Friday, December 18, 2009

Happy Holidays!

I love this time of year. The books, er I mean gifts, are all wrapped and under the tree, the house smells like gingerbread and chocolate, and people are just in better moods. Well most people anyway.

This year, as we do every year, BookEnds will be closing for the next two weeks. We're taking the time to wrap gifts, bake, deck the halls and generally be festive. Okay, who am I kidding, I'm sure there will also be a fair amount of reading and catching up during this time when we don't have to be working.

Since this is my last post until January 4, and the last day our offices will be open for the year, we'll be having a little holiday party. Just so you don't feel left out I thought I'd share our favorite cocktail.

Courtesy of Gramercy Tavern, the Cranberry Daiquiri (with some of my modifications)

Cranberry Daiquiri
Makes 6 daiquiris

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1 stick cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel
  • 1/2 cup fresh cranberries
  • light rum
  • dark rum
  • cranberry juice
  • lemon juice (fresh squeezed is best)

Preparation:

Combine first four ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Mix in cranberries. Cook till cranberries begin to pop. Cool; discard cinnamon. Pour mixture into a jar and add 1/2 cup light rum. Chill. Strain syrup into a pitcher (reserve cranberries). Add 1/3 cup dark rum, 1/3 cup light rum, 1/3 cup cranberry juice, and 1/3 cup lemon juice. Refrigerate pitcher. Serve in Martini glasses filled. Top with reserved cranberries if desired.


Cheers! We'll see you again in 2010. Have a wonderful holiday season.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Love of Reality TV

I’ll admit it, I love reality TV. While I have been known to watch the truly voyeuristic shows like The Housewives of New Jersey (I mean, does it get any better than the final episode?), my real favorites are shows like Top Chef and Project Runway, shows that highlight the creative process. I’m a cook so I’m fascinated by watching a chef take some crazy, random ingredient like grasshoppers and create something that actually looks tasty.

I also find that watching these shows makes me think about my job, how yes, cooking and fashion are subjective, but when we listen to the judges talk we can see a commonality in what they’re saying, and while I don’t watch American Idol I do often wonder how writers would really fare if the public were given a say in whether or not a book should be published.

Agents are often accused of being the evil gatekeepers of publishing. I’ve been told that I’m only looking for the next Twilight and it’s been implied that I wouldn’t know a good book if I saw it. Obviously I beg to differ (especially since I’ve never even read Twilight), but who’s to argue with “Anonymous.” My real thought when watching these shows is what if we really were able to produce an American Idol for books? Not great TV since I assume people would just sit there and read, but what would happen if the next major publishing contract was chosen by mainstream America? Sure, the judges, an agent, an editor, and a bestselling author, would be there to give their opinions, but the true vote would be done over the phones by the American public (or the public of your country of choice).

When criticizing agents for being gatekeepers, I think it’s important to remember that we’re not rejecting books because we think it’s fun or because it won’t make us millions, few books make us millions; each of us is making a decision based on our experience, our knowledge and our own abilities. We all have different experiences, knowledge and abilities, but in the end we’re really basing our decisions on the market. Sure, we’re sometimes wrong. I don’t think there’s an agent out there who can honestly admit she’s never been wrong. And wrong isn’t always bad. We’ve all had huge surprise successes and disappointing failures. We’ve all passed on books that later became successes and we all wished we’d gotten a project that later we were happy to hear we didn’t. The point is that part of our job is to play American Idol and try to predict what the public wants. An interesting thought and, if you look at bestseller lists, just like pop charts, you might get a better idea of who would win the prize.

Of course that doesn’t mean all books need to be the next American Idol. Certainly I’m glad all music isn’t, but I think the possibility of a contest like that does make you think.

Jessica

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Conflicting Opinions

So I've been querying for awhile now, doing all the research, etc. My query letter's solid, and I have a high concept upmarket thriller. I don't have writing credits to speak of. However, a few months ago, I corresponded with a prominent and best-selling novelist (PEN Faulkner finalist, lots of awards, movie rights, etc.). He read and loved my book. Besides the high concept, I figured adding that to my query would entice agents to ask for a partial. But everyone has rejected me or not responded. I've always been over confident in my work, but when an established voice in contemporary fiction says "yes," why are agents saying "no" without taking a look? I mean, obviously a nod from anyone doesn't guarantee representation or publication, but no one wants to take a look? It's not that my ego's shattered, and I understand differing tastes, but I guess I just don't see the business sense there.

A bestselling novelist, no matter how impressive, is not an agent or editor. Writing books is one thing, selling and marketing them is another. There seems to be this assumption among unpublished authors that the minute you become published you have this insight into the market that you didn’t have the week before. That’s untrue. A quote from a bestselling author is great and definitely something that publishers would eventually want to use on the cover of your book, if, of course, the audience for that author’s work is also the audience for your work. In other words, a Nora Roberts quote, while fabulous, probably won’t sell many books to an audience that sees itself as literary fiction readers only. However, agents are still going to look at your query letter and, despite the quote, make a decision like they would with any other query. Does your book sound like something they would want to read? Or better yet, does you book sound like something they can sell?

I’m not sure why you think agents are making poor business decisions because they’re not wowed by a quote from another author. How is that author going to help you sell the book exactly? Has she agreed to coauthor with you? A quote is just that, a quote. It means one person liked the book. It doesn’t mean agents, editors or readers will buy the book.

There’s no secret way into this business and there are few, if any, people who can just magically open the door for you. My guess is that either your query is faulty, it’s missing that element that really grabs an agent’s attention, or your book doesn’t sound different enough and your voice (from your query) isn’t striking a chord with agents.

We’ve had numerous conversations on this blog about the effectiveness of quotes, with many saying they look at author quotes on books and only listen with half an ear, so to speak. Why do you think agents would be any different? In many ways we’re even more jaded than authors, and certainly more jaded than readers.

Jessica

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Agents for Multiple Genres

My question is about securing an agent when you write in multiple genres. It can be difficult to find one agent who represents all of them. Is it ever possible to have multiple agents? To locate a single agent who represents all of your particular genres can be challenging. It also limits the number of agents you can query - in a field that is already small. Or is it best to look for an agency that represents multiple genres, and hope that you can be represented by more than one agent within the firm?

I think one of the keys to success in this business is to take things one at a time. Just because you are writing in multiple genres doesn’t mean you will be published in multiple genres. What genre are you querying now? Focus on that book and look for agents who would be right for that book. If you’re building a career you’ll need to focus on one thing at a time anyway. If the agent you find happens to represent all of your dreamed-about genres, that’s great. If not, you’ll cross that bridge when you come to it.

One of the things I’ve found is that it’s not uncommon for unpublished authors to have dreams of being published in three or four different genres. Once you’ve sold a book, though, those dreams can change. You might discover that while you thought you were both an inspirational author and an erotic author you really stink at erotic and have found your true calling in inspirational. Or you might simply discover that your inspirational career is keeping you so busy you don’t have time to even think about the many other genres you had once imagined for yourself.

While it’s important to have dreams of your bigger picture, that picture is likely to change over the years. Heck, my vision and the books I represent has changed over the years. I’m continually adding new genres to the list of books I represent and removing others. Focus on one book at a time and you’re likely to have better luck.

Jessica

Monday, December 14, 2009

Negotiating Your Advance

A few different times this year I’ve been asked, through the comments section, whether or not it’s ever beneficial for the author to negotiate a lower advance and higher royalties or if the author should always go for the big money up front.

There are a lot of differing opinions on this subject and ultimately there is no right or wrong. There are agents out there who believe that an advance should never be earned out, that their job is to get the most money possible up front for their clients, and that if an advance is earned out they haven’t done their job. There are others who believe that publishing is a slow and steady climb, that selling your book for a smaller advance is better because with each subsequent deal you can negotiate a bigger advance, better royalties, and hopefully the publisher will stick with you longer and help you build a career.

Personally, while it’s rare I’ll turn down a really big advance, I’m a big fan of the slow and steady climb, especially when it comes to fiction. In my experience, I’ve seen far too many debut authors accept huge advances, write the books as per the contract and disappear from the publishing scene. The publisher had big expectations and they weren’t met, and it usually doesn’t make financial sense to keep throwing money at something that really isn’t working. My opinion on the slow and steady climb is that you will eventually make the money you were meant to make, and if your royalties are big then that only gives you more negotiating power with the next contract. All that being said, in my mind, my job is to guide the author, not make the decision. Ultimately it’s going to come down to how much of a risk taker the author is and what she really believes about her book.

Certainly I’ve been involved in a number of auctions in my time. In some cases the advance offer of one house so far outweighed what others were offering that there was no argument. I’m talking ten times the amount. In a case like that I don’t think there are many authors who would take the lesser advance and I don’t think there are many agents who would advise them differently.

In other cases the offers were almost identical. In those cases I usually encouraged the author to go with the bigger house or the house and editor who I thought were the most enthusiastic.

And in some cases, the advance was bigger at one house, but the other house was offering more on the backend (royalties and rights offerings). In those cases it was up to the author and me to really talk about what she was most comfortable with. Did she want to take the chance that she would make back the difference down the road? And how did she (and I) feel about the editors and the overall enthusiasm the house had for the work? In one case, we actually went with the house that offered the lower advance for a couple of reasons. This particular house was not able to come up with more money up front, but their royalty offer far outweighed what the other house was offering. More important, though, there was a level of enthusiasm and commitment the smaller house was willing to make that the other house wasn’t. We felt that commitment was much, much more important than money.

In other cases, I’ve had situations where we knew we were short-changing ourselves in terms of how much of an advance was being paid per book, but the author felt that she would rather feel locked in with a certain number of books (say, a four or five book deal) rather than simply a three book deal. She felt that the number of books the publisher was buying showed their commitment even though she might be slightly underpaid for the later books in the series. Her feeling was that she would make the money in royalties anyway.

There are so many things to consider when negotiating a contract that there’s no easy answer to this question. In the end, yes, I do think it makes sense to sometimes take a lesser advance if it means higher royalties. Other times, however, I’d say take the money and run.

Jessica

Friday, December 11, 2009

Conference Suggestions

I’m frequently asked which conferences I would recommend authors attend, and while I’ve been to many, there are just as many more I have yet to be invited to. In addition, what I look for in a successful conference might be different from what authors look for. I’d also need to know what you are writing, at what level you’re writing, and what exactly you’re looking to learn. And then of course you need to take into account the volunteers for that year and the faculty they’ve been able to bring in. Sometimes I think a conference is fantastic one year because they’ve brought in fantastic agents and editors. The next year they might not have the same luck.

Since this is a question I frequently receive, I’d like to hear from the writers. What conferences, and I’m not talking the big nationals like Bouchercon, RWA-National, or Worldcon, have you had success at or enjoyed? Which did you find were the most educational and informative? And which would you recommend to authors looking to network and learn about both writing and publishing?

Jessica

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Editor Request

I recently won a small contest. First prize in each category is a guaranteed full read by a particular agent and a particular editor. I know promising to receive a full manuscript isn't the same as promising to LIKE the book, but I am very excited to have this opportunity. How do I go about submitting my material? Do I send a regular query letter and say, "Oh, by the way, will you read this?" Do I send the full manuscript and label it "Requested material"? Or do I email the whole thing and say, "Here ya go!"? Also, in your opinion, what is the time limit on things like this? Do I need to send in my manuscript right away, or just sometime before Christmas, or do I put the whole thing under my bed for six months just on principle?

First of all let me send along my congratulations. Any time you get a full read through a contest, an auction win, or a query request you’re being given a fabulous opportunity. So let me go ahead and see if I can answer all of your questions.

When submitting any material at all, in any of the instances I mention above, you always need to include your query letter. Once the material gets requested, the query becomes a cover letter but should include the same basic information. I would start out the letter by mentioning why you are sending it. Something along the lines of, “as per your request,” or “I was thrilled to win the contest, and as per their rules I’m sending along,” will work sufficiently. Then you’ll need to include your title, genre, blurb, and bio. Basically the rest of the information that appears in your standard query.

If you’re not sure whether the agent or editor would prefer an email or snail mail submission, I would ask the contest coordinators. They might have a set of guidelines for their winners to follow. If not, I would send a professional email to the agent or editor asking what she prefers.

While I can’t guarantee the agent or editor will react in a super-timely manner (that’s going to depend on her schedule), I would submit the material within a few weeks of winning. Some contests have a timeline of when you have to submit material by, but I think four to eight weeks is longer than you should need. While certainly you want to show your best work, it also tends to throw our schedules off when a contest submission arrives months and months after the contest has ended. Also, as more time goes on, we tend to forget what made us request the material in the first place, and are less excited about receiving it.

Jessica

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Sell Yourself

On a recent blog post one of the infamous anonymous comments accused me of being offended by an author’s belief that an agent does nothing more than submit material and negotiate the contract only because I didn’t want to actually have to sell myself or convince the author otherwise.

I know upon reading this I laughed out loud and I would imagine other agents did as well. The thought that we don’t sell ourselves to authors is ridiculous and only comes from someone who has never met with an agent at a conference or been offered representation. Every single time I make a call to offer representation I’m going into it with a sales pitch of sorts. I have never once called an author with the assumption that this was an easy “get.” Whether I’m the first agent offering or the fifth I know that my job is to convincingly tell that author that I’m the best agent for her.

The same holds true of any public interaction with authors. Sure, I write this blog and I try to remain as honest as possible, but if you don’t think I’m editing myself daily to ensure I don’t offend potential clients you’ve got to be kidding. And conferences? Conferences are all about looking my best, acting my best, and being “on” as much as possible. Every author I meet is a potential client, which means I need to show my best and most professional side. Have you ever sat in on a pitch session with me? One of the first things I ask authors is whether or not you have any questions for me. If you do, my goal is to sell myself.

If you’re a regular reader of the blog you’ll see posts I’ve done on how difficult it can be to lose out on an opportunity to win over a new client, and if you’ve ever read blog posts from other agents you’ll see similar posts. An agent’s job is to sell. We sell our clients and we sell ourselves. We sell ourselves to authors and we sell ourselves to editors. If I can’t convince editors that I’m a good agent I can’t convince them that I have good clients.

To assume that agents don’t have to sell themselves to potential clients is short-sighted, but also I think doing yourself a disservice. I’ve said it over and over and over on this blog: When you get an offer of representation the very first thing you need to do is leverage that offer as much as possible. Give yourself the chance to choose the agent you feel is best for you. Doesn’t that statement alone prove that I’m encouraging authors to ask agents to sell themselves?

And yes, this post is a bit of a rant, but after a while I get tired (as do many of the readers who honestly post, learn, and give constructive opinions) of the anonymous who feel they know so much more than the rest of us. I can understand where this business can get discouraging, but bitterness toward those who only want success for you is not going to help you succeed.

Jessica

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Respecting Each Other

There’s a delicate balancing act that needs to be played in the author-agent relationship, and while we’ve touched on it a few times I’m not sure we’ve addressed it in quite this way.

I’m often asked how I handle a situation when the author and I disagree on the merits of a proposal. If, for example, an author is hot on a new idea that I’m a little cold on, how should that be handled? Like everything else, of course there’s no answer to this question. Much would depend on the author and the agent and the relationship they have built, some of it would depend on the agent’s knowledge of that market, and of course a lot of it would really depend on the idea. If the book is a completely new direction for the author and an unfamiliar direction for the agent, maybe she’s not the right agent for it. If the idea or proposal is something the agent just feels isn’t the author’s best work, but the author is insistent it needs to go out, maybe she’ll give in and let editors make the decision. However it’s handled, I think that it’s important for both people to come to the situation with a mutual feeling of respect and trust for what the other has to offer.

There have been only a small handful of times in my career when I really felt I had to dig my heels in and tell an author that I would absolutely not submit the proposal or do whatever it was she wanted me to do. In all instances I really felt like the situation had gotten out of control, not because I was unwilling to compromise, but because there was a lack of respect. One thing I think authors need to remember is that agents are only as successful as their reputations. Editors depend on us to send them great projects, to negotiate respectfully, and to help them, as well as our authors, should problems arise. If I want to do the best job for my clients I need to maintain the reputation I’ve built, and of course I need to balance that with the work I’m doing for you.

I strongly believe that the only way I can be successful as an agent is to be as honest as possible with my clients. Typically I think this is appreciated. If you send me something that’s not your best work it’s my job to tell you and to give suggestions on what I think needs to be done to make it your best work. It’s also my job to tell you what I believe the market can and will support and whether or not what you’re writing might be a more difficult sell, or an impossible sell, than other ideas you have. Presumably when you’re hiring an agent you’re hiring someone for her expertise and knowledge of publishing and not simply a middleman who can shuffle papers on your behalf.

Let me tell you something that will not work for me and, if you really want the best representation, shouldn’t work for you either. It will not work if I send you a list of revision suggestions, edits, or concerns about your proposal and instead of looking carefully at what I’m saying, you respond with something along the lines of, “I disagree. Submit it anyway.” Nope. That won’t work with me. You might disagree and I can respect that. I even welcome a discussion on how we can make the proposal work, if possible. In fact, I think a number of my clients can tell stories of when we disagreed on something. I don’t expect to be blindly followed. I don’t want to be blindly followed. Selling a book takes teamwork and a good team listens to the ideas of all of its members. I also don’t expect to be ordered around. I’m not here at your beck and call. I don’t even get paid until something sells, so if I thought it would sell why wouldn’t I want to get paid?

I come to this job with experience, and while I don’t have a crystal ball any more than you do, I have to be honest with you and with myself about what my limitations are. If I really don’t think something can sell then there’s a pretty good possibility that I won’t be the agent to sell it. Most important, though, I’ve spent years working with authors, publishers, other agents, and editors. I’ve spent years learning the ins and outs of this industry and making connections to keep on top of what’s happening, and certainly I hope that you have respect for that.

Let me clarify again that respect doesn’t mean blindly following someone, it doesn’t mean keeping your mouth shut when you disagree and it doesn’t mean doing whatever someone else says. Respect means really taking the time to listen to what the other person has to say, and sometimes respect means compromise. Certainly there have been times when I’ve compromised with my authors, and definitely I know they’ve made compromises for me. However, what you should know is that the biggest compromises I think most of us make are to the publishers. If we can’t handle respecting each other and coming to a middle ground now, we’re never going to make it once we’re in the middle of contract negotiations, cover discussions, editorial work, or sales, marketing and publicity decisions. Trust me, the work you do with your agent is the easy stuff.

I think all of us have seen that there are authors out there with a real lack of respect for agents and what agents can bring to the table. And certainly, yes, there are agents out there with a lack of respect for the work an author does. Presumably you don’t want an agent who disrespects authors. Well, here’s a newsflash: I don’t want authors who disrespect me.

Jessica

Monday, December 07, 2009

No Simultaneous Submissions

Obviously writers can't query one agent at a time - no one would ever get published in his or her lifetime. But several agencies are asking for not only a query letter but also for pages, anywhere from 5-50 (and I have to say, asking for 50 boggles my mind). I recently got a response from an agent asking for a partial (just 20 pages or so) and states that simultaneous submissions aren't considered. I don't know how to handle this. Technically the other queries are just that - queries. The agencies just happen to ask for more than just a single letter. So while the agent reads the partial, I still have chunks of manuscript at other houses waiting to be sorted through. I don't really know what to think of this. Any thoughts on how to handle it?

Before I get to the real question, let me clarify that 50 pages is basically a proposal. These are agents who are asking for more than just a query letter, but accept unsolicited proposals. Back in the day, and for quite a number of years, BookEnds had this same policy. At the time we were a fairly new agency and had more time to read submissions. We were also still feeling our way and learning what we liked, and of course it hopefully gave us a bit of an edge in that we got to see the writer’s work before everyone else.

It’s not uncommon for agents to ask that pages be included with the query. I don’t. I find that typically I’ll only read the pages if I would have requested them anyway, so I just ask for the query and request the pages when I want more. While I won’t reject authors for sending pages, I rarely read them anyway. However, I think it’s becoming more common and simply depends on the agent.

I think not accepting simultaneous submissions is the same thing as asking for an exclusive. Do a search on the blog for "exclusive" or "exclusives" and you’ll see a great deal of information. However, my suggestion is to simply send along the material and note in your cover letter that other agents are reviewing at this time, but you’ll do your best to keep her apprised if anything should happen. If she chooses not to read it, frankly, it’s her loss. I really think, though, that, in most cases, asking for exclusives or saying you don’t accept simultaneous submissions is nothing but a scare tactic on the agent’s part. She wants to make sure she doesn’t have competition, which to me says she doesn’t think highly enough of herself to think she can compete. Obviously these two issues are hot buttons for me. I think authors should have the chance to choose an agent if possible, and not accepting simultaneous submissions or asking for exclusives takes the power out of an author’s hand, power you should have since it’s your career.

So in case I didn’t make myself clear, send it anyway and let her know other agents are reviewing. And of course if any agent offers representation, my suggestion is always get in touch with all agents who have pages or material and any agents who still have a query, but who you are really interested in. Give yourself the opportunity to choose an agent rather than simply waiting for someone to choose you.

Jessica

Friday, December 04, 2009

Likeable Characters

I have a question about likeability in a character, because it is something many readers and agents mention. What does it take for a character to be likeable? I was reading a writing-for-romance book, and it said your heroine needs to have a best friend to show the reader that she is likeable. Is that true? Does the reader have to be able to relate to a character for them to be liked? Is it possible to write about someone who is completely unlikeable and still have an interesting story? Isn't likeability subjective?

Thanks for the great question. I think this is one of the many things all authors have to struggle with because it is subjective. Certainly I have submitted and sold novels in which some of the rejections we received from other houses were that the characters weren’t likeable enough. That being said, I do think in the revisions, the author worked on making her characters more likeable.

I do believe that characters have to be likeable for a book to work. That doesn’t mean, however, that characters can’t have flaws or unlikeable characteristics. I tend to use Hannibal Lecter a lot as an example, but I think he’s such a fabulous example and tends to be a character most people are familiar with. Who could imagine creating a horrific serial killer who is actually likeable? On paper that doesn’t make any sense. On the book page you see how it works. Okay, maybe he’s not entirely “likeable,” but he’s certainly fascinating enough that you need to keep reading about him. Sure, he eats people, but he’s also brilliant and oddly, in his own way, kind to Clarice Starling.

I don’t think there are any easy fixes to make a character likeable. There are plenty of people in this world I don’t like, and as far as I know they all have best friends. That doesn’t make me like them or even want to like them, frankly. I think that what makes a character likeable isn’t a list of specific qualities or outside influences; what makes a character likeable is allowing the reader to see a softer side. Scarlett O’Hara is a fabulous example. She’s selfish, vain, and conniving. And yet she’s likeable. We want to keep reading about her and we want her to succeed. We see that while she’s always selfish her vanity also hides her insecurities and her fears. It makes her a well-rounded, true, and likeable character.

I don’t believe it’s possible to create a character who works and who is completely unlikeable. Have you ever met someone like that? I know I have and certainly it’s not someone I want to invite into my home or spend time with. I have, however, met a lot of people in my life with completely unlikeable characteristics, people that as I got to know I realized were interesting and fun and much more complex than they appeared. I think it’s that complexity that makes really good characters. They aren’t perfect and not everyone loves them, but we can’t help but be drawn to them.

Jessica

Thursday, December 03, 2009

The Writer's Process

Not too long ago a client was going through some revisions with her editor and called me for a pep talk. She was confident that she could get the revisions done and even felt good about how she planned to do them. What upset her was that the editor had to point out these things in the first place. She really felt it was all so obvious, something she should have seen before even sending in the material, and she was feeling a little down on herself about the entire thing.

What I told her, and what I’m going to tell you now, is that these revisions and working with her editor this way, as well as working with me and her critique partners, was simply a part of her writing process. It was how she worked to create the books she wrote and to make them the best they could be. I also told her that I’ve rarely met an author who was happy with her writing process.

Some of you plot, write, and work out the entire book in your head before even putting word to page. You struggle at the beginning because you feel like you do nothing but stare at a computer screen for weeks and nothing comes out. You panic and yet, once you finally have that story established, it flows from your fingers, nearly perfect the minute the words hit the screen.

Some of you carefully create outlines for each chapter and work up studies of each character. You practically write the book in outline form before you even start writing the book, and it’s not uncommon for your outline to be one hundred or so pages. The days to your deadline slowly tick away and you worry that you’ll never meet it because you haven’t actually written the book. However, once it is time to start writing you already have the details planned, the plot is cohesive and the characters are well drawn.

Some of you simply sit down and start to write. The words flow, the characters do their own thing and in a few short weeks or months you’ve got a book. That is, until you reread the book. That’s when you decide that everything you’ve written is crap and now you spend twice as long going over each word, each sentence, and each chapter and revising and editing it into shape.

And then I’m sure there’s a myriad of other writing processes that I haven’t even touched on yet, ways in which you all create or are forced to create, but which, at some point or another, frustrate you.

The truth is that there is no perfect way to write a book. Nearly every author I talk with looks at a critique partner or friend and wishes she could write like that. Someone else always makes it look easy, especially when they manage to tackle what we most struggle with. Writing is creative, writing a book is a creative process, and when it comes to creativity there is no perfect answer to how it should be done.

There’s no doubt we can always seek to improve ourselves and the way we do things, and while I would urge you to do that, I would also urge you to embrace your process, the highs and the lows. No one writes a book with ease, no one writes a blog with ease. We all struggle at certain moments, but sometimes those struggles are exactly what bring us our best ideas.

Jessica

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Nonfiction Proposals

I’ve found that quite a few agents who are open to representing nonfiction self-help books request a query and the proposal in the same email. My query contains a brief description of the book, how it differs from competitive titles, and a little about me. The proposal contains the same information, although in more detail (as well as sample chapters, marketing plans, competitive titles, etc.). A friend (a published narrative nonfiction author) said there should be no repetition in the proposal of anything that was in the query, so if I’m sending the proposal and the query at the same time, I need to remove all repetition of information. Is my friend correct?

A reminder to everyone, whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction: there are guidelines to submitting material and there’s advice on making your submissions stronger, but there are very, very few “rules” and, believe it or not, very, very few things that authors do to result in “instant rejection.” Why am I reminding you of this? Because ultimately the answer to your question has no right or wrong, and doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

Anytime you submit anything to anyone you are going to be required to write a query. I represent nonfiction self-help and my standard is that I want a query first. If I like the query then I’ll typically ask for the proposal to be sent as an email attachment with the query included, just as you describe. Having the query helps me refresh my memory and reminds me of who you are.

In my mind, there’s no way to write a query without including the same information. Your proposal should include everything about you and your book that you deem important to showing agents why your book is needed, how it’s different and what makes you the only author to write such a great and necessary work. Your query is what’s going to grab my attention and make me want to read more. To properly write that you’re going to have to condense what you’ve written in your proposal. In other words, it’s the best of the best of the proposal.

To make the answer short and sweet: there’s no way to write the query without repeating the same information that’s in your proposal. Hopefully, though, you’ll find a new way to write some of it.

And one last note, something I really feel the need to say . . . make sure you understand where your advice is coming from and how the advice giver knows. Querying, selling, and writing narrative nonfiction is extremely different from self-help nonfiction. While I’m not saying your friend doesn’t know what she’s talking about, I am saying that her experience will likely be very different from yours.

Jessica

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Self-Censoring

In a rather controversial blog post (that I won’t link to) I was accused of encouraging writers to self-censor, and while I don’t think the reader was talking at all about what I’m going to talk about today, the comment really got me thinking. After all, as writers or, more important, as businesspeople, publishing professionals, isn’t it part of your job to know how to censor yourself? I know that when I undertook the challenge of writing this blog that was one of the things I had to think about and have to think about on a daily basis. What do I think is appropriate content for my readers and what isn’t? What do you want to hear me say and what is, truthfully, none of your business? Most important, though, if I want to build a readership, self-censorship is imperative.

Certainly a topic that’s frequently discussed in writing circles are writer blogs and what authors should and shouldn’t be writing about. I don’t think there’s a specific list of course, but I do think that it’s important to know that as a writer you are building a brand and your name is that brand. Many of you know this already, which is why you only post anonymously on the blog; others have discussed removing some content from your blogs, or are starting a second blog for your personal opinions, one not connected to your business name.

Self-censorship also happens in fiction. It’s called editing. If you are writing a specific genre you are writing for a very specific audience. They have certain expectations about what they will find in your book and, yes, whether we want to admit it or not, many have certain expectations about who the author is. This can be especially true for those writing for a Christian or inspirational market.

Certainly I don’t support censorship. I think we should all have the right to read what we want, express our beliefs and opinions, and be who we are. That being said, I think it’s na├»ve to think that others don’t judge us or make opinions about us and our work based on their own beliefs, opinions and, yes, prejudices. I’ve said it over and over. Writing is a craft or hobby, publishing is a business, and whether you want to admit it or not, building a career in publishing sometimes means censoring yourself.

Jessica