Friday, December 17, 2010

Zippers, agents, and other conundrums

I have now made, by my count, one rough draft and two complete pairs of slacks with fly-front zippers. I am now working on another rough draft to work out some more details of the fit; and by working I mean the pieces have been cut out for about a week and I got the four darts in yesterday. It took me a number of tries to do the darts, yesterday being a bad day for the gyroscope, so straight lines were hard and so was finding the right side of the nondescript cloth I'm using for the rough draft. I then tried to move on to the zipper, and couldn't do it.

The first three, successful, times I did this zipper I did it wrong first and, having done "wrong," was able to see how "right" would look, go back, and redo it. (Hint, always baste for the first try at a zipper.) This is time-consuming but it's not as if I'm on deadline here. Yesterday I put the thing together, pinned it, played a computer game, came back, stared at it some more, unpinned it, put it together again, and left off in despair. Every way seemed impossible and besides, the zipper is too long even though I cut it to the right size (I know it was the right size - I measured it). I'm hoping it's just the gyroscope screwing up my capacity to recognize spatial relations, which was never my strong suit anyway.

I've spent most of my life being treated as a smart person, because I read so much and because I don't let learning a new task daunt me. Within certain fields, I'm a quick study, and nine-tenths of learning a new thing is not getting intimidated by the onrush of new stimuli. A little methodical sorting, some focused concentration, and a well-placed question or two, and I'm good to go. I don't for a moment believe that I'm smarter than average, and the zipper thing proves it. I have to re-solve the problem every time and on some days I can't solve it at all, because it relies on a portion of my system that I never developed well and which is a little messed-up physically. I do not have the skill "insert a fly-front zipper." I have a skill set that enables me to insert a fly-front zipper, or work a complicated math problem, or whatever, given sufficient time and a way of checking the result.

In the same way, I do not have the skill "find a publisher." I'm not certain anyone does, though I know people I am willing to believe do if they cop to it. I have, without an agent, sold twelve books to major houses and a number of short pieces to a number of different venues; so I have a skill set that makes finding a publisher possible. As far as I can tell, finding an agent takes the same skill set.

What I lack is any way to check the result. I have this in common with practically everybody. The moaning and wailing goes forth from the internet daily: "But why did this agent/editor that should have wanted me reject me? What does this rejection mean?"

A rejection doesn't mean anything. The market for print media is shrinking and the supply for it gets bigger every year. Even twenty years ago when I started, when it was possible (I know; I did it) to send a complete manuscript to a major editor like Margaret K. McElderry and get it read, I knew - because I'd been studying for this role all my life - that works get rejected more often than they get accepted. There are a thousand reasons to reject a work and only one of them is "it stinks." Editors are overworked, overwhelmed, and underfunded. Most of them don't even have assistants anymore. Most of them didn't have first readers even when I started. Writing a helpful rejection is too big an addition to their workloads in most cases.

And now that agents are acting as first readers, everybody has to have an agent. But getting an agent is harder (at least, if you're me, the person with the solid mid-list background and crappy interpersonal skills) than getting a publisher. An editor only has to be able to convince a committee to believe your book will work as one element of a list in one year. An agent, to be effective, has to be in love with the book and your whole career as well as having a small enough client list to make room for one more who's going to take as much time and attention as you are.

This is a discouraging prospect for someone, like me, who hates meeting new people and distrusts salesmanship and who, at the time of assembling the query, isn't particularly in love with a project, myself. Generally speaking, by the time I've drafted a book, revised it into something resembling publishability, polished a hook, and crammed the whole into a one-page synopsis, I'm fed to the teeth with the thing. Having to write a query letter under those circumstances is like having to put in a zipper that will only work properly if I both set it up perfectly the first time and am feeling madly, passionately enthusiastic about wearing slacks at the time of sewing.

Under those circumstances, I'd never get a pair of slacks that fit. Ever. I wouldn't even try, because that's never going to happen. And I like wearing skirts. A lot of people never get well-fitted slacks and never mind it. I can, too.

But the stories I write are The Most Important Thing. Stuff other people consider vital to happy lives, I've given up in favor of writing stories and never felt as sacrifices. So I arm myself with the knowledge that how I feel isn't important, but getting an agent is; and I have the skill set; and I make the attempt anyway. Sure, I can fail. But the only way to fail permanently is to die or abandon the attempt.

I wouldn't do it if it weren't The Most Important Thing. I don't know why anybody would.

So that's my words of wisdom for this day without a gyroscope (when staying upright is a chore and I can't trust myself to write a query). Decide what The Most Important Thing is, and go for it. Everything else can fall by the wayside.

You can have more than one Most Important Thing, but they'd better be compatible.

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