About a month ago, I sat in on a panel of Queens alums on the topic of getting published. We were asked to speak honestly on our experiences, though the moderator of the discussion pointed out that this might prove difficult for me specifically since my agent happened to be in the audience.
No matter, the moderator joked. Susan, you've been entirely, uncategorically, ecstatically happy with your experiences, right? Wink, wink.
The truth is, I love my agent. He loves my work, he sold my book, and he continues to profess the belief that I will write more good stuff. What's not to love?
(The truth is also: my agent reads this blog.)
We were asked to share our stories. I spoke of how I started by tentatively sending out stories and happened to place one in an anthology published by a small, local press. I asked the editor, could I send him a novel? He agreed, then took the novel, which had been my graduating thesis. A few years later, I had a collection of short stories and a writing friend, who had read most of the stories in workshop and who was then an editor at another small, local press, asked to see the collection. She took it, and we put a picture of my mother, age 14, in her confirmation dress, superimposed over a Martian landscape, on the cover.
A few years later, I had another novel and the same friend, no longer with the press, encouraged me to take it to a conference and show it to an agent there. Another friend threatened to stage an intervention if I tried to take this one to a small press. It's time, she said. You need to find yourself an agent.
So, it all happened. An agent who represented one of my favorite authors happened to be at the upcoming North Carolina Writers' Network Fall Conference, and he liked the pages I brought him. He took on the book, sent it out, and sold it to St. Martin's.
We were also asked to talk about our regrets. I have plenty. I have a number of things I'd like to change about my first book, but I'll not get into them here, except that I wish I had done a better job with the ending. I regret how I left my characters, especially the mother. She started out lost and ended up just as lost. Not much of a character arc there.
But, at the panel, I asked to instead speak on what I had done right. I said I was glad I didn't rush right out and try to find an agent for my first book. I spoke on the years I spent after earning my degree, burrowed down into my little writing hole. Outwardly, I carried on with my life, plunged into my thirties, started a family, began the long, wondrous, and bewildering work of learning how to be married. (Still learning!) I knew my work wasn't yet ready and I also knew my little writer's heart wasn't ready. The agent-search, I observed in writer chat rooms and blogs and in the lives of some of my friends, is very, very tough. I didn't want to risk it, not yet.
Another panelist, a memoirist, had a different story to tell. She faced all of the obstacles of finding the perfect agent, and the excitement of signing with the perfect agent, from one of the big-name agencies, only to have the perfect agent vanish on her. She relayed her experiences communicating with various editors with verve and resilience. Her refrain: "I got angry." She said, "And things happened when I got angry." She pressed on, found success, while I cowered away and waited. I admired her determination, her fortitude, but I knew myself, my own limitations.
This business is anything but one-size-fits-all.
But that was, ultimately, the point of the panel. The people we were speaking to, all Queens alums, are well-acquainted with all the processes, the writing of query letters, the submitting, the benefits of working with indie presses versus big houses and vice-versa. What they needed to hear instead were our testimonies.
And, here's something I came away with. I think workshops and all the rest are really good at helping us seeing our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to the craft of writing. We might be good at building characters but need to work on pacing. We might have a knack for evoking setting but fail to produce good dialogue. I think workshops are good at showing us these things. At helping us see what we need to do to improve and even--if we're really lucky--how to go about improving it.
But, submitting and querying and publishing, that whole terrible beast, this is where a different system of strengths and weaknesses emerge. Here, we get to know what we're made of. Emotional strengths and hindrances, where our phobias and self-doubts and confidence and charm and resilience come to light. It's good to hear others' stories because it reminds us what all is possible. All the different ways to get there.
And, of course, we're not there yet. None of us are, wherever there is. We say, we'll know it when we find it. But, it gets away from us. That's why we have to keep having panels.