Agency Lessons: compassion doesn't equal compliance

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

I usually try to keep things pretty light and positive with a dash of reality here on the blog. That said, I recently received an email that has me so fired up that I'll ask for a little grace while I vent it out. In doing so, I hope to spread a bit of perspective and maybe help the next wayward writer.

I include my personal email address on the blog. I realize that opens me up to spam and inappropriate contact, but it's important to me to be available to my readers and to all of you. Truly, I love hearing from you, and helping other authors on their path is fulfilling. However, I do receive emails from time to time that should never be sent. And sometimes, like last week, I get emails that send me into a tirade that my husband has to sit quietly through.

The email I received started out poorly. The subject line read "Query for Sarah - to the wrong email, I know, but please read". I should have deleted it right then and there. I state clearly on my site that queries sent to my personal email will be deleted. But I didn't. Woe unto me.

The body of the email was basically a butter up opening paragraph, followed by an acknowledgement of the rule breaking and then five pages (which I did not read). I did respond that the individual needed to follow the guidelines and then deleted the email without remorse.

If that's all it had been, I would not be writing this blog post. I get that in a long list of emails, you might get one mixed up and send it to my personal address instead of the agency. And that's why I usually do open those up and direct folks to the website. I understand the neurosis of wondering for months if your email went through.

Instead of that being all, I received a reply back. Apparently, the querier wasn't looking for representation, but rather my opinion of their work. They decided that my reading five pages would be sufficient to decide if they should put their career on hold to pursue writing. Let's digest that for a minute. First off, as good as I may be, I can not tell you to quit your job and pursue writing based on five pages. Not that I would ever advise anyone in the first draft stage to quit their job.  Second, why in the world would you allow the opinion of one stranger who has only read five pages determine your career path? I'm an agent, not the Dalai Lama. No one, NO ONE's opinion should be that important.

Misguided as that may be, that realization made me more sad than angry. But that quickly changed, when the emailer asked me for a quick five minutes and compassion.

Because apparently, my refusal to disrupt my schedule to comply with an inappropriate request would mean I don't have any compassion. And that right there is when the heat rage crept into my face and my husband knew something bad had just happened.

As an agent and a writer, I donate my time constantly to judging contests, attending conferences, teaching workshops and running this blog. All things I do because of my love for books and writers. This is time that is separate from time spent doing my job, writing and taking care of my family. Don't take that as I'm way busier than everyone else so have pity on me. I mention it to show that I am already giving quite a bit of my time to the writing community. And I enjoy doing so. On my own terms.

For a complete stranger to email me, basically demand my help, and insinuate that failure to do so makes me a cold-hearted witch... Well, that's why we have this blog post.

Look, I get it. We are all looking for validation, help, a listening ear. This is even more important for new writers who are just getting their feet wet in the big literary world. But there are right ways and wrong ways to get those things. The wrong way is demanding them from strangers.

The right way? Here's a few ideas.

* Join a local writer's group or find some online critique partners. Not only can these individuals help you hone your craft, they can be a wonderful source of information and a listening ear when you need some extra moral support.

* Attend a conference. This can be a huge help if you are new. A well-organized conference can be like a crash course in writing. You'll have a chance to attend classes, meet other writers, and possibly get some face time with agents and other publishing pros.

* Ask someone to be your mentor. This is a little harder to get, but can be a wonderful opportunity. If there's an author that you admire who writes in your genre, you might want to reach out and ask if they would be willing to be your mentor. If you do this, you need to be prepared. Know exactly what you are asking of them, and be clear in your request. Are you looking for someone who can help you refine your manuscripts? Do you want someone who you can chat with once a month to ask about the industry? Also, be prepared for a no. Many authors have full time jobs outside of their writing lives and squeezing in another commitment isn't possible. Don't take this personally and understand that their lack of compliance to your request does not indicate a lack of compassion on their end.

I wish I could help every writer who contacted me about reading their work. I wish I had unlimited hours and a biological capability to survive on two hours of sleep a night. I wish I had a goose that laid golden eggs. If I did, I'd be more than happy to give personal advice and feedback to everyone. But I don't, and I can't. And that doesn't make me any less compassionate.

It's never wrong to reach out to someone you respect and admire, and I don't want this post to make anyone hesitant to email me. But know that words have power and, as much as I want to, I can't be all things to everyone.

Now, in the interest of helping the author who contacted me and other new writers, do me a favor if you will (though I understand if you can't). Spam my comments section with links to your favorite conferences, online writing groups, and places to find critique partners. This is an amazing community and I know we can help each other grow!