A Lesson from Kenny Rogers

Therese butting in for a second to make the happy announcement that the ever-talented Sarah Callender will be joining WU as a half-time contributor! We’re thrilled and honored to have her with us!

Last month, some girlfriends and I took the train from Seattle to Portland (home of Powell’s City of Books and Voodoo Donuts and a Living Room movie theater and loads of other awesomeness), and as we ate and shopped and shopped and shopped (Oregon has no sales tax) our way through the aforementioned awesomeness, I was struck by how different my friends and I are when it comes to taste and personal preference.

In drinks alone, our tastes were varied. I love cocktails that involve citrus, simple syrup and a sugared martini rim. Janna likes a dark porter. Mari likes a martini. Amy prefers something with a bit of bubble in it, be it beer or champagne.

Our fashion styles are equally varied. I gravitate toward more traditional, tailored clothing, tops and bottoms that will still be in style beyond next Tuesday. Yet I also have a hard time resisting the siren’s call of a cute vintage hat or anything that can make me (someone who looks nothing like Audrey Hepburn) look a little more like Audrey Hepburn.

My friends would feel uncomfortable and dull in my outfits, but they appreciate that my style is my style. If I try on a dress that makes me look like the Duchess of Frumpville, they will let me know. If they see something on the rack that “looks like Sarah/Audrey Hepburn” they will let me know. They will not allow me to walk around wearing a dowdy outfit OR a vintage hat better suited for Elton John or Winston Churchill.

Yes, my circle of trusted advisers understands my tastes are different from their own, but my advisers also know it’s their responsibility to give me honest feedback when I ask their opinion . . . or even when I haven’t asked their opinion. I love that in a friend, a partner, a husband. It’s a sign of a true friendship, one built on respect.

As writers, we are doomed without a similar group of advisers. Not just a little doomed. Totally and completely doomed.

Why?

Because like it or not, writing is as subjective as fashion or cocktails. The literature we love, the book we open when we have moments of precious free time, that’s as subjective as our preference for a bubbly or sweetened or hoppy adult beverage.

Of course, one only has to embark upon an agent search to realize just how subjective one’s writing is.

During my recent Agent Search 2.0, (which took place when my first fab agent, Agent 1.0, made the difficult decision to leave agenting, shortly before my book would have gone out on submission), I was reminded of the vast array of responses one piece of writing can elicit.

But let me back up for a moment. When Agent 1.0 let me know of her decision, I had more than a few friends ask, “Why can’t she just pass you on to one of her colleagues?”

It’s a good question, but I look at it this way: if my husband left me, would I be crossing my fingers that he might think to pass me along to the guy in the next cubicle? Um, no. Ick.

An agent is, in many ways, like a spouse. One you don’t see or kiss very often (I assume), but one who needs to have the qualities we look for in a partner: loyalty, passion, dedication, good communication skills. A similar view of the future. Someone who’s not going to embarrass you in public. Someone who will adore you when you succeed and when you flounder.

And that, my friends, is why it’s so very difficult to find an agent. Not because agents are jerks who like to tout their position of power. Not because they thrive on being the gatekeepers, the barrier between being a writer and becoming an author. It simply takes time to find an agent who loves your work just as much as you do. And let’s remember: we humans tend to have wildly varied tastes and preferences.

In my search to woo an agent, I needed to find the one who would love me even though I drool in my sleep. One who didn’t mind that I’m not a “clean as I go” kind of cook. One who wouldn’t care that I’m not so good with numbers or house cleaning.

What we are drawn to, what we seek and enjoy and thrive on, can be a bit of a mystery. We just like what we like. End of story.

To illustrate the vast array of taste and opinion and preference I encountered on my agent search, I’ll share a few anonymous details.

Agent A loved the first half but was upset by the second half.

Agent B felt the first half dragged but the second half was the real meat of the book.

Agent C and D believed my novel felt like YA.

Agent B and E believed it was certainly a book for adults.

One agent, in one of the most kind and generous rejections I will ever receive, wrote this about Lucy, the narrator of my book:

[Lucy is] a complicated, heartbreaking, funny, astute, confused, and all together realistic [narrator]. Her narration was at once believable and poetic.

While another agent rejected me based, in part, on this:

I found Lucy hard to relate to and a bit unbelievable. Although she is precocious and probably immature, it didn’t feel quite believable.

Both agents are brilliant, both very well respected in the biz. So whose advice do I heed? Is my narrator “believable and poetic” or is she “hard to relate to and a bit unbelievable”?

[Enter Trusted Advisers, stage left.]

Because our writing will NOT be adored and lauded by everyone, because elements of our books will be both loved AND despised by readers, because we will get confusing and contradictory feedback about the quality of our writing and our stories, we writers need a group of trusted advisers surrounding us at all times. Just to make sure we don’t leave the house sporting the literary equivalent of an Abe Lincoln hat.

We need trusted advisers who will say, “I’m so sorry. I know this is your 703rd draft, but it’s still not right.”

We need trusted advisers who will celebrate our successes without (too much) envy or bitterness.

We need trusted advisers who know, when we show them a crappy first draft of something, that they are to see the potential of the work, not what exists in first draft crappiness on the page in front of them.

We need trusted advisers who will prod us when prodding is necessary and, equally important, will tell us when perhaps we should give a piece of writing a break, maybe a forever break.

I think of it this way: in the crazy worlds of writing and publishing, we need a team of Kenny Rogers-ish advisers, people who will tell us (because we cannot see it clearly ourselves) when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away, and when to run.

Of course, finding trusted advisers can be as tricky as finding an agent. Most likely, you’ll have to kiss a lot of frogs in order to find The One or Two.

I found one of my trusted advisers through a teaching job, another at a writers conference, and a third at a professional development program for writers. But I also went through quite a few weird and unhelpful writing groups and partnerships. It takes a while. Be patient. As is the case with any relationship, when we find what doesn’t work in a partnership, we become more certain of what does work, what is necessary, what will help us thrive.

These advisors will enable us to succeed in a way that we cannot on our own, in a world that can be quite cold and lonely.

Then, when we do find ourselves in a moment of writerly success, we can celebrate, raising glasses of our advisers’ quirky cocktails, tipping our own fabulously chic hats, to the essential role they have played in our success.

 

Photo courtesy of Flickr’s HG rules.

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About Sarah Callender

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter and is currently working on a novel titled BETWEEN THE SUN AND THE ORANGES. Sarah is a terrible house-cleaner, a lover of chocolate and hats, and a self-professed cheapskate who has no trouble spending money on good chocolate and hats.

Comments

  1. says

    Sarah, congratulations to you on joining the Writer Unboxed team. It is such a diverse and knowledgable group. As a member of an excellent writers group I can relate to what you are saying. One critic will tell you that your piece is the best you’ve written and the next one will say it didn’t work for him. You have to have a strong sense about the quality of your writing and whether it meets a standard for acceptable work worthy of publication. The rest is out of your hands. Again, welcome and good luck with your MS.

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  2. says

    And thanks for your kind comments, Erika and CG. I can’t imagine a better, more talented and fun group of folks to hang out with. With whom to hang out.

    Happy spring weekend, everyone!

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  3. says

    Perfectly timed, and just what I needed. When I saw Kenny’s name, I thought it would be ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), but what could be more perfect for aspiring authors than The Gambler?

    Congrats on your WU contributor-hood, Sarah (I confess I thought you already were one, but well-deserved), and good luck with Agent 2.0!

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  4. says

    It’s my lucky day to read this post – so now the Friday the 13th myth is out the window! I’m in the midst of editing and have days where I need my trusted advisors, the ones who knew the book when it wasn’t what it is now, when the characters had different names and the beginning was the middle and the middle didn’t exist. Those are the people I trust to tell me they see the difference, or they don’t. And we’re different as a shot of whiskey, a white wine spritzer and a Cosmopolitan.

    Thanks, Sarah!

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    • says

      Best of luck on the editing! Three cheers for our invaluable advisers. I don’t know about you, but my novel is nothing like its first draft form. It’s fun to have writer pals who can say, “I knew it when . . .”

      Happy editing.

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  5. says

    I’m so, so pleased that you’re here with WU as a contributor, Sarah! And I loved every bit of your post. This part made me mutter, “Oh, yeah.”

    Because our writing will NOT be adored and lauded by everyone, because elements of our books will be both loved AND despised by readers, because we will get confusing and contradictory feedback about the quality of our writing and our stories, we writers need a group of trusted advisers surrounding us at all times. Just to make sure we don’t leave the house sporting the literary equivalent of an Abe Lincoln hat.

    We need trusted advisers who will say, “I’m so sorry. I know this is your 703rd draft, but it’s still not right.”

    Oh, yeah.

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  6. says

    Having just failed at my Agent 1.0 search, I thought your post was eye-opening. Surviving the drastically different opinions you received is a talent in itself. Wow. I need to expand my stable of trusted advisers.

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  7. says

    Er… don’t know if a decline from my agency is among those noted (not asking, either), it’s always weird to see one’s words in the mirror.

    One thing I like about your post is that’s an honest reflection of the long journey to getting it “right”.

    Here’s the odd thing, though: I find that when a writer finally gets it “right”, the divergence in responses tends to disappear. Agents’ shark-like, money-in-the-water instincts emerge. They begin circling.

    Sure, not every novel is to everyone’s taste, but powerful storytelling that fires on all cylinders and doesn’t let up takes many readers on a great ride.

    Look at how some genre novels sell magnitudes better than others. Yes, that’s a type of story with particular appeal. But those novels of that type are being read by folks who don’t read the rest.

    Those authors have gotten it “right”, which is to say they haven’t chosen the right genre, the right timing or the right agent. They’re simply telling their type of story in a way that’s more personal and powerful.

    Welcome to WU, Sarah, looking forward to your future posts.

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    • says

      Thanks, Donald.

      This is so true! After I forwarded all of the various agents’ feedback (I had two offers of rep. and MANY rejections) to my 2.0 agent, she told me that my book had clearly hit a nerve with the agents I had queried . . . they took considerable time in explaining the specific reasons they were passing on the book.

      So is hitting a nerve is better than apathy? And if so, maybe “getting it right” can simply mean hitting a nerve.

      Food for thought . . .

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  8. says

    What I love about this blog is the high effort writers make to parse these subjects to the Nth degree, so that there is always something new to learn with even the most mundane topics. Sarah made profound points that don’t always jump out at you when you’re going through this process. I had an agent who rejected me and said something similar, that writers need a connected group of like-minded individuals, or something cryptic like that. At first, I took it to mean that the agent was saying I was too isolated to be published, but now, thanks to Sarah, I think I know what she means. Thanks, Sarah! May we all be blessed with good writing friends.

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    • says

      Yes, Mary. This is a problem. Perhaps a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors is a good idea when there’s not consensus.

      Happy writing! I love reading The Little Grape.

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  9. says

    Sarah, you’ve got the perfect author photo, you know? Cheery yellow, like your personality.

    I can’t add anything to what you wrote except to say I don’t know how people can do this without honest-but-kind exemplars. And you’re right about it being a process to find the ones to push us to our best selves.

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  10. says

    This is lovely, Sarah, and I had to laugh out loud at the Kenny Rogers reference. My husband—who knows I don’t listen to country-western—almost fell off his chair the other night when he heard me using those exact Rogers lines to explain life to our teenaged son.

    And yes, of course, as the industry gets increasingly crazy, writers increasingly need someone on their side to help sort out the contradictory responses they will get.

    I’m so pleased to be able to welcome you to WU!

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    • says

      Yes, Victoria . . . sometimes ONLY the lines of a country-western tune will do. Other times, a day requires a little Guns N’ Roses. I had a “welcome to the jungle” week with my kids. Even the best country lines wouldn’t have been apropos.

      Thanks for your kind welcome!

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  11. says

    “Agent A loved the first half but was upset by the second half.

    Agent B felt the first half dragged but the second half was the real meat of the book.” >>> something similar happened to me back with my first book — conflicting comments on the first and second halves! lawd.

    Congrats and glad to have you here at WU – *smiling*

    And I love Portland – have a son, granddaughter, and DIL there and visit once-twice a year — love the market and the food and the weirdness :-D.

    I have a trusted adviser – my fellow co-publishing editor of R&T. She’s the first eyes that will see my “almost final” draft.

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    • says

      So great, Kathryn. And, thanks for the Portland comments . . . I also love the huge beards and huge black-framed glasses. I think Seattle needs to borrow some of Portlandia’s personality.
      :)

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  12. says

    Seeing through another’s eyes is a view we can only guess at. Every now and then I choose the odd/ugly dress on the store rack. I don’t believe I’ll like it but I try it on anyway. Experience has taught me there could be nuances that complement some part of me I have overlooked. And even knowing this, I am still shocked every time the theory works. I will turn to my friends and say, “Oh my gosh, the ugly dress is perfect.” Their response? “What am you talking about? That dress is not ugly.” Our best advisors do that, provide perspective that allows us to reassess our comfortable assumptions, and sometimes we find an unexpected fit that feels right.

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  13. says

    Just FYI… Kenny Rogers was my very first concert. I still get that funny feeling in my tummy when I pull out that album and stare at his beautiful hair. Umm.. awkward.

    I am so glad to see you here, Sarah! Though I’ve been absent here at Writer Unboxed awhile, I greatly appreciate the content and the conversation. YOU are, as always, the perfect balance for my tastes. Congratulations on the new gig!

    *Trusted Advisers* has been on my mind a lot lately. I share my WIP with two sisters-in-life, one a writer, the other a voracious reader. So appreciative of both! Though they are excellent listeners, neither have any experience in the publishing world or in writing a novel. They just know what they like. My greatest fear is that I’m not hearing the “right” advice… whatever “right” may be.

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