Category Archives: advice

Music in the air

Maybe it’s due to the long-awaited thaw here in NYC, but everywhere I turn this week it feels like music is in the air. And books about music are demanding to be heard…

First, the other night, my son Henry brought home PLAY, MOZART, PLAY by Peter Sis from school for his assigned reading. I adore Peter’s Sis’ MADLENKA and some of his other titles, but I didn’t know this one. It’s a very sweet (and bittersweet) depiction of Mozart the child prodigy, who spent his early years playing for kings and queens but missed out on being a kid. Not only did Henry ask to read it together, but since his class recently started writing book reviews, he asked me to write a blog post about it this week.

Since I obviously can’t refuse a request like that, I’ll just say that if you can find a copy, it’s worth a look as a fine example of how to write about music for kids. So many picture books with musical themes simply present song lyrics, and while there are some successful titles (THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, for example), too often they fall flat without the musical accompaniment (sadly, Bob Marley’s ONE LOVE comes to mind immediately). With PLAY, MOZART, PLAY, Sis sidesteps any direct citation, instead letting Mozart’s imagination reflect the mood and themes of his music. It’s a much more successful technique, and one that I think registers strongly with readers, even if they don’t know Mozart’s music at all.

Then, on Wednesday night, I had the honor of attending the National Jewish Book Awards to support my client James A. Grymes, whose VIOLINS OF HOPE had won the award in the Holocaust category. VIOLINS OF HOPE chronicles the stories behind several violins that were played by Jewish musicians during WWII, mostly in concentration camps, and how these instruments eventually made their way to Amnon Weinstein, a violin restorer in Israel, who fixed them up for a travelling exhibition. A sobering subject, no doubt, so it was all the more enjoyable to toast Jay’s success last night.

Now, one of the many things I love about this book is that it a great example of using physical objects to tell a much larger story—throughout, the violins are used as a jumping-off point to discuss bigger themes, such as the treatment of musicians in concentration camps, the partisan movement, emigration to Israel, and so on. Taking a small element or story to tell a larger one is a narrative style that I personally love, and it can make for very successful popular nonfiction—Michael Lewis, anyone? So if anyone out there is working in that vein, especially with a musical connection, I’d love to see your work…

Finally, what were two of the big publishing stories this week? The sale of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir and Kim Gordon’s GIRL IN A BAND hitting #2 on the NY Times bestseller list. Seems like the musician memoir is still a hot commodity, and it’s especially exciting to see Gordon’s success, given how non-commercial so much of Sonic Youth’s output was. And it’s got an awesome jacket, too!

So, to paraphrase the Bard, “If music be the food of books, write on.” Let’s see what you can do!

5

The Thing and the Other Thing

In college I had a workshop with the writer Tony Earley, who taught us a theory of putting together an effective short story that I have never forgotten. I’m going to spend a bit of time discussing it today, because it’s fun and it might help you if you’re stuck in your writing.

Your story needs two pieces: 1. The Thing 2. The Other Thing.

To explain how it works, I’m going to just shamelessly paraphrase what Mr. Earley explained, because the details have stuck with me for almost ten years (accurately, I hope!).

Mr. Earley read to us a short story he had recently written, and explained its background: He had been fascinated by Bigfoot believers for years, and wanted to write about them – the Thing – but the story had never quite worked when he sat down to write it. Then, he read a news article about the FBI pursuing a suspect into the woods around his home in North Carolina, and realized that could be the missing piece of his story – the Other Thing. And boom. The Cryptozoologist was ready to be a story.

While Mr. Earley was focused on short fiction, I’ve found the theory of the Thing and the Other Thing applies to full-length fiction and even memoir, as well as short stories – it helps me analyze the bones of a plot when I’m when I’m assessing queries or responding to a client’s story concept. Let’s look for this concept in a few other books so that you can really get a handle on how this works.  

Twilight by Stephanie Meyers Thing: Girl goes to a new school and falls in love (yawn) Other Thing: with a vampire in disguise.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt Thing: Boy’s mother dies in a museum bombing and he struggles to find meaning in the rest of his life (yawn) Other Thing: while keeping hidden the painting he stole from that museum.

WILD by Cheryl Strayed Thing: Woman is grieving mother’s premature death while trying to move on from a lifetime of self-destructive behavior (like a thousand other grief memoirs) Other Thing: and hikes Pacific Crest Trail with no experience and little preparation.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin Thing: Middle-aged widower running a small bookstore (ok, so what?) Other Thing adopts a baby girl abandoned in the store.

Now, I’m not claiming that no book ever could manage to organize itself without clear, identifiable Thing and Other Thing at all. (Bonus points for whoever can pull out the GONE GIRL T. and O.T. in the comments.) But the main idea holds up, and can even help you organize more complex projects.

Maybe you have multiple story lines, and they all have their own Other Thing, so sharing the same Thing unifies the book.  Or maybe your story jumps from era to era and each has the same Thing and Other Thing but in different form for each time and place (David Mitchell, I’m looking at you.)  And there might be a couple Secondary Things. For example, in the Donna Tartt example above, STs are that Theo’s father dies, that his best friend is a drug dealer, that he goes to live with an antiques seller and ends up embezzling from him…but none of those pieces can hang with each other without being pinned to both T. and O.T., right? (Not to mention that we can’t all be Donna Tartt.)

This is probably the longest post in the history of the DGLM blog, so I’ll cut to the takeaway: If you have an amazing idea that just isn’t working, put it in a Thing folder. And wait for its perfect Other Thing to come to you. (And then send it to me!)

4

Tips from writers, for writers

Stephen King’s  short story, “A Death,” was this week’s fiction in the New Yorker, so naturally I started thinking about how I still have to get around to reading 11/22/63 and ON WRITING. Then I started thinking about how a lot of writers seem to enjoy giving advice about writing. But is any of it any good? The answer is yes: Yes, writing tips from established writers can be very, very good.

Here’s some of the best advice I’ve come across:

99% of great writers will tell you that their first drafts are rambling, incoherent pieces of s!@*. The other 1% are lying. (Full disclosure: I haven’t finished crunching all the numbers yet, so I’m ballparking here.) Editing and rewriting are such vital components to crafting a story, but first you need to put your ideas down on paper. You can’t shape what’s not there. If you haven’t read Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD, do so. Now. It will revolutionize your writing process.

John McPhee’s “The Writing Life” column in the New Yorker is a goldmine of wisdom. His tips on how to develop the structure of a story are particularly helpful. Few writers place such importance on structure as McPhee. Few writers have also had as prolific a career.

You ever hear of this guy Ernest Hemingway? I hear he’s good. He was also a proponent of simple, direct prose. Cut out all ornamentation. If a word isn’t necessary, lose it. He also said that writers should never describe an emotion—they should present the situation/action in a way that evokes the emotion in readers. This is  difficult to perfect, but it’s something all writers should strive to do.

What are your favorite tips from writers? Let us know in the comments.

6

Staying positive in a volatile environment

It’s still a relatively new year and I have been reflecting on how much our publishing environment continues to change.  Books that sold easily even two or three years ago are no longer selling, categories that weren’t selling as recently as last year are all of a sudden back in vogue, the landscape for self-published books has undergone a major shift, both for those who have been picked up previously by traditional publishers and for those who have gone back to self-publishing or who are continuing to self-publish but having much less success.  So, how are we supposed to stay positive in this ever changing publishing environment?

I started googling “how to be positive” and found the Internet teeming with articles about this very thing.  I guess I’m not the only one pondering this issue.

Among the more helpful pieces I came across was this one in WikiHow.  Admitting there are problems and identifying what they are has always been something I believe in doing and I try to pay special attention to this—especially now.  Then I set goals every quarter and I review those goals monthly.  I find it  very important to be honest with myself as to whether or not I am achieving those goals and if not, I ask myself why not.

I ask for feedback from those I respect.  It is so important, in my opinion to listen to others who are knowledgeable.

Finally, I try not to be afraid of failure.  In my career, I have certainly faced some pretty major setbacks but I have always addressed them and the reasons for them head-on, and that has enabled me to move forward.

Even writing this blog has helped me to evaluate the issue of staying positive in an ever changing publishing environment and I hope it will help you as well.  Please let me know if it has.

7

Query Turn-Offs

Now that you know what I’m looking for, here’s a follow-up on what I’m NOT looking for – a quick list of my query pet peeves!

These won’t be an automatic deal-breaker for you and your project, but they will make me a little sad; more importantly, they’ll make me wonder if you’ve done your research, and if you take your writing seriously. And your pitch and sample pages will have to work that much harder to win me over.

  •  “What’s her name? Shannon? Close enough.” While no one loves “Dear Agent” or “To Whom It May Concern,” it’s even worse to get a query addressed to “Dear [Coworker’s Name]”; “Dear Sarah” (you’d be surprised how often it happens), or even “Dear Mr. Spelletier.” You should be doing your research to make sure you’re querying agents who will be a good fit; in addition, messing up my name makes me wonder if you’ll take your time and pay attention to detail when we work together.
  •  “Pssht, guidelines don’t apply to me.” Yes they do, and they’re right here! So please follow them; don’t ask me to click on your website or download a file from Dropbox. I won’t buy your self-published e-book or look under a rock in Central Park for your hand-penned sample pages.
  •  “My book is the next GONE GIRL meets WILD!” It’s probably not, and those comps don’t do much to help me understand your book – what’s special about it, why you were the perfect person to write it, how it fits into the market. Of course you want to highlight how your book will fit in with what’s popular right now, but be specific, and show that you’ve read widely in your genre. If you’re querying me with a thriller about a time-traveling cheerleader who kidnaps the Lindbergh baby, mention The Shining Girls and Dare Me, not Gone Girl and Twilight.
  •  “Whatever, spellcheck probably caught it all.” Now I must admit that I am a grammar zealot, and my spam filter is set to automatically delete any email that omits the second attributive comma (just kidding – that’s only a dream of mine). I’m self-aware enough not to hold minor typos against you, and I might even let it slide if you use fiancé where fiancée should be. But fundamental writing errors like homophone confusion (isle ≠ aisle, discrete ≠ discreet), dangling participles, verb-subject disagreement, etc., are a red flag. Whether you need more time to learn the basics of your craft, or whether you just didn’t bother to give your letter a second read, grammar mistakes are signs that you might not be ready to work with an agent.
  •  “You’re making a huge mistake.” And please be nice. Be professional in your query, not arrogant or demeaning, and don’t write back rudely if I decline. Even if the project you’re querying isn’t for me, who knows when and where our paths might cross again – publishing is a small town!

 

Now you know what to double-check before hitting SEND on that fantastic project that’s exactly what I’m looking for. For more query tips, check out Jessica and Mike’s great insights recently.

Do you have any suggestions for making sure your queries are good to go? Any embarrassing mistakes you didn’t catch in time?

 

0

Some thoughts on article pitching

How and when to pitch to magazines is a question that comes up often, from both my fiction and nonfiction authors so I thought it was worth a blog post to give some thoughts on the subject.

As with many things we do in book publishing, there isn’t always a right or wrong answer and each situation is uniquely individual. That said, having your work published in magazines and/or newspapers and/or reputable websites can be very helpful when it comes to both selling your book to an agent, publisher, or the general consumer. If you notice the authors who are the most successful are widely published across multiple media channels. Getting and keeping your name out there is useful.

Writer’s Digest brought up this topic recently, and it prompted the idea for this post. They were talking about whether or not to pitch word counts, which is a very particular subcategory, but it made me think about the idea more generally and what it means for writers in all different categories.

Short form writing is very different from book writing, but in terms of the number of people you can reach, sometimes it can be an effective bang for your buck. Whether you’re not yet published and looking to get some credits under your belt (and some better Google searches to come up, which can be important for agents and editors reviewing your work), or you’re already published and looking to expand your reach, there are many outlets to pursue, and you might even earn a few bucks in the process.

Key is to do your research and make sure that whatever you are pitching is appropriate for that publication’s audience. And you should explain why in your pitch. I have a client with an upmarket commercial women’s fiction novel forthcoming and we’re working on articles for her to pitch, to women’s magazines and Modern Love in the New York Times, not necessarily the most obvious places to target for what she writes, but certainly reaching a similar audience to what we hope to find for her book.

I did a further search and found an appealing article by a writer who decided in the UK to pitch every magazine listed in a market guide for writers he found – 642 total. I don’t recommend you do this, but there were some learning tools to take away here. I liked that he suggests “shaking oneself out of one’s comfort zone can be an incredibly good practice.”

Indeed, there was more to enjoy here: “One way to stand out is to pitch 642 magazines. Another is to develop your own voice—something that editors will recognize amongst all the other thousands of voices clamoring to be heard. Perhaps a way of developing this voice is to spend your time writing about things you don’t want to write about—until you realize what it is you do want to concentrate on.” This reminds me of the advice I give my kids. You have to try everything until you (hopefully) find something you enjoy.

Let us know where you’ve had success being published in these areas, and how you got there.

1

How to query me

For my blog post today, I thought I’d share with you all the secret to querying me. Before I do, however, I’d like to provide a disclaimer: The following advice is for those who query me. What I’m about to share may or may not hold true for all agents here at DGLM and other agents at other agencies. (Click here for a refresher course on how to query DGLM agents.)

Step 1: Hook me. Right off the bat. Your first sentence should be compelling. Everyone here has a full inbox. Email never stops. For a query to shoot to the top of my reading pile it really needs to grab my attention from that very first line. What’s your story about and why should I care? Make the tagline simple but powerful.

Step 2: Keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Edit your query over and over again until you’ve removed all extraneous information and have just the juicy bits left. The end product should look something like:

Paragraph One – Hook (one to two sentences)
Paragraph Two/Three – Pitch (genre, audience, comparable books, and plot)
Last Paragraph – Your bio, any publishing/writing credentials, any other pertinent information you think I should know

Step 3: Give me 4 weeks. If I haven’t gotten back to you by then, send me a follow-up email. It’s possible your query was caught by our spam filter, was overlooked, or I have simply been busy and haven’t gotten to it yet. Whatever the case, I always appreciate a gentle reminder!

I hope the tips above helped at least a little. And as you’ve probably gathered, those steps above aren’t fixed in stone, but when you’re querying me and are having trouble, when in doubt, stick to the formula. Let your work do the talking, the persuading. A good writer with a good story to tell is more than enough to intrigue me.

I’m happy to answer any questions. Sound off in the comments.

5

My favorite New Year’s resolution

So it’s a new year and rather than making a list of virtually the same resolutions I made in 2014, I started to think about what my all-time favorite one is.  I thought back through this year, which was, in fact, a difficult one for me for a number of reasons and what comes to mind is:

“Never give up!”

Indeed, my father, whom I lost last May, taught me that perseverance is one of the most important qualities a person can have.  I listened to him carefully, watched as he led by example and have learned through much trial and error that not giving up is incredibly important.

In my career, as in my personal life, I have always tried to achieve my best.  I have also always stuck with clients whose work I absolutely knew would find a home and just two weeks ago I learned again the real value of perseverance.

I had tried to sell a new client’s novel beginning in the fall of 2012 and finally had to acknowledge that it wasn’t going to happen about four months and dozens of rejections later.  He came back to me with a new manuscript in the spring of 2014 and finally, after submitting to 30 publishers  and on the last day I was in the office before our holiday break, I found him a home…I think a good one.  He didn’t give up and neither did I.  There were times along the way when we both thought about giving up and moving on, but instead we just kept moving forward.

So I am hoping that in 2015 we will all continue to persevere in whatever we choose to do.  That really is my favorite New Year’s resolution.

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The business of writing

I know I talk a lot about the creative side of writing. Finding inspiration, developing ideas, perfecting your craft and the like. But I saw this piece in writersdigest.com about the business side of writing and thought it might be worth sharing to give a different and more practical perspective on what you can do to manage your finances as they pertain to your writing as you wait for your first big bestseller.

This particular piece focuses on items that are tax deductible when you are earning income writing, or as the author, Brian A. Klems, points out “at least trying to earn money from it”. I wanted to do a bit more research into the business of writing, and came upon another useful article  from Forbes.com. The author, Suw Charman-Anderson, offers a number of ideas for ways to generate income from writing. As she suggests, some are more likely than others to spend your time on. One idea she doesn’t mention that could be worth considering is writing articles, although I suspect all of her ideas are aimed at writers of fiction. In this market, there are so many outlets to be published, especially if you’re willing to branch out into areas outside of your comfort zone. Think about the numerous blogs and websites, as well as the rise of web-based media that is easy to pitch to like Buzzfeed, Longreads, the Awl, etc. While many are not income-generating, if you do enough of them and make a name for yourself, you might find at some point you’re actually able to get paid for your work.

I do appreciate her final takeway: “You don’t need a big fat advance to achieve financial security, you need to be creative and fully explore all the opportunities to earn money that are open to you.” Sometimes good old fashioned hard work, networking, and a little bit of luck will take you somewhere on your writing path you never anticipated you’d go.

Do you have any ideas for generating income from writing? Or thoughts about managing your money that weren’t covered here? I’m sure there are many authors who would like to know.

3

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo)

Happy National Novel Writing Month everybody! Writing a draft for a 50,000-word novel in a single month is no easy feat, so I figured I would help out those of our readers who are writers currently working on a project with some helpful tips and resources.

First things first, if you’re going to do this, don’t make excuses. Check out this advice about finding time to write. I especially like #2. As an iPhone 6 Plus user, one of the benefits a big screen provides is the ability read and edit manuscripts on the go. Smartphones do everything. They can be your pen and paper when you’re out and about.

GalleyCat also has some useful advice for writers. Their first writing tip this November can be found here.

Who better to take advice from than Ernest Hemingway? Ever heard of him?

And perhaps the most important tip of all: don’t get discouraged! You can do it! After all, it’s been done before. And if you need some inspiration, here’s a pep talk from James Patterson.

Show, don’t tell. This is a classic piece of advice. It’s also what I tell my clients on a consistent basis. Not only does showing the reader actions and emotions make your story come alive, but it’ll help you increase that word count so 50,000 words in a month seems like no big thing!

How many of our readers out there are currently partaking in National Novel Writing Month? Do you have any other tips for fellow writers? Let us know in the comments below.

Lastly, and on a completely unrelated note, we here at DGLM would like to express our sincere gratitude to all former and active members of the U.S. military. Happy Veterans Day!