I never thought of literary agents as actual people until I went to Squaw Valley Writers Workshop this summer. Before then, I had imagined them as these dark forces who lived in these impenetrable towers, and in those towers they spent their days making paper airplanes out of query letters and dropping manuscripts off the tops of balconies. I will admit that I was actually afraid of them. That’s why I refused to look at the staff bios on the workshop website; I didn’t want to know who was an agent beforehand because I knew that if I encountered them I would begin to sweat, or apologize for sending them horrible query letters in the past, or worse, I would try and act über cool and pitch them my WIP which would have probably gone something like this: “So um, it’s about this lady, and she’s like getting married? And then um, this other woman comes to town? And then…well, a whole lot of other really cool shit happens but you’ve gotta read it to see how it all fits together. Here; I have a copy in my purse. And it’s so good I know you’ll finish it tonight so can you give it back to me tomorrow? It’s my only copy. Thanks! Muah.”
Int. Squaw Valley Conference Center — Day
A poor LITERARY AGENT goes running for her life. QUANIE, an aspiring writer, runs after her with a very heavy manuscript screaming come back here you shmuck.
So I didn’t want to know who was who because I knew that the conversation would go horribly wrong. Besides, what did I have in common with a literary agent? I planned to skulk around the conference keeping my ear out for those agent people, intent on not having an actual conversation with one. Well, imagine my surprise when, during dinner on the first night, I’m out on the deck with a group of very nice people and this guy starts yammering away. He was wearing a hat and looked innocent enough (I should have known; never trust a man who wears his hat at dinner), and someone says to him something along the lines of, “But you’re an agent.”
My heart rate sped up and I gave him a good look. He seemed surprisingly life like, and he was eating normal people food, did not appear battery powered, and tried his hand at a joke or two. He even asked me something. Well, he asked four of us that were sitting on one side of the table something about why we were there at Squaw. I swear every single word that I knew went running up the mountain. I sat there like an idiot while the other ladies gave very intelligent responses, and I, the queen of etiquette, tore into my garlic bread and managed to not make eye contact with Mr. Agent, who shall forever, unless he signs me, remain nameless.
There were other agents there at the conference, and some of them even led our workshop critique sessions! So imagine my horror when I realized that my piece was being facilitated by one of the literary agents! I called my mother (not near tears, but I did an enormous amount of whining), and said, “Mama! I went to her panel! And she represents literary fiction! I don’t write that! What if she tears my work apart?”
“Who is this?”
“Where are you?” I told her. “Well, I’ll be praying.”
I think her prayers worked, because I managed to get out of my critique session with all of my writer parts still intact, and I even had a conversation with the agent afterwards and guess what? She turned out to be a very normal, nice lady who got her purse from T.J. Maxx! She was a mother and an overall nice person who just so happened to be a literary agent.
I have to tell you that I saw agents in a different light after that. I think before I saw them as keepers of the gate (okay; vapid blood suckers who relished in making the lives of writers a living hell). I used to write query letters as if I were trying to get favor from the king: “Dear Sir, it would greatly appease me if you would bestow your eyes upon this manuscript. It is women’s fiction, 80,000 words, and should be very pleasing to thine eyes.”
But now I know: they’re just people! And they eat garlic bread, just like the rest of us! A lot of my query anxiety has subsided as a result of meeting some of them face to face, and although I know I’ll have some level of trepidation when sending out my first round of queries for this project, I’ll think of the man who wore his hat during dinner and how incredibly normal he was, and I’ll remember: agents are people too.