Friday, July 22, 2011

In Defense of the Elusive Agent

Like many aspiring writers, I stalk and with regularity. I need to know things like who’s accepting (or not accepting) queries and the exact hour they will open up again, should I use Mr. or Ms. when addressing the query letter, and reconfirm the submission guidelines.

What? You don’t believe me? Ok, I’ll tell the truth. I really log on to see who’s saying what about which agent. This is important stuff! Has the agent signed anyone new? (Oh yeah, I good naturedly hate that person.) Are they on vacation? What’s the response time for rejections? Partials? Fulls? What’s their form rejection sound like? Are they the no answer=no interest type of agent? This is breaking news stuff.  Some of the information is really helpful and those brave enough to post their rejections (and ultimately their success stories) remind us that while writing can be very lonely, there are people out there who get it. Still, there are the few who feel slighted by the response (or lack of response) they receive and they let everyone else know about it.

As artists, we aren’t always the best at accepting rejection. It’s not too hard to convince us that we were unfairly and personally judged by the high and mighty agent who’s making so much money on his/her other clients that he/she doesn’t want to take on a talent such as ours.

But I’ve had the chance to interact with some great agents in the business at conferences. I follow their blogs more religiously than I follow the Indianapolis Colts (*gasp*) and I get tweets from even more. (Thank goodness for social media!) I’ve learned a lot from them. More importantly, I’ve learned a lot about them and the jobs they are so passionate about.  Which is why I feel I am qualified (*chokes back laughter*) to give you my take on the life and times of an agent. (And since I’m in query mode, I will add I am in no way sucking up to any agents who might find this post.)

Here are some comments I have seen or heard regarding the role of agents and my take on them.

1.       “The agent never responded to my query. I bet she/he isn’t even looking for new clients.” Okay, and this may or may not apply to the top unnamed agents at the top unnamed agencies (You know who they are… the ones that roll of the tongue when you start listing your dream team), but writers are an agents bread and butter. You know that word “commission”? (Don’t worry… we’ll get to that soon.) Well, in case you forgot, commission normally indicates that, if you don’t sell something, in this case, someone’s manuscripts/foreign rights/film options/etc, you don’t get paid. Sure, they may be able to pick up side jobs and take on other responsibilities in the office to make ends meet, but ultimately, they want the commission. The more contracts they get for their clients, the better quality of meat they can eat for dinner.

2.       “I sent in a steamy erotica that would make Heff blush, but all I got was an email that said it wasn’t for them.” Just out of curiosity, did you send it to an agent who reps children/YA books? Are you sure they were looking for your style of writing? Uh, no, I just sent it to every agent on the list. Okay. Now we’re getting somewhere. Some agents are listed on QT and AT as taking everything under the sun, which is why it’s always a good idea to double check on their websites before you send off your query. If you don’t, you’re wasting their time and adding unnecessary hash marks to your rejection tally.  

3.       “The agent only asked for 3-5 pages. How could they possibly know my story isn’t for them?” (This is perhaps my favorite one, quite possibly because I am guilty of allowing this indignant thought to pass through my mind.)  Let’s try that honesty thing again: it only takes a couple of pages to figure out if your editing process consists of fixing the mistakes caught by spell check. Second, there’s this thing called a hook. You know… the thing that hooks a reader in? You don’t know what that is? That could be your next problem.  When you’re searching for that hidden treasure in a stack of books, how long does it usually take to know if it’s the right one for you? What’s that? 3-5 pages? Same here. (Though my book club has taught me there are rare exceptions to that rule, ie. Story of Beautiful Girl)

4.       “Why does it take an agent so long to get back to me? Aren’t they waiting by their computer for my jaw dropping letter?” Perhaps a better question is, “Would you want to be represented by someone who just sat at their desk and answered the queries of others?” I would guess that, when we reach the illusive promised land of representation, we would actually prefer our agent spend time trying to sell our latest work. You know, so everyone can get paid.  Now there are those agents who can reject (or request) quickly. In fact, my fastest rejection is nine minutes. (That one did leave me using #3 as I pouted my way to sleep.) We live in a society of instantaneous gratification. But rising to the top of the slush pile takes time. Suck it up and get to work on your next masterpiece.

5.       “15% Commission? 20% for foreign rights? WTF?” Remember when you first started writing and you had that doe-eyed, romantic impression that, as a published writer you could spend your days at the keyboard spewing forth all the passionate prose you could think of? How’s that working out for you? In this day and age, it’s more important than ever to promote our work (like this blog or twitter {you can follow me @writinghoosier}). Now, maybe you want to keep as much cash as possible and have opted to take the self-publishing route. Very cool. Nothing wrong with that. But I, personally, will gladly hand over 15% to someone who’s going to be looking out for my best interest! Heck, I tip my servers 20%. Shouldn’t someone who’s helping me plan and achieve my dreams get a decent cut?

I was going to stop at five, but since I’m preparing for the Midwest Writer’s Workshop (, I thought I would throw out one more. (PS. It’s not really agent related. Sorry for the false advertising!)

6.       “Why should I go to a writer’s conference? I’m a great writer already.” I can only laugh at this because I said the same thing one year ago. I attended my first conference convinced I was going to walk away with an agent and well on my way to a six-figure advance, 3 book publishing contract. (Okay, maybe I wasn’t that naive, but it was close.) The writer I was then and the writer I am now aren’t even in the same league. I’m not saying that my books will ever be described as epic, but in three days I not only learned that I had a lot to learn, but I left with the tools I needed to overhaul my novel. I took advantage of a manuscript review by NYT Bestseller Marcus Sakey who showed me how I could up my game and really add suspense to my YA fantasy. I pitched an agent and got a partial request. (For the record, I’m still waiting for a reply, one year later… just a friendly reminder not to put your eggs in one basket.) And those two things were great. But what was really helpful is that I recharged my creative battery by being around people who love books and words as much as I do. And, even better: I found three very honest critique partners who have helped me craft my novel over the last year. Now I’m honored to call them friends. Friends who can empathize with the sting of rejection and celebrate finally figuring out how to make your character do what you want them to do. As I mentioned, I’m heading back to MWW next week and I have another pitch scheduled, which I plan to knock out of the park (as long as I don’t knock the table over with my nerves). But the energy that comes from being around other writers: you can’t beat that!

That’s it. There is no more. I’ve espoused all I can muster on this topic. Agree with it, disagree with it, whatever. Just remember to Be Bold in whatever flames your fires of passion!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

I Read in Movies

I love film adaptions. Not because I think they are better than the books, which of course they are not, but because they are a writer’s vision brought to “reality”.

I write movies in book form. Each and every scene has been acted out in my head. Dialogue has been rehearsed late at night, when no one can hear me. And casting the characters is a long and daunting process.

As I wait for my chance to see the final Harry Potter movie this weekend, I wonder what JKR thought when she first saw the set of her literary masterpiece. I can only imagine what Stephanie Meyer will be thinking when she sees Bella transform from a waif-like girl to a full on pregnant mom-to-be. And, when The Hunger Games comes out, what will Suzanne Collins think of the arena?

I know it’s going to sound vain, but I want to see my books become movies. I would love for someone to do what I cannot. I am not a screenwriter. The very thought of doing so brings on instantaneous writer’s block. I would never survive in Hollywood. I like writing in my office in Indiana. I like having fireworks on the Fourth of July without fear of starting a forest fire. I would, however, jump at the chance to get to go on set and observe the film making process. Seriously, I’ve thought about writing a book about life on a movie set just to see if I can gain access to the process.

Not only do I write in pictures, I read in pictures, too. It’s not always a good thing. Sometimes, if I can’t get into the writer’s vision, I can’t get into the book. When I read a book set in the south, take The Help, every character has a southern accent, ranging from a hint to a full on drawl. I feel the heat of the day and the tension of the social conflicts send shivers down my spine. The history of Jackson, Mississippi that I learned in school suddenly goes from the past to the moment.

So, after all that rambling about, here’s my question: Can Hollywood exist without books and can the publishing houses exist without movies? Who needs who more?

Sunday, July 10, 2011

What I've Learned: A Baker's Dozen

It’s been almost two years since I finished the first draft of The Partizans. It’s been two very long years of agonizing over every single word I’ve committed to paper (and then uncommitted when I realized I used the completely wrong word). After putting the last comment from my betas into the master ms, I started thinking about what I have learned since October 3, 2009. So here we go, in no particular order:

1.       Facebook can be a blessing and a curse. It can inspire you with quizzes and distract you with work on an imaginary farm or the chance to stalk your high school boyfriend.

2.       Writing is a solitary passion, but it will never exceed your expectations if you don’t find someone who secretly hates you to tell you what’s really wrong with your character, plot line, comma usage, etc. (Thanks, mom! LOL)

3.       When starting out on a new project, estimate the amount of ink and paper you will need and then multiply that times five. Anything less is a joke.

4.       To be a better writer, find a critique partner who is better at the craft than you are.

5.       Even if your muse is on vacation, sit your butt in the chair and wait for a long distance burst of inspiration. Likewise, if you are on vacation, expect your muse to show up for work regardless of your plans.

6.       Writer’s conferences are binges for those drawn to prose.  You spend a couple days surrounded by people who love to read and write as much as you do and come home on a mega high, only to crash under the weight of reality. Luckily, your new writer friends can give you the occasional fix through great tweets!

7.       A pitch session really is just a conversation with someone who knows more about the industry than you do. Take advantage of the one-on-one time!

8.       When you start to query your first manuscript, you might want to establish some drinking game rules. It will make the sting a little less painful, at least until the next morning when your muse wakes you up in the form of a four year old screaming for breakfast.

9.       On the subject of agents, even though many requests for a partial and full ultimately end with a rejection, I think each should be celebrated. After all, you made it through the slush pile and that’s more than most people.

10.   When beginning a new project, feel free to look at a situation and wonder to yourself, “How can I really screw over my character?” (You may use more explicit words if you so decide.)

11.   When you think your query letter/synopsis/manuscript is perfect, put it away for a few weeks and then try to read it without picking up a red pen. If you can do that, you’re good to go.

12.    I hate to workout. It’s no secret. I tell everyone. However, nothing shakes the writer’s block off like a couple miles on the treadmill with a good friend. Especially if that person hates working out as much as you do!

13.   Finally, the only way to become a writer is to actually be a writer. Don’t let others determine your fate. A writer has commitment and passion that many only dream about. We are the inspiration of tomorrow and the preservationists of yesterday. Of course, we are the self-loathers of today, but that’s completely beside the point.

Thanks for taking the time to stop by my blog. I’m hoping to keep it more up to date and always entertaining in the future. Until my next post, don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @writinghoosier and Be Bold in whatever you love to do!