Notes from the Armchair: The Unbearable Lightness of Being Behind


By Laura Zats


Let’s get this out of the way: I’m Type A.

Like, very, very Type A.

I never lose my car keys, I’m ALWAYS early, and if I had to choose one word that is important to my work process, it would be precision.

I have lived with an anxiety disorder since my early teenage years, and the rigidity of my self-imposed structures and timelines has always gone a long way to relieve that little extra bit of panic that seeps through when my anxiety isn’t fully managed by medication, therapy, and other techniques.

Being a literary agent has shot all that careful planning to hell.

Right now, I have 304 unanswered emails in my inbox, a competition to judge, an interview to give, an oh-goodness-I-don’t-even-want-to-think-about-it number of partials and fulls to read, fall manuscripts to send out, a contract to negotiate, and an author to court.

And today is a good day.

Before I was an agent, I was addicted to that little thrill of an inbox icon flashing zero. When I said I was going to get back to someone on xyz date, I responded to them the day before.

Now, I am happy if I can keep my inbox down to 4 pages, respond to emails within three months, and am fully aware that I am perpetuating the stereotype that “tomorrow” in publishing means “next week.” If we’re lucky.

Being so busy (hello, 80-hour work weeks) is no longer a panic-inducing mistake or flaw in my work ethic. It is now just a way of life. I do my absolute to not let writers flounder in the trenches too long, but I’m also aware that sometimes I have to pick and choose a quality response over a fast response. For me, quality still wins.

When I started at Red Sofa, it was my goal to be as educational as possible about the agenting and publishing processes, because it fits in with our values as an agency. It’s why I do #500queries and #askagent and give every single partial and full an explanation of why I passed (even if it was because I just wasn’t that into it).

Ultimately, though, something’s gotta give. Whether it’s a manuscript that falls through the cracks (so sorry) or a competition I have to say no to (but please still query me if I seem like a good fit), I know I’m always going to be behind in something.

For someone like me, behind is not always a comfortable place to be. But over the years, it’s gotten familiar. I am lucky I am in a position health-wise to be able to continue to be behind so that I can teach classes, go to cons, and write blogs like this one.

In some ways, it’s freeing to have so many people need your attention. There’s not one single pinpoint of shame pricking at your consciousness when you just can’t today. Instead, the unanswered emails are like the quiet background noise of a turned-down radio, buzzing in the background. It allows me to take some time to watch Star Wars and drink a cup of perfectly brewed English Breakfast. But it also keeps a fire lit under me to go go go and make some dreams come true.

I guess what I’m trying to get at here is that yes, it sucks that agents are slow. But there are reasons for it. And we try. We really do. It’s not because we don’t care. It’s not because we think we’re above you, or uninterested. It’s just because it’s the way it is. My anxiety and my resulting/companion type-A-ness will never go away, nor do I have no plans in the foreseeable future to stop being an agent. I, like the rest of you lovely, lovely people, will just have to settle for me being behind.

After all, good things come to those wait, right?





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  1. Wendy Qualls on September 28, 2015 at 10:12 pm

    Can you imagine trying to keep on top of all this in the pre-computer era? I was just marveling earlier today how easy Ctrl+F has made it to search my manuscript and weed out all those extra “just”s and “very”s – I seriously doubt I’ve have finished even one book if I’d had to type every page anew when I made changes – or worse yet, hand-write it. And I won’t even get started on the benefits of email.

    In lots of ways, technology has made this whole industry a LOT easier to navigate – but at the same time, it’s contributed to this “now now NOW” culture we have everywhere else. When you query, you *could* get a request five minutes later! Or in six months! Or never hear from the agent again! On your book’s release day you can get constant updates on how it’s ranking, who’s talking about it, and how many retweets you get! Sometimes it’s hard to switch gears between the “now now NOW” and the “don’t nudge until she’s had your partial for six months.”

    Which is all to say, I sympathize. But also hope my manuscript makes it to the top of your to-read stack sooner rather than later 🙂