Friday, November 16, 2007

Query Notions

I opened my mail this morning and there they were, a dozen five-page queries through which I had to dig to find something—anything—that would tell me what the senders were trying to say. I just needed a thread, some essence possibly, of what, if anything at all, these queries were trying to communicate to me.

Are you guilty of writing novella-sized query letters? Communication is key, and, as a communicator, you fail to cross the first major threshold if you cannot describe your book or novel in one sentence. If you cannot, then may I suggest the possibility that you might not know what you’ve written. Think about it this way: If an editor phoned and asked what your book was about, could you tell her in less than one minute? You really shouldn’t need any more time than that—if you really understand what you’ve written.

As a literary agent, I must have confidence that I can sell what I represent. Therefore, I must be convinced that what a writer has produced is a great and salable read before I’m able to persuade anyone else. If you cannot convince me, if your message is so deeply hidden within tons of verbiage, how would you expect me to convince an editor that you have written the new next great novel or that your non-fiction holds the answers that readers have been searching for? Your query’s job is just that. It must do what you would have to do if you had to explain your book, verbally, to a harried editor who can give you only one minute before her next meeting. One shot is all you get here so you don’t want to blow it. You are, after all, a writer and great writing is your medium. Let that show through in your query letter.

Another thing: There’s a return of the trend of writers sending untargeted submissions to everyone on earth, and I know this because I can see all the e-mail addresses of the other recipients in the CC: line. Also, I am getting tons of queries that address me as TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN. My spam filter catches these and it irritates the hell of me to have to go in there to delete them, so you don’t win any points if I find your query there. There’s a proper way to query an agent—then there’s the lazy spammer’s way.

Next—and I’ve said this before—if your book is over 110,000 words, don’t query me on it. I just received a query from a writer who stated that his PROFESSIONALLY EDITED book weighed in over 150,000 words. . . If this happens to you, before sending me a query letter, first ask for a refund from your professional editor. He or she should know better.

Also, if an agency’s Web site says their agents prefer email queries, you leave a bad impression if you ignore their instruction and send your query via snail mail. Maybe I’m being presumptuous here because I assume that everyone reads our Web site before they query. If you didn’t, then you haven’t done your research and therefore are not ready to be represented. Since I have confidence that professional writers are the only ones who need the services of a literary agent, if you send me a query via regular mail, then I have wonder how professional you are or how serious you are about the profession. Different agents take this stuff different ways. Some may take your willingness to ignore their guidelines as a sign that you’re stubborn, while others may think it means you are lacking good judgment or organizational skills. Either way it goes, it is still not going to impress anyone. I have to follow the same rules in many aspects of my life, not just publishing, and I know it gets tedious. However, it’s important.

Finally, what’s with the 8.5x11 envelopes (or larger) containing a one page query letter? You don’t lose points with agents who accept snail mail queries if your letter has wrinkles in it. I know some agents who are picky, but not that picky.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Should You Use An Outline? Maggie Says, Yes!

A few months ago we put out a call for writers to share their thoughts with us about their writing experiences. This morning I received from Maggie these comments on how to make an outline work for you:

Your blog is one of the best out there, and I think it provides a lot of value for a lot of people. Thanks so much for your efforts.

I saw your call for feedback about methods and wanted to respond, having recently completed the last revision of a first novel. Perhaps it might help someone to hear a few more practical pointers from one who's just been through the "ringer," in a good way!

I've read a number of writers' comments, from both novices and well-published authors, about the use of outlines. You never saw more differences of opinion! Do you love them or hate them? Many writers feel they are confining, that they constrain the creative flow. Others feel that outlines "commit" them, irrevocably, to a specific action or character that they may later want to change or eliminate.

I love them for two reasons. First, I found the outline helpful in keeping me on track, balancing varying points of view, and helping to ensure that each chapter contained meaningful, plot-advancing and/or character--revealing action (especially toward the latter end of my revision process). I believe that as long as you, the writer, understand that the outline is a tool, not a mortgage or some other kind of inescapable commitment, you or your characters can take it in different directions; model it after your own needs.

It is a place to begin collecting your thoughts and ideas. It encourages you to think about your story as a complete work rather than a loosely-connected group of scenes or actions. But it is also dynamic. I updated my outline frequently as the novel took its course, especially in the beginning. Posting the grid on the wall and using small Post-It notes in each column made it easier to navigate when I changed major plot points. Having a physical outline taped up where I could see it provided a better sense of accomplishment, too.

Second, the outline proved useful when the book was finished, in making sure that I had closed off all the plot points. In the outline grid, each chapter had its own row, and the major characters and plot threads had their own columns across the top. I filled in key actions and discoveries, moving through one chapter at a time. To use a time-worn, but wonderful example, if a gun appeared in Chapter 17, the grid allowed me to make sure it went off in a later scene. It was especially helpful in resolving (or remembering!) many small details, even issues raised in dialogue, that I found had gone unanswered. Adding an occasional line to close these loops, or even choosing to eliminate unnecessary references and dialogue -- an added bonus toward lowering word count and tightening the writing -- were much easier for me to accomplish using the outline.

In starting my second novel, another thriller, my approach surprised me: I formed the basic premise -- similar to the first paragraph of a query -- and just started writing scenes, beginning with page one. I'm sure I'll have a completed outline within the next couple of weeks, but after doing some preliminary research, I found I had to start writing the opening so I could sleep. The difference between this novel's "start" and the last one? I'm confident that it begins in the right place. I'm also keeping all my notes and research data in one notebook this time. I had about two-thousand scraps of paper with cryptic notes on them for the first novel, and still can't decipher a couple of handfuls of them. They couldn't have been that important, right?

Friday, September 28, 2007

It's time for a filter change!!

If you’re not getting answer on your e-mail queries from agents, I might know the reason. If in doubt, you can always e-mail to check on the status of your query. However, if you don’t fix the problem first. . .

Lately there are loads of query responses not reaching the intended writer because they are being blocked by active spam filters through AOL, Hotmail or the many mail programs out there that utilize the spam protection built into them. Therefore, if you’re going to send out email queries to agents and you want an answer back, please either use an alternative email address for returns (one without a spam filter) or put the agent’s name in your address book (you can remove these later).

I would advise the latter because most agents, myself included, hit the Return button when either requesting or rejecting.

One last tip: If you query via email, ask a question via email—don’t telephone the agent. Most agents, including myself, will not call you back. Reasons are twofold: the first being that it’s unproductive and second is cost. No, we’re not cheap. Most will call a writer and spend a minute on the phone to tell him or her that they needed to fix their e-mail problem; however, those one minute phone calls usually become 30 minutes while the writer insists on not only talking about every book he/she has ever written, or attempted to write, but also refuses to hang up until he has described all future projects he intends to write. It’s just too much of a temptation to talk. Remember, agents are salespeople and we love to talk. It’s just too easy to get into a long conversation, and that costs us in both time and money.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Rejection Perspective

I got a rejection today, and I’m glad. It wasn’t for a client, either. It was for me, for my work. I got a rejection on a project I worked on for a very long time. I wrote it and revised it. I nurtured it and tweaked it. I really liked it, too. I spent a lot of time working on it, and today the publisher’s form rejection arrived. What was my reaction, you might wonder?

I got up and went in the other room to brush my cat, Harvey, whose prognosis has been downgraded from “too mean to die ever” to “terminal cancer.” She likes to be brushed, although she’d prefer sleeping in a bag of kibble so all she’d have to do is roll over and stick her tongue out to get a conveniently located tasty snack.

Then I returned to my computer and paid a bill. After that, we splurged a little and went out to eat, and so on and so on. I did not dwell on the rejection. I did not post it on a forum complaining about the absence of common decency because it was in the form of a form letter. I did not immediately turn to the Internet and try to find any and all information about the company in an effort to discredit them or to insinuate that the publisher was either a scammer, incompetent, or worst of all, not prestigious enough so that I could brag about the publishing credit to my friends.

I read the letter, processed it, and moved on. Rejection is and always will be part of the publishing process, so it’s no big deal. The paradigm is pretty simple really: If you have something a publisher wants, they give you money for it. If you don’t, they don’t give you money for it. Even Harvey can figure this out. I didn’t have something the publisher wanted, so they decided not to give me money for it. Okay. Next.

The reason I bring this up is that I constantly hear complaints about the rejection process—it’s too cold, it belittles writers, too many editors and agents get a thrill from it, etc. Well, let me tell you what I think about rejections, and you can take this as coming from someone who’s been through it from both sides of the desk, not just one.

When we used to write comments in rejections, we would get blasted—as recently happened—for being mean to writers, regardless of how helpful we were trying to be. So we quit writing comments except occasionally and switched to a nice safe form letter. But then we heard nothing but complaints about the coldness of a form letter and the lack of helpful comments.

What amazes me is this attitude toward form rejections in any business. Twenty years ago, when I first started looking for employment, I used to get what we called “ding” letters from companies where I had interviewed for a position but had not been selected for the job. It never mattered to me that my name was in the salutation, because the end result was I still didn’t get the job. Having a personal rejection didn’t make the news any easier to deal with. I never expected them to include interview tips or any kind words beyond the form letter, either. What were they supposed to say exactly? You're fabulous, but someone else was just way more fabulous? Think about companies like Microsoft or Bertelsman, who have applicants for positions from all over the world, probably hundreds a day, for all kinds of positions. Are they supposed to personalize each ding letter so the job candidate feels better about him/herself? How much time do you think a Human Resources Director has?

Moving on, when I tried to streamline the query process for us and writers by instituting the form system, we heard all kinds of nattering about how rude and belittling it was—why, writers are human, after all, and deserve at least enough respect to warrant a response! What response that is, however, I am not exactly sure, since rejections with comments and form rejections seem to be out as options. What are we left with?

Acceptance letters.

That’s right, and you all know I’m right. The only really palatable rejection letter is an acceptance letter. Face the truth! When a writer opens that letter, whether via e-mail or snail mail, the only words on the page that will make him feel not cheated somehow are those that offer on his manuscript. Once you accept this fundamental truth, getting a rejection letter takes on a whole new perspective and makes the writing life much less stressful. I can hear the objections now, though.

“But I can’t tell people I’m a writer if all I ever get are rejections!”

Then maybe you should consider that you aren’t a writer, which brings us to the question…

What is a writer?

To be continued…

--Sharene

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Pine Cones and Penguin Putnam

Do you ever wonder what agents think about?

It occurred to me a couple of weeks ago, as I stood waiting for the elevator at the Sheraton Hotel in Portland, that writers might be surprised at what agents sometimes think about. This occurred to me because, although I was on my way to do consults with writers at the Willamette Writers Conference, I was, at this particular moment, thinking about pine cones.

Yes, pine cones. Remember, if you will, that I was in Portland, Oregon, which is one of the most naturally beautiful places on the face of the earth, and filled with all kinds of geologic wonders that never fail to take my breathe away. It is also full of trees--big, beautiful trees in several varieties of the conifer family. Even as close as we were to the airport, there were still trees. To put this in perspective, in Indiana, we have made a concerted effort to cut down as many trees as possible to make way for industrial entities who, more often than not, decide at the last minute to locate in other countries. We, of course, because we live in a manufacturing town, assume this eleventh hour fickleness is due to the fact they don't want to pay a living wage or offer benefits; however, it may be because they really like trees and we have cut them all down. The irony never ends in a state with a struggling economy.

Anyway, I looked out the window as the elevator made its way up and noticed that a tree had deposited about twenty pine cones on the roof of the hotel. At that moment, my Hoosier kicked in, and I first mentally calculated how much I could get for each at a garage sale and then immediately tried to figure out how I could get them off the roof and through airport security. This response to pine cones may seem rather odd to some people, but in Indiana we use them extensively in crafts and interior and exterior design, even going so far as to stick a bunch of them in a bowl and set them on a table as a centerpiece. They give our homes that woodsy, natural look we lost when we cut down all the trees. While I am sure residents in other states have a similar affinity for pine cones, they probably do not have it in conjunction with our affection for cement ducks, for which we buy outfits--including Halloween costumes and bikinis--that we dress them up in for no other reason than we just really want to.

Welcome to Indiana.

Anyway, contrary to the popular belief that agents detest pitches, I wasn’t grousing about them and cursing my fate. Although I think, as many agents and editors do, that there might be a better way to implement this type of event, I actually enjoy meeting with writers and talking about books…and thinking about Portland’s lovely pine cones.

My dear hubby, however, was all business this trip. I say this because as I am thinking about ways to sell ornamental conifer droppings, he’s thinking about nothing but publishers, even after the conference. While we were on the West Coast, we had taken the opportunity between the conference and client business to see my sister and her boyfriend, who both live in California and who work at a library and bookstore, respectively. Naturally, we talk about books (what else?), and on the evening they rescued us from the airport—after an arduous three-hour delay—it was very late and we were exhausted. That, plus the jetlag we hadn’t gotten over yet, made us both a little punchy. But we were still gabbing about books when the subject of the “Big Five” came up, meaning the five major publishers. Now, on any given day, you could ask us what the five majors are and we could recite them backwards while typing three different e-mails, reading two contracts, and resisting the constant advances of an incorrigible cat determined to chew the keys right off our keyboards. As a matter of fact, here is the list right now: S&S, Random House, Hatchette Book Group, HarperCollins, and…

and…

and…

Okay, all of you know this, I am sure, and you are shouting the words at the screen right now, but for the life of us, none of us, at that moment, could think of the last publisher. So, we gave up. Or so I thought we had. I thought it had completely left our flight and time zone-addled brains until the next morning when I woke up next to my dear spouse. He was lying on his back with one hand waving above him in an open five position, counting something off on each finger and quivering with excitement.

“Great! You’re awake,” he says jovially. He apparently has taken my deer-in-the-headlights expression for rapt interest. My eyes wide, I say nothing. He points to his thumb.

“Okay, stay with me here. Simon and Schuster...” he begins, and he looks at me, his eyes gleaming. I still say nothing as he counts off the next three publishers, “…Random House, Hatchette, HarperCollins, and…and…” he leans closer and peers at me expectantly. He’s obviously been trying to remember this publisher all night. He wiggles his eyebrows at me.

“PENGUIN PUTNAM!” he shouts suddenly, counting off the elusive publisher on his pinky and rattling me right off the futon. He smiles a smile of the truly victorious. “Penguin Putnam!” he says again, in case I missed it the first time, and drags me up off the floor. Then he turns over and tries to go back to sleep, but I think the adrenaline was still pumping too hard, so we got up to start the day.

That, dear writers, is dedication. Robert even thinks about publishing in his sleep. In his sleep! Who said agenting isn’t a 24/7 job? Okay, maybe a 23/7 job, if you take an hour for the pine cones.

--Sharene

Sunday, July 08, 2007

More Fuel for the Genre Fire

If you like debating genres, you will love this. We decided to add a bit more to the thriller/suspense/horror/etc. post by going beyond the definitions of genre and posing the question about who has and who does define genres over the years—readers or publishers? More importantly, who should?

We decided to do this because Sharene ran across an article in one of our must-read magazines in keeping up with publishing—Smithsonian. Oh, laugh if you will, but we have found more valuable information in magazines that are not dedicated to publishing or writing in any way than we have in those devoted to the industry and craft. Smithsonian is just one of those (PC World is another). In the June 2007 print issue, Sharene came across an article titled Presence of Mind: Risks and Riddles by Gregory F. Treverton, director of the RAND Corporation's Center for Global Risk and Security.

While there are many issues discussed in the article, what stuck out to us is that the author tries to define from a sociological perspective what a puzzle is and what a mystery is. The author’s premise is that a puzzle can be solved because it has an answer (like the Cold War Soviet Union), but a mystery cannot be answered in a definitive way because the solution depends on variable factors that may be known or unknown (like Al Qaeda, for example). If you translate that into publishing terms, then the sociological equivalent of a mystery is a puzzle, and the sociological equivalent of a thriller/suspense is a mystery.

Chew on that for a while…

If we go by the definitions in the article, then we can conclude that a mystery is not to be solved, only a puzzle is (a whodunit?). Did they ever find Jack the Ripper? Did the scenarios that Poe painted in his work have a solution, or were they only mysteries meant to haunt us?

The question that faces writers has recently been, is it a mystery or is it suspense? Because the lines between the two have blurred so much, it is difficult to really know. However, if we look at how people think about the two different concepts, then maybe that will help. After all, publishing is people and people drive publishing…

Don’t they?

One last thought: How do you as a writer perceive publishing? Is it a mystery to be framed, as the article suggests, or is it a puzzle to be solved? The answer may be the key to your success.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Definitions to Thrill You

Today, out of curiosity, I searched on the differences between the thriller and suspense genre and came up with some interesting results. First of all, Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia, offered miles upon miles of explanation of thriller, but makes it look like the suspense genre is a sub-genre of thriller, something I won’t agree with unless someone squeezes certain appendages in a vise or drills certain teeth with a hand-drill (yes, I read too much suspense—or are they thrillers? Or maybe horror?). Any other attempt to find a reasonable definition took me to books on Amazon or other places where suspense novels are listed. So what is a writer, or even at times an agent, supposed to do when asked to explain the differences?

This point was driven home sharply when I thought I’d struck pay dirt because Google took me to Bookends Literary and a post by Jessica Faust defining not only suspense and thrillers, but woman’s fiction and chick-lit too.

I thought there must be a literary god somewhere smiling on me and would have continued to think so if I hadn’t gone to the post’s comments section, where writers were immediately disagreeing with Ms. Faust’s definitions. On one hand I felt vindicated, but on the other still frustrated.

So here lies the problem: How does one give a definition of suspense and thriller in which everyone is in agreement? My answer is that probably literary agents should not; as I found out last year when I made the terrible mistake in saying that horror is now thriller and got trounced by a number of well-meaning (albeit WRONG) posters. See the post that started it all by clicking here.

From my perspective, the definition is squarely in realm of publishing, and I say this because I have in many instances felt that I had a manuscript that fit squarely in a certain genre, only find myself told I was off-base in my assumption. Then days later, I have had another editor say that what I had found was exactly what he or she was looking for because it fit that genre so tightly. So, in my final conclusion, if you think something fits a certain genre, if you search long enough and hard enough, you’ll find someone who agrees with you. So keep plugging.

Robert

I shouldn’t even get in on this whole “defining the genres” debate, because I am pretty much not ever going to change my definition of genre romance, despite the threats against Bitty, but I think a point needs to be made here. Fiction is dynamic and publishing is subjective. That means that it is difficult to pinpoint one general, ever-lasting definition for a genre. Heck, the word genre itself avoids true definition. In the academic world, genre means category and is thrown around all over the place, but in publishing, using the term ”genre” can mean category, but it can also bring to mind a grouping of literature that exists in opposition to mainstream. I suppose I could simplify things by lobbying the industry to rename that grouping Sharene, because I am also in opposition to mainstream, but that’s another story, and one that will net more threats against Bitty. By the way, if you ever wondered what causes more heated debates in a marriage than finances, children, in-laws, or all three combined, it’s the value of genre literature versus the value of mainstream literature. Just thought you would like to know.

Anyway, fiction has evolved over the years, and everyone in publishing seems to be at different stages in the evolutionary process. Hemingway’s books are not the same kinds of fiction as many of the books published today. Neither are Poe’s stories, or Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Or Steinbeck’s work. Your mother and father’s books are not the same books of today. If you look at what you read in middle school and high school, you can see the changes in middle-grade and YA fiction, for instance. That doesn’t mean one is better than the other; it just means humans and their cultural appreciations change. It happens in music (21st century rock is not the same as that of the 1960s), dance (check out the ballroom dance outfits—especially Latin costumes—and how they changed over the years), and fashion, just to name a few. This is also true of nonfiction.

So, the next time you find other people you know in publishing—agents, editors, critique group members, published authors—offering advice on what your book is or isn’t that doesn’t correspond with what you think it is, don’t get frustrated or upset. It is difficult, but it is just the way humans are and it is just another part of being a writer.

Sharene

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Where Have All the Good Books Gone?

We hear readers lament continually, “Why can’t we find a decent book to read?” Quite honestly, we have to agree with this somewhat. If it weren’t for my clients, I would have very little in the way of reading material to choose from. Right now I am reading a book, on the suggestion of an editor, by a world-famous, popular author who writes sort-of thrillers (okay, I’m guessing here, because I can’t really tell what it is supposed to be). This writer does everything that every how-to-write book, editor, and agent says not to do, and yet this person earns scads of money off readers for producing what I consider, after reading this book, complete garbage. I am sure that everyone who reads this can name at least three or four books by famous writers that were disappointments, to put it kindly.

So, why can’t good books get published?

Well, actually, we do believe that good books get published. We also believe that many of them come from our clients, but that is blatant bias, as it should be if you are an agent. Seriously, there are good books out there, but not as many as there should be or could be. I have to be candid here and tell you that there have been days when, after chatting with an editor and seeing what he/she has turned down and accepted, I thought to myself, “I can’t find books bad enough to suit you!”

It is personal preference? Publishing house preference? Reader preference? Marketing preference? There are published writers who shouldn’t be writing, and there are unpublished writers who should be published. This is a given in the industry and has been historically true as well. But why might this be so?

For some very interesting information as to why literary agents are sometimes unsuccessful in getting good books published (and we are assuming that we know how to pick good books), check out this article from the New York Times and you might get a clearer understanding.

http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/13/business/yourmoney/13book.html?_r=3&oref=slogin.

Happy Reading!

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Stopping to Smell the...

We tend to wax on a bit about those aspects of publishing that may seem unimportant to some, even those in the industry; however, they are important to us, and this blog’s purpose is to offer our perspectives so that those who consider working with us can get an idea of who we are and what we are about.

We have worked with many types of writers in the past nine years, many of whom decided to get into writing for publication for the wrong reasons. We have talked with writers who are determined, ambitious, cynical, hopeful, wonderful, obnoxious, and all places in between, and at any given time, they probably think the same of us. Fair’s fair. We rarely, though, meet happy writers, at least not those other than our clients. By happy here, I mean content, and not just content with their writing careers, either. The innate need to write can overtake our better sense; the fickle muse can be hard to control. However, more often the desire to be published, not just to write, is usually the culprit in creating the most undue stress. It is one thing to become so engrossed in getting your great idea on paper that you accidentally stay up half the night; it is quite another to spend excessive amounts of time researching and preparing submission packages and sending e-mails and recording queries and rejections and calculating your success rate in an effort to cultivate a publishing life while real life briskly passes by.

This topic came up for two reasons. First, people have to have balance in their lives, and recently ours was disrupted by the loss of a beloved pet. She was the kind of cat who would have loved to have a little girl dress her up in doll clothes and play tea party with her; not that we ever did, mind you, but that was the kind of kitty she was. Even at sixteen, she loved attention and expected it regularly, as cats often do. We were happy to oblige.

This comes only a couple of months after the loss of our adored dog who, at eighteen, was more the kind of animal that you rather hoped you never collapsed around, just in case she was hungry. She was a great friend, just a little obsessed with food, that’s all. And she was a good watchdog, too, except for when she wasn’t paying attention, which was, in later years, most of the time. She loved getting attention and making noise for no reason—sort of like a politician—and she was a great companion to us both. Both of them will be sorely missed, although the politicians…not so much.

However, in the immortal words of John Adams, “Thank God, Bitty lives.” I’ve mentioned Bitty Kitty a couple of times on here, mainly because she threatened me if I didn’t. I don’t want to jinx her by pointing out that, bless her decrepit little soul, she’s still kickin’, but I don’t think you can jinx pure evil. Perhaps you can. In Bitty’s case, though, I wouldn’t wake her up to do it. Bitty, in her younger years, used to call 911 when we left the house, coughed up hairballs down our heating vents, and snuck into the query pile when no one was looking. If you got a particularly nasty rejection from us in 1994 or 2006, it was probably from her. It was the Chinese Year of the Dog, and she was in a very bad mood.

You might have noticed that I used the word “attention” twice above. Since their passing, it is not uncommon for me to look down by my computer expecting them to be there, where they always curled up to be next to us as we worked. They were always very good about reminding us when we had been on the computer too long by giving my hand a gentle nudge, rubbing my leg, or, in our doggy’s case, passing gas (My liver’s awake—dinner time!). Bitty just crawls up on the keyboard and goes to sleep, melting into the plastic and forcing us to shift various parts of her liquefied anatomy around to find specific keys or give up working altogether. She’s nothing if not dedicated to leisure.

Many times it is easy to forget that pets may be sitting patiently by while we offer our souls up to the written page. If you get caught up in your writing and skip a walk or two, it’s excusable; if you get caught up in the frenzy of trying to get published, it’s unconscionable. Pets are important; publishing may or may not be.

Humans are much the same as animals. They need lots of attention, which brings us to the other reason for this post: Mother’s Day. This is always a tough time of year for us, since neither of our mothers is with us anymore (we know what some of you are thinking, and, no, we didn’t sell them), and they played a significant role in our becoming readers and subsequently agents. They read to us when we were young because they thought it would be good for us. Was it ever.

Since most mothers won’t sleep under your computer or crawl in your lap to get your attention, we suggest sending flowers or at least giving Mom a call on the 13th just to say hello. Or, if you don’t have a mom, call Dad or a favorite aunt or a favorite teacher or your veterinarian just to say thanks. Someone had to teach you how to read, which means that, indirectly, someone taught you how to write as well. As the saying goes, the most avid readers are the best writers, and your most avid fan might be cooking your favorite dish or drooling at your feet at this very moment.

Happy Mother’s Day.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

What's Under the Covers?

There is a mossy old cliché that intimates that a book is known by its cover. If this is so, wouldn’t it follow that writers are known by what is between those covers, too? If we carry this one step further, wouldn’t it be true that if an author’s first book garners few readers that it could be considered, in the eyes and minds of the publishing industry, a failure?

What am I saying here? Just this: Don’t refer to your novel as a second book in your query if your first was self-published and didn’t sell well (has low sales numbers), was published a decade ago, was not in the same genre or category, or can in no way add strength to your present attempt. This should be a given, but invariably I still receive queries in which writers tell me about their first book and either give me no information about it (a dead give away), give me a title only, or, as one writer just did, give me all the particulars on the book, including its nontraditional or nonexistent publisher.

The title, author, and Amazon.com is all I need. It’s just that easy to find not only the book, but who published it, what format it was published in, whether any other publisher bought reprint rights, and an indication of its current standing in the market. In other words, there’s enough information to know that I don’t want to work with someone who is stretching the truth or giving me only enough information to make me believe that he/she has a relevant publishing credit at this early juncture in the agent/client relationship. I know there are articles out there where the author states writers should list all publishing credits, no matter what they are. This can, and has many times, worked against the writer.

So here’s some advice: If you’ve written a book that didn’t do well, forget you ever wrote it. It’s best to be judged by what you’ve presently written than by something you wish you hadn’t.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Notice to AOL Users Who Query Agents

We just wanted to post a quick note because some of the queries we have been answering from those who have an AOL account are being returned to us. If you are an AOL customer and you query agents through your e-mail address there, you will have to set your account so that you can receive messages from those agents to whom you have submitted. I don’t know exactly how AOL lets a user do this—a whitelist, perhaps?—or which feature controls your ability to add names of people from whom you would like to receive messages; however, if you don’t adjust this, anything we or any other agents send you will be returned by the software.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Free Education for Writers

Actually, nothing in publishing is free, and I'm not talking about money here. I am talking about time and effort. Even advice carries a price tag in some way, as the following will. This advice will cost you a little time and brain energy if you follow it, but it might net big rewards if you know what to do with the information you find. Writers who haunt forums, discussion boards, and/or blogs are forever trying to get a glimpse inside the publishing world or get an insider's perspective from other writers. There is no better way to get primary information than to go directly to the source. Here is one way to do that.

If you are a new writer and really want to learn loads about the publishing industry, go to www.bookexpoamerica.com and read and digest the enormous volume of information there. You can learn a lot about an industry by examining the major events its professionals attend and who sponsors them, as well as reviewing the types of presenters and activities at those events. It’s a free education, too. Who can beat that?

Here’s a hint to help you get started: Does the name Reed mean anything to you? Look at the bottom of BookExpo’s home page. There are at least three links with the name Reed in them. Does this remind you of anything? Click on the Copyright link at the bottom of the page and read through that section, too.

Still not ringing a bell? Try visiting www.publishersweekly.com and read the copyright notice at the bottom of that home page. Any names there seem familiar?

This will just get you started. Go back to BookExpo’s site and read through the variety of events listed there. Check out the celebrity line-up for this year’s proceedings, besides those in the literary field. Do you notice anything that these people have in common, besides their celebrity? How could Alan Greenspan and Jon Bon Jovi possibly be connected? No, it isn’t that Greenspan dealt with the economy and Bon Jovi has enough money to start his own. Look deeper. Much deeper.

I am not going to give you the answer. I would like you to give me the answer. And it may seem that this is a relatively simplistic and ridiculous exercise, but the information you find at this site alone should provide some insights that could be invaluable in understanding what drives publishing, thus helping you choose your future path as a writer.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Worst Queries in the World

I am sure that some writers will just breeze by this post after seeing the title. After all, who wants to hear again about the shame of having a three-page query instead of one? Who wants to revisit the same tiring debate about Courier versus Times New Roman fonts or be chastised again for including publishing credits that just don’t count? I can’t say I blame them for that. However, that is not the subject of this post, and I can guarantee, if you are reading this, you have not written one of the worst queries in the world.

This used to happen back in what we like to refer to as the “old days,” which was when we first started out and took nothing but mail queries. It still happens every now and then, even though we haven’t technically taken regular mail queries for years (but that is not the issue here). Robert or I will receive a query from someone who is, for lack of better terminology, barely literate. I am talking here about people who have never, for whatever reason, gained the skills to be able to read or write at a level past maybe second grade. For example, and I can’t remember the exact details here so don’t hold me to specifics, we received a query from an older woman who had grown up on a farm and never attended school past low level elementary. She had been taking care of her parents until they died, and then she was left with a farm to run and few skills to do it with. For girls in her generation and location, education wasn’t a priority. She hadn’t ever had the opportunity to engage in what most people consider a basic American right—to attend school. This person wanted to get published because she needed the money and didn’t know how else to get some fast. Publishing a best-selling novel seemed like a quick and easy way to do it, and besides, the attention wouldn’t hurt either. The basic, heart-breaking fact remained that this woman could barely read. I think she even mentioned she had dictated part of her letter to a person down the road who wrote some of it for her. Heaven knows, and it worries me to this day, what that cost her.

Now, explaining the intricate complexities of publishing to someone with the equivalent of a modest education is nearly impossible. Sometimes this business doesn’t even seem rational, let alone explainable. Sometimes we throw our hands up, too. There is no way any post or article can really, really address everything a writer needs to know. Knowledge has to come from reading a variety of resources, exploring literature, and researching over a period of time. Wisdom comes from being in it, interacting with publishing professionals, and experience. Years of experience. Therefore, how do you respond to someone whose life experiences have never even taken her far enough away from the farm to attend school?

Modern writers write for a worldwide audience. It is impossible to be removed from the world and still be able to write for it. So, the worst queries in the world, to us, are those from people who are barred from the rest of the world by varying degrees of illiteracy and/or circumstance. The people who desperately need help and support, but who don’t even have the skills to be able to take advantage of services available to them…those are the ones who produce the worst queries in the world because there is not a damn thing we can do for them. Those are the ones that tear your heart out and hand it to you, and it really has nothing to do with publishing, but with society in general.

I can read. You can read. You are reading this now. And even if you wake up tomorrow and find fourteen rejections in your mailbox, you can still read them, and you can go to bed tomorrow night with a full tummy secure in the fact that no matter what anyone says about your query letter—no matter how sloppy it is or how many people on writer boards dump on it for being too long or too short or too boring—you still, if you can read this blog, haven’t written one of the worst queries in the world.

--Sharene

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Romance Versus Love Stories

I have wanted to post something for a long time about this topic, but just haven’t really had the time until now. I represent romance, but what I usually get in terms of queries is love stories. There is a distinct difference in these two types of books, and to be perfectly candid, I really, really don’t like love stories. In fact, I despise them. I am a genre kind of girl, not a mainstream person, and except for work from our clients and a few classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and such, I avoid it. Mainstream is Robert’s area, and he can pick out the gems from the pebbles. To me, they’re all pebbles. This is not meant to be offensive at all to mainstream authors, many whose work I truly admire. It just means that when I go to the bookstore, I walk past the fiction and literary fiction, unless I see a pretty cover, a sale tag, a client’s name, or Robert desperately trying to get my attention, and wander off toward the romance section. That is just the type of reader I am. If you have considered querying our agency on romance or mainstream, you might keep this in mind.

When I get a query on a love story-type book, it’s an instant rejection. Do I forward these queries on to Robert? Not usually, and not because I am mean or somehow offended myself. It is because there is such a difference between the two types of books, in my estimation, that if a writer doesn’t know the difference, then that’s a big red flag for me. They don’t read the same, don’t feel the same, don’t even give me the same sense of the story. To me, and I don’t speak for other agents or editors or anyone on this, love stories are not in any way genre romances, although people, and, sadly, writers, often confuse them because some mainstream writers have been considered romance writers as well. To me it is either red or blue, with no room for purple, so that’s what I represent because that is what I know and like. Other agents and editors and publishers may feel differently.

Romance is very genre-specific, with everything centering around the main love story between two adult beings (I’m leaving room here for the paranormal) and with a happy ending. By happy ending I don’t mean the couple has to get married, but they need to be on the road to some kind of committed togetherness with most of the kinks worked out of the relationship. There are variations on this, because, like with any type of fiction, the genre has grown and changed as readers have grown and changed. Please, if you are going to query me on romance, know that I seek pure genre romance and nothing else.

As for love stories, I will not even attempt to define them because that is just not my area of expertise. I can tell you, however, and Robert the mainstream guy will back me on this, if in your alleged romance your main character is a man and he occupies over half the book, you have, in most cases, a mainstream love story of some kind. This is not always true, but it is a clue to look for when trying to identify what you have written.

If you aren’t sure about the differences and similarities between love stories and romances, do some research and lots of reading. The first rule of getting published is to know what you have written; otherwise, you will waste your time on querying an agent or publishing house that really isn’t looking for your work. There are sometimes fine lines between the different types of books, so let me state again that this is just what I look for, and others may feel differently. There are also professional organizations that offer information that can help you with this as well, so I suggest seeking out those sites to get information.

Hope this helps.--Sharene

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Horror/Thriller Revisited

In the, Oh no, not again! category, the horror/thriller controversy seems to have sprung up yet again. Please let me explain, one last time. The only reason I discussed horror on this blog was that I had an inspiration from reading an online article that stated that David Morrell and someone else, whose name I cannot recall, had started a thriller organization similar to the MWA. Mr. Morrell said something to the effect that he writes thrillers but his books always seem to end up in the mystery category. The article went on to say that Dean Koontz and others would prefer to have their work categorized as thrillers instead of horror because, again according to this article, horror was becoming a bad word—that practically no one wanted to be associated with horror anymore because of audience sensibilities. This makes sense with what I have been seeing. However, horror writers seem to be annoyed by this. You want to know what I think? When you, as a horror or thriller or whatever writer, sell a zillion copies of your book, then I will care what you think. If Dean Koontz or Stephen King calls me up to complain, I will retract my statements. Until then, I stand behind them, whatever they were. I can’t really remember now. It had something to do with horror.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Go Blue: A Win-Win Situation

This really has nothing to do with publishing; it’s more of a sports post in keeping with the spirit of the Big Game coming up this next weekend. There aren’t too many times in life when you can look at events that happen around you and think that no matter what happens, you will come out of it ahead. It’s nice, then, that soon the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears will be battling it out in Miami in Super Bowl XLI. No matter who wins, everyone in the Northeast Midwest wins. Let me explain.

Before Indiana ever thought about misappropriating a professional football team—not that we are saying that is what happened, but…—many of our residents were die-hard Bears fans, and many still are. I grew up in a Bears family, and even though Grandpa would typically choose any team playing opposite the team Grandma was rooting for (which made for some interesting evenings), when the Bears played there was an understood truce in Mudville. Everyone rooted for the Bears—the “other hometown” team. Lots of people in the northern part of the state still prefer the Bears to the Colts, although secretly I bet they like them both. Who doesn’t like horses? And who doesn’t respect a big ol’ bear? I guess that’s a girly view to take, but why not? Many of the Bears fans en route to Miami will be meeting up with their friends, Colts fans, on the way down, and they will have a blast just getting away from the cold and snow and hanging out. Maybe there will be a friendly rivalry and a lot of hot air exchanged, but ultimately, who in Chicago is going to complain if the Colts win, and vice versa?

Many Hoosiers relate very closely with Chicago; many live outside of the city and commute to work every day. In fact, you can find quite a few Cubs fans here as well as Bears fans. But don’t get the wrong idea. Colts fever has been raging for days all over the state of Indiana (and there are probably a few secret Colts fans in the Windy City, too). It seems like everyone, even babies, has managed to find some kind of Colts clothing. Hats and sweatshirts (pink for the girls, if blue is not feminine enough for you), T-shirts, etc. Colts this, Colts that. It is a sea of royal blue and white. But the Bears’ colors are just a shade darker blue and the same white, with a little orange thrown in for good measure, and the Super Bowl colors are blue, white, and orange, so what does it matter? Blue wins either way. Either the new generation of Colts fans wins, or the older generation who attached its loyalty to the Bears so long ago wins. No one loses. Someone is going to come away happy with a win, and the rest of the fans are going to come away happy because their friends’ or family’s team won or just because a team in the flyover states dominated the sport. How many times in life—or in publishing—can you say that happens? Not often.

On another note, it has been good for our town to be able to experience this. It has been a difficult decade for Kokomo, as problems with local industry has caused the economy to fluctuate (to put it mildly) and the residents here have been dealing with the changes as best they can. You know how a good novel starts with conflict/change because humans have such difficulty with it that it makes for a compelling read? Well, K-town—the little New York of Publishing as we like to call it—based on that literary criterion, would be the next bestseller. A lot of change. A lot of character growth. Unpredictable events over which none of us have control. A lot of prayers and hopes and disappointments and good days and bad days. No one really knows what is going to happen next here, and so we are all waiting patiently for the final chapter to be written in a saga that started decades ago. This is one of the reasons we founded Wylie-Merrick right here in the middle of the northeastern Midwest. We could have relocated anywhere in the world, but we didn’t. My grandparents taught me that you don’t bail when things get bad. You stay put and adapt or fight. Adventure is in your own backyard, and don’t ever forget it. Why did people leave the east and come here in the first place? Maybe you should visit and find out. But wait until summer. Really.

And now the Colts made it to the Super Bowl this year, and Kokomo, as well as all of Indiana, is celebrating. We needed something to celebrate, and for that we appreciate what the Colts and the Bears have done. If the Colts hadn’t rallied in the last quarter in that last game, we still would have been able to root for our “other hometown team,” and that is important. We are still in the game, and that’s all anybody really wants to be.

So, on Sunday, February 4th, my Grandma will be watching the game on a big screen TV somewhere in Paradise, knowing that no matter who she roots for and who my grandfather roots against, there will be, at least for a few hours, peace in Mudville. It doesn’t get any better than this.

Go Team!
--Sharene

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

What's in Your Writer's Toolbox?

There are those who are born with the writer’s gift. However, even those folks have trouble sitting down and cranking out a completely marketable novel or book on their first try. That gift has to be honed, and these are the writers who probably have the most potential to captivate an audience with the least amount of effort, or at all. They are also the greatest competition for those who are friendly with words but not as skilled at making them sing. Does that mean if you aren’t naturally gifted that you can never be published or never contribute to literature? Not necessarily, but it takes some clear understanding of what kind of writer you are and where, or if, you can possibly fit into the publishing spectrum (or if you want to stay with as long for as it takes).

There are natural storytellers who are interesting and engaging, but even those writers have to work at making their work reader-friendly. Have you ever read a book and found yourself re-reading passages because it feels so good to your brain? You might not even be aware of it, but the writer sure needs to be. This is what it means to be in control of your creation. A writer needs to master the techniques to create that piece of work that the reader’s brain will actually crave, almost physically. Those born with the ability to tell a story through words will pick the techniques up faster and be able to manipulate them in such a way as to not only produce a story that connects with the reader, but maybe even advance the art of fiction or nonfiction with new and previously unexplored methods.

The person who is not born with the ability to corral words like this can still use his/her aptitude by applying writing techniques to produce a book that will also connect with a reader, but probably not as smoothly or as easily. Where the literary product of the natural gift flows down the river of the mind, the literary product of the cultivated skill may have to paddle against the current to achieve the same results. That paddle is the technique and/or part of the craft the writer is good at. The more technique you master, the more paddles you have in the waters of your reader’s mind.

So this is where your Writer’s Toolbox comes in. What’s in yours? Do you have the elements of fiction safely tucked away in there? Can you pull out the point-of-view tool and know how to use it to achieve the best effect for the story you are trying to craft? What about setting? Do you truly understand the vast aspects of setting? It is more than just stating time and place. Do you know the other elements of fiction? Here they are if you don’t: POV; setting; theme; character; plot.

What is the most important aspect of plot? At least some people will tell you is it is the internal and external conflict in your story. Others will say that development of plot is what you should focus on and the other will come naturally. How do plots develop? Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action, and Resolution are all concepts you should understand and be able to apply to your story to make sure the structure is sound. However, don’t let plot take over your character.

And what about character? Character and conflict can sell a story, even if other parts are weak. Did you know that? Not every writer is good at utilizing every element, but the combination can still be sellable if the skill levels with each technique balance out nicely. Don’t let your plot rule your characters—they will tell you what to do and where they want to go. Don’t fight it. You can let the plot guide them, but don’t force them into situations that they aren’t comfortable with just to make the story work, because that will result in a story that seems contrived. Also, don’t allow secondary characters to overshadow your main character. What do you do if that happens? It’s simple. Figure out a way to get rid of that character or make that character the lead. Sometimes a secondary character in one novel will be dropped from that one and given a book of his/her own. Some characters writers create are that strong.

What about marketability? How do you make that well-crafted story marketable? I can guarantee that if your story sounds just like every other story in its plot structure, character, setting, POV, and theme, then it won’t be marketable because books today must be original to catch the eye of the editor and reader. There are only so many plots; it’s true. However, the story can take different twists and avenues that make it unique. It is up to the author to make this happen. How? Here are some more tools for your toolbox: “What If”; voice; diction; tone. This set of tools comes from what sets every writer apart from every other writer. Knowing inside who you are allows you to use these tools. They represent the way you talk, express emotion, react to distress, react to joy, etc. Your answer to "What If?" will probably be different from everyone else's because your imagination functions on the internal engine of life experience filtered through your own personality. For example, if your story is about a little girl coming of age in 1930’s Alabama where her father is a lawyer who must defend a black man accused of raping a white girl in a prejudiced town, then you either need to start over (HINT: Harper Lee already won a Pulitzer for this one) or put your own spin on the tale using your own eloquence or by changing one of the elements (maybe the setting is now 2026), which will put everything in a different perspective.

I only really delved into a few of the vital tools that should reside in your Writer's Toolbox in this post--character and plot. The other tools are subjects for later posts, time permitting.

Hope this helps.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

My Hoosier Weather Report

"When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock…"

I was reminded of those words this morning when I looked out my window and saw frost, finally, covering the ground. I have never actually had frost on my punkin, nor has my fodder find its way into any shock that I am aware of, but it seemed appropriate. What it means is that winter is finally making its way here after days of unseasonably warm temps in the 60’s. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Anyway, this is just a post to say that we started back today to our regular schedule (harried), and so I will not be posting as often again. I had a spurt there for a couple of days, and may get some time later this week, but things are gearing up fast and it’s back to work I go.

Please remember that we will not be accepting queries until January 8th, when we put our form back in place. Also, please remember to review our needs very carefully before submitting, as they have changed.

I hope everyone’s new year has started off great. Happy 2007!

PS Kudos to anyone who can identify the Hoosier author of that line above...