Thursday, August 26, 2010

Brainstorming

Once, long ago, a reader made a comment on my blog that agents should just stick to selling books, that she didn’t want an agent who would “tell her what to write” because that’s not an agent’s job. Obviously this comment has stuck with me, not because I was hurt by it in any way, but because it made me think about the different expectations writers have of their agents.

I never “tell” an author what to write, but I do spend a lot of time brainstorming with my clients, some more than others. With some of my clients we will spend hours, days, and weeks trying to come up with the perfect idea or even the best way to shape a book. Others, of course, do that all on their own and I don’t have much, if any, input at all. Either way works for me.

In my opinion, an agent’s job is to partner with an author to help build a writing career. However what works for the author is going to be up to the individual author. That being said, I absolutely love brainstorming. I remember the first time I learned the word “brainstorm.” I was in third grade and part of an academic decathlon type of group. Our instructor coached us in the freedom of brainstorming and I was hooked. I loved using my imagination to create ideas, no matter how crazy they might have seemed, and I love it to this day.

I often joke with my clients during these brainstorming sessions that I get the easy part. I throw ludicrous ideas their way and then leave it up to them to see if they can make it work. Sometimes they have come up with absolutely brilliant books and sometimes they’ve laughed in my face. Sometimes they’ve simply said no way and sometimes they too get excited after one of our sessions. I don’t brainstorm because I’m a frustrated writer, I don’t brainstorm because I think everyone needs to do things my way. I brainstorm because I have ideas, because we’re all working in a creative environment, and because I think success in all business means being open to new things.

I have to say, brainstorming is one of the best things about my job. I love working together, creatively, with others, and I can’t thank my authors enough for allowing their crazy agent to throw her wacky ideas their way. Hopefully it’s of some help.

Jessica

35 comments:

Actagamut said...

Jessica,

I have only recently researched "how to sell my book" and have to say I was one of the insane that thought the world should bow down and read my wonderful art...why should I have to do a thing but write? That being said, by chance at 2:30am, I found your company's website, found your blog, and if I never get published, I will be forever amused and entertained.

Brainstorming. That is something that I learned at an early age, and through years of self delusion, believed I never had to do while still being a serious writer. I thought that if it was important enough to put on paper, pure imagination would carry me through the end, producing the epic book!

Uh, yeah. So far, I have attempted many, but recently found only one coming to completion. The main difference? Brainstorming.

Self discovery is a double edged sword, affirmation is a rose with thorns.

Gabriela Lessa said...

I've never had an agent, so I don't know much about the specifics of it. But I do dream of getting one that will love working with me on my projects, that will give me suggestions and... well, brainstorm! I see agents and their clients exchanging comments on twitter, and I think that's what I want. Someone who can discuss my work with me, and who can root for me and my books in addition to selling them.
I don't know what an agent is supposed to do, but I hope it has to do with this.

Creepy Query Girl said...

I imagine it depends on the writer but I'd take your brainstorming sessions as a real investment in their career and not necessarily 'telling them what to write'. If the client doesn't want to use an idea, than I'm sure they just say so. Whether the idea is theirs or yours, i'd imagine it doesn't really change the agent-client relationship in any way. You only benefit eachother.

Jenna Wallace said...

This post really struck a chord for me. I've been querying for some time now. And while I'm disappointed I don't have an agent and a book on submission, I'm even more disappointed that I am starting on my next project without some guidance from an agent who will help me establish my career as a writer. Some days, I feel like putting a PS at the bottom of my query saying "If you don't want to rep the book, can we still brainstorm for my next one?"

The brainstorming/collaborative relationship that an author and agent have must be the most important aspect because it is working toward long term results.
Thanks for the great post, Jessica!

Sheila Cull said...

Who wouldn't be honored to brainstorm with you?

I'd be guilty for getting too excited.

Katrina said...

When I wrote my first manuscript, it felt like I was writing in a bubble. I hadn't connected with many people online - certainly none that I knew well enough to share my writing with - and no one I know reads my genre.

A few months ago I joined a crit group, and my approach to writing's changed completely. I can bounce ideas off writers whose opinions I respect, get their feedback, and improve my story.

I don't have an agent (yet!) but I will look for one who has a keen editorial eye and wants to be an idea bouncer with me.

Jessica, I think your clients are lucky that you're flexible enough to approach their work in whatever way suits them best.

Joseph L. Selby said...

I remember learning brainstorming in grade school. It drove me absolutely nuts. Draw the word in the middle then another word and link them and then another word from there. I had already skipped five words out but I had to go back and write each of them. Leave me alone, teacher! I've already found the interesting stuff.

I've read authors' accounts of discussions with their agents on what they should write next based on what they find interesting and salable. This scares the crap out of me. I want to cooperative. I want to be that guy people enjoy working with. But I don't want to be told what to write. I just finished by third ms and I already have 14 more queued up in my brain. If someone told me not to write what I wanted to write but to write something else they think would sell, I doubt I could turn out anything good enough to publish.

Erika Marks said...

I have certainly benefited from brainstorming sessions with my agent, particularly when it came to the revisions of my debut novel.

For anyone who feels an agent who advises and brainstorms is interfering with a writer's work is, in my opinion, not enjoying the true glory of a writer/agent relationship. Collaboration is a thrilling and integral part of the partnership. There is no question in my mind that my work is stronger going out into the world (and my wonderful editor's hands!) because of my agent's recommendations as we brainstormed together.

Faye Hughes said...

Jessica,

Great post. I think this should be printed out and given to all new writers when they sign with an agent.

Faye

Marsha Sigman said...

Why would you want to turn down anyone willing to brainstorm with you? It can only help and even if an idea seems crazy it could lead to another perfect one.

I think part of what makes a truly good writer is the ability to be open to all ideas.

Kristan said...

I for one would love an agent to help me figure out my books -- which, of course, is very different from telling me what to write! I think *most* authors are seeking a partnership with their agents (and probably editors too). But as you said, what that partnership entails is dependent on the individuals involved... I guess if that author really doesn't want help from her agent in that regard, that's her prerogative. And it leaves more help/agent-love for the rest of us! :)

Taymalin said...

I could definitely use someone to help me brainstorm right now :P

Shakespeare said...

I don't think there is a fine line between "brainstorming" and "telling an author what to write"--there is a HUGE cavern between the two.

As a writer, though I have yet to get an agent, I don't see my work as perfect, and I welcome any help with idea crunching and brainstorming to make it better.

When someone tells me they hate my main character, and could I please replace her with someone else, and to help me out they've rewritten the first three chapters of my novel... well, then they've gone too far.

Fortunately, few have come close to this level of overhandling. Most readers and fellow writers have given me extremely useful feedback.

Tere Kirkland said...

I don't even have an agent, but the advice I've gotten from them has been invaluable. I've been working on a series of revisions for an agent since May and their insight has definitely helped me to figure out what wasn't working and why.

I wouldn't be going through all this work for an agent who hasn't offered representation yet if I didn't see the sense in their comments.

Great post!

Kate Douglas said...

Brainstorming with Jessica is a hoot. I've decided the woman has a truly convoluted mind...and no. You did NOT hear that here...

Point being, two heads are always better than one when you're working with the kernel of an idea. Tossing suggestions back and forth sparks new directions and concepts an author might never come up with alone. I still laugh about brainstorming w/Jessica for my DemonSlayers series. She tossed out "big book," I--thinking I was being witty--came back with "good vs. evil." Jessica said, "Send me a synopsis.

She got demon-possessed garden gnomes and a new series was born. It doesn't take much, but those sessions can spark all sorts of ideas--I consider them a valuable part of our working relationship.

ryan field said...

The best ideas come from brainstorming sessions between authors, editors, and agents. Just as long as everyone understands the author is always in control and usually right (just kidding).

Justin Holley said...

Since it's an agents job to know what's selling, it behooves an author to, at the very least, take a hard listen at what their agent has to say in regard to a hook or story line. For instance, I write straight horror. But if an agent or editor said, "Hey, Justin, use that dark writing to craft me a thriller about such and such..." well, I'd certainly take it under advisement.

Wendy Qualls said...

To the best of your knowledge, is brainstorming something all agents do, or is it a necessary question to ask when signing? When I'm first starting a book I press tons of friends into service helping me think and talk through a plot - I would definitely be one of those authors who appreciate an agent brainstorming not only just ideas, but with the knowledge of what sells.

Linda Leszczuk said...

I've only had one experience with an agent and it wasn't particularly successful. She "loved" my sci fi/romantic suspense and we signed a contract. She suggested some changes which I made. And that was about it. I never heard from her regarding my book. In fact, the only thing I ever received from her was a copy of a historical romance and a suggestion I write something like that. The contract expired and I never heard from her.

Personally, I would love an agent who wanted to brainstorm with me.

happy jackass said...

PARDON THE MASSIVE CHIP ON MY SHOULDER WHILE I ADDRESS THIS:

When My agent sold my book three years ago, I would have given my right arm if my fricken agent would have engaged in a little brainistorming with me. But he wouldn't even acknowledge the question.

Then my acquiring editor called me, loved me, loved my book, I asked him if he had any insights what I should do next. He just kinda giggled and said no. Then he went on a drug binge and didn't edit my ms during the six months between the phone call and when he went into rehab. I got handed to a worker bee editor, who was a dream to work with, and after it was all done. I was invited to new york to meet her and the agent and have a real publisher's fricken lunch together. We did. over the shiksa in a pot or whatever it was, I asked them to give me some insight, SOMETHING!!! And they both kinda giggled. I mentioned a book I'd been working on previously, he didn't say anything, she grunted and said it sounded like a novella. I returned to Dallas with my thumb still in my prdelka.
Anyway I started writing another novel, based on something I'd been thinking about for a while. I told him and told her, they both LOVED the idea.

So I set to work on it. The subject of the book is goat testicles, but if you're from texas, you have an intellectual context for it. The Editor invited me to send her some chapters so she can give some input. So as the months went by I started sending in stuff, She kept promising she'd take a look at it, more months passed. Finally I pressed her. I told the agent he told me to send him what I'd written. There was gonna be a summit! Whoa!

My agent sent her an email saying he was halfway through the draft and "really loving it" She said she'd call me monday afternoon.

She called me. After giving me some lipservice, she then told me all the reasons why my book was an "unworthy sophomore effort" She asked me to drop it and write something else. Then she asked me to pitch her another idea. I did. She LOVED IT!!!!! She promised to talk to my agent the next day and discuss it.

The next day, my agent called me and said I should ditch my goat scrotums and do this other project which both of them were now calling "Charlemagne's Daughter." He asked me to write a pitch letter for that project

They were both agreed goats were out dark ages is IN.

I asked the agent if they'd come up with any money for the project. He said, "Are you kidding? Your first book didn't exactly fly off the shelves. Now he was giving me advice, just as ske was giving me advice. it was the same advice, either way.

Then I wrote the editor and asked if I could count on her reading my chapters and giving me timely feedback. She never wrote back. Instead my agent wrote and told me to stop bothering the editor. Just do as We'd all agreed. And when I was done, he would provide the necessary editing......

Fact was, he wasn't an editor, he'd never edited anything I'd written. It was a sore point I'd nearly forgotten. He also added that she was only agreeing in principle, not on any binding basis.

So I thought about it, worked on Charlemagne's daughter for a week or so, then went back to my beloved goat testicles novel. Last week my editor got canned. Today I'd have my testicle book finished and sent off. I'll have to find another agent, but so what??

HE's just a fricken salesman with an attitude. And she's somebody with an opinion.

I'll survive. Maybe I'll even hit Kim and Jessica. but then, maybe not.

So I

jjdebenedictis said...

When I was in grad school, a professor mentioned one of the best ways to birth great science at a university is to make sure all the scientists have their offices/labs the same building.

So they can brainstorm.

Micah Maddox said...

Thank you Jessica, a great topic. I agree with so many of the sentiments expressed above. I am as yet unrepresented, but can relate to how unique and malleable the process of collaboration and partnership can be.

For me--and at this stage of my writing career--it is all about inspiration. Inspiration fuels the process for me, from whatever means. If someone simply said write a book about *blank* I imagine I would utterly fail. I don't believe the emotion would seep onto the page.

One of the things I look forward to if I am offered representation is the collaboration process, presently and in the future. The novel I have written has so many elements I believe could be fine tuned to different audiences without gutting the essence of the story (more YA or Adult, more romance, action or thriller) because the elements are already there. Perhaps I should be concerned what I see as all of the pieces to a great story being viewed as novice and untargeted, but I hope to find an agent who will share my vision, know its marketability, and believe the work (and the writer) are close enough that their skills and experience can make the difference. Naive?

Liz Czukas said...

Ooh, I LOVE brainstorming, too! My crit partner and I send massive e-mails back forth with each other with whole lists of crazy ideas that might help get one of us out of a hole or unstuck. I love the idea of having an agent who would go on those zany side trips with me. Maybe someday!

- Liz

gj said...

I don't think it's evil or manipulative or whatever other negative thing critics might suggest about an agent brainstorming with an author, but I'll just add the proviso that different authors (just like different agents) have different processes that work for them, and while brainstorming can be great for some authors, it can be death to others.

Personally, I can't cope with outside influences when I'm creating the first draft of a story. It just shuts me down completely. It's the little bit of rebel in my soul (which generally is quite happy to abide by rules and study craft and theory), but as soon as someone makes a suggestion when the story is in the earliest stage, I reject it automatically, even if it's a good idea, and on that I'd appreciate at a later stage.

For later drafts, I'm thrilled to brainstorm, and I'm happy to rewrite, etc. But input from outside my weird brain in the earlist stage is just counter-productive.

And that sort of fear of writer''s block might be behind some of the resistance to the idea of an agent brainstorming with a client.

nightwriter said...

That's AWESOME you like to brainstorm with your clients--good for you! What a lucky group...When I get an agent, that'll be one of my requirements: Must be willing and able to brainstorm crazy ideas for current and future projects.

Kelly Wittmann said...

To me, there's nothing more fun than brainstorming with an agent. It's great to feel that connection with someone, especially after the long months of writing and querying.

Sue Harrison said...

Having an agent who is willing to brainstorm should be every writer's dream.

Jean Reidy said...

Jessica, brainstorming is absolutely one of the best things about my job too.

I'm a children's writer and the sheer act of daydreaming and floating around in my child mind - sometimes with a pen and paper nearby - is my favorite part of the book writing process.

There are no wrong answers. As a matter of fact, it's usually well into my brainstorm - sometimes days in - that I even draw near the right answers.

I'm happy to hear that you dream along with your clients. And yes, I can attest that finding the best idea in one big brainstorm can be a daunting decision.

Great post!

Tushar Mangl said...

There is a difference between interference and guidance. A writer needs an agent to guide and not interfere.

A.Y. Stratton said...

What a great post! I sold my first book without an agent, which was over-the-top exciting. Thanks to my critique group and others who read the ms. before I submitted it, I know how vital feedback can be. But brainstorming? Is that what I do with myself at 3 a.m.? How I would love to have an agent like you!

Kristin Laughtin said...

I find this relieving and hope to someday find an agent who takes the same approach as you. There are times when I just want to do it on my own. Give me my computer or paper and some writing instrument and I'm good to go, no outside input needed (for the first draft). Other times, yes, I want somebody to bounce ideas off or maybe help me figure out where to go with something, and it'd be nice if that person had some idea of the market, etc. For different projects, I may desire different amounts of outside involvement (again, for the draft). So yeah, this sounds good to me.

Travis Erwin said...

"an agent’s job is to partner with an author to help build a writing career."

And that is why I've spent the last decade pursuing a partner. I have had opportunities to go different directions and I've had moments where I feel jaded. After all I found my wife faster than I seem to be able to find an agent, but at least these days a few agents are willing to "date" me by actually reading my works. One day one might even pop the question.

Michael J. Kannengieser said...

An agent should try to use their influence on an author concerning what they should or shouldn't write. Writing is a business, and literary agents and editors know what sells and what does not.

One of my pet peeves as an editor at our literary magazine is dealing with authors who do not recognize the commercial aspects of publishing (even on the small, literary magazine scale). I know our audience, search submissions not only to find quality writing, but also to discover a unique literary voice which one may not find simply anywhere. If a writer asks me why I rejected them when they were published so many other places, the answer may simply be that I can find work like theirs at so many different venues.

I too am a writer who has learned to take criticism and accept advice, and that has helped enormously. So too, has my experience as an editor helped me to write.

My goal is to sell magazines, and an agent’s goal is to sell books. There is nothing alarming about an agent trying to accomplish this task with a “brainstorming” session to keep a writer relevant and marketable.

Nicole MacDonald said...

I love brainstorming and the more crazy ideas the better! Wouldn't turn my nose up at anyone's thoughts, after all you never know when you'll find that pretty gold nugget of an idea :)

http://damselinadirtydress.blogspot.com

Martha Ramirez said...

I think it's awesome that you brainstorm with your clients! They are very fortunate to have you.