On Finding an Agent: Working, Working, Working

Good news! Two weeks ago, we signed with a literary agent who wants to represent our book about following the end of the space shuttle program. In fact, we sent out eight queries in mid-July, had three requests for our book proposal, and signed with the agent we most wanted before September 1. Easy as pie! Not—

Not so fast. Not fast, and not so easy. In fact, the phrase easy as pie refers to the eating of the delicious desert, not to the making of it, not to the effort of rolling the dough at the perfect temperature and moisture level to the perfect thickness—or thinness—not to achieving the proper flakiness of crust, nor to the slow simmering of berries and sugar. Writing isn’t just about finding an agent, though that’s part of the recipe for those of us writing novels or nonfiction in hopes of eventual book publication. Writing is about making something.

Of course, we’re thrilled to be working with Alice Tasman. We’re excited about what this might mean, and we’ve toasted our recent success. We’re also grateful to Emily Gray Tedrowe, a novelist we met at Ragdale, for putting us in touch with her agent, who is now our agent. And we’re pleased to hear that novelist Timothy Schaffert has been represented by Alice Tasman for a decade and is still thrilled.

But signing with an agent is part of a much larger process, the process of working together, of writing week to week. Having an agent, like many other steps in this process, is a reason to keep writing. Each step in the larger process is both a goal and a motivation. We have an agent—that means we get to keep working on this project.

Ragdale, February 2011

Our two-week residency at Ragdale in February of this year was the same sort of step. Being awarded a writing residency was a goal we had, something we wanted to achieve—something we want the opportunity to do again. It’s a reward we had to work toward, writing for a long time and developing a focus before we felt ready to try to prove ourselves worthy as nonfiction writers to a judging panel. But that writing residency was motivation, too, the kick-off to Anna’s sabbatical and to the work we did together on the book proposal, including drafting chapters of the book. Those two weeks were the most productive writing time we’ve ever had, separately or together, and propelled us into the steady work we’ve done over the following six months on what we’re now calling Generation Space.

Certainly, we can trace the work for this project back a couple of years, before Ragdale. We started this blog in July of 2010 with a commitment to post every Wednesday. We actually post more often, and we’ve done a series of guest posts and a series of video interviews, but the most important thing was that we set a goal—post every Wednesday—that gave us a reason to keep writing together. By the end of that October, we were flying off to Florida to see one of the last space shuttle launches. We traveled to the Space Coast four times in nine months. We applied for media credentials; that’s what writers who want to cover events do. We did our homework; that’s what writers who want to produce in-depth nonfiction do. We wrote, then we wrote some more; writing is what writers do most. We worked steadily, we revised, and we took some risks and learned from mistakes. We did what we were supposed to do.

P-51 Mustang & F-8 Bearcat

We can trace the process even further back. In the summer of 2004, we presented a paper about aviation museums at a conference in Amsterdam. During our early days together in Illinois, Maryland, and Ohio, we had made our way to local air shows and had tossed around the idea of writing a book about the air show culture generally or WWII pilots in particular. We’d been going to aviation museums too, so on a whim, we sent in an abstract for a conference call for papers. The goal was Amsterdam, but presenting that paper was a reason to keep pursuing the topic of aviation and spaceflight. We followed up with two articles together, one in an edited collection called Bombs Away! and the other in the journal Curator. We had started writing about what interested us most, and editors gave us a nod. It wasn’t fast or easy, but that’s how things are supposed to work.

Each thing we were supposed to do, each step a writer is supposed to take, seemed both a reward and a motivation for us over the last ten years. Sure, the process is different for every writer, and also different for different projects. Sure, we failed to see Discovery’s last launch after we optimistically flew cross-country to the Space Coast two years ago. Sure, we’ve been strung along for months by an editor at a mainstream magazine, only to be rejected in the end—and we’ve been rejected without being strung along, too. We haven’t finished the complete draft of our book (though that’s partly because we have yet to follow Endeavour and Atlantis to their museum homes this year), so we’re absolutely not finished doing what we’re supposed to do.

Lofty Ambitions at the nose of Discovery, now in place at the Udvar-Hazy Center

Every writer—every project—must find his or her own path and pace. But we found that the system works, as long as we keep working, keep writing. And we’re not the only ones who’ve discovered this. Our writer friend and Anna’s occasional collaborator on matters of pedagogy, Stephanie Vanderslice, recently signed with an agent too. Like us, Stephanie found that, if you get a call from an agent, that means she’s enthusiastic and really gets what you’re trying to accomplish. And Stephanie recognizes the importance of editors and agents: “Her [the agent’s] suggestions made complete sense; she is a shrewd and perceptive editor—not surprisingly, since that’s what she was for ten years before becoming an agent.  I went back to the novel immediately knowing exactly what I wanted to do and feeling really good about it (knock wood).  I’ll have a piece coming out in the Huffington Post this week about all the reasons we should fear a world without editors–this is yet another reason why.” We appreciate editors and agents too; we don’t always succeed, but we’ve become better writers as we’ve negotiated this system.

Doug’s grandmother used to chide, “Working, working, working.” She was one of those work-ethic believers, someone who thought good people work hard, someone who thought working hard made you a good person. For writers, the quality of the work matters, and timing matters. We have our own writing process, the habits that keep us immersed in sentences and paragraphs. But it’s also the larger process that keeps us working week to week, that keeps us looking ahead.

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