Category Archives: advice

1

What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: Creating Captivating Pitches

Creating a captivating pitch is arguably one of the hardest parts about getting an agent. As I’ve mentioned in some of my previous posts, agents are busy and read unfathomable amounts of queries every year. It’s difficult to stand out amongst the masses, but you would be surprised how easily a carefully crafted pitch can hold our attention.

Throughout my time reading queries, the ones that have stood out always followed these simple rules:

- Be reflective of what your book is and use a similar tone.

  • If you’re writing a middle grade novel about a blundering superhero, it’s okay to use goofy words (though, don’t go overboard and remember you’re querying an adult). If you’re writing an adult thriller, you shouldn’t use infantile language.

- Be concise.

  • You should be able to tell the summary of your story in 100-200 words. Any longer is likely to bore the agent, any shorter and you’re probably leaving out necessary information.

- Be clear.

  • Give the agent enough information so they’re not led on to think your book is something that it’s not. This will work against you when they read your manuscript or proposal. If they think they’re getting one thing and they actually get another, it will turn them off to whatever they’re reading. It’s similar to the idea of someone making you close your eyes, saying they’re going to feed you candy and then actually feeding you steak. You’re going to be repulsed. You may even seriously love steak, but because you were expecting candy, your tastes are off.

- Be exciting.

  • What makes your book interesting? That should be the center of your pitch. Don’t say in plain form, “My book is different because…” Make sure the distinctiveness of your novel is portrayed in your summary. If your character is a going to a magical school in a unique setting, make sure the characteristics of the school are mentioned in a way that makes it stand out from every other magical school out there.

 

I hope these tips help you make the best of your queries. I look forward to reading your captivating pitches!

1

Connections

Last week, I got a submission over the transom for a YA novel. The query was well structured, a sample was attached, and while it wasn’t for me, I did appreciate that the author took the time to research and follow our submission guidelines. End of story, until a few days later I got another email from the same author—turns out her son was a very close friend of my sister from college, and could I help her out with suggestions for other agents who might want to take a look?

Well, of course I’d be happy to help—but why didn’t she make the connection in the first place? Yes, it was a couple of degrees of separation, but I think if she’d dug just a little bit deeper, she would have connected me to my sister, and then she could have included that connection in her original query. And with that, while I still wouldn’t have taken on her project, I might have written her a personal note when I responded, or offered some editorial advice, rather than sending my form rejection.

The point is, connections are a major part of the publishing game. It’s why I stress to authors at every conference I attend that if they’re going to submit to me, make sure they reference meeting me or hearing me talk at that conference. And thanks to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, etc., making those connections has never been easier.

If you really need further proof of the power of connections, go back and watch the MAD MEN finale again—or stop reading if you haven’t (SPOILER ALERT). For me, the most gratifying wrap-up by far was for Joan’s success in her new business—which is based, as they stress several times, on her Rolodex, i.e., her connections. Yes, it’s fictional and set 45 years ago, but the power of connection endure; after all, the job of a literary agent at root is to connect authors with publishers…

So while we always encourage authors to do their homework before submitting and check out the website, submission guidelines, etc., I’d urge you to go the extra mile and look for a more personal connection as well. Look around on-line, ask your friends and family if they know anyone in the publishing industry, check your college’s alumni listings—even the wedding listings in the Times can suggest a contact. Sure, at the end of the day it’s the work that matters, but that common link definitely helps get your foot in the door. And who knows where that connection might lead in the future?

3

My love affair with Ann Patchett

I think Ann Patchett is amazing on so many levels. She’s so uniquely talented, is incredibly prolific, and writes nonfiction as well as fiction. I loved her beautiful tribute to Lucy Grealy, Truth & Beauty, as much as her wonderful novels like Bel Canto and State of Wonder.  And I’m a bit biased at the moment because she recently made a large donation to my small town library, which I talked about recently on this blog.

I was pleased to find an article on writing based on her book, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, for brainpickings.org that offers such interesting and lovely advice for writers from one of the masters of her craft. In it she talks about how writing nonfiction for her has been easy, while writing fiction has always been more challenging. She talks about the importance of learning to forgive yourself in creating art, which she feels is critical. She uses metaphors that resonate, even if they initially feel a stretch of the imagination.  Why do writers so often feel they can send early work to The New Yorker when musicians would never think they could play at Carnegie Hall after just a month of practice!

Words of wisdom here from a magnificent and gifted writer who not only writes beautiful books, but is so open to sharing her knowledge and skills with other writers. She’s a true gift. Enjoy!

4

The Pseudonym

I know I have written on this subject before but I think it is worth another round.

Authors use pseudonyms when they change categories; they also use them if their first book(s) sells less well than hoped and they want to try again.  There is nothing wrong with doing this as long as you are upfront in saying you are doing so.  (Note please, it is not necessary to provide your real name unless asked directly and then you should, while offering an explanation for why you have chosen to use the pseudonym.)

Pseudonyms can be extremely useful.  Writers can change categories by changing their “pen names” going back and forth as they wish.  Fiction, in particular, lends itself to using pseudonyms in categories such as mystery/thriller, horror, romance (contemporary, historical), sci-fi/fantasy, etc.  A pseudonym, in fact, can be an effective marketing tool.  Why tell the customer (the book buyer) the author’s real name when using another will boost sales for everyone? With social media, promotional possibilities abound when using a different name. We put together a list of a number of bestselling authors who use this device and I wanted to share it with you:

J.K. Rowling

James Patterson

Anne Stuart

Eloisa James

Stephen King (wrote short stories under the name Richard Bachman)

Nora Roberts (also writes under J.D. Robb)

Dean Koontz (writes under Aaron Wolfe and K.R. Dwyer)

Michael Crichton

Lemony Snicket

Sapphire

Anne Rice (also writes under Anne Rampling)

Agatha Christie (also wrote under Mary Westcott)

Stan Lee

I would be curious to know what you think about the use of pseudonyms, whether as a writer, you have used one, or as a reader you would buy a book by someone who does.

0

Plausibility

As devoted DGLM readers know, we run an in-house book club here to broaden our horizons and keep abreast of categories we might not otherwise investigate. This month, we’re doing thrillers, and while I enjoyed my book—fast-paced, good characters, lots of practical information—ultimately it bugged me because the central premise was totally unbelievable. While there’s eventually a plot-twist that tries to explain away the implausibility of the concept, it doesn’t pass the smell test.

Yet without naming names, the book came from a Big Six house, edited by a top editor, and was the author’s tenth novel. It came armed with tons of blurbs from major authors, and I could find only one review that took issue with the premise. To which I say… really? But while I sit here feeling like I’m taking crazy pills with Mugatu from ZOOLANDER, the book did make me think about plausibility in general.

I’m sure plausibility is a question  for all writers, but especially ones who write in plot-heavy genres like thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, kids books, etc. It’s hard enough to come up with inventive plots, character and voice, yet do it in a way that readers will buy–even if your story is about, say, zombie kittens from Mars. So if you’re wrestling with plausibility issues, check out this essay from Steve Almond in Writer’s Digest, which ably dissects the various plausibility traps writers often fall into (I’d say the premise of my Book Club book falls under the Factual/Logistical umbrella). Or, for an elegant summation of how to think about plausibility, it’s hard to beat this letter from Ursula K. LeGuin.

How many of you have run into problems with plausibility? And how have you found your way out of the traps?

0

What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: Making Your Queries Professional

After reading my fair share of queries, I’ve begun to see a few simple mistakes writers are making when sending out their work to agents. The query letter should be very professional. It should stand only as a means to stage your pitch. While adding personal touches can make them stand out, being too familiar can ruin the true purpose of the letter. Agents want only to know what your book is about and why you’re capable of writing it. They’re also assessing your ability to write and pay attention to detail. So here are a few tips to make sure you’re being meticulous and making your query as professional as possible.

  • Make sure the name attached to your email address matches the name you’re signing with.
    • It looks unprofessional when your email address is a common nickname your friends use—or even worse, a nickname that implies your private hobbies like Mr. Buzzed or Romantic Janet. Remember that whatever name you’ve entered for your email address will be visible to the agent you query.
  • Don’t ramble on about yourself.
    • A good query will include a bio about what you’ve achieved as a writer, but leave out the fact that you have two kids, a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and a goldfish. Giving any more information than necessary distracts from your pitch.
  • Check your signature line.
    • A quote or tag line that may be cute or inspirational to you may come off as unprofessional or rude to an agent. It’s best to leave out quotes, sayings, pictures, or anything else that may appear beneath your name.
  • Proofread everything.
    • If there’s a grammatical or spelling mistake in your subject line, there’s a chance the agent won’t read much further. That goes for your pitch, too.

While most of these tips may seem self explanatory, I can say from experience that a lot less people follow them than you would think. It can never hurt to send your query to a friend or an alternate email so you can see what it looks like to the agent. Never underestimate the power of a professionally written query letter.

 

0

The acceptability clause

There are many clauses in publishing contracts that can be confusing to a first time author and that need clarification.  Most of these can be negotiated by the agent (on the author’s behalf) and the publisher.

The one clause, though, that can be truly disturbing is the “acceptability clause” because it states  that the sole decision as to whether a manuscript is acceptable or not is the publisher’s.

Usually we are able to get an addition to the clause that says that if the publisher finds the manuscript unacceptable, it must provide the reasons in writing and give the author the opportunity to make the requested changes.

Most of the time (I estimate over 95%), the publisher and the author work out their differences and the book is published. There are occasions, however, when publishers arbitrarily decide, for whatever reason, that they no longer want to publish the book they have contracted for and they reject the delivered manuscript and demand that the author return the advance already received.  In that case, if the author refuses to return the money, the publisher will not release the author from his or her contract, thus preventing a future sale of that project.

Sadly when this happens, the only recourse an author has is to seek legal counsel, which is expensive and which does not  guarantee that the author will win.  Still, the publisher generally doesn’t want the bad PR a lawsuit would bring and so an author taking this route—in an extreme situation—might, in fact, either get his or her rights back or the publisher might decide to publish the book after all.

The bottom line here is that the acceptability clause is an important one and should be taken very seriously by everyone.  Authors are required to deliver their manuscripts on a certain date.  If an extension on the delivery date is necessary, authors should notify the publisher that they will be late, why they will be late and, on occasion, show progress on the work they are doing. Extensions are usually granted unless there is a timeliness factor due to the subject matter of the book.

Looking around for a comprehensive  piece on the acceptability clause, I found this from my agent colleague Richard Curtis’ blog.  It covers the subject very well and it’s worth reading, especially by first time authors.

Making the Long Wait Work For You

It’s great to be able to say that I love my clients to pieces, every last one of them. I’m lucky to have a lot of empathetic authors in my stable, people who understand that publishing often moves at a glacial pace and who are willing to take that slow ride with me.

This is a business of long-range plans. In track-and-field parlance, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It takes time to develop a good, bulletproof proposal; time to perfect a manuscript so that it is suitable for presentation to a publishing-industry professional. Then it takes time for acquiring editors to consider it; to bring it to their acquisitions boards and to the dreaded marketing department, which often has the final Yea or Nay. And, assuming the book does find a home with a publisher, it can be a full year or two before it’s edited, designed, printed, and available for sale.  Publishing schedules are planned far ahead, with projects lined up and slotted in like backed-up planes on a runway, waiting to take off.

Many authors now realize that this lag time can be maximized to market that forthcoming book. It’s the chance to build and strengthen your platform, to size up publicity opportunities that might be available further down the road when the book is launched. Monthly magazines that work four to six months ahead have to be pitched well before their long lead times. Holy-Grail dream targets like Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air or anything with the name Oprah in it need to be approached early. And all the while, you can be increasing your social media presence on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

These days, unless you pay dearly for the services of a public-relations firm, nobody is going to do all of this for you. Publishers’ overworked marketing staffs can only devote so much time to each book, each season. The more you can bring to the table marketing-wise, the better your chances of a successful book. That’s why publishers are always on the lookout for authors who bring their own strong platform with them.  If you can offer that, you’ve already won half the battle.

Do you have any of your own thoughts on how to maximize that waiting time? I’d be happy to hear them.

 

1

What I’ve Learned as a Writer Working at a Literary Agency: Pitches

Hello Readers,

I’m excited to be posting my first blog entry! I recently joined Dystel and Goderich as the assistant to Michael Bourret here in Los Angeles. It’s been everything I dreamed of when I wanted to get into publishing—except, I realized that everything I thought I knew was wrong.

Before these past few months, I was simply an aspiring writer near the end of my MFA program. I finally felt like I could string together a decent story, and I was sure that was all you needed. However, after having worked for a literary agency—even for a relatively short time—I realize how naïve I’d been about actually selling my work. I learn something new every day, something crucial to becoming or being a published author that I never learned in my MFA program. And I’d like to share that knowledge with our readers in a series of blog posts.

So here’s the most basic and essential thing I learned: the importance of being able to pitch your novel.

No one ever taught me how to write a pitch, and from what I can tell after reading my fair share of queries, it doesn’t seem like MFA programs are teaching this aspect of the process at all. This is probably because the programs are taught by authors, who only write a few pitches in their lives (if they’re lucky), not agents, who read well over a two thousand pitches a year and know the true impact of a well-written one.

But why are pitches so important anyway?

It’s the first contact anyone will have with your novel. Before you can get an agent to read your book, you have to sell them with your pitch. And given the number of pitches they read every year, this isn’t an easy task. Time is money to an agent, and they’re not going to waste time reading your sample pages if your pitch isn’t good.

A messy pitch is seen as a sign that your writing abilities are subpar. A boring pitch that your novel is boring. An overwritten pitch that your novel is a bunch of fluff. Get the trend?

Being that your pitch is the query equivalent of a novel’s cover, and knowing that people most certainly judge a book based on its cover, it makes sense that you should spend a significant amount of time writing and editing your pitch—soliciting feedback from knowledgeable friends and critique partners.

So remember, if you’re in the process of sending out your novel to agents, take your time to make sure your pitch properly represents your novel. In my next blog entry, I’ll share a few tips I’ve learned that will help your pitch catch the eye of the right agent.

6

The non-fiction book proposal

Most writers who are hoping to sell a non-fiction book know that in order to do so it is necessary to create a book proposal. This document can be critical not only to the sale of the book but to the size of the publisher’s offer.  I often tell prospective clients that doing the proposal is an unnatural act—it can actually be more difficult to create a good one than to write the book itself.  Our website describes exactly what is required to be in the proposal clearly and concisely (see “Nonfiction Proposal Guidelines”).

These days, I am consistently trying to push writers to create proposals that are well focused and that clearly define the different readerships, both demographically and statistically.  Inevitably, as I learned last week, a writer will try to “game” the system—describing his or her book as neither fish nor fowl and thus confusing the reader (the editor).  The result is a rejection letter instead of an offer.  So I am stressing here that it is extremely important for the writer proposing a work of non-fiction to clearly define exactly what he or she wants to do in his or her book in a keynote sentence or two. That keynote is so very important!  If a sale is made, the proposal goes from the writer, to the editor who buys the book, to the publisher, to the person who creates both the catalog and cover copy and, finally, to the sales person who is selling the book in to the accounts.  It has to be right.

And, sometimes, for it to be “right” takes time.  The other thing that was brought home to me again this last week is that rushing a book proposal never pays.  It results in shoddy work which can be misinterpreted by the editor considering the material.  I use the saying “better late than lousy” so often these days—and it is very important to remember.  Doing the proposal the right way can make all the difference in the world.

Of course, as always, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences on the subject of proposal writing.