Friday, October 8, 2010

Shocking truths about editors and agents

I have a few things to share that might totally rock your world. You’d probably better sit down.

Ready? OK.

Shocking fact #1: At the writers’ conference I attended last weekend, I saw an editor take the elevator upstairs to her room. She did not fly there, nor did she head below ground to the basement to sleep in a cocoon of her own wings.

Shocking fact #2
: I had dinner with an agent and she did not bite heads off bats or kill our waiter and suck his brains out through his ear. She ate salad – spinach and goat cheese, to be precise.

Shocking fact #3:
I saw an editor go into the ladies' room. While I didn’t peer under the stall to confirm this, I’m fairly certain she was taking care of a basic biological human need.

From these facts, we can draw a startling conclusion – editors and agents are human.

But seeing the terror in the eyes of authors lined up to pitch last weekend, you would have thought they were all being covered in peanut butter and marched into a pit of starving vampire mice.

I know I speak from the position of already having an amazing agent and a fabulous editor. Hell, it was only eight months ago the aforementioned agent had to talk me off the ledge before my first phone call with the aforementioned editor. Believe me, I understand the terror.

But I guess I’m thinking about this because of something that happened last weekend.

I was herded into a pitch session with a pack of other authors, all of whom immediately grabbed seats on the opposite side of the table from the editor. I looked at the empty chairs beside the editor and thought, “that looks lonely.”

I also thought maybe she had a communicable disease the other authors knew about and I’d somehow missed the memo, but I took my chances and took the chair next to her anyway.

She looked at me in surprise, then smiled – a genuine, warm smile. “Thanks for sitting by me.”

Then we braided each other’s hair and had a pillow fight.

OK, maybe that part didn’t happen. My point though, is that authors can get so worked up by fear and respect for agents and editors that we widen the chasm between "us" and "them." While it’s true the balance of power can feel skewed, the bottom line is that we’re all people. We all have families and friends, food cravings and bathroom breaks.

And we’re all united by the same goal – to make our books great and get them into readers’ hands.

I know that perspective is one I’ll carry with me as I move forward with my writing career. Who knows, maybe I’ll even stop hyperventilating when I see my editor’s name in my email inbox.

Do you fight terror when you write query letters or pitch at conferences? Do you sometimes suspect editors and agents are all otherworldly beings? Please share, I’d love to hear your experiences.

Oh, and for the record, you know that old trick about picturing people in their underwear so you’re less nervous? Don’t do it when you’re sitting beside an editor. I’m just saying.

Just a reminder, it's my day to blog at The Debutante Ball.
We're talking about change, so stop by and visit!


Karen Jones Gowen said...

Here's my favorite line of this post:

Then we braided each other’s hair and had a pillow fight.

Haha I'm still laughing!

New follower, from twitter *smiles and waves* See, twitter is good for something :)


Melissa Alexander said...

Did you have fun at the conference?

Anonymous said...


I once had this precarious condition you speak of. I had it in 2004 when I went to my first conference. Since then I've been to numerous conferences, toured literary agencies in New York and spent time with literary agents and editors, having dinner and so on. I even spent a week at an agents apartment in New York in 2006.

This apprehension ebbed away quickly after 2004. But ironically enough, I don't have an agent anymore and don't need one. My books are e-books on Amazon and Smashwords now.

I finally lost the agent worship bug and then didn't need one. Funny how that works.

Shain Brown said...

I usually think of them in fig leaves its much more environmentally responsible. Thanks for the post it changed the way I was looking at things.

Linda G. said...

Okay, I believe you. But when WE meet up in person, we'll braid each other's hair and have a pillow fight, right? Right??

Jayne said...

Hee! I never knew vampire bats liked peanut butter. ;)

I think there is a tendency to think they are otherworldly beings, especially at the beginning, especially when you are on the wrong side of the agented fence. But of course, this isn't so, and this fear has to be lost so a productive relationship can be formed. I, personally, cannot wait!

Patty Blount said...

Gah! Query letters. I am breaking out in hives as we speak. I believe queries are a terrorist plot, a circle of hell and possibly (shudder) worse than a world without chocolate.

Hold me.

Ann Marie Gamble said...

She ate goat cheese and you'll have me believe she's human? Seriously??

I fight terror in most public speaking situations, not just pitches. It helps me to distance myself from the material: I'm going to tell you about this thing-that's-not-me, it's my job (not my beinghood) to tell you about this, and we're all on the same team of wanting to know more.

In specifically writing situations, well, I edit in my day job, so maybe I have an edge. Lord, I know how idiosyncratic my tastes are, so it's easier to chant the mantra "You are not my target audience."

Danica Avet said...

My first pitch appointments were two editors...who were men. Okay, that freaked me out. I mean...I'm going to discuss romance with two young, rather cute men? Cue the blush! It turns out, they were both very nice and funny. Of course, I did tell one of them my mom thought my business cards looked like I wrote porn, and the other thought it was cool I used to play on-line role playing games. But still...they were...people!

I didn't really hang out with many editors/agents at Nationals this year, but ones I did see looked so busy I didn't have the heart to be nervous around them. I'd smile and look away if they happened to look up between appointments. It was nice.

demery said...

As someone in the midst of "the query process" - thank you! Good (and funny) reminder :)

Marcella Burnard said...

Wait, wait, Tawna! Are you telling me your agent and your editor didn't make you sign your contracts in arterial blood?? Dang it! They told me it was some kind of new-fangled DNA document verification...

Expat mum said...

I've never really felt like that about them - perhaps I've been far too familiar in the past and a little more fear is appropriate. I usually try to remember that they need to find good stuff to publish to earn a living themselves. Probably incredibly naive of me.

Laura Maylene said...

Along those lines, I've witnessed a few writers who are just beginning to query start to view a particular agent as an all-knowing God who can create rabidly successful writing careers with the flick of a wrist. They put too much hope on this one agent and become convinced that he/she knows all and is the answer to everything.

I feel for these writers, and I think we've all been there to some extent, but it's important to have perspective and realize that this one agent who requested a partial doesn't necessarily control your entire writing/publishing future.

As for me, I only pitched in person a few times (years ago) and it was awful...not because I put the agents/editors on a pedestal, but because I'd prefer to send a written query. I'm a writer for a reason. :)

Unknown said...

Personally, I've just started searching for a Literary Agent to represent my book and I'm keeping tabs on how that goes every couple days on my own blog.

No luck yet.

I happen to be naturally shy to begin with, so I'm not very likely to put myself out there and take the risk to get to know someone.

But in the case with the chairs, yes, I would sit next to the editor. My hearing aids force me to leave the protection of my shell and sit somewhere close so I can hear what the heck is going on. Very difficult to do in a large crowd.

Gabriela Lessa said...

I'm now envisioning the pitch session future: rooms with long tables and writers fighting to sit next to the editor (maybe even braid their hair, or, at the very least, give them a hug).
Oh, Tawna, are you in trouble for encouraging that behavior... I know you say they're human and all but, just in case, I'd sleep with my window shut if I were you.

Brandi Guthrie said...

I don't think that agents/editors are inhuman (or even undead) but they do intimidate me sometimes. Mostly because I think they are brilliant and glamorous and WAY out of my league.

You are so awesome from sitting next to Ms. Editor!

Unknown said...

Tawna, I completely agree with you and I approach any face time with an agent or editor as I do with any person I don't know well. I don't curse, I try to stay away from controversial topics and I don't talk about other people negatively. Other than that, and chewing with my mouth closed, it's pretty simple to me.

When I pitch, I do my best to start a conversation and not let their eyes glaze over. Good advice in general.

Loved this post. :-)

Christine Danek said...

This made me laugh. I was at a conference a few weeks ago. I got a critique from an editor. At first, I was horrified but I remembered that editors are people too and they may be just as nervous as you are.
Great post!!

Melissa Gill said...

The first time I pitched an agent, I was so nervous that I forgot everything she said to me.

Deborah Blake said...

Very funny and well said...and true, as well. Except the peanut butter part.

Dr. Goose said...

Using my own experience in graduate school I always felt as if the professors held my life in their hands because, well, they kind of did. I was afraid of getting kicked out, not for grades but for lack of social grace.

Now that I have graduated I will go back for a simple lecture and notice how dorky they really are.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Seeing your agent suck the brains out of the waiter with a straw would have been really cool, though.

Christine said...

I love editor/agent appointments. Sure, it's frightening to anticipate the rejection of my baby in person. But that's never happened. Even if they probably will reject my baby, they usually request the partial. It's a nice little meeting. I love it if I can make them laugh. And yes, they are human.

The best advice I can offer anyone is to remember to breathe and to ask them how they are doing. Oh, and don't forget to ask for a business card :-)


KarenG, as author Jeffe Kennedy has pointed out, I seem to have a fixation with touching other womens' hair or having them touch mine. I probably need therapy.

Melissa, I had great fun at the conference, though it was a bit exhausting to be "on" for four days straight.

Daryl, I've sold books both ways -- on my own without an agent, and with my wonderful agent taking the lead. There is no way in holy hell I would ever consider doing this without my agent. She's worth her weight in Twinkies for sure.

Shainer, thank you for that visual I will never be able to scrub from my brain.

LindaG, I'm already fluffing my pillow. Wow, that sounds kinda dirty.

Jayne, vampire bats don't like peanut butter, but vampire mice love it. They're a much rarer breed.

Patty, chin up! The skills you build writing query letters will come in infinitely handy when the time comes to market your book.

Ann Marie, mmmm...goat cheese!

Danica, that's a total trip! I don't know of too many male acquisitions editors in romance, so that must've been interesting!

Demery, you can totally picture them in their underwear when you write the query letters, by the way.

Marcella, I had to use my tongue to hold the pen when I signed the contracts. Must be a genre thing?

Expat mum, I think that's a very healthy attitude!

Laura, great point -- there's a fine line between respect and worship!

Matthew, interesting about the hearing aids. You've got a built-in reason to cozy up to editors!

Gabriela, I will pay you $10 to hug the next editor you meet.

Brandi, I like to pretend I'm glamorous, too. I'm a good pretender.

Jeannie, wait, I'm not supposed to curse?

Christine, I hope the critique went well!

Melissa, I do the same thing when I'm nervous. I've learned to take good notes!

Deborah, you mean you don't go into pitch sessions covered with peanut butter?

Dr. Goose, I have a soft spot for dorky. Obviously your wife does, too.

Dianne, if I ever get to meet my wonderful agent in person, I will ask her to perform the brain sucking trick just for the special occasion.

Christine, breathing? Now you tell me. No wonder I kept passing out.

Thanks for reading, guys!

Claire Dawn said...

Sadly, the first thing I thought on reading this was if mice like peanut butter. lol.

I'm a teacher. In school the student-teacher relationship is much like the author-editor/agent one. My kids gasp when they see me in the supermarket, but the little known secret is that I DO exist outside of school. And I'm sure the same sort of things are true of agents. :)