In search of a rudder

Back when my first book was published, I had an idea for a column at LitReactor: I’d reach out to authors I knew and ask them to tell me the one thing they wished they’d known when they released their first book. I figured I’d get some good anecdotes.

I scrapped the piece because I kept hearing the same thing: “I wish I had an agent.” I heard this from some well-respected, big-time authors. And I couldn’t write a piece that was just the same piece of advice over and over.

There’s a lot of debate about whether you should have an agent. I’m firmly in the “should” column. At least, when it comes to me and my goals.

I work in publishing, I deal with contracts, I understand the language and the subrights and all that—but I also don’t want to deal with that shit. I’d rather someone else do it for me. I’ll pay 15 percent to let someone do the heavy lifting. That’s time I can spend writing.

It’s also nice to know someone has your back. To rein you in, to give you advice, to commiserate. To give you a guiding hand when you need it.

I never appreciated how important those things were until a few months ago.

My agent, with whom I had a good relationship, decided for personal reasons to leave the field. It’s not an acrimonious situation and I wish her the best. It was a little disappointing—I considered her a friend—but it’s also a problem with a solution: Go out and find another.

There are a couple of things counting in my favor: In the past two years I’ve published four books, to pretty strong reviews and sales. Publishers Weekly gave some nice kudos to my next book, The Woman from Prague (starred review, naming it one of the best books of the summer). I’m co-writing a novella with James Patterson, which is kinda fancy. My agent didn’t drop me, which can really count against you (potential agents will wonder if your sales suck, if you’re a jerk, if you’re difficult to work with, etc.).

There’s one big thing counting against me: I don’t have anything done. I can’t really search in earnest until I have a book finished, in hand, ready to go.

Immediately after my agent skedaddled, another agent—someone I respect—offered to take me on. It was tough but I declined. Given my genre and my goals, I thought it would be better, career-wise, to work with someone more intimately familiar with the players in the crime and mystery field.

It’s a weird thing to say no to an agent, considering how much of the query process feels so sacred, and so imbalanced in terms of who has the power.

For the past few months I’ve felt rudderless. I threw myself into researching new projects. I read a lot. I outlined. I wrote 70,000 words of a novel I’m not sure is coming together.

I’ve cracked open the fifth and final Ash McKenna book, for which I don’t have a contract. The book is tentatively due by the end of the year and I’m sure I can hit that deadline, but now I’m left wondering what comes after.

For a while now I’ve been stuck between three potential projects. Two are big swings (one of which is the 70K I already have down).

The third is, I think, a little “safer.”

So there’s a lot to consider. Do I go with the safer project, knowing it might earn me the goodwill to take those big swings later? Do I come out with the big swing now because, fuck it, sometimes you gotta go yard?

I kept thinking it’d be nice to formulate a game plan with an agent, who understands the wants and needs of the market, the potential salability of what I’m kicking around…

(For the record, this isn’t a “woe is me” story. I’m doing okay. And I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t give a shit about the artistic end. I do. But given I work in publishing it’s pretty easy to divorce myself from that and look at my situation with an outside, dispassionate eye.)

So, the point is, the more I thought about this, the more I dug myself into a hole of self-doubt and shiny-thing syndrome.

Until I realized I’m creating a problem for myself.

I’m breaking one of my own rules: Shut the fuck up and write.

The distance between a writer and a published writer can be measured in finished projects.

Having an agent isn’t a magic bullet. A lot of the writing process is knuckling down. People ask me how I write so much and it strikes me as a silly question. I write. How else is it going to get done? There’s no incantation to slow the rotation of the earth, no exercises that allow me to type 200 words a minute. The work gets done or it doesn’t, and I like when work gets done.

It’s hard, too, when you have a lot of ideas (you should see my Google docs…). Depending on my mood, the time of day, the direction of the wind, I might think one is better than the others, and ten minutes later that could change.

Again, creating a problem for myself. I let myself lose focus, and put the blame for that on not having an agent—like I need supervision and permission to write.

I don’t. What I need to do is pick a project and commit to it and finish it and then start the query process.

Honestly, I think I’m having a bit of a publishing-life crisis, where I’m on the verge of leaving the safe confines of an ongoing series, setting a course in uncharted waters. My next project will likely be in third person. Third person! How the fuck do you even write a third person narrative?!

It’s all pretty nerve-wracking. Especially because of how easily it is now to slip into Ash’s voice. I feel like I blinked and had the first 10,000 words of the fifth book.

Whether my first post-Ash book is salable or the “right one” or a big swing or whatever, it doesn’t really matter.

All it needs to be is something I believe in, and done.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget that. To get lost in the mud of uncertainty. Because, god, what a fleeting fucking profession this is. Sometimes you need to remind yourself of certain things.

So I wrote a come-to-Jesus blog post.

I’ve got my project. The one I want to be next, after Ash.

It’s a big swing. I’ve got a loose outline and 20,000 meandering words and tons of research. It’s the project I feel passionately about. It does that thing I love about books, that made me want to be a writer in the first place.

It speaks to a problem.

I want to take a big swing. That’s who I am, and that’s what I want. That’s all that matters in any of this. It took me a few months to realize that. It feels like lost time, but also, it’s not. It’s the space I needed.

Back to work, and come what may.

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