Category Archives: advice

Reaching out

For most of the time that I’ve been in publishing, I’ve found clients in one of four ways: the slush pile, referrals from clients, seeking out authors for ideas I’ve come up with, or convincing a person I’ve come across to write a book. I’ve long been reflexively skeptical of supposed innovations on the query system—everything I tried for a long time turned out to be a huge waste of time that generated no better results than just letting the slush come to my inbox.

But four or so years ago, I looked at my list and my slush pile and realized how heavily they both skewed toward a narrow range of voices. And as I looked for ways to fix this problem I listened to a lot of wise people (including the fine folks at We Need Diverse Books) on the perils of any system in which gatekeepers simply wait for things to come their way.  So now I try to actively participate in things happening outside my inbox, making sure that writers know that my door is open (and my list inclusive).

Authors looking for an agent have a lot of great opportunities now not just to seek an agent, but to reach out to the best possible fit for them and their work. Many wonderful agents participate in these new ways to find clients (and quite a lot of them were on the bandwagon before I got my head out of the sand). And for me, they’re a good way to proactively seek submissions from a diverse pool of authors so I can make sure that my client list supports a wide array of voices.

TwitterLogo_#55aceeTwitter pitch parties like Brenda Drake’s PitMad still involve authors querying agents, but it means I get to find those projects that seem like a good fit for my list and invite the authors to send their queries my way.  And resources like Manuscript Wish List, co-created by Jessica Sinsheimer and KK Hendin, allow me to highlight book concepts that I’d love to see, which gives me a chance to proactively seek a broader and more balanced list, both via the Twitter hashtag and their fantastic website (for which you can find my profile here).  And I’m really excited about the upcoming Twitter event #DVPit, which Beth Phelan created to “showcase pitches about and especially by marginalized voices.”  If you’re a writer from a marginalized community looking for an agent, I strongly encourage you to check out that link before Tuesday, because it looks like it’ll be a great event!

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the sheer volume of emails in my Weekend Reading folder, many of which come from sources like the above. I look at my To Read list right now and tremble in fear. But I love knowing that the chances that I’ll find a gem that I have a vision for among those projects is far higher, since I’ve already done some of the work in getting authors who have written the kinds of books I’m looking for to reach my way.

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The book proposal

I know, I know, I have blogged before about doing a book proposal and how important it is.  But, it seems from what I am seeing recently that I am not getting through.

In the last couple of months, I find that clients are really rushing to get their proposals ready.  In doing so, they are making mistakes – both large and small – and ultimately prolonging the process of creating this very important document.

Book proposals really are the backbone of the non-fiction publishing process.  They identify an idea, discuss who the reader will be for that idea, both demographically and statistically, and discuss other titles which would be comparable, in terms of audience, to the one the author is proposing.

Proposals provide a structure for the book and demonstrate (with a sample chapter) the author’s writing ability.

Finally, with a bio and links of supporting material, the proposal highlights the author’s credentials and platform.

I tell my clients that doing the proposal is probably more difficult than writing the actual book but that once they have a proposal that a publisher wants to buy, they will have the blueprint for their book.

I also tell them “better late than lousy” and I mean that because a poorly constructed and written proposal will not sell in this challenging market.

So, take your time in creating your book proposal.  Think it through carefully and consider every element.  Taking the necessary time to do this right is important and will ultimately pay off.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this subject.  Let me know what you think.

4

Why it’s sometimes best to work with a collaborator

People often ask me why the need for a collaborator and my answer is very simple—to make the work they are creating better and more saleable. (Here, by the way, I am mainly talking about non-fiction.)

Collaborators—especially those with experience—help the author, especially at the proposal stage, focus their idea and on exactly how they want to organize the message they want their book to deliver.

Collaborators can also bring out aspects of the book that the author hadn’t even considered including.

Collaborators, because they are paid a flat fee or have a percentage of the project, are dedicated to the work of producing both a proposal and a manuscript in an efficient and timely manner.  This is often something the author (especially first time authors) working alone is unable to do.

Finally, the author, if he or she wants to and is interested in writing subsequent books, can learn a great deal from the collaboration and then go on to write their own books down the line.

I would love to know your thoughts on the benefits of using a collaborator, so bring them on.

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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!