Notes from a Practical Agent

There’s a dark shroud that occasionally unfurls to cloak a subdued conversation an author shares with me when his worries weigh heavily on him: “My publisher won’t want another book from me,” the author moans. “I’m out of ideas. I’m going to have to become a substitute teacher. I won’t be able to pay my rent. I will never, ever make it.”

These worries are not limited to new authors or writers with modest advances. As a literary fiction agent I find it’s more often an author with several books published, with contracts “in the bank,” with an audience of long-time readers. Yes, it’s more often these authors – who have enjoyed success – who panic. About halfway through the conversation, I say, “You’re catastrophizing again.”  And then I insist we examine each bit of evidence that has been presented to me: an editor who didn’t return their call, two negative Amazon book reviews, a (seemingly) curt e-mail from their publisher.

Time and again, what’s really happening is that a writer is stuck (but not in a writer’s block sort of way). Yes, a conversation is needed, but it’s not about readying his application for a job at Walmart. It’s about figuring out where the story begins…or what the book is really about…or changing the setting.

Writers catastrophize when they think they’re trapped. Stories aren’t “real,” but once you solve the problem of the story then the anxieties of paying the bills seems to evaporate, as well.

Notes from being a literary fiction agent: You can’t eliminate anxiety. Writers are narrative-driven folks, and writers feast on stories of failure. Such stories are dramatically satisfying but offer little more to the story writer. But bargain with yourself. Make an appointment with anxiety: between 3:00 and 4:00 PM is a good hour. After you’ve rolled around in the shroud, chop up an onion and make dinner.