Tuesday, December 27, 2016

When to Submit

One problem with this industry is trying to work around all the dead periods. For me, I can't submit anything after mid-November, because so many industry people are on vacation that emails return out of office messages, and even if you break through and reach someone, they wouldn't be able to get together an ed board meeting for an offer anyway.*

But that's me. What about you? Should you stop submitting the last six weeks or so of the year?

My query inbox has been really quiet the last few days, and it will remain quiet until after the first of the year, when the dam will break, and everyone will send out the stuff they've been working on the past couple of weeks.

And how will I read them? First in, first out, of course, with the occasional exception for the queries I need to think about a little harder, or those that merit a personal response because I've met the author or read her work before.

So it doesn't do you any good to hold off on queries. I'm not going to read them on Christmas Day, of course, or other days where I'm busy with holiday stuff, but I otherwise go through a lot of queries and manuscripts over the holidays, in part because there's often not much else to do. This year I'm preparing to go on submission with one project in January and do some followup work on another, but I'm still doing a lot of reading.

You'll notice a theme from me over time, and that is that as an aspiring writer you should be continually working and never waiting for the industry wheels to turn. Submit your queries when they're ready, and not according to the calendar.

*My colleague at Veritas, Katherine Boyle, got an offer for a project just a couple of days before Christmas, which left her surprised. It's by far the latest offer the agency has ever received before the holidays.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Choosing What to Write

For as long as it takes to write a book, and for as few books as a typical writer will produce in her lifetime, I'm sometimes surprised by how little thought some writers give to choosing the next project.

Some writers start working on the first thing that pops into their mind, without giving any thought to the market. Others look around and say, "Hey, looks like Jane Austen retellings are selling, so how about if I make a Darcy the secret son of the French king and re-imagine the story? Hmm, I'd probably better read Pride and Prejudice at some point, since I've only seen the movie."

In the first case, there's a high chance of failure if what seems interesting to you doesn't interest agents, editors, bookstore reps, or the reading public. Maybe dystopian novels were hot a couple of years ago, but now editors are sick of working on them, the reading public has moved on, and a few expensive flops have given the industry an excuse to say that the category is dead.

As a kinda, sorta fabricated example.

In the second case, you're almost certainly going to fail as well. There are people who love Jane Austen (raises hand), and authors who have read those books so many times that they can tell you what Lizzie Bennet was wearing the first time she met Darcy and the sum of her limited fortune*. Those authors are going to crush you, because they love their work and you don't and people can spot a phony from a mile away.

So if you shouldn't write to the market, and you shouldn't write whatever first tickles your fancy, how do you choose? This is my answer:

A writer's imagination can churn out an endless number of story ideas. They are everywhere and yet come from nowhere, and most writers could brainstorm the bare bones of an interesting plot in something between a few minutes and a few hours

I would suggest you gather and scribble down any old idea that occurs to you, then make a list of those that most speak to you. Next, compare them to what you think the market might want, what feels like a story with universal themes, or whatnot (keeping in mind that this is always a guess), and then look for the intersection. Make sure you're not bullshitting yourself about this or you'll regret it down the road.

*Lizzy is forced to get by on £50 per year, which is the interest on a modest £1,000 that came to her after her mother passed away. Also, of film adaptations, the 1980 version is the best. Sorry, it just is. I'm not anywhere near the biggest JA fan in the world, but I'll bet I'm pretty high on any list of male fans.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Working From Home or Living at Work*

The good thing about my job is that I can work from anywhere. The bad thing about my job is . . . well, that I can work from anywhere. I just got back from a short trip to Mexico, where I ate a lot of spicy food, soaked up some sun before returning to the frozen wastelands of the north, and read a lot of manuscripts.

None of these requested works I'd had for more than a few weeks, but due to an unusual confluence of events, I've seen an unusual number of promising manuscripts this year, which has led to an unusual number of new authors.

One thing I didn't do was to read any queries, which gave me a chance to test the current input levels. My queries have nudged up from about 7-10 a day to 12-15 per day. I attended more conferences this year than usual, which increases visibility, I've got a couple of authors doing really well, which further increases visibility, and I recently put out a call for science fiction and fantasy, which is an area where my agenting has some openings, but where I haven't yet been grabbed by the right project.

Or maybe it's just that we're three weeks past NaNoWriMo, and all those rough drafts are hitting the query-go-round. Kidding. Mostly. Maybe not at all.

*That was my response when I used to own an inn and people told me how nice it must be to work from home. Actually, it felt a lot more like living at work.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

What to do While You're Waiting for a Response

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I try to be more responsive than average with my queries and requested manuscripts. There's a lot of waiting in this business, some of it unnecessary, and I don't want to contribute to the problem.

Having said that, there's no way around it. You're going to be waiting. And waiting. And waiting. You'll be waiting to hear about your query, waiting to hear about the results of your full manuscript, waiting for the agent to get back edits, waiting to go on submission, waiting for editors to respond, waiting for the contract to get executed, waiting for your pub date. Etcetera.

The biggest risk is that you use this waiting period to . . . well, wait. You've got a book, so let's see how the world reacts to it before you work on the next thing. Don't want to waste time chasing the wrong type of squirrel, after all. Or so goes the internal monologue.

Meanwhile, a year or two goes by, and you haven't written a damn thing. Then the response comes, and it's not what you hoped for, and you're devastated.

Instead, I advise starting a new project as soon as you start querying. The main reason is that a big reason a lot of aspiring writers fail is that they simply don't produce enough. If there's any one thing that successful writers have in common--and there really isn't, but this is as close as it comes--they tend to produce more than their perpetually aspiring peers.

But also, it helps you psychologically. You get hit on the head with all those rejections, probably one after another as you're querying, and you feel like a failure, instead of how you should be feeling, which is that maybe this manuscripts isn't the one, but something else will be.

But if you've got a new work in progress, you can say, "Oh, yeah? Wait until you see THIS brilliant piece of fiction, you illiterate dolt." (In your quiet, indoor voice.)

Monday, December 12, 2016

What I'm Looking for Right Now

I've signed a couple of historical and women's fiction authors in the past few months, and while this is a good part of my bread and butter, I'm hoping to establish more of a presences in science fiction and fantasy in the next year or two.

I represent David Dalglish (Orbit), of course, but right now I have more sf/f contacts in the industry than good books to send them. My background came from this genre, with my own first professional publication going to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and I attended Clarion quite a few years ago.

Like everything else, it's got to drag me into the story and never let me go.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Critiques: the Crap Sandwich

I've recently signed a couple of new authors, and am in the process of giving manuscript feedback. When I started agenting several years ago, I did a lot more of the heavy revisions than I do now, frequently telling authors to revise and resubmit, or even signing people with great manuscripts that needed a little work.

The results were almost always disappointing. Heavy revisions sometimes led to half-hearted fixes of troublesome spots, while buffing down the parts that previously stood out in a good way, as well. Now, I'm more likely to say go ahead and try me with your next project instead.

Having said that, a manuscript always needs a little work, no matter how good. There's a part that confuses, a draft artifact that the author missed, clunky dialogue, and lots of typos (or, as semi-literate Amazon reviews frequently complain, "typo's").

I read manuscripts on the Kindle, draw up notes, and send them in to my writers. Not my favorite part of the process, and certainly not the author's. A good critique partner is skilled at giving a crap sandwich, e.g.:

You have lovely prose here, and these characters are alive and vibrant. Your dialogue is stilted, unfortunately, and I got bored with all of the scenes in coffee shops. When you stop long enough to paint us a picture, it feels lively and interesting, but most of the time I feel like I'm listening to talking heads.

The climax for me is clearly the highlight of the story, and I had a hard time putting the book down during the last forty pages.

In other words, good stuff, bad stuff, good stuff. It gives the reader some encouragement to start, slaps down the ego a little by presenting the issues to address, and then builds the author up again.

Remember, whether you're giving professional feedback or performing the role of beta reader, a good critique is neither for ego stroking, nor to tear down the writer. Be helpful, but be kind at the same time.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Your Protagonist Smells Funny, and I Want Him to Die

Does any of this sound familiar?

 "I hate your main character. She's whiny and entitled, and I didn't buy her transformation."

"Why on earth would she go up to the attic anyway? Her Dad told her not to, and then she goes and pries open the old sea chest in a way that he'd be sure to see later."

"You need a new villain. This guy is just pure evil. I half expected him to twirl his mustache and tie up the protagonist on the train tracks."

Advice from your beta reader, hopefully, but maybe from your agent or editor.* It's cringe-worthy, no matter its source. The first thing to do is to take a step back, remember that you are not your manuscript, and vice versa, and that almost any problem can be fixed in revisions. Ultimately, nobody is going to care about the clunky first draft, only what you come up with in the end.

It's safe to say that if one person in your writing group tells you to do something, and everyone else shakes their heads violently in disagreement, you should toss the advice in the round file. But what if they all say the same thing, and it doesn't ring true to you? Or worse, if everyone says that a scene or character doesn't work, but they all have a different solutions for fixing it?

What's really happening is that you're waking readers from the fictive dream. They were immersed in your story, convinced at some deep level that it was real, and then your story telling showed its seams. The reader woke up, looked around, and thought, "My God, she's just making it up as she goes along!"

Of course, that's what we're all doing, and there are always seams. Find the best book, play, or movie and start discussing it, and you quickly find flaws in the story. You just have to force yourself awake to do it.

So when the reader says he doesn't believe your protagonist would defy her father and open the sea chest, it just means that you didn't put the reader asleep deeply enough. Re-imagine the scene, go back and give better justification, find the villain and give him a better back story, or a period of doubt, or something that he does that is noble enough to offset the mustache twirling.

The critique, at the end of the day, is not saying "Fix this problem in this specific way." It's saying, "In this spot, your storytelling is not as skillful as it could be. I woke from the dream, which frustrated me."

* Author Densie Webb had an interesting blog post a couple of days ago about getting the dreaded editorial letter that you might check out.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Industry Response Time

The longest running lab study is the Australian pitch drop study, which has recorded eight drops of pitch falling in 86 years*.

Is it just me, or does the publishing industry seem to move at a similar pace? It takes you a year to write your book. You send in a query, and it takes 90 days to get a request from an agent, who then takes six months to respond. You go through 4-6 months on revisions, at which point the agent submits. Six months later, you get a contract offer, and 18 months after that, your book comes out.

The attitude of most people in the industry to this situation can be summed up like this:


There's nothing I can do about most of these steps, but I decided early on that I wouldn't torture writers with that six months to a year where an agent has a query/chapters/manuscript, but the book isn't in front of editors. I try to respond to queries in 2-3 weeks and to full manuscripts in a month. Once I accept a writer, I don't screw around. I'll give notes, expect a relatively quick turnaround, and be ready to go when the manuscript is.

For example, I met Amanda Skenandore at the end of April at the Las Vegas Writers Conference, at which point I listened to her pitch and asked her to send pages. She sent them on May 3, I requested a full on May 15, and called her three days later to offer representation (admittedly fast, but it was a fantastic read). We went on submission in mid-June and had an offer from Kensington Books by mid-August.

Okay, so that's an admittedly best-case scenario. But I try to stay on top of my workload and I really enjoy working with writers like Amanda and editors like John Scognamiglio of Kensington, who are on top of their workload, too.

One of the main reasons I respond so quickly is because I'm not the biggest name agent out there. There are bigger names, people who have more and bigger deals under their belts. I'm in competition with these people, but one thing I can offer my writers is the knowledge that I'm responsive. Most of the time when I offer representation I'm the first agent they hear from. That has landed me some great projects I wouldn't have signed if I'd been second or third or fifth.

*Nobody has actually seen one fall, but it's on webcam now, so someone will next time one falls.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Opening Pages: The Three-Legged Stool

One of the most popular classes I teach at writing conferences is an opening pages workshop. If you follow submission guidelines for Veritas and many other agencies, you'll be submitting the first five pages at the bottom of your query, and I can't stress how important it is to hook the reader in the opening and not let her go.

A common mistake in opening pages is the dreaded white room. A character wakes up trying to figure out where he is and how he got there. He's hungover or unconscious or a prisoner, or merely caught in existential angst. Other variations of this include the weather opening mentioned in an earlier blog post, or the character looking in the mirror and reflecting his appearance.

These openings represent the blank state of the author's mind. The character is waking up because the author is waking up at the same time. Authorial throat clearing, gearing up to start the story without actually, you know, starting it.

Other writers, knowing the perils of a sluggish opening, try to have too much happen. This is the character running for his life on page one, or in a screaming fight, or at some other point of high drama. This also doesn't work as an opening, but for different reasons.

I like to thing of a story, in its simplest form, as a three-legged stool of character, situation, and problem. For example:

A young widow in the Potato Famine (character/ situation), has just lost her job as a seamstress (situation/problem) and can no longer feed her children (problem).

These things need to develop in harmony, like a stool needs each leg to be of equal length. If you start with the woman reflecting on how she lost her husband, you have character and situation, but no problem. If your opening page shows her screaming at the man in the soup kitchen because he won't let her take food back for her sick kids, you have plenty of problem, coupled with a partially understood situation, but not very much character.

In sounds callous, but you can have a life and death situation, but nobody will care if they don't also know the character. Scenes that get the heart pumping or the tears flowing on page fifty or three hundred can leave the reader cold on page three.

For openings, it might be helpful to think of how you can introduce all three elements as soon as possible to a depth that is sufficient, but not overwhelming.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Query Mistake #2 - More Breaking the Rules

Two actual queries from today's inbox offerings to show you just how wrong people can get it:

I have a concept for a sci fi novel and I want somebody to write a five hundred word summary of that concept. I want to hire the highest quality ghostwriter. I don’t have any dialogue but I know how the plot develops. I want to post the summary on a crowd funding site to raise money to write the book. I also want a book cover designer for the sci fi book and somebody to think of a title to reflect the story that I have? Can you put me in contact with people who have these skills? Thanks.

No. It doesn't work this way.

While I was pondering a query to impress you, a friend in the local community theater made an audio clip of the first three and a half pages of the manuscript. Hopefully, you will find the description of the story and synopsis below interesting enough to listen to it. Thank you for your time and consideration.

I'm sure that sounds really awesome to a writer, but this is not how the industry works, and any writer querying should know better.

I used to engage with writers on these things, adding a little lesson in proper submission techniques to my response, but people got angry or argued or accused me of being narrow minded. Not all of them, but enough to make me stop.

It does indicate someone who hasn't done their research though, doesn't it? If you don't know why both of these are problematic, you're not ready to query. In the first case, the guy isn't even ready to start writing yet.

Query Mistake #1 - Breaking the Rules

Every once in a while I get a query where the author brags that he's going to break all the query rules because he's just that brilliant. Many others don't follow normal query procedures without explanation, leaving me to wonder if they are ignorant of them, if they are too lazy to follow them, or if they think they are . . . well, just that brilliant.

None of these is a good sign.

Why is it so important to read from the audition script instead of inventing your own material on the fly? After all, I can easily figure out that something is a query, even if it doesn't have the word "query" in the subject line. It only takes two seconds to open an attachment, whether it was requested or not, and if the query is two or three pages long, or only one sentence, surely this is not a serious impediment to my evaluating it.

From my perspective, I've got to go through a bunch of queries in a short period of time. What I'm trying to do is quickly sort them. I want to immediately discard the ones that aren't in a category I represent, and I want to quickly figure out on the others if the writer has some skill with words, and to figure out if they have any credits I should pay attention to. When that is done, I can then read the remaining queries with greater attention.

To take a small example, what about people who don't put the word "query" in the subject line? I do that for a simple reason. My inbox is crammed full, and I've set up a filter to move all queries to a special folder. When you don't follow this simple procedure, your query might go to spam or might be lost in the flood of other stuff, and at the very least it requires me to manually move your query to the right place.

Even if you don't really believe in standard query format, or thing agents are hidebound for insisting on them, you're trying to show at this early stage that you've done your homework and you are a professional who will be pleasant to work with down the road.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Twenty Pounds of Queries a Week (if they still came as paper)

How many queries do I get every day/month/year?

I get asked this question a lot, and my answer isn't all that impressive compared to some agents. It's generally about 10 a day*. I know some people get dozens, and so mine doesn't sound super impressive, but it's still several thousand over the course of a year.

Some things that seem to limit my queries are first, that I keep a fairly low profile (or have, before starting this blog), second, that a lot of people query the general agency address, and I don't look at those, and third, the name of the agency is Veritas. There are a lot of writers who simply never reach that far down into the alphabet.

It's sounds silly, but I'm serious. A lot of people start at AAA Agency (or whatever it is) and start working their way down. I always figure by the time I get queried, a bunch of other agents have that query first.

Maybe that's why I started in 2010 with the idea that I'd be faster than average. If I start reading a requested manuscript, I try to be faster still. I've had the experience a couple of times of getting deep into a manuscript only to find that someone else has already offered representation.

While it's true that I've also lost out on writers after being the first to offer representation, in general my experience is that people want to go with the first person who offers. It might not be the most important reason, but there's something to be said for someone who was on the ball.

Similarly, when I'm first to respond, people will hopefully get the impression that I'll be responsive as their agent, too.

* There are times when I see temporary spikes in query levels. One is when I've just returned from a conference, as everyone who heard me speak dusts off their queries. Another is after I've reported a deal on Publisher's Marketplace. Finally, you have the weeks right after NaNoWriMo, when a zillion new books take a spin on the query-go-round.

By Hook or Crook

I'm still in the early stages of figuring out the focus of this blog, so I hope you'll forgive me for flailing around a little as I consider different subjects. I imagine that as I attract a few readers, I'll start to tailor my posts to my blog followers.

I have no followers yet, so here I am shouting into the void. :)

Kristin Nelson of Nelson Literary has a series of blog posts about openings to avoid, which is naturally a subject that I have a lot of thoughts about. I won't get into the reasons (yet) that it's a bad idea to start with a character waking up, a character running for her life, or the weather. I've also got what I call the "three legged stool" approach to story openings, but that's a subject for another day.

For now, I want you to focus on one goal for your openings, and that's to compel the reader to move forward. The only purpose of that first sentence is to move the reader to the second sentence, and the only purpose of that second sentence is to get them to the bottom of the paragraph or page.

That's why they call it a hook. Carry the metaphor forward. Your opening is the bait, and once your fish bites, he can buck and thrash, but he's going to be reeled in so long as the fisherman (you), never lets any slack into the line.

To take an example, why does the weather typically not work as a hook? First of all, I can look out the window and see something equally thrilling. More importantly, there is no character, no plot, no intriguing mystery being raised. Not usually, anyway. Change one of those elements and suddenly the weather can be a good hook.

For example:

"Late in the evening on July 4th, after the guests had left the party and I'd finished washing dishes and cleaning the grill, a funnel cloud dropped onto the farm and destroyed my great-grandfather's hundred year old barn."

Or maybe:

"The skies opened up at noon, raining frogs, and sending the women of the village out with baskets to collect them all."