The danger of toxic agents
He was one of the most sought-after agents in the country, a dream agent, but shortly after signing with him I began calling him Agent Orange.
I've talked about this before, but I was just telling someone about the agent who asked me to add a murder to The Orchard. It would of course have been published as fiction. Just my life story—with a freakin' murder tacked on. The truly amazing thing is that I actually did it. I added a murder for this guy. But I quickly came to my senses and had him withdraw the book from submission, fired (his word, not mine) him, and tossed his murder idea. Not only tossed it, but stomped on it with both feet. Our final conversation was my unsuccessful attempt to get him to understand why his idea was such a bad one. He would not budge.
This illustrates the danger of toxic creative input.
I've had some good agents in my career, and I might work with an agent again under the right circumstances, maybe even a previous agent, but I love being able to write without someone dictating the direction my stories should take in order to have a product that can be sold to a particular editor the agent has courted.
How the agent thing works
Most agents, especially today, have lunch with editors, find out what they're looking for, and tailor their writers to those luncheon discoveries. This makes sense from the agent and editor perspective. Instead of blindly submitting books, agents find out what editors are hungry for and deliver it, but this leaves out so many good books that will never make it into an editor's hands. And if you submit to an agent who replies with a rejection, chances are that agent simply doesn't have an editor on her list looking for your kind of story. Simple as that. This is one of the reasons big-name agents are more successful. They know more editors, have lunch with more editors, and have a larger list of story wants. The other thing about agents? An agent who's been around a long time, an agent who's friends with many editors, that agent has no desire to blindly shop a book. His career has moved beyond what to him is paying dues.
The odds are against you in this game of feeding the hungry editor via the hungry agent
Say you tailor a project to an agent's specifications—that agent has nothing to lose and everything to gain. But you, on the other hand, might lose a year or two of writing and income while involved in this common practice. I often wonder how many of these tailored books actually sell. Like the percentage. I'm guessing it's small. Five percent? Fewer than that? Two percent? One? And when the dust clears, when the rejections finally come back, the agent has two hundred other writers to pull from, and those writers are all getting the exact same spiel…but you only have yourself and the years you just wasted.
But back to the murder thing
At that time I was one of the walking wounded after being dumped—that might be too strong a word, but I can't think of anything else, so let's say dumped—by an agent I'd had for twenty years who had no interest in submitting my memoir. Numbing blow. My self-worth as a writer dropped to basement level, and my confidence was shaken to my bones. I didn't trust anything I thought or felt at this point, and I was desperate for guidance.
Enter hotshot dream agent.
At the lowest and most vulnerable point of my career.
Why in the bloody hell would I agree to representation by someone who told me to add a murder to my memoir? Looking at this with a logical mind, it makes absolutely no sense, and it's scary to think I did what he told me to do. That still freaks me out, and now I kind of understand how the brain goes to such a weird place, and how people succumb to things like Stockholm syndrome and cults and weirdasses like Jim Jones. When we are in that state of having no faith in ourselves, of no longer trusting ourselves, it happens. When someone powerful comes along and begins talking with 100% conviction, we listen because we are lost and are no longer listening to our own voice. We don't even know where our own voice has gone.
I've not given up on agents, because, like I said, I've had a good one or two, but I'm working hard to get myself to a place where I no longer need an agent (by self-publishing and signing with houses that don't require agented submissions) because it's too easy to stop listening to my own voice when it comes to my art.
Not listening to yourself is where shitty books come from. And shitty music. Creativity is a wonderful mystery, and when someone else steps into that mystery it's no longer a mystery, it's a product.
Trust yourself. Don't off yourself with Kool-Aid. Don't add a murder to your memoir.