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Throwing bottles into the ocean

I’ve walked across the country and canoed one of the world’s great rivers by myself. When I was underway, I asked no one for help. People came to my assistance because they wanted to tell their stories to a stranger who would not question or contradict them. Some just wanted to be a part of someone else’s journey. Regardless of their intentions, they came to me and I benefited from their presence in my life.

bottle in the oceanToday, I again took off into unknown territory. I am by myself. On this road, there will be few if any who will help me on my way. There won’t be friendly couches to rest on or front yards on which to set up my gear. The road is long, and it is lonely.

Writing a book is hard, solitary, and thankless work. But it rewards the writer. A good, solid scene sets my heart on fire and gives me motivation to move forward. It’s the same with a piece of beautifully executed dialog and a sentiment that floats. Sitting down to the computer each day, I search around for the next idea, another word or phrase. Those things build into a piece, a living thing that needs shaping and reshaping until it takes on its own and goes out to make its way in the world.

But it’s not that easy. The work lives and breathes. But it goes out there but can’t make it on its own. If talent (which I have very little of) or hard work (which is what I’m made of) was the whole of it, the things that stand in the way of creative endeavor, such as the market, fashion, and the politics of who you know, wouldn’t matter.

Now that I have the first working draft of my book, I have a few things before me. The first and most important is that I have to turn that draft into a piece of living art. There’s a feeling I get when I’m turning something decent I wrote into literature. Then comes the sublime experience of turning literature into art. I want to rewrite the manuscript. I love rewriting. I am good at.

But I also have to get the story out into the world. With a manuscript, I have a book I want to, have to sell. To sell a book to a publisher, I need an agent. A university press published my two books. I didn’t need an agent for that process, just a set of good ideas and some skills to show. But for the big-boy world of commercial publishing, relying on myself is no longer an option. I have to find that person who I can convince that my work is good and worthy of seeing. I feel like I have a bowl in hand and am begging for alms.

This summer I’m teaching two online classes—easy work. The rest of the time, I’m going to spend writing and revising. I will approach two or three agents a week until I have one or more on the hook. If it takes months (years), that’s all right. I’m used to having people say no. I’m also determined. This is a good book. I believe in it. It will go somewhere as long as I stick with it. I’m throwing bottles out into the ocean. Well-crafted bottles that would be treasures for anyone who finds them. Someone has to find them, and this isn’t a game of chance. I have to rely on the ocean currents but I have to direct those currents to make sure the right people see those bottles.

Then, someone will pluck one of those bottles out of the ocean, open it, and move the contents along to another person, who will have to determine whether they can make money on that book. If they think they can, they may just buy the book. So, yeah, maybe this is a game of chance. What may be attractive one minute may not the next. My manuscript could arrive at an agent’s office fifteen minutes too early or too late. It may arrive on time, but the agent can’t get to it right away. They find a manuscript like mine and when they get to my book, it’s passé.

Regardless of whether it’s chance or not, a good deal of work lay ahead. Today, I compiled a list of agents. In four columns, I put the name of the agent, the name of their agency and agency’s address, a description of what they want, and their E-mail address.

Every agent wants something different. Some want a query letter, which is about a page long and says why I’m contacting them I particular, a short idea of what the book’s about, and some information about me.

The second and third part of the letter are easy. I know what the book’s about and who I am. I have to craft something compelling, but I have every confidence I can do that. The hard part is telling them why I decided to contact them. They want to know that I know what books they have helped publish in the past and how my book fits into their oeuvre.

There I run into a problem. It’s a name-dropping game. I haven’t read all the books these agents have ushered through the publication process. Every day, I will have to do the research. Find out what authors these agents have represented. Get familiar with the titles, plots, and stories. I won’t be able to read all the books, but maybe I can become conversant in the language these agents speak.

Once I get the query down, some agents want more. Many want a query and a synopsis, a five-page narrative of the book’s contents. The easiest for me are the agents who want samples—the first chapters or 25 or 50 pages. That’s where I shine. If I can get them past the query letter, I stand a good chance of an agent considering my work.

In these essays and over the years, I have often written about discipline. Every day, I have to get out of bed, fix my cup of tea, and get to the work of researching the books and the agents. As I assemble the goods the way the individual agent wants, I just have to keep in mind that my work is to fashion the bottles, get them into the ocean, and do magic with the currents.

I don’t know that I’m up to the whole job. But that doesn’t concern me. I am up to doing what I’ve always done: one step, and then another. I can do that. If I do it long enough, I will arrive at my destination.

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