Category Archives: advice

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How long should it take me to write my novel?

Over the weekend, I finished a remarkable first novel.  The author had taken many years to complete this work and, in the end, I think the time it took her to do so has paid off (of course, only the marketplace will tell).

Thinking about this – the time it takes a writer to finish a book – brought to mind how different each writer’s process is.  I found this very interesting piece on the subject in the Huffington Post.

I have clients who take many years to finish their novels, much like the writer whose work I read this weekend.   Then, there are those who actually ask for deadlines (from me) by when they should have their next manuscript completed.  And then, of course, there are those who can conceptualize their stories and write them down much much faster.

In the end, there is no right answer to how long it should take a writer to complete his/her manuscript.  It is what works for each individual.  I find it’s best not to compare your process to others’. Do what feels right for you.

I am curious to hear what you think about the subject.  Let me know.

4

Gol dangle it!

Everyone has a pet peeve when it comes to grammar—that one error that you never can miss, and that, once you’ve read it, you cannot “unread.”  Mine has always been the dangling modifier, which has rubbed me the wrong way ever since I first learned about it in Sixth Grade.  We ALL learn about it, but most people seem to forget it. Now it looks like it’s even become acceptable to the venerable New York Times.

Far be it from me to take on a book critic of Dwight Garner’s stature, but I’m on firm ground here. On February 9, in his review of Jhumpa Lahiri’s new memoir In Other Words, he led off with a doozie, right in the second sentence: “Born in London to Indian immigrants, her first language was Bengali.”  Uh—okay. So Lahiri’s first language was born in London to Indian immigrants?

If Mr. Garner wasn’t aware that he had written a nonsensical sentence, his editors at The Gray Lady should have been. It was up to them to catch it and correct it.

Six days later, Alex Williams’s otherwise entertaining piece on publicist Peggy Siegal in the Times’s Sunday Styles section included this intriguing reflection on Siegal’s  youthful countenance:  “Pushing 70, her skin is buttery smooth.” Well, technically, I guess if you are pushing 70, so is  your skin, but—come on. Once again, the editors let it sail right through. Are they asleep at the wheel?

Dangling modifiers totally mangle the meaning of a sentence, and force  you to stop and re-read it to figure it out. Yes, sometimes the work-around to avoid a dangling modifier results in two sentences instead of one, or a somewhat cumbersome form of syntax. But either of those are preferable to making a reader mentally  untangle a phantasmogoric image like “Perspiring heavily, the shirt was soon soaked through.” Is it that hard to just write, “As he was perspiring heavily, his shirt was soon soaked through”? Or “He was perspiring so heavily, his shirt was soon soaked through”?

Even some of the best writers fall prey to this common mistake, and I frequently find myself pointing it out to clients whose work is, in almost every other respect, grammatically flawless.  Here’s a word of advice. If you’re a writer who is composing a query letter, be especially vigilant about this. Your query letters are as representative of your writing as your manuscript is, and something as simple as a dangling modifier can be a red flag—to this schoolmarm of an agent, at least.

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Book publishing’s handy cheat sheet

I was doing some online research as I was vetting a recent contract and came upon a vintage blog post (originally posted in 2009, and updated in 2014) from Nathan Bransford, an interesting publishing figure who has worked in several areas of the publishing business. It gives a long list of brief digestible definitions of basic publishing terms. Many are likely familiar even to a lay person, like “hardcover” or “debut novel” or “editor”, but many are more inside baseball like “first pass pages” or “reserves against returns” or “co-op”.

Whatever your interest in publishing, how nice it is to have a free easily accessible reference page to help with your research. It’s an easy list to navigate, entries listed in alphabetical order, and some entries offer brief examples for clarification, like “Imprint” which refers to “The entity within a publisher whose name is printed on the spine of a book and which theoretically has a certain publishing “flavor.” An imprint may be a division within a publishing house (Knopf, HarperCollins, etc.), it may be based around a certain genre (Harlequin Silhouette, Harlequin Blaze, etc.) or it may be a “boutique” imprint named after editor(s) (Nan A. Talese, Spiegel & Grau, etc.). Keeping imprints straight and remembering who reports to whom takes years of familiarity with the publishing industry and gigantic spreadsheets.” While many entries just skims the surface as far as what each of these terms mean, often without using real-world examples, it’s a highly useful tool to have at your disposable.

What do you think of the list? Are there any terms you have questions about that either aren’t referenced here and/or require further explanation? Are there other resources you go to when you have questions about book publishing? I’m happy to answer any and all questions Mr. Bransford or others might not have covered.

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At least nine lives for writers

They say a cat has nine lives. I’d like to argue that a writer has many more. Literary lives, so to speak. I’ve talked on this blog before about talented authors like Sloane Crossley making the move from nonfiction to fiction, and now I’m switching it up to talk about a famous fiction author trying her hand at nonfiction.

Jhumpa Lahiri needs no introduction in literary circles. One of the world’s most accomplished living writers, she has managed to find success in her story collections and novels, including her first Pulitzer-Prize winning collection, The Interpreter of Maladies, a beautiful book which might have one of the best titles ever.

And now, just when you might think a new novel or collection is going to hit the market, she does a complete 360 and writes a memoir. And not only is In Other Words, scheduled to be published February 9th, her first nonfiction, and she wrote it in Italian! It’s about her love affair with the Italian language, and it inspired her to create a book that could be experienced in both languages (for the U.S. edition, she used a translator so those of us who do not read Italian can still enjoy the book). Here is an article that goes into more detail about the book and the author’s process from Harpers.org.

As a publishing professional, it is such an admirable and huge risk to go so far astray from one’s comfort zone and I’d guess that the decision wasn’t well received by all. Some might say it’s gimmicky, or inaccessible, but creative passion sometimes takes us in unexpected directions. And talent is talent. Plus at a certain point in an author’s career, when you’ve had the level of success that Ms. Lahiri has had, she can call the shots to a certain extent on what she wants to do and how she wants to do it.

Reviews have been glowing. Kirkus calls it “An honest, self-deprecating, and very moving account of a writer searching for herself in words.” Personally, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Ms. Lahiri has done with this book, and I just know no matter what I think of it that it’s going to make me long for Italy, one of the most special and beautiful places on earth, and where I spent my honeymoon almost fifteen years ago. How many writing lives do you think you have? And at what point do you decide to reinvent yourself and change direction?

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Panel etiquette

Over the years, I have been asked to participate on a number of panels.  Some of the experiences have been very positive—I have learned a lot and met some really terrific people.  Some of them, however, have  been…less than perfect.

In order to understand exactly how a panel should proceed, I went on Google (but, of course) and found some good advice.   When things go smoothly, everyone has a good time.  Sadly, that’s not always the case.

A while back I was asked to be a part of a panel on the state of self-publishing.  Having a lot to say on the subject (and I thought a good amount of knowledge as well), I agreed.  Everything began positively,  but then one of the participants simply hijacked the proceedings and took over the discussion.  Soon, the panel moderator lost all control.  At the time, I vowed never to repeat that experience.

Last year, I moderated a panel, chose the participants and presided over a lively session.  That experience  was a good one.  I very briefly introduced myself and then each of the participants and made sure that each of them contributed equally to the discussion.  It was, I thought, very successful and I think the audience learned a great deal—and we all enjoyed ourselves.

Over the weekend, I again participated on a publishing panel.  This time, the moderator not only took far too long to relate her own story, but then interrupted me and the others in mid-speech. Everyone in the audience noticed and even commented on this afterward.  Her behavior was offensive and disrespectful and, because of this, I was unable to fully enjoy this particular event.

Panels are meant to inform and teach.  Moderators should use their position to control each speaker and support them and to move things along, not as a bully pulpit.  I think after this last experience (combined with some of my previous ones), I will limit the panels in which I participate in the future.  We publishing folks do these things in our free time and they take us away from other important activities.   I would much rather “teach”  and learn than be diminished by someone who either deliberately or through ignorance doesn’t follow the etiquette of panel participation.

What has your experience been as a participant in panels or audience member?

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Common query and writing mistakes to avoid

I’ve been seeing a lot of no-no’s recently so here we go: what not to do. Buckle up.

  • Long queries that ramble on will significantly hurt your chances. Agents receive a lot of queries, and we don’t have a lot of time to read them. Get to the point—4-5 short paragraphs max should be enough. We don’t need a scene by scene rundown of the book. The idea is to hook us and make us want to actually read your book.
  • On a somewhat related note, before you add your writing credentials to your query, ask yourself if they’re truly credentials worth mentioning. If you have an MFA and your short fiction’s been published, by all means let us know. If your grandma read the first 5 chapters and loved it, we don’t need to know.
  • There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing, but for the most part, we usually won’t represent a book you’ve already put up on Amazon. Publishers want original works, which means we want original works. So write an amazing new manuscript and send us that!
  • Word count isn’t important except when it is. Stay in the average range for your genre and category. This helps show that you’re familiar with your market. Yes, of course there are exceptions, but your 600,000 word thriller isn’t one of them.

The good news is that we outline our query instructions here. Unfortunately though, a good query doesn’t necessarily guarantee a good book, so here are a few common writing pitfalls to avoid.

  • Infodumping is a big no-no, and I often receive SFF sample pages that make this mistake. Blurting out everything about your world and characters at once is telltale sign that your novel isn’t quite there yet. Conversely, many sample pages read like an entirely different language with invented concepts and terms that strewn throughout the prose with no explanation. Can’t represent what I can’t understand.
  • Don’t overly describe your characters’ actions and emotions. The reader doesn’t need to know all the little movements that entail Joe boarding a bus. Likewise, the reader doesn’t need lengthy explanations of Joe’s innermost feelings. Better yet, don’t tell me your characters’ emotions at all. Good writing describes; truly great writing evokes.

Finding an agent is hard enough. Give your work the best shot it deserves by steering clear of the literary atrocities above. Have any other tips for our readers? Share ‘em in the comments.

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Why reading matters

As a parent of young kids, my Facebook feed is inundated with articles about parenting, and this week everyone seems to be passing around this piece by Leonard Sax, the famous child psychologist. Evidently, in his new book THE COLLAPSE OF PARENTING, Sax argues that, “American families are facing a crisis of authority, where the kids are in charge, out of shape emotionally and physically and suffering because of it. He calls for a reordering of family life in response.” 

Now, I haven’t read the book yet, but in the article Sax offers some concrete advice for helping parents regain their authorityno cell phones in kids’ rooms at night, family dinners, no earbuds in the car, and getting outdoors. All of which are certainly good pieces of advice that I’ll take to heart, particularly how to handle electronics when the kids get to the age of fully abusing them. It’s already starting with my seven-year-old, who fancies himself a budding iphone film director…

Yet, I have to say, among Sax’s advice was one glaring omission that should be obvious to anyone in our industrywhat about reading? 

Perhaps Sax does encourage reading to one’s kids in his book (like I said, I haven’t read it yet), but I’m a little disappointed he doesn’t list reading as a primary method for helping families. I would think the daily structure of a child listening to a parent read aloud, particularly at bedtime, would be an ideal way for parents to reclaim authority from their kids. And of course, the benefits of
reading are pretty darn fundamental, don’t you know
and don’t just take my word for it, it’s science

So, how many of you read or used to read to your kids aloud? And thanks to that reading, were your kids  absolute angels who always respected your authority? Of course they were! So I’ll be curious when I read THE COLLAPSE OF PARENTING to see if Sax does actually encourage reading aloudif anyone has read it yet, please let us know!

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Jim suggests questions to ask a prospective agent!

I had a chance to lead a class at the SDSU Writers Conference this past weekend on the five questions to ask an agent before signing with them. To be fair, I forgot what the title of the class was while I was outlining, and I ended up with this list of 20+. Regardless, the agent/client relationship is a close one, and (ideally) it will be the most consistent one in your publishing career. So you want to make sure that you’re entering the partnership with your eyes wide open, gathering as much information as you can to find out what the working relationship will be like. Even if you only have one offer of representation and know you’ll sign with that agent no matter what, ask some questions—get to know the ins and outs of how this whole shebang will work. Here are the questions I proposed, along with some annotations on my reasoning.

 

What about my book did you respond to?

–The most important quality in an agent? They connect to your work on a real level and will be your passionate advocate. They’ll probably tell you why they like your book before you ask, but just in case: find out what about it most resounded with them.

 

Do you have editorial feedback?

–Now, I don’t give notes until a client has signed on the dotted line. That’s to protect myself so that the author can’t revise according to my suggestions and then take it somewhere else. That said, what I can (and do) give new authors is a rough estimate of how much revision there should be and what kind of work I am expecting. It’s helpful to know whether you’re jumping on board with someone who wants minimal changes versus someone who will ask you for major rewrites.

 

What’s your editorial style?

–Likewise, is this an agent who will go through draft after draft with you? Is their editorial feedback frontloaded? Will they be telling you changes you have to make? Will they just make suggestions? I’m a strong believe in the idea that there’s no single right way to edit a manuscript, but it can be very helpful to simply know what you should be expecting.

 

How long have you been with your agency?

–First note: there’s nothing wrong with signing with a brand new agent. Young agents are often the hungriest in the business, and that can be a deeply wonderful thing for their clients. Some of the first clients I signed back in 2002 are still among my most productive, bestselling authors. That said, if someone IS new, you want to then find out how much support they have within their agency. How are their connections? Do they know what they’re doing? Let’s take the flip side: an experienced agent might simply have less time for you than a new agent. If they’ve been doing this forever, try to get a sense of whether you believe they have adequate time to dedicate to YOU. Which brings me to:

 

How many clients do you have?

–This is another one with no right or wrong answer. Use the information to get a general feeling about someone. If their numbers sound very low, maybe ask if they are still building a list. If they’re very high, dig in a little and ask what kind of support staff they have or how much time they feel they can dedicate to each individual. You’re not looking for a specific number here. It’s more about hearing how agents discuss and think about their lists and their authors (and their time).

 

What is your typical response time to email/phone calls?

–For real, there is nothing I hear more complaints about regarding agents than how bad they are at communicating. This drives me completely insane. Yes, things occasionally go missing. Yes, some times are busier than others. But routinely making your clients wait for responses from you for a long time (or worse, not even responding) is wildly unfair and insanely unprofessional. Okay…stepping off my soapbox. Point is: ask the question. And really listen to the answer. Not just what is said, but how it is said. Does it sound honest? Does it sound reasonable? Also: fact check. This is something I’ll come back to later on.

 

How do you like to communicate (email vs. phone)? And how often do you communicate during a submission?

–Again, there isn’t a right answer here. I’m an email guy mostly, but some clients prefer the phone. My take on submissions is that I’ll be in touch only as necessary, but you’re always encouraged to check in for updates. If someone who is more of a phone person wants scheduled, regular updates? That works too. This is just about knowing what to expect and being able to prepare yourself for it.

 

What happens if you don’t sell this book?

–Sad fact: not every project an agent signs sells. I suspect this is true of every single agent. If there’s someone out there who has sold every book they’ve ever signed, let me know who it is so I can start making my dart board of their face. But the point is: if this book you’re going to work with an agent on doesn’t sell…then what? Do you revise? Do you try something new? Do you part ways? There are lots of valid answers—you’re looking for one that feels comfortable for you.

 

How many editors do you go to before giving up?

–I’ve heard people say that their agents submitted material to four editors and gave up when it didn’t sell. That is mind-blowing to me. Like…why even do the work to get a book ready to sell if you’re not going to really try? Regardless! Find out how their submission process works—how wide they go, what steps might occur along the way, etc.

 

What percentage of projects that you sign do you sell?

–I’m loath to include this because seriously, none of us want to talk about the books we weren’t able to sell. That said? It’s an entirely fair question.

 

How long is your average client relationship?

–I think the best agents are the ones looking to build long-term working relationships with their clients. Get a feel for how many authors they’ve worked with for long stretches and how much career-building is an important part of their process. Hope the answer to that last part is: “Very.”

 

Who do you work with to sell foreign/film rights? What is the agency’s support staff? Do you handle contracts? Rights? If not, who does?

–Again, every agency works differently. At DGLM, we have Lauren as our Rights Director, so she handles foreign sales (among many other things), but each agent negotiates their own contracts. At other places, your agent might be handling your translations but will have an in-house contracts person. Neither is “wrong,” but this is a good opportunity to find out who all at the agency will be working on your behalf, how much of your contact is with your agent directly, and how things will look moving forward.

 

What does your agency agreement look like?

–To me, the most important things are this: an agency’s commission is 15% and no money is ever paid by you until your book has been sold. If those two things are true, you’re starting at base level. After that, the most important question I have is what happens if the relationship doesn’t work out: can you get out of the agreement after the first project if you and the agent aren’t a match. It happens. It sucks, but it happens—being as close a relationship as it is, sometimes there are bad fits even when both sides are great at their jobs. And that’s okay—just make sure that you aren’t promising every piece of work you ever write to an agency ad infinitum.

 

Can I speak to one or two of your clients about their experiences working with you?

–SO important! And this is where I come back to what I said in the communications question—fact check us! Talk to some of our clients and find out if we’re telling the truth. Maybe even ask to speak to a specific client. Or reach out to a client on Twitter. I mean…chances are anyone we put you in touch with will be the person with the best things to say. Don’t be afraid to use the interwebs as your resource to find out more about us. And ask these clients specifically for any criticism of their agent. Everyone probably has SOMEthing they wish their agent was better at. And that’s okay. But what they choose will likely be telling.

 

 

[Specific to any author who wants to work in more than one genre]: Are you open to authors who work in multiple genres? And are there genres/age groups/etc. that you don’t represent? If I write something in one of those, what then happens?

–So important! If you want to write middle grade in the future and this agent doesn’t do that…what happens?! Can you look for another agent? Is there someone else at the agency you could work with? Are you just plum out of luck? This is a good chance to discuss the future—your plans, their thoughts, and all that fun stuff.

 

And lastly, I have a very brief what NOT to ask:

How much can you sell my book for? How long will it take to sell my book?

–This is such a fickle business sometimes. Advances are all over the place. Editors’ response times are subject to time of year, how many projects are being submitted at any given time, what their relationship with the agent is. I think anyone who gives you a definitive answer to either of these questions is guessing. I have goals for how much I want for books and how long I want the sale to take (a million dollars and a single day, for the record), but whatever my expectations are, I don’t think it’s my place to share them. Because if the advance is any lower or the response time any slower, you’re automatically disappointed. An agent can give you some general thoughts (“It feels like a really big book”) and estimates on response time (“We’ll likely start hearing back in two weeks”) but I’d be deeply suspicious of anything more specific than that.

 

So there we have it. To anyone who has occasion to use this list: congrats on your offer of representation! Now dig in!

 

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The Importance of Feedback

One of the things I miss from college is writing workshop classes and getting regular feedback from my classmates. It was a simultaneously an uplifting and affirming experience (people like my work! It doesn’t totally suck!) and a very humbling experience (wow, X, Y, and Z don’t work at all).

To write, I think, is to be constantly humbled in some way. If you can’t take criticism or you think you’re set to win the Pulitzer after one draft, it’s going to be a long and uphill haul for you. Writers have to grow thick skins—and so do agents for that matter! Not to sound dreary, but rejection is inevitable at some point in the game. Think of the feedback you may be getting from agents or editors as a chance to grow and look at your material with fresh eyes. They know what’s selling and what’s working in the market. It’s a delicate balance of believing wholeheartedly in your work and fighting for it, but also being humble enough to accept that you’re probably going to have to revise. And re-submit. And revise more.

feedback-heads1

Be open to having people look at your work and offer critiques or praise of what they think is working. If you can, join a writer’s workshop or community—or get other writer friends to take a peek and offer macro suggestions. Having friends offer feedback on micro changes like typos and grammar errors is also crucial. You want to make sure your writing is as close to finished as possible before submitting to an agent. Believe me, we notice.

In short, really utilize the power of feedback. Use it as a way to start a conversation that will hopefully shape your work into the best book it can be, in all stages of the writing and publishing process.

Who do you turn to for good feedback on your work? How do you think thoughtful and respectful critique has changed your work?

The long and winding path to great writing advice

I think Forbes.com is a wonderful resource for so many things. A couple of years ago I discovered my remarkable client, Amy Morin, who’d written an article called 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do that went viral after it was picked up by Forbes.com. It went on to become one of their most viewed articles in history and I later sold the book version of the piece which has done very well.

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Through that connection, I also met another client. A dynamic author and career success coach named Kathy Caprino who followed her passion to find a career she loves and helps others to do the same. She is also a contributor for Forbes.com and writes about women, work, female empowerment and all of those great topics we love.

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When I spoke with Kathy recently about her column, I mentioned yet another client, a very talented and prolific author named Cecilia Galante whose first adult novel, THE INVISIBLES, had just been released. I knew from speaking with Cecilia and hosting a book club at my house with her where she inspired everyone in the room that she would be someone who might be of interest to Kathy and her column so I introduced the two of them and this compelling interview on Forbes.com is the result.

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There is a lot to digest here, and much of it is advice we’ve heard before because it works. But Cecilia has such a way with words that it feels fresh and important. Some of it I’ve even talked about here on the DGLM blog before. But not quite in this way: “I’d tell other writers that if they want to write, they need to sit in the damn chair every day and write.” Same goes for the realities of making a living as a writer: “Betting on a lucrative career as an author is like waiting for lightening to strike.”

What’s your favorite bit of advice from Cecilia? Anything else to add to her pearls of wisdom? She’s definitely doing something right because while the lightning bolt might not have hit just yet, she’s under contract for another adult novel and two more middle grades!