Posts Tagged ‘agents’
I venture to say that for writers, a mystique persists around publishing, as if all the published writers and people in the business were part of a secret club where they shared special handshakes and insider knowledge. I suspect it has something to do with rejections, and the polite but impersonal way editors and agents say no to projects they must decline. Writers outside the circle might well wonder why they can’t get in when the rules of admittance seem so capricious. To make it worse, there’s a sort of unspoken heartache behind the conferences, forums, and workshops I see offered for unpublished writers. Even the word “aspiring,” so often coupled with “writer,” hints at hope and longing, as if all dreams would be fulfilled by admittance into the club, if only someone would spill the secret password.
For a long time, I’ve felt like there was no real difference in people inside and outside the club. We’re really all just writers, all equally deserving of respect, all doing what we love. But a few things lately have made me wonder if there is a difference after all. It isn’t that crossing a publishing threshold magically changes a writer. It’s more that experiences start adding up, and there’s a different, deeper understanding of how things work. I can look, now, at a friend’s query letter and see pretty quickly the tip-offs of a novice, but beyond that, I see more clearly, at least for myself, the complicated relationship between creativity and business.
A key thing is my relationship with my agent, Kirby Kim at WME. Unpublished writers, wary about what agents even do, ask questions like, Do I need an agent? That question would never occur to me. These days, my agent and I talk about specific book concepts, the merits of building on the base of my Birthmarked novels when I work on next projects, the trade-off of writing in multiple genres vs. writing rarer books where each is an event, the unspoken etiquette around option clauses, the risks and importance of emotional honesty in business dealings, and the value of having people you like to work with. These issues are a reality for me, with subtleties and complexities I wouldn’t perceive on my own. My agent and I are a team, and I depend on his advice and expertise from the perspective of looking back and forward for years.
Another element that matters is my relationship with my fellow writers. I’m part of private, online group of about twenty published writers who check in once a week to see where we all are, and that is a vital source of support for me. By talking about the challenges we’re facing, our victories, families, and other jobs, I see that other writers are finding their own ways through some complicated times. Similarities abound. I don’t know why it makes such a difference to know someone is experiencing the same thing, but it does. I also have a handful of ongoing email correspondences with other full-time writers where we talk about the slowness of receiving contracts and money, how option clauses impact when a next project can be submitted, expectations of our editors and agents, how publishers are fulfilling marketing promises, cover problems, waiting for approvals of novel outlines, travel envy and burn out, tax issues, and deadline extensions. My friendships help me learn what questions to ask, especially when I see how others assert themselves, and they give me a clearer sense of how the system works for more than just me.
I was Skyping with a school book club yesterday, (Hello, Bookaneers!), and one of the readers asked me about what I was writing next. I started explaining this interesting situation about my new projects and my editor’s maternity leave and the publishing timeline that projects out to 2014, and I ended up saying that what I do is keep writing. My job is to keep working, developing projects, completing first drafts, revising, and pushing myself to explore new ideas deeply. That’s what I try to do. Where and if the projects will fall in a publishing schedule is, to a degree, outside my control, but the writing is always mine. The writing is my responsibility. I think that’s something I’ve learned by being in the secret club, but it’s suspiciously like what drove me before I entered it.
In the end, the writing is the writing.
Not so long ago, I had tons of my own questions about how the query process works and I wondered if I’d ever find representation. I speculated whether my query would stand out or get lost in the slush pile without being read. It was a time of careful research and cautious hope. Since then, I’ve corresponded with dozens of agents, and I have found they are genuinely nice people with a passion for books. Needless to say, they didn’t all want to represent Birthmarked, but they were all nice, and I ended up with the right agent match for me.
Lately, I’ve had several writers ask me for advice about publishing, and I’ve expanded my FAQ to cover their most common questions. A fellow Connecticut writer, Candyce Pruitt, recently corresponded with me about her agent search, and when her questions touched on some of the same things that used to mystify me, I asked if we could cross-post our exchange on our blogs, and she agreed.
I’d like to stress that I’m not an expert on agents. I’m simply a writer who has gone through a search, and it was a positive experience for me.
Candyce: I do have a few questions regarding the agent search, but if you have any other advice to offer, I would also love to hear it!
When an author has no publishing experience, what are some good ways to beef up the author bio portion of the query letter? How important is that part of the query letter?
Caragh: Be honest. If you have no previous publishing experience, you’re an unknown with a clean slate. Briefly state your education and your two jobs because they demonstrate your passion for ya lit, and that counts. Your book info is what will intrigue the agent or not.
Candyce: After you’ve queried an agent, will they provide feedback if they request all/part of your manuscript?
Caragh: If they’re interested, they keep asking for more. Once they’re not, they politely pass and wish you well with your writing and with finding representation elsewhere. In rare cases, if they’re on the fence but super interested, they might ask you about what you might revise, with no promises to represent you.
Candyce: Can you query an agent a second time?
Caragh: Why would you want to?
Candyce: I’ve read on a lot of sites that I should expect a lot of rejection. How often do agents actually request partial/full manuscripts?
Caragh: They request them whenever they encounter an irresistible idea. New agents seeking clients are particularly receptive.
Candyce: How many agents did you query before you found your current agent?
Caragh: I queried 40+, in waves. Details of my search are on my blog.
Candyce: Do you have any tips for making the query letter stand out?
Caragh: Your letter will probably be in the strongest twenty percent simply by being clear and coherent. After that, your ideas are what matter.
Candyce: I’ve been trying to draft my query letter while making final revisions to my manuscript. If you have the time (and I understand completely if you don’t), could you skim over the description I have and let me know if you think I’m on the right track? I’ll include the description below the salutation just in case.
Caragh: It would be a mistake for me to advise you specifically on your description, because it conveys your idea, how you think, your voice, and other subtleties that are strongest when they are purely your own.
I can see you’ve looked into this process a lot already, which is great! Being informed is so helpful. I can’t recommend AgentQuery.com highly enough for tips and searching info. I’m sure you’ll look into which agents are most likely to be interested in your work, and you’ll follow their submission guidelines on their sites to make it easy for them to consider your query. If you send out half a dozen queries and no one asks for more, that could be a sign to revise your query before you try the next batch. Keep trying. If your novel reaches the right agent at the right time, you’ll be on your way. If you don’t find representation for this book and the writing makes you happy, keep on writing.
And to anyone else searching, too, good luck!
Ever since I talked to my agent Kirby Kim last week about what to write after the Birthmarked trilogy, I’ve been feeling optimistic and encouraged, both about the ideas themselves and the open-ended direction of my writing. I’m normally optimistic anyway, but I did wonder if Birthmarked was a fluke. Now I believe my brainstorming is leading me in good directions, and I’m grateful once again that I have a great agent to work with.
As far as I know, there’s no prescribed way to move onto the next project, but I’ve hoped to avoid the anxiety that some of my writer friends have gone through. It’s not unusual for a writer to start the next novel, send a few chapters to her agent, talk it over for feedback, and proceed from there. It’s emotional, especially if her agent doesn’t like the chapters or predicts the project won’t sell. Then the writer must decide whether to keep writing a book because she loves it despite expecting it’s doomed, or abandon it for another idea and start the process over again. Discouragement, self-doubt, and a sense of helplessness can ensue. More than one writer has quit at this point.
That process looks miserable to me, frankly, and I try to avoid misery. Besides, I trust my agent a lot, but I would never make one other person the gate-keeper with veto power over my writing. Instead, I decided to try a different approach, one that takes advantage of Kirby’s savvy at a critical, early point in the process. I decided to run a whole bunch of ideas by him, not just my one favorite.
Here’s a little metacognitive back-story on my philosophy of generating ideas. Once, when I was in college, my art teacher told me to paint 100 watercolors of the same object in a week. A hundred is a lot of paintings. My object was an old-fashioned, hand-held drill with movable gears, a thing of innate interest to me. I started early, and put in a lot of hours on very meticulous realistic paintings, until after about twenty of them I realized I was not going to get the rest done at that pace. I had to go faster. I needed more ideas. I got sloppy and started having fun, mixing the colors and shadows, using negative space and everything I’d learned in other art classes. Around eighty paintings, I completely ran out of ideas. I started painting with the drill, drilling the paper full of holes, painting on small triangular scraps of paper, making things that were hardly paintings at all. In short, it took me a long, long time to work my mind all the way around inside the box, but by the end, I painted my way out of it. 100 paintings in a week taught me little about painting, but a lot about my mind.
For starters, I know my first idea or my fifth idea or my tenth idea might not necessarily be my best idea. I need to focus, have fun, and keep trying. I know a seemingly insignificant spark can explode, and that dissimilar things can be combined into something cool. For months, whenever I’ve had a trace of a book idea, I’ve jotted it in my brainstorm file on my computer, but I only had about five ideas that way, and they weren’t exciting me. Then, a few weeks ago, after I sent in my first pass pages of Prized, I started brainstorming in earnest, thinking What if? and How about? With about fifteen different ideas, I began pondering them more deeply. I found that a few overlapped and could be combined. I fleshed some out into a paragraph, and then into a couple paragraphs or a page. I ran them by my daughter to see what interested her, and realized a murky idea had a lot of potential, so I let that grow when I was taking a walk. I started shifting my less favorite ideas further down the file, and ones that were more promising to the top.
Of the fifteen concepts, I decided eight interested me enough to pursue further, either because I liked the premise of the plot, the character, the format, or all three. So I organized them into YA and MG groups, kept the ones I liked best at the top, and arranged a call with Kirby.
It was super, super fun to talk over the ideas with him. He asked questions, knew which of my projects were the sorts editors have been looking for, connected the ideas to books, films, computer games, and scientific theories he knows, told me which concepts were in realms that had been overdone and would need more to make them original, and poked around in my mind to find out why certain concepts interested me or seemed risky. We talked about how the next project should build on what I’ve done with Birthmarked, but how that shouldn’t stop me from writing out of sci-fi if I want to, too. He asked which concept I thought was furthest along, and which I was most eager to write. We laughed a lot, too.
I came away with a plan I can work on while I’m between revisions of Book 3 of the Birthmarked trilogy, which is still my top priority right now. The YA sci-fi concept I’m most excited about I’ll fill out more to get a firmer idea of the plot issues. Another YA sci-fi project that also fascinates me is so ambitious it’s going to take longer to figure out, so I’ll ponder that one. The third project, a contemporary YA concept, seems like it will just fly out of my fingers, so I’ll start writing that and see what happens. It’s all so cool to me. I’m so excited about my writing, and I love the idea that I’m working on viable projects that my agent is already excited about, too.
Always there’s more to learn with this job. I’m psyched.
Birthmarked wasn’t in the slush pile for long—two months—but that’s where it started. What I knew about the process of trying to sell a novel was based on my failures with my literary novels (see previous post: Slush Pile Code) and my success with six romances I’d published (agentless) before I became a teacher. I had no experience with children’s publishing whatsoever and no contacts, but there’s a way in for unknown people like me: through the slush pile.
I knew one thing for certain: the only way my book would get noticed was if it was genuinely good enough to merit attention. That seemed fair to me. Though I didn’t expect to succeed, I wanted the self-respect that would come with knowing I tried to sell my novel. My work deserved that much.
So here’s what I did. Once I had a complete manuscript of Birthmarked, to start my list of potential agents, I went to the library, looked up the latest YALSA Best Books for Young Adults list, pulled the available novels, and checked acknowledgement pages for writers who thanked their agents. For more leads, I bought a copy of The Writers Market, read its section about agents, and searched online for lists of the best agents for YA novels. Then I searched the AgentQuery.com database for four criteria: agents who represented YA, accepted email queries, were open to new clients, and were members of the Association of Authors’ Representatives (AAR). I checked agencies’ websites to read about the agents and what sorts of books they represented, studied their submission requirements, picked the agents that best matched my work, polished my query letter, customized it for each agent, and contacted sixteen agents by email.
Done, I thought. That same afternoon, one of the agents replied and asked to see the first fifty pages. I sent them along, and four days later he emailed back to say he thought the book was good but he didn’t know whom he would send it to, so he wished me luck, recommended I check out Jeff Herman’s Guide, and passed.
No surprise there. I thought, this is going to take four years and no one will ever want the book, so I might as well maximize the speed of rejections and expand my search now.
I went back to AgentQuery.com and dropped the AAR criteria because, on further reading, I’d learned that plenty of legitimate agents didn’t bother with the AAR credential. I spent another three weeks researching individual agents like I had with my short list, tightened my query letter again, and sent out a second batch of email queries to twenty-five more agents.
The next day, I started receiving requests for the complete manuscript. Within a few weeks, eleven agents had requested partials or the complete manuscript, which seemed like a lot to me. Since they didn’t ask for exclusive looks, I didn’t mention that other agents had also requested the manuscript. I thought I might sound pushy if I did. I did start to worry, though, about the etiquette for handling it if more than one agent offered representation, so I studied articles about that on AgentQuery. I calmed down again. It almost never happens.
Then I received an offer of representation. It was three weeks after I’d sent out the second batch of queries, and this agent was excited about my book. He thought it was great. We talked for a while, and then I explained that other agents were considering the manuscript and asked for a little time to check back with them. He said that would be fine, and to let him know if I had more questions. We politely hung up.
Dancing and hooting ensued.
Agents, I found, were very courteous, hard-working people. When I emailed the others who had the manuscript to say I had an offer of representation, they responded within hours. They were very patient with me and their colleagues while I waited for other agents to read the manuscript and make an offer or not. The ones I spoke to all believed it mattered to find a good author-agent match and agreed it was worth taking the time to consider carefully, even if that took a couple weeks. So I did.
After talking to five of the interested agents, I ended up with four offers of representation. Then I had to decide, and I didn’t know what mattered most: experience, a list of award-winning writers, a specialization in children’s lit, the size of the agency, a strong foreign rights department, or an ability to represent adult novels too should I want to return to that. I asked questions and took notes during the phone calls. The agents connected me with some of their clients and to a retired editor so I could talk to them, and I learned a lot, fast.
I ended up with Kirby Kim of Endeavor, shortly before it merged with William Morris, and a smarter, nicer guy you’ll never find. In my opinion, that’s when I made it out of the slush pile, because that’s when I gained an ally to represent my work. Kirby guided me through three fairly light revisions, and then in late October, 2008, Kirby submitted my book to fourteen editors. That waiting time was the most stressful. I had no idea how long it would last or if we’d get an offer, and the stakes felt high.
A few weeks later, Kirby said he was getting some interest. He set a deadline for offers at 3:00, the Friday before Thanksgiving. I hurried home from school to be there for a phone call, and I distinctly remember looking out the kitchen window, half sick with hope and doubt, praying that someone would buy my book.
Kirby called at 3:15. We had three offers for Birthmarked, and the best offer, from Nancy Mercado at Roaring Brook, was a three-book deal. It was beyond belief.
Sometimes, two-and-a-half years later, it’s still beyond belief.