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.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

What Makes a Good Writing Conference?

Not all literary agents like going to writing conferences, but I love them. It's my favorite part of my job. I enjoy getting out of my solitary existence, am invigorated by talking about books and publishing for three days straight, and love feeling like I'm helping aspiring writers rather than rejecting their stories day after day.

Some conferences are huge, with hundreds of participants. Others are small, intimate, with people who've known each other for years. Some have lots and lots of pitch sessions with agents and editors, and others are mostly writers and other industry professionals giving classes and holding panels.

As a writer, what kind of conference should you attend? In order of priority, you should select your conference based on the following:

1. The conference closest to where you live.

A conference might only cost fifty or a hundred dollars to attend . . . until you count hotel, airfare, etc. If there's a conference in your home city, go to that first. If there isn't a nearby conference, or you want to attend something else in addition, move down the list to the other considerations.

2. The attendees are serious writers.

Let me repeat that. The attendees are serious. Not the guests, the editors, agents, and professional writers, but your fellow writers attending on their own dime. Barring that fluke encounter where you meet your editor or agent, your best networking at a conference is going to be other aspiring writers.

A good percentage of them should be serious about their craft, people who are producing and submitting, who are hungry and ambitious. All the same things you are, right? That's presumably why you're reading this blog. These people will inspire you, will push you, and, in my experience, will give you some of the best advice and feedback you're likely to receive, as well as form lasting friendships.

3. The conference has some success stories.

A conference with a track record of converting aspiring writers into seasoned professionals is one where you'll find a culture of pushing people to that next level, where you'll find encouragement and enthusiasm, not resentment, when you sign that first book deal.

4. The conference has diversity.

I mean that in the wider sense of the word. Not all the guests and attendees are between the ages of 45 and 55, for example, but a mix of young learners and more experienced people. There is a good balance of men and women, and hopefully religious, racial, and cultural diversity, as well. This is easier to achieve in some parts of the country than others, but I've found that there's better energy in a group with a lot of different backgrounds present.

Note that this is not a big city/small town divide. Some big cities can be just as provincial in their outlook as any country village.

5. The conference has great professionals as presenters.

Note that this is last in my list. In part, this is because most conferences do a good job of selecting guests, and also because the vibe from the participants is going to be different from year to year, or even from panel to panel.

But mainly I put this last to emphasize that the primary benefit you get from attending conferences doesn't have anything to do with that chance encounter with an industry pro that ends up making your career. Let's be honest, that rarely happens.

Mostly, you're attending to be energized, to remember that you're a writer, that this is serious. To learn and be inspired. You can do this, but you need to be reminded now and then.


My needs as an agent are different, of course. I teach at 3-4 conferences a year, and my favorites are the ones where I maximize the amount of teaching and interaction and limit the one-on-one pitches. Pitch sessions are tiring, and can seem to blur together. Also, so many poor writers are nervous and trembling as they approach these pitch sessions. I try to put them at ease, but it doesn't always work.

Another thing I really enjoy is when the conference arranges for the attendees to see a little bit of the surrounding area. Most will have an outing of some kind, but a few have really outdone themselves on the hospitality front, like the James River Writing Conference, in Richmond.

I prefer to vary my conferences, giving a break of at least a year before I return to teach at any given location. Right now, I would like to reach some parts of the country where I haven't taught very often, largely the Midwest and the South, but I serious consider every invitation.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

What Can You Reasonably Expect When You Submit?

It's an unfortunate fact of publishing that the most essential people of the industry--the storytellers who make it all possible--have the least power in the relationship, at least at first. At any given time there are hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers trying to get the attention of perhaps a couple of hundred literary agents, who in turn are all pursuing a few scant openings for debut novels.

This naturally leads to feelings of fear, resentment, and powerlessness by aspiring writers, especially when they're in the tempest of the query storm, their hard work buffeted by casual rejection or even silence.

The query situation looks different from an agent's perspective. What do we get paid for reading queries, partials, and full requested manuscripts? Nothing, really. Sometimes a good writer turns up in the slush (I've found some of my best writers that way), but mostly it's drudgery going through all those dozens, hundreds, thousands of queries, and painful to keep saying, "no thanks, no thanks, no thanks, no thanks."

Compare reading the slush pile with the important stuff, like reading the new books of my existing writers, handling correspondence with editors, looking over royalty statements and contracts, etc. All the stuff that pays the bills and fulfills the requirements of my job. Where do I want to spend my time? Where do I need to spend it? Queries? Pfft.

With those caveats, there is a lot of rudeness in the industry directed at aspiring writers. I don't think a writer deserves an answer to an unsolicited query--it's unsolicited, after all--but after that, what do agents owe the aspiring writers who contact them?*

This is my opinion. If I ask for a partial or a fully, I owe you a timely response. Period. That doesn't mean I drop everything and get right to your story that moment. My primary responsibility is to my existing writers, not those who are applying to see if they might be a good fit.

But it kills me when I see industry people make a request, then hold someone's work for six, nine, twelve months. And then worse, some agents and editors still reject requested manuscripts with silence. The old "if you haven't heard from us within six months, assume . . . " variation of rejection. That's fine for queries, I guess, but for requested manuscripts? Hmm.

Personally, if I request something, I try to get to it within a month. Hopefully, less. I've lost a few good writers because I was too slow to answer, but mostly I've won the competition, because I'm frequently the first to offer. As someone who is not big enough or important enough to sign writers based on fame, star power, and sheer animal magnetism, I've got to show my qualities. One of those is responsiveness, and what better way to show it than in my initial interaction with a writer?

As for the 90% of requested manuscripts that still earn a rejection, I always give some personal feedback. A compliment, generally with a bit of criticism, and maybe a thought or two about the market, followed by encouragement. It's a tough, tough business, and getting a rejection stings. I know there are no moral victories when you get your 15th rejection on a request, but it's the least I can do to point out the encouraging reasons why the query/story was good enough to garner a request in the first place.

* I do answer roughly 90% of queries. I'll talk about exceptions in a future blog post. But you're not owed them, from me or anyone else.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

How to Keep the Faith

One of the hardest things for aspiring writers is keeping the faith during the months and years and hundreds of thousands of words that consist of one's apprenticeship. For one, who knows how long that apprenticeship will last? It's not like going to medical school, where you know that if you keep on task, you can spend some number of years, followed by service as an intern, etc., and end up a doctor.

Some writers sell first novels. Others write three or four or ten before they find success, and many, many others give up. There's no way to tell if the next book would have sold, or if they'd have kept struggling, perhaps indefinitely.

Apart from the uncertainty, there's one other factor that I believe makes it more difficult to be an aspiring writer than an aspirant in one of the other arts, and that is anonymity. If you play a musical instrument at a high semi-professional level, you may not be ready to join the Vienna Philharmonic, but you can impress the pants off your friends. If you can paint well enough to almost get your own show, you can bet that friends and family will proudly show off your art work on their walls.

But what about writers? You publish a story in a magazine paying a hundred bucks, and it seems to vanish a month later. Only you and a few writer friends know how important that is. You get an agent who doesn't sell your book, and nobody you talk to even knows what that means. Can you break out your manuscript at a dinner party and pass around a few pages? Not likely. You can't even tell people you're an aspiring writer without condescending comments or declarations from the listener that he, too, is a writer, just as soon as he retires and puts together that brilliant idea that has been kicking around in his head all these years.

So how do you keep the faith when it feels like you're working in a vacuum? Here is a quick list, that is not intended to be exhaustive:

1. Join a writing group. Find a group of like-minded individuals who are all working seriously (not the once a year, read a few pages kind), and who talk about a mix of craft and business. Virtual communities are just as valid as the in-the-flesh variety.

2. Attend writing conferences as you are able. This can be expensive, and some people find them stressful, but if you consider a conference as more about recharging the batteries than the nebulous "networking" opportunities, you'll come back with renewed dedication to your work.

3. Read books about writing. Some are inspiring (Stephen King's book, On Writing, is one of the best), while others talk about craft. You're having a dialogue with the masters of the craft, or at least solid journeymen, and that's incredibly helpful.

4. Consume lots of good fiction. This gives you something to shoot for, and it reminds you that you're part of a noble calling of storytelling. Perhaps the most noble calling there is.

5. Always keep writing. Barring health issues, divorce, or the like, you should be working constantly. Even on vacation take a few minutes every day to jot down something or to write 200 words, or something easily attainable. It's easier to remember that you're a writer when you're actively engaged in a new project.

Unrelated, but I can't resist sharing some exciting agenting news. From the January 2 edition of Publisher's Weekly:

Kensington Re-ups Wiseman
John Scognamiglio, editor-in-chief of Kensington, acquired world and audio rights to two books by Ellen Marie Wiseman in a new-contract deal negotiated by Michael Carr of Veritas Literary. According to the publisher, Wiseman’s 2014 book with Kensington, What She Left Behind, about a woman who becomes immersed in the diaries of a psychiatric patient living during the Great Depression, was “one of Kensington’s bestselling digital and trade titles of the past two years,” with half a million copies in print. Wiseman’s next novel, The Life She Was Given, will be published in summer 2017. The first of the two books acquired in this deal will be published sometime in 2019.