Category Archives: advice

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Time to edit

I’d been considering writing about the editorial process for the blog today, so I was pleased this morning to see this PW interview all about that with author Eowyn Ivey and editors Reagan Arthur and Mary-Anne Harrington. Ivey, Arthur, and Harrington talk about taking her new novel, To the Bright Edge of the World, from an outline and 50 pages to a completed book.

Editing can be smooth sailing or a minefield or, most often, somewhere in between. (For example, sometimes an editor has to tell a writer to cool it with the mixed metaphors.) I always tell authors that it’s important that they are on board with the vision for the book. Their name is going on the cover. If they don’t agree with an edit, there’s something to discuss. Editors are not—nor do they tend to want to be—dictators. And I know from experience that editing can be very nerve-wracking, because you are taking on a role of omniscient authority but everyone knows you’re just one person with an opinion. An informed opinion, but an opinion nonetheless. I encourage authors who are in very strong disagreement to come to me and talk it out, so we can figure out the best way to get them and their editor on the same page—and so they can get it off their chest, regroup, and be diplomatic, or let me handle it if diplomacy feels beyond reach so that the relationship can continue forward smoothly.

I also generally suggest to authors that they ask themselves if changes they don’t agree with are possibly bad solutions to a problem they need to tackle another way. Maybe you don’t need to change your vision, but is it possible you’ve not executed that vision as well as you thought? Or can you explain to your editor what you’re seeing that they’re not, so that they’ll understand where they lost the thread? Maybe there’s a different, unobjectionable change that will get the job done. On the other hand, maybe the editor missed something because they don’t come from the same demographic as the character and writer, and the edit they’re suggesting doesn’t actually ring true. It can be hard at first blush to sort out which edits simply sting but are a good idea and which edits are a huge misstep, a path to a different book than the author wants to write, or a misread on the editor’s part. Edits are not an edict from on high, and they absolutely can be a conversation.

One of the best keys to a strong publishing experience is to trust that we’re all in this together.  If as an author you have a concern or a problem, know you’re almost certainly not the first person to have that issue, and your agent and editor should be more than capable of being professional enough to help resolve it. And your agent makes a great sounding board if you’re not quite sure how to move forward or want to express the unvarnished truth before taking a more diplomatic tack. A big part of what we’re here for is bringing the author and publisher back onto the same page when their interests or ideas begin to diverge so that everyone can move forward together.

Platform talk

There was a blog post recently from Eric Smith that got a lot of attention around publishing circles. My colleague, Sharon, passed it around the office for all of us to see, and I thought it might be a good idea to share wider with our blog readers as well.

Periodically the conversation changes about what authors should be doing to reach their fans once they’re published or how to build up their fan base before they’re published. One of the nice things about the piece is that it gives a few examples of authors doing things that are effective.

When I’m at conferences or talking with prospective authors, I often discuss what I refer to as the “platform pie.” Years ago, you had a good book idea, you got it published and you built your platform around the book. Now, the book has to be one of the last pieces of the platform pie, with the others already in place when you sell the book. Other pieces of the pie include social media, traditional media (radio and tv), public speaking, and writing online and offline for blogs, websites, newspapers and magazines.

A good example on my own list is Amy Morin, author of 13 THINGS MENTALLY STRONG PEOPLE DON’T DO and the upcoming 13 THINGS MENTALLY STRONG PARENTS DON’T DO. Her writing career started with freelance articles, one of which, talking about Amy’s groundbreaking work on mental strength, went viral in late 2014. I sold the book that became 13 THINGS just a few weeks later after feverishly working on it over the holidays.  She then took that success and extended her platform, writing for various publications, doing radio and tv interviews, and setting up speaking engagements in front of all kinds of audiences which eventually led to a Tedx talk and many other outlets to grow her platform.

It’s the end of summer and most of us are hanging on to the last few days before the busyness of September kicks in. This is a good thing to be thinking about while sitting on the beach, sipping ice cold cocktails, all the ways in which you can make your voice heard.

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“Ssh, I’m reading…”

I have a fairly handy knack of being able to tune most people out if I’m reading (or trying to otherwise work), but I know many people (my own mother included) who need pretty much absolute silence in order to concentrate and read. However, there are always some people (and situations) where you absolutely cannot tune people or conversations out, so this article from Bustle about “14 Thoughts You Have When Someone Tries to Talk to You While You’re Reading”  made me chuckle.

Whether you’re a reader or a writer, it can often be very difficult to find that coveted time and space to read or write without interruption. As a general rule, our office relies pretty heavily on communicating with each other and working together to get tasks done. Any number of instant messages can pop up on my screen during the day asking for help or an opinion, emails flood in, the phone will ring, someone will wander by to ask a question, and it can often make concentration on a single project challenging. On the other hand, it would be impossible and counterproductive to shut out everyone and just focus on what I have to do—our business and our office don’t work that way; we can’t be as selfish as we might often want to be with our time. It’s a matter of figuring out how to multi-task and how to stay focused and efficient despite any interruptions.

However, as a writer, setting boundaries is often important, especially if you have other obligations and demands on your time. Some writers I know get up early or stay up late to eke out a few precious hours when no one else is awake; others set specific hours where they cannot be disturbed (and turn off phones, social media, etc.,) in order to get their writing quota done for the day. It can be challenging to verbalize the boundaries or to enforce them, but important—for example, my mom says she can’t read or do her art if she has the feeling that someone is going to come barging in and interrupt her concentration.

For me personally, I find that my best work is done early in the morning when no one else is awake or in the office and I do a lot of my reading on the subway (I’ve perfected the death glare of “talk-to-me-at-your-own-peril”). How do you eke out time for yourself at work or for personal reading and writing? Can you work or read with interruptions? What boundaries have you set?

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When nothing works

Often, when I tell people what my job is, they reply that it sounds really fun.  The fact is that most of the time it is. I get to read for a living.  I live in a world of ideas.  I work with people on all sides of the business who are creative and passionate about helping writers succeed in a pretty competitive marketplace.  I love that there is so much variety in what I am doing in a single day—editing a proposal, discussing a new idea with a client, talking about a potential project with a publisher, negotiating contract terms, helping to plan a publicity and marketing campaign, etc.

The other side of this, though, is what to do when nothing seems to be working.  Yes, there are times when it seems nobody is interested in the projects we are submitting.  Editors like the idea but can’t relate to the “voice”; they don’t think the concept works for their list; they can’t define a big enough market; the author isn’t qualified to be writing the book he or she is proposing or don’t have a big enough platform…I’ve heard it all.  Sometimes this gets really discouraging, especially during periods when it seems to be happening with everything we are submitting.

We ask ourselves what we are doing wrong.  Are we picking the wrong projects, presenting them in the wrong way, sending to the wrong editors and publishers?  What is it?  And then we think that maybe we should change up everything—do things differently.

While considering this the other day, I looked up “what to do when nothing works” on Google and I found 300,000,000 entries.  Astonishing! I read through some of them, but, in the end, after a long career full of these experiences, I have come to the conclusion that what I need to do is to stop second guessing myself and just keep doing what I’ve always done: Look for those new ideas and help our clients present them in fresh and original ways.  Identify new editors and new publishing opportunities.  Just keep moving forward.  To quote myself:  “NEXT!”

What do you do when nothing seems to be working in your world?

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Your platform (not your book’s)

Readers, by now I’m sure you’re all aware of the importance of an author’s platform (and probably sick of hearing about it), nevertheless, It’s a message that authors thankfully seem to be hearing from the start of their writing careers. Case in point: at a recent conference, I led a workshop on query letters and when I brought up how to cite one’s platform, the collective groans from the audience told me they were all well aware of the platform mandate!

Yet even so, I read a blogpost this morning on platform by fellow agent Eric Smith that raised an excellent point worth sharing: Make sure you’re building your platform for you, the author, and NOT for your book. In other words, when you set up a website/blog/Twitter feed, it should be in the service of your career as an author, not for the specific book or project that you’re trying to promote. It’s a particularly important distinction for writers looking for representation, because while we’re obviously interested in the specific project, we’re just as interested in you as an author whose career we can build with multiple books.

Lest you think the advice here is obvious, like Eric, I’ve seen writers make the mistake all the time, particularly thriller and fantasy/sci-fi writers. Fortunately, Eric provides an excellent list of authors that have done a great job of building their author platforms. If you’re struggling with how to set up that author platform, especially if you only have one book in the works, check them out for sure.

What I’m looking for in fantasy

Science fiction and fantasy, more so than other genres, rely on worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is hard. Novels in this genre don’t just need the usual—good writing with complex characters and compelling plot—but they also need to introduce readers to a believable new world, whether that new world is completely foreign or nearly identical to ours with one or two minor changes. So how can authors accomplish this?

Personally, I find that descriptive imagery goes a long, long way to immersing me in a new world. For example, the opening lines of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World go like this:

“The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened. Bars of sunlight cast through rents in the walls made motes of dust glitter where they yet hung in the air. Scorch-marks marred the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Broad black smears crossed the blistered paints and gilt of once-bright murals, soot overlaying crumbling friezes of men and animals which seemed to have attempted to walk before the madness grew quiet.”

There’s a lot to unpack in the those first four sentences, but the main takeaway is this: Jordan doesn’t simply write that the palace had been destroyed, or even that holes in the walls let bars of sunlight in. Instead he paints the reader a picture with strong language and a focus on the smalls details, the little individual pieces that make up the whole. “Rents” and “holes” have two very different connotations, and based on the other word choices and contextual clues, one can reasonably guess that the palace has seen terrible violence recently. Jordan never explicitly says this, but the tone of his writing establishes a certain mood and allows the reader to draw inferences, making him or her an active reader and a willing participant of Jordan’s world.

This excerpt also does a great job demonstrating the old “show don’t tell” adage. Its vivid imagery accomplishes a small measure of worldbuilding by enabling the reader to visualize the world, which is an obvious, yet very crucial, aspect of worldbuilding. If your story takes place on a different planet, I want to be able to imagine what that planet looks like. If your story opens in a palace courtyard, I should be able to see that palace courtyard in my mind’s eye.

None of this should come as groundbreaking, but it has been some time since I’ve been transported to a different world like Jordan’s. And I hope to visit another someday soon. I’d love to hear from our readers. Which worldbuilding techniques do you prefer? Anyone have a favorite author particularly adept at this skill?

Pitch, pitch, pitch!

I’ve had pitching on the brain recently in all Its forms. On the baseball side, my son Henry has been obsessed with the fact that the Yankees’ closer Aroldis Chapman can throw over 100 MPH. And I’m dreading the fact that I have to pitch Saturday morning for my son’s little league team, having been a terrible pitcher all my life. Overhand, underhand, I just can’t seem to get the ball consistently over the plate…

But MUCH more relevantly, I ran a workshop at the SCBWI Northern California conference a couple of weeks ago on querying and pitching, and I found the results fascinating. After walking the attendees through the elements of a basic query letter, I asked them to take five minutes to put together an elevator pitch for their work. Immediately, hands went up to remind me that SCBWI does NOT allow unsolicited pitching at their conferences. To which I countered that writing a pitch is an important exercise for writers, because it helps to summarize one’s work and identify the key selling point of a story—plus, if anyone ever asks you what your book is about (which never happens, right?), you’ll have a clear answer ready to go.

So, once I convinced them it was a worthwhile exercise, I shared with them Thrillerfest’s “What if… so what?” method, which I highly recommend as a starting point. Basically, you want a pitch that’s 25 words or less that describes your book as a “what if” question so that it makes the listener respond with a “so what” question, i.e., so what happens next? And I shared a few kid-specific “What if” pitches that I thought would get most listeners to ask “so what?”:

  • What if a cat with a silly hat causes mayhem trying to entertain two kids on a rainy day?—Dr. Seuss, 19 words
  • What if an orphan discovers he’s a wizard and is sent to a secret school for witchcraft?—JK Rowling, 17 words
  • What if a naughty boy sails away to where the wild things are?—Maurice Sendak, 13 words
  • What if a teenager risks her soul to love a vampire boyfriend?—Stephanie Meyer, 12 words

After their five minutes were up, we went around the room sharing what they came up with, and I have to say, I was absolutely blown away—virtually every pitch made the books sound intriguing and well-developed. And for those that didn’t quite get it, they were able to revise on the spot and come up with something more effective.

Now, whether their manuscripts live up to their pitches is another question. But I will say that the queries I’ve received since the conference that lead with their pitches have certainly gotten my attention. So if I may, I highly recommend checking out the Thrillerfest formula and working out a pitch that sings—even if you never use it in public!

And if I can make a final pitch to you, wish me luck pitching on Saturday. Regrettably, I’m going to need it…

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Those conventional publishing rules…are made to be broken

PicMonkey CollageLast week I had lunch with one of my favorite editors and we got to talking about the state of publishing and what was working and what wasn’t.  Somewhere along the line, we began to try to identify all of those “rules” which we were taught about the business—and discovered that in this ever changing world most of them no longer held.

Here are some examples:

Green covers don’t work—and then there was GOOD NIGHT MOON.

Books about dead or abused children won’t sell—now the true crime category is back and books like Hanya Yanagihara’s A LITTLE LIFE have become bestsellers.

Short story collections don’t do well.   And then along comes Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD.

Books about death are a “no no” but what about BEING MORTAL and WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR?

And, finally, we all know that books with unlikeable protagonists definitely don’t work, but what about those in GONE GIRL or Meg Wolitzer’s THE INTERESTINGS?

I guess rules are made to be broken and, I have to say, I am always delighted when those in our industry are.  It makes life so much more interesting.

I wonder whether you have any examples of what you have been told definitely won’t work…until it does.  Let me know.

The Green-Eyed Monster

I had a whole nother blog post planned for today, and then Eric beat me to the punch yesterday with his fun discussion of quarterback Andrew Luck’s bookclub for “Rookies” and “Veterans.” My first thought when I saw Eric’s post was was “noooooooooooooo!” And then I realized that was the perfect new idea right there!

That “oh no! I was going to write about that,” reaction is so common in publishing. Whether you’re a writer toiling away in the query trenches or a seasoned author brainstorming ideas for a new series, I’m sure you’ve felt that sinking feeling when you see a new book come out with a premise or setting similar to yours. You’ve been working so hard for months, or even years, on an idea you love and you worry that there’s no room left for it now. It even happens for agents and editors when we see a book announced and worry it will affect the momentum for one you’ve been working so hard on. Even if a book is not very much like yours at all, you might feel nervous, competitive, even jealous or angry (yes, it happens!) when you see another writer get a great book deal, a lot of buzzy press, or an award.

That’s a normal feeling and it’s okay to feel that way for up to five minutes. Then you gotta shake it off and go back to your work. Because that’s all you really have a hand in, right? Publishing often can seem like a lot of luck and a lot of flukes, but as my client Rena Olsen discussed in a smart set of tweets yesterday, you’ll never succeed to any extent if you aren’t working extremely hard.


And someone else’s success does not get in the way of yours!  I love the way agent Carly Watters put it in her own very smart set of tweets this morning:


After all, there are only seven stories under the sun, and Shakespeare wrote them all already. Change up your angle if you must, or get your keyboard smoking after a new idea, but don’t give up and don’t get jealous. Just get writing!

 

 

 

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Scholars going trade

I’ve been running between conferences—there have been three this month (I’m still not sure how I managed to schedule that) and remiss in posting.   I have, however, been talking myself hoarse, so I thought I might repurpose some of the material I’ve been presenting–in my newly gravelly voice–here on the blog.

Last week I had the good fortune to head down to Emory University, where the campus was in full and spectacular bloom, and I had the opportunity to meet with faculty in various stages of the book-writing process.  Some were at work on scholarly  monographs aimed primarily at an audience of their peers–the tenure book, the promotion book, etc–but others were at a point in their careers with the ability, freedom or inclination to reach out to a broader audience of smart but non-expert readers.  And that’s where I came in–explaining the role of a literary agent, discussing the market, and dispensing some advice for scholars interested in writing for a general or “trade” readership.

I used the elements of a  nonfiction proposal as the scaffold for my talk. I feel like the proposal is a good lens for understanding what publishers are looking for, and as difficult as good proposals are to write (weird hybrids that they are: part argument for the book, part blueprint, part marketing document), each discrete piece has a purpose.   The presentation, given in conjunction with Eric Schwartz, Editorial Director  of Columbia University Press, is reported on in detail here, but I’ll mention a few points that crop up again and again, and not just with clients with many initials behind their names.

First, lead with the story.  Too often I find that authors cannot resist the opportunity to analyze their own project—to immediately let me in on the tropes they’re subverting or the universal themes they’re tackling to explain: What.The.Book.Means.  To which I say: not so fast.  Before we get to the broad brush and the big ideas,  I want to be rooted in the particulars of the tale—true or fictional–the writer is telling. Tell me the story, and start, if you can, with the exciting bits.   Also, that story must be written in lively, lucid prose, scrubbed of the passive voice, double-scrubbed for jargon (including but not limited to: “trope,”  “problematic” used as a noun, “legitimate” as a verb, etc). I let writers know that it’s really okay to use the first person, to deploy some levity in their discussion, and above all, to establish a voice that is uniquely, unapologetically their own.  I’m a firm believer that scholarly integrity and readability are not mutually exclusive.

I love working with academics, experts, scholars—it’s thrilling to be exposed to first-class thinkers, big ideas, and dizzying levels of expertise.  It can take folks a bit of practice to shrug off the conventions of their discipline, but if they can figure out how to deploy their theory lightly and channel deep reservoirs of knowledge into fluid, clear writing, then more often than not, they’ve  got the makings of an extraordinary  book.