Friday, December 15, 2017

Nobody is interested . . . until they are

I came to agenting from a writing background, and in fact have a number of books published under a different name. Back when I was on the query-go-round myself, I collected umpteen hundreds of rejections for my various projects. I had a few nibbles here and there, got requests for fulls, but nothing that really got close. Until one day, when I did.

It was that perfect intersection of my writing being finally ready, a project that hit the market at the right time, and a well-written query. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be requesting, and I didn't just have one offer for representation, I had a half dozen.

It was strange at the time, and magical, although I didn't realize that I was merely entering the next level of hell, the endless submission and rejection phase. (The book has since been published and sold about 160,000 copies, but it took another three years to reach publication from the initial offer and signing.)

This same scenario has played out for me twice this year, but from the agenting side--with the last two authors I offered representation to, in fact. In the first case, I read the book, knew right away that the voice and overall skill level of this writer was perfect for me, and had a brief conversation only to find out that tons of other people were interested.

It so happened I was attending a conference in this writer's home town, and we were able to have a face to face meeting, which seemed to help. I was delighted that she accepted my offer, and we're on submission with her book even as we speak.

In the second, I'd also met the writer (and strangely, at the same exact conference), but I was a little behind the curve, as other people got their greedy hands on the manuscript first. When he said he had an offer, I blew through the manuscript, again knowing right away that he really had something going. We had a great call, and while I knew that there were something like eight or twelve(!) other agents considering, I felt that my odds were good.

We hit his deadline to make a decision, and I got the bad news email. Apparently, I was in second place, although maybe he was giving me a gentle lie. Still, kind of a blow. In fact, as this was literally three days ago, I'm still grumpy about it.

The blow is always softened by the sheer amount of work to bring on someone new, go through revisions, submissions, the stress of waiting for an offer while fielding the inevitable rejection, and so on. I have another book that I'll be submitting right after the holidays, and so my Christmas week will be significantly less stressful than if I were trying to prepare two for the market. In addition, I've got a few other promising manuscripts I'm working through, and if one of them hits, I don't have to feel sudden panic about working with three new writers, plus the aforementioned one I'm already marketing.

This is a long windup to get to the point, but if you're laboring in the query trenches, take heart. You might be sending off your queries only to have form rejections and even silence greet your efforts. But none of that history means anything. Work hard enough on your craft and your production and suddenly you'll find more interest than you know what to do with.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Release Your Book Into the Wild

I just got back from teaching/taking pitches at my fourth and final conference of the year, the Women Writing the West Conference in Tucson, and was struck during pitches at how many writers had completed works but hadn't yet started sending out queries. In some cases, they'd been sitting on the book for a year or more or even moving on to work on other novels.

Don't do this. You put a lot of work in finishing that book, and even if you're consumed by doubts, you need to give that book a fair shot. You may be telling yourself it's not quite ready, it needs another draft, you have to polish your query, or any of a hundred other excuses, but all you're doing is denying that book its fair shot. And yes, I accept that the book really might need another draft, a polished query, or whatnot, but that just means you're procrastinating at an earlier stage, probably out of fear.

The truth is that we're often not the best judges of our own work. We're too close to it, too aware of its flaws in some cases, and too blind to them in others. We remember the creation process, and we remember how ugly it looked during certain drafts, or how contrived it seems because we remember inventing it out of whole cloth.

None of that matters. Your book needs its fair shot. Worst case scenario, it's not ready and gets rejected, and then what are the consequences? Nothing. You've taken a few rejections, just like everyone else, and you're still free to revise that manuscript again, or, better yet, to mentally let go and focus on the next project.

Here is a great little clip by Derek Sivers giving some similar advice.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Choosing a Writing Conference

I just came back from a second visit to Washington State, this time teaching at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference. Last month I presented at Cascade Writers Conference in Tacoma. Same state, but opposite types of conferences.

Cascade Writers was small, about thirty people. It changes a little over time in part because it's newer, but mostly because of the size. The organizing committee is also small, and comes down to the work of a few people.

PNWA is big, has been around for 60+ years, and has a large number of volunteers. It was in a nicer hotel, with more name authors and agents, and was also more expensive. With so many editors and agents, however, you have a much greater chance of talking to multiple people about your work in progress than at Cascade Writers. There were a lot of smart, on-the-cusp aspiring writers, too, and someone at the conference is almost guarantee to join the ranks over the professionals year in and year out.

On the other hand, with hundreds of attendees, you would never know the majority of the people at the conference, and if you're an introvert, you could feel like you're bouncing through the crowds, frustrated that everyone else seems to be having a good time, while you're lost and lonely. At a smaller conference, you'll meet everyone, people will notice if you need to be included, and by the end of the conference will feel like you're a part of a tight community.

I sometimes get asked what kind of conference I prefer. There is no good answer to that. I had a great experience at both (chalk one up to the generally friendly vibe of the Pacific Northwest), and enjoy the ability to vary my routine from one conference to the next. I might have a class of eight in one event, and 80 in the next. They are invigorating in different ways.

One preference I do have is to have a conference filled with aspiring professionals working at the high intermediate stage. That's where I feel I can contribute the most, and where you (assuming you're savvy enough to hunt down this blog) will probably get the most benefit, too. I have been to a conference or two over the years where it's clear that the guests are hobbyists, there primarily for the social reasons. There's nothing wrong with that, if you're a hobbyist. Since you are not, you should avoid spending your time and money at events that aren't filled with ambitious, hard working people like yourself.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Why You Should Query Widely

I’ve said this before, and I’ll continue to hammer the point home in future blog posts. Query widely, promiscuously, and without looking back. The main reason is that the sluggish pace of the industry demands it—you’ll die of old age if you submit to one agent at a time and wait for a response before moving on—but also because you have no way of knowing what is happening with an agent at any given time.

The truth is, you’re not always getting the same level of attention from your readers. Maybe you’ve got the perfect novel for an agent, or so you think. You read on her blog that she’s looking for something fun and silly like a zombie love story set on the Titanic, and it so happens that you’re just getting ready to submit exactly that manuscript. Yay!

Two weeks later, a form rejection. What the hell? Didn’t that merit at least a kind word or two?

Except you don’t know that the agent was super backed up with queries, brought on a new intern, and told her to go through as many queries as fast as he can. The intern never even read the blog post, and barely skimmed your opening paragraph, desperate to get the query pile down to double digits.

Or maybe another, better zombie love story came in two days earlier that happened to be set on the Lusitania (close enough!), and the agent read your query on her first full day after finally quitting smoking. Or one of a million things.

Here’s a more personal example. Last fall, I sold a debut novel, which is the most fun thing that happens at my job. It wasn’t a huge sum of money, and wasn’t going to change my bottom line by all that much (although I have a lot of faith that this particular writer is going to break out in the long run), but there’s something wonderful about making that life-changing call, helping someone who has worked so hard, struggling with hopes and fears, to realize her dreams.

It energized me, and looking at my work schedule, I realized that I had some bandwidth for another new client, should one come along. At nearly that same moment, a promising manuscript came across my desk. The writing was really good, the author hardworking and pleasant to work with, and while I had some concerns about the marketability of this specific manuscript, I thought that even if I didn’t sell it, this is an author with a strong future.

I taught at the James River Writer’s Conference the next month, and for the first time ever, discovered not one, but two great manuscripts at a conference. I signed both writers. Another author I’d been working with for a while came through with a fantasy novel, and I agreed to work with him in January. Two of these three projects aren’t even on submission yet.

In addition, one of my existing writers, who’d been quietly plugging away on his book, turned in his manuscript a few days ago. It’s a bit different from what he did last, so I have to figure out if it’s appropriate for his current publisher, or if I need to move in a different direction, not to mention all the work to get it ready to go out.

It’s safe to say I’m not looking so hard for new projects at the moment. In fact, when I come across something good, I feel a little twinge of guilt that I might be rejecting something promising simply because I have not time.

So what if that first author had submitted the very same book that I decided to take a chance on last fall. Most likely, I would have written with some positive comments and asked to see the next book, but not offered representation. (Author of mine, if you’re reading this, I’m not sorry I signed you!)

In other words, you don’t know. You never can know. Even if you read a blog post like this one, saying the agent is super busy, you need to take a chance.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

How to Warm Up Your POV

A comment that I frequently make on manuscripts is to point out a cool or distant POV. I make this comment in workshops, on rejections for full manuscript submissions, on client manuscripts, and even notice it in published books.

A distant POV isn’t always a problem—it might be done intentionally, either with a certain character or to indicate a certain mindset of a character at that moment—but in general, the author is unaware of what she is doing, and pulling us away from the POV.

One of the most common ways to express a distant POV is the use of filtering words. Let me give a quick example that I'll expand on later.

Andrea looked outside, where she saw two young boys playing in the street. Even through the closed window she could hear them shouting in excitement. It reminded her of the way her daughter had laughed and played, and she gripped the windowsill to steady herself.

I’ve marked the filtering words, which have the effect of pushing these details through Andrea’s senses, almost as if she’s telling us what happened. Change it up a little and we can get right into her head.

Two young boys were playing in the street outside. The window was closed, but their excited cries came right into Andrea’s living room. It reminded her of the way her daughter had laughed and played, and she gripped the windowsill to steady herself.

This is an example tossed out there, so it’s hardly deathless prose, but note how we haven’t lost either the visual or auditory sense and we are deeper into Andrea’s POV. Now let me show you how you can warm it up just a little bit more by changing the last sentence.

Old version:

It reminded her of the way her daughter had laughed and played, and she gripped the windowsill to steady herself.

New version:

Her daughter Jillian had laughed like that, full of joy and life. My God, had it already been three years? She gripped the windowsill to steady herself.

This version is only slightly longer, but note how deeply we drop into Andrea’s head between the first and second sentence. That’s a hot POV, and it makes us feel more intimately a part of her story. We’ve gone from something a little dry, to something intimate.

I shouldn't have to tell you why a warm POV is almost always preferable to a cool one--my guess is that you feel it instinctively--but it has to do with how closely the reader identifies with the character, and that draws us more deeply into what I've called the fictive dream. Make us feel as though we are the character, not just reading about her, and we won't be able to put your book down.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Should Writers Consider Small Press or Self Publishing?

The publishing landscape has changed dramatically over the past several years, most notably with the rise of self publishing as a valid career path. What was once the sign of a rank amateur and dismissed as vanity press is now acceptable, if not always respected, and there are also plenty of authors juggling both a traditional contract and self publishing with great success. In fact, Author Earnings has some data suggesting that there may be more writers earning a living now in self publishing than with a purely traditional model, which is a stunning development.

Having said that, I see an awful lot of queries from people who have tried self publishing, only to crash and burn. Like anything else in publishing, it's a long, hard road to find success as a writer, whether you self publish or land a traditional contract. Be prepared to put in the work over a period of years.

That's the non-controversial part of this post. Regardless of which side of the trad/self fence you come down on (or straddle), I say go for it! Who can argue with that?

Now for the controversial part: go big or go indie.

I advise writers to avoid small presses and digital only imprints. Basically, anyone who won't pay you an advance.

Why? Because I have rarely seen writers make money from them, they go out of business and tie up your rights with them, and sometimes they flame out spectacularly. Frankly, anything a non-advance paying publisher can do for you, you can do yourself, including hiring editors and cover artists. If you don't like the indie model, then I would recommend putting the book aside and working on the next thing for the trad market

A final caveat. By self publishing, I do not mean those outfits that charge you thousands of dollars to put out a shoddy version of your book. Those are still vanity presses. For God's sake, please google anybody you hire, together with "complaint" or "scam" in the search bar.

David Gaughran has done yeoman's work on this subject, and that's as good a place to start as any.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Why You Might Not Get an Answer to Your Query

If you haven't seen my post about what you can reasonably expect when submitting to a literary agent, read that first. In it, I mentioned that although I answer all my queries, "all" doesn't include the 20% that I delete without responding.

Why do I delete them? Because they come from the rude, the clueless, the illiterate, and the scary.

For example, if I can see that you have CC'd 117 other agents, I'm going to delete you. I know you're querying other people, but be polite about it, and maintain the fiction, please. Similarly, if you open you query, "Hey, Mike!" or some other non-professional salutation, you're deleted. ("Dear Michael" is what I prefer, but "Mr. Carr" is okay.)

If your query is full of nonsense about how you're the next Stephen King, and that surely I wouldn't be so stupid as to reject you, that earns you a delete. Rudeness and jerk behavior of any kind gets your query send to the digital graveyard with no obituary written or sent.

If you haven't actually written a book, but have what you think is a brilliant idea and want me to find you an actual writer, that also earns you a delete without explanation. If you query me about your 1,500 pages of epic poetry, your 900 page fantasy that is the first of 10 books, all of which are written, or your book explaining why the Nazis were misunderstood, I'm not going to respond.

If it's clear from reading your query that you struggle with the English language, have no basic storytelling ability, or that your mother is querying because you're in third grade, I really don't owe an explanation. The query is deleted.

This is not to say that all agents are making these quick assessments, of course. Some are much stricter than I am, and delete poorly targeted queries, as well. Or maybe they just need to clear out 377 queries in a hurry and mass purge them. But if you're hearing back from very few agents, even with form rejections, there might be something off about your method of delivery.

I used to include little notes at the bottom of what were otherwise form rejections, such as:

"Please follow standard query practices."

"Your query comes across as boasting, which is off-putting."

"You need to have a complete manuscript before submitting."

"35,000 words is not a full-length novel."

The problem is that these were seen as invitations to argue. The type of person who brags that he's going to sell a zillion copies and that only idiots would reject him is incapable of self-reflection. Instead, he argues back. People would also argue why their 35,000 word novella should be submitted to editors anyway, or why they have purposefully broken industry conventions so as to "stand out from the crowd," which totally misses the point of why queries follow a standard format in the first place.

I used to be more tolerant of email that was asking how to submit or by those who seemed pleasant enough, but didn't understand standard query practices. Not any longer. I'm not going to google for you. In fact, I don't want you to succeed, even if you're a great writer, until you've overcome your laziness in learning about the industry and about my job. There are too many writers, working too hard, who deserve help more than you do.

I keep saying "you," but if you're reading this, you're almost surely excluded from the list of querying miscreants. And that should be encouraging. From the moment you learn how to send a proper query, you've already eliminated 20% of the competition.

It's a long way to the top, if you want to rock 'n roll, but the first rung of the ladder is really, really easy to scale.