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.
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.