Practically every writer I know has a day job. Mine just happens to be as a literary agent. I love my career, which keeps me close to my twin passions: words and books. You would think that knowledge acquired in my job would help me get my own work published.
You would be wrong.
As an aggressively practical person, I knew I wouldn’t make it as a starving artist, so my plan was either to become a wildly successful author at a very young age (i.e., twenty-five), or get a job working with books. As I got closer to twenty-five with a college degree and an MFA but no book, I decided to become a literary agent. It was, I thought, the closest thing to being a writer while still getting a regular paycheck (no, I did not realize that most agents work on commission!). I’d get to work with writers, who I saw as my own kind, and figured I could write on nights and weekends.
So I sold all my stuff and moved to New York City to work as the assistant to a group of literary agents, and quickly saw my nights and weekends taken up with reading for my bosses and eventually my own clients—oh, and freelancing, because publishing salaries are next to nothing! When people asked if I was working on my own book, I offered vague excuses. There’s just so much reading, I said. It wasn’t a lie.
It hurt not to have time to write, but I loved being an agent even more than I had imagined. Now, more than ten years after I started, I still love it. I get to read for a living. I get to see new books before anyone else. I get to help make authors’ dreams come true. Working with writers every day inspires me as a writer: Their hard work makes me want to work harder. Their persistence and success keep me buoyed when I doubt my own work.
But I still want to be a writer, too, and sometimes I feel so far behind. Here I am, surrounded by editors and writers, with all the insider knowledge—I should be in the best position to finally reach my goal, shouldn’t I? And yet I am doing EVERYTHING wrong. I am ignoring every piece of advice I have ever given an aspiring writer.
As it is my job to assist and support writers, I thought it might be helpful to provide a kind of reverse how-to guide—a how- not- to guide, if you will—so you can see that even literary agents make mistakes (and so you can try to avoid mine). Here, then, is an honest accounting of all the things I’m currently doing wrong:
I am not fucking writing enough.
The first thing you need to get a book deal is a book, right? I have two full manuscripts (that are not saleable, as I explained in this anthology ), two other half-novels (one YA, one adult) that I actually like, two half-completed nonfiction book proposals, and two picture-book concepts rattling around my brain as I nurse my infant daughter. I am not special to have this many unfinished projects! Many writers have more.
But how many hours a week do I actually write ? Basically zero. I have a full-time job, a new baby, a million distractions, yadda yadda yadda—there’s always some excuse. Even an hour a week is better than nothing, or so I would tell my own clients. I cannot expect a book deal if I don’t have a book to sell. I need to prioritize writing and aim for completion, instead of letting the half-finished projects pile up.
I think about getting an agent before I have anything ready to share.
Yes, even agents need agents. I represent another agent, and she knows exactly how it works and how to ask for what she needs—but she’s still a writer, and so am I. We both need the hand-holding, the objectivity, the distance from the process that every writer needs. When I get an agent, hopefully—one day—I’ll have more opinions about submissions and contracts, but like any other writer I will still need someone to challenge me when I’m wrong, advise me to ditch an idea if necessary, and tell me when to STFU (with love!) and be patient.
But I shouldn’t be focusing on getting an agent before I have a saleable book. I should not be worrying about whether I should get an established agent at a big agency, or an up-and-coming agent at a small agency. Who I ought to approach is dependent on the book I write. I cannot write to agents and say, Hey, want to represent me and these unwritten ideas I might finish one day? If I queried myself right now, I’d reject me. Researching and finding the right agent is necessary, but not before finishing the book.
I dream about that sweet, sweet advance money.
I’ve actually found myself calculating the amount of each hypothetical advance payment I should put away for taxes. I think about this money padding my savings account, paying for vacations, starting my daughter’s college fund. THIS MONEY DOES NOT EXIST. So why do I keep thinking about it?
Because it’s a sexy distraction from actual writing, which is hard and unsexy. Of course it’s way more fun to think about money than sticky plot points or tough revisions! When my clients ask me about how much we might get for their book, I give them a wide estimate: “It’ll be $5,000 or $50,000.” Getting paid for your writing is important, but not more important than finishing the damn book.
I talk more about my books than write them.
Are you sensing a theme here? I am guilty of pitching my book ideas (leaving out the author’s name, ahem) at lunches with editors just to see how they react. (Editor friends, I am sorry.) I secretly want them to say, “Yes! Let me run the numbers when I get back to the office!” Of course this is not how it works.
When writers pitch me their ideas at conferences, I know they’re waiting for me to Bestow the Magic of Publishing on them (<makes a fairy godmother waving her magic wand motion>) and tell them they’ll be an instant success. In reality, I’m thinking, That could be good, but I need to see it on the page. I’m sure editors are thinking the same thing when I give them my half-assed pitches . No one can bestow the magic of publishing on you, or on me. The most effective way to get published is to write a good book.
I’m handling insecurity about my writing poorly.
Regardless of my knowledge and experience, I’m still a writer: I’m vulnerable and insecure about my writing. I get hungry for reassurance. My fantastic writing group shoulders some of this burden, but day-to-day, I still look for positive feedback and ways to relieve anxiety. And sometimes that makes me avoid my computer, drag my feet, not write.
When my clients do this, I’m able to reassure them that feeling insecure is a normal part of being a writer. I can help them focus on the work at hand, and leave the rest behind. But I am not doing this for myself. I’m spinning my wheels instead of doing the incremental work that leads to completed projects. If I were my agent, I’d give myself a stern but kind talking-to. Doubt comes with the territory, I’d say, but you have to write through it no matter what.
I am looking for shortcuts.
Because I feel so far behind, occasionally I find myself looking for a shortcut to help me catch up. Many writers have an easy book idea—the one that’s super quick to write and would probably sell in a second. I hear ideas like this every day just from following the market and talking to editors. Sometimes I can match them with one of my clients, and sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I think, Hey, I could do that , and then I start taking notes and avoiding my other personal writing projects.
Maybe I could write some of those quickie books. But those projects aren’t the stronger, more interesting ones I’ve been working on for years. I need to let the fleeting ideas go, and work on the ones that mean something to me—just like I tell my clients all the time. The easy ideas rarely turn out to be easy, and only serve to distract from the real work at hand.
I secretly think a book deal will fix everything.
What do I do the day after I get a book deal, if I’m ever so lucky? What will it be like?
When my clients ask me that question, I tell them, It’ll be the same as today, except you’ll have more homework. If I sell a book, I won’t be taller, more beautiful, or much richer than I am now; I’ll still be me. After the deal, I’ll have to get to work writing or editing. After publication, I’ll need to start on the next one. I will still be Kate, just Kate with a book deal.
I tell myself that publishing a book is what will make me a real writer.
In my senior year of high school, I won a district-wide writing competition for a novella I’d worked on all year. At forty pages or so, it was the longest thing I’d ever written. Before the awards ceremony there was a day of workshops, and I took one with Colum McCann. It was 1997, and his first book, Songdogs , had come out the previous fall. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I remember feeling like a real writer because a published writer was talking to me. I felt at home talking about writing and books when I hadn’t ever felt at home in my high school. That day, I felt like a real writer. I’d won. I’d gotten here. That proved I was a real writer.
A few weeks later, a teacher handed me a photocopy of a letter from Colum McCann, printed in that bubbly, default font of the early Mac. He thanked her and complimented the contest winners—he’d read the winning entries on the train home. And then he’d added:
Kate McKean is certainly the real thing—she understands the need for narrative, for subtlety, for image. And I could tell there was a good heart behind her work. I really hope she continues to write, to read, to push her own parameters.
It was my first blurb. I was floored. I memorized it. To this day, I worry it like a smooth stone when I’m anxious about my work. It was the first time a real writer had complimented my writing. I took his words to mean I should try to be “the real thing”; to get published.
And though I meet any number of “real” writers every day who don’t have a book deal, a part of me still feels that way. I didn’t know any better then. I probably need to let that go now. No one can make you a real writer.
Writers write. That’s it.
I’m lucky: I always knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I get to do something I’m passionate about every day. And my day job has the potential to help me with my side hustle, my dream, if I can just get out of my own way. Over the years I’ve had a lot of practice telling writers to calm down and get to work. It’s time I did the same.