Monday, June 30, 2008

We Interrupt This Program

It's rare that I ever do two blog posts on the same day, but today deserves a dual post, a program interruption if you will.

In yesterday's Washington Post Twelve publisher Jonathan Karp wrote a thought-provoking and brilliant piece on the state of publishing and the problems caused by what he says are publishers, agents, editors and yes even authors and readers (my own words) seduced by gossip, celebrity, fame and maybe fortune rather then simply looking for really great books that may or may not sell.

Karp is praying that publishers will at some point be forced to do what he is doing with Twelve and that is "invest in works of quality."

I was so thrilled with this essay that I think I'll let it speak for itself and of course I look forward to hearing what you have to say about it.


Querying if You're Not Sure of Genre

I currently have a fantasy manuscript that I wrote with no thought of a sub-genre. After having a few beta readers mention my work leaning towards the YA side of fantasy, I now begin to wonder if I should worry about the word count. It was meant to be a full-length fantasy at 100K words, but I know most YA novels are at least 20K less than that (typically).

Do I go ahead and query this as a fantasy with no mention of YA since it's possible it could go either way, in hopes an agent will find the shine in my work and say, "Hey, this is good! Let's try and work it to the YA audience though. Cut it down to 75K"?

Does this even happen? Would an agent do that? Or is the market more flexible nowadays that the manuscript could be pitched as both, or as a YA but still acceptable with such a big word count?

Or (yet another or, sorry!) do I query it as YA, with the big word count and cross my fingers?

First let me address the word count issue. I don’t represent YA and haven’t done YA in years, but I think I can fairly and honestly tell you not to worry about it too much. Fantasy has always been a genre that tends to run a little longer than other genres.

What’s great about this conundrum is that it opens more doors for you. I would simply pitch the book as fantasy and see what kind of reaction you get from agents. If it seems that over time you are getting comments or suggestions that the book might be better suited for YA you can start pitching YA agents. Or, if you’d like, you could pitch fantasy and YA agents at the same time.

It is very possible that an agent might suggest to you that the audience you thought you were shooting for isn’t the audience she would consider. In fact, I had a mystery recently that I have pitched as three different genres—paranormal mystery, fantasy, and romance, depending on the publishing house.

I don’t think the word count is that much of an issue here. I can’t tell you how to query your book, I think you need to read more fantasy and YA fantasy to make sure you have a feel for both genres and see what you think. Otherwise, pitch in both directions and see what happens.

Good luck!


Friday, June 27, 2008

Spelling Bees

The word occasion. I don’t know what it is about that word, but every single time I type it I get it wrong. I know that if I were in a spelling bee and up for millions of dollars it would be that one simple word that would bring me down.

In a conversation lately with a friend we were discussing spelling and today’s youth. Okay, specifically her daughter. Because of spell check and computers it seems that we are all becoming poor spellers. I have to say, I still instinctively backspace and change words as I’m typing. Must have been those manual typewriters I learned on. But I think most people simply type away, let the red lines appear, and spell check to fix everything in the end. Few bother to actually learn how the words are spelled.

What about you? What are your thoughts on spelling today and what words always, always trip you up?


Thursday, June 26, 2008

Submission Freak-Outs

I received an email recently from someone freaking out because she forgot to include an SASE with her submission, and it made me think about all of the times I think authors freak out post-submission. Let me try to quell some of those fears.

SASE Problems . . . If you sent the submission to BookEnds, never fear. Simply email the agent in question around the time the response time is up and ask if they’ve gotten to it. You could also email our assistant at Assistants know all. If they have responded and you didn’t receive the SASE for some reason, the agent can simply let you know via email what her answer was. Usually if we are requesting something more we will email that request (as long as there is an email address on your letter). Some of the SASE problems we have seen include forgetting one altogether, putting our address in place of yours on the envelope, not including enough postage (even before rates go up), or not putting your address on there correctly at all.

Query/Cover Letter Problems . . . If you forgot to include crucial information on your cover letter there’s not much you can do about it right at this moment. Write it off and keep your fingers crossed. However, once you receive that response, don’t be afraid to requery with the new and improved letter. While that can be a drag for me as my queries go up and it’s the same letters over and over, it’s great news for you. Why not? What do you have to lose? That being said, I would only query the same book twice. More than that and you start to become a strong memory.

Envelope Problems . . . I’m amazed how many people panic because they forgot to put “requested materials” on the outside of the envelope. Well here’s a good piece of information: No one here cares if it’s marked "requested materials" on the envelope or not. We only care what the letter and materials inside say. So make sure your letter says that the materials were requested, but don’t worry about the envelope. I never see the envelopes myself anyway.

U.S. Postal Service Problems . . . This should come as no surprise, but if your package arrives postage due we won’t pay for that. It’s going to come back to you. The same holds true if your package requires a signature. I will sign for it if I’m here (as will everyone else), but if the mailman isn’t able to track us down or doesn’t feel like it, those packages can often be returned too. Do not require signature and make sure you have enough postage on the package you’re sending. There are plenty of ways to track a package without requiring signature.

Revision Problems . . . If your material has been sent and has arrived and you suddenly decide to do some serious revisions, it’s usually too late as far as I’m concerned. I can’t have my interns, assistant, or me spending half of our days replacing submissions. Make sure what you send is the absolute best it can be. If you receive a rejection from me and the book has been completely, entirely reworked, feel free to re-query and start the process over. In this case you will need to tell me it’s a re-query. I have to say, though, that it’s the rare case I’ll want to take a second look.

That’s all I can think of for some of the common problems I’ve seen. My best bit of advice where all of this is concerned: Don’t stress. Just the other day, in fact, when submitting to an editor, I accidentally emailed the wrong file. Oops. I sent an immediate reply with the new file. Mistakes happen, we all make them. Try not to sweat the small stuff, as they say.


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kate Douglas on Writing

Kate Douglas
Wolf Tales VI
Publisher: Kensington Aphrodisia
Pub Date: June 2008
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

Author Web/Blog links:,,

Why We Do What We Do . . .

About a year ago, I finished a manuscript I’d been working on for about three months. The story, Wolf Tales VI, was just released, but it was due in my editor’s hands on June 1 of 2007. It didn’t get there. For some reason, the story would NOT come together the way I wanted it to, and I struggled for weeks with the first three chapters. I asked my editor for a month’s extension, and she very graciously allowed it, since I was no closer to finishing the book on June 1 than I’d been three months earlier.

Disgusted, I set it aside and took a couple of days off. It had been a hectic year, what with moving and the remodeling we’re doing on the new house, my husband’s retirement, and a little incident that included me almost getting myself killed when a tree came down where I was standing—along with a writing schedule that meant finishing eleven novels and novellas in just twenty short months. And no, I can’t blame Jessica for that one—I said I could do it, and I did, but it wasn’t nearly as easy as I’d thought it would be!

I’d forgotten that life often gets in the way of the best intentions.

Taking a break from my story was the best thing I could have done. Once I stepped back from the project, I was able to see what was wrong. Letting go of my preconceived hero wasn’t easy, but I suddenly realized the problem—I was writing the wrong character’s story. It wasn’t the hero’s story at all—it was the secondary character who needed a voice. I’d been trying to force him into the background, and he was having none of it. Once I gave Oliver the freedom to exist at center stage, my book took off. I completed Wolf Tales VI in about three weeks, and when I went back and reread it before sending it to my editor, I realized I had written a book I could really be proud of. It’s got a great plot, it’s sexy, and it’s not anything anyone will expect.

It made me think about the process of writing, the fact that we go into a story with an idea, but we all reach our goal in a totally unique manner. For writers like me who don’t plot in advance, who don’t outline or even write a detailed synopsis, finding the plot and getting to know my characters can be a serendipitous adventure. It’s a trip I absolutely love. Once I get to know my characters, they literally take over my head, and I’ve had to learn not to fight them. They write their own stories, and I never quite know what’s coming next, but that’s part of the process—my process—that makes writing such a joy for me. It’s the excitement of discovery, the feeling that I will always find a surprise around the next corner.

We all do it differently, but somehow we all manage to find our way through a beginning, to a middle, and on to an end. There are no set rules, but for those of us who write, who absolutely have to write, the journey is as much the joy as is the moment when we hold our completed work in our hands.

Which is, I guess, the point of this post—a reminder to think of the reason why you write, whether it’s for publication or your own personal fulfillment. Don’t ever let go of the joy you find in the words, the thrill of a new character, the utter satisfaction of pulling all the threads of a convoluted plot together and knowing it’s perfect. We’re a very lucky group, those of us who call ourselves writers. We can create new worlds with our words and give life to imaginary characters who wouldn’t otherwise exist without us. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What I'm Looking For

Yesterday’s post on queries and my reporting of them reminded me that it’s been a long time since I’ve updated you on what I’m looking for these days. Of course I’m always looking for everything on my list (for those who haven’t made it to the About Us page on our web site, that means romance, mysteries, thrillers, women’s fiction, and a variety of nonfiction). But as with all agents, there are always times when you decide you would like to see something specific, when you’ve talked to editors and know what they’re hungry for and just hearing about it makes you hungry too.

I’ve had some really great luck lately with nonfiction, and while it’s been a bit of a new direction for me I’m loving it. Two recent sales include Frederick Lane’s People in Glass Houses: American Law, Technology, and the Right to Privacy, an examination of whether privacy still exists in a world of vast consumer databases, growing government surveillance, and exhibitionist television shows. I sold this book to Brian Halley at Beacon Press. And while on a trip to a conference recently I spent much of my time negotiating the deal for Lewis Maltby’s The Vanishing Constitution, an investigation into how the restriction of our constitutional rights are impacting the workplace. Lewis Maltby is head of the National Work Rights Institute, a division of the NAACP, and gives the reader a very scary look at how constitutional rights have no effect in the private workplace. The book won’t be published until at least 2009, but should be must reading for everyone. This book was sold to Tim Sullivan at Portfolio.

Those two sales have really inspired me and I would love to see more current affairs/investigative-type titles. I love books that can open our eyes in a new way. Maybe they look at the history of a certain product or business or make us realize something that maybe we thought, but never really grasped (like the lack of privacy in today’s society). Keep in mind that both authors of the above-mentioned books are nationally recognized experts in their fields. In addition to bigger business and career books, I would love to see issue-oriented titles or investigative titles on things like food, consumerism, or the government (among others, of course). Some recent titles that have caught my eye in these areas include Julie and Julia, Kitchen Confidential, Nickel and Dimed, and Fugitive Denim. Obviously I have a lot of other interests, but that might get you thinking.

I think my preferences in fiction are a little easier to describe and really don’t change too much for me from post to post. I would love to see more women’s fiction (light or heavy). I tend to be very attracted to stories about friendship, marriage, and parenting (from both sides of the issue). I’m a sister, but don’t have a sister, so for some reason sister stories rarely grab me as much. I like lighter stories (although not chick lit) as well as those that can make me sob from page one.

I’ve also been a fan for a long time of historical mysteries, and yet, I don’t have one on my list. I would love to see a historical thriller a la Caleb Carr or a quieter, softer historical mystery. To me a historical really needs to capture the mood and atmosphere of the period and make me feel like I’m there. That’s what makes them so great. And I have a softness for historical New York.

In romance I’m still hungry for a great romantic suspense and big, sexy historical romances. Of course, I like the other genres as well, but those are the two areas I’m gravitating most to right now.

Now that summer is on us, what are you in the mood to take on your summer vacation?


Monday, June 23, 2008

Submission Reporting

It’s been a long time since I’ve reported in on my submissions—what I read and my decisions. I know readers like to see this from time to time, so here we go. . . .

The weekend was incredibly productive for me. I was able to get a lot of queries read from Friday to Sunday. Keep in mind, I did not look at requested material that may have come through via email, but simply unsolicited query letters. I was about a week behind in my reading, which means that some things might have been a week old, but nothing had been sitting in my in-box any longer than that and, frankly, most of what I read was between 5 and 7 days old. In other words, this was roughly 2 to 3 days' worth of queries.

In those 3 days I read 79 submissions. The sad thing about that is that I sill have over 100 queries sitting in my in-box.
  • Of those 79 I rejected 73.
  • I requested 5 partials and 1 full (the author had wisely included about 3 to 5 pages in her query).
  • I received 2 queries that told me a great deal about the author and her background, but nothing about the book (other than title).
  • 2 queries I forwarded to either Jacky or Kim because, while I rejected them, I thought Jacky or Kim might have some interest.
  • 2 authors sent the letter and/or other materials as an attachment rather than in the body of the email, while 5 authors sent no letter, simply author name, title, genre, and the synopsis. I really prefer a letter.
  • Only 11 of the 79 queries were nonfiction.
  • 3 were sent to my assistant instead of me and needed to be forwarded
  • 4 of the emails were simply asking questions about a previous rejection, submission policies, or something else publishing-related.
  • And last, 2 of the emails, both from the same person, were haranguing me for giving advice on writing a stronger query, called me stupid (among other things), and told me point-blank that all authors are superior to me. Interesting weekend reading.
Keep in mind that my reasons for rejection are long and varied. Some, at least 2, were for YA or middle-grade books, which I don’t represent. Some, at least 2, were far outside acceptable word counts, and while I think word counts can always be stretched, these were a little too far (below 30,000 words and above 175,000). Some sounded interesting, but just not different enough. Some sounded different enough but the writing in the query did not give a positive indication of how the writing in the book would hold up. And some just didn’t inspire me.

I feel pretty good about my weekend. You? How was your weekend?


Friday, June 20, 2008

An Interesting Thought on "Rules"

A lot of comments lately have blasted agents and editors for all of our rules. We stifle authors, we cause nothing but problems, and we’re rude to boot. I debated a discussion on rules because I have a feeling I’m going to get blasted for it, but a client of mine pointed out that what makes my blog work are my honest answers and the honest comments I get from my readers. So here goes . . .

There are seemingly a lot of rules in publishing, but if you’ve ever heard me speak or read enough of my blog posts I think you’ll know that I’ve repeated again and again that those rules are not rules and should not be seen as such, but should be looked upon as guidelines. One of the most frustrating things for me about being blasted for all of our rules is that so many of them are created because authors ask for them, and so many more are not rules I’ve put out but rules authors impose themselves.

I am constantly asked for more clarification, for more rules. Authors want to know a secret to getting in the door. How do you write the perfect query letter, how do you write the perfect synopsis, and how do you write the perfect book? I cannot tell you that. I can give you hints, clues, examples, and critiques. I can do my best to help you along the way, but there are absolutely no rules. You’ve said it yourself, agents impose rules but then sell books that break them. When asked how to write a query letter or a pitch I can give you tips on what I’ve seen that’s worked for me. Does that mean it will work in the same way for another agent? Not necessarily, because it’s all subjective. This is the same for resumes and resume cover letters. You can read a resume book and see hundreds of examples. They might all work for you or they might not. Ultimately, when reading the advice of agents you need to pick and choose what resonates with you.

Reading our blogs should be done in the same manner you read revision letters from critique partners, agents, or your own editor. You need to see what worked and didn’t work for other people and see how it resonates with you. Then you need to make your own decisions. Making smart, professional, and personal decisions are in the end what the only rule should be.

Part of this entire rules thing is that authors often take what we say as an absolute. My comment last year on saying thank you in a query letter is a perfect example. In trying to help one particular reader tighten her thank-you (and granted, I should have used a different tone) I was barraged with criticism and read all over the Internet that if you thank me in a query it is an automatic rejection. What?!? Come on. Do you really think I’m that narrow-minded and obtuse? I will take the blame for the tone I used and I guess I should have explained myself in a kinder, gentler manner, but to have it so blown out of proportion is crazy. I’ve learned as the blog goes on what voice works best for me and my readers and tend not to be snarky anymore (or not much). However, that was certainly not a rule. It was a piece of advice relating to one particular query letter.

So my advice to you . . . take what you read on all agent, editor, and publishing blogs with a grain of salt. We give the best advice we can from our own knowledge base. We have few rules and only guidelines. And while we’d prefer you email a query letter, there are plenty of you who include a page or two of your work, and, you know what, I do read them.

This business is hard enough. Coming up with amazing ideas and writing them with near perfection is not easy, and I know that, I really do know that, so to let these so-called rules get you down is crazy. There are plenty of other things about publishing to get us all down.


Thursday, June 19, 2008

Co-Agenting and What It Means

I was asked recently what happens when two authors with different agents finish a project together. And that’s a great question. What happens then is called a co-agented deal, and BookEnds has done a number of them.

Typically, once both agents have read and approved of the project, the agents will start talking to discuss a marketing/submission strategy. Sometimes they will divide up a list of houses and contacts and submit separately (knowing, of course, who is submitting where and to whom) and other times one agent will take the lead, doing much of the submitting, but consulting with the other along the way.

When the offer (or offers) comes in the agents will again consult and handle the deal together. Usually one agent is the go-to person for the editor, but the co-agent of course has an opinion every step of the way. When all is said and done, and a deal has been finalized, both agency clauses will appear in the contract specifying which client is responsible for which agent’s commission, etc.

This is very similar to how many foreign and movie rights are sold by smaller agencies (like BookEnds). We have co-agents we work with in a number of countries. These agents work in their respective countries to sell our titles, and when a deal comes through they consult with us throughout the course of negotiations. In this case, though, the fee is split between the agents.

Keep in mind, co-agenting is great if you and a writing friend decide you have just one or two projects you’d like to do together. If, however, you think of yourself as an author team who plans on writing all or most of your work together, you will not need two separate agents. In that case I would advise querying your one project together and finding one agent you both feel happy and comfortable with.


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Sophomore Slump

In the comments section to one of my blog posts there was a reference to the sophomore slump, when an author has spent years writing and perfecting her first novel and now only has nine months to a year at most to write the second novel and just can’t get it there. This resulted in the following question off the comment board:

Does it really have to be that way? Can't I say to a publisher, "No, I'm only dealing with you for this book, but you'll have the first option to see the next one"? Or is it always a package deal and they buy the next two books in the series or trilogy? Because honestly, it's almost enough to make me put my foot down and say, "No, I'm not going to make any deal on books I haven't written, because if a book is not ready, I WILL NOT put it on the market, deal or no deal."

Honestly, you can do almost anything you want. If a publisher comes to you and offers a three-book deal and you’d rather make it a one-book deal, you can certainly try to do that. I will tell you, though, that there have been times when part of the negotiation did involve the number of books and the publisher wouldn’t budge. You can also set your own delivery dates. If the publisher wants books number two and three at nine-month intervals, but you would be more comfortable with eighteen months, you can try to schedule accordingly.

The problem with waiting so long to deliver the follow-up book and subsequently publish it is that if you are writing genre fiction it’s going to be nearly impossible to build a career on this kind of schedule. More and more publishers are finding that authors who really have success and break out do so based on a quick publishing schedule, especially with the release of their first few books. Once an audience is established with two or three books, it’s possible to stretch things out again to give the author time to catch her breath; and the readers, they’re already fans, so they will happily wait.

By coming out with one book and waiting two years for the next it’s very likely readers will have forgotten you and might not even think to come back. Now, I do believe that writers of literary fiction can be a huge exception to this rule. If the book is truly mind-blowing you will probably get the reviews (NYT, etc.) on the second book to bring the readers back. Of course, you’re hinging your career on reviews.

Now what some publishers are doing to accommodate authors who can’t write a book every three months is to hold the first book or two so that they can schedule the books three months or six months apart, or even back to back in subsequent months. The problem with this, based on your question, is that if I sold a two-book deal for you today and you wanted to wait eighteen months to deliver book two, your first publication date wouldn’t likely be until sometime in 2010.

Ultimately, what I tell my clients is first things first: you need to write a good book, and if the publisher wants it in six months, but you’re more comfortable with nine, you need to go with what makes you comfortable. Reasonably, though, I think you need to learn to write a really knock-out book in nine to twelve months at the outset if you want to build a career. Yes, there are exceptions, but don’t look at authors who first published ten, twenty, or even three years ago and use them as an example. The market has changed.


Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Thank You for Your Time

One time, long ago, I said that I don’t like people to thank me for my time in query letters. And wow, what a mistake that was. I think that of all the things I have written this is the one that has created the most problems and the biggest misunderstandings. I’ve seen other bloggers comment on it, I’ve seen rages on message boards, and I’ve listened to how people will never submit to me because of it. If this isn’t proof of how blown out of proportion things can get, I don’t know what is.

So while I’ve sat back for more than a year, slightly amused and bemused by the entire thing, I’ve finally decided once and for all that it’s time to set the record straight. I am the queen of thank-you notes. Certainly I’m not perfect and have missed a few in my time, but for the most part I make every attempt possible to send out a handwritten thank-you note whenever necessary. Which is why this little urban legend about how Jessica Faust hates being thanked is really very amusing, and of course how it’s gotten out of hand is bemusing.

The entire myth started here during a query critique workshop. Granted, my wording was harsh and snarky and for that I’ll take full responsibility. I do believe, however, as is often the case, that readers didn’t fully read what I was saying or understood why I was saying it. I was asked to critique a query and help make it as strong as I possibly could and, in doing so, the wrath of writers came down on me.

So what did I really mean? The truth is that I don’t believe you should ever begin a query letter by thanking me “for my time.” It’s not that I think it’s stupid for you to do and I certainly won’t reject you simply because of it, but I don’t think it puts your strongest foot forward. I write a lot of query letters and with each one I’m very careful about every single word I use. This is a marketing pitch, and like marketing managers everywhere I need to truly understand the power of words and how a simple word, phrase, or sentence can change the tone of an entire letter. With a query I want to strongly come forward and say, “this is the best book you’ll ever read,” and thanking someone up front doesn’t do that. Opening your query with a thank-you puts you in a subservient position no matter which way you look at it. Think of it this way: if you are going in for a job interview, do you think you’ll appear as the strongest, best candidate if you walk in and immediate thank the interviewer for her time or will you appear strong and assured if you walk in, shake hands, and simply introduce yourself? To me the introduction seems stronger. It puts you on even ground and says to the interviewer that you know what you are doing. At the end of the interview, when the interviewer has clearly given you her time, you definitely say thank you, and so should she.

However, queries are not job interviews. They are resumes, and thanking someone in that initial query seems silly. You aren’t getting anything from them to thank them for. They aren’t reading your work and might not even read your full query. If, however, I’ve requested and read a partial or a full, a thank-you is definitely called for. Why not? Now I have done something for you. I have made a request.

When writing my own queries I tend not to thank editors for their time because it implies they are superior to me and their time is more valuable. Does that mean I don’t say thank you? No, but it’s how the phrasing is used and when. I think it’s much stronger to end a letter with something like, “Looking forward to hearing from you,” or, simply, “Thank you,” but not “Thank you for your time.” In truth, though, I rarely put a thank-you in my initial query. Editors and agents are open to queries and I don’t see the need to thank them for that. It’s because of writers that we have jobs. We should be thanking you for querying us. However, in my case, if I have pitched the book and an editor is requesting to see it, then I will definitely send a thank-you. Something along the lines of, “Here it is. Can’t wait to hear what you think. Thanks!” Because now I actually have something to thank them for. Simply thanking them because they allow me to send a query doesn’t feel right to me somehow.

I’m no expert on etiquette and certainly don’t pretend to be. And frankly, I like being thanked, and if you are comfortable writing a thank-you in every paragraph of your query, go right ahead. My point with the original post, and this one, was not to tell you the rules of when or when not to thank someone. I don’t know those. My point was to help write a strong, marketable query letter that makes me sit up and think, “Wow, this person really believes in her book, it must be something I shouldn’t miss.”

I’m not sure if I made things better or just made things a whole lot worse. I’m starting to spin in circles on this subject myself. Either way, thank you for letting me clear the air.


Monday, June 16, 2008

Waiting for your Agent's Attention

I get a lot of questions from authors asking how to handle an agent who won’t respond to repeated phone calls or emails, but recently I received a question from a reader with a slightly different situation. The author’s agent, Agent X, has been relentlessly working to sell her first book, exhausting all possible resources and still going strong. The problem? Agent X seems focused on one thing, selling the first work, while Author seems ready to move on. Author sent Agent X Manuscript #2 roughly six months ago and has still not received feedback, although Agent X is very responsive in all other ways. Author feels frustrated at the way she feels her career is stagnating and wonders if she needs to give Agent X an ultimatum, wonders how long is reasonable to wait on feedback, and wonders what she should do in general.

This is a bit of a tricky situation, and let me explain why. I do think six months is too long to wait for your own agent to read something you’ve sent in. As a client you should be at the top of her priority list. That being said, since Agent X is working on your career by submitting your first book, it’s not as though you’re being ignored.

Here’s how it works in Jessica BookEnds world. First of all, I will go months with nothing but silence from my clients while they work busily on their next projects or submissions, and then whammo. I swear they all email each other, pick a week, and steadily bombard me with proposals and manuscripts. I’m not complaining, not in the least, but I don’t understand why they all come at once, every, single time. My goal is to get to every client in about two weeks' time if possible. Now that’s not always possible. Sometimes I get stuck on a heavy revision with one work, sometimes a certain works needs me to take more time with it and needs me to step away and think. Who knows what the reasons are, but sometimes it takes longer. Never six months, though.

Typically I read things in the order they come in. However, if I have an incredibly prolific author and am currently submitting something for her, it’s likely her material will go to the bottom of the pile for the moment. I don’t believe it’s a good idea to submit two separate works by the same author at the same time, so there would be no rush on that particular project. However, again, six months would be a really long time to wait.

Now obviously I don’t know how Agent X thinks and can’t tell you what her process is, but I can tell you, Author, that I think you need to have a career discussion with your agent. It seems you are fully ready to move on to the next book, while Agent X is still focused on your last. While I know you would like to sell, maybe it’s time to talk to Agent X about switching focus. Before threatening her with a firing, I think you need to ask yourself a few questions:
  • Do you feel ready to put Manuscript #1 under the bed and move on?
  • Do you feel Manuscript #2 is stronger and might solve some of the reasons you’re seeing rejections on Manuscript #1?
  • If she’s really submitted the book exhaustively, are you even interested in the houses she’s now targeting or would you rather have something fresh for those houses who’ve already rejected Manuscript #1?
Once you have a firm idea of what you want you need to communicate that to Agent X. It sounds to me like she is actually working very hard for you, just not in the way you would like her too.

It sounds to me like you are still generally happy with your agent, just dissatisfied with one particular situation. Nip it in the bud. This is the time to have a frank conversation about your career. I’m not sure you are in need of a new agent, just better communication with the one you currently have.

My advice to any problem you are having with your agent: have the conversation first, fire later. A misunderstanding or miscommunication is a lot easier to fix than finding a new agent. Any advice from readers?


Friday, June 13, 2008

Your Idea of Bad Books

Not too long ago I did what turned out to be an incredibly interesting post on bad books. What made this post so interesting to me was not of course what I had to say, but the reader feedback. I think there were a lot of good things said there.

What struck me right away wasn’t the lively discussion, but the definition of a “bad” book. Some of you latched on to the fact that there are a lot of books that I would consider poorly executed or just not edited, but you thought of as “bad.” You pointed out that there are a lot of books published by bestselling authors in which either the editor has become too afraid to edit or the author has too big of an ego to be edited any longer, or both. It’s true. Both of these things happen all the time, and does that make these books “bad”? It could, absolutely. I think ultimately though that with a strong edit you might find these books are good, just in desperate need of an editor.

Others of you discussed authors you clearly thought were “bad,” and I agree that there are plenty of books out there written by plenty of authors that I have never been able to get past page one on (although I have tried, I have truly tried). Are they “bad”? I’m not sure. They are definitely not to my taste, but there have been a lot of books over time that I love and others have called “bad.” So at what point can you universally decide that a book is “bad” versus not just to your taste. Books, unfortunately, are not like food. They don’t have a shelf life and a strong stink that can help define rotten.

I was also challenged. Some of you thought I was crazy to say that there were no “bad” books out there. And you’re right. Of course there are books that have been published that could be considered “bad” or, as one of you pointed out, mediocre. But is mediocre bad? That’s subjective again. I think McDonald’s is horrible and definitely bad, others would say it’s mediocre, while I would imagine that there are just as many out there who think that McDonald’s is nothing short of heaven. Very different tastes, obviously. Mediocre is not something I’m looking for, but of course there are plenty of you who might think some of my favorite books are mediocre. As a few of you pointed out, the publishing industry is not infallible, and neither are writers. There have definitely been times when a book was bought on proposal, only to have both the author and the editor surprised to discover that the final product could not come close to comparing to those magical first few chapters. Why was it published if even the editor thought it was of a lower caliber? And did the publisher think it was “bad,” but went forward with it anyway? It’s possible, but we’ll probably never know.

I’m reluctant to say that any books were “bad” since I’m a believer that there’s something out there for everyone. There are certain voices and styles of writing that I just can’t stand, that I can’t get through. Certainly when chick lit was really hot I had an extremely difficult time getting through all but a few books. Most of them I thought of as “bad.” But there was obviously a market for them and readers liked and read them. They just weren’t my taste.

One of the reasons for my reaction to the original question was defensive in part, and for that I apologize. All too often, as an agent for commercial fiction, I hear how the types of books I represent are “bad” simply because they are not considered “literary,” and for obvious reasons I strongly disagree. They are not bad, maybe just not to your taste. I appreciated your comments because while I’m reluctant to use the word "bad" because of different tastes, what hadn’t really dawned on me was the very different definitions of bad from editing to execution to simply style.

So with that being said, what really defines “bad” to you? What makes a book “bad”? Is it a style of writing? Lack of editing? Failure to properly plot or characters that didn’t come alive? Or is it simply that you thought the author was sloppy and disrespectful to the reader?


Thursday, June 12, 2008

E-Publishing and Amazon's Kindle

When the Amazon Kindle was first launched the publishing world was buzzing. It’s pretty, it’s convenient and it’s the best e-reader yet to be released. But what is this really going to mean? Should authors start thinking about selling older books?

It’s funny that whenever a new venue for publishing emerges (a new house or a new technology) the immediate reaction of authors is to try to sell all of their older books. Why? As the head of any company or corporation knows, you are only as good as your last product. In other words, as a writer building your brand and your career you're only as good as your latest release, so why would you make that latest release an old book that maybe isn’t as good as what you’re currently writing or not even in the same voice? Just because there’s a new venue for your books doesn’t mean everything you’ve ever written should be plopped into it.

The Amazon Kindle and other similar technologies will only work if readers want to read and buy the books made available to them. If your books weren’t viable in the market before, it’s unlikely they are now, unless of course something major has happened to your career to change that, but we’re not going to go into the exceptions at this point.

What I foresee in e-publishing as well as traditional publishing is a greater need for ebooks. I think more people will buy books electronically and read them that way. Do I see an end to paper? Not anytime soon, but I do see a change. I think more nonfiction will go electronic before fiction. It will be so much easier to update nonfiction titles continuously when they are published electronically. How great would it be if your new purchase, a book on breast cancer treatments, can be updated by only purchasing one chapter?

Kim just recently got a Kindle and I’m sure she’ll comment. I haven’t been swayed yet. I love it for its weight and size. Certainly it seems more convenient for travel, and I really love the thought of downloading my submissions to a Kindle and reading them that way. To me, though, there are still some chinks in the armor that need to be worked out before I’m swayed completely. I’m sure I’ll be an ebook reader before too long, but I can’t imagine that it will be the only way I read books. But what about you? How do you feel about this new way of reading and why do you feel that way?


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Questioning Agents

I've been reading your posts about questions a writer should ask an agent before accepting an offer, and finding it very enlightening! What I'm wondering now is, is it acceptable for an author to contact an agent and ask some of these questions before submitting work, particularly if the agency is new? I've been to the agency's webpage and they seem 'on the level' near as I can tell, but since they don't represent any authors yet (or haven't yet posted the representations on their website), I can't tell if they deal with the publishing houses I'm interested in and have nothing to compare my own work to in terms of exactly what they might be interested in.

My first concern isn’t necessarily whether or not this agent represents the types of work you are writing; my concern is whether or not this agency is legitimate. You say that they seem on the level as far as you can tell, but do the agents have any publishing experience? What are they doing, or have they done, to learn about the business, network with editors, understand publishing contract language, etc.? It’s one thing to find someone who calls herself an agent, it’s another to find an agent who can actually grow your career. The best place to go to learn about the legitimacy of an agency is Writer Beware. Here you can find a comprehensive list of things to look out for when evaluating a new agency.

I wasn’t given much information other than what you said above, so I can’t say for sure what their Web site might look like or who they are. A red flag for me, though, is if they don’t have a list of genres they are interested in representing and/or houses they have contacts with. It’s tough. I was a new agent once and I know what it’s like to put up a practically empty Web site. However, I also know that what helped me really build my career was the fact that I did have a publishing background, that I did have contacts in the business, and that I did attend regular publishing meetings and events to not only network but also to learn more about the industry. It’s amazing what you can learn about things like contract negotiation and publishing houses by simply talking to other agents.

Okay, back to your first question: I think you could easily call the agency. You can always call, but I don’t necessarily know that they’ll call you back. The truth is that you can query them and ask all of the questions if they call to offer representation. You can always say no. This is a good question for readers, and even some of our own clients. For those of you who queried or signed with an agency that might have been fairly new at the time, what made you comfortable doing so, and if you avoided querying a particular new agency, what were the red flags for you?


Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Michele Dunaway on Voice

Michele Dunaway
Out of Line
Publisher: Harlequin Enterprises
Pub date: June 2008
Agent: Jessica Faust

(Click to Buy)

Author Web/Blog links: &

I’ve always been a lousy joke-teller. But anyone who hears me talk about what’s happening in my life usually ends up rolling on the floor clutching his or her stomach since I make people feel better about themselves without them pitying me too much. It is this ability to laugh at myself that creates my author’s voice.

An author’s voice is that mystical, interplanetary thing that you can’t buy in Walgreens or find on the Internet. But every best-selling author has it. So where did they get it? And better yet, where do you find it?

Your author’s voice is actually already with you. It’s found deep inside you, but it doesn’t take any money or a clinical psychologist to help you get it out. All you need is to know who you are, and accept that who you are is what you are.

By this I mean that you need to know your own personality. Authors use personality all the time in their work. There are the archetypes and stereotypes that we can draw from. However, who are you? Are you the embittered divorcee holding out for true love? The young virgin with the future so bright? The overworked father with the nasty boss? The parent of fifteen kids and not a minute to yourself? Are you a codependent? An independent? An ISTJ? ESTJ? Or another of those Myers-Briggs personalities?

Whatever or whomever you are, you are unique. Your combined experience gives you a personality and a life that is similar, yet different, from everyone else. And what makes you unique helps create your author’s voice, which is how you create dialogue that sounds real, settings that readers visualize, and plots that come alive.

Ask yourself some basic questions:

1. What movies and books do you reach for? You’ll occasionally find me with a mystery, but my voice doesn’t lend itself to Kinsey Millhone or Hercule Poirot. And speaking of Agatha, look at how different Miss Marple is from Mr. Poirot. That’s voice.

2. What do you like to eat? I disagree that foods make the man, or I’d be able to live on nothing but chocolate and Oreos and never gain an inch around my waistline. Most of my characters hate coffee. I don’t drink it, and couldn’t describe it if I tried. That’s voice.

3. What magazines do you read? If you are a serious person with subscriptions to Time and Newsweek, your characters may appear more serious or may read more studious things. If you are a home-and-hearth type who reads Better Homes and Gardens, you may find these little tidbits coming through in your wording. That’s voice.

Voice occurs through word choice. Your vocabulary isn’t limited, but the words you choose to use more often than not are. Soda versus pop? Where you live, your background, and your experiences determine your voice. They all come together to determine who you are, and how your words will sound on paper. If you’re setting a book in St. Louis, and where you live that fizzy beverage is called pop, you’ll want to do some research to make sure you’re using the correct term for the area. Here we call it soda. I’ve heard that in the South everything is Coke, you just specify the flavor.

So, how do you get a handle on voice? You begin to look for it. You analyze yourself and your writing. Is your voice active or passive? Do you love adverbs? Adjectives? Prepositional phrases? Pronouns? Look for what makes your writing work—that unique element in the paragraph you really love. Then you eliminate the stuff you overuse or that makes your prose sound flat. I love to use the phrase "she shrugged." During my edits I make sure my heroine isn’t shrugging throughout the entire book. I also look for "be verbs" and replace them wherever possible with action words.

If you write love scenes, your voice will allow you to be sweet, sensual, steaming, or anywhere in between. My ex-husband always wanted me to use the phrase "pink, pulsating bazooka of love." You can see why I divorced him—this article is the only time you’ll ever see that particular piece of purple prose in my writing.

Seriously, though, if you are uncomfortable writing graphic sex words, you might not want to write for the hotter, more erotic lines or imprints. You may discover your voice speaks easier writing something sweeter, and which keeps the love scenes behind the proverbial closed bedroom door. Embrace your convictions and personal beliefs. They dictate your voice, and what that voice says as the words leave your fingertips and plant themselves onto paper. Readers can tell when you are forcing something that you shouldn’t, or when you aren’t being honest or comfortable with your writing.

Just as your fingerprints are original, so should be your voice. Write what you love, characters you can love, and your readers will love you. Your voice is what sets you apart from everyone else; it’s what adds that special sparkle to writing that editors are looking for when authors recycle the same basic plots over and over. I mean, what makes your amnesiac bride with the cowboy’s secret baby unique? It’s the way you tell the story, and the way you make your plot come alive through your voice.

Think of some top authors and their voices. Stephen King’s voice is horrific. He can suspend reality and make us cringe as we visualize the langoliers when we board an airplane or think of pig’s blood come prom time. He can also take us along the green mile and make us think about living forever and the consequences of being different.

John Grisham takes us into the courtroom and the world of lawyers. Sue Grafton gives us Kinsey in first person, as if we are reading her report of the crime. Jackie Collins gives us Hollywood and its excesses; Dick Francis connected most everything to the horseracing world; and the incomparable Nora Roberts takes a reader from murder to suspense to humor all with a happy, romantic ending. James Patterson can go from thrillers to sappy sweet. J. K. Rowling made us cheer for wizards and wish we weren’t muggles. Each book an author writes has distinct tone, which comes from the characters, who come from the people we as writers must see or hear inside our heads. Bestseller Stephanie Meyer saw Edward in a dream. Don’t be afraid of hearing your characters speak.

What scares me is when they are silent.

Your voice is what gives your characters life. Talk to them. Listen to their answers. Write down what they say—for they cannot come alive until you breathe life into them. When you do this, you will realize you have found and discovered voice. Once that occurs, take your vision and go forward.

Michele Dunaway found her voice early, it just took her a long time to appreciate it. When she’s not talking to herself (without answering, of course, because that’s a sure sign she’s crazy—wait, she teaches high school, she already is), Michele is busy writing for Harlequin American and Harlequin NASCAR. Her next book is Out of Line, and is followed by Tailspin in September.

Monday, June 09, 2008

A Question of Genre

I receive a lot of questions about genres, like how you define a certain genre or what is going on with certain genres. I’m going to try to address some of the questions I receive, as briefly as I can, and ask that you feel free to ask and discuss genres in the comments.

Genre is an interesting thing because to some degree it’s fluid. Sure a romance is a romance and a mystery a mystery, but when does a SF romance become SF rather than romance and when does a thriller become suspense or vice versa. When is fantasy really paranormal and when did all of these genres cross over? It’s enough to give anyone and everyone a headache. Ultimately, though, when in doubt, go with your gut. Who do you like to read and what author would you compare your writing to? Where would you put it on the bookshelf and who are your readers? To me that’s the best way to define genre.

Recently I submitted what I was calling a paranormal mystery. To some houses I sent it to mystery editors I knew were looking for just that type of book. To other houses I sent it to fantasy editors because I knew it suited their lines better. A tricky business this. I’ve seen paranormal romances published as fantasy and fantasy morph into romance. It’s an ever-changing world so don’t get too caught up in a name.

So on to some of the questions . . .

Are there any publishers out there besides Harlequin, Dorchester, and Kensington looking for historical western romance books? Why do those houses seem to have a corner on these types of books?

Interesting question because in fact I just had lunch last week with an editor at a house that was not Harlequin, Dorchester, or Kensington who would love to see more historical western romances. The trick is rising above what has traditionally been called historical western. To do this I think you have to make your book stronger and different and bigger. There are a lot of editors out there who love this genre and would love to buy in it, but to break in you really need to write something that transcends everything else. Because that’s an easy task [she says sarcastically].

Just wondering about the world of graphic novels. What's the submission process? Are these things that most publishers of children's & YA books are looking at? Assuming a writer has an idea, a complete script & a graphic artist, how much is enough for a solid submission?

I wish I could better answer this for you, but I haven’t represented any graphic novels, and if I did or do, at least at this point, they would most likely be reprints of books I’ve already sold and not new titles. Although I’m not so sure about that either. My understanding, of which I have very little, is that the publisher often hires the author and artist separately, although I’m going to open this up to the readers and ask anyone who might know better than I what the procedure is. I can tell you that graphic novels are big and something that I can see us doing in the future if current clients have interest.

I have two manuscripts ready to be fine tuned: A mystery with chick lit voice, and a romantic suspense. I really like both stories, but I keep hearing chick lit is dead. Should I concentrate on the romantic suspense?

Yes, chick lit is dead. I would advise anyone who has a desire to write in the category formerly known as chick lit to wipe that terminology from your dictionary. Now that you’ve done that, let me tell you what you are writing. Funny women’s fiction, light women’s fiction, or fun women’s fiction. And after all that is said I am here to tell you that there is actually an audience for chick lit mysteries. Not just a readership, but an audience of editors. I think in this case you’ve got a light, funny mystery and should feel free to continue with both.

I was wondering if you could address the difference between women’s fiction and chick lit. Most of the definitions I’ve seen for these two genres are very similar, so what characteristics would tip a book one way or the other?

Besides that chick lit is dead? Just kidding. Keep in mind that chick lit is technically women’s fiction, it’s just a sub-genre, in the same way paranormal romance is still romance. That said, there is a difference between books defined strictly as women’s fiction and those that have historically been defined as chick lit, and it’s voice. You can easily write a book about a 20-year-old women and have it categorized as women’s fiction. However, if the voice is chick lit it’s going to be called chick lit. Unfortunately, unless I’m quoting passages of books here, I can’t clearly show you what the voice is, but if you go pick up a few books that were defined as chick lit in their day, I think you’ll quickly see what I mean. Chick lit tends to be a little snarky and sarcastic, while women’s fiction doesn’t. If you are writing chick lit, be careful of that voice as much as you can. Even a book not labeled as chick lit can quickly get rejected if editors feel the voice is too chick lit.

These are great questions and might very well cause some good discussion. And this post helped me answer multiple questions at once, which is really wonderful. As an aside, I have so many great questions from readers that have come through the blog email, and I want to thank you all. If I haven’t gotten to yours yet, I apologize. I’m trying to get through them because many are really useful, so please keep them coming.


Friday, June 06, 2008

The Art of Persistence

I received a question recently from a reader who was asking how persistent she should or needs to be when it comes to her queries. She had e-queried Agent X in late December and again on April 14th, but has yet to hear anything back. She assumes her query ended up in a spam filter or something similar since friends who have also queried the same agent have heard back. The question is when do you stop or when do you assume that no answer means no?

This is a trickier question than it should be. I would imagine many readers will simply tell you that no answer means no. However, if this is an agent who does reply to all queries (and not one who says that no reply means you’ve been rejected), then you would assume you would hear back. You would be amazed at how many e-queries get lost. If they make it out of our server’s spam filter they can often end up in our email program’s spam filter. While each of us do check those regularly, things can easily fall through the cracks, especially if a query is not marked “query” or “submission” in the subject line. And you might be amazed how often I respond to queries that for whatever reason don’t get through. Sometimes they are bounced back because of my server or yours, and sometimes I receive a notice that they are in your spam filter (which I hope you are all checking).

If you’re querying BookEnds and not receiving replies, I would suggest you try again and even follow up with a snail mail letter and SASE. In fact, earlier this year I received an e-query from an author telling me that in November she had e-queried and never received a reply so decided to try again. Guess what? Within two weeks' time or so that author became a client.

I can’t tell you anything specific about the agent mentioned above, but as long as you’re still willing to follow up within the time frame this agent suggests that she replies, go ahead and do so. Eventually you’ll hear back or decide yourself that enough is enough.

Persistence is great. I applaud and admire it, but don’t let it get in the way of what might ultimately be the right choice. While you think that Agent X is the perfect agent for you and are zealously pursuing her, don’t ignore other things that are going on. You might discover that, in fact, Agent Z, the agent you never considered, is in fact your dream agent.


Thursday, June 05, 2008

Taking an Agent's Advice

I recently received an email from a writer asking for some advice. She is writing (and submitting) a historical romance and has been told by two different agents that she should narrow her point-of-view focus to two characters and eliminate all others. The author feels this would make the story long and boring and wonders if this is narrow thinking on the agents’ part or her own.

I’ve always cautioned against taking every bit of advice you receive from agents or editors and simply running with it. Publishing is a subjective business and just because one person gives a suggestion doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right suggestion for your book. However, if you are receiving the same information from more than one person it’s very likely it’s advice you should consider taking; of course you should only consider taking it if you truly believe it’s something you can and should do.

In this case I haven’t read the book and don’t have much more information than what I posted above. However, if you are writing from more than two points of view you probably have a problem. I doubt you need to fully eliminate all other characters, but you do probably need to look at how well your protagonists really stand out. If other characters are overshadowing those who should be the stars you are going to have a problem, especially when writing romance.

Ultimately I can’t give you advice on how you should revise or edit your book without reading it myself. I can, however, tell you that if you are getting the exact same feedback from more than one agent you might want to seriously consider their comments, and if you haven’t yet, you need to find yourself a writing critique group. One that can honestly take the critiques you’re receiving from agents and help you evaluate and possibly implement them.

Any advice from readers? At what point do you decide that the advice agents are giving is dead-on rather than just too narrow-minded?


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Why Do You Seek Publication?

I’ve done a number of posts on what keeps writers going, and more often than not the answers are that you need to write and have to write. But my question today is a little different. What makes you seek publication? I understand that as writers you feel the pull to write in much the same way a runner needs to run. But why not just keep a journal or a blog or simply write for yourself? Why not write your stories and just leave them on your computer? Why do you feel the need to continue to subject yourself to the cruelties of publishing?

Let’s face it, publishing is a rough business. Before you even get in the door of an agency you often receive hundreds of rejections, and it usually doesn’t stop there. Once you have an agent it’s likely you’re going to receive at least some rejections from publishers, and then there are the reviews and the bitter comments from fellow writers, friends, and family asking when you are going to write a “real” book.

When I get emails from discouraged writers this is what I think they are asking. They don’t want to know what makes you physically put pen to paper, but what keeps you searching for publication. Why do you continue to submit and how do you keep going when the rejections pile up and you are hearing very little positive feedback?

I’m going to guess that the answers are all different. I know for me, when I’m going through a slump or am feeling discouraged, it’s the belief in myself and the love for a particular book. It’s the certainty that the clients I have are not just publishable, but meant to be published.

But what about you, what keeps you going?


Tuesday, June 03, 2008

When to Cut Ties with Your Agent

I’ve talked a lot about the author-agent relationship and imagine that there are a lot more posts on that topic in my future. I’ve certainly covered how to fire your agent when she is ignoring you, but what about the agent who is paying attention to you, but just can’t seem to sell your work? How do you know when to cut ties with this person?

The really difficult part about answering this question is that I can’t, really. I can give guidance, but making the decision to fire an agent is really personal and, frankly, I always feel that if you’re asking that question you’re probably ready to let go. I’ve often likened the author-agent relationship to dating or marriage, in a business sense, and I think this is no different. How often have you dated someone and known long before it was over that it was over, but instead of doing anything about it you just went along with the way things were simply because it was easier? If you say never, then you are either lying or you married the one and only person you ever dated, because at one point or another I think we’ve all done that. Okay, maybe it wasn’t dating, maybe it was a friendship, or your agent. . . .

Here’s the deal: if you feel your agent has lost confidence in you or your work or you feel that you need to be going in a direction that your agent doesn’t seem to want you to go in, you need to have a conversation. After nearly ten years in business it should come as no surprise that I too have had clients fire me. I don’t think any of us have gone our separate ways feeling any animosity for each other, at least I didn’t, but in at least a couple of instances I felt like the client was really, truly, for the first time telling me what she wanted, when she fired me. Communication can make all the difference in any relationship, and if you’re not good at it, now is the time to practice. Call your agent up; if she’s not ignoring you, then she’s presumably taking your calls, and have an honest conversation about your concerns, what you’re feeling, and what you would like to see more of. If you have a good agent she’ll be just as honest back, and at that point you’ll know whether this relationship is really going to work. Are the two of you now on the same page? Do you think you can continue to work together?

If the conversation didn’t go as you had hoped or you still really feel that this is no longer working, then it’s probably time to cut and run. Listen, no one can tell you when to break up with your boyfriend, divorce your husband, quit your job, or fire your agent. Sadly these are all decisions we need to make on our own, in our own time. The author-agent relationship is sacred; the agent is the one person in your career who you can consistently count on to be in your corner, and if you’re not feeling the love, maybe it really isn’t there.

As for the question of firing an agent because she can’t sell your work, well, that’s a personal decision too. There is no time frame on when a work should sell or if a work should ever sell. What you want, though, is an agent who continues to believe in you and your work and is willing to stick by you. Remember, though, an agent, like an author, can have periods where she too feels discouraged and upset. If we’re excited about something and it doesn’t sell, you have to give us the same mourning period you give yourself. It’s only natural.

Obviously I’m one side of this equation. What about authors? Any advice?


Monday, June 02, 2008

The Use of Clichés

I was asked recently by a reader about the use of clichés. She used the example of the protagonist waking up in the morning and starting the day, looking in the mirror and criticizing her appearance—she had heard these were taboo. I personally have never heard of anything being taboo, but will say these sound like really boring openings to me, which is probably why some people think they’re taboo.

Nothing is taboo if done differently and in an interesting manner, but there are a lot of things I see on a regular basis that feel easy to me, like the author followed a formula. Dreams are one example of what I guess you would call a clichéd opening. I see so many books that open with a scary dream. They are meant to draw the reader in and hold our attention, until the protagonist wakes up, and goes to the mirror to criticize her appearance. Now, dreams can definitely be effective and I’ve represented more than one dream book, but if done in a different, non-clichéd way.

Your examples are not effective simply because they are boring. Imagine if you asked me about my day, or the typical day of an agent, and I told you something like this: “I woke up at 5:30 and laid in bed for ten minutes debating whether I was really going to make it to the gym. After finally dragging myself out of bed and hunting for my slippers, I wandered into the bathroom. I had to close my eyes to the bright light before I could get a good look at myself in the mirror. My sunken . . .” Snooze! However, if you asked me about my day and I said, “I got a call from Tim Jin and the editor of All About Me Books offering $15,000,000,00 for my memoir. I couldn’t believe it. . . .” Now you’re interested. I’m not sure if these are clichés or just recommended Don’ts.

The opening of any book should grab the readers’ attention and put us into the action of the story, but action doesn’t always have to be physical. What people mean when they want the book to start with action is they don’t want the boring opening of the day, they want to actually get to something that moves us forward into the next scene and gives us immediate insight into the characters or the plot.

I was asked if I could come up with a list of clichés and the only one that jumped out at me was the dream sequence above, but I bet there are a lot of things the readers are sick of seeing. So I open it up to you. What techniques do you feel have become cliché and what would you like not to see again?