Friday, October 30, 2009

Happy Halloween

I love Halloween. It’s so fun for me to dress up and pretend to be someone else for the day. Planning this year’s Halloween costume had me thinking of all the great characters of literature and how much fun it would be to be them for the day, not just in dress, but to actually become one of those characters for the day.

The choices are endless and not easy. If I choose the self-serving and vain Scarlett O’Hara it means that for a day, just one day, it’s all about “me, me, me.” While I might dread the fight to find an 18-inch waist, stomping around with gads of admiring boys in a hoop skirt could be fun.

Hannibal Lecter, while one of the creepiest characters in literature, is also fascinating and brilliant. What would it be like to be this mastermind for the day? I’ll promise you one thing: if this is my final choice, I’ll only try it if I can avoid eating.

While Sherlock Holmes probably would not be my choice, I know that you amateur sleuths might immediately be drawn to this clever and highly observant gentleman. One of the most appealing factors about Holmes to me would be the time period. I mean, we’re dreaming, right? So that means to actually become these characters we’re also traveling into their worlds.

And whether you were a fan of the books or not, I don’t think anyone can argue that Harry Potter would be so much fun that a day might not be enough. I don’t know about you, but I think I might need at least a week to master that game of Quidditch.

What about you? If dreaming about those great characters in literature, who would you like to become for a day, just one day?

Jessica

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Thursday, October 29, 2009

How Long Is Too Long to Wait

If I’ve learned anything from writing this blog it’s what an anxiety-inducing process getting published is, and while the unpublished think it gets easier once you have an agent, I think I’ll have to disagree. It seems to me that having an agent, but still seeking publication and, heck, even having a publishing contract can still be equally anxiety-producing.

An agented author recently got in touch to ask how long is too long to wait for minor revisions and does silence from an agent mean the agent has lost interest.

Sadly there’s absolutely no way to answer this question without holding a couples counseling session with the author and agent. How long is too long? Is it a proposal or a full manuscript? What is your definition of minor revisions? How many rounds of revisions have you already been through with the agent? What else does the agent have on her plate during that time and has the agent given you a due date? Without knowing at least some of that information I probably can’t answer your question as clearly and concisely as I should. That being said, let me give you some guidelines so you have a time frame in which you should feel comfortable checking in.

I think that if you have only a proposal you should hear within four weeks. I know that seems long, but I’m giving all agents the benefit here. One week is too short. If I don’t have advance notice that your material is coming I can’t promise a one-week turnaround because I might already have two proposals scheduled for revisions that week. Two weeks seems very reasonable to me, except that it could take me a week to even get to the proposal and another full week to get my feedback together (sometimes I will have to read the material a couple of times and frequently I have to sit on it and think about it). Three weeks probably makes the most sense, so four weeks gives everyone a safety net. If you haven’t heard within four weeks, definitely check in.

What about a full manuscript? Well, the same timeline holds true in terms of how long it might take an agent to actually get to the book, the difference is that it’s 400 pages versus 50. It takes a lot longer to read and put together notes on, and if any parts need to be reread, it’s going to take even longer. I still think however that it’s reasonable to check in after four weeks. That seems plenty long to me and at least by that point you should be able to get a time from your agent for when she will get back to you.

Minor revisions means the work you’re doing should be minor. It means that presumably you won’t be recreating characters or deleting entire plot points. It does not mean the work the agent is doing is any less than if you were getting major revisions. In fact, in my experience minor revisions often mean more work for the agent. While major revisions are often a short letter telling you to go back to the drawing board, a minor revision letter can go through the manuscript point by point and often end up being 15 to 20 pages in length.

As for whether an agent has lost interest. There’s absolutely no way to know unless I’m in that relationship, but waiting for revisions doesn’t necessarily mean a loss of interest, just not enough time.

My very best advice is get to work on your next book. Lose yourself in another project so those weeks fly by as quickly for you as they always do for the agent.

Jessica

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Wednesday, October 28, 2009

A Writer's Insecurities

These questions came to me from a group of writers. Apparently it’s a topic frequently discussed on forums and blogs and I suppose shared anxiously through emails and phone calls. These authors, all agented, wanted to know if I am aware, or other agents are aware, of the insecurities and concerns of a writer. In this case they were specifically talking about those long stretches of silence when they are waiting to get feedback on revisions, waiting to hear that the book is going out on submission or just waiting for a response to an email or phone call.

I think that most agents are aware of a writer’s anxieties and insecurities, it’s probably even easier to be aware now with blogs and the Internet than it ever was before. I know that I’ve learned a lot from my readers and what is posted in the comments. I’ve also learned a lot from perusing writing groups and forums. However, being aware of general writer worries and reacting to them are two different things. As an agent I need to be considerate of the feelings of my clients, but I also can’t assume that all of them feel the same way. What I try hardest to do is be considerate. I try to let my clients know roughly when I’ll get to the material I have to read, I try to keep them in the loop as much as possible on their submissions, and I let them know that at any point if they are feeling insecure or worried they should feel free to get in touch.

The difficult thing about insecurities is that you can’t expect someone else to take care of them for you. We all have them and yes, agents experience times of insecurity too. Who wouldn’t? It’s a business where you fall in love with something with all of your heart and then have to try to find that one other person who feels the same way. That’s enough to make all of us batty.

My suggestion for dealing with your insecurities is to figure out how to calm yourself without making others crazy. Easier said than done, I know. The trick to quelling anxiety is to take control. No you can’t go to your agent’s office and force her to read your material or send it out on submission, but you can talk openly and frankly about timelines. When does she think she’ll have feedback to you or what is her thought on when the submission process will start? Getting an agreement on dates might not necessarily mean it will happen by the date chosen. I know for example there are times I’ll tell an author I’m starting the submission process the next day, only to discover it’s taken me two days just to finalize the query and another day to get my head wrapped around which editors I think would be most enthusiastic about the work. I have no problem with the author checking in though, especially if I had told her I was going to be starting.

I know that some of you are going to immediately chime in about how this is all well and good if you have a good agent who does communicate, but what about the bad agents? We talk about the “bad” agents a lot and we hear the horror stories of those who were lost in piles and never hear from the agents they work with. Those are horror stories and hopefully not as common as the good stories. I got the impression from this group of readers that all were happy with their agents, just anxious, and being anxious about working with an agent certainly does not mean the job isn’t getting done.

Jessica

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Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Influence of a Blog

How influenced are you by a writer's web site or blog? As a book designer and typesetter (and author) I'm very much affected by what I see on the screen. Some blogs, such as yours, are clear, well-organized, and readable (i.e., black type on a light background rather than the more dramatic and infinitely less readable light type on a dark background). A couple of the agent blogs I follow are appalling to read. Fancy fonts, justified type (ragged right is ALWAYS best for blogs as well as manuscripts), and cluttered with a dozen snippets of recent posts all jostling for attention. In other words, a mess. Now, all things being equal, I'm sure I'd be thrilled to have any one of these agents representing me; but, should the day ever come when they're actually fighting over me, the one with the clear, crisp blog will win.

This is an interesting question and frankly I think one that I could get a lot of mileage out of. I come from a newspaper background and back in the day one of my jobs was to actually help lay out the day’s paper. That meant making sure there were no gutters (that’s the white line that travels from the top of the page to the bottom), setting size-appropriate headlines, and arranging the paper in a way that was pleasing to the eye as well as to the newshound. Because of that background I’m a bit obsessive about how pictures hang on my walls (no gutters allowed) and was very controlling when it came to the design of our own site and blog. Yes, there have been a number of changes as we’ve gotten feedback from those who are much more knowledgeable than I, and yes there were probably a few clunkers along the way. Ultimately though my goal was to make it easy to navigate, as quick to load as possible (despite the huge number of photos we have) and informative. Most important, though, I wanted our site to make it clear on what we were about. Whether we like it or not, a web site is the professional face of your business and it’s important that it gives the impression that you want to be given. Luckily I think we’ve accomplished that.

When it comes to taking on new clients I’m not that influenced by the design of an author’s blog or web site. If it needs work I figure that’s something we can discuss once the book is sold. However, I do think that once you’ve signed the contract with a publisher it’s really important to talk to a professional about your web site or blog (while I had a lot of say in our site I did not even pretend I was going to design it myself). While it’s true that most people won’t come to your site until they’ve become a fan of your work, this is a professional site and you need to show a professional face. We’ve come a long way from aol, dial-up and creating your own site just for the fun of it. Web sites are now serious business and should look like they’re serious, and the design of your site is just as important as what you’ve written.

I haven’t done a comprehensive look at different author web sites for a while, but the last time I did I was struck by two things: one, that so many of them looked exactly alike and there was no real pizazz to them; the second was the sites that just didn’t tell me what they were selling. The focus seemed to be on the author and not the books or just generally all over the place, and I had trouble navigating or finding any information at all. Since I’m not a designer it’s not my natural inclination to review or think consciously about design, however I suspect when I don’t like a site, design is a huge part of that reason.

I’m going to leave the web design advice to the designers who visit and will hopefully comment. Instead I’m going to give you some of my thoughts on things authors should consider including on their web sites.

  • List of books w/downloadable cover pictures (in case the media needs a shot at the last minute)
  • Easy to understand blurbs for each book as well as quotes from great reviews
  • Links to bookstores (to place orders)
  • Blog for updates (and please keep it updated). This doesn’t have to mean daily posts, but at least updates on how the writing is going, your next book, signings, etc. Weekly or even monthly posts would be acceptable.
  • Author photo—5x7 color downloadable (again, in case the media needs a shot)
  • Email/Contact—mailing list, contact information for those who might be interested in buying rights to your books, etc.
  • Links to other sites (if necessary)
  • Recipes, craft projects, or other fun information related to your book’s hook—something to make your site stand out a little from other author sites
  • About the author
  • Appearance information when available (book signings, etc.)

Jessica

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Monday, October 26, 2009

Deadlines

Deadlines. Feared by some, loved by others. It’s likely that the minute you became serious about your writing you started setting deadlines for yourself. Maybe it was a weekly deadline for your critique group or a daily deadline for yourself. Whatever deadlines you’ve been working under, however, will change dramatically once they become contracted requirements. Suddenly you aren’t just trying to meet a date set by your writing group or even by yourself, but now this date means something. It’s the difference between getting paid or not getting paid, it’s a legal obligation and it’s a date your editor and agent are counting on.

As contract negotiations commence, inevitably the author and I are going to need to have a conversation about deadlines, and inevitably I’m going to question every single date the author gives me. While I do this more frequently with those experiencing a first sale, I do this with my more experienced clients as well. Why? Because let’s face it, it makes all of our lives easier if the deadlines are reasonable from the beginning. No one likes missing a deadline, and certainly it’s not going to make writing the book easier if you’re worried about hitting that date. When questioning my clients, it’s not that I doubt anyone’s ability to pick dates, it’s that I think in their enthusiasm to have a published book on the market and prove themselves to editors, authors tend to underestimate how much time writing a book actually takes, especially when they have the other obligations of being published to contend with.

When committing to a contracted deadline my first piece of advice is always to buffer it. Sure you finished your last book in six months, but you also had no pressure to do so. Now you are going to feel the pressure of a publisher and readers and it’s going to make things harder on you mentally. Okay, it might not, but it doesn’t hurt to give yourself a month or six weeks leeway just in case, right? The worst that can happen is you deliver early.

The other thing I want authors to consider is that no matter how professional we try to be, life gets in the way. When considering deadlines don’t forget to consider life. Again, you finished your last book in six months, but the kids were in school and by some freak of nature no one got sick. Now your deadline (if you’re choosing six months) falls smack in the middle of summer vacation. Do you really think you’re going to get six hours of writing done each day when the munchkins are around to hound you about things like lunch? Be honest with yourself about what your life might look like during those six months and give yourself time to enjoy it. One of the things I most notice is that when scheduling deadlines authors think of themselves writing 24/7, and trust me, that doesn’t work for anyone. You need to allow yourself time to get sick, take a vacation or just dig in the garden. Remember, a writer’s best friend is the time to create, and sometimes that means time away from the computer.

The last thing I find I need to explain to debut writers is the publishing process. Sure you finished your last book in six months, but you didn’t have another book to think about. Let’s say you get a three-book deal. The first book is finished because that’s what you sold on. Now the only thing you need to do is write the second book, right? Wrong! While you’re writing book number two you’re also getting revisions from your editor on book number one. That’s going to take you away from the book you’re trying to meet the deadline on for maybe a week, maybe two, or maybe a couple of months. There’s no way to tell for sure, but a buffer on the deadline would definitely be helpful in this case. Okay, revisions are done. Now you can simply move on and write and write and write, right? Wrong. Once revisions are done you have copy edits, once again pulling you away from book number two for a few days or maybe a week, and once copy edits are finished and turned in you have page proofs to review.

At the point page proofs come in hopefully you’ve turned in book number two and can start on book number three, but what? You have a pub date now? So now you’re reviewing page proofs for book number one, doing revisions on book number two, trying to start your publicity efforts on book number one and, oh yeah, you’re under deadline for book number three.

Okay, okay, it’s not as bad as it sounds. This is fun and you’re going to make it through and not all of this is going to happen on the same day. My point though is that when choosing deadlines you’ll have a lot more on your plate than just writing a book, and since you can’t guarantee how smoothly those things will go I strongly advise adding a month or even two to your original projected deadline. No one minds a manuscript that’s finished early, and certainly finishing early means a lot less pressure on the author than when you need to ask for an extension.

Jessica

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Friday, October 23, 2009

Agents Do More Than Sell Books

I want to start this post with a little background information. I represent both fiction and nonfiction books, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my many years as both an editor and an agent, these are two very different worlds.

Typically a fiction author comes to the table with a great deal of knowledge. It’s almost required. For a fiction writer to have success she has already spent years honing her craft and learning about the publishing business. This is to her advantage. She goes into the situation with knowledge. Typically she really knows and understands what an agent’s job is, what an editor’s job is, and what her responsibilities are as the author.

Nonfiction authors on the other hand need a platform and a great idea. Many of them spend little to no time researching the business and jump in feet-first. This makes perfect sense. Why would you need to research what seems easy? What that means is that most nonfiction authors learn as they go. They might have heard they need an agent, but don’t really have a full understanding of what an agent can do for them, and that’s the point of today’s post.

Recently I was talking to the author of a nonfiction project. She clearly had a good idea and the experience to back it up. Unfortunately she didn’t have knowledge of the publishing world. This author had gone directly to the publisher with her project and received an offer. This isn’t uncommon, nor is it uncommon for editors of nonfiction to go directly to authors after reading articles or developing ideas on their own. Once she had an offer she contacted a handful of agents, but in the end decided it was a waste to go with an agent and was instead planning on using a literary lawyer. Ouch. I think this is a mistake.

The author’s assumption was that since the book had already been submitted it would be smarter just to hire the lawyer, pay a one-time fee, and have someone else negotiate the contract. Her thought was that if she has another book later then she’ll go out and try to find an agent. What she doesn’t seem to realize is that an agent’s job doesn’t end with the contract negotiation and it doesn’t even start with the submission process. An agent’s job is a lot more than that. Let me just tell you some of the things I have done for and with nonfiction authors when it comes to the publishing process.

Sure I submit the book, often garnering multiple offers, which only goes to increase the money paid to the author and hopefully help us sign with the best publisher for the project. In this case it’s quite possible I could have sent the book around to other publishers to ensure that the one the author signed with was the most enthusiastic and not the only one who saw the book. My ability to do this would of course depend on the situation (which I don’t have full knowledge of).

I negotiate the contract. BookEnds actually has spent a great deal of time learning from literary lawyers to develop publisher boilerplates and checklists that we use during negotiations. All of this helps us make sure we are getting the best we can for our clients. On top of that though, we have relationships with publishers that can sometimes work in our favor.

I hold hands. Now many of you say you won’t need hand-holding, so let me use a stronger term, I guide. When you dislike your cover or title I can help discuss possible alternatives with you and the publisher as well as mediate any conversations, or hold them myself, to try for change. I can also help edit if necessary or give second reads on material that you might feel needs an extra eye.

I know publication dates. If your book is a diet book scheduled for release in November I know to tell you that’s probably not the best time to release a diet book. It’s the holidays. Who’s thinking of dieting? Now January and New Year’s resolutions. That’s when you want your diet book on store shelves. At that point it’s a discussion I will definitely want to be having with the editor.

I plan. I help you plan your publicity efforts, your next book and your overall career path as an author. I can help you look at a list of ideas and decide what is probably the best direction, and of course I can work with you to make that happen.

Do I think the author is making a fatal mistake by going with a literary lawyer? No, not at all. What I think though is that she hugely underestimates what an agent does, and because of that I guess I’m a tad offended.


Jessica

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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Not Just Because

I have been an agent for nearly ten years now, a packager for a year plus prior to that, and an editor for five years prior to that. In other words, I have some experience in this business and have learned what works for me and what doesn’t work for me. This holds true for submissions and queries as well as material I’m planning on submitting to clients.

When setting guidelines for authors I’m not making arbitrary rules just to make your lives harder. In other words, I ask for a query letter because before picking up a book or a partial I like to know what I’m reading first. In fact, that’s one of my biggest pet peeves about the Kindle. I miss the cover art and the back cover blurb that reminds me why I bought the book in the first place. I have shelves of yet-to-be-read books throughout my house and my office. When it’s time to pick up a new title I browse those shelves in the same way you browse shelves in a bookstore. I evaluate the cover art and reread the back cover blurb, sometimes time and time again before the right time comes for that book. For me the query letter is that cover art and blurb. It sets the tone for me before reading the material or helps decide if I even want to flip the cover open. It also helps me to determine if I’m in the mood to read the material that day or should wait until tomorrow.

These same sorts of guidelines apply to my clients. I don’t make them rewrite proposals (fiction and nonfiction) because I want to read each proposal 10, 15 or even 20 times. I ask them to do the work because after 15+ years in this industry I know what a proposal needs for me to sell it. Other agents might have other ideas, but this is what works for me and has worked for me over and over again. I don’t ask for revisions on a manuscript because I want an author to do unnecessary work or because I like to see authors sweat. I want them to do the work because I feel, based on my experience, that without changes editors have an easy reason for rejection.

Think of it this way: Wouldn’t my job, my life, be a lot easier if I simply submitted manuscripts exactly as they were when I originally received them from an author? If instead of asking for revisions again and again, reading the manuscript or proposal multiple times, and sending out revision letters, I just left it up to the editor? Wouldn’t it be easier for me to submit without crafting the query/cover letter I need to include to send to the editor? I spend hours on revisions, hours on the letter and even more hours following up with editors. Wouldn’t it be easier for me if I didn’t do any of that?

Life and getting published is not about easy. It takes work and I’m willing to do the work to help you build a successful career. Since it’s your career I would think you’re willing to do the work too.

And just so you don’t think I’ve gone off my rocker, here’s what caused today’s little rant: “I can't write a synopsis, summary, or blurb to save my life. My mind simply doesn't work that way. For this reason I will save you the trouble of reading the drivel that would be my traditional query attempt. Here are the first few pages of my novel.”

In any job or career there are things we love and things we have to do. In publishing, hopefully writing is what you love; revisions, editing and queries are things we have to do. I’m sure most firefighters love fighting fires, but there’s probably also a long list of things they have to do, like rescue potential suicide attempts or pull cars from frozen rivers. Wouldn’t it be a shame if all firefighters simply decided they were only going to do the parts of their jobs they loved?

Jessica

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Which Tense Is Best

I've written a couple of manuscripts, though not found myself at the point of querying yet. I'm also an avid reader, mainly of women's fiction, chick lit, romance and erotic romance. This will sound ridiculous, but it just occurred to me that nearly everything I read is in the past tense, yet I always write in the present tense.

As my goal is to produce, polish, and submit a novel so knock-your-socks off that you simply have to take me on as a client - would you say that I should adapt my style to the past tense?


This question coincidentally arrived the day I posted the question about writing a memoir in present tense, and while I’m going to ask you to go back and read that post and the comments readers made, I also think it’s a topic that’s worth revisiting.

In the previous post I said that I don’t believe in rules, that I’m more of a guidelines gal and yes, that still holds true today. While we certainly have, and need, rules of grammar and punctuation, I don’t think there should be rules when it comes to how a writer chooses to actually write the book. That’s part of what is often called voice, an author’s ability to make the work her own. That means writing in the way that best works for your book (and keep in mind what works for your book might not always be preferable to you as the writer). That being said, should you be writing in present or past tense?

Without reading your book I can’t say for sure. What I can tell you is veering too far outside the guidelines can be a bit like trying to sell Beef Stew Ice Cream to a traditionally chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice cream eating culture. While we’re certainly open to new things, we still like those new things to feel vaguely familiar. Present tense might be a more difficult treat to swallow.

However, it’s about more than trying to appeal to an audience or make something familiar. It’s about the craft of writing. I think the trouble writers have when writing in present tense or even first person is that it becomes a little too much about you telling a story, and the important pieces of storytelling (the showing) are actually left out. You forget the importance of other viewpoints, body language and description, for example. Of course writing present tense, just as writing first person, feels easier because it’s about you and this moment you’re in. However, when you really sit down to read it, it’s not easier to read. In fact, it’s more difficult. It doesn’t give the information that makes a story really sing for the reader or listener.

If you want a straight answer I would encourage you to start honing the craft of writing in past tense. Once you master that skill go ahead and try present tense.

Jessica

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Random Questions

Over time I have collected a number of questions from readers that won’t have an answer long enough for an entire blog post but are still worth addressing.

Some agent's blogs say that they want to know the genre and word count before they start reading the synopsis, but others say that they'd prefer to go straight into the synopsis and read the genre and word count last. What would you consider to be best?

I’m assuming you’re talking about the query letter and the order in which things should be written? I don’t care. No one cares. Write your query so it sounds like you and is good for you. Every agent certainly has a preference, but no one is going to reject you if you write a great query but put the word count at the top rather than at the end.


By the end of the year I expect to begin querying my sci-fi thriller. Around that time my first book will be coming out and it's a romance novel. My question: Do I mention the romance novel in my publishing credits?

If you’ve been published, no matter the genre, you should absolutely mention it. It’s a writing credential, embrace that.


Can you tell me where I can get Writer's Guidelines for a book in Women's Fiction? I don't mean Submission Guidelines.

I’m not sure there is such a thing. In fact, unless you are writing category romance for a house like Harlequin, I’m not sure there are writer’s guidelines for any genre, and there really shouldn’t be. Restricting authors in such a way often means we restrict the possibility of new and exciting projects. That being said, maybe my readers know of a place you can look.


Do you think that a memoir book proposal's Table of Contents should be in first or third person?

I don’t often think of memoirs as having or needing a table of contents, but I think if yours does it should be written in whatever person you’ve written the book.


I am looking to hire a proposal writer. Any suggestions?

This question is nearly impossible to answer without knowing what you’re writing—fiction or nonfiction, health, business, or parenting. Are you looking for a coauthor or just someone to write a proposal? There are a number of fabulous editors available as well as freelance writers. I have a feeling my readers might have better suggestions than I do.


I would really love to work for a literary agency. Do agencies ever have openings for paid entry-level staff or internships for non-students? I've searched the job boards and there are many opportunities in New York, but I can't relocate. There are a few agencies close to home in my area, but none of them have any job postings. Could it hurt to send unsolicited cover letters and resumes to these agencies? What's the best way http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifto approach them?

In publishing as in life it never hurts to try. When I got my first job in publishing I did so by randomly sending out resumes to every publisher I could find. I didn’t even bother to see if they had job openings. It was only a few weeks before I had the job. Send out resumes and send them again in a few months. You never know when you’ll hit that right moment.


I wanted to ask how one can go about being able to follow your company's blog on Blogger.com?

Well, presumably you know the address of the blog if you found the email address to send this to and if you’re reading this. However, in case there’s any confusion, the BookEnds Blog can be found at http://bookendslitagency.blogspot.com/. To follow the blog you can either hit the “subscribe to” link at the very bottom of this page (at the end of all the posts). If you go to Blogger.com you can add "follow this blog" after searching on any blog. We haven’t added that feature to the sidebar (with the list of those following), but if readers would like that we can certainly add it.

Jessica

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Monday, October 19, 2009

Analyzing Books

When an agent is considering an author's work is a check list used to help clarify the content of the manuscript submitted, or does the agent rely on an overall feeling from having read it? I ask because in doing title research I recently came across a book evaluation that was helpful in analyzing my own work. It was a simple bullet list of points (for a romance) under the headings of Plot, Main Male Character, Main Female Character, Setting, Style.

Interesting question. At first I thought that a checklist would be counterproductive since writing is not scientific and I would hate to make it so, and then I thought a little more and realized that in some ways I do have a checklist, just nothing I’ve ever put down on paper.

First things first, when I read an author’s work, and this is whether or not I’m considering it for representation or reading a new proposal/manuscript by a client, is gut. If I lose all perspective of time and place, my heart starts to beat faster and I can’t put the book down, I know the book has real potential. Once I’m lost in the book I start to read with a more technical eye. I think about plotting and characters and how it’s all working or not working.

While I don’t have a specific checklist and don’t plan to put one together, I do have a list of questions that I’ve asked my readers to consider when writing a reader’s report for me. These are hopefully general enough that it won’t make my interns think publishing is about writing to a formula, yet specific enough to give me and my readers something to really think about when evaluating a manuscript or proposal.

  • What was it about?
  • Did the overall idea seem different and unique?
  • Was it a common theme, but executed in a unique way?
  • What did you think of the author’s voice?
  • Did the characters seem real and likeable?
  • Was the plot seamless and did it make sense or were there a lot of holes?
  • Were you able to easily figure out what happened or did the author keep you guessing?
  • Is this a book that would seem to have viability in the market?
  • Are there other popular books you could relate this to?
  • Are there too many similar books to make this stand out?
  • What is the author’s platform? If nonfiction, is this an author with a great deal of visibility in the market (TV, radio, speaking engagements, etc.)?
  • Has the author been previously published? With whom?

Keep in mind that there is no right or wrong answer to these questions, it’s just a starting off point for my evaluation of the material. I would also add that I’d like you to be cautious of writing checklists. I think they can be helpful, but I also fear that they make writing stiff and prevent the author from really letting her creative juices flow. And that’s what we want, we want those juices to flow.

Jessica

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Agency Policies

I have a question about why most agents auto-delete queries that are mass mailed or are simply titled, "Dear Agent."

Let me give you a short scenario:

Writer Mary has written her book. Is it any good? Maybe. Mary does all the stuff most agents recommend, she goes to critique groups, polishes her manuscript, researches all the good websites for how to write a compelling query letter, and then decides to query.

Now, we all know that 999 out of 1,000 times, her query is going to be rejected. She may have issues with the query letter, issues with her writing, or the story just isn't currently marketable (or a thousand other things). Fair enough, and I think most writers realize that these ARE the stats. So do agents. You ladies both know how the slush pile works better than I, or any other writer does.

So by agents stating online that they want a personalized letter, they are telling every writer out there to spend hours on EACH agent they choose, knowing they are still going to be rejected by almost every one of them.

So often I hear agents say things like, "It's all about the writing." Okay, fabulous. Well then, why do agents care about the heading of the query so much and not the meat? Does the heading always pre-qualify the story? If Mary has written an extremely well thought out query letter and written prose that could knock the socks off anyone, but she puts "Dear Agent" or mass mails it to multiple agents, they won't even read her query. On first blush, that smacks of hubris. It seems to uphold the fallacy that agents are prima donnas and simply must have a personalized query to stroke their egos.

But most agents I have spoken to/emailed weren't like that. So I am confused why agents want a writer to spend so much time doing something that's going to get them nowhere and why the focus is taken off the actual story and writing and onto something the doesn't really matter anyway. Agents know writers are going to query multiple agents.

I can only think of one good reason, but it doesn't address the issue for the reason.

I'm sure in your history, you've found that people who send out mass mailings do it without concern of which agent gets what story. They'll send their medical mystery to agents who only accept non-fiction or science fiction. The notion would be, "Well, if they don't care enough to personalize, then they probably don't care enough about their writing." But by telling writers not to generalize their query and not mass mail, you're not addressing this particular issue. People who do that, don't read up on the proper way to query anyway and will continue to do the same thing. I suppose that it does give you one more easy out for a query in the slush, but it almost seems a ridiculous rule.

Is this merely a way to try and stave off the ridiculous amounts of query letters you folks get? I can't imagine it would work. That slush pile is like your credit card bills: it just keeps coming at you.

I will continue to spend around 30-60 minutes on each agent I send to, and still garner the 99% rejection rate, but it would be easier to just craft one package and send it out.


I included the author’s entire question here because I like the short scenario. I also think that the author was sincere in asking the question and not at all attempting to be snarky.

Sometimes I’m honestly not 100% sure why I do things until called to explain. What I do know is that there is always a reason and in the end it’s what works for me. Before answering the actual question, let me fill you in on a little agent secret. We don’t actually expect each individual query to be personalized beyond much more than the name. In other words, once you craft a solid query you should be able to simply cut and paste that query into the email and add the agent’s name to the top. Yes, I know that still takes longer than writing one general “Dear Agent” query and adding 50+ names in the “to” section of your email, but that’s the way it is.

So why are we so demanding? No, it’s not about stroking the ego, that’s what this blog is for [insert grin here and prepare for angry anti-agent backlash], it’s about professionalism and making things a little harder on you. When I started in publishing, email did not exist (in publishing). Authors who wanted to query were required to write (typically type at that point) an individual query letter, place it in an envelope, add a stamp, and mail the old-fashioned way. In other words, it took a little bit of work, which meant that only those who were really serious would make the effort. Now we have email and everyone and their mother is writing a book and haphazardly sending it off to agents. You nailed it when you said that it’s a way to stave off the amount of queries; it’s also a way to ensure that people actually need to think about the queries they are sending.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve had to send out resumes (and let’s hope it continues to be a long, long time), but I remember back in the day working hard on both my resume and cover letter. I would agonize over every little word and each formatting indentation. Each cover letter was personalized to the person and company I was submitting to. Sometimes I would simply change the name and other times I would add a line or two that gave it a little extra oomph. I think of queries the same way: you are trying to impress someone and in doing that you are hopefully putting your best foot forward. If you send a query to everyone and their mother and I can obviously see that by all the names at the top of the email, it shows that you only want to do the minimum required to get the job. It makes me wonder if you feel the same way when it comes to revisions and the writing of your book in general.

I hope I properly answered the question. What I can tell you, though, is that if Writer Mary really spent that much time crafting a query, she isn’t mass mailing to 50+ agents at a time. She’s too serious about her writing career to do that. Those who send out the mass queries typically think publishing is easy and haven’t bothered to learn otherwise.


Jessica

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Thursday, October 15, 2009

Pre-pub Author Blurbs

Recently, you made a comment about receiving queries with blurbs in them, and how it was a good thing if you knew the author in question. I thought you were only supposed to ask for blurbs post-sale of the book? How does the etiquette go for asking an author to blurb your novel if you don't have an agent yet? Isn't this the kind of thing they immediately reject because of, well, the chance of the author being a lunatic and accusing you of idea theft down the road, for one thing. And also, if they aren't agented yet, there's probably the assumption that the manuscript isn't very good. How would one go about asking an author they held in esteem for a blurb before getting an agent? (Especially if you really want to submit to their agent?)

I don’t remember ever suggesting that authors seek blurbs prior to having a publishing contract in hand, and if I did, I apologize. In my opinion, you should never ask another author for a blurb or a quote until the book has sold. Networking is tough and yet it’s something all authors need to learn to do. Asking for a blurb means reaching into your network and asking a huge favor of those you know well and those who you might have met only once or twice. Don’t blow your chances of getting a great quote by going out too early. Published authors are busy, busy folks and giving up time to give a quote means time away from writing the next book. It’s unlikely that once they’ve read a rough draft (because no matter what, prior to publication your book is rough) they will want to read the book again to give the “real” quote, the one that will actually appear on a cover.

For the most part your concerns are right: in a nutshell, an author is not going to take your request seriously until you’re agented and editored (for lack of a better word). So if you are still in the beginning stages of your career, still seeking representation or waiting to hear the good news from your agent, don’t worry about the actual quotes. Network, write, and work on your craft. That’s what you should be doing now.

Jessica

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009

LOL

Just to remind you that we aren’t a bunch of Scrooges who sit around and complain about authors, I want to share another list of things that make us chuckle throughout the day because there are few things I love better then a good laugh.

From one query letter: “Completed in 1998, the work has gone through extensive revisions and professional editing.” And from another, the copyright date clearly labeled the book as having been completed in 2006. Neither are a good sign.

“I have an idea for a celebrity tell-all, but have signed non-disclosure agreements. I assume you know how to get around these.” I think you need a lawyer, not an agent. Even if I was a fan of the celebrity tell-all, I have no desire to get near a project that has clear lawsuit potential.

A very persistent phone caller finally got through to ask if an agent was needed to submit to me. Amazing that so much research could be done to find my phone number, but the web site address was nowhere nearby.

Make sure when giving word count that you’re actually looking at word count and not character count. Recently we received a corrected query clarifying that the book is about 70,000 words, not the 300,000 the initial query stated.

“After going over your web site I've come to the conclusion that you may by crazy, right now that works for me.” Well, I’m glad it works for this writer because I’m not so sure it works for me.

Jessica

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Category Romance Authors and Agents

I am yet unpublished, but I am targeting a few Harlequin/Silhouette lines. I have done some research on the submission guidelines for H/S and have read that the response time for unpublished and published authors can be similar, and also that most H/S authors do not need agents as H/S contracts are somewhat “boilerplate.” After reading all of this, I am curious about the benefits a category romance author receives from being agented.

You know, I’ve touched on this topic a number of times and mentioned it in other blog posts, but until now I’m not sure I’ve ever done an entire post on category romance, so I’m glad you asked this question.

For those not familiar with the romance genre, category romance is best described as those romances published by Harlequin/Silhouette under their romance lines. This does not include imprints like Mira or HQN, but lines like Silhouette Desire, Harlequin Superromance, Silhouette Special Edition or Harlequin American. Obviously there are many, many others, but hopefully that gives you a sense of the difference. Writing for an H/S line typically means following the very specific guidelines on their web site, including types of characters, level of sensuality, types of story lines and word count.

I’ve always said that authors targeting H/S do not need agents. As you said in your question, this is a company that accepts and quickly responds to unagented material and has a contract that is more or less boilerplate and doesn’t allow much room for negotiation. If you are currently unpublished and looking to break in through H/S, my suggestion is that you skip the agent (and the time that takes) and go directly to the source. By the way, this is the only case, or I guess one of the very rare cases, when I would ever suggest you skip an agent and go directly to the publisher. If you are looking to submit to Mira, HQN, Spice or any of the H/S single title imprints, I would strongly urge you to find an agent first.

Okay, finally, on to your actual question, and that’s what benefits an author can actually receive from being agented if you’re primarily writing for H/S? To really answer that I’m hoping some of our H/S authors chime in or H/S authors with other agents give their opinions. Because while I can certainly give my opinion, the best opinions will come from authors who have been there.

I think the biggest reason an H/S author gets an agent is to help manage breaking into single title. Another reason, however, is that it’s sometimes nice to have someone in your court to nag your editor about submissions, due dates, contracts, money and scheduling. That’s my job, and I think for many H/S authors, over time, it’s nice to have someone else take on those tasks rather than doing it themselves.

If you’re planning a career in H/S you can certainly write for years without an agent and, honestly, I don’t think you need one. However, there might come a day when you simply decide that it would be nice to have someone else there on your team and you’ll know when that times comes. For now, though, as an unpublished author, I would continue pursuing publication with H/S on your own. I think you’ll find it’s more efficient.

Jessica

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Monday, October 12, 2009

Offending Potential Readers

I write young adult fantasy and I've reached the point where I'm querying agents. A large part of my promotion plan is my website, where I share content. I have a few short fiction pieces I'm proud of (one has even won an award), and I want to share these on my site to help show my range across genres. The problem is that the Literary Pieces deal with gay characters. I'm wondering if sharing this content would impact my chances of selling a young adult fantasy novel?

Let me start by saying it shouldn’t; let me finish by saying that doesn’t mean it won’t. I think that if you’re selling into the mainstream YA Fantasy market you won’t have any problem selling to agents or editors. Okay, let me correct that, you shouldn’t have any problem selling to agents and editors. However, when it comes to selling to readers is when you might start to run into problems.

I think you’re wise to be aware of potential pitfalls. When you’re selling to children, no matter the age, the rules change. An erotic romance writer, for example, probably wants to keep her two identities (that as an erotic writer and that as a young adult writer) separate. While Mom might love reading erotic romance quietly at night when no one is looking, she might have issues with her young daughter reading the same author (even if the YA is totally sex-free).

While querying, I would brag about your awards and definitely keep your short material up on your web site. Once you have an agent and/or an editor, talk to each of them about your dual writing careers. How the situation is handled (and by that I mean whether or not you should be writing under two separate names and/or keeping the material on the web site) is going to depend on the market you’re targeting and how graphic the pieces might be. It’s also going to depend on the house, the editor and the agent.


Jessica

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Friday, October 09, 2009

Books as Movies

I am writing because my father has recently written a book that I think would make a terrific movie. I would like to help my dad, however I am not sure what the proper procedures are in getting a book made into a movie. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

While you didn’t say this in your question, I do want to point out that I know somewhere along the way we’ve discussed that books and movies are two separate worlds and writing a book that would make a great movie does not necessarily mean it will make a great book, just as great books don’t necessarily translate into movies (let alone great movies).

However, if you are unpublished and want to hit two markets at once, both the book and the film market, then what you’re going to have to do is write the script and submit that, separately from the book, to film agents and production companies. I’m sure there are people who read this blog who can give much better advice than I can on this subject, so I’ll avoid saying anything further.

When a book is published and picked up by a film company the company typically hires a scriptwriter to make your book into a film. When you are unpublished that’s typically your job. Either you need to pay a scriptwriter to turn the novel into a script or you need to learn scriptwriting and do it yourself.

Jessica

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Thursday, October 08, 2009

Altering the Format of Your Novel

I know that most agents don't represent scripts for movies or TV, but how about if someone wanted to use script format as their novel's written format? For example, there are some novels that are written in diary or letter format. Could you use script format for a novel as well and make it sellable? Or would agents not want to represent a novel in that format.

Of course you have to know that there’s no answer to this question. It’s all going to depend on the execution. I think using some stylistic techniques from scriptwriting might be interesting in a novel, but in the end it is still going to need to read like a novel and not like a script. Scripts are difficult things to read for those who do not read them regularly. Unlike a novel, a script tells you what’s going on and what characters are doing, and while I’m not saying you can’t do that in a novel there is a reason scripts are novelized when a movie is made and not just published as is. Readers of novels like to become one with the story and feel the characters' movements and actions and not be told they are moving or acting.

All I can say is that if you think you have a unique idea for creating a different novel go ahead and give it a shot. If you’ve written a script and want to have it published as a novel without going through the effort of novelizing it, I wouldn’t bother. I strongly believe that wouldn’t work.


Jessica

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

What Do Publishers Bring to the Table

Everyone knows that first time authors are expected to do anything and everything they can to promote and market the book, but authors, agents and publishers are in this together. So what do publishers typically bring to the table on the publicity, marketing, promo front, especially for a first time author? What's the most you've seen from a publisher, least you've seen and what is average?

This is a great question with a not so very clear answer. There are a lot of “it depends” in this answer. It depends on the publisher’s vision for your book, it depends on the publisher, it depends on the type of book you’re writing (fiction v. nonfiction, genre v. non-genre, etc.), and it depends on what you’re bringing to the table that the publisher can jump on or the suggestions you make.

My most basic answer is going to be, “not much,” and by that I mean if you don’t expect much you won’t be disappointed. The reason I say that though is because I think when authors think of publicity and marketing they think of only those things that they can see or that are tangible to them, not realizing how many more things the publisher puts into play that no one even thinks of.

The very first thing every debut author can expect is catalog coverage. Universally this used to mean a bound paper catalog that publishers would send out to bookstores, libraries, reviewers, etc., to entice them about the upcoming season’s list. The catalog page will include your book’s cover, a brief description of the book, an author bio that usually includes your web site, and information on who owns the rights to sell your book throughout the world (in case foreign publishers or agents ask to see a copy of the book as well). Believe it or not, this is an important piece of marketing and a lot of time and effort go into making the catalog and promoting it to those who can increase sales. Previously I said that it used to mean a bound paper catalog, and that’s only because more and more publishers are going to electronic catalogs. Less of a cost for them, but still equally effective (and environmentally sound).

Most debut authors (and all authors) can also expect cover flats. Cover flats are just want they sound like, a flat, unfolded version of your cover. Typically the cover flat is the final art and copy version of your cover. It’s laid flat so the receiver can read the back cover copy while viewing the cover art. On the back of the flat (the blank side) the publisher will again include information on the book, promotion they intend to do, an author bio (if not included on the front of the flat) and rights information. Most of the time a few flats (somewhere in the range of five) will be supplied to the author. This gives you the opportunity to use them for your own promotion or to create promotional materials.

Review copies are almost always provided by the publisher. In some cases these are bound versions of the book (cover art included), in other cases they are bound versions of the book (often in a trade size) with no cover art, and just as often they are simply photocopied 8 1/2 x 11 page version of your page proofs. All review copies are “uncorrected proofs,” which means that some editing errors may still be found. Reviewers are aware of this and ignore such errors. You can almost always expect that your publisher will send out review copies to all of their standard reviewers for your genre as well as copies you might suggest they send out on your behalf. This is why I so strongly suggest you work with your publisher on publicity. They don’t know that your alumni newsletter or former school newspaper does book reviews of alumni unless you give them the information and ask them to send the review copy.

Press releases are also fairly standard from publishers. These will usually go out with review copies, but can also be done as a way to encourage interviews or articles with a local author or an author of interest to a certain community (the author of a knitting mystery to the knitting community, for example).

There are other things most publishers will do, like help get quotes for cover copy or work with you on unique publicity ideas you might have. As for the most I’ve seen from a publisher and the least, those differences are great. A smaller publisher might not do any of the above or might have big limits on the number of review copies they send. Larger publishers with a larger vision for the book might spend money to get key placement in bookstores, pay for ads in magazines or newspapers, tour an author, etc.

The best piece of advice I can give any author, debut or otherwise, is try your hardest to work with your publisher on marketing and publicity. Knowing what they are doing and keeping them apprised of your efforts makes a big difference in how successful your campaigns are.

Jessica

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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Effectiveness of Blurbs

I have been reading several agent blogs, and while I've seen some discussion of getting established authors to blurb your books, I haven't seen any discussion of how effective that practice is in the modern day. I know it depends on the author and the field, but is there an updated practice of soliciting authors with a strong web presence and following, in the hope that they'll be inspired to write about books on their blog? Are there authors who make a practice of recommending books online? Most of my readers spend the majority of their time online; they don't really go into bookstores. And they tend to value recommendations from people they know or have some connection with (online, if nothing else) over the recommendation of authors they might respect.

The age-old publishing discussion, what really works and do we know? I think I might have mentioned this before, but for many, many years I never got the point of author blurbs. I would certainly help authors get them and, back in my days as an editor, I always made sure we had one or two for the front cover of the book, but as a reader I never paid any attention to them or saw the purpose. Until one day, not too many years ago, when I was roaming the bookstore looking for something new and saw a blurb from one of my favorite authors. I figured that I liked that author so was willing to give something she recommended a try. For the first time I was influenced by a blurb. Do they work all the time? No, but in this case that blurb sold one book and probably many others as I found a new favorite and made recommendations to others.

What you propose, however, is interesting. When finding blurbs most of us focus on the author’s writing successes. In other words, you want blurbs from bestselling authors who write in a similar vein to what you’re writing. I think when it comes to getting blurbs for nonfiction a web presence and following can definitely make a difference, but I haven’t thought much about how that would work in fiction and I know publishers haven’t necessarily thought that way either. I would suspect, though, that in that case the recommendation would come less from a blurb you would solicit specifically to put on the cover and more from someone who read the book and promoted it on their site. Sort of like Oprah, the authors who make book recommendations on their sites probably do so because they loved the book and not because they were solicited to do so.

The best way to sell a book is buzz and the more buzz you can get through author blurbs, web sites and reviews the more success you’re likely to have. So while I don’t think publishers are looking at the success of an author’s site before soliciting blurbs, it certainly can’t hurt you to be thinking in that direction. The best buzz is created by those who do things a little differently.

Jessica

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Monday, October 05, 2009

Shoot for the Stars

I am an unpublished writer of erotic romance, finally ready to stick it out there to see if anyone grabs hold (pardon the bad pun). Now on to the question. There are several publishers of erotic romance, both paper & e-pub, whose websites state they welcome un-agented submissions. Is this a good route to follow in this genre, or would you recommend attempting to land an agent instead?

This is one of those answers, whether you’re writing erotic romance or any other type of book, that’s going to depend on what you want from your career as a writer and what your thoughts are about starting that career. Since I don’t know any more details, here are my thoughts in general.

There are a lot of smaller presses and epubs out there who have really done well in launching and promoting new authors in genres that might not be or previously weren’t widely accepted in New York. Many authors initially went there hoping to launch a career, but mostly just hoping to get work published that they knew wouldn’t be picked up anywhere else. It worked of course and worked well because we now have New York houses that have created entire imprints based on what these epubs were doing. We also have deals between the epubs and New York houses to reprint some of their most successful material.

I’m not sure, however, if it makes sense to target these smaller houses first if what you’re doing also fits what New York might be looking for (and by New York, by the way, I tend to mean the major houses). So here’s what I would do. I would look for an agent. Since you seem happy to be published by a smaller house or an epub, give yourself a reasonable amount of time to find that agent, let’s say 9 months to a year. If in that time you’ve had little success or have not received any offers, you should at least have your second (next) book finished. Send your first one off to the smaller houses you have in mind for possible publication and start querying agents with your second book. Make this your pattern until you have an agent and are ready to take those next steps to a career in New York.

Launching a career in epubs or smaller houses has definitely been successful for a number of authors (a number of mine included), but primarily because there was nowhere else to go with those books. I’m not sure I would say that’s the route to take if you know New York is looking for just the kind of work you’re writing. As for finding an agent, it’s the rare agent who will pick up your book with the sole intent of selling it to a small press or epub. Most of us are thinking New York. It’s where the money is and hopefully (at least for now) where the bigger careers seem to grow. That doesn’t mean we won’t sell to a smaller press, it just means that we are aiming higher than that.

Jessica

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Friday, October 02, 2009

Editing and Authors

A reader recently sent me a link to this Editor Unleashed post on Is Editing Worth It? In the article the author talks about an interview she once did with Laurell K. Hamilton in which the author said, “once you become successful as an author, your editor stops editing you.”

This link actually came at a very good time since I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I don’t think it’s any big secret that there are authors out there that no longer seem to be edited. Readers and writers talk about it all the time; many say they can tell the author isn’t being edited and editors and agents know it happens. But who is really to blame and is it even a problem?

Agents and editors preach all the time about how important editing is. As a former editor I’m a big believer that all writers need someone they trust in their corner, someone who will never hesitate to tell them that something isn’t working and needs to be fixed, someone who will work with them to create a stronger book. But do writers really believe this to be true? Or do many feel that once you reach a certain milestone in your career you can stop listening to everyone else and just write what you want to write? That that’s actually the benefit of success? That finally you can do whatever you want? Or is it the fault of agents and editors who become fearful they’ll offend the author, who will go running to an editor and house who is willing to let them do whatever they want? And is this even a valid fear?

I suspect that, as always, the answer to these questions is that it depends. It depends on the relationship the author has built with her editor and it depends on the trust the two have to really be able to talk. I’m sure there are authors out there who refuse to listen to anything anyone has to say because they believe they know better, and I’m just as sure there are authors out there who wish their editors would edit as they once did instead of being afraid of their every move.

I don’t think all NYT bestselling authors go unedited. In fact, I know for a fact they don’t and that there are many who work just as closely with their editors now as they ever did. I think that editing is important and I don’t think it’s always pretty, but getting a book ready for the public takes teamwork. It always has and it always will. Sure, the author does 99% of the work and that’s why her name is the one on the cover. However, when doing almost anything in life I think it’s good to have a second eye, someone who can really tell it like it is and who, most important, makes your work stronger.

There are a number of amazing editors out there who, no matter what, never stop editing, and I hope they continue to do what they do because for all of us readers it only makes the work more enjoyable.

Jessica

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month

This post is completely off topic from what I normally write, but it’s a subject that’s very close to my heart and really, sometimes I just need to write about something different.

October is National Adopt a Shelter Dog Month, and adopted dogs is something I’m truly, truly passionate about, and with good reason, I’ve owned two dogs in my adult life and both have come from shelters. The truth is that there are so many amazing dogs out there, living in shelters and waiting for good, loving homes. There are puppies and adult dogs, dogs that are wonderful with children and dogs that need a little more care. There are big dogs and small dogs and yes, there are even purebreds. I can’t imagine why anyone would need to go to a breeder (unless you were planning to breed or show a dog or needed a specific type of dog for a specific reason, like sled dog racing, for example). For those of us who simply want a companion to romp with, pet, kiss and love a shelter dog is the perfect choice.

In March of 1997 I received what was easily the greatest birthday gift I will ever receive. Jacky gave me a “gift certificate” to go to the shelter and pick out my own dog. It was something I had wanted to do for a long time, but fear of responsibility had held me back. Finally I had no excuses. The minute I walked into the kennels at the ASPCA in Manhattan I knew I had found the dog for me. Jacky and others repeatedly asked if I was sure, but I am convinced to this day that Sadie (named Babs by the shelter) was there waiting for me. She was an eight-month-old pit bull mix with issues. Boy did she have issues. She was terrified of going outside and had never lived anywhere but the shelter, she needed to be housebroken and didn’t know how to walk up and down stairs. I didn’t care. The minute I laid eyes on her I knew she was mine, and I think she knew it too. Sadie was not an easy dog, as many of my friends and my family will be happy to tell you. I had to teach her to use the stairs (I lived on the third floor of a brownstone) and spent hours just sitting on my Brooklyn stoop so she could get used to the big, scary outdoors. Most upsetting though were her people issues. Except for a select few, she was terrified of many and most people, and because of that Sadie and I had a lot of work to do and together we worked daily to ease her anxieties and make her one of the best trained dogs in Prospect Park. She loved to romp with other dogs and slowly her people issues ebbed. She was never 100% comfortable around new people or strangers, but quickly morphed into the perfect family dog, growing to love infants, toddlers and even a few of us adults. I could easily fill page after page telling you how wonderful Sadie was and how much she meant to me, but I think all pet lovers out there get the idea. When Sadie succumbed to cancer last September I truly knew heartbreak and even still I miss her daily. But time moved on and it wasn’t long before we knew that it was time for a new dog. Everyone still missed Sadie, but we needed another four-legged, shedding animal in the house.


So in January of this year we started the search for what would inevitably be the family dog. In doing so we knew only two things about our future dog, and that’s that he would come from a shelter and that he would be a pit bull or pit bull mix. For those who don’t know dogs, hearing that someone would choose a pit bull as a family dog might seem nuts, but those who know the breed will understand that this is one of the sweetest, most loving dogs you’ll ever know. Have you ever met a 50-pound lap dog? That’s a pit bull. Sadie was part pit, and probably because of that it’s a breed we are naturally attracted to. On top of that though, we feel some sort of strange obligation to pit bulls. We’re experienced pit bull owners who know how to have a firm hand with a dog. Labs don’t wait in a shelter long, pit bulls do.

In starting our search we discovered Rawhide Rescue, and after talking to the director we knew this was the organization we wanted to adopt from. They shelter a lot of pit bulls and are very choosy about who takes a dog home. They are serious about finding good homes and really, truly love their dogs. After two trips to their dog adoption days and some trial walks with a couple of dogs we found Riggins (Angus while he was in the shelter). Sadie was my dog, Riggins is truly the family dog. We joke that in many ways he’s the opposite of Sadie. While she loved dogs and feared people, Riggins fears dogs and loves all people. In fact, just recently I saw a miniature dachshund send Riggins, my 45-pound pit bull, scurrying in fear with one bark. Riggins was picked up off the streets when he was about five months old. No one knows his exact age or what put him on the streets. I suspect, based on some behaviors and fears he has, that he was once a family dog that was dumped. Scheduled to be euthanized, Riggins was rescued and taken in by Rawhide, where he lived for a little more than a year. I learned that when Riggins was first picked up they had serious concerns that he wouldn’t be adoptable. They couldn’t get him to look people in the eye and he was far too skittish. After some time working with him though, they were able to bring out his sweet and loving nature. It’s hard to believe that people questioned whether Riggins would be adoptable. His favorite place is curled in a ball in my lap or playing fetch for hours. He makes a retriever look lazy and has become the perfect companion to a three-year-old. Poor Riggins, once a street dog, is now subject to wearing headbands, chasing Matchbox cars, and sleeping with a little boy’s head on his belly.

I can’t imagine a home without a dog and I can’t imagine a dog that doesn’t come from the shelter. Sure my dogs have issues. All dogs have issues. I’ve met perfectly bred dogs with as many or more issues than my mixed-breed, big-headed, shelter dogs. Part of being a dog owner is knowing and loving your dog, issues and all. So if you are even considering getting a dog anytime soon, I would urge you to please look into a local animal shelter before heading out to the breeder. If my stories tell even half the tale, there is the perfect dog for you just waiting for a home. If you don’t know where the shelter is do a quick search on Petfinder, or just search to look at all the loving animals that need homes.

Sadie and Riggins will thank you.

Jessica


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