If you’re anything like me (unlikely, but you should probably consider that a positive) you’re at least a person who has spent much more time developing your own personal art than developing close personal relationships (pets don’t count) and/or becoming a prosecuting attorney or an iron worker (both well-paying careers). So I’m addressing you—you, a member of the artist community.
You may be a painter, or a novelist, or an actor, a standup comedienne, or a songwriter. The one thing we all have in common, after having completed whatever recent opus we’ve been pouring our soul into, is finding somebody who can do something with it. Yes, I’m talking about marketing. And when I say marketing, I mean finding someone with a degree in business who kind of likes art too, and can take whatever it is you’ve done and find some other person who’s willing to pay you for it.
For novelists this would be a literary agent. A lot of debut novelists wonder, “How can I find a literary agent so that my novel can be presented to the rest of the world?” Well, I’ll tell you.
The good news for novelists is that it doesn’t matter where you live. You don’t have to live in New York or Los Angeles or any such hub of the publishing world. You could live in the basement janitor’s room of Lucas Oil Stadium—just you and your typewriter and empty cans of Chef Boyardee—and have an equal chance of landing a literary agent as does someone who lives in Paris or New York and in a much nicer apartment. What is a problem, though, is that you live on Earth and literary agents live on Mars.
Your question obviously is, “How do I get to Mars in order to meet literary agents?” Let’s take this step by step:
- Build a rocket ship that will take you to Mars.
- Now, it’s understood this may be financially problematic. In reality the only people who can afford to build a rocket ship that could take them to Mars are Jeff Bezos and Elan Musk. So, how do you solve that problem? Let’s go to step three.
- If you’re a woman, marry either Jeff Bezos or Elan Musk (I think they’re both available). If you’re a man, I don’t know what to tell you. Maybe you could take some computer courses at your local community college, then apply for a job at either Amazon or Tesla as a washroom attendant—but with a good head on his shoulders—and work your way up the corporate chain, until eventually getting a way better job in either of these corporations to where you’d be in a position to “rub shoulders” with one of these “big hitters”, such as being their chauffeur.
- If this plan is for whatever reason beyond your scope, then the next best way of meeting literary agents is to have one of your parents be a literary agent. And who lives on Mars (which may require you to overcome some animosity from a childhood trauma when one of them left both you and your other parent to go live on Mars. Hey, it’s a tough business. Cowboy up. There’s no crying in publishing).
I often hear positive-sounding and sage anecdotes from people who don’t know anything about the publishing industry and who don’t realize that when they tell me positive-sounding and sage anecdotes about the publishing industry and how my art works that I want to kill them. Usually it goes like this:
Them: You know, J.K. Rowling was turned down by a hundred and eighty literary agents before she was finally accepted.
Me: That’s not actually true.
Them: You just have to keep trying, no matter how long it takes.
Me: That would be stupid.
I think the people who expound such advice are under the impression that we artist folks have a never-emptying aquifer of dignity from which anybody is allowed to suck and if we say “enough” it’s either because we’re weak or not sufficiently committed to our craft.
And on that subject, I have read copious pages of woe, particularly produced by the writer community. Last night I was reading of someone whose spent seventeen years trying to get her first novel published. She wrote a couple more hoping they’d pick her up as serial writer and have something to milk. They didn’t. She’s become an emotional skeleton. All she wanted was to have the world read what she had to say. That’s fair enough, the desire, but at some point you have to look at the latest rejection letter that starts with “Writer”—and that’s assuming they bother to even acknowledge you at all—and say “Fuck you,” if for no other reason than to remind yourself you’re a human being.
What’s ironic here, and I’m talking about myself as well as maybe you, is that for one reason or another we have chosen to leave the normal world and go live somewhere else; we live in our paint, in our words, in our characters, in our melodies, in our ability as actors to become someone other than who we actually are—but whatever the case, we have walked away from the normal world for the purpose of living in a world of our own making. But then we get pissed when nobody appreciates it. We insist on doing what we want—which is turning away from the social group—and then everybody not only being okay with it, but patting us on the back and telling us how much better human beings we are than they are. This is what we acknowledge as “success.” And I put that word in quotes for a reason because I’m fuzzy on what it means exactly.
So, what does it mean? There have been numerous occasions where out of curiosity I’ve looked up an actor’s bio in Wikipedia and come across one variation or another of this: “He studied with Uta Hagen and Lee Strasburg at the Actors Studio in New York. He is most known for his role as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company.”
Ew. That’s going the wrong way. Personally, I always liked Norman Fell as an actor, but then when I saw him in Three’s Company I said, “Ew. Norman, what are you doing? You’re going the wrong way, aren’t you?”
Of course the right way is to start off like Tom Hanks did by being in Bosom Buddies but then eventually moving up to, well, being Tom Hanks. The same could be said for Morgan Freeman going from The Electric Company to God, or something. See, these are examples of both “success” and good career plans.
On the other hand, sometimes you just can’t figure out what success means. I recall reading a biography of some famous actress person (apparently not sufficiently famous enough for me to remember her name—so take that for what it’s worth) and she was in a production of Othello with Sir Laurence Olivier. She thought his performance that night was extraordinary. She went backstage to compliment him, and upon opening his door, found him sobbing at his dressing table. She asked why he was crying and noted what a marvelous performance he had just given. To which he said, looking up at her desperately, “I know! And I don’t know why!”
So, we’re all basically nuts.
But getting back to “success” in general, it’s a crapshoot. Really it’s not even that—it’s a lottery, and the government gets fifty percent of your winnings on top of it. I think everybody on The Big Bang Theory is terrific. And they’re all millionaires. Good for them. That pleases me. But they’ll be the first to tell you it’s more dumb luck than ability. I’ve seen people in movies who are really good at what they do and I don’t have a clue as to who the hell they are. And I never will.
So, what’s the point? You, meaning me, and also meaning you, live in Weirdsville. You not only live there but you grew up there. It’s your home town. And in Weirdsville, if you can successfully become another person, or invent a person to share your thoughts with, or move yourself into a flat canvas sufficiently so that it becomes a real and three-dimensional world in which you can walk in, then you’ve accomplished your goal. You have achieved success. Nothing else matters. And nothing else may come. But nothing else should need to. You’re already on the other side that most people can’t ever see.
–U. Allen Plum