author – activist – faculty – mom
In the past, I would have been terrified of that title. Much less posting it for all to see. It would feel too much like it would jinx my success. And it’s just embarrassingly presumptuous. Who but a fool would publicly declare success before the fact?
In 2011, when the literary industry had solidly rejected my novel, I sought spiritual counsel from every tradition in my repertoire. Pastor Donna Allen of New Revelation Church in Oakland suggested that we prepare ourselves to receive the blessing we desire. For example, if we wanted God to bless us with a car, we should go out and buy a keyring. This post is my keyring.
I have subscriptions to Poets & Writers and to Writers Digest. I devour all of the “How I Got My Agent” and “How I Sold My Book” pieces, and in my mind I’m composing my own: My agent? [laughs] Actually, it’s kind of a funny story… After a writer gets an agent, the stories of struggle are all redeemed into a narrative of bootstrapping tenacity. But before success comes, it’s easy to feel like a foolish little girl with daydreams above her station.
But I’m not a daydreaming girl, I’m a grown woman with a track record of success in various aspects of my writing career. What I have yet to do is sell a novel. Fortunately, however, I have written a great novel. I’ve had a first draft critiqued by friends and the subsequent six or seven drafts overhauled by three different freelance editors. In 2012, I got great structural critique from Mat Johnson at VONA, and key feedback from Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez and Cristina Garcia at the National Latino Writers Conference. I’ve been at it for over five years, and I think it’s ready. Of course, I thought it was ready in 2009, and again in 2011.
But beyond the years of work I’ve done on the book, I’ve also put in work understanding the industry. I learned how naive I was when I last queried agents. If an agent had a successful track record with writers whose work had some overlap with mine, I’d begin to hope for them to represent me. But the agent who made the career of a woman of color novelist 20 years ago is not necessarily the agent who can champion my novel today. I also understand more deeply that genre labels and types of fiction don’t just reflect agent’s literary tastes, but rather the network of editors and houses with whom/which an agent has relationships. So an agent who reps romance and thrillers may not have the network to rep my commercial women’s fiction book, even though it has a heist plot and a strong romantic arc. Similarly, my book is well-written, but it’s not literary fiction. So my fantasy that I could get repped by same agent who reps the cool colored kids’ who write literary fiction is just that–a fantasy.
I’m finally clear on what I have to offer, and what that means for an agent as a literary/business collaborator. My agent will need the genre tastes to enjoy my action- and character-driven book. She or he will also need to appreciate the balance of social justice themes and sexy commercial appeal. Finally, there’s the race factor: I need an agent who knows which editors would be acquiring action-driven books with women of color protagonists. And to know how to market such books to a diverse audience.
In 2013, I made a vision collage in which getting an agent was prominently featured. But I also focused on relationship, parenting, health, home, and friendships. This year, I only put on one thing: my book.
And that’s why this is my year. Because I’m leaving the security of the cozy fantasy, the secret hope and the murmured prayer. I’m willing to take unprecedented risks of rejection, humiliation, and failure. I’ve built up my mountain of rejection emails, transformed my project based on tough critique, and found the sweet spot that satisfies my original quirky vision and also meets the demands of the commercial market. Finally, I feel ruthless, undaunted, and unapologetic. So let’s do this already. 2014 is definitely my year.
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