categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
I get emails often with a few vague words of praise for my work and then the big question: I’m writing this article, this story, this poem, this essay, this screenplay, this book, and I’d like to know how to go about getting an agent. Agent, usually, because the correspondent has already done some investigating and has heard that you need one. I have sympathy, because I’ve been through it myself, the feeling that there’s some secret to getting published and that no one’s telling what it is. Well, that’s all changed. Because I now know the secret to getting published, and I’m ready to spill it. The same secret works for getting an agent:
Write something good.
Okay, now you’re in on it.
Write something good.
Not even great, though that can work, too. (Caution: If it gets too great, you’ll have to wait till you die for it to be recognized, and where’s the fun in that?)
Just write something good.
To do so, you’ll have to write something bad. Maybe quite of bit of something bad. Years of work, no doubt, very likely an apprentice book or two, and a few dozen short pieces, all sorts of false starts, but that won’t matter. If you’re focused on the writing, every day you write anything at all will be a success, steps on the road to something good.
How will you know when you’ve written something good? Well, you’ll show it to people who know writing and they will read it and say, “Hey, that’s good.”
But isn’t taste involved?
Yes, it is. And many potential readers don’t have any. So you’ll have to find good readers, too. Collect them like the treasures they are. People who read carefully, who prove they understand what you’re up to with smart observations and queries, who have a grasp of your story or meanings or ideas, who can say where they’re excited and why as well as where they’re confused and why. For your own growth, you’ll want to have a number of readers at your disposal, perhaps fellow writers with whom you exchange work. When they respond to your pages, don’t talk back. Only listen. They might be right, they might be wrong, but listen. One of the great lessons is that it’s possible to improve your work by pushing against bad advice, making the writing itself explain what it is up to, so that you don’t have to, even to a dope. Because when it comes to art, most advice is bad advice. Then again, it can’t hurt to know good advice when you see it.
Write something good!
What if this were a blog about piano playing? What would my advice be to a new piano player who came to me and said, “I want to play piano in front of a large audience, preferably at Lincoln Center, though I guess I’d play in Chicago, or even at a college, at least at first. I’ve been working at it hard for months and months! How do I find an impresario?”
The answer would be, Dude, practice. Even a prodigy has to study! No point in wangling an audition even at the local brew pub if you’re not ready….
Write something good. That’s all anyone wants from you. Make that, rather than publishing, your goal for now.
For those of you who have already written something good, congratulations. That’s the real success. We can talk about what to do with it some other Wednesday, while you get to work on the next project.
Our first BAD ADVICE WEDNESDAY letter:
Your reverse psychology obviously works on me.
I have a Big Idea that could work as a series of magazine articles,
but could also work as a book. The target audience are inexperienced
home improvement specialists, aka just about anyone who owns a home
and attempts do-it-yourself projects. Here’s the problem: much of the
advice falls under what could best be called legal grey areas, so I’m
not sure the DIY mags would go for it. Should I just go all out and
shoot for the book instead?
A closet fan. (but you can call me Paul)
PS – I’m not published yet.
Dear Paul: This is a great idea for a book. That show, “This Old House”? I’m always like, yeah, great, let’s just jack up this 1800 cape and replace the basement with granite slabs and redo the entire substructure and do the kitchen in platinum and truffles, like 70 million dollars, when all you’re trying to do is fix the fucking leak, you know? The legal grey areas you refer to would be things like building codes and certificates of occupancy and that secret methamphetamine cooking room, I get it. I think your instinct to go for the book is brilliant and correct. My sense is that the DIY (Do it Yourself) magazines DPVM (Don’t Pay Very Much) in any case, though some publications in that arena could lend a little authority to your sales pitch. But the truth is, street cred will be more important here. And that’s your pitch–this is a book for real people with real building and repair issues, not millionaire hobbyists who care about, like, insulation.
I would write a lot of the book before I’d try to sell it. Get a persona going, get some chapters written, get a clear idea of where you’re going with it, find a way to tell a story with this material, put together an annotated table of contents. Because this is the kind of nonfiction you might actually be able to sell on a proposal, which more about one Wednesday soon.
(Narcissist’s Corner: Did you know that my first book was called “Tips and Tricks for Home Repair?” I wrote it at the rate of $10 a page, 1980, for a publisher called I. Waldman and Sons that published coloring books, mostly. I’d send them 25 pages, they’d send me $250. It was like home repair porn, illustrated with line drawings. I did it as a work for hire with no byline and never saw the finished product.)
PS–at Cocktail Hour, we love you whether you’re published or not!
Next week, Dave’s turn! Send your questions and requests (for now) to email@example.com, and I’ll see that he gets them.