Columns > Published on March 1st, 2017

An Agent is a Living M.F.A.

I recently got my M.F.A. and I’d like to tell you I am ecstatic and proud, but I’m just relieved it is done. I finished the M.A. part of the degree about 6 years ago and left school, but returned last year to finish the F.A. part. It has been a long 8 years. During this time I’ve experienced many rejections, failed novels and novellas, odd jobs from telemarketing to porn store managing, and doubts about being good enough. But I kept at it. This past year I actually made money writing and the biggest highlight was getting an agent. My work has yet to be accepted by a major press but some big ones have rejected it. You always celebrate the good defeats.

Having worked with an agent and finished an M.F.A., I see now that an agent is kind of like having a living M.F.A. When people talk about agents, they focus on the contracts and big press relationships, but what is often overlooked is how they can be a great asset in helping you become a better writer and build your network. The things I wanted with an M.F.A., I have found in my agent. An agent can offer many of the tangible and intangible things that people seek when entering a writing program.  

The things I wanted with an M.F.A., I have found in my agent. An agent can offer many of the tangible and intangible things that people seek when entering a writing program.

The biggest selling point for getting an M.F.A. is the opportunity to work with a great writer. You get a mentor. Someone who can help you improve your craft is a game changer, but a good agent can show the same type of guidance while also helping you become more aware of what big press editors are seeking. Not only is an agent going to help you improve your current manuscript, they can help you develop your next project. They see what your strengths and weaknesses are and give you direction for the long-term. They can also recommend you for a project if it fits your strengths. They are invested in you. If you build a good working relationship with your agent you can work with them not just for two or three years like you would with an M.F.A instructor, but for twenty to thirty.

Probably the thing I struggled with the most and loathed about getting an M.F.A was writing the ‘scholarly paper.’ I failed the first time I did it. The second time I worked with a great professor and wrote a paper that turned out pretty well. I still hated doing it because it took my time away from ‘real writing.’ This was before I wrote a book proposal. An act that can feel tedious and pointless, but is very necessary if you want to write humorous non-fiction for mid to large sized presses. Like the scholarly paper, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, but my agent showed me how to write one. Once I got the hang of it, I felt confident in writing them. Even when they were rejected, they still felt like a better use of my time than writing a scholarly paper.

When you start your M.F.A., you end up taking workshops. Classes with a lot of writers who probably hate your writing, and the feeling is usually mutual. It’s a good thing though, because you learn to take criticism and you learn what feedback to take and what is nonsense. Some writers I’ve met get really lost in workshops, and it can do more harm than good. Bringing your manuscript to an agent who digs your genre and style is much more productive. Whether it gets published or not, the feedback you get will be much more helpful, from a marketing standpoint. Some of the fiction I write is very weird and offbeat, and my agent will tell me which projects will work better with a small press.

The biggest upside of the M.F.A. experience is connecting with other writers, and the feeling of mutual inspiration. I have written and edited books with people I met in my MFA program. It’s awesome to already have the trust and respect established. An agent knows writers too, and can introduce you to writers who will inspire you and give some great pointers in publishing. I write a lot of humor and my agent set me up on  a non-fiction comedy panel with another humor writer. It went really well. You might not make the same bonds like you did with your fellow M.F.A.’s, but all the writers your agent introduces you to are going to take writing seriously and professionally.

The last thing that all writers seek is some type of emotional support. You can get that while enrolled in your M.F.A program, but it is hard to keep it going once you’re back in the real world. Writer friends get busy, you grow apart from them, some writers get weird if you have a miniscule amount of success, and many of them just quit. It’s tough to find consistent support. It’s priceless to have someone you can confide in and has your best interest in mind. If you don’t get paid, your agent won’t get paid. Money aside, anything is easier when you feel someone has your back.

This not another M.F.A. is evil is article. I have no regrets and love the people and connections I’ve made, but I do believe an agent has more to offer than entering a writing program. The irony is, though, I wouldn’t have found my agent if I didn’t know someone from my writing program who introduced me. But if you feel you are at a place where you are good enough to get published and have a manuscript that shows your talent, I would send out query letters versus applying to M.F.A. programs.

About the author

Christoph Paul is the Managing Editor and owner of CLASH Books, who have published over 60 books and have been covered by NPR, Poets & Writers, Rolling Stone, Believer Magazine, Oprah Magazine, The Observer, Fangoria, and Publisher's Weekly. The press has had books translated into Spanish, French, and Italian. He has been editing books in almost every genre for over a decade. As an author, he won a humor award and had viral cult success under a pen name. He is the lead singer and bass player of the rock band The Dionysus Effect, who have received positive reviews in Loudwire, EARMILK, and Red Rock Magazine. He sometimes writes songs about the books he publishes because even artists are inspired by their day jobs. Follow him on Twitter @christophpaul_ @clashbooks @dionysuseffect.

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