
Jenna Blum, author of The Stormchasers:
1. Unforced, enthusiastic love for the writer’s work. 2. Consistent and fast responsiveness. 3. Belief in the writer’s career, not just one project. I’ve been with my agent almost a decade and she is my right arm. I can’t imagine being without her. And she’s got the fiercest French accent ever.
M.J. Rose, author of The Book of Lost Fragrances:
While loving your agent is also great – this is 100% a business deal and your agent does work for you – you hired him or her – so it’s a partnership and important to have an agent who respects that and whom you feel comfortable in that role with.
Sarah Pinneo, author of Julia’s Child:
Not merely a lover of books, but a true business woman. She represents dozens of authors, yet still encourages me to copy her on every communication with my publisher, and she’s always on top of the flow… She knows how to talk to authors at those vulnerable moments when their insecurities are sticking out like porcupine quills.
Laura Harrington, author of Alice Bliss:
Key to a great relationship: Respect, honesty, loyalty… I want someone romantic enough to be in this crazy book world and hard-nosed enough to help me survive it.
Definition: moral and ethical quality. (That came straight from Webster’s Dictionary. No expounding necessary.)
Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of Somebody’s Daughter:
A need for mutual respect and ETHICS as well as a sharp literary sense helped me to the right person.
Kristina McMorris, author of Bridge of Scarlet Leaves:
An agent who: expresses passion for the author’s voice versus a single book, which sets the stage for a long-term relationship; treats the client like a partner, welcoming ideas and input in all areas; reads a client’s manuscript within days or weeks; communicates clearly and promptly, and above all, is a genuinely good person.
Marilyn Brant, author of A Summer in Europe:
Find someone you can trust professionally, communicate with effectively, and feel confident loves and respects your writing style. You want an agent who knows how to steer you well in both strengthening your manuscripts without changing your voice and in matching each of your novels with an editor who will also appreciate it and champion it within the publishing house.
There you have it. Like matrimony, your literary representation must be your better half in the publishing community. Never settle for mediocre. Take a cue from the love gurus and matchmakers: look in the mirror and tell yourself, “I’m worthy of a respectful relationship. I’m worthy of my one, true agent and nothing less.”
Image: Shelley Panzarella/Flickr