Category Archives: advice

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

Writing strong characters

Many years ago, I was working with my very talented client, A.J. Hartley, and he sent me pages for a new thriller with a female protagonist, the first female protagonist he’d ever attempted. I read the opening section and tried to be diplomatic in my feedback, but I basically told him that the lead character was not likeable or sympathetic enough and that she came across as very defensive. He took the criticism graciously, went back to the drawing board, and delivered a revision that nailed the character so well that when the book was later published, Publisher’s Weekly had this to say about her: “Hartley has created an enduring heroine in Deborah, who’s courageous, loyal and smart enough to learn from her mistakes.” He has since gone on to write many wonderful books with both male and female protagonists, but that first one paved the way. See first edition cover image below.

I recently came upon a piece on Tor.com’s blog about strong female characters that I wanted to share. The author, a writer named Ilana C. Myer, brings up an important point about writing characters in general, regardless of gender. What is most important is that they have empathy. Focus less on whether they are a man or a woman and more on the character’s feelings, their pasts, their sense of humor and a fully realized character will emerge.

What are your tips for writing strong characters? Any pitfalls you try to avoid? The stereotypes are easier to fall back on, but when you get past that and create really memorable, enduring protagonists, gender can be the least important factor of all.

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!

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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!)

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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.

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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.