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You Probably Think This Post Is About You

There’s a funny side effect of being an agent who blogs. On more occasions than I care to mention, I’ve gotten emails from my clients after a post, asking if the post was about them, specifically. (And, clients, if you have done this, then yes, for probably the first and only time, this post actually is about you! Now stop reading my blog and go write/revise/be brilliant!)

While I don’t make it a habit to write thinly-veiled posts about clients or writers and I don’t think I’ve said anything that would greatly offend clients or writers on this blog, this little quirk does drive home a big point: writing is extremely personal.

A writer is putting their craft, their imagination, their hopes and their dreams on the line when they sit down at the keyboard. This is a deeply sacred and important thing. No matter how far along a writer is on his writing journey, no matter if she’s writing her first book or her tenth book, the act of writing and creating is absolutely essential. And every day that I sit down to read a submission from a writer, I honor the sacred bond and trust that writers expect from me when they reach out to share their creative work. Their creative passion — even if the writing isn’t agent- or editor-ready just yet — is what makes them tick. I would never do anything to break their trust and risk hurting their creativity.

At a conference one time (and yes, this is a specific example…I hope this writer would allow me to talk about this in the hopes of illustrating a very important point that could spare the next writer some heartache), a writer told me that a creative writing teacher of hers had once taken her story, held it up as an example in front of the entire class, and completely ripped it apart. It took this writer twelve years to bounce back and type another word after that day.

Sure, this writer could’ve been overly sensitive to her teacher’s comments or excessively shy or whatever, that’s true, but it only goes to show how much power a person-perceived-to-be-in-authority has over a person’s writerly self-esteem. This isn’t something anyone, whether a critique partner or a teacher or an editor or agent, should take lightly.

People have all different levels of sensitivity about all different sorts of things. But because writing is so personal, because it deals with hopes and dreams and deep, creative desires, it is all the more fragile. People tend to be all the more protective of their writing. And I am always sensitive to that fact.

I’ve said this in my disclosures on the About Me page, but I think it bears repeating here: I will never use a specific or identifiable example on the blog unless I have permission from the writer to do so (like with questions emailed to me, the workshops or contests, for example). Stuff asked and shared at conferences is fair game because conferences are a public setting and a lot of good stories come out of live events. If I want to illustrate a craft point, I will make something up (usually exaggerated) to suit my purposes. I will never cull directly from slush or from client manuscripts.

So where do I get my post ideas? From questions people ask at conferences, from questions people ask via email, from issues that come up in the comments. Between the publishing business end of things, the craft side and the agenting side, I don’t think I’ll end up running out of things to talk about anytime soon.

And if I do discuss a particular craft issue, it is never unique to any one writer. First of all, that would make the post a lot less universal! Second of all, there really is a list of common craft traps and pitfalls that most writers fall into, if they’re going to fall. Believe it or not, but I find myself giving many of the same notes over and over. I end up seeing many of the same writing issues in 10-page sample after 10-page sample. When you read as much unpublished writing as I do, a writer’s unique strengths and challenges often match up pretty well with other strengths and challenges that you’ve seen before. So if there’s something wonky with craft, it’s usually pretty universal.

The only things that really stick out, usually — and the ones that I will obviously not blog about because of that trust I mention — are zany story ideas. The plots and premises that NOBODY has ever come up with before (usually not a good thing because they’re too out there to be widely commercial). But these types of slush gems aren’t for Twitter or the blog or Facebook. They’re just between me and Sushi.

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  1. Jamie Harrington’s avatar

    And you know why that makes you my favorite agent on the planet?

    Because I know that when I send you a 3am email rambling on about how I don’t get what the hell you’re talking about… it’s NOT going to end up here.

    I know I will never be part of an #clientfail hashtag on twitter or laughed at by a group of agents at a conference, because of your professionalism and the fact that you get what our client/agent relationship means.

    It makes it so that I can come to you with story ideas or plot twists I need to talk about, it means I can be open and honest with you about my career, and never worry about being humiliated in public.

    Writing is the sort of thing that people do with their whole hearts, and no matter how much we talk about the importance of a thick skin, or ability to laugh at rejection–we should never EVER have to do that in front of people unless we make a personal choice to.

  2. Conda V. Douglas’s avatar

    I learn a lot about my own writing, both its flaws and strengths, from reading your blog and other agent blogs. What a useful post on how subjective all of the process is, and how writers and agents both possess creative passion.

  3. Nichole Giles’s avatar

    Beautifully put. Thank you for reminding us of how fragile, but crucial, the creative process can be.

  4. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Now I’m hearing Carly Simon sing “You’re So Vain, you probably thought this song was about you…”

    This is why you rock as an agent:

    Yes, you respect writers. Yes, it’s a sacred trust. And…you ALSO have a Kung Fu grip on good critique!

    For me, part of the whole “sacred trust” thing is offering insight. Insight that pushes me up to another level in my writing.

    I think you strike a great balance with your blog advice and your crits. You praise strengths and prod at weaknesses.

    Everytime I sit down to write or edit, it’s nice to know you’re going to push for the absolute best work.

    For me, it’s all good.

  5. Corinne O'Flynn’s avatar

    Thanks for this Mary. Every time I read your blog I come away thinking, damn, I like her. Your posts are honest, real (and really entertaining) and always ring with the fact that you come to your job with respect. Respect for your role, respect for the weight your words can carry, and respect for the writer whose nails are nibbled to the nubs while she waits and waits for feedback that does not crush the dream. (Strictly a hypothetical situation there.)

    So true about the sacred trust! I feel like making the cover of my MS read: Please be honest, I can take it. But remember you’re holding my baby.

    *clouds in my coffee*

  6. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Author Rosemary Clement Moore just wrote a great post which dovetails with Mary’s words on feedback.

    Check it: http://www.genreality.net/feedback-makes-you-better

  7. @jmartinlibrary’s avatar

    Oops, I meant:

    http://www.genreality.net/

    The other one was Jamie’s post (which is also dovetails nicely.)

    Erg. I’ll just shut up now.

  8. Franziska Green’s avatar

    Jamie, I am the color of my surname reading your comment! You’re so lucky to have Mary as your agent (and obviously talented, brilliant, probably funny too).

    Mary, everyone always thinks the posts are about them (and I do sometimes too, even though I’m not a client!! Crazy, yes, possibly) because you always manage to get inside ‘the writer’s’ mind. That’s probably because you are one yourself and because, as a writer, you have to be able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.

    Great post.

  9. creepyquerygirl’s avatar

    Don’t you, don’t you, don’t you? sorry, I couldn’t help myself. I think we can all agree that your blog is an immense help to writers in general and that it’s never seemed (to me anyway) to be directed towards one person in particular but a general scope.

  10. Eileen Cook’s avatar

    Oh this made me laugh. My editor recently tweeted something along the lines of “Giant paper cut? Is that really how you want to start things Mr. Manuscript?” No less than ten of us who are her writers all wrote “it wasn’t my manuscript that gave you a paper cut was it?” The tension and fear in our voices was palatable.

    At least most of us know we’re crazy. I consider that a step in the right direction.

  11. KellieD’s avatar

    Let’s just hope Sushi isn’t a talker. . . . : ) I so empathize with that writer and the torn up manuscript. I had a writing instructor my first year of college that really said something to make me crawl in my writing shell and hide for a while. At the time, I just didn’t have thick skin. But years of working as a consultant has changed that. And I’m a better writer/receiver of constructive feedback as a result.

  12. Heidi Norrod’s avatar

    Perhaps it involves a bit of a guilty conscience on behalf of some. ;) I know I’ve been found guilty of some of the things you have pointed out…I use your notes though to edit, edit and edit some more. I guess that’s the real work of being a writer though – it’s not the actual writing that’s hard, but the revisions that are the work.

    Thanks for all the insights into the biz!

  13. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    You, my friend, are awesome. You have such passion and respect for the written word and where it comes from, I wish I could harness it and make it spread like wildfire throughout the agency world ;-)

    Thanks for all the sagely insight and thought you put in to your posts. And Jenny, thanks for the links! I’ve been falling behind on blog reading.

  14. Joan’s avatar

    We’re human and will always make mistakes. Though your posts aren’t specific to one person, they will ring true with many of us who have gone astray. ;-)

    I love learning about what not to do. It helps me recognize the error of my ways and get back on track.

    I was one of the many who entered stuff on Miss Snark’s blog and had it ripped to pieces. Even though it was anonymous (though people who knew me knew it was mine), it stung a bit, but the benefits of the learning experience far outweighed the little hurt I received.

    The writing process is all about learning to be better and we can’t learn if no one ever tells us what’s wrong with our work.

    If I know what’s wrong, I can fix it. :)

  15. Robin’s avatar

    Thanks for the insight.

  16. Heather Kephart’s avatar

    Oh, snap! This post is about ME and I’m not even your client. You’re branching out!

    Seriously, kind and patient of you to reiterate your policy. Lovely that you are sensitive to artistic *ahem* sensibilities.

  17. Ash Robbins’s avatar

    I shy away from industry blogs because they tend to freak me out (realizing how many other people are trying to do what I am); but I do have friends in my critique group who read your blog religiously. Back in April they told me to read your post from the 12th. Wow! I Felt pretty sure you were writing about me (and if that’s just me being vain– please, don’t burst my bubble).

    Now I’ve gone back and read through your archives and wish I had sooner (would have saved me the angst over my flagrant use of the “F-bomb” in my manuscript).

    Thanks for all the hard work you put into this. I’m going to keep reading and try to get over the mini anxiety attacks.

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