Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Agents are scary.....until you meet them.

Traditional publishing is a competitive business. And when I say competitive, I don't mean the bake off where there's only one "Best Cookie," but you could go home with "Most Original," or "Best presentation," instead. I mean competitive in the sense that the gladiators meant it in Roman times. It's brutal. Representation to negotiate with (or even get your work in front of) publishers is a hot commodity. It takes work. You have to read articles on the agents, read and watch their interviews, pick the ones that might suit you best (or at least accept queries in your genre), query them and then wait week after agonizing week for them to request to see more of your work, or reject you without reading a sentence of it.


Imagine my delight when the LDS Storymakers conference I was attending offered meetings or pitch sessions with agents as an optional add-on to your registration. So I signed up. I had never heard of any of the agents, so I read a little on each and selected one that seemed a good fit for me. Victoria Marini. Please check out her website and I dare you not to fall in love with her approach. Also she's a sucker for cat GIF's. Trust me, you'll want to query her. The manuscript consults at the conference were a first-come-first-served kind of deal, so there were no guarantees, but due to a happy coincidence involving a fortune cookie, I got in. I cheered and gushed for a while until I realized I was going to discuss my first chapter face-to-face with someone from the meanest, harshest, most cutthroat group of people on the planet.....Literary Agents.
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I was terrified.

Then I got my time slot. 5:00 pm on Friday night. FIVE P.M.?!? After her full day of pitches and consults and my full day of gorging on info from industry professionals, but before DINNER?? That's when we have to meet?? Forget terrified.  I was screwed.

I walked into the tiny room wherein sat Ms. Marini.  We shook hands. And then in a move so professional and respectful I could only sit in awe, she proceeded to give me feedback on my pages. She didn't waste time on small talk, she didn't pretend interest in my personal life, she went to work. I LOVED it. I only had 15 minutes with her, for crying out loud. She praised where she thought praise was due, critiqued where called for, and warned where she felt warning was necessary. Then she requested more pages. This is, I believe, common practice among agents, to request pages from authors with whom you are face to face, and it's brilliant. Tell me what you like to see, and don't like to see, then give me time to revise and submit more to you. Not the move of a cutthroat meanie, by any stretch.
I ran into her later in the hall, and we chatted. She told me about her adorable mother that would follow her to conferences just to have lunch with her on a break. I talked about my kids. She took pictures of the mountains I take for granted everyday. She was real. Ladies and gentleman that is what you should be looking for. When it came to social time, she got personal. When it came time to teach her class, she was animated, energetic and informative. During the consultation she consulted. This woman may never be my agent,  but she really helped me understand the benefits of having one.
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I took most of the classes taught by the agents and editors at the conference, and at the end of it all it was pretty clear. These people are just people. Lovely, wise, and HONEST people. They want to help us. They want us to improve and excel. Why? Because they have a vested interest in selling good products. So if you ever get the chance to meet one, or consult with one, or take their classes, don't hesitate. You can't lose.

So, you want to write a book... 5 things to think about before you begin

Yes, this is me dusting off the old blog. I happen to have a very good reason for my hiatus. Don't care? Too bad, I'm going to tell you anyway. Not because I'm narcissistic and believe you need to hear about my struggles to properly appreciate how important I am, but because of one simple phrase I hear ALL.THE.TIME.

 "I've always wanted to write a book."

If you have said this, or any of the other myriad variations, this post is for you. And no, this is not a Scared Straight program. I will not discourage any person from writing a book. Ever. I love books,and I love the people who write them. So, if you have that same little itch that brought me to the excruciating twelve to twenty-four month social absence I've just experienced, I'd like to share some things I learned along the way.

1. Start with a good idea

Think you've got a super original idea for a book? You don't. Sorry. I don't mean that rudely. I just mean, it's 2015. The concept of original thought is basically extinct. Actually, if you think about it, the fact that none of our ideas is original should be quite liberating. It's all been done. So we're free to reinvent to our hearts' content. Just remember to do it in your own unique way. Got a dystopian post-apocalyptic story? Heard it. Got a romance? It's a love triangle, right? Or maybe it's the one where the MC hates the love interest in the beginning, but they end up together in the end. Or maybe you've got an epic fantasy with an MC who has a special gift that will help them save not only the world you've just built,  but also the world as we know it. He or she has a group of plucky sidekicks, and a mentor, and there may or may not be a prophecy involved predicting our hero's success or failure. Predictable. Patterned. There are patterns for a reason. They work. But if you want yours to stand out, figure out how to put a new spin on it.

2. A book is a completely different thing than an idea for a book.
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I don't just mean the difference between your idea and a published and bound magical form of diversion and entertainment that you and I willingly addict ourselves to daily. I mean the typed and completed manuscript that means you took your New Year's resolution seriously this time. I mean the jacked up back and shoulders, and sore fingers that indicate you committed to said idea, and then let it push you violently down a gajillion rabbit holes until your idea morphed into a semblance of a plot, which then morphed into characters that became your best friends, but sucked the life out of you like enemies, which then morphed into a storyline. There are many differences, but the biggest one is reality. An idea is cheap. You could have a million a day. Don't make the mistake of thinking your idea will sell itself without actually learning to write a book. You want a finished product? Sit your butt in the chair and finish the project. And for the love, do NOT put an ad out looking for someone to write your book idea for you and offer to pay them $50. Offer them no less than all your money, assets, and first-born child, or write the thing yourself.
3. Learn how to write a book.writing gif photo: the writing process writing_process.gif

I hesitate to write this one, because it will sound harsh, which can sometimes translate into discouragement. But it's important. When I told my mother, a very wise and well-read woman, I wanted to write a book, she said, "You should take a class." I failed to take that advice when writing my first book, and it cost me months of extensive and brutal editing, only to end up with a book that was just OK. So when she said it again on the next book, I took a class. Then another. Then bought books on writing. Then followed blogs on writing. Then joined author's groups. Went to conferences. Entered contests with the sole purpose of gaining feedback from professionals. Guess what happened? I learned how to write. And, perhaps more importantly, I learned how not to write. I learned the dangers of cliches, filter words, outdated dialogue, vague pitches, poor outlining, predictable endings, etc.  I've also had the opportunity to read and critique other writers' work. You know the difference between the works I enjoyed and the ones I rolled my eyes at? Understanding of the craft of writing, and, those willing to put in the time to gain it. Want an example? Let me know and I'll show you the difference between my 1st draft and my last draft. It's staggering.

4. Do not let the only eyes on this manuscript be yours and the agent/publisher/audience you want to woo.
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The most valuable thing you can do for yourself during the writing process is get feedback. Not from your mother, unless your mother is brutally honest and somewhat skeptical. You need to hand pick your critique group. Call for volunteers, and then select them with extreme prejudice. This subject could become a blog post on its own, but I'll tell you, finding the right beta readers made  my progress from draft to draft possible. Period. So get some. Other authors who also need betas are a great resource, and are frequently willing to trade.

5. Balance your life with ferocity.

Writing takes time. So does parenting, your day job, your relationships, and every other blasted thing you have going on in your life. Writing can and will take over your life and leave only dirty dishes, overflowing hampers, and disappointed people in its wake if you let it. Decide what portion of your head space you are going to give it, and protect those boundaries like the border police. Give it the time and effort it requires, but time is your most valuable commodity, so budget for it.

The truth is, that idea you have in your head? No one else can write it like you. So buckle up, and get it out there. We'd all love to read it.

Do you have tips for beginning writers? Please share!