Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Romantic Suspense Honorable Mentions

Here they are! The last group of honorable mentions . . .

Jessica’s Picks:

Only three honorable mentions for me today. Great category and one that I tend to be incredibly picky about. I like my romantic suspense to be suspenseful, unpredictable, and fast-paced.
Anonymous 11:30 am -- Save the Last Kill for Her

Hadiya ran her boat close to the undersea shelf, and cut the engines. A heavy stillness seemed to descend on the night, as oppressive as the cloak of equatorial humidity.

She was alone, apart from Ovimbi who hunkered silent on the prow watching the black blot of mainland.

There was no breeze.

No moon.

Just the spatter of Milky Way across the dark vault of African sky.

Then she felt it. A silent surge beneath the hull. A sway. The life of the sea transferring motion into her body as her boat listed gently. Hadiya’s pulse quickened.

I fought this one, I’m going to be honest. I think an international setting can be very tricky for this genre. In the end, though, I was riveted by this opening and really couldn’t pass it up. I liked the atmosphere on this and definitely felt the suspense. Really great work.

DL -- The Contract

As Cassandra wriggled through the underbrush, wisps of fog snaked like malignant tendrils up her nostrils, filling her throat and lungs, squeezing the air out of her in short, sharp gasps. In vain, she tried to fight the panic, tried to convince herself that the fog was her friend, muffling her awkward movement and concealing her in its clammy grasp. But, her irrational mind feared it, like it feared the muzzle of her tormentor’s gun, taking her back to that earthen cell she’d so recently escaped. Damp. Suffocating. Like a grave. Her grave. Only she wasn’t ready to die.

An interesting setup and I was intrigued enough to want to read more. I’m curious about the earthen cell and who Cassandra is running from. Curious enough that you would have me reading more.

Anonymous 8:20 pm — Unlock the Truth

Dena Roman stared at her reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall of the elevator. The evening Criminal Justice classes were taking their toll. The desire to find her sister's murderer--to walk on Cabrera's land where Carli's body was found--had become an obsession.

She stepped out at the penthouse level and grimaced at the gold lettering on the doors: Steven Brennan & Associates, Public Relations. Her days here would be numbered when conservative Steve found out what she'd done. She shrugged. If Zeke Cabrera called back, if he fell for her plan, she'd deal with being fired.

I like the feeling of an average, very normal woman taking on such a huge job and I like the danger this has seemingly put her in, the simple thought of losing her job to possibly losing her life. Really intriguing premise and I would definitely want to see more.


Kim’s Picks:

Anonymous 2:00 PM

“Do you love me?”

I liked the sound of his voice on my body. It tickled in the right places, the dead places.

“Tell me you love me.” His command was soft, terrifying.

I shook my head, slowly; the flint of anger in his eyes flared. But these were not his words to have, not from me. His long fingers wrapped around my neck, and I breathed the deep, hard breath of ecstasy. Whether orgasm or death was irrelevant, the year past had left me empty and prepared for either. And the bitter taste of ending was near.

I really loved this. There’s so many open questions. This guy sounds very dangerous, yet he still turns her on. Why are parts of her already dead? Is she really about to die? Part of me hopes not, because I love this voice, but her chances aren’t looking good. I’m dying to know more.

Jules — Dark Revenge

The coolness of fall languished in the stale, rotting leaves at his feet, as the tall male threw his satchel to the ground. Quivering nostrils inhaled a fresh, crisp shot of air, and blew out a fine mist of warmth in return. He was well over six feet in height, and moved with a sinuous grace that was uncommon for one as large as he.

It did not bode well that Jaxon Castille was working.

In his particular area of expertise, it meant that someone was going to die.

It wouldn’t be pretty; death never was. But it would be quick.

It’s not uncommon to open with a killer’s POV. I think the reason this particular example struck me was because the prose is lean, but also very descriptive. I was immediately drawn in and am eager to learn more about Jaxon Castille.

Anonymous 5:23 pm -- Golden

We lie here on our dark liquid blanket, and the bugs crawl all around us. I hear their legs lick the earth, wings whisper against the leaves and grass.

During those moments when I go silent, he asks me: Don’t you come babe? but I don’t answer. I only laugh in secret at the question. He thinks he’s the greatest lover in the world. He’s seventeen, yet he’s Casanova.

Doesn’t he know what a cliché we are? A cheerleader and a jock?

Tomorrow, I’m going to tell his girlfriend everything.

Your boyfriend rapes me. Have a nice day.

I’ll be honest. I usually hate anything written in the present tense. And I’ll admit that I’m hoping that the narrative switches over soon after this excerpt ends. As I read it now, the tense feels like a way of differentiating this voice from the rest of the book. But obviously I don’t know that for sure. I’m just rather fascinated by this bitchy character and I want to see what happens to her. I have a feeling she’ll be coming to a bad end. . . .

That wraps up our honorable mentions!! Look for some contest musings in blogs to come. . . .

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Romantic Suspense Winner!

While we’re a little sorry to see the contest come to an end, Jessica and I are also a bit worn out. But throughout the last couple of months, we’ve been really impressed with the talent all of you displayed. That’s part of the reason we’re so tired. Picking winners wasn’t easy.

In fact, down to this last contest, Jessica and I had very different favorites. All the same, we managed to choose a winner and two runners-up.

And the winner is...
Anonymous 11:41 pm — Wicked Little Things

They blew into Ordinary like cicadas on a blistery summer’s night. Thousands landed in trees and wood. They came, stole and ate like pigs. Yet no one knew what they were because they were never seen. Only the results of their voracious hunger left marks, like the fangs of a demon on another beast’s throat.

In this case, the victims were human.

Two by September.

Five after that.

Hundreds by Halloween.

Maya read the report until her eyes burned and she no longer thought of the victims as people, just mangled, chewed-up chunks of meat. “Great way to lose weight.”


Jessica: I was really intrigued by this. I wasn’t sure based on these words if this was paranormal or a straight, contemporary romantic suspense. Either way, it left me with a lot of questions that I really wanted answers to. I like the comparison to the cicadas and I like where this left me hanging, gruesome murders that obviously need to be solved. This also hints at the kind of cop romantic suspense I really like to see.

Kim: I love the imagery of the cicadas and find the comparison creepy and memorable. Nothing beats a dark, foreboding beginning. One thing that threw me, though, was that last bit of dialogue. It totally changed the tone. Without reading more, it’s hard to tell if it’s the author’s intention to jolt the reader this way. Because it did catch me off guard, I’d continue to read to see where it’s going.

Congrats, Anonymous! When you’re ready for your critique, please go ahead and send your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter to the e-mail link on the blog.

Now on to the runners-up . . .

Anonymous 5:01 pm - Whispered

“I'm alive.” The words met Twyla Segreto's lips, but no sound accompanied them.

Dry, hot air reeked of death. A single breath became impossible without coating her mouth and throat from the unsettled debris. The urge to cough up the dust bunnies residing in her lungs, overwhelmed her. She suppressed and listened for enemy footsteps. In the distance, the steady pat of automatic weapons echoed. Somewhere further away, a crackling whistle sound filled the stagnant atmosphere. Explosions grumbled through the sky and the ground trembled from the assault, indicating the missile had made contact with its target.


Jessica: I like the atmosphere here and the story this sets us up for. It’s creepy, scary, and we immediately want to know about where Twyla has been and where she is going. Great description.

Kim: I got thirsty just reading this. :) So the setting really came alive for me. I’m wondering if Twyla’s words are just self-affirming, or if she’s been left for dead and it’s a cry for help. Whatever the case, the danger feels imminent, and I want to see how she’ll get out of this mess.

Deborahdale — Canyon Road

"Are you lost?" The man's soft voice startled her. He stood in the V of her car and open door, his face in shadows, backlit by the store's fluorescents.

She hadn't noticed anyone in the parking lot. Where did he come from?

"No. I'm okay." She reached to pull the door closed but he stood in the way. Damn these helpful Midwesterners, they took niceties way too far. Oh, to be back in New York. "You need to move."

To her shock, he leaned in closer, rested an arm on the doorframe. "Well, here's the thing . . . I need your car."


Jessica: This one spoke to me instantly. The opening sounds very commercial and interesting and I really liked the casualness of the hijacker’s “request.” There are a lot of interesting possibilities as to where this book can go and I hope the author is pushing her limits.

Kim: I liked this one because even though the situation seems very threatening, I have a feeling the hijacker could also turn out to be the romantic hero. I, too, am intrigued by the story’s potential. Who doesn’t love a slightly dangerous hero?

Well, that wraps up the winners and runners-up for our 100 Words Contest! Tomorrow we’ll talk about our honorable mentions, and in the coming days we’ll have some wrap-up comments.

Thanks again to everyone who entered!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Katherine Ramsland on Voice

Dave Hall, Tym Burkey, and Katherine Ramsland
Into the Devil's Den: How an FBI Informant Got Inside the Aryan Nations
and a Special Agent Got Him Out Alive

Publisher: Ballantine
Pub date: April 2008
Agent: Kim Lionetti



(Click to Buy)


Please note: Dave Hall and Tym Burkey are clients of BookEnds; Katherine Ramsland is represented by John Silbersack at Trident Media Group.

"You're Not Losing Your Voice, You’re Gaining Another's"
by Katherine Ramsland

I have been an FBI profiler, a bestselling author of vampire novels, a law professor who digs up the dead, and a tattooed biker from Kentucky, and yet I’m none of these things. I’m a coauthor and biographer, and the trick to making that work so everyone’s happy is to create an authentic voice.

To accomplish this—at least for me—it takes intense immersion, wherein over the course of a project I try to experience my day-to-day world through someone else’s perspective. I read what they read, watch what they watch, listen to music they like, meet people they know, and visit places that mean something to them. (For fiction, this means total immersion in your character analysis.) It’s fun, even exciting, but it’s all done in the interest of focus and voice. If I want readers to feel close to the people I’m writing with or about, I must get close to them myself. While this intimate art can risk your sense of balance, if done well you can fully tell a story through a voice not your own.

Let’s consider this notion of a writer’s voice, because it’s foundational to fiction, narrative nonfiction, and even certain technological pieces. Opinion columnists rely on a distinct voice, as do movie and book reviewers. Bloggers certainly need it if they want to maintain interest, and even how-to manuals benefit from a distinct and colorful attitude. So do memoirs, autobiographies, and biographies. There’s no need to belabor the point; getting the voice right matters. It defines how characters, real or imagined, think and speak.

Voice conveys attitude, motivation, and credibility, providing the tone through which character and setting are rendered. If you have multiple points of view, as I did with the duo-memoir of Into the Devil’s Den, you work doubly hard to become both people. (The same holds true for multiple points of view in fiction.) You must learn their belief systems, their typical word choices, their cultural background, the parameters of their experience and education, and even how they use words in a sentence. Ultimately, it’s the attitude that makes each voice distinct.

Before describing how I developed the voices for this book, let me first give some context. The FBI, just recovering from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, was expanding its domestic terrorism program and needed informants to infiltrate the Aryan Nations, the most dangerous white supremacy group in the country. Special Agent Tym Burkey worked out of Ohio, where a particularly fiendish AN member, Ray Redfeairn, was using his pulpit to connect with other white power groups. Burkey needed someone who could win over these paranoid militants, and circumstances brought him together with Dave Hall, a tattooed, 350-pound, six-foot-four former biker with a photographic memory and a firm sense of decency. Hall agreed to take the job.

As he penetrated this violent society of hatemongers, he looked to Burkey to watch his back, while Burkey prayed that Hall would not be seduced by Redfeairn’s manipulations. Neither quite knew what to expect from the other, so to convey this tension the story unfolds through their shifting perspectives, and the way their partnership evolved into an unlikely friendship sets Into the Devil’s Den apart from every other undercover tale. In the process, they helped stop another major bombing and an assassination.

To “dance with the devil,” Hall developed innovative strategies to maintain his role and avoid being “erased,” even as it battered his health and cost him relationships. He learned the specialized vocabulary, gestures, and mannerisms expected of insiders, and had to deal with suspicious members who tested his loyalty. Because he was so good at it, he earned several promotions, which gave him unprecedented access to the top brass. Here’s where the need for distinct voices occurs: What Burkey relates about the group that Hall infiltrates heightens the sense of suspense, because the reader gets privileged access to information—and awareness of danger—that Hall does not know. The necessity for him of working blind spices his side of the tale with a heightened anxiety that only Burkey’s friendship can assuage. Burkey just hopes he can keep Hall alive.

The task for me was to take what Hall had written as a daily journal and shape it into a suspenseful story with a clear narrative structure. Then I interviewed Burkey and sent him questions for written answers so that, in strategic places, I could slice in his perspective to advance the story without impeding the pace. That meant getting Burkey to talk about his feelings, too, because he had to grow beyond his role as an agent and come alive as a person. Hall’s was the easy voice, because he wrote the way he talked, in a good ol’ boy manner that was effortless to absorb. Burkey’s personality was more formal, although he was very easy to talk to as well, but it required more attention. The great thing about these two was how distinct their voices were, and my job was to preserve that quality. I did that by making each a foil for the other whenever I could. Response and reaction were key interactions.

There’s one more angle on the mastery of voice I want to mention: protecting the voice through the editorial process. There were things that different editors wanted to change and sometimes I accepted that, but often I had to call Burkey or Hall, because I sensed the request violated who they were. Putting words into Burkey’s mouth that he’d never say, for example, or eliminating a peculiar phrase that Hall naturally used seemed to make them different from who they were, so I was prepared to fight for the integrity of the narrative. Sometimes I lost, but mostly I used the writer’s trusty friend, “stet” (leave it alone!), and got it through.

Although writing this book was a real challenge, it has been one of my most interesting experiences as a coauthor. I’d already penned two biographies via my immersion method and had cowritten four books, so I had some experience with losing my voice and acquiring another’s, but immersing in two people while crafting a story’s structure was often daunting. I was the one who decided where Burkey’s voice should cut in, so the pace was fully my responsibility, and sometimes with immersion you lose your perspective. But in the end, it seems to work. Several readers have affirmed it, and I hope many others will feel the same.

It’s not just an undercover procedural, it’s the story of an unlikely friendship: There are amusing moments, poignant ones, and harrowing incidents as Dave Hall and Tym Burkey move together through this treacherous landscape. There’s even a chapter that has made grown men cry (and me, too). But for me, it was another step in the art of crafting voice and privileged access to two men who bravely made a significant difference. Thanks to them, the AN took a critical blow from which it may never fully recover.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Michele Dunaway on Writing and Recipes

Michele Dunaway
The Marriage Recipe
Publisher: Harlequin Enterprises
Pub date: April 2008
Agent: Jessica Faust


(Click to Buy)


Author Web/Blog links: www.micheledunaway.com & www.micheledunaway.blogspot.com

One of my favorite pastimes is baking. I love to cook. I have a full set of All-Clad pots hanging from the rack in my ceiling. A trip to Williams-Sonoma is a trip to nirvana. I always find a pan I must add to my collection. My brother is a chef, and he wishes he had my kitchen, which I sadly don’t use as much as I should.

So what does this have to do with writing? My latest book is about a pastry chef who has to return to her hometown and enlist the help of the boy next door to help her save her recipes. It still amazes me that I made an intellectual property case sexy. I’ll thank a good friend, a media lawyer who once worked with Oprah, for the great media law class I took as part of my MA degree!

When I created Rachel’s character, I had an excuse to cook. As a mother of two with a full-time teaching job (who also is on a permanent diet—aren’t most of us?) I don’t dig out the recipe book as much as I used to. I’m not sure why, especially since I’m a firm believer that anything you bake yourself does not go straight to your hips—and it’s all those ingredients with words I can’t pronounce that cause weight gain.

So since I was researching, I pulled out my cookbooks. I made pumpkin bread, cupcakes, cookies, and some of my old favorites, like chocolate cake! I also got to think back to college, when I would bake constantly—for the way to a guy’s heart was through his stomach—and my brownies and chocolate chip cookies were legendary.

In the spirit of cooking, since I can’t send you any cookies virtually, here is my brownie recipe:

4 tablespoons butter, melted
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup Hershey’s Cocoa
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 350. Grease a 9-inch square pan. In medium bowl, stir butter, sugar, and vanilla together. Add eggs, and with a wooden spoon beat well. Stir together flour, cocoa, baking powder, and salt. Add to egg mixture, beat until well blended. Spread batter into a pan and bake for 20-25 minutes until brownies begin to pull away from the pan. Cool completely in pan. While cooling, make frosting. To make frosting, in a small mixer bowl beat 3 tablespoons softened butter, 3 tablespoons cocoa, 1 tablespoon light corn syrup or honey, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla until blended. Add 1 cup powdered sugar and 1 cup milk; beat until smooth and of spreading consistency. Add additional milk, 1/2 teaspoon at a time, if needed. Spread over cool brownies and cut brownies into squares. (PS—you can add nuts and chocolate chips to the batter before baking.)

For one more recipe, be sure to check out www.harauthors.blogspot.com or
www.micheledunaway.blogspot.com on April 30. You will not want to miss Rachel's cupcake recipe.

Enjoy the brownies and the romance!

Michele Dunaway

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Genre Hopping

I get asked a lot, through the blog and in person, about genre hopping. Many of you have interests in different areas, and after finishing a book in one genre wonder if it’s okay to start something fresh in a brand-new genre, or if you should stay in the genre of the book you’re currently submitting. In other words, if you’re currently submitting a contemporary YA romance, is it okay to be writing a fantasy for your work in progress.

I say, go for it. Part of the publishing process involves discovery—discovering your voice, which genres suit your voice best, and which genres you really have a passion for—and until you get that magic publishing contract in hand, there’s no one out there telling you what you can or cannot do. For the unpublished, you should use this point in your career as a time of exploration and growth. And you should have fun with it.

Once you do get that contract it’s time to settle down and start looking at things with more of an eye toward business. That certainly doesn’t mean the exploration and discovery should stop, but it does mean that while you might want to be working on that big fantasy, the reality, and your next contract, says you only have time to do another YA right now. When authors first get that publishing contract I encourage them to start focusing, at least while they’re building a name for themselves. That doesn’t mean you can’t publish in both YA and fantasy, it just means that you need a plan to do so. You probably don’t want to publish YA, a year later fantasy, and a year later YA. I would encourage you to establish an audience first and branch out from there. How soon you can branch out and into what is going to vary from author to author. It’s going to depend on what genres you’re interested in, the path your career is taking, and the market, so I can’t give you specifics.

Growth and discovery are what makes authors truly successful so don’t limit yourself, just realize that this is a business and because of that some of the decisions you make might have to be based more on what’s best for your career and less on what you really want to do creatively.

Jessica

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Packaged Fiction

Can you talk a little about the practice of "book packaging" in YA? For example, in The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, author Ann Brasheres is not listed as the "copyright" but Alloy entertainment (I think) is. Under what circumstances does a "packager" get to usurp the author for the copyright, what does this mean in terms of money lost for the author, and do you see this as a growing trend?

Packaging fiction has always been popular in the YA and middle-grade markets and I’m seeing that it’s becoming a growing trend in genres like mystery as well (to learn more about packaging, please refer to my previous blog post on the subject). Be aware that a packaged book, or one in which the copyright is in the name of someone other than the author, does not usually mean the copyright was “usurped.” What it usually means is that the idea or book’s concept was actually created by someone other than the author. Publishers, packagers, and sometimes literary agencies often come up with ideas of their own—a great YA series, a fabulous mystery idea, or even an idea for a new romance series. If they are truly passionate about it they’ll often write up what’s called a bible for the series. This includes a rough storyline, character descriptions, a title, names, and even setting. Once a bible is established all they need is an author. Someone able to write in the style they’re seeking and create the book they dreamed up.

I have a difficult time in a situation like this saying that the author actually loses money. She probably doesn’t earn as much as she would have if the idea had been hers to begin with, but it wasn’t, so there’s no guarantee she would have a book contract without this packaged deal. However, unless the offer/idea comes from the publisher directly, she will receive less than the total advance, royalties, or sub rights. What she actually receives I can’t say—that would depend on the deal she agreed to. In some cases the work is done for a flat fee only and the packager receives all royalties and sub rights. Sometimes she’s able to negotiate a small percentage of royalties, anywhere from one to three percent. Again, I’m sure there are authors who can say they’ve gotten a lot less or a lot more, it all depends on the contract signed.

While I have mixed feelings about packaged books I do feel that in many cases the contracts are negotiated fairly. The author is often approached with a contract that will guarantee payment, sometimes whether or not the book sells. Like writing an article for a magazine, the work is a writer-for-hire deal and the packager should also be paid for his part in creating and selling the book. While I think it’s certainly difficult to see a book you write become a major success and receive little to no royalties, it can be an opportunity that can launch your own career in other ways.

Making the decision to write for a packager or writer for hire is a very individual decision. I know a lot of writers do it because they are happy to be making a living at their writing, while others argue vehemently against it. Because of that I’m interested to hear your thoughts on writer for hire. If you were looking to make a living as a writer and this was a very real opportunity that would guarantee income, would you consider it? What sort of contract points would you agree to or not agree to?

Jessica

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I Get Paid to Pester

Not too long ago Moonrat did a post on waiting to hear back from your agent on submissions. In her post she asked any agents who might be reading to jump in and give their own advice or opinions. Of course I did. But the post also got me thinking about this particular situation.

The reader in question asked Moonrat how she should handle an agent who doesn’t seem to be nagging editors the way her agented friends claim he should be. The original letter to Moonrat can be found here. In this case the project had been on submission for roughly three months with only one response. And as far as I’m concerned that’s at least five responses too few. After three months, in my opinion, you should have heard back from all but one or two editors. I think Moonrat’s advice was spot-on. She suggests first a gentle nudge and later a polite phone conversation. Very civil of you, Moonrat. Well done. The unfortunate part of this is that it’s not an easy situation for an author to handle. How do you confront your agent and question her business practices, which is essentially what you’re doing? This is just one of the many reasons why it’s so important to have an agent you feel you can really communicate with and an agent you trust.

A huge part of my job is to be a pest. I nag editors for answers to submissions, for contracts, for checks. . . . I hound them for better covers, more publicity, and a stronger contract. In other words, I should have been someone’s little sister, because like a little sister I don’t leave those editors alone. When you're first talking to a potential agent I think it’s very fair to ask what their expectations are for the sale of your book. Not necessarily how much money you’ll make, but how quickly they think it might sell and how they usually approach the selling process. How many submissions do they send out at once? At what point do they start following up with editors, and at what point do they just give up with editors? I also think it’s worthwhile to ask what their relationship is like with editors or at certain houses. I know for a fact that I get very quick reads with a number of editors only because we have the same sensibility and they want to get a jump on any project I send over. I also know there are editors who don’t or won’t read anything until they’ve been nagged, and then there are those who don’t bother reading anything until you have an offer in hand. I know who they are, though, and I use all of that to my advantage.

Most important, though, I think you need to know how you’ll handle a situation like this, and there’s no easy answer. In my case all it takes is a simple phone call from a client checking on the status herself. Usually I follow up every few weeks with editors, but those phone calls always spur me to check my list and make sure it’s only been a few weeks since I last followed up. Each agent is different, though. Some don’t like to be reminded to do their jobs and will need to be handled more carefully, while others need more than a subtle hint and could probably use a cattle prod. I guess the bigger question here is how do you feel about that agent? Is she someone you still feel you can trust to handle your work, and her response to your prod might give you that answer. Remember, the agent works for you and there is absolutely no harm in calling your agent and asking point-blank if she would check with editors because you’re getting antsy. Don’t be afraid to be direct. What’s the worst thing that can happen? The agent gets mad at you and I suppose she could fire you, but in all honesty if she fires you over something like this she has lost interest in your work anyway.

Good luck! I’m off to bug a few editors.

Jessica

Monday, April 21, 2008

Standard Agent Practices

Is it standard practice for an agent to ask a new client to send 20 or so hard copies of a manuscript for her to shop around? I assumed the agent would make any necessary copies and charge against the advance for a sale.

Also, should I be suspicious that she asks for no changes to be made to the manuscript? Don't most agents do an edit on their new clients' work?



No, it’s not standard practice for an agent to ask any client to supply hard copies of a manuscript. However, that doesn’t mean the agent is a scam either. One of the craziest things about this business is that while there are many “standard practices,” there are few rules across the board. Of course you all know by now never, ever, ever to sign with an agent who demands money up front. But what about these questions? Should you worry if an agent is asking for 20 copies of a manuscript? You might, but how do you know if you should? Ask questions. Where are the 20 copies going? Which publishers and, most important, which editors does the agent have in mind? Has she sold to these publishers and/or editors before? Why is she choosing them? Twenty is a lot of copies, especially up front and especially if this is fiction. Is the agent planning on sending all 20 at once or could you send more as necessary later? Many agents charge back expenses, usually the expense of copying manuscripts. It seems this agent is simply trying to avoid those costs up front. There’s really nothing wrong with that, although, as an aside, in today’s world I rarely send hardcopy (except to a few editors who always insist) and usually email almost all submissions. Couldn’t this agent do the same?

As for changes to the manuscript, that question is even harder to answer. I know agents who spend months editing manuscripts and I know agents who practically refuse to edit. They don’t feel it’s their job. Neither is right and neither is wrong. What is right or wrong depends on you. I would say that most agents, to some degree, edit their clients’ work, even if it’s a little, a general comment here or there. I also know of agents that take that role much too far, rewriting the book instead of working with what an author has. I try to find some balance. I edit the book as I see fit for a sale, but I leave the overall editing, the really hard work, to the author. Unless of course she requests otherwise. You need to find a balance that works for you. Do you want an agent who edits or are you confident enough in the work you send to know that when it goes out to editors it is the best work it can be?

What I would ask you is do you trust this agent? It seems that by asking me these questions you already have some concerns about either the legitimacy of your agent or, at least, whether or not this agent can truly do your career justice. If you are questioning your agent and her abilities I would suggest you first have a conversation with her about her business practices and why she is or is not doing certain things. It is after this conversation where you need to trust your gut. Is this really someone who can sell books and build careers? And is this really the best agent for you? Only you can answer that question.

Jessica

Friday, April 18, 2008

Scheduling Pitch Appointments

I have a question for you, as we all approach the “starting bell” for the mad dash of agent and editor appointments at RWA National. For someone like me that writes single-title stories, the almost constant feedback is, “you need an agent.” I agree, no argument there. What I’m wondering is, knowing that I do need an agent, is also taking an editor appointment a good thing or a bad thing? Editors take appointments looking for new ideas and new writers which is wonderful, but if I end up sending something to one of them, before I start working with my dream agent, am I tying that agent’s hands in future marketing opportunities? I know this probably sounds silly and many have suggested I should grab at all opportunities that come my way, but I also know that a huge part of what an agent brings to the writer-agent partnership is knowing which editor will like a certain voice, storyline, type of book, and how to best market it. How high is the risk that I’ll get ahead of that dance and inadvertently close a door that would be better left alone?

There are a lot of good questions here and while I’m definitely going to give my opinion, I suspect that a lot of our readers will be able to chime in with not only their own opinions, but also their own experiences.

I tend to think that pitch appointments are as much about networking as they are about making the pitch. Often before I submit a new client’s work I will ask if she has any editors she would like me to consider. I’m interested in knowing if there are any she’s met at conferences who she really clicked with or if there is anyone she really feels wouldn’t be a good fit for her. If you met someone at a conference and the two of you really hit it off, that could possibly do more to get you in the door than any connections I have with the editor. Now the one caveat to asking my client’s opinions is that if I feel the editor wouldn’t be the best fit we’ll discuss it and see where we end up.

Editors take pitch appointments for the same reason agents do: they are hoping to find really great books, authors and ideas. If you have the opportunity to sign up with an editor you’ve been wanting to meet or think might be right for your book, go ahead and make that appointment. If an editor requests material it’s rare that will hurt your chances. It’s not the same as blindly submitting on your own. If the editor rejects but an agent later asks you to do major revisions, the agent can always requery, and the truth is, a lot of authors sell books because of appointments and get the agent later.

So don’t be afraid to make appointments with whomever might interest you. Think of it as a great opportunity to network. Good luck!

Jessica

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Product Placement in Books

I was listening to the radio recently when they were talking about product placement in television and movies. There are definitely times when the product placement has become so insane that it actually distracts from my viewing pleasure. For the most part, however, I’ve gotten used to it and don’t notice it.

And while this isn’t a new idea, it got me thinking about the potential for product placement in books and how both authors and readers would feel about such a thing if the possibility came up. Now, more than likely, companies would approach best-selling authors first and most likely authors of commercial fiction. But if Jack Reacher suddenly became a devoted owner of Hanes T-shirts only or Stephanie Plum only started drinking her coffee from Starbucks, would you as the reader care? What about authors? If Coke approached you and asked that your protagonist only drink Coke, would you take the money and run or would you have reservations? And last, what about authors who write for kids and teens? Is product placement fine for adult literature, but more questionable when you’re targeting youth, or does it not matter?

My thoughts are that if it becomes a potentially new way for the author to make money, the author retains control of the products and placement, and it doesn’t distract from my reading, I wouldn’t care, but I’m curious what you think. . . .

Jessica

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Can an Author Return to the Nest?

Suppose a person gets multiple offers of representation. She makes the choice between the agents, alerts the other offering agents, and starts moving into the submission process herself with her agent. After a year, the agent she chose has not yet sold her work and is not enthusiastic about her second manuscript, so they part ways. Would it be unethical to contact one of the previous offering agents to see if they're interested in the second manuscript? Writers, I assume, even if they're rejected by an agent, they might query said agent again with another project. However, I'm wondering if an agent would consider going for a writer who once turned them down.

There’s nothing unethical about that at all. In fact, I think the smartest thing you could do is contact the agents who have already shown an interest in your work. You know you already have an in and that they like something about your writing so should be your natural first choice. The very worst thing that can happen is that they aren’t enthusiastic about your second book either and reject it. But anytime you’ve had a positive experience with an agent you should use it to your advantage when you need to. That’s called networking.

The truth is that BookEnds does have at least one client who did just this. She chose to go with another agent (we had also offered representation) and as time went on realized that relationship wasn’t working and got in touch with us again. We were and are very happy to have her.

But let me turn this question around to you. I often hear published authors say things like, “I would never contact her again if I needed an agent since she already rejected me.” The implication being, too bad, you lost out because you once rejected my work. If you were on the lookout for an agent again would you consider agents who once rejected you or would you only go to those who had never seen your work?

Jessica

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Mood I'm In

In the comments of our pitch critiques a few wondered how much mood might have to do with an agent’s decision. The truth is that no matter what an agent tells you, a lot goes into an agent’s decision that you have no control of.

Mood might be one of those things. If I’ve just taken on two new clients and my other clients have also been keeping me busy reading material and working with their editors, I might be feeling overwhelmed and really overworked. In that case a proposal is going to have to be even more eye-catching than normal. If, however, things have been going smoothly and I’m actually feeling caught up with my work, I might be willing to give proposals a chance that I might not otherwise. In other words, I might think the writing seems off, but the proposal is intriguing enough that I’m curious. That’s something I wouldn’t do if I was feeling inundated.

I also might be in the mood for a certain type of book or sick of seeing a certain type of book. If I’ve been inundated with Star Trek rip-offs it’s very unlikely a Star Trek rip-off is going to grab my attention. If, however, I’ve been reading a lot of thrillers in my spare time then it’s likely I’m looking for a thriller that week or that month and any “thrilling” query will catch my attention. If I’ve just sold three vampire books it’s unlikely I’m going to be interested in another vampire book for a while, but instead I might want to see a quiet historical romance.

Mood affects all of us and all of our reading. Think about it. If you’re feeling down in the dumps and want to be cheered up you might pick up a romantic comedy or light cozy mystery rather than a dark thriller. I know that I’ve gone through periods in my life when I can’t read anything depressing and other times when all I want is a good cry.

The truth is that you never know the mood of the agent you’re pitching to or what is happening in her personal life that might affect the choices she’s making. In fact, in a lot of ways you don’t know what’s happening in her professional life that affects the choices she’s making. An example of that is when I said that I see a lot of insurance adjustor mysteries and many of you commented that you’ve never seen one. Because what we sometimes see a lot of are not things that ever get published—ask Kim about books on cloning Jesus. I know, I know, many of you will say that good agents aren’t affected by mood. I disagree. I think a good agent doesn’t let her mood get in the way of her job, but she does allow her mood to get involved. And in the end, good writing fits any mood. And even better, a good book can change every mood.

Jessica

Monday, April 14, 2008

Christie Craig on Motivation

Christie Craig
Weddings Can be Murder
Publisher: Dorchester
Pub date: June 2008
Agent: Kim Lionetti



(Click to Pre-order)

I will never forget how I felt the first time I gave my work to a critique partner to review. You know that fluttery feeling you get in the pit of your stomach, like a child waiting to get just a bit of praise? I was full of flutters that day, and it wasn’t anything I’d eaten, either. I was a new writer, holding my breath, wanting to know if my words had touched someone.

We had exchanged work the week before and were meeting to discuss it. I was so green, so naïve, but I knew I was the next Linda Howard. Did I mention I’m an eternal optimist?

You see, I was working on a Commodore computer (Am I showing my age?), no spell check, no grammar check. Oh yeah, and I’m dyslexic. That sort of makes writing a challenge. And while I hadn’t been up to a challenge at sixteen when I quit school, I was twenty-three when I went to that critique session. I’d learn a thing or two, heck, I’d given birth without pain medicine, so I damn well knew I was invincible. (I’ve learned a lot since then.)

Needless to say, you can probably imagine what shape my manuscript was in. But remember, I’m an optimist. So when my critique partner looked me in the eyes and said, “Wow, you amaze me,” I went from scared to feeling like a junior high girl who’d just gotten asked out by the captain of the high school football team.

Then my critique partner continued, “To even think you want to be a writer with everything you have to learn.”

I won’t lie; it hurt like having my fingers jammed in a car door, twice. Even reminded me of childbirth. But I knew she was right. Nevertheless, I had the optimist thing going for me. And as crazy as it seems, the dyslexia had helped me grow a thick skin.

So me and my thick skin kept writing, kept learning, kept giving my work to others to be read. I got raked over the coals numerous times. My rejections poured in, too, from publishers. “We’re sorry but . . .” “Unfortunately your work . . .” “You don’t meet . . .“

Yeah, I got a lot of those.

Poor me, right?

Nope.

Sure, it wasn’t easy. But every successful writer I’ve known has a story to tell, a list of hurdles they’ve jumped over, scooted out of the way of, knocked down, and basically kicked butt to make their dreams come true.

Hurdles and rejection in this business are the norm. If it was easy, I don’t think half of us would aspire to do it. (It says something about writers, doesn’t it?)

However, because I know we all need a shot of motivation, here are a few of my hurdle-jumping tips.

1. Don’t deny your weaknesses; until you admit you have them, you can’t overcome them. Acknowledge your strengths, and build on them.

2. Use your personal rejections as stepping-stones. Go ahead, call the agents and editors idiots . . . for about five minutes, then try to see if their criticisms have merit. But never forget a rejection doesn’t mean a work isn’t great, or even publishable.

3. Find a support system and avoid negative people. I have numerous friends/critique partners and one writing partner on my nonfiction projects. Together, we believe we can conquer the world. Seriously, we’re gonna do it, too.

4. Nurture your passion for writing. Don’t make the payoff all about publication. Set small goals then celebrate each minute accomplishment. You have to enjoy the journey, because the destination—publication—can be long way away.

5. Don’t get caught up in rewrite-itis. Write a book, polish it, but then start another one. Each book is a learning experience and to be a successful writer, you’ve got to do more than write a great book, you’ve got to be able to write great books.

One last piece of advice: Use visualization. Its power is amazing. I saw myself signing a contract, autographing books, and when I got bad news (during the five minutes of idiot calling), I saw myself bury numerous Weight Watcher leaders, contest judges, editors, and even a few agents in my backyard compost pile. I even rent out compost plots to fellow writers. Cheap. Call me.

In all seriousness, this business isn’t for wimps. But if you love writing, if you want it, you just don’t give up. And let me assure you, if I can do it, so can you.

Click here to see a video of Christie on the Houston Chronicle.com about her overcoming the difficulties of being dyslexic.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Women's Fiction Honorable Mentions

As I said yesterday, we were really impressed with this group of entries. I want to reiterate (for like the gazillionth time . . .) that you shouldn’t feel discouraged if we didn’t pick your entry. There was a lot of great material to choose from, and we can only pick what happens to strike us with those first 100 words. So if you’re looking for an agent on a project in one of these categories, you should definitely still query us. The query letter, or the 101st word, might just blow us away!

Let’s get to our honorable mentions . . .

Jessica’s picks:

We were only supposed to pick three honorable mentions each, but I had a really, really difficult time narrowing my list, so, since the rules seem to shift from contest to contest, I’m going to list four honorable mentions.

This was not an easy week. I think my short list, usually five titles, was somewhere around eight or nine, and narrowing that further was nearly impossible, but here we go . . .
Rodney —When Hearts Cry Out

Trudy Hale had watched seventy-four-year-old Liz McCall circle the parking lot six times.

“Mornin’ Liz. You doin’ okay?”

“Fair to middlin’.” Liz patted the sides of her sprayed stiff hair, the color of which resembled an uncirculated silver dollar. “I swear . . . some of those fools must’ve gotten their driver’s license out of a box of Cracker Jacks.”

Trudy pointed to an empty parking place only feet away from the salon. “Why didn’t you take that spot?”

“Shit. Do you really think I’d park my Cadillac next to that big old bucket that Vivian’s husband is driving?”

This had the feeling of really great, funny Southern women’s fiction to me. I laughed when I read this and got a very clear picture of everything that was going on. I could see Liz and Trudy and I could see the parking lot and the cars. Mostly though, I loved the thought of where this might be going and I love these characters already. They have great voices and seem fun, the kind of people you want to follow through a day.

Shalanna -- Little Rituals

My life is filled with little rituals. I don't know when or how I invented them; I don't always rationally believe they work.

Everyone knocks on wood and avoids the thirteenth floor. Who doesn't cross her fingers now and then? But the most powerful rite is more abstract: do something selfless, something selfish, then a random, anonymous act of kindness. In that order. Within a span of forty-eight hours.

Since we buried Cheryl three weeks ago, I haven't been controlling myself very well, so I turned to ritual to give me control.

This is the charm that heals, I hope.

I’ll confess I get a lot of books about OCD and I suspect that’s what this is, but the voice was great here and I was definitely interested in finding out more about the protagonist. I like how she talks about her rituals and I like the way we’re left, hoping for healing.

Anonymous 9:50 pm — Stella June

Stella showed up on a Sunday. I remember exactly the time and place she entered my life and for years afterwards would wonder if she had any inkling of the damage she would cause. Tired and worn from one of Granddaddy’s sermons, legendary in our county for their length and fervor, I didn’t know who she was at first. Having never seen my mama, I only knew that this strange woman was the cause of the greatest spectacle Sparta had ever seen since the youngest Hyde child blew up the local bakery with an M-80 and his daddy’s shotgun. But this was different.

The voice, the writing, this is really a great entry. I immediately felt attracted to this protagonist. I felt sorry for her and was fascinated by her. Her voice shines through with a touch of Southern, but not too much that it becomes hard to read. And I really, really want to know more about Stella June and the trouble she’s going to cause.

Jeannie Ruesch — Petals of the Rose

The measured clip of her heels was a familiar sound. The aroma of disinfectant and pumped-in air conditioning filled her lungs. The sterile white walls were as familiar as home --more so, according to Nate. But as Dr. Danielle Stevens strode down the hallway, she sucked in deep breaths to calm sudden nerves. In all the scenarios she’d imagined seeing Melanie again this had never been an option.

Danielle was a pediatric cardiologist. She may have wished a number of things upon her former best friend’s head, but needing her expertise...

No, this was never — never — one of them.

I couldn’t let this entry go. This is the kind of book that grabbed me because of the potential. What a horrible, horrible situation to be in. You’ve tugged at my heartstrings in the first 100 words. That’s really powerful and I’m dying to know where this is going to take us. Is this a story about saving a child? About the relationship of two friends? What’s going to happen next? Well done.

Kim’s picks:

Anonymous 11:01 am — Revealing Gigi

There are many silences.

There is the sort created by standing perfectly still in an uninhabited space under a huge sky. That silence is riveting; a surreal sensation of wishing the moment would not ever end because somehow the lack of sound brings a brief moment of understanding.

Then there is the kind of peace in those small quiet moments. Just pockets void of dissonance that allow my brain to process the day.

Finally, there is the awkward variety. It springs up between two people who have said far too much, for too long, with words that meant nothing at all.

I just found the writing here terrific and insightful. Even though I haven’t officially met any characters yet, I’m wanting to know about the two people who’ve said too much. There’s an implied mystery behind those words that is subtle, yet so intriguing. I’m hungry to see where this is going. . . .

Caren Crane — Tiara Wars

Katie Warren's husband Larry haunted her garden.

With the North Carolina June suffocating her like a magnolia-scented blanket, she could almost see his grass-stained Topsiders and white lawyer's ankles peering at her from behind the hedge as they had the day he died.

Despite the "Southern Living" layout potential around her, the memory of Larry's legs sucked the joy right out of her retreat. Which only fueled her anger at him.

A burst of "Für Elise" sent her pruning shears flying. She fished the phone from her pocket.

"Mom," Callista barked. "Where are you? I've been waiting 15 minutes already."

Like Jessica, I’m a sucker for a strong Southern women’s fiction voice. The imagery of the first few sentences is terrific. I’ll admit that I wish I hadn’t been jolted away from it so quickly, but I’d still want to find out more about the husband’s death and hear what else this narrator has to share.

Robb — Hannah's Voice

“Pancakes.”

With that one word, I broke my silence of a dozen years.

“I said I want the goddamn pancakes.”

Finally, I got what I really wanted. Not the pancakes, but some silence. Everyone else shut up. Finally.

I didn’t decide to stop talking forever, or even for twelve years. I just chose not to speak at a moment in time. Sometimes decisions have a way of forging your future, setting a path before you that you must travel, even if you’re only six years old when you make the choice.

#

“Hannah, did you clean your room?”

It just occurred to me that I chose two entries that talk about silence. Maybe I was having a particularly loud day? No. These entries resonated with me for different reasons. I like that I’m being brought into the story at a pivotal moment. And that this momentous occasion—finally speaking after twelve years—is marked by such an everyday word: “pancakes.” The narrator is just brilliant, and complicated and somebody I’d love to learn more about.

Great work, everybody! You blew us away! And to think there’s just one more contest to judge. . . .

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Women's Fiction Winner . . . and the Romantic Suspense Contest!

I don’t know why, but I’m still surprised when Jessica and I compare notes and find that we have very different picks. In the end, though, we were still able to come up with a definite winner and two runners-up. (For the record, the delay in this post was never due to a hung jury . . . but to travel schedules.)

I was really pleased with the entries in this category. There was a lot of great writing, but also attention to hooking the reader. I think that once we move out of the narrower genres, such as romance and mystery, writers sometimes think that it’s not as important to leave the reader in suspense. Truthfully, it’s always important to keep your audience hanging in some way. Withholding information keeps those pages turning. And from these entries, it seems like a lot of you understand that. We were impressed.

That said, let’s get to the winner. . . .
Anonymous 2:10 pm -- UNTITLED

I wasn’t sure at which point I’d be crossing that line I promised Daddy I never would. When I picked up the envelope of crisp hundred dollar bills off her desk? Or when I stuffed it in my pocket. Maybe when I walked out the door with it, onto my new life; when I was officially stealing Marcy’s dream and replacing it with mine.

I liked the heft of those forty bills in my hand. Brand new from the bank. I fanned them out like a poker hand. Daddy always liked new money. “It ain’t stealing, Noreen,” he’d tell me.

Jessica: When reading these women’s fiction entries I realized that what really grabbed my attention, besides writing and voice, of course, was potential. Where did this author leave me and what was the potential for this book? I liked this voice a lot and I definitely liked all that it left me wondering about. I’m anxious to know more about her relationship with her father, Marcy and her dream, and of course Noreen and where she’s headed. Well done and congratulations!

Kim: I just love the writing. Another example of very lean, efficient prose. On top of that we’re being introduced to a very intriguing character. Noreen is certainly flawed, but she also seems to come with a lot of baggage, which somehow makes her more sympathetic. She also clearly recognizes the gravity of her actions. She knows that she’s sacrificing her friend’s dream for her own. So what has led her to do something this desperate? I’m hooked!

Nice work, Anonymous! When you’re ready for us to critique your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter, please send them to us via the blog’s e-mail link.

On to the runners-up!
Anonymous 3:00 pm -- Lifeline

I decided I didn’t believe in lifelines when a palm reader in Tampa refused to read mine. She frowned and pushed my hand aside. “Too short,” she said, pushing my money back toward me. “I don’t deliver that kind of news.” I rolled my eyes and left.

But I reconsidered the possibility, looking down at my bloody body on the gurney, putting out a flat heart rate. “Damn,” said the tired young doctor. He sighed. “I’ll call it. Time of death, 4:20 pm.” I died on August 9th. 34 years old. I studied my palm. That is a short lifeline.

Jessica: Of course I like the paranormal element in this. I confess, I’ve always had a thing for dead people. Again, what a great setup, and there’s so much potential here for what’s going to happen next. Great voice too. As we all know, it’s all in the voice, and this book definitely has that. I really liked it.

Kim: I liked that this entry threw me for a loop. It’s not like I haven’t read books/submissions with dead narrators before. But I liked the way this one was introduced. Because the voice had a certain energy and angst in those first few sentences, it surprised me to learn he/she was no longer alive. The book could go anywhere from this point on, and I’d be eagerly turning the pages to find out what direction the author takes.

Shirley — With This Ring

Amy Kerrigan struggled to remain calm. One glance at her estranged husband made that almost impossible.

Although no longer the shy, insecure girl who came to Darkhaven as Brody’s bride, Amy feared the impending meeting. It lay over her head like the sword of Damocles.

Up ahead was Gaelen’s house, nestled in its grove of oaks.

The car turned into the avenue. The last leaves of autumn clung to the trees. Fallen leaves lay in mouldering heaps against the railings, and beneath the sod, bulbs waited for spring.

As did the malevolent secrets of Darkhaven.

Amy shivered, suddenly very afraid.

Jessica: This opening has a great gothic feel to it. I love the description, enough to give a really strong feeling for what Amy is seeing and experiencing, but not too much that it overtakes the story. And again, I love the potential for where this story might take me. Is it going to be creepy, emotional? What is going to happen with her and that house? Really, great voice and great setup.

Kim: Ummm . . . I think I’ve mentioned once or twice (or a hundred times) that I’m a sucker for gothics. This entry feels almost like an updated Rebecca. I would eat up any women’s fiction with that creepy, gothic feel, but that tackles bigger, more mature issues than just the suspense story. I’m hoping that since this entry is in women’s fiction instead of one of the romance categories that this is just where it’s leading!

Congratulations to the runners-up! Amazing work! We’ll be posting our honorable mentions tomorrow.

Now it’s time for our very last genre contest!

THE ROMANTIC SUSPENSE CONTEST IS TODAY!!!

Here are the rules — READ THEM!
1. We’ll only accept entries that are posted in the comments section of this blog article. No e-mailed entries will be considered.

2. Include your title and the first 100 words of your book. Now, we’re not saying to leave us hanging mid-sentence here. Stop wherever the previous sentence ends, but do not exceed 100 words.

3. The same work cannot be entered in more than one genre. If you think your book straddles more than one genre, you’ll have to pick one. We will, however, accept multiple works from the same author in the same or different categories.

4. Once the material is entered, it’s your final entry. We won’t allow revised versions of the same work.

5. We’re accepting excerpts of both finished and unfinished works.

6. The deadline is tomorrow, April 11th, at 9:00 a.m. EST.

And in case you’ve forgotten, the prize is a critique of the query letter, synopsis, and first chapter of the winning entry! The winner will e-mail us the additional material and we’ll provide our notes privately, not on the blog. We will, however, discuss what we liked about each winning 100-word entry on the blog, and will pull out a few honorable mentions to highlight other excerpts that came close and why.

We’ll post the winners in a few days and then recap the entire contest!!

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Agents Getting Preferential Reads

A good number of the science-fiction/fantasy imprints accept unsolicited manuscripts or unsolicited queries. While searching for an agent, I ran across one that stated authors should look for an agent who has sold to a publisher that doesn't accept unsolicited manuscripts. If they only submit your manuscript to publishers that do accept unsolicited manuscripts, then your manuscript isn't going to be treated with any more priority than if you submitted it yourself.

I kind of doubt this claim since at least an agented manuscript has successfully passed one professional's crap-o-meter, so it's bound to be looked at more quickly and closely. However, it did make me wonder about another statement that I've heard from several agents. They don't want authors to shop manuscripts around by themselves because, once a manuscript is rejected, they can't try a publisher again. They might have submitted the manuscript to a different editor at that publisher who would have liked the book, but that chance is lost now.

But isn't there one editor--the acquisitions editor--that the manuscript will have to get past whether the author submits it or the agent does?


I would love to hear more about the things authors are being told on other agent Web sites. That’s crazy. What that says to me is that this agent doesn’t know enough people in the business. Of course my submissions are going to get read faster than those that are unsolicited. I already have a relationship with that editor, and that editor, or any editor, knows my name and my reputation, and, more important, the editor knows that sitting on my submission for too long is likely to mean either I won’t submit to her again and/or I’ll sell it out from under her. In other words, from most agents a submission is going to get preferential treatment, but if you are with an agent who doesn’t have contacts, then no, it’s just as good as submitting it yourself.

As for your other question, that’s very true, and let me explain why. If you send your manuscript to Joe Dell at Bantam and he rejects it, I have no real idea what process the book went through. Did Joe simply read it himself and reject it? Did he pass it on to an assistant who rejected it or did he pass it on to a freelance reader who rejected it for him? Or, did Joe like the book enough to bring it up at an editorial board meeting, get second reads, and ultimately reject it based on the decisions/opinions of his peers? Even if I think the book would be better for Jill Bantam at Bantam, I can’t go over Joe’s head (even if Jill is Joe’s superior and even if Joe had a reader reject it for him). Now, there is the rare instance when an agent might be able to resubmit to the same house, but as we know, this business is tough enough. Why depend on a rare instance?

Of course there are exceptions to every rule. Always exceptions. If an editor asks you directly to submit, then submit. Don’t wait around and don’t miss a golden opportunity.

Jessica

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Making Your Conference a Success

I’ve done similar posts before, but I suppose it never hurts to have some repetition.

I have attended so many writers conferences that it’s a little scary. I’ve been to Oklahoma, Florida, Texas more times than I can count, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Vermont, West Virginia, Colorado, California, Washington . . . You get the point.

And after attending all of those conferences I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned from an agent’s perspective what works and what doesn’t. So here it is. My list of those things I’ve seen and those things I can recommend.

  • Two-hour appointments max. No agent should have to spend more than two hours in any given weekend listening to pitch appointments. It’s not good for her and it’s not good for the authors. By the time that third hour comes around we are much too tired to listen.

  • Social receptions that are nothing but social. Not every event needs to be an “event.” Authors can learn more and network best when they’re given the chance to do so. Therefore, offer cocktail parties and meals where networking is the name of the game. There’s no speaker, no raffle, no microphone of any kind. Most attendees are adults and should be able to entertain themselves.

  • Free time. This isn’t a joke. This is my weekend and the least you can do is give me enough free time to really explore the area, sit on the beach, climb a mountain, or just hide in my room.

  • Meals. If you can’t provide all or most meals for your attendees then try to make meals available for agents and editors at the least. Encourage attendees to treat agents or editors to a meal or ask someone to host a small gathering off-site that of course the agents and editors will be driven to.

  • Airport pickup. I just don’t understand why this isn’t an easy one. Who wouldn’t want 20+ minutes alone with an agent? As I’ve said in other posts, it’s a great way to make yourself remarkable (especially with some of the driving I’ve experienced).

  • Hosted tables. You’ll get a lot more mileage out of your featured guests (agents and editors) if you require that they “host” a table at meals. In other words, instead of allowing them to sneak off and all sit together in a corner, put their names in the center of the tables and give your attendees a chance to sit with those people they really want to get to know. This will also guarantee that they actually come to the meal.

  • Allowing the agents to determine their schedules. I like doing workshops and I’ve enjoyed critiques. It’s really disappointing to me when I am flown halfway across the country and I don’t get to speak to the group. I know appointments and panels are a necessary evil, but why not use agents and editors to their fullest if they’re willing. If I’m willing to do workshops, why wouldn’t you have me do workshops?
And here are some special bonuses that conferences have done that I’ve really enjoyed:

  • Critique sessions. I was surprised by this myself, but I really liked doing group critiques. My favorite was at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Conference. Each agent had roughly two hours to critique the work of eight people. I had received the first ten pages, along with a one-page synopsis of each author’s work ahead of time. The other attendees received the same material. When we sat down to talk I was able to give my critique and then open the floor for others to give their opinions. Now of course not all agents like these.

  • Author/editor lunch. One conference did a special lunch just for the authors and editors. NO one else. That means we actually had time to get to know each other, catch up, and talk and kvetch about the business. It was really fun.

  • Planned, but not required, trip outside of the hotel. One of my all-time favorites was to the Tabasco sauce factory on Avery Island, LA. I LOVED it!

  • Appointments outside, in the sun, by the beach. Okay, you probably can’t do that in Seattle, but I really loved it.

  • Regional introductions. The worst part of conferences is that they are all the same. Every single one serves chicken in a hotel ballroom. Embrace your region and introduce it to those who’ve traveled so far to see it. Feed us something special—grits for breakfast or Chicago-style pizza for lunch. Offer us a local beer or a book with regional flair. In other words, make us feel like we’ve actually left NYC.
And I think that’s it for me this time. What about the attendees? What have you loved about conferences you’ve attended and what have you hated? What do you wish agents and editors would do more or less of?

Jessica

Monday, April 07, 2008

What to Write Next

Conventional wisdom seems to be that while a writer has their book out on submission to agents/publishers they should be working on their next book. But what should the next book be? Should it be the next book in the series they've envisioned, or should it be an entirely new book (because if the first book doesn't sell, chances are the second can't either)?

Also, I'm assuming that if an agent has a book out on submission, that they would urge the writer to write the next book in the series. Is that correct?


Thank you so much for asking this question. It’s actually a post I’ve been meaning to write but haven’t gotten around to yet.

I’m going to start from the bottom of your email up. I would never urge a writer to work on the next book in the series while I’m submitting the first. When a series idea is on submission I talk with the author and encourage her to start coming up with fresh new ideas. Why? Because if the first book in the series isn’t going to sell, it’s very likely the second book isn’t either.

When I'm in a pitch appointment with an author there are few things that make me wince faster than an author saying that she’s pitching me the third book or working on the second, third, or fourth book. There are so many reasons why a book isn’t picked up by an agent—writing, voice, marketability, etc.—and if the first book in your series isn’t deemed marketable enough, the second and third won’t be either. You can always go back to the series when you get an agent or get that publishing contract in hand, but you can’t go back and get the time you spent writing books you can’t even submit.

Now there are exceptions to these rules and the biggest is when your series is very loosely tied together. Sally MacKenzie is an example of this. Her “Naked” series is technically a series. Many of the same characters appear in the books. However, they are loosely connected in that the protagonists change from book to book and the “continuing” characters play secondary roles. In this case it’s really a series of stand-alone romances, and when initially selling it I probably wouldn’t have thought of it as a series, but instead as a historical romance. Karen MacInerney’s Tales of an Urban Werewolf series is another story. Each book has the same protagonist and is somewhat of a continuing story. While you can read them in any order, each is a stand-alone book, there are some continuing story lines. In this case I would not have encouraged her to work on the next book in the series, and I didn’t. She had begun to think of new ideas and work on new things while I had this book, Howling at the Moon, out on submission.

Think of always moving your career forward. Don’t get stuck working for years on the same book or the same series. If you truly want a publishing career, and not just to write books, you need to be in search of the next thing.

Jessica

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Endless Circle of Fiction Writing

I received the following question from a reader, and it’s really one of the many reasons why I admire authors and always try to respect every query and submission I receive (even though it might not always feel that way from your end. . . .).

When writing fiction, as an unpublished writer, how do you know you aren’t beating yourself over the head? Agents won’t talk to you without a completed manuscript, but then you have no agent to talk to about your manuscript in progress. Any suggestions for the hopefully up and comings out there?

The truth is that the decision to seek publication is a leap of faith. Faith that doing what you love is also something others will enjoy and something you can earn money from. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s any way to know whether you’re “beating yourself over the head.” And while it’s true that while working on that manuscript you don’t have an agent you can talk to, you do have other writers and critique partners who can guide you through the process, help you learn, and hopefully let you know whether or not you’re ready for publication.

Having never been in that situation I’m afraid I don’t have any advice from in the trenches. What I can tell you, though, is that if you really love to write and you do hope someday to be published, you need to be in it for the long haul. You need to be ready to take criticism as well as praise and you need to always try your best to listen with an open mind. Some of the things you hear won’t be of any use and some won’t ring true at the time you hear them, but might later down the line. I think, though, that the key to being a successfully published author is the willingness to learn and grow.

But I’d like to hear from writers out there. What made you stick with it or what makes you stick with? How do you know you aren’t spinning your wheels and how do you keep that faith alive?

Jessica

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Place of Reviews in the Writer’s Universe

Sally MacKenzie
The Naked Gentleman
Publisher: Zebra
Pub date: March 2008
Agent: Jessica Faust



(Click to Buy)

A review of my April release, The Naked Gentleman, just showed up in my inbox. I considered deleting it unread.

Reviews are a fact of the published author’s life. We may not like them, but we need them. My publisher sends out advance review copies (ARCs) of my books to garner reviews and I send out my own homemade ARCs. Reviews—even negative reviews—are good. They make the world aware that your book is out there. Hopefully they generate buzz and cause lots and lots of readers to run to the bookstore—bricks and mortar or virtual—to buy, buy, buy your book.

However, there is no requirement that an author read any of those reviews. Reviews are for readers. Reviews for writers are called revision letters and they come from your editor.

It took me a while to realize I didn’t have to read my reviews—I had to hear it from a more experienced author. I did read the reviews of my first couple books. I’m a professional; I have a thick skin; I can take criticism. Except by the third book I couldn’t. I don’t know what it was—the book, my age, whatever—but the critical reviews really started to get to me. I was driving poor Jessica crazy, fretting that my career was over, that I had disappointed my readers. But, Jessica would say, the book got a glowing review from Publishers Weekly. (Thankfully, she did not say, Calm down, you neurotic writer. She is very patient.) Yes, I’d reply, but Suzie Reviewer on We ‘R’ Reviews hated it. Or Betty Reads-a-Lot posted on Amazon that the heroine was majorly TSTL (too stupid to live) and the book was so terrible she was throwing it and all my other books against the wall.

Why is it I can brush off five complimentary reviews and only focus on the single critical one—or the critical sentences in an otherwise positive opinion? And the internet makes sharing one’s opinion so easy. There are many online review sites, and anyone who wants to can set up a blog for free. It is correspondingly easy to read those opinions. If you search, you will find.

I ended up on high blood pressure medicine. Worse, I kept hearing little critical whisperings as I tried to write the next book. So I swore I’d be more Zen about it all this time through. Here are my new review mantras:
1. A review is only one person’s opinion. (Unfortunately, this is true for glowing reviews as well as stinky ones.)

2. All reviews are good reviews because they get the book title out there.

3. Getting worked up—either wildly happy or madly depressed—over any review is a waste of energy. Use that energy to write the next book.

4. If I must watch the bouncing Amazon numbers, I’ll do so from my Publishers Marketplace track books page—and, bonus (!)—I can watch the bouncing B&N numbers at the same time. I will never go to the book’s actual Amazon or B&N page after the release date.

5. I will step away from the Google function. I will not Google my name or my book title.

6. I will not go to websites where I might stumble upon a review of my book, and I will NEVER argue with readers about their opinion of my books. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion—even if they are just wrong, wrong, wrong. (No, I didn’t say that.)

7. If I must whine about a review, I will only whine to Jessica and/or my very small group of close writer pals, those sworn to secrecy.
So, did I read the review that popped into my inbox? Well, yes. I do feel a need to read a couple reviews, if for no other reason than to find a good quote or two for my website’s review page. My heart pounded and my palms sweated as I clicked to open it, though. My eyes immediately dropped to the opinion at the bottom—whew, she’d liked the book. Best, she’d actually reviewed the book I’d written, not the book she might have thought I should have written. It was a fun review to read. If I were reviewing her review, I’d give her five stars!

But I’m still not going Googling.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What Is Narrative Nonfiction? and Thoughts on Memoirs

I was asked recently to explain what narrative nonfiction is. A good question. When most agents discuss the difference between submitting nonfiction and fiction, they are usually discussing non-narrative nonfiction. If you are writing narrative nonfiction the submission process is usually the same as fiction, the agent would expect that your book is complete or near completion and would definitely want a synopsis and sample chapters.

Now that I’ve thoroughly confused you, what is narrative nonfiction? Otherwise known as creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction tells a story. Memoirs and journalistic accounts are usually narrative nonfiction. Authors like Tom Wolfe and books like The Perfect Storm would be considered narrative nonfiction. As would Angela’s Ashes, In Cold Blood, and Into Thin Air.

When reviewing prescriptive nonfiction, an agent is going to look at an author’s platform, how the book stands out in what is almost always a crowded marketplace, and what makes it different. Narrative nonfiction, however, is judged by the same standards as fiction—writing is going to be of primary importance. After that the agent is going to look at plotting and of course how the book stands out from other similar titles. In most cases, with creative or narrative nonfiction, a platform, while useful, isn’t necessary.

What’s most interesting to me about the many, many memoir queries or narrative nonfiction queries I receive are the lack of story. A book like Into Thin Air doesn’t become a New York Times bestseller simply because it’s an interesting tale. If that were the case we could all write it. It hits the list because of the storytelling, and I think that’s the most important thing for memoirists or narrative nonfiction writers to remember—your book is at first interesting to readers because your story is intriguing or dramatic, but what makes it a book is the storytelling. You need to take the facts of your life that you want to share and make them into a story, and that includes plot techniques, dialogue, and character building. While the people in your story might be real people, you need to make them real to your readers.

Jessica

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Coming to the Party

Some time ago I wrote about the nonfiction submission process, and in my example I gave a respond-by date, letting editors know that I was hoping to hear of their interest by a certain date. Well, one wise reader asked what happens next. What do you do when you have more than one publisher interested, or worse, what happens if no one is interested?

First let me clarify that every agent is different and every agent’s response will be different. Some feel no need to ever set such deadlines, not wanting to rush editors, while others think every project they have is worth setting a respond-by date for; it rushes the submission process and moves things along more quickly for them. I tend to fall in the middle. If I have a project that I am 100% confident will be hot I will set a respond-by date, but often I like to give editors time to explore something new at their leisure and let it grow on them if necessary. Why? I know I for one don’t always like to be rushed. Sometimes it’s good to have time to process and slowly fall in love rather than be pushed into it.

But when I do use a respond-by date, what might I expect?

After having worked on both sides of the submission process, I can honestly tell you that most respond-by dates go by unnoticed. The truth is that people are going to offer if they’re going to offer and the only thing that’s going to make them move faster is a bona fide offer from another publisher. One of the reasons a respond-by date can backfire is because it also shows your hand. If no one comes in and offers, all other publishers will know this and they’ll know where they stand. If SuperBooks was interested and planning to make a $50,000 offer, the lack of interest from others could quickly drop that to $25,000. Why not? They suspect that no one else is out there to raise their price.

But what if no one offers at all? Do you then submit around to other publishers and set a new respond-by date? I don’t. I think a respond-by date is a one-shot deal. If no one responds it is definitely time to go to your second-tier group, but I wouldn’t set another respond-by date. I would simply submit the old-fashioned way . . . send to my group of editors and bug the heck out of them until they respond.

And what if everyone (or at least two or three people) call to tell you that they’ll definitely be making offers? Again, this is a situation where every agent is different, but my strategy is to set an auction date. I like to give everyone a day or two to put their offers together, so let’s say two days after the respond-by date I’ll hold the auction. In this case I set guidelines. If one publisher came in before the respond-by date with a decent offer, but not as high as I would like, I’ll often use that as my basis. Let’s say we’re starting all bids at $5,000. I then give a time. All bids need to be presented before a certain time, let’s say noon. If by 12:30 I haven’t heard from some publishers who mentioned that they would be biddin,g I will call and remind them as well as let them know where the price stands. You would be surprised at how things can play out from respond-by date to auction. Some publishers will drop out and others will suddenly show up. You never know what’s going to happen until the bids come in.

There are different ways to hold an auction too. Some can do final and best, which means everyone simply comes in with their very best bid the first time around and winner takes all. Another technique is a round robin. You keep calling all bidding editors to let them know what the current high bid is until the last man is standing. A round robin auction can take days, or even weeks.

I’m sure I’m missing something. An auction can be as complicated or as simple as an agent wants and each one is different depending on the editors involved, the agent, and the project, but I think this gives you, in a nutshell, an idea of what you might expect if an agent tells you that she’s asking for a respond-by date and hoping to go to auction.

Good luck!

Jessica