Monday, April 6, 2020

Writing in the time of Coronavirus

I'll be honest, this is not a great time to query your new project. The publishing industry is on shaky ground, like almost every other industry out there, and people are anxious and afraid. When you add in the fact that NY is the epicenter of the pandemic here in the United States, a lot of people in publishing have been personally affected by the disease, and not just the economic impacts.

Speaking from the West Coast, I'm grateful that San Francisco took the lead in implementing social distancing measures, as we've been hit less hard so far. The effects are still significant and challenging personally and professionally.

I've been holding off on submissions and considering new clients. Conferences have cancelled, and I was going to do a manuscript workshop here in San Francisco this May that is obviously not going to happen. Instead, I'm thinking of doing virtual consulting via Skype. Working closely with aspiring writers is one of my favorite parts of the business, and since in-person options are closed, I'd like to find some other way to continue that.

As for your own situation, you may be on lockdown or out of work, and you're probably facing the same worries, stress, and possibly depression that are running rampant right now. While we can hope we overcome the pandemic as soon as possible, not just in North America, but worldwide, it's going to drag on for for some time.

Take this opportunity to write if you can. Immersing yourself in a new project is not just important for the development of your skills as a writer, but could give you a needed mental break, as well. Depending on your individual situation, that may or may not be possible, but if you can manage, your writing could help see you through one of the most difficult periods of time any of us will face.

Stay healthy and safe.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

You're a Writer, Dammit

I just got back from a literary conference with a mixed group of attendees, everything from fans of certain authors, to dabblers, to serious writers. And of course, there were the usual mix of professional writers, agents, editors, marketers, etc., invited to present or perform some other professional duty.

One of the first things you do when meeting someone at a conference is to ascertain in what capacity they're attending the conference, and so I frequently ask, "So. . .are you a writer?"

Often people will say yes (if they are), and then immediately water that down with caveats. "Well, an aspiring writer, anyway," or maybe, "I want to be. I hope to be some day." Or worst of all, they give a nervous chuckle and say, "Not a real writer, but I'm interesting in learning about it." Once they find out I'm there as a guest and not a paid attendee, these caveats multiply.

Regardless of the answer, I usually ask what they're working on now. Some of this is polite conversation, but mostly it's to measure the person against my own guidelines, to divide the dabblers from the serious writers.

This next part is important. A dabbler isn't an amateur, and a serious writer isn't a professional. That is not the dividing line at all. A dabbler is someone who doesn't write, and a serious writer is someone who produces words in serious quantities and with serious intent.

That's all. Nothing else can be controlled, not sales, awards, recognition, not even a simple response to a crummy query letter that says yes or no. Only the words that come out of your mind and find their way to paper or screen, and then get shoved out into the world to either make their way or not.

So if you write, you're a writer. Lift your chin, barrel your chest, and own it. Storyteller is the earliest profession (with apologies to the usual claimant), and remains the glue that holds human civilization together. You're not a brain surgeon or a rocket scientist; you're something more important. A writer.

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.