Tonight was my third outing to QRB in Raleigh this week, this time to see a panel on publishing a book/getting an agent. My good friend Jesse has spent the last year building a sort of grassroots campaign of panel discussions in bookstores and libraries across the state on topics ranging from the craft of writing to self-publishing to agent querying to podcasts and media. I'm so grateful to him for this service, because I know there are writers who are completely in the dark about this subject, as I once was. Each panel gets better, more diverse. He has had best-selling authors, up-and-coming authors, self-published authors, authors of fiction and non-fiction, authors of various genres, etc. Jesse moderates each discussion and begins w/ self-designed questions devoted mostly to craft, followed by an audience Q&A that shifts drastically to "but how do I get an agent?"
In On Writing, Stephen King touches on this very topic, and mentions how many aspiring writers feel that somehow getting an agent or published requires some kind of secret handshake or password, when really it's not that foregin. "Easy for you to say, Stevie," is usually my first response whenever I read that passage. No matter how many of these panels and workshops I go to, the process does seem like a mystery to me, and never within reach, possibly because there are so many X-factors: the competition of one's fellow writers (and there are so many fellow writers out there, some really good and some shit); the mood and clientload of the agent; the appeal of the query letter; the marketability of the genre, etc. There is no one formula, no magic word that gets you "in." There's no golden ticket.
I've attended several of Jesse's panels (and I've asked him to save me a spot for when my book comes out), but tonight's really got to me. Sometimes it's the common sense things that elude us for whatever reason, and it's like getting smacked in the head, like on those V-8 commercials. I learned two key things tonight: agents wanna make money, and the query letter is like a cover letter for a job.
I mean, it's so simple. How many times have I told my students, "the cover letter gets you the interview; once interviewed, you get you the job"? The query letter gets you the attention of the agents -- it's to get them to want to read your manuscript, and it's to persuade them that you'll make them money, and how. Once that's achieved and they've asked to see more, my stellar (may I say, "loving") manuscript gets me the agent.
And that was my a-ha moment. My query letters haven't been tailored enough to specific agents -- I've done some homework, but I've not done *enough* homework. There's not enough of *me* in my query letter -- as is, it's more of a form letter--perhaps not *that* bad, but a little stiff. I've made improvements in the last year, but not enough. Not what it takes to get an agent interested in me, in my work. Wow.
Afterwards, a bunch of attendees and the panelists headed over to the restaurant across the street, a slightly less generic version of TGI Fridays. I got to talk to author Dusty Rhodes (another great name!) a little bit about living in Wilmington and his own winning query letter and just had a good time hanging out w/ writers in general. And beofre the night ended, Jesse asked me if I wanted to be on a panel in the near future (finally!). In fact, he wants me to talk abut blogging...