Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Lessons learned from the trenches: Part 7

Dusting off In His Shadow

In ’96 while I was writing short stories, I also dusted off In His Shadow with the expectation of revising it and finding an agent for it. In the original version that I wrote, I start the book pretty close to my protagonist’s psychotic breakdown, and one of my friends who had read it suggested I start the book off with my protagonist more as a hero so that readers can initially like him and be shocked at the depths he later falls to. I liked that idea for an additional reason also--it allowed me to make the book even more a deconstruction of the hardboiled PI genre. This new work added 50 pages to the front of the book. Again, this was back in ’96, and I can’t remember which version of MS Windows I was using, but whichever one it was it was buggy as hell, and I wasn’t making backups of my new work. When I was done with those 50 pages, I powered off my system before the operating system had finished shutting down, and I lost my revisions. Those 50 new pages were gone. After sitting there feeling sick to my stomach for a while, I started typing away. There’s no way I’d ever be able to do this today—and I can’t swear that the 50 pages I typed the second time matched exactly what I had done earlier, but I’m pretty sure it did. Anyway, now that I had my new and improved version of In His Shadow I started looking for an agent.

I don’t think the agent search ever gets easy—maybe when you’re a bestselling author, but for most of us I think it’s always tough. Back then I made the mistake that probably most authors make—I jumped at the first agent who showed interest. Getting the right agent is critical, the wrong agent can be deadly to your career—especially a new writer. A good agent will have credibility with editors, the books they send out will be looked at seriously, and they’ll send the books to the right editors at the right houses. A great agent will help guide a writer’s career and let them know when their book isn’t the right one for them to start off with. I read a story recently how when Michael Palmer was looking for an agent for his first effort, the agent he sent it to called him back to tell him how much she liked the writing, but the book wasn’t the right one for him to have published. She ended up inviting him to her office to discuss other book ideas, and helped work one of his ideas into what became his first published (and I think bestselling) book. Christ, I fantasize about having an agent like that!

One more thing about how damaging the wrong agent can be—most good agents won’t touch books (at least by newer writers) that have already been sent out by another agent. It doesn’t matter whether the other agent had sent the books to the wrong people or to the wrong publishers, your book basically becomes dead—or something you have to sell yourself to smaller houses.

Getting back to the agent I jumped at the chance to sign with—he was earnest and sincere, but I think I was his first and only client, and probably had little to no chance of selling In His Shadow (or any other book I might’ve written). I also don’t think this agent stayed with being an agent very long, and had other plans for his life. To be fair, there were probably only a small number of good houses where In His Shadow would’ve been a fit—Serpent’s Tail (yes, my editor, after buying Small Crimes and Pariah read Fast Lane and liked it enough where he might’ve bought it), a few other UK houses, Black Lizard/Vintage Crime and maybe one or two other NY houses, but the book was too dark and too different to fit with the majority of houses. Anyway, In His Shadow went nowhere. But this agent did push me into writing what ended up becoming Bad Thoughts—more about that next week.


Anonymous said...

Dave, this is a vital piece of advice, and one that most of us have had to learn the hard way. I'm on my second agent at this point in my career. The first was terrible in all respects, the second just not very good at the work despite the best of intentions.

Selling a book is like selling anything else: how the sale is pitched is almost more important than the product. Even a great product will remain unsold if the salesperson doesn't know how to hook a buyer. I'm stuck in that situation now, shopping a manuscript that I offered to agents as "literary horror."

The manuscript is about medical crimes committed in Nazi Germany and uses ghosts as a literal vehicle for the painful secrets of the past. Consequently it's important to sell the book not as Schindler's List revisited, but something other. To borrow a film analogy: the manuscript is The Others, not... well, not Schindler's List.

Because my agent didn't like tagging the story with the horror label, we've had publisher after publisher reject it with "I liked it but," mostly because they were blindsided by the supernatural elements. Rather than adjust the pitch, I've been asked over and over again to revise the manuscript with less and less ghost material on the off chance that we'll hit some magic proportion of spooks versus lit. This is a backward way to approach a sale, to say the least.

Obviously we both want the same thing, which is to close a deal. I get money, agent gets money and we are both happy. But unless writer and representative are on the same page about what and how is being sold, it can actually be more frustrating to have an agent than to have none.

Dave Zeltserman said...

Sam, yep, having an agent you're on the same page with, and comfortable with, is important. One thing to consider--if your second agent is getting editors to read the book and getting "I liked it but" responses, he could be doing a good job--at least he's getting editors to read it, and a lot of times editors are looking for excuses not to buy a book (especially from new writers). And I can understand your agent's reluctance to use the "horror" tag--the horror market is kind of a weird one these days where all the books seem to have the same sort vibe--if you go to Cemetary Dance's website and look at some of the sample chapters you'll see what I mean--plus the books all seem to have to have over the top violence, especially starting that way. My opinion, for what it's worth (and being several times in the same situation you're in now), if revisions can get the book sold--even if it ends up with a book that's not quite what you wanted to write--it's worth doing.