Friday, July 31, 2009

Fun With Agents

I've been writing a long time. A loooooooooooooooooong time.
I'm fifty-two years old and I recall writing my first stories when I was in the second grade. So that's forty-five years of writing fiction. My first stories were silly beyond belief. I don't even recall what they were about, really. By the time I was in the third grade I was collaborating with my pal Billy Bridges on stories about Godzilla. Billy was a much more intense Godzilla fan than I was, but I liked the giant lizard dude enough to write these stories with my buddy Billy. Forty-four years later I don't know what happened to either those Godziller stories, nor to Billy. He moved away some time after that and I never heard from him again.

I continued to write stories all during my childhood. I tackled my first novel, a story about an Alaskan Brown Bear, when I was in the sixth grade. To show you where my mind was at in those days, this huge Alaskan Brown Bear was named "Fluffy". Following that I tried writing a novel about a bobcat (I've forgotten his name, but the tattered old hand-written manuscript is stored around here somewhere). Other animal stories followed until I discovered the works of HP Lovecraft. At which time I began to write horrid tales of adjective-laden supernatural angst.

Some time after I graduated high school I went through a period of several years wherein I wandered aimlessly and did nothing but pursue dreams of being a retail merchant. That ended badly. Around the age of twenty-six or so I got serious about writing again and started creating short stories. The first ones sucked ass, but the more of them I wrote the better they were. At some point I was sending them out to magazines and after a relatively short time I started selling them.

A few more years passed and I was regularly making professional sales. Everything from short stories to Weird Tales to comic book scripts to CLIVE BARKER'S HELLRAISER for Marvel Comics. Along the way I dredged up a novel plot that I'd written down when I was fifteen years old. Looking at it, I figured it had some promise and so I began writing my first novel as an adult. Every day I would come home from work and start hacking away at it on my electric typewriter. There were only a few people then who even knew about wordprocessors, let alone owned one. So in those days before common home computers I found that, in short order, I had written my first real novel, THE CRAG.

I sent it out to the biggest agent of whom I was then aware:

Richard Curtis.

I didn't expect him to respond. After all, he was a major agent with an impressive client list. Maybe he'd just send my manuscript right back, or throw it away. To my surprise, he liked the novel and agreed to represent me. I think I was 30 years old.

Over the next three years he came very close indeed to selling the book. At a couple of points we figured it was a done deal. Alas. When push came to shove, the editors always passed. When I delivered a second (admittedly awful) novel to Mr. Curtis, he cut me loose. I got the "Dear John" letter on my 33rd birthday in the midst of a high fever and nausea. That royally sucked dried dog turds, but I never blamed him. It was only business.

For a time after that I worked without an agent. This is a very tough thing to do. Most publishers won't look at your work unless it arrives via a literary agency. And most agencies won't look at your work unless you've already sold a novel. Yeah--a classic Catch 22.

Finally, I started calling some writer friends to see if they'd connect me to their agents. This was not a good thing to do, apparently. Some just flatly refused. Some told me that they'd mention it to their agent. Nothing happened, of course. Finally, I called a writer named Brian (last-name-redacted). He wouldn't give me his current agent's details, but he did agree to put me in touch with the agency from which he'd just fled. I was begging, so I couldn't be choosing.

I gave her a call. To make a long-ish story short, she agreed to agent my work. Then she went crazy and then she died. True fucking story.

There followed another long period wherein I worked without an agent, writing books no one would see and despairing of ever selling a novel. I even stopped writing fiction for several years. Finally though, I started writing again and shortly thereafter began trying to find a new agent. The writing went well, but the agency thing did not. No one would agree to champion my work. At last, when it seemed that I would not be able to do it, I found an agent who would try to sell my new novel, THE FLOCK.

She was an okay lady. I recall that she even took the time to line-edit the book and suggested changes and ways to improve it. Mainly, I agreed with her critiques and soon molded the novel to fit her criticisms. The book went out. No one bit. I suggested another novel that I had almost completed, but she didn't like it. She went totally silent on me. So I figured she just didn't know how to cut a client loose and I made the job easy for her by firing her with a "Dear Susan" letter.

A few months after that I began to try to sell THE FLOCK on my own. Unfortunately, I kept running into that same problem of old:

Publishers only look at manuscripts that arrive via reputable literary agencies.

Then I heard about an imprint that was willing to look at unsolicited manuscripts. I sent a query out to Five Star Books. They found the query intriguing and asked for the entire novel. I sent it to them. I'm not sure what I expected, but I was very pleased when I got an acceptance letter for THE FLOCK in late 2004. It saw print in 2006.

Since Five Star only publishes in hardback and oversize formats I began searching to see about selling the mass market rights. For this, I would need an agency. I sent out queries to many, many agents, thinking that it would be no problem at all to nab a spot on an agency's client list now that I'd sold a novel that had done pretty good in hardback. Haha. I was wrong. No agency would take me on. I kept telling them that it would make a killer movie--that I'd plugged all that into the book as I was writing it.

No dice. No agency would take a chance on me, not even a guy with a track record of more than fifty short story sales, hundreds of pages of comic book scripts sold, and one published novel.

I'd even had inquiries about movie rights, but none of the studios who'd inquired ever followed up with an offer. But I'd gotten enough of these to know that it might actually happen.

Then, in a bit of serendipity, I pissed off Don Murphy who glommed a copy of my book to see who I was and what I was about. Mainly so that he could tear me a new one in print by having been cool enough to first read my book. Instead, he saw what so many others had seen--it was a ripping good yarn! He made an offer to option the film. And did so, proving that while his reputation is as a prickly guy, he's totally honest.

And, then, after having sold a novel without an agent, and an offer of a movie option without an agent, here I was again without an agent. You might think that I wouldn't need an agent. You'd be wrong.

You still have to have an agent to get your foot in the door at all but a tiny handful of the smallest of publishers, no matter what you may have done on your own. It's just part of the way things are conducted in the publishing business. So, there you have it. James R. Smith was again in search of an agent. The seemingly endless quest.

I should write a novel about that some day.


dogboy443 said...
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HemlockMan said...