Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Mishmash of Responses to Comments

This post is an attempt to answer different questions from the comments we have received since returning from the FWA conference. First up, the purpose of our blog is to keep us from having to update our Web site every other day. Between the two, we are the most updated source of information on our agency available. While we may be a month out of date once in a while, we are not six months to a year (or longer) out of date as are most other sources. We have mentioned here that mysteries, for the most part, are in the dumper and, consequently, it was only a matter of time before the cozy, humorous or otherwise, would be affected by this downturn. The most prudent tact, therefore, if you were worried about spending money for a pointless consult, would have been to contact us prior to the conference. We do have people who send us questions many of which we do answer here of you can contact us at our agency addresses. Other people post on our blog. That’s what this blog is for—thank God for technology.

As far as paying to meet with me, I have no control over that and it is something you will have to take up with conference organizers. We suggest that any writer who is dissatisfied with his/her conference experience contact the organizers and give voice to those concerns. This is how many conferences decide on what workshops to offer and which publishing professionals to bring in for future conferences. Participant feedback is vital to the continued success of any event and we encourage you to share yours with the conference committees. By the way, many writers who paid for “interviews” took their time to ask questions, get advice on ideas, and, in general, pick our brains. To any writer going to a conference, we suggest that you keep this in mind for future reference, as most agents are more than happy to discuss other publishing topics besides your project. I have had writers who mistakenly signed up with me for a consult use the time to get information they couldn’t possibly get otherwise or that they didn't feel comfortable asking about in front of others, so it is important that writers have questions or ideas they want to discuss just in case. We enjoy helping people who have helped themselves.

As far as paid for interviews, (this will also answer part of Mr. Jensen’s question), we have no control over what conferences charge for them or what they do with the money after they receive it, or even if they charge. We are under the impression that it goes for scholarships, conference funds for the next year, contest awards, etc. At some conferences we have attended, the consults are free; at others, they charge. We usually don’t know if they do or don’t or how much they charge, and it is of no relevance to us. We make nothing off of these.

If we had our way, there would be no consults or interviews unless there was a writing sample to accompany them (sent to us prior to the conference). The SCBWI handles it this way, as do some other groups. The reason for this is that sometimes the participants don’t understand what the consults are for, the level where they should be before they sign up for a consult, what they should do during that time, or what they have written. Some writers sign up for a consult thinking their romance is something we would be interested in seeing, only to discovered they have written a love story. The time is therefore wasted. Sometimes we get the feeling that the only reason that the writer came to the conference was to pitch every editor and agent there, and some expect to go home with a contract in hand that day. This is a huge gamble. Somewhere along the line, someone said that if you want to get published, you have to spend the money to go to conferences and network with agents and editors. Don’t get us wrong—conferences are wonderful places to network and meet with agents and editors, as well as fellow writers (with the emphasis on fellow writers). However, if your expectations are that you will come home with a publishing contract, then you might be typing with the wrong keyboard.

It is exhilarating for us to be able to meet with writers, as their jobs and ours are at times very isolating. We have met some really wonderful folks at conferences and think these events have value for those who are ready for and open to the experience.

Hope this helps answer some questions.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thanks to FWA!

We would like to thank the Florida Writers Association for inviting us to participate in their annual conference. This year the conference was held at the Disney Coronado Hotel and was a wonderfully organized event with a variety of opportunities for writers in many different areas. Our thanks go out to Lori, Marsha and their hardworking committee members for all their dedication to the art of writing and for inviting us to join them.

One humorous side note is that we got lost a number of times the first day or so because we arrived at the massive resort complex after dark (and got lost) then left our room in daylight (and still got lost). If you have ever been to this huge hotel, then you will know what we mean by massive (and about getting lost). If you haven’t been there, then you’ll have to take my word for it—it’s massive!!! However, we did lose weight, which is the first time that’s ever happened at a conference. On one of our breaks, we had the chance to sit in the Florida sun for a few minutes and watch lizards, leatherback turtles, and a huge bass. We also shared our lunch with some sparrows who wouldn't take "no" for an answer. We loved that!

What we found intriguing is that the writers at this conference were very open to the many possibilities in publishing, as opposed to just focusing on the idea of taking the traditional path to publication, of which there really isn’t one. Ask several authors to describe how they got published, and, although there will be a few similarities—like great writing, for example—it will vary tremendously. The path may be different, but the end result is usually the same. What was nice is that most of the writers seemed genuinely curious about the industry, what it is and what it is not. They weren’t critical about the different possible approaches to the final goal and wanted to explore options without the pre-conceived notions that inhibit many writers. They could explore traditional venues, self-publishing, and e-publishing, for example, and we got the feeling that writers who were interested in these ideas very aware of the perils and possibilities of each or were intent on getting enough information about them before deciding what would be their best route to getting their work out to readers. It was a very balanced and enthusiastic approach to a frustrating and sometimes truly exasperating endeavor.

Again, thanks to all the participants for having us and for an invigorating experience. We really appreciate it!

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Everything You wanted to Know About Women's Fiction But Were Afraid to Ask

Women’s fiction

A very short definition of women’s fiction would be stories about women by women. I’m not saying that a man couldn’t write women’s fiction. It’s entirely possible; however, I would advise that he use a pen name that’s feminine.

Where romances are about, well, romance, women’s fiction is more about relationships. Where a romance most often ends with the main characters winding in a satisfying relationship of some sort, women’s fiction can end with a woman facing life without romantic entanglements. When I say relationships, I don’t necessarily mean those between a man and a woman. Women’s fiction, a good deal of it anyway, contains stories about siblings, mother-daughter relationships, friendships, and the relationships between mothers and their children.

Women's fiction is longer and uses that space to develop multiple point-of-view subplots that are deeper, more descriptive and more introspective than shorter novels.

There might be a guy waiting at the end of the heroine’s journey, but he never gets equal time or equal depth in his own journey. Whereas in romances the author gives her male character the same billing as her heroine, this is not the case in women’s fiction.

Commercial women’s fiction touches its reader at a more emotional level. As stated, the stories are about relationships, generational sagas and love stories, but more importantly the stories should touch on things that women readers can connect with in their own lives. Whether the reader cries or laughs out loud, women readers love reading that which tugs at their heartstrings.

New York Times Best-selling Author Nora Roberts says: "Women's fiction is a story that centers on a woman or on primarily women's issues, not necessarily the romantic relationship-based books I do, but the woman's story."

As usual, I like to remind readers that this definition is based on what the editors I work with want and on THEIR definitions of women’s fiction. Definitions of genres can vary WIDELY, so reading other blogs and resources about women’s fiction, if that is what you write, will give your background in your subject the breadth and depth needed to tackle this very complex genre. Good luck!

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Gender, Demographics and other BIG Words

To one of the many Anonymi (or is it Anonymouses?):

Q:But it would be useful to have a breakdown by gender and other demographics along with sales figures.

A: You bet tracking sales this way would be useful. As far as gender and other demographics, there have been studies done on these as well as how long a potential bookstore customer spends with a book before buying it or putting it back on the shelf. This information, most of which can be found on the Web, comes from studies done by universities and marketing people. On a side note, if you have loads of money, you can subscribe to a service called Nielsen Bookscan, which provides sales figures only. I’ve had some editors share sales numbers contained there with me and found them not to be too accurate, though, as NB doesn’t seem to track sales made to libraries, for one thing or self-published books, books from certain major department stores, etc.

Q: As a follow up question, are the readers of Tom Clancy, Clive Cussler, Ken Follett, John Grisham, Stephen King, and Jeffrey Archer then predominantly women? Or are they the exception that proves the rule?

A: No, these readers are predominantly men, and it takes only a few established authors in these areas to write enough to satisfy the dwindling male audience. No one said that men never read fiction, but that they prefer non-fiction to fiction or the ratio of women to men who read fiction is greater. When you speak of Tom Clancy, et al, you are speaking of established authors with very large audiences and in these there are probably women. Consider that many authors, such as Clancy, began their careers years ago when the whole publishing dynamic was much different. For instance, men used to read more fiction than women. Men read action magazines and action adventure and western novels, as well as horror, science fiction, etc. There was also a huge mid-list market years ago that is not there anymore. Things have changed. The mid-list is long dead.

I’d venture to say that writers like Clancy and Cussler would have an even harder time getting published today than they originally did. One big factor to take into consideration is that fiction, as a whole, is a shrinking, not a growing, dynamic market. This means that there are already enough established authors to fill editor’s lists without searching for new blood. Markets do open up, such as Chick-lit did a few years ago; however, these markets are quickly filled with authors who will continue to write in these areas. If you are not one of the authors who shakes out of the crowd early on, then that market fills up around and without you.

One place that can tell you quite a bit about categories that are selling is to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace. The cost is $20 per month for this online service. It doesn’t give sales numbers, but it does give the subscriber an idea of what is selling and what is not.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

The recurring infringment question

Q: If it's copyright infringement to post rejection letters why is not an infringement to post examples of bad queries? I'm just wondering

A: I’m assuming you are referring to our blog. If so, I’ve answered this one before, but here goes one-more-time: The only full queries posted on this blog are from our imagination. They are not real queries. First of all, we didn’t want have to get permission to post real query letters, but most importantly, we didn’t want to embarrass a writer, or writers, by posting his or her query letter for the world to see. Can you imagine us getting a terrible query letter and rejecting it, but putting a postscript at the bottom asking for permission to post the writer’s poor query? While we thought of it, it just didn’t seem quite right.

Early on, I posted some examples of opening sentences that were common to what I was seeing at the time. These were repeated, common mistakes that many writers were making then, not taken from any individual writer’s query letter. Even if that were not the case, however, there is an exception in the copyright law that allows for a small amount of copyrighted materials to be used for instructional purposes. Writers who post agent rejections in their entirety and then proceed to rip them apart do not fall under this exception.

Somewhere Beyond the Query

Query letters are difficult to write, and most of the ones I see still have problems. However, I’d like to move beyond them, for a while, to discuss those opening pages that are, hopefully, sent along with your query. Your query letter might get your foot in the door, so to speak, but your writing is what will get you published. Consequently, even if your query is so-so, I will always look at accompanying writing. So, at this point, the question should be, “What are you looking for in those pages?”

I hate to repeat this, but your novel has about a one-minute audition with an editor. That means there are some basic elements that are necessary to get your writing past those sixty seconds. First of all, I want something happening in the beginning. To accomplish this, a writer must dig into his or her story to find its natural opening.

For instance, I grabbed four books from the shelf that have exciting beginnings, ones that would grab my attention. The first needs no introduction. It begins with: “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” If that doesn’t start someone reading! And this is from one of the oldest books known to mankind.

I kind of cheated on the other three—well, not cheated, really—because these are books that caught my attention so well I ended up representing them. They are now on bookstore shelves, where, hopefully, their terrific beginnings are capturing the attention of readers.

How about this opening from Heather Sharfeddin’s MINERAL SPIRITS: “An acrid breeze swept up from the river—a hint of rotten flesh.”

Or from Nina Wright’s WHISKEY ON THE ROCKS: “He was laying there like you are now. Only he was dead.

This one is from DERAILED by Jon Ripslinger: “Monday morning at school, after we won our third football game in a row, ass-kicking convincingly, I might add, Coach Maddox yanked me into his office in the boy’s locker room.

One question that I’d ask here is: “After reading these simple first sentences, would you read on?” The answer is probably, “You bet!” Why? Because the opening caught your attention, right? The challenge that faces anyone who taps out words and declares himself a writer is, to be published, you have to interest your reader—or you won’t be read.

This is important, so let me repeat it. You must interest your READER or you won’t be read. Notice I didn’t say agent or editor here, I said reader. Why? Don’t I have to get my book past you guys before anyone can have the chance to read my book? Yes, this is kind of true. But aren’t we readers, too? Of course we are.

Okay. I’m getting way ahead of myself. The question is, where do I start my book? Where is the beginning? The beginning is at the point of change. Something has happened that has changed the norm. In the Bible, the Heaven and the Earth were created. That was a huge event—the beginning of all we know. You don’t get much bigger than that. In MINERAL SPIRITS (before the paragraph was ended) a body had been found, but even before that the reader has a sense that something died, which is definitely change. In WHISKEY ON THE ROCKS, Whiskey Mattimoe, our protagonist, stares at Noonan as she begins working on Whiskey’s left calf muscle:

You were massaging a corpse?” I asked.
“For a minute. Jinx thinks he couldn’t have been dead very long before I noticed.”
I shuddered. Noonan’s strong hands stopped their magic.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “You’ve had enough death in your life lately. You don’t need to hear that.”
“Life is full of death, Either we keep moving, or we. . .stop moving.” I hoped my words sounded wiser to her ears than they did to mine

Although comical (and this book definitely is) something is still happening here. There has been a change, a murder in this case, and this change, right at the beginning of the story, propels the story from here to its final sentence. Also, the reader gets the idea that Whiskey has experienced a death in her life recently—another drastic change. This should be the case with every novel you write—something has happened and whatever it is will take the entire novel to fix—and maybe even beyond. Did any of these books begin with describing everything is sight? Did they begin with setting the scene? No, they didn’t. They started with change. So how should your book begin?

Something else is happening here at the beginning of all these stories. We begin with a sense of the creation of a character. With the Bible, the reader is introduced immediately to the creating force.

In MINERAL SPIRITS, the story’s main character is identified a couple of sentences after the opening. You should have a definite feeling a character being developed in that first minute of reading. It might not be the main character, but there should be someone guiding the reader into the story. That is not to say that I want a character sketch, including a description. I want the strong presence of character or narrator.

So what do I look for in a novel’s opening? Something happening that is key and sets the theme for the rest of the novel, and there should at least be an attempt at building a character in those first few pages of the book. Do this and you come a long way toward producing a book that agents, editors and most importantly your readers, will love.

Monday, August 21, 2006

More Q and A

Here is another group of Q and A type questions that a writer asked us to respond to. Thanks, Shelly.

Q: I don't understand why the issue (rejections posted online without their permission on blogs, writer sites or forums) is a problem.

A: You cannot publish someone else’s writing without their permission. Everything you write, even letters, belongs to the writer and is copyrighted according to copyright law. The person receiving your letter can only show it to others in its original form as it came to him/her, in other words, in the letter form. This does not give the person receiving the letter permission to publish it without the author’s consent, however.

Q: Why don't you want your correspondence posted?

A: We don’t really care if those who write us post our form rejection letter, although, technically, it is also copyrighted. It is, after all, just a form letter and contains nothing that would be embarrassing to us or its recipient. However, there are times when we do give advice or criticism to writers, and this information should be treated as confidential copyrighted information that is being shared between two business people. Writing of this nature should always have a disclaimer attached to it stating this fact. However, even if correspondence of this type does not contain the attached disclaimer, it should always be treated as confidential and should not be shared or posted. What kind of world would it be if EVERYTHING everyone said or wrote was posted everywhere? Oh, wait a minute…*SMILE*

Q: Have the "harsh responses" increased disproportionately?

A: Yes, they have, and there is an explanation for this. More and more people are writing and there are only so many clients each agent can represent and only so many open slots on each agent’s list. Unfortunately, this means that agents have the unsavory duty of rejecting writers—the more rejection, the more frustration that builds up in the writer community.

Most writers understand that rejection is part of trying to get published and do not take rejection as a personal insult. Some, however, take it personally and lash out at anyone who dares reject their work. Many feel that to get even they must comment on my responses, and some of these comments are very insulting and very nasty. One such writer even posted my advice on his blog and added an insulting remark about me for the world to see. Things like this do nothing to help the situation many writers find themselves in. It only makes it more difficult for all concerned. I’m sure, because of this, that individual will never find an agent. Why? Because he has demonstrated that he would be very difficult to work with, something that’s a must in any relationship. Your first response to rejection should not be lashing out or getting even. That simply isn’t considered professional in any business.

We have eliminated most of these comments by using a simple form rejection letter. However, every once in awhile, even though we know that anything but a canned response will generate a blast of frustration back at us, we give a personal comment. For instance, the weakness overcame me recently when I merely asked a gentleman to please reduce his verbiage so I could understand what he was trying to promote. For this I was told that I was the rudest, most unprofessional nincompoop that ever existed (not the exact wording used, by the way).

Q: Did the number of "harsh responses" coincide with your posting of "bad" query letters?

A: No, our receipt of “harsh” responses has not increased since we posted the “bad” query letter. Most of the time we only receive harsh comments if we offer advice on someone’s query or his/her writing. However, there have been times when we did receive a not-so-nice comment even though we only sent a standard reject. This, however, is a rare occurrence.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Mini Q&A

Q: I've been reading your blog and I've found it very eye opening. It's made me realize I truly do need to get more involved in the writing world beyond my computer.I have a couple of questions for you. One, how does an author who writes in a couple of different genres find an agent? I have a small non-fiction book published that has a highly specific market and am considering turning it into a series. For that I need an interested publisher to back me up. I also have a large quantity of (quality) short erotic stories, one full length erotic novel that's almost complete and two adult fiction - women's fiction - novels in the works. (they're two of a trilogy)

A: My advice is to find an area in which you feel comfortable and perfect that area. Too much switching around makes you versatile but adds no strength to any one area. Write non-fiction, for instance, and become an expert in one area of non-fiction. If you have a radio voice or a television persona, promote your expertise by building a platform and an audience there. If you have neither a voice nor a television presence, write articles for newspapers and/or magazines in you area of expertise and build an audience using these media. The idea here is to become known and thus gain some celebrity as an expert. Then, when you approach a publisher, you can bring your audience with you. Publishers LOVE established audiences. Mathematically speaking, established audiences=book sales.

The reason I chose non-fiction is that audience can be built in other ways besides publication. Conversely, the only way to build a fiction audience is through publication and, as you know, just getting published, the very foundation of audience-building in this arena, can be a long and arduous process.

You do have an advantage because you write erotica. This area, at present, is more open to new writers. Also, it is a good time in this area for those who write it well to establish a career. If, however, you wrote mysteries, for example, I would advise you to stick with non-fiction and follow the course laid out above, as mysteries are not selling as well right now. Because you write in two areas that have possibilities, I would choose one—not both—and write there until successful. The secret to writing success is in writing better than others and in knowing the marketability of your product. If you concentrate on these, the rest is easy.

Q: Two, I am 'shopping' agents now and I want to know if having these novels, or at least one of them, is a must before approaching. So far it seems that writers approach agents only after they've had their novels completed.

A: Having a novel completed is almost always a must when trying to find an agent. The reason is that you are new and untried and, because of this, we want to make sure you can complete your novel. Many cannot, consequently, most agents want a completed project (both fiction and non-fiction) before investing time to read and evaluate work from prospective clients. Some agents do take non-fiction proposals as opposed to completed projects, depending on the project—although we only review completed works—so it is imperative, as we have stressed before, to do your research and check submission guidelines before sending anything.

Q: And finally, I'm a Canuck and so far it seems like no Canadian agents deal in adult fiction. Are American agents willing to work with Canadians?

A: Certainly!

Thanks to the writer who sent these questions. If there are anymore "Q's" out there, please feel free to send them along and we will "A" them as time permits.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

It's Soooo Easy...

I constantly hear this lament at conference and on the writers’ boards: “It’s so difficult to find and agent”—or, as one writer put it—“ You can’t get published without an agent, and you can’t find an agent unless you’re published.” Neither is true. It’s easy to find an agent, and you don’t need one to get published.

To find an agent, the first thing you must do is to know what you have written. “Ah-ha!” you say, “You’re off base there! All writers know what they have written; after all, they wrote it didn’t they?” Surprisingly, many writers think they know, but they can’t fit their writing into a particular genre, so they guess. It really doesn’t matter, right? The agent or editor will figure it out, right? Wrong. For instance, if you say you’ve written a suspense novel and it’s actually a mystery, or if you have written a love story and say it’s a genre romance, neither would fit my list. I presently am not looking for plain genre mysteries because my markets (the editors I work with) are telling me they are not selling well for them. I also don’t represent love stories, which are actually mainstream (a hard sell) and usually (at least the ones I see) are written from a male perspective. If you send me these, it also tells me that you haven’t done any research. How do I know? First of all, it’s very simple to categorize what you have written. With the Internet, all you have to do is type into Google what genre you think your novel falls into, then read and compare, something any budding professional would do first. I say “budding professional” because professional writers know what they are going to write before they write it.

It’s easy to find an agent. All you have to do is know what you have written AND write it in a commercially viable form—in other words, a marketable, well-written book. This area is where most writers fall short, sometimes due to no fault of their own and sometimes due to a lack of writing skill, technique, and/or experience. What you write may not be commercial because there is no market for it, your work is poorly written, or both. The bar for fiction writers has been raised to an all-time high. It’s a shrinking, crowded market, and, therefore, the competition is fierce. So unless you write better than your competition (authors like Patterson, Koontz, or Steele) you are going to get loads of rejections if you want to try the big markets who do “big” books—the ones where you definitely need an agent.

Also, writers normally do not find the success they seek because they fail to do even preliminary research before they query. A great example of this is in just about every query I receive. For instance, most of the writers who query me have never visited this blog. I know this because writers continually send me queries in areas that I’m not presently handling or do not follow our submission policies. For instance, I’m still getting queried in many areas that are not listed anywhere on either our site or this blog. The address to our Web site (which leads to this blog) is and has been posted just about everywhere for about five of the eight years we have been in business. So there isn’t an excuse for not visiting at least one of our updated Web presences before contacting us.

Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to have an agent to get published. Particularly in the educational, inspirational, and some niche markets, you can submit and work directly with the publishers. You do need an agent, however, to submit your work to those houses that do not take unagented submissions. Unfortunately, most beginning writers have stars in their eyes and can only see their book at one of the major houses, and those houses, for the most part, do not take unagented work. However, there are many, many publishers, the majority in fact, that you do not need an agent to submit your work to. Many legitimate, successful publishers, in fact, would rather work directly with writers, and there are literally hundreds to choose from. One thing to keep in mind when searching for a publisher is that they are royalty-paying and that they have a viable distribution system in place. There are many other precautions, but they are not in the scope of this post.

So it’s easy to find an agent. Do your research and make sure that you have written a highly competitive product that an agent can successfully place with a publisher. Last, but definitely not least, make sure it’s something that readers will enjoy enough to talk to their neighbors about. After all, great books are made great by word of mouth—and they fail the same way.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

It IS the size that counts…

You’ve heard the expression, “It isn’t the size that counts, but how you use it.” Right? Well, we are here to tell you that the opposite is true. It IS the size that counts, and we aren’t just talking about hard drives here.*WINK* We’re talking about e-mail attachments, which we don’t take unless we request them. However, we both still get them regularly, and they are deleted unread.

One of the major reasons for this is the size of the attachments. We have both received messages with attachments so large that every time we have clicked on the message for any reason, it locked up our operating systems. Also, we have had to sit and wait while a message downloads for up to fifteen minutes because someone attached a huge file to it, usually a graphic file in BMP format. Once it is downloaded, then it is unwieldy to work with and makes our computers systems unstable.

Then there is the virus issue. Let us explain…
Writers send us e-mail attachments with nothing else in the body of the e-mail message.
Writers send us e-mail attachments with a note in the body of the message telling us that the query is in the attachment. We have never quite understood this one.
Writers send us e-mail attachments that include pictures of themselves, their children, their pets, and sometimes their illustrations.
Writers send us links to their Web sites with instructions for us to go there to review their work.

Spammers and people who spread viruses also send attachments and links to Web sites that look awfully similar to these queries. How are we supposed to tell the difference? Sometimes we can’t, especially if the subject line of the message is something designed to be “attention-getting,” like Next Bestseller or A query for you, etc. These sound just gimmicky enough to possibly fit the spam protocol.

It doesn’t matter to us that you have a virus scanner program because there are problems with the software and software users that can render them useless. For example, one problem with anti-virus software is that people disable it to load other software and forget to enable it again. Another is that they don’t set the software to do an automatic update, and since new viruses emerge every day, this means their software can miss a virus, allowing it to be transmitted. One last problem is that some viruses are so sophisticated that they disable the virus program.

Many times, computer viruses, like STD’s, infect their victims and the victims are often unaware of any problem until they it’s passed on to someone else. For those of you who are sending out links to your Web sites, you are probably wondering what this has to do with you. Lots. Hackers can attack the code of a Web site and add a virus to it. Some will set up a site with a name very similar to a popular site and load it with a virus so that any person who accidentally uses a popular misspelling of the name of the site downloads a virus immediately.
We have either had these experiences or known someone who has, and so we simply don’t take attachments or follow e-mail links to writer/illustrator sites. If you don’t believe us, do some research and get the facts so that you can protect yourself and others. We are not the only agents who refuse attachments. Most have the policy to just delete them, like we do.

So, we aren't just being fussy or particular, just cautious, and we encourage writers to be cautious as well. Imagine how it would feel to send a virus to an editor you just made contact with and were trying to impress. I had a friend who once sent a worm she didn't know she had to a place where she was applying for a job. Needless to say, she never got a response. We would wish better for you.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Long Time No Post

Sorry I haven’t reported anything much the last month or so. It’s been very busy around the old agency and there just hasn’t been time to write here.

First and most important: I have set my spam filter to full on and I’m in the process of training it to recognize good stuff from bad. Consequently, for writers who want their queries read, please make sure that you put the word “query” somewhere in the subject line. I’m going into the filter and pulling out those letters from those who don’t do this yet (a small minority, by the way) but soon I’m not going to do that anymore. So, if you don’t want your query flushed along with all the spam that is filtered out, please put “query” in your subject line.

Next, there are reasons for rejection other a badly a written query. For instance, I receive queries from time to time that express a person’s religious or political beliefs—some agenda that he or she wishes the world to know about, a pet peeve or things that go in the “other” column. Personal bitches or belief might sell well if the person is a nationally known celebrity whose opinion would possibly mean something to others. However, if you are Joe or Jane Ordinary Citizen, your opinion (or mine) on subjects of this nature are not saleable. My advice is to write them in a letter to the editor or put them on your blog, because there is a very good possibility that no one cares. For those of you who are outraged by this, I put myself in the Joe Ordinary Citizen category, so I am not just being arrogant. I am sure that editors really don’t care what I think about the Middle East conflict or Botox, either. Books whose sole goal is to perpetuate a belief system or books that are just plain rants are beyond the scope of what I (can) handle.

One other reason that I will always reject your work is that, instead of sending me a query, you direct me to your Web site or to your blog. I won’t go, so don’t do it. Another automatic delete for me is something that I’ve been seeing more and more lately, and that’s writers who send me a blank page with their query as an attachment. I used to take pity on these folks and write them a nice note asking that they resubmit in the body of the email. No more. Why? Because of virus considerations, but also because of file size problems. Sharene recently got an e-mail with a huge attachment that caused a minor crash on her system. It wasn’t until she deleted it that her system started working properly. Consequently, she automatically deletes anything that comes in with an attachment, and so do I.

One last thing and then I’m gone: Please pay careful attention to what each agent handles, as posted here on this blog. We all have very specific areas. Granted, some do overlap, but please try to make sure that you query the proper agent. We do share at times; however, we are approaching our busy season so we might not be so eager to redirect queries if we get really busy.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Location, Location, Location--Bah Humbug!

“Indiana? How does that work?”

This was a writer’s startled response at a conference we attended last year. Our answer was and is, “It works rather well, thank you!” In fact, it works so well that we can pocket the bundle that we save each month in office space costs, which affords us the luxury of being able to work with properties from new authors and those that can be considered harder sells. And what do we lose being SO FAR from Manhattan? Absolutely nothing. We are only a phone call or e-mail away from every editor we work with—the same distance every other agent is. The only thing hampering us is attitude—writer attitude. We have sold books to many publishers inside and outside of New York City. To be clear, we don’t specifically seek projects for New York. We look for projects that our contact editors across the United States and overseas say they are looking for, and we cannot represent, successfully, what they are not looking for. Period.

We are posting this because it is July 4th, our Independence Day here in the US, and it seems a good time to reflect on how fortunate we are to live in the United States. Living in a country like this has allowed us to grow our agency and know success in a business we enjoy. This would be impossible in many other countries in the world. The only drawback is the attitude of people who somehow think that being located between NYC and LA is a drawback. It is anything but that. Being in the middle of Indiana, in the Midwest, puts us in the middle of everything.

Kokomo, Indiana, is a little over 100 miles south of Chicago, the third largest city in the U.S. Many folks who commute to work in New York City travel that far on a daily basis, as do workers in Los Angeles or just about any major city in the world. Our office is 28 miles from the outskirts of Indianapolis, which is number twelve on the largest cities list. But what matters most here is that both Indianapolis and Chicago boast magazine and book publishers, some of which are the largest in the industry, and in the world.

It has mystified us from the time we started our agency that writers are consistently freaked out about our location, when the only folks who should be concerned are editors we work with, and they don’t care one way or the other as long as we send them great books. No editor has ever remarked on our location. Ever. But lots of writers have.

If we get the best that you can write, we can have success with it. Daily, editors from major houses tell us what they are seeking, and the only thing that keeps us from finding and representing more of those projects is the misconception that experienced literary agencies outside of New York City or LA are somehow out of touch with editors at major houses. These are the same major houses that are moving imprints inward to serve the readers in the area where we happen to reside. Ka-ching!

Agency location does not a great book make. It takes talented writers and editors brought together by a discerning agent, and most importantly, it takes readers searching for the most entertainment value for their dollar.

On a final note: Happy 4th of July and thanks to our service personnel overseas. Good luck and Godspeed.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Response to Our Response to...Oh, Forget It!

"Why do people include article credits? Because every single "how-to" book I've ever read tells you to. This is the first agent blog that I've come across that is against mentioning article publishing credits. Other agents say that by including those credits you're showing them that you can write well enough that somebody at some point paid you actual money for it. Yes they're totally different kinds of writing, but then again, writing a novel is vastly different than writing a query or a synopsis, yet we're expected to have mastered both of those art forms in order to get published. I think this is the perfect example of why I love agent’s blogging. Now any author who does their homework on what your agency prefers will know not to talk about any articles they've published, and to keep it solely about the novel writing that they have done."

First of all, it is important to remember that many (many, many, many, many…) how-to-write/get published books—and even articles on writing, for that matter—are written by writers whose only writing credit is their how-to-write/get published book.

Writing a query should be no problem as it’s a business letter, something we all learn how to write in high school. It’s only when writers are taught to try to embellish to somehow turn a simple query into a work of art that query letter writing becomes a chore. I have seen articles, books, and workshops on how to “pitch” in your query and how to “hook” an agent, and most of that kind of gimmicky, hype-y stuff just gives me more to plow through. The key, as always, is in the writing, as you mentioned. As has been stated on this blog in many posts, KEEP IT SIMPLE and you’ll get further. Writers who have been overwhelmed with “helpful” information seem to trip themselves up in their own words, and simplicity practically eliminates this.

Just on a personal note, I have never really understood the idea that if a writer has been paid to write something, an article in this case, that his skills would command monetary compensation in another area of writing. Let's look at it this way: If you were a novelist, would that count if you were going to apply to write articles for Newsweek?

The deadlines for articles and novels are different, as is the rhythm of the publishing process and how it proceeds. For me, it would be like saying that if I have held a job selling screws, that I would be an expert at selling automobiles because they contain screws--if that makes any sense. :)

Thanks for bringing this up. Good discussion.

Monday, June 26, 2006

First Novel Comment Response

If you have never written a novel before, ever, and are querying, should one say that at all? Although I have never recommended that someone attempt to publish the first novel that they have ever written, if someone wanted to, should they just not say anything about previous experience, since it wouldn't apply?

Most writers mention that this is their first novel when they query me. When I read these queries I wonder, first of all, if these writers have done any edits on their work, bothered to revise their novel or whether this is their very first draft. Consequently, if this is your first novel attempt, ever, mention this but also mention that your writing has been thoroughly revised and edited. If you received help from your critique group or if you had your work professionally edited, I would want to know this, and if your work was professionally edited, sharing your editor’s name is also a plus.

To be very honest, experience has shown me that first attempts are usually not commercially viable. The reason for this is that unless writing comes to you naturally, your first attempt as a novelist, as first attempts with just about anything, is not going to be advanced enough to win you a publishing contract. Consequently, most agents, including myself, very seldom consider representing first attempts.

We all learn to write at a very young age. Normally, children who enter first grade know how to write simple sentences. Writing is, after all, a form of communication, so it is assumed that anyone who is literate can write. However, it is a huge leap to assume that anyone who is literate is also a novelist, and I think assuming this is becoming a major problem.

Somewhere in middle school and maybe even before, we write our first composition. Is it natural to think that we could also, at this point, win a publishing contract for a magazine article? I don’t think so. It takes time to hone those skills and learn about the different types of writing out there. It also takes time to hone the skills needed to write a novel.

For a moment I would like to go beyond the question and connect back to the post about including magazine writing in your query for a novel. Keep in mind that composition writing moves one in the direction of magazine articles and creative writing moves one in the direction of short fiction, which can eventually lead to writing longer fiction. As can be seen here, composition and creative writing move on two different tracks. Consequently, since they are not that closely related—more like distant cousins—why put this information in your query letter unless you are querying us on a non-fiction project?

To reiterate the main point of this post, make sure that if you mention you are querying on a first novel that you communicate effectively the steps you have taken to make it the best it can possibly be. Without this information, your query will probably be dismissed. Most agents have seen too many poorly written first novels to believe that yours might be any better, so make sure you give us the information needed to truly understand your writing ability.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Long Fiction and Articles

During the past month, I have received a number of queries in which writers have stated they have written hundreds of magazine articles, then added that this is their first novel. In my experience, the only direct correlation between the magazine article and long fiction is that they both are forms of writing. The differences, however, are vast.

What is needed in your queries is only your experience in writing long fiction and not that in writing scripts, poetry or any journalistic endeavors. If this is your first novel, ever, state that and only that in your query. If you have written other novels but they are not the ones you are querying on, please mention them.** We realize that many writer boards advise members to list all writing experience in your query letters, but this agency thinks it a waste of time and effort. It means nothing to us as we judge your ability on your writing sample(s) only and not what you say about yourself. We cannot use this information to impress editors, consequently, for us, it is meaningless and unnecessary information.

We are not saying here that a journalist cannot become a novelist. Many famous novelists could do both quite well. We are only saying that adding this to a query letter is more information than we need to evaluate your work, and it could distract from other important ideas in your letter.

Focus is critical in a query! You need to concentrate on what you want to get across to your reader (the agent or editor), just as in a cover letter for a resume you need to focus on narrowly defining the skills and projects that fit the job for which you are applying. The same is true in querying on long fiction.

**However, keep in mind that if you have written seventeen novels and have yet to place one, that might not look so good. If you have written seventeen novels and you just now feel that your work is ready for publication, then make sure that comes across. Don’t let the message in your query come out as, “I can’t get published and I don’t know why, but I just keep writing new stuff.”

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Right from Your Heart?

R.L. Stine, author of almost 200 hundred books for children and the originator of the Goose Bumps series, is skeptical about how writers approach their job of writing for an audience. Here is what he says in an excerpt from an interview by Sharon Miller Cindrich that was published in the June 2006 issue of the WRITER magazine.

Advice: I hear other authors saying, “Write from your heart. Write what you feel.” That’s horrible. What a way to turn people away from writing. I’ve never written a single thing from my heart. I write to entertain people. I pick out an audience, and I learn about them and what they like, and I write the best book I can for them. You can make a really good living and have a lot of fun writing things for other people.

I just returned from a trip and had over fifty queries waiting for me (it was a weekend, after all). Much to my sadness, I had to reject all of them. Do you know why? I passed up going further with them because, as a reader, none appealed to me. Most had ideas that had already been done and the rest, those that had some idea appeal, were poorly presented.

So maybe there is something to what Mr. Stine is saying in the short paragraph above. Maybe you should stop writing what appeals to you or your critique group, who are, after all, writers too, and begin to write what appeals to readers. Readers are the ones who will ultimately determine whether you are a success or a failure as a commercial writer.

As a writer, you should determine what you want from your writing. Do you want to write from your heart and appeal to those readers who connect with that, or do you want to write as R.L. Stine does, with an audience in mind that dictates your product? Or do you want to do both? Most writers want to produce what is in their hearts and then find an audience for it, which you must realize is terribly difficult and doesn’t really fall neatly into a business model. How can it? Think about Leonardo da Vinci. Not as in the code stuff, but look at how he managed his career. He knew balance, and that was part of his genius and success. He knew what was necessary to be able to do what he really enjoyed and still make a living at it. What we see too often is writers who insist on writing what they want to write, and then expect there to be someone—a publisher or agent—who finds them an audience. This is backwards, and probably the basis of why there is so much confusion in this profession. We agree that you must do what makes you happy, but as we have said numerous times before, understand that it may not lead to publication. The writer who offeres audience appeal is the one who gets published.

When you write for an audience, you create an experience for them--not you--so you must write they want to read to be successful. Enjoying the experience of writing is fine, but just remember that, like any performer, you need to offer the audience something that it wants.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Query Example

Here is an example of the type of e-mail query we would like to receive in regard to structure. If you use this format for a regular mail query, remember to include an inside address and date and adjust the content accordingly. Also, please note this same structure can be used in a cover letter that goes with a resume; people have gotten jobs using this same form with the appropriate information substituted.

Dear Ms. Joneson:

I am writing to submit for your consideration my 90,000-word adult mainstream novel, GREAT LOVE LOST, in which fate pits two sisters against each other as they battle for the love of one dedicated physician fighting an epidemic no one realizes exists.

GREAT LOVE LOST is the story of two sisters in love with the same man who don’t realize it until a fateful encounter at a mortuary. The ensuing chaos drives one sister, Jess, to attempt suicide, and the other, Lia, to join the Peace Corps. Fate strikes again as the man, a doctor, is sent to a conference on SARS in China, where Lia is stationed, and their passion is rekindled. However, their love is once again challenged when a threatening letter from Jess arrives, and Lia contracts SARS shortly thereafter.

My previous publishing credits include: LIES, MORE LIES, THEN SOME CHEATING, a mainstream novel published in 2002 by Rose Heart Publishing, an imprint of Lemon Slice Books; LOVE IN SUMMER, another mainstream novel, and its sequel, LOVE IN WINTER, published in 1999 and 2001, respectively, by Doubledog Press; and finally, LOVE TO LOVE YOU, another mainstream novel that will be released in 2008 from Major Publisher Press.

I appreciate the opportunity to have you review my novel, GREAT LOVE LOST, for possible representation. Thank you for your time and consideration; I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Ima Writer

Bad Query Example

This query contains a host of problems that appear in queries we see daily. We think you can pick out the major ones. What do you see wrong with this query--please share your ideas with us and others by commenting.

If you cross- check your query with this one and it matches up pretty closely, it's probably a good idea to revise your query. By the way, people always ask us this, and, yes, we have gotten queries almost exactly like thism which has made us very selective about the medical practicioners we visit. :)

Dear Agent:

Although I realize that publishers only seek to maintain the literary status quo with the junk they produce, I am sending my 2nd 200,000-word fantasy novel for your perusal in case you have chosen to buck the system. The first book in the series has been published by SomePOD, Inc., and it is selling like crazy—one book a week.

I am a surgeon by trade, but, while operating, I constantly make up stories in my head. During one particularly rough operation wherein the patient almost died twice on the table—we are not sure why—I got an idea for a story and just had to write it down. Two months later, I DON’T WANNA DIE was complete. Now I have finished the sequel, OOPS! A NEW BEGINNING, in which the same 12 characters continue where the last story left off. I believe both novels have movie potential, and friends that have read my work encouraged me to get it published. Even one of the editors I sent OOPS! A NEW BEGINNING to on my own said he had never seen anything quite like it, so I am sure that it will change the industry.

As for my publishing credits, in addition to my first novel, I have published several articles in the Journal of Medicine and Mad Magazine, and I write the newsletter for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. I know that if I can get the right agent, I will make him a lot of money, because I am very prolific and have lots of ideas for the next two sequels. Also, I possess great personal charm that will serve me well on the talk show circuit.

Thank you for reading my entire manuscript. I know you won’t reject it, but if you need to send it back to me for any other reason, like to change a couple of words, you can send it in the envelope I have provided. I can’t wait to start our working relationship!


Dr. G. Ima Writer

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Some More Query Stuff

I know this is about book openings and that you had a previous discussion on query letters, but I'd like to combine the two discussions and get your opinion on the query letter opening. I have read everything from the query letter being just an informational piece that leads to reading the synopsis, to it should open with something other than, "Thank you for taking your valuable time to read ...," to something that should quickly grab the attention of the agent so that he/she wants to read more that the author has written. What does your team like to see?

Maybe we are fuddy-duddies, but we like our query letters patterned after the business letter—no hype, no gimmicks, just plain facts. We like the important information (at least what we consider important) right up front. Things like the title of the work, its category (fiction or nonfiction, literary fiction, if literary, genre type, if genre, mainstream, if mainstream), word count, etc. If you don’t know what you’ve written, don’t query. If you, as your novel or book’s creator, don’t know what to call it, we certainly don’t either and would not know where to venture a guess. You wouldn’t believe the number of writers who query us on such things as a science fiction romance political thriller, with a little mystery thrown in for good measure. There has to be a more specific focus in your novel; otherwise, you have written something that is mainstream.

The vital information we need can be placed in that first paragraph and your hook can begin with a new paragraph that is still at the top of the letter. In other words, don’t mess around and stick the vitals stats of your novel somewhere in the depths of your query where we have to search for it.

The general theory being put forth by board gurus is that if you begin with a hook, the agent or editor is forced to read about your work to find the information they need. This might work, but I think those who assume this are taking a great risk. Faced with hundreds of queries in her inbox (if she even takes queries via email), many agents will only read a sentence or two before hitting the delete key or giving a standard or form rejection in frustration. Some agents have stopped taking email queries because they feel writers take advantage of them in this medium. We are still hanging in there, but the struggle sometimes isn’t worth the effort.

Although very busy, we continue to review queries because mining them is like gold mining—you never know when you’ll strike the mother lode. However, please understand that queries are a small part of our busy day, and if the choice is between reading your query or working with an editor on an important project, the project always takes precedence.

Most writers put their contact information and novel writing experience in the last one or two paragraphs and this is the correct position for this information.

Here are some points to ponder whether you send your queries via email or regular post:

  • Don’t forget the salutation (Dear Mr. Brown or Dear Ms. Martin). Many, many new writers think it’s cool to begin their letter with a hook. When viewed by us, it seems callous and rude, and no one likes rude people. Most importantly, it seems unprofessional.
  • Your e-mail’s cc: line filled with every agent in the book telegraphs that you probably have not researched agents, that you are desperate, and that you will settle for just about anyone. Next time, please leave our name off your list if you are querying forty other agents at the same time. Our finger automatically hits the delete key when we see this—it’s an automatic reflex and can’t be helped.
  • There are no agents named “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Agent” working here, so don’t send mail to them.
  • We will not spend more than a paragraph or two on your query, so don’t waste time writing those six-pagers. Five and one half of those pages will not be read.
    Also, we will not read a hook (short synopsis or jacket blurb) that’s over a paragraph long, so don’t crack your cranium there either. You should be able to express your novel in one paragraph if you really know what you’ve written.
  • Always check on what we are seeking (see www.wylie-merrick.com for a list of current needs). Market books are outdated when written because markets are fluid, so always, no matter which agent you query, try to find the most updated source for information about or from that agent.
  • Novel writing experience is all we need. Don’t give us any other work-related information (fiction only).
  • Many loved your book—so what? A sample of a thousand enthusiastic local readers makes a small dent in the reading needs of a worldwide audience. Editors pooh-pooh this information immediately, and so do we.
  • Don’t query us about your failed self-publishing venture. If you want us to help you take your failure to a bigger market because you are tired of all the work and hope someone else will relieve you of this burden, don’t bother. If you couldn’t sell it, it’s doubtful anyone else can. We only represent original, never published manuscripts (don’t send books). If your self-publishing venture is super successful, then large publishers will contact you and then you can contact us.
  • Never bind any materials sent to us. Leave it loose, dude!
  • Don’t send anything that you want returned to you. According to new (they came out in 2001) postal regulations, anything over a pound must be handed to a postal official. We feel we have much more important things to do than stand at the post office because you want your chapters returned. If the expense of printing them up is too great, send an attachment—if we ask for it first, of course. This is why we prefer e-mail queries.
  • If you must send query by regular post and it will fit in a standard envelope, put it in one. It’s a waste of postage and materials to use large, clasped envelopes just because you don’t like creases in your letters. We don’t care. We only see the writing anyway.
  • Please don’t email us with your nasty comments when you receive our standard rejection. Our reason for rejection usually falls into two areas: (a) Your writing is not at a level that meets the requirements of editors we work with, or (b) You are not writing in an area we in which we have a current need.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Horror Writer? Me? No, I Write Dark Suspense! That Weird Guy Over There Writes Horror.

"Why is "Horror" such a bad word? What happened to that market to create such a bad stigma? It happens to be my favorite genre to read, and the one I write in most of the time.Regarding the article: What if you start just before the major changing event, so you can give the reader just a tiny glimpse of what the characters' lives were like in the "normal" status, before the change? This is what I have done on my first novel of my latest series, and I think it comes out well. What are your opinions?"

These are very interesting questions and I’ll do my best to answer them in turn. Please understand that my answers are shaped from my own experiences and education, so I am not speaking for all agents. As with all things in a complex world, and especially in publishing, things seen as truths today might become less true tomorrow. A wise person takes each assumed truth with a grain of salt, or sometimes even a block of it.

No writer wants to be thought a horror writer, because those who write great horror are sometimes wrongly viewed as possibly sick and demented like some of their characters. I would imagine some readers wonder how anyone can think up such stuff if they are not twisted just like the awful people and situations they write about. Writers want to be loved. How can you love someone who creates monsters that feed on dead flesh or serial killers who stalk their victims and seem to relish in slaughtering them like so many cattle? So to be politically correct in all things bad, we also pretty up what we love to read and call it dark suspense instead of horror. The reason it is in demand right now is because it is difficult to write it well and keep it dark and horrific. Many of the manuscripts we read end up turning perky after several chapters, and, in a horror novel, perky will not do. Actually, perky characters in a horror novel are usually the victims.

As for the next question: In your opening, something should be happening. If you go back too far, the reader doesn’t feel any tension or anticipation. The change might not take place in time to engage your reader. As the writer, you are the final judge as to whether you want to take that chance or not; however, your readers are the final judges as to whether or not it worked.

Why a satisfying opening? It has been said that you have about 60 seconds to interest an agent in your writing. The reason for this is that we, in turn, have about the same amount of time to interest editors in our client’s work, and, if your work is published, the bookstore owner has that same amount of time to interest a potential reader in your book. So, if you craft your opening and it gives any of those people listed above anything except the promise of a great read, you have missed a sale.

That said, you have less than a page to promise your reader that your book will be an effortless read and to give them a character that will become their guide to enjoy during their reading experience. Entertain, horrify, educate, thrill, stimulate, seduce, excite, amaze, baffle, and/or tempt your reader from your book’s opening page until its ending paragraph. This is a large order for anyone to fill, but something you must do unfailingly if you wish to be not only published, but to be respected as a novelist who writes great stories. Let’s face a truth here: You can shout it from the rooftops, write it hundreds of times to all those who will listen, but you are not a writer until your readers declare it to be so.

So, before doing it your way, remember that your readers control your output. This is a free country, so write whatever you choose to write. Write where your muse takes you, that’s also your right. But you can sell only what the reading public wants to buy. Why? Because they have more rights than you, as they pay for theirs with hard cash. :)

In the publishing biz, numbers of books sold—not to publishers, but to readers—calculates a writer’s success. And readers not only demand a solid opening, but a quality read throughout. Your reader grew up watching television. They demand that something be happening at the beginning of a program or they change channels. They demand the same in the books they buy. This doesn’t mean society is on the downward spiral because of TV and adapting your opening accordingly means it will lack quality. It only means that you promise a great read with a great writing right up front with no distractions.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Tired Openings

"In the novel, [blank] awakes from a colorful and frightening dream."

If I read this opening scene one more time, I’m going to slash my wrists. Only kidding of course, but I can see by the gleam of joy in your eyes that you think this not such a bad idea. :)
Writers—do not open your novel with someone waking from a dream or a nightmare or even after enjoying a raucous roll in the hay. Why not? Because it’s been done hundreds of times by every writer under the sun, that’s why. Like most clich├ęs, the waking up opening is so shopworn that it smells like old wet sweat socks.

Of course, other openings are just as shopworn, such as the ringing phone or moving to new home or a different town or a new home in a different town. It seems every YA or middle-grade novel written these days begins with a student whose parents have moved and Janie or Jacky or Kayla is having a difficult time adjusting to the new kids or whatever. Surely there is something else going on in young adults’ lives besides facing the trauma of fitting in at a new school. On a side note, another idea that has become totally overused is that the main character in the novel is some kind of writer, whether it’s for adults or for kids. This has been done for years, and I think the shine has definitely rubbed off of it by now.

And, of course, these openings are going to be overused because they seem like natural places to begin a novel, especially the waking up idea. But to be taken seriously, you are going to have to do better than to copy everyone else. Yes, I know, the damn DaVinci Code started with the guy waking up and it sold millions of copies. This, however, proves my point. It’s been done, so think of another way to open your story.
If you want to be taken seriously as a new writer, you cannot copy what someone else has done and that includes ideas, plot lines, characters, and all the other elements that made up someone else’s success. There is only one DaVinci Code and one Harry Potter and one Mineral Spirits (hey, like I’m not going to plug my own client here?), so copying any of its aspects only gives me and every other agent a built-in excuse to reject your work. Don’t make it so easy on us.

Where to begin then?

Start your novel with something happening. Something has changed to cause a shift in what was done the instant before it occurred, and because of this change the world is now a different place. That’s where you start your novel. You begin your book the instant after this disruption of the norm. The change can be good or bad, and it can be a small thing or it can be huge. It’s not the type or amount that matters, only change. And why is this? Why change? Because humans hate change, that’s why. Change disrupts comfort. It makes us modify the way we did things before it occurred. Making changes can be scary and hard work. It requires thought, even. It can turn our peaceful existence upside down. Consequently, it’s the natural place to start a book.

Losing one’s job, a divorce, the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, a change in weather, tearing down the house next door, a new washing machine, winning a contest, finishing a sewing project—even an unexplained crack appearing in the family room wall can cause a disruption that will throw a person or family into a vortex of disruptions that challenges our normally peaceful day-to-day existence. This is your gris; this is the propellant that drives your story forward until its ending.

Let’s take a crack in the family room wall, for instance. What if the crack is being caused because the house is sitting across a fault line, and it’s a harbinger of a mammoth earthquake? Or suppose that the houses in this area were built where there once was a cattle ranch, and the ground underneath is where the rancher buried his cattle after they all died from anthrax. Do you think with this opening you could complete this story? Of course you can. Why don’t you try it and see? You can go many different directions with this. Dark suspense is really hot right now, why not that? Or maybe somehow you turn it into the romance. Ask the big question, “What if?” and go from there.

So, as you can see, there are many ways to begin a story and just as many ways to sustain drama/tension after your beginning. Just add some imagination and away you go. Good luck!!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Keep it simpe--please!!

Lately I’ve been seeing loads of queries with great ideas that just don’t come to fruition when I request the full MS. What I’m seeing is new writers trying to write like pros that have been in this business forever. You shouldn’t do this if you have your publishing goals straight.

First of all, if this is going to be your first and only book—ever, don’t bother to query us. We would prefer not to represent one book-wonders. If, on the other hand, novel writing is your career goal, you have plenty of time to experiment. So, with that in mind, keep your first book technically simple. Choose a one narrator and stick with that person, object, alien, or whenever throughout your novel or book. To do otherwise weakens every other character in the book and makes a difficult job more difficult or even impossible before the novel’s end.

Along this same line, write with one voice. I recently requested a full submission in which the author decided to switch from third person-limited to first person. The villain’s voice was in third and the protagonist’s in first. It didn’t work as well as it could have; it just made the character foil seem washed out, and the book eventually ended up with a very bland lead character. I knew what he was trying to do, but unfortunately it didn’t work. This often happens when a writer takes bold risks early on.

When writing your first book, your goal should be to get it published so you can start building a name and an audience in whichever category or genre you choose to write. Therefore, use simple technique to write a great story. Use the extra energy that complexity requires to develop a great story with memorable characters.

Along that same line, don’t send me work whose premise has already been exploited a thousand times. The other day a writer sent me a query in which he proclaimed that he had written the new Da Vinci Code. There is only one Da Vinci Code, and there will never be another. Don’t try to emulate a bestseller because you are again wasting your effort. No one will take your work seriously because it’s already been done. Use that effort to recycle an old theme with a new twist. There are only so many plots, and every one has been used thousands of times. What’s new is the angle and the twist, so write from a new angle in a different perspective. What is the Da Vinci code but Raider’s of the Lost Ark with a different angle? Like all the experts say, most of the information in the Da Vinci Code is readily available in many other books. Dan Brown just uses that information and takes it to the next logical fictionalized step. He uses a tool available to all fiction writers and that tool is—“What if!”
Think of it this way: What if you kept it simple?

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Totally Biased Response (Don't say we didn't warn you...)

What’s your take on authors who find publishers on their own, then go looking for an agent to help with contract negotiations or contract review?

In the past, some authors who have found a publisher on their own have asked us to work the contract for them. This concept would work fine, except in most cases the publisher found was usually PublishAmerica or some other similar entity. If some of you aren’t familiar with PublishAmerica, let me just say this: If you are turned down by them, you must have done something to make them angry, because, otherwise, you would be published. The advance for this venture would get these writers a check of $1.00, and our take for working their contract would be a whopping 15 cents. Oh, did I forget the royalties? Darn. There’s probably a couple of bucks there, too, if the writer has a huge family and a large circle of indulgent friends.

So the concept of finding a publisher and thereby securing an agent works only if you find a legitimate, royalty and advance-paying publisher. Hence, nothing beats the old-fashioned way of writing something that’s saleable and then finding an agent who can successfully represent it.

If you have done the hardest part - getting a house to take your novel on - why do you need an agent? Agents do more than just sell the work, but without their love behind the pages, they are going to be limited. I'd say get a literary lawyer to help with the contracts and rights on this novel, and seek an agent for your next work.

First of all, the hardest part isn't getting a publisher. There are a lot of hard parts in the process no one really talks about because it seems like to most writers that just getting a contract on a book is the end all, so this presents an interesting question: Why do you need an agent?

Why not just find a publisher on your own, hire a lawyer to work your contract, and pocket that outrageous 15 % agents get for whatever it is they do? While you’re at it, to be extra safe, the writer with a publisher’s contract in hand should probably hire a lawyer who works in intellectual properties law. Since lawyers will want a retainer before they will even look at your contract, be sure to have your checkbook handy as retainers usually run upwards of $500. Lawyers are not like agents. They don’t work on commission but by the hour. So there might be a possibility that your initial retainer won’t cover the entire cost of reading and analyzing a publishing contract of possibly twenty pages or more. Most lawyers are great negotiators, so they will also do that for you—by the contact hour. Cha-ching!

Many publishers who don’t accept unsolicited submissions are medium in size. There is nothing wrong with these folks. They produce wonderful books and generate sales that range from decent to outstanding. However, they generally don’t pay very high advances—usually in the thousand to two thousand dollar range. So if I do the math, let’s see, that would be a $150 to $300 in commission savings. That will help nicely in payment toward your $500-plus lawyer bill.

Agents do more than work on contracts, however. They review your manuscript and help you fix minor mistakes prior to sending it to an editor. They offer assistance on preparing your submission package. They then take care of preparing and sending your work to one of their many contact editors who handle books like yours. While your book is being circulated, your agent becomes your career manager, working on your future writing career by reading and/or commenting on completed works or those you are contemplating writing in the future. Later, when your contract is signed, your agent reads and helps with your bio, consults with you about covers and titles when the opportunity arises and is there for you through the long, often arduous process of bringing a completed book to fruition. Your agent is also your money manager, reminding the bean counters that your royalty check is late, then depositing it in a special clients-only account until the publisher’s check clears the bank. An agent is your advocate, advisor and usually, as it works out most of the time, a trusted confidant.

We are biased, of course, because we are agents.:) It is important to keep in mind that agents and lawyers are two different sets of professionals and work in different ways, and it is up to what the writer wants or needs as to whether he chooses to seek out one or the other.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Really Real Reality Rejection

Sent May 5, 2006

It begins to tell how Marty and his two friends, Jake and Phil, move to Schenectady from a small town in Pennsylvania and mett Phyllis Miller, a woman with a past, and a son, Miley.

Yes, there are a couple of things wrong here. First of all, as you can see, everything runs together. We assume that this writer is either in a hurry or just doesn’t care. Either way, I’m sorry to say, we cannot take a chance on clients like this. There is too much of a risk here.

So, my question to writers is this: Would this sentence make you want to see more of this work? This should be the question you ask yourself as you write your query letters. Would this make an agent want to see more?

Sent May 5, 2006

Ever read anything this interesting?

A rather nice way to start a query, don’t you think? I’m only kidding. I can picture this person applying for a job. Ever seen anyone as talented as me? Would you hire him or her?

Sent May 7, 2006

Attn. Rober Brown:

Believe it or not I got two of these yesterday. Maybe they are trying to tell me something.

Sent May 7, 2006

(Blank—Blank—Blank) is 40,735 words (11 chapters) of wholesome chick lit.

Wholesome, maybe. Chick lit? I don’t think so, unless chick lit comes in a novella format.

Sent May 5, 2006

At 63,000 words, (Blank—Blank—Blank) is paced for a quick-and-easy read.
I’ve been writing for most of my life starting when I was ten writing short plays for my class. After a few high school works in the theater, I moved to more traditional work with short stories and now novels. (Blank—Blank) is currently in pre production at my publisher, but at the bottom of this email is my ISBN. If you are taking new writers, I do hope you will allow me to submit further material for review.

I chopped a few sentences out of this query because there are many things wrong here, and this makes a great example of things I think are important for writers to realize. First of all, the one issue in this passage—again--is the word count of the project. I think the reason behind this problem shows up in the second sentence—ten short plays—more traditional short stories and now novels. As most senior novelists will tell you, it’s quite a leap from a short story to a novel, and many short story writers run out of plot before they have a sufficient word count. I’ve noticed that many times when a short word count crops up, the querying writer wrote short stories before he attempted long fiction.

Also, notice how meaning is lost in the second sentence. This does not give an agent much confidence in this writer’s ability.

Although this is not the case with this particular query, I’d like to make the point that once a book is already published, it’s a little late to be looking for an agent. This is happening more and more, as writers either self-publish or publish with small presses. If a writer needs an agent to shop his sub-rights, research should tell him that most agents deal only with original, unpublished works unless they are from a very large agency with a sub-rights specialist on staff. Also, in most cases, unless the book sells very well, the sub-rights are not that valuable, at least not valuable enough to be shopped extensively. Finally, if your book is already published and sells well, you don’t need anyone to shop rights for you…other publishers will be contacting you, your agent, or your publisher.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Reality Rejections Redux

I’ll begin by saying that those who commented are very astute as everyone got the quiz right: You don’t bind a manuscript before submitting it to anyone in publishing. Also, please remember that I am not laughing at anyone’s query efforts when I post these. What is being attempted will be a helpful exercise only so long as most of the people who read the posts gain something from them. The best way to learn some of this query stuff is by seeing examples and feedback. Please do not take offense if you recognize something you wrote. No one, not even us, will remember who sent what where as we delete them as soon we answer and comment on them. We will continue with this exercise, whenever possible, as long as viewers feel these comments are helpful.

Sent: 5/4/06

To Whom It May Concern,

Here is another variation on the “Mr. or Ms.” posting of yesterday. I know for a fact, having heard other agents comment on this at writers’ conferences, that this will get you an instant rejection. Another related mistake is when the “Cc:” address area is filled with hundreds of agent’s email addresses. None of us like spam, and, in both instances, this is exactly what this is. If you are interested in establishing a relationship with an agent, please address that agent by his or her name (until he or she gives you permission otherwise). By the same token, most agents usually address those who query them by their titles and last names until given permission to do otherwise. This is business courtesy, which is followed throughout the business world, not just in the publishing industry.

Sent: 5/4/06

a romance/drama novel
Copyright, 2006

This was it--no greeting, no nothing--just this. There are two things in this opening that I’d like to comment on: (1) In defining his novel, this writer sent the message to me that he didn’t really know what he had written. Most novels fit the drama category, so just call it a romance…if it can be defined as one. In the defining, though, is where many writers fall flat on their patootie (which is industry lingo for “patootie”). For instance, if you call your work a romance novel, make sure your story isn’t told totally from the male character’s point of view. Although the lines are being blurred on what is a romance and what isn’t, this one is a no-brainer. The correct definition of the type novel that I think the writer is trying to describe is probably a love story, which fits into the mainstream category, not in the romance genre. However, I just don’t know what the writer meant, and that leaves a bad impression. (2) You do not have to inform us that your work has a copyright. We are well aware of it, so this is useless information, and, as such, labels you as a rank beginner. Copyright is granted as soon as something is written, and all agents are aware of this (or should be!). By the way, if this information is included to deter someone from stealing your work, it is a waste of time to include it. The type of people who infringe upon copyrights aren’t going to be deterred by this. Ask the people involved in the recent scandal involving the Opal Mehta novel…but that’s another story.

Sent: 5/4/06

There were several queries that came in with relatively low word counts.

What is it with all these 60,000 word novels? There have been a rash of these lately and until we find some editors who want these, we are not taking them. Novels are getting smaller. I might consider one at 65,000 words, but it better be something that I fall in love with. Sixty thousand- word novels are just too short for us right now. Books of more standard lengths, those that center around 85,000 words, are hard enough to place in this overly glutted market. Why make it more difficult to get an agent behind your work? Wait until you are published to experiment with word length, POV, etc. Until then, try to stay as close to the standards as possible.

Sent: 5/4/06

…then I received query of almost 800 words packed in three long, dense paragraphs.

It was like this writer had decided to write a short story that mirrored her book. There was no other information; it was all about the plot of the book. I didn’t read all of it. I just skimmed through, stopping here or there when something caught my eye. My first conclusion was that there was a good bet that this was probably an example this person’s writing style. Dense and unfriendly--I shudder the thought, as do most readers. Writers, have a little mercy on your readers. Don’t give them a boring diatribe that puts them to sleep. Give their eyes a rest by leaving a little white space here and there. A refreshing way to do this is through conversation (dialogue), the most active of all writing.

Sent: 5/4/06

A writer with a penchant for pedestrian heroics must come to grips that for every life he saves, something tragic will happen to him.


That concludes Reality Rejection for today. Until next time

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Reality Rejections

I had a unique idea today. Okay, not that unique, but still...

Why not post to the blog some real reasons why I’ve rejected writers who queried me today? This would be something like reality TV. For fun, and for the lack of another name, let’s call it just plain “Reality Rejection.” Don't get me wrong, though, I am not poking fun here. This kind of help is what we all truly need: a demonstration--live--of what we are doing wrong. As is usual, I would like feedback--likes, dislikes, and such. No nasty comments, okay? You may be next. :)

Sent: Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Dear Mr. or Ms: (This is all that was used for the salutation.)

This one’s easy. Apparently this writer doesn’t care who his agent is. Just get me an agent, any old agent will do. Even a scammer would be okay cause I need an agent. Please do your research, writers and tailor your query to the best agent for your particular type of novel. Fishing with dynamite is illegal and shot gunning for agents should be. The last word: if you are going to query us, read our Web site first. Obviously this person didn’t.

Sent: Wednesday, May 03, 2006

There's a 22,500-word property for the juvenile market by a published author that I'd like to submit to you for possible representation.

Yes, I’m sure there is—somewhere—but not at 22,500 words there isn’t, especially if it’s not more clearly defined.

Sent: Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Killer style. As they say in the biz, you’ve got style, really. I shall leave that to your judgement.

If you are going to …”leave it up to my judgment.” I’m going to judge you on your spelling. It’s “judgment,” not “judgement.” And please don’t tell me what another writer says about your book or how many awards it’s won or how much your family or your neighbors loved it. Book markets encompass the entire world. It matters not what one person or even a group of people says about a book that has to be sold to a world audience. Unless of course, that person has world celebrity and can proclaim his/her adoration to a worldwide TV audience.

Sent: Wednesday, May 03, 2006

For this writer, I would have to copy the entire novel description and that would be embarrassing. The reason I rejected this work was because he/she sent me a paragraph that told me nothing about the important details of the work and all about the person—what contests the novel had won, how much the era it was written in intrigued him, etc. Can you imagine this on a book cover? How many readers would turn to page one?

Sent: Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I have completed a novel in a genre rarely seen.

And that genre is. . .? A genre rarely seen is probably not a genre at all—might you think?

Sent: Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Subject: sending the h.r. ms?

I pulled this one out of my spam filter. It catches anything that doesn’t have query or query letter or something with query in it in the Subject: line. I rejected this one anyway and not for this but for other problems. Don’t use something like this as a subject if you want me to read that query you spent so much time writing.

Sent: Wednesday, May 3, 2006

…professionally critiqued and has received its final draft. I have also completed a solid synopsis of the manuscript. It is ready to go. I would be happy to mail you a complete and bound copy of the book…

Okay, now it’s your turn. Tell me, in one sentence, what is wrong with this statement? I’ll give you a clue: It’s something that tells me this person is a very amateur writer.

This will just about do it for today. If you like this sort of thing, let me know and we’ll do more of it. Hope it helps.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

It's All in The Balance

Notoriety means a lot in publishing, as it does with just about any industry. What I think is funny is that reviews and critiques, even by agents, are subjective to the person. One person might think a beginning is slow, while another thinks the same ending is just the perfect pace.The advice given to me has always been write what your heart wants, and find the agent that fits it, not the other way around. I guess it depends on if you are writing to write, or writing to be published. I don't think, however, that the two are mutually exclusive.”

You are correct: Writing just to write and writing to be published are not always mutually exclusive. However, there is a fine balance that must be struck between the two for a writer to ultimatley be successful. There are not many writers who can do this overall.

Also, notoriety is not the same in publishing as any other industry. Notoriety in publishing means you already have an audience, something that it might take years to build just writing books. Publishers know and understand the marketing aspect of celebrity and play to it. This leaves the beginning writer at a disadvantage that may never be overcome.

Yes, I agree that a writer should always write what’s in his heart to write, but that has nothing to do with beginnings, transitions, character, point of view, title choices, setting, description, voice, dialogue, interior monologue, climax or endings. These choices and techniques have nothing to do with heart, but have to do with writing skill. There is only one person a writer has to please, and that’s his reader. Readers demand that novels begin a certain way, usually with change or with something happening in your character’s life. Today’s readers were raised on television where you have, at the most, a very short time to tell a story. Readers will not wait for a writer to fall into his pace, nor will they wallow in the fluidity of your language just for the sake of it as they might have years ago. If you don’t give them something right up front that lets them know that this is going to be an exciting story and well worth their time and investment, your readers will resent it and will reject you.

I heard a writer the other day arrogantly proclaim, “If it wasn’t for writers, publishers would have to close their doors.” Well, this may be partly true. However, when readers stop reading what writers write…need I say more?

Writing for publication can be writing from your heart, but it is always writing for your audience no matter what, and it is imperative to remember that.

Pitching, Hooking, and all that Hype

I see massive amounts of advice on how to pitch, or hook, agents at writer conferences—some of it right on the mark and some of it not. This post contains some advice from me, an agent who has been on the receiving end of conference pitches. I’ve had writers sing their pitches and act them out; some come dressed for the occasion in formal evening gowns, and others wear jeans. At one conference, a lady in a top hat pitched me, and, although I don’t like hype, she definitely stood out. After a couple of hours of seeing a different face every fifteen minutes, all faces blend together unless the way they present themselves stands out. So the key is to make your approach to pitching your list of agents different, but not hyped. Below are some tips on helping an agent remember you:

(1) Summarize pitches into one hundred fantastic words. Make sure each word adequately relates the story you have written.

(2) Smile and be confident. Confidence is even more important than a prepared pitch.

(3) Don’t wait for agents to prompt you. Make every second count. Ten minutes might not sound like a long time--and it isn’t if you are engaged in conversation--but dead air can go on forever.

(4) Get your pitch over with and then get to know the agent. It’s a must that you like the person who might represent you.

(5) Don’t get so hung up in your presentation that you hog the pitch. Allow time for the agent to ask questions about your book.

(6) Always have a few pages you can leave with an agent—a few pages means no more than five —if allowed by the conference. Or not. You never know when an agent like me might break the rules just a little bit.

(7) If you don’t have business cards, get some.

(8) Make sure you leave every agent you pitch with SOMETHING, if it’s no more than a good impression.

(9) Do your research before the conference to make sure the agent you are pitching represents what you write. Don’t waste time and money on those who can easily be eliminated as a possible match for you and your work. Research=Dollars in Your Pocket.

(10) Always listen to what others say about the agents they have pitched. If you know agent’s temperament, you might tailor your pitch to suit that agent or decide that the agent may not be for you, saving you valuable time and effort.

Conferences are for networking, education and fun. Make sure you take advantage of all three!

Sunday, April 09, 2006


We are happy to announce that congratulations are in order!
  • M.J. Pearson's gay Regency romance, THE PRICE OF TEMPTATION, is now a 2005 Lambda Award finalist in the best romance category.
  • Varian Johnson's multi-cultural chick-lit novel, A RED POLKA DOT IN A WORLD FULL OF PLAID, earned the #6 spot on Essence magazine's March paperback bestseller list.
  • Partner Robert Brown is now an AAR member.