Category Archives: conferences

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One-on-ones

Readers, I would love to get your feedback on this one: What do you think is the most productive format for one-on-one meetings at a writer’s conference? I ask, of course, because I attended a conference this past weekend, where I spent most of my time in one-on-one meetings with authors.

Over the years, I’ve done all sorts of configurations: one-on-ones and roundtables; 5-minute slots, 10, 15, and so on; MSS in advance, no prep, 10 pages, and so on again. This time out, the meetings were half an hour, and we were sent 40 pages in advance. And as much as I hate to say it, on the whole I don’t think they were particularly productive.

40 pages is a funny length–much longer than what an author would probably send on submission, yet not really enough to give a full snapshot of a MS–while half an hour is a ton of time to talk. And with that, it seemed like the chattier authors got bogged down in a lot of details and small points, with not enough time to discuss the big picture, while at the same time, the sessions for those who sat back and listened tended to run way short, even with some question time at the end.

So, unfortunately, it was a bit of a frustrating day, and I worry that I didn’t give the authors the help they were looking for. However, the organizers are asking for feedback for next year, so I’d love to hear what works best for you and try to change things up–any thoughts?

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Climbing Out from Under

I just got back from a terrific writer’s conference in warm, sunny Florida; Sleuthfest, hosted  by the Mystery Writer’s Association, was a beautifully run event, attended by authors who obviously thrive in a genuine community of writers.  I listened to Ace Atkins deliver a luncheon speech on persistence, and Laura Lippman deliver a frank, provocative keynote challenging the present—and artificial–schism between self-publishing and traditional publishing. I served on some panels, fielded solid pitches, invited a score of submissions, and returned not only to the frozen North, but a towering to-read pile that feels equally chilling.  I am in the midst of editing several proposals, getting ready to send out several more, negotiating contracts, and attempting to keep tabs my on inbox. I say this not to elicit any sympathy, since I know everyone else in this business is just as busy, but as a preamble to a general and sincere apology for my slowness in responding.  I know how excruciating it is to wait for a response. Remember, agents also spend time cooling our heels, drumming our fingers, and (unsuccessfully) cultivating patience.  So know that my crampons are on, my ice-axe sharp, and I am steadily scaling the Everest of my inbox.   It’s not been all slog, however.  Earlier this week my stupendous client Valerie Trueblood was shortlisted for the Pen/Faulkner Award (Hurray!), and yesterday another prodigiously gifted client, Qais Akbar Omar, placed an op-ed in the New York Times.  Not to belabor the climbing metaphor, but both of these were shots of pure 02.

 

What keeps you going when you feel utterly buried by work?

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What to expect when you’re expecting to be published

Having your book published is a dream come true, right? You’ve probably imagined what it will feel like since before you even finished a first draft of the book, and you just know that everything will change. You’ll be smarter, handsomer, more popular, and most certainly richer. Right? RIGHT?!

The truth of the matter is that for most authors, all that changes is that you’re now published. It doesn’t make your hair shinier, and it doesn’t address all of the other ills in your life. I actually speak about this quite a bit at conferences, because I think it’s important to have perspective and realistic expectations. But, you don’t just have to take my word for it! (Because really, I’m not an author—what do I know?) This fantastic post from author Alison Cherry is honest and real and, I think, greatly helpful for others suffering postpartum book launch depression. Go check it out now!

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Getting away from it all

For almost two weeks now, I’ve been on the road. I spent a few days in Portland, Oregon, at the Willamette Writers Conference, followed by a week of vacation in mid-coast Maine. And actually, I’m still in Maine, working from our rental house just a few hundred yards from Pemaquid Beach. Even today, with the clouds and fog rolling in, it’s pretty spectacular…

But as I’ve been out of the office and working in various non-NYC places for a good stretch now, I’ve been thinking about locale, access to information, and how they inform a writer’s work. At home in New York, there’s information everywhere you look–screens everywhere, newspapers galore, even news tickers on the side of buildings. And with that, I feel like NYC writers tend to work on a fairly broad canvas of topics and locations.

On the other hand, when I was out in Portland, i.e., a mid-sized, west coast city, the news and information seemed like a mix of local and national concern. And I saw that reflected by the writers I met at the conference, whose pitches seemed fairly evenly split between Oregonian subjects or more worldly concerns. It held for kids’ books, too–50% west coast-based stories, 50% fantasy.

At the same time, here in Maine, information gathering  is very much an individual responsibility–nobody’s going to tell you what’s up in the world besides the Red Sox (hopefully) losing. And fittingly, whenever I meet writers in Maine, their work almost always has a Vacationland focus–maybe they’ll stretch it to Massachusetts, but not much farther than New England.

So, writers, I’m curious: what’s the correlation between your location and your subject matter? Or, to put it another way, how much does the outside world inform your work? BTW, no value judgments here–no one thinks less of Barbara Cooney or Robert McCloskey for staying close to home, and the truths in their books have proven to be universal. But I’d love to hear your thoughts and help me reconnect to the outside world!

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WWYK?

I am typing this on a plane headed for Seattle, happy to be en route to the always-terrific PNWA conference.   I don’t get to as many far flung writers conferences as I did before I had children, but that makes the ones I do attend a particular treat.  I love fielding pitches, talking about the book business and listening to writers who, despite the vagaries of this difficult marketplace, are united by a love for what they do.  It also gives me an opportunity to see my Seattle-based clients, in this case, the prodigiously talented Valerie Trueblood, whose new short story collection, Search Party: Stories of Rescue, was just released yesterday by Counterpoint Press.  Valerie’s previous collection, Marry or Burn, was shortlisted for the Frank O’ Connor prize, and this one (I say without a shred of bias) is every bit as wondrous.

Trueblood writes short fiction that is mind-bendingly capacious. Whole lifetimes and histories, epiphanies and slow revelations are coiled into her stories, like DNA inside a cell. And like a double helix, their structure is impossibly elegant. She is also wonderful because, to some extent, I think she writes what she does not know, quietly flouting what Ben Yagoda in this week’s NYT cites as the third of the three cardinal rules of writing. First is “Kill your darlings” second is “Show don’t tell,” both well-worn but worthy cliches of the craft that I lean on heavily.  This third one I’m not so sure about.  Yagoda concedes that WWYK is a notion is “rightly scorned as leading to the literary solipsism that, in fact, so many short stories, novels, essays and memoirs exhibit.”   Still he argues that the “motto is nonetheless true.”  Yagoda expands the definition of “what you know” to include what you research and learn, thank goodness, but I’m still skeptical.   One of my favorite Trueblood characters is a convicted murderess, and I am pretty certain that Valerie has not done time.

What do you think? Do you WWYN? Where do you come down in your experience as a reader, as a writer? How far do you venture outside your comfort zone?

 

 

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Comic Con!

For the second time in three years, I’m on my way to Comic-Con in San Diego. Thirteen-year-old me is very excited. Comic books? Movies? TV shows? Amazing! Thirty-something-year-old me is slightly more circumspect. Crowds? Crappy convention food? No comic books? That said, it’s pretty exciting that books are taking a center stage at the show. All of the major publishers have presences, and many of the movies being featured are based on books, as well. Even better, they’re based on YA books (including our own James Dashner’s MAZE RUNNER), so it’s all quite relevant to my list.

But the real reason I’m heading down is to appear on the Ask an Agent! panel on Friday with several other great agents: Brandy Rivers (a book-to-film agent), Barry Goldblatt, Sara Megibow, Jane Putch, Kate Schafer Testerman and Pam van Hylckama Vlieg. We’re literally just taking questions, so please do come and interrogate us, otherwise we’re going to be pretty bored. (Though knowing all of us, we could probably entertain ourselves for a lot more than an hour.) It really is your chance to ask whatever you want, and we’re a very direct group. What are publishers looking for? How do agents work? Why does it take so damn long for a book to come out? Whatever you want to know, come ask! Really hoping to see you there.

 

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Advice from Austin

I recently attended the Writers’ League of Texas conference and it was so fun to spend my brief 40 hours in Austin with great people (including my lovely client Kim Smith), smart ideas, delicious food, and wonderful ambiance in the city of Austin.

There were many highlights, but one in particular that stands out was Writer’s Digest Editor Chuck Sambuchino’s key note address at the luncheon on Saturday. It was so entertaining and so packed with good advice for authors that I wanted to share a recap of it here that was created by a conference attendee.

He basically went through his top 10 pieces of advice for writers, which include topics such as build your writer platform, always keep moving forward, write for money and write for love, don’t give an agent or editor a reason to reject you, and put down the remote control. All of them are timeless, and his speech was filled with funny anecdotes that tied all the points in to each other seamlessly. Unfortunately it’s impossible to capture the nuances of what he said and how he said it here (I’d recommend you try to find him at a conference near you), but you can always buy his writing books.

I hope you find this useful. I think like everything in life a lot of this is easier said than done but even the simple reminders posted up on your wall and referenced regularly will help keep you focused and on track. Good luck!

 

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Writing What You Know About YA

This past weekend, I attended the DFW Writers’ Conference in Texas. Extremely well organized with surprisingly tasty conference food, it made for a great atmosphere in which to hear pitches—lots and lots of pitches, most of them for YA. Perhaps best of all was keynoter Deborah Crombie, who did a great job of reminding the audience that “write what you know” is nonsense—as a native Texan, if she’d listened to that, she’d never have come up with Scotland Yard superintendent Duncan Kincaid and hit the Times bestseller lists year after year.

Well, in a perverse way, Crombie’s speech hit home for me with a lot of the pitches I heard. SO many of them were fantasy of one sort or another—high fantasy, sci-fi, dystopian, historical, mythic, you name it, I heard it at least twice. I guess you could say these writers were not writing what they knew, in that none of them had lived in outer space or fought with witches. But by following so many of the genre conventions and storylines that have dominated YA over the last five years, I’d venture that these writers actually are very much “writing what they know”, i.e., writing in the same book worlds they’ve lived in for so long now.

So, here’s the plea I’ve made before on this blog—how about some realistic YA fiction for a change? I’d suggest that realistic YA offers writers a way to avoid both sides of the “write what you know” trap. For one, realistic YA has been in such short supply lately that there aren’t a lot of people to slavishly imitate. And second, as adult writers, viewing the “real” world through teen eyes is a total act of not-knowing. I’d particularly make this plea to my new friends in Texas, which is such a fantastic setting for realistic YA—hey, all you need to do is look to S.E. Hinton’s nearby Oklahoma for proof!

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Do’s and Don’ts for Pitchers

 

In the past few weeks I’ve done several pitch sessions (pretty much the only sort of pitch I’m likely to entertain, since I’m not much of a baseball fan) and although my advice may well be familiar, my experiences would indicate that it bears repeating.

Do: Relax. Pitches are good practice, but your ability to pitch your project does not necessarily determine its fate.  What matters most is always on the page, so don’t treat the meeting as a summary judgment of your future in publishing.

Do: Identify a few contemporary writers to whom you feel your style/work compares. I am always surprised when an aspiring writer can’t come up with a few “like” books or authors.  This is a basic and almost inescapable question.  Having an answer at the ready shows that you know the market and are reading in the category into which you hope to be published.   Once you’ve pitched your book and made a couple comparisons, feel free to turn the question back on the agent/editor.  “Having heard my description, is there a project that you think sounds like an apt comp title?”

Do: Follow up via e-mail.  If an agent has invited you to send along your query or additional materials, you can feel free to issue a gentle nudge several weeks after your meeting.  Mention the conference in your subject line or in the first few lines of your letter.

Don’t:  Bog down in a play by play synopsis of the plot. Think about your summary as back cover copy and try to craft a description that is as more persuasive than exhaustive.

Don’t:  Arrive at your pitch session in search of an idea. It’s fine to field a concept in hopes of soliciting feedback, but know that agents and editors can seldom suggest a book idea upon meeting someone.

Don’t: Try and present more than one (or at most, two) ideas at a time. Fine to mention that you have other projects in the works, but concentrate on the single pitch that is strongest and most suited to your appointment.

Do you have any pitch related questions? I would be happy to field them. (It seems baseball metaphors are impossible to escape in the spring).

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When Agents Attack

About a year ago, I noticed a shift in the general tone of writers’ conferences. For the ten years I’ve been attending them, there was a tendency for agents at these events to lord it over the room, being very strict about what they were looking for, how they like to be approached, how not to approach them, and how to talk to them. The power balance was one-sided, needlessly (and sometimes insultingly) so.

Then agents started getting nervous. And defensive. Instead of, “This is how to get us,” the line became, “This is why you need us.” And things started to get a lot more interesting.

A week and a half ago, I had the opportunity to go to the Novelists, Inc. 23rd Annual Conference. And on one of the panels I sat on, all the growing tension and dissatisfaction came to a head.

In her article about the roundtable for the NINC newsletter, author Lori Devoti noted, “If you have heard any chatter about the NINCThink roundtables, it was probably about this roundtable. Things here were lively and at times heated, to put it politely.” Let me say that Lori put it VERY politely. I’ll quote myself here. When the anger had subsided, here’s what I tweeted: “I tend to be super low key, but a panel I was on today nearly turned me rabid. My anger, twas righteous.”

So: what the hell happened?

Here’s my take. The role of agents in the marketplace is changing dramatically. At DGLM, we’ve always prided ourselves on being a full-service agency. In the past few years, we’ve been aware that what “full-service” means is changing. As authors have more access to self-publishing and more success in doing that, agents need to be able not only to guide their clients through that process, but to be aware of the pitfalls, potential gold mines, and ways to strategize that are best for an individual project but also an author’s entire career. That said, here’s where things started to go off the rails: there are a lot of things authors can do without an agent, and there are more in-roads that authors can make independently than ever before. Does everyone need an agent? No. Does having a middling or less than wholly effective agent do you more good than not having one at all? At this stage, I would say absolutely not. That, I should note, is not a popular point with other agents.

Let’s break this down a little: one of my co-panelists went after someone on the panel for “denigrating” agents and said he wouldn’t stand for it. So I grabbed the mic and offered, as an agent, to denigrate agents for them. I believe very strongly that good agents are incredible partners and can bring authors more success (I’ll get back to this). But more importantly at that exact moment, I was just suuuuuuper pissed. It was disgusting to watch another industry professional demean an author simply because they seemed to be chiseling away at his pedestal.

Let me go back to Lori Devoti’s article for a moment. I’m “another industry guest.”

“Another industry guest…said that ideally agents are partners working with authors to serve them better, and that e-books were a revolution. ‘This year alone we have seen dozens of authors sell millions of books on their own with no support. Now you don’t necessarily need an agent and you definitely don’t need an agent who isn’t good. You need to be aware of what you are bringing to the table. And be aware of services that agent can offer. Be pushy and ask questions.’ This…industry guest frequently seemed to be alone in his opinions.”

My point was never to say that agents, particularly good agents, don’t offer value. If I believed that, I would have left my job ages ago. I love working with authors editorially. I love considering what comes next in line, and what the right next moves are. And I love being able to tell clients when they’ve received offers on their books or foreign rights or when we’ve optioned their film rights. There is a real thrill in that. And when agent and client work together effectively, everyone benefits. But in a marketplace that is showing so many rapid shifts in distribution, sales patterns, and access, it’s obscene to believe there is one right answer to any question or that just because your agent is experienced, they should be followed blindly.

What we’re seeing is a balancing of power. Authors have more control of their careers and can be more demanding. Does that make my job easier? No. Does it make it more exciting? Yes. Because it’s one thing to bandy the word “partner” around and make yourself sound friendly, which seems to be happening a lot. It’s another thing to actually act like a partner.

Authors have long been frustrated by the publishing process, and rightly so. It has been an antiquated machine that never treated the people who actually drive it with the respect they deserve. But that is less true now than it has been at any point since I became an agent.

I love my job, and I believe in it, but I also understand (as do the other agents at DGLM), that it’s not safe or effective to rule from a perch, nor to rule at all. To be an author’s advocate, you have to understand where authors come from. Here’s one last quote from Lori. This one is totally self-aggrandizing, but hey, why not?

“This guest…seemed to see and understand the issues through the eyes of the authors more so than most of the other guests.”

I hope that’s true. I really do. That’s the agent I want to be. Not the one who won’t listen to criticism of agents. Not the one who belittles authors who aren’t already hugely successful. And not the one ever on the defensive.