A few days ago I got a really nice email from the agent who repped my nonfiction book. He sold the book back in 2008 and I haven’t had much need of his services since then, at least not for that project. I was very keen, however, to follow up with another non-fiction project, to try to build a writing career from that first sale. He was very patient with me, considering (and ultimately rejecting, providing very thoughtful and thoroughly-explained reasons why) each project I sent him. I was a complete novice at not only writing but also the whole concept of publishing, and at the time I didn’t really understand how generous he was being with his time.
A year and a half after selling the nonfiction book, I fell into writing fiction. I wrote a book that fall, then quickly moved on to another once I’d finished and realized it was mediocre at best. By the time I finished the second book I understood that some work would be required post-drafting to tidy up the story. I did a single pass of revisions on it, mostly addressing known plot holes. Then, like the naive newbie I was, I inquired with my agent whether he’d be interested, and sent it off.
Oh, the retrospective horror and embarrassment of that action. But at the time I didn’t know any better. I rather suspect he read the first couple of pages, realized it needed a lot of work, and then he sent it off to a professional reader. The woman provided a four-page critique of all the ways my book failed. It was, at the time, harsh and stinging, but only because I’d been so flush with satisfaction over the story. Thinking about it now it was probably no worse than anything I receive from my critique partners on current stories, but I wasn’t expecting it.
It was, however, an incredibly valuable learning experience. I owe so much to that critique. From that (and, later, reading writing blogs) I realized I needed critique partners, and when book number three was ready I posted to a forum looking for some. I contacted the agent again once book three was done, and sent it to him. He passed that one on to a colleague who specialized in YA, and who eventually passed.
Finally, when I finished Secrets back in the fall, I queried him for this new project. He read it himself, over the holidays. He passed, but wrote back with an incredibly detailed, thoughtful set of comments, both praise and constructive criticism. And he closed with, “Let me know how it goes and feel free to send me other things to read from time to time and/or ask for advice. I really want to see you succeed.”
I’ve continued to query him with all my projects because he’s taken such time to help me over the years, and I really owe a great deal of my development and maturation as a writer to his help. It seems I’ll probably end up signing with another agent, and a little of me will be disappointed that I won’t have been able to repay his generosity. Outside of signing with him as a client there isn’t a great deal I can do to repay the favour.
It reminds me of listening to Robert J Sawyer’s 2010 keynote presentation at the Ontario Writers’ Conference. He spoke about Heinlein’s rules, and in his introduction commented on Heinlein offering his advice to people, their gratitude and Heinlein’s response:
“For those who did follow his advice, they said to him afterwards, they said, ‘Thank you! But, how can I possibly repay you?’ And he said, quite rightly, ‘You can’t. There’s not a single thing you, as a beginner, can do for me, the established old fart. There’s nothing you can do for me. But, you can, not pay me back, but you can pay it forward. When you’re somewhere along the road to where I am, turn around and help the next guy in line.’”
(That whole presentation is worth listening to, incidentally. It’s 24 minutes long, but was worth every penny paid for that conference – it was the moment everything crystallized for me and I realized that yes, I could make it as an author.)
I think perhaps the thing I’m most looking forward to being able to do, if/when I have a small measure of fame/recognition as an author, is being able to pay it forward. There were points along my journey that I really wished I could talk to a published author and get some insight into how it’s done from someone who’s been through the whole process (even if their advice is not necessarily hugely more valuable than an unpublished critique partner’s). I did, in fact, contact a few of my favourite nonfiction authors back when my co-author and I were trying to sell our own nonfiction book and they were so incredibly generous with their time and advice. I’ve never forgotten that.
Now I daydream about starting up a mentorship program, where aspiring authors query me during an open call for submissions, and I pick a couple to take under my wing and basically be a critique partner for until they land an agent themselves – at which point they ‘graduate’ from my mentorship and I select someone new to lend my support to. I think I would love watching new writers grow and develop with my help, and, if they’re anything like me, I think they’d like the opportunity to work with someone who’s already had success in the game.
And this would be my way to thank my nonfiction book’s agent, and the nonfiction authors I received advice from. By paying it forward to the next people in line.