Sunday, December 27, 2009

Losing sight of what's important: Looking back, looking ahead and making changes in the New Year.

As we approach the end of 2009, it's helpful to take stock of the previous year - the good and the bad - and to try to make some changes for the better for the coming year, to hopefully keep from making some of the same mistakes again, both in our professional and personal lives.

Some of you may have noticed that I have almost stopped posting on this blog. It's not because I dislike keeping a blog or writing. But I've discovered I really do intensely dislike writing about work, about agenting, about query stats and helpful hints for people who - let's face it - should already know better. For me, writing about being an agent is tedious and dull and - as far as I can tell - lends nothing new to the great hive mind of agent blogs out there that are already doing the very same thing.

If you really want to read a blog only about agenting and getting published, this is not the place for you. Go visit Nathan Bransford and Rachelle Gardner and Jessica Faust; in my opinion, these are the three best agent blogs out there. (And unlike me, they genuinely enjoy writing about what they do!) In fact, I think you'd do well to bookmark those three blogs and skip most of the rest. Spend that extra time writing. Or reading. Or better yet, spend that time playing with your kids or dogs or cats. Or spending time with friends. In other words, spend more time in the real world and stop worrying about which agent has the better advice on how many words a query letter should be or whether your salutation is perfect or whether angels are hot in YA right now or whether you should use MS Word's wordcount or go with an antiquated (and ridiculous) 250-words per page calculation that someone made up 100 years ago. (For the love of all that is holy, just get over this obsession and use the frakkin' word count tool in Word!)

Because the truth is that NONE of these things is going to make you a better writer, or will better your odds of getting published.

What will make you a better writer? Living a full life. Having friends. Having lovers. Having a real community of people around you. Living outside your own head. Putting down the pen and paper, turning off the computer and walking away from it now and again and just allowing yourself to experience a real life.

And that goes for me as well.

I try to keep a log of all the books I've read; over the past twelve months I was appalled to discover that I'd read only twelve books that were not client manuscripts or manuscripts that I'd requested from queries. Twelve books. And this from someone who used to be able to read a book a day.

I became a bookseller and moved into publishing for one reason and one reason only: because I love books. I love the art of storytelling. I love the words on the page, in whatever format or medium they are delivered. But since I've become an agent, I've mostly stopped reading for pleasure. I no longer have the time. I requested too many partials and too many manuscripts and found it impossible to stay on top of the reading.

And let's face it: much of what we agents read every day is simply mediocre - not bad, but not good and certainly not memorable - so after a time I began to dread approaching my own slush pile. I simply didn't enjoy reading anymore.

But the worst thing was the realization that over the past year, I'd spent less time with friends and family, less time with my community, my cats and the people that I love; the trade-off simply wasn't worth it.

And I had nobody but myself to blame.

So in 2010, some things will be changing for me, too:
  1. I'll be attending fewer writing conferences, and more conferences on digital publishing, which is rapidly becoming a passion of mine.
  2. I'll be taking on fewer clients this year.
  3. I will be much more discriminating in what I request to read, and there will be far fewer requests overall.
  4. I will no longer be writing about agenting on this blog. (Whether I keep the blog as a book blog - the way it used to be - is still up in the air.) I may pop up with the occasional post to let you know if I've closed to queries or if my submission guidelines get tweaked. But I will continue to host impromptu #askagent sessions over on my Twitter account; you're always welcome to come ask me questions there when a session is scheduled.
  5. I'll no longer be taking the time to provide detailed reasons as to why I'm rejecting a partial or full manuscript. The simple fact is that it's not my job to make a writer's work better. It's my job to sell my clients' works to publishers and help guide their careers. If you want someone to help you fix your manuscript, hire an editor. Here are some of the best freelance editors on the planet: Papertyger, Sterling Editing, Third Draft. It'll cost you a couple thousand dollars, but that's what the services of a good editor are worth.
  6. I'm going to make time to read at least two published books a week.
  7. I'm going to take better care of myself physically and emotionally (the first step of which is putting this post out there and setting some work boundaries).
  8. I will personally smack anyone I hear whining and kvetching about how publishing is dying. Publishing isn't dying; it's evolving, like it always has, and evolution is a painful process. I love this business but I accept that it is flawed. So what? Name an industry that isn't. If you want publishing to work better, than be a part of the solution. Or I will absolutely smack you in the mouth.
  9. I'm going to have more fun. Period.
Life is too damned short, people. Just live it! Before you forget how.

And to all of you, a joyful and peaceful New Year.


Suzyhayze said...

Bravo. I feel like you may have just put a label on the strange frenzy that's emerged over the past couple of years.(In this business at least) Really Bravo. Period. Now...I'm going to play some more Zelda with my kids. The stories aren't going anywhere. The kids are growing everywhere. Thanks Colleen. Sometimes the universe needs permission to take stock. Breathe in breathe out, right?

geniawriter said...

Yay, Colleen! I especially like your last action item: have more FUN! I think I'll join you in that. :-)

Mary Brebner said...

Great post. I came to the same realization as you--the reason I write and teach crazy middle schoolers English is because I love books. I love playing with language and seeing how others manipulate words to create amazing stories. But I got a little too obsessed with reading about the how (agents, characters, stories, publishing, and so on) rather than just reading. My resolution for the new year is to make reading, fun & people I care about top priorities again. Happy New Year! To a fantastic 2010!

Weronika Janczuk said...

This is wonderful, Colleen! Bravo, and thanks for setting a precedent. You've given me thing to think about.

Happy New Year to you, too! May it be a good one.

mynfel said...

This is a really great post. I'm currently in the great white north for a few days (and mostly disconnected), and it's rather interesting to find that after the first few hours without *constant* connectivity, it becomes apparent just how little I really need it. Takes me back to college (and earlier) when there wasn't really any internet - for some reason I had so much more free time.

I agree with you though - taking time to live and enjoy the things that really are important is probably the best advice out there.

*wanders off to have some more eggnog and read a book*

Datlow said...

Yayyy! And stay in NYC and let's have lunch more know, the New Orleans place is gone gone gone. Several months ago already. I was heartbroken.

Heidi C. Vlach said...

I'll drink to that! Best of luck with all your changes.

Michelle Witte said...

Congrats, Colleen. Coming to that realization and then making the changes you need to save your sanity can be hard, but I applaud you for it. You'll have to keep us updated on how things go, though I already know you'll be less stressed and happier because of it.

nicola said...

Yes. To all of it. Especially the enjoy life part.

My best work always comes after I play for a while in the real world with real people, and then spend time alone in the room. 'Alone' in this context means not hooked up to Twitter, RSS feeds, or Facebook. It means alone. Michael Ventura wrote a brilliant essay on the subject, "The Talent of the Room." Every writer should read it.

Sterling Editing

Victoria Schwab said...

Wonderful post, Colleen. I agree with a troubling amount of it. Here's to an amazing, self-loving, book-lusting, life-inspiring 2010 :)

DebraLSchubert said...

Amen, sista! Good luck with finding your balance, peace, and harmony, and thank you for reminding us to find ours.

Here's to a 2010 filled with health, happiness, laughter, FUN!, hugs, and many dreams fulfilled.

LilySea said...

Yep. My father retired from SMP in October after 40 years in the book biz from buying to Indie store owning to repping. He is so excited to have time to read now. That's all he's planning to do. The great irony of working with books--no time to read.

Kelley said...

You rock, Colleen. I'm right there with you. I want to move what's important to the top of the list, and let the rest go.

And what's important? Ourselves, who we love, and what we love to do and feel and be. Those things define us. Taking care of them opens up so many chances for fun, joy, good, and the wonders of the world... and I want to get and give as much of that as I can, you know?

Wishing you the very best year ever in 2010!

georgiamcbridebooks said...


I don't know you personally, but I hope to one day. I can tell you that from the little I DO know if you online, I can say that reading this post made me sad and happy at the same time. Sad because I can be selfish at times and part of feels we need you--that balance in the agenting world that is you. Your candor and truth as only you can tell it. Sad as well because I happened to witness from the other side of the computer the toll that stress can take on one's body--sickness. I'm happy that you have reached the conclusions that you have and embraced them as goals for the coming year. I salute your resolve and hope you find what you seek. Thank you for your kindness, intelligence and sharing a piece of yourself--personally and professionally.

All the best for the new year-
Georgia McBride

Ellen Hopkins said...

Thank you for the reality check. Too many would-be writers believe the perfect query will trump the perfect manuscript (not that there is such a thing, but there isn't a perfect query, either). "Living" brings layers to books that "imagining living" never can. Agents have lives. Editors have lives. Sometimes writers forget not only their lives, but the lives of editors and agents as well. Here's to living in the New Year.

Mim said...

I think those all sound like excellent goals. You've got to the things that are necessary for you to be happy. I've been thinking a lot about that this year as well. Here's to a better new year!

ryan field said...

I love this post.

Dawn Bonnevie said...

A joyful and peaceful New Year to you as well. Without health and happiness, you have nothing. Take a cue from the Feline Overlords. Live life on your terms. Be finicky. Know how to relax.

jadepark said...

de-lurking (been reading your blog for awhile) to say Bravo! I will miss you but if the reason I'm missing you is because you're taking care of yourself, then I'm all for it. :) I'll still check in, to see this blog evolve of course.

Jemi Fraser said...

Good for you! I think many people forget the importance of living in the real world and enjoying the real people out there. We can't contribute on paper if we can't contribute in life. Enjoy :)

Rasco from RIF said...

Thank you for this posting...I, too, plan to add a lot of FUN back into my life. Last January I realized I was not reading enough children's literature given my job. It has been pure delight reading so many children's books this year from early picture books through YA literature. I just know you're gonna be happy you're adding back reading books for pleasure, books of your own choosing! Thanks again for putting into words what many of us have felt in some manner. Here's to FUN in 10.

Literaticat said...

I love you, lady.

I will totally bookmark this post so I can read it when I have been sucked down the internet or work rabbit hole for too long!

Nita said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nita said...

Before I follow your lead, step away from the 'net and get to work, I must add my Bravo! Congrats and Good Luck! Thanks for serving as a great example. I too will selfishly miss your blog posts, but I'm ecstatic that you'll still be Tweeting (or is it Twittering???). #askagent is one of my staples.

jmartinlibrarian said...

So be it. Do what you gotta do.

I, too miss the pleasures of reading. My library related reading has crowded out too many opportunities to read for enjoyment alone.

This year, I resolve to read twice as much as I write. Call it nourishment.

Debra L Martin said...

Hi Colleen,

Everyone needs to recognize what they need to live a full and happy life. You can't be crazy stressed over your job. Good for you for recognizing what you need.

I've read your blog for a long time and frankly I really miss the entries about the frolics of Stinkyboy and his cat and of course, your crazy apartment trials and tribulations.

So here's hoping that you can find some peace, harmony and a lot more fun for 2010.

stephanie said...

What will make you a better writer? Living a full life. Having friends. Having lovers. Having a real community of people around you. Living outside your own head. Putting down the pen and paper, turning off the computer and walking away from it now and again and just allowing yourself to experience a real life.

Thank you for the reminder. I needed it (and the tears that came from reading it). Best of luck with your 2010 changes. May only good things come your way in the new year and beyond.

abouttothunder said...

Excellent! (Insert clapping here.) I wish you a happy, healthy, and joyous New Year.

Thank you also for the freelance editor recommendations.

Katie Ganshert said...

Oh wow. This post rocks. Thanks for sharing it!

Karen Jordan said...

Yes! And thanks so much for sharing from your heart! Blessings for the New Year!

Maripat said...

Great post. And good luck with 2010.

D. T. said...

Great post. Very inspiring. Focusing on what will make you more happy professionally and personally is a great balance. And, both can be FUN. So, here's to a fun 2010.

S. L. Weippert said...

I understand why you made this choice. Please take with you the happy thought that I enjoyed reading your posts on publishing. (hug)

Maree Anderson said...

You go, girl -- enjoy! May 2010 be a stellar year for you, and may you read many, many wonderful books.... Just. For. Fun.

Marla Taviano said...

Wow. Love this post. Happy New Year to you too!

Jeff said...

Will it help my chances if I tell you how wonderful this post is? Maybe if I throw in a few Bravos and Hurrays? How about a well-deserved wonderful great post amen?

Seriously, though, from out here in BFE I could see you were doing too much, and I don't even know you. I can't imagine what your life must be like up close. Actually, I can imagine it, or something like it, as it probably looked a lot like my life a few years back. It's awfully easy to get into this mess and awfully hard to get out of it. Clean break is the best way.

Enjoy the new year and the new life.

june said...

As the old year comes to a close and a new one takes its place, remember this:

Life is short. Forgive quickly, Kiss slowly, Love truly, Laugh uncontrollably,and never regret anything that made you smile.

Life may not be the party we hoped for, but while we're here, we should dance!

T. Anne said...

So your saying I should take a lover... my husband won't be too thrilled but hey, I take my writing seriously. Thanks for the tip!

Take care of yourself. I'm glad to hear we need to moderate all this tech platform biz with real life experience. It does get in the way of writing.

Lisa Desrochers said...


First and foremost, you have to take care of yourself.

Paul Neuhardt said...


kelcrocker said...

Excellent post, Colleen. The wonderful irony is that when I take care of myself (and all that that entails, as you've so brilliantly noted here), I'm generally more productive and prosperous. And happier. Strange how that works out, and how easy it is to forget it. Thank you for the reminder. I'm thrilled that I found you this year via Twitter. Hope your 2010 is filled with love, health, joy and wonderful surprises.
Kellye Crocker

kanishk said...

The kids are growing everywhere. Thanks Colleen. Sometimes the universe needs permission to take stock. Breathe in breathe out, right?

kobe beef

jasonamyers said...

This post was funny because it reminded me of the Star Trek spoof on SNL many years back. Bill Shatner basically chastising all the suckers at the convention for not LIVING.

Live until you die.

houndrat said...

Awesome post, Colleen. I think we can all use the reminder to step away from the laptop and go actually experience the things we write about, lol.

So excited you re-opened submissions! Hoping to have my YA novel ready to go soon. :) Oh,and we all <3 you for the awesome #askagent chats!