Tuesday, November 20, 2012

“Are We There Yet?” Thoughts on Process, from TBA client Danielle Davis



I’m very pleased to share this piece on process, and knowing when you’re finished, from my client Danielle Davis.  I fell in love with Danielle’s writing the minute I read it, and as you can guess from this, she’s one of the most thoughtful, intrepid writers I’ve been lucky to know.  She also has some very good advice to share on the longing we all have to be done, to know that the hard work is complete, and how to balance that against the time that every project must take.  Enjoy!  -- Susan
 
Some call the desire to wrap up a writing project as soon as possible, too soon, “early closure.”

Students often have that.
I have that too.

It’s just so tempting to be done.

But, no. Writing is a process of indeterminable length. And every writer’s process is different, perhaps with every project.

There’s revisiting, reimagining, rewriting. Reading it aloud dozens of times.
For me, there’s walking, playing with the cat, drinking tea, watching Project Runway.
And perhaps most importantly, there’s discovering the heart of the story. Its essence. Its core. The thing authentic to me (you) and the story I (you) want to tell.

I remember the triumphant feeling of finishing my first picture book manuscript. Of course, I thought it was perfect. Hahahaha.

I kept working on it. I got feedback. I joined SCBWI. I even sent it out to agents, to editors. And then, after revision, I sent it out again.

I remember the frustration of thinking, “When is this going to happen?” followed by “Never, obviously.” I wanted process and rejection to be over. Closed. Now, please.

Perhaps it wasn’t yet perfect after all.

I moved on. There was another picture book manuscript. And another. Another. Another. Each written, revised, sent out, and ultimately returned to my mail or inbox.

Over time, I gave up on some.
Others I carried in the back of my mind, so they could root around and grow into something else.

Seven years after I wrote that first one I was up on a cold night, shivering instead of sleeping. The title floated around my head and I couldn’t let it go, just like I couldn’t get warm under the blankets. I loved the title, the characters, the idea. I just didn’t like the story.
I’d have to change it. And I finally had some direction as to how.

It started as a book about a girl who loses something and her magical journey to get it back.

But things had changed in the years since that first draft.
I’d read stacks of picture books.
Studied my heroes: Oliver Jeffers, Mary Lyn Ray, Shaun Tan, and others.
Practiced.
And finally, I’d had some hands-on experience with loss myself.

It wasn’t until my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer that I really got to know him. He was sixty-five. I was thirty. It was kind of late. But in his impending disappearance from the world, we connected in a way we never had or could before. Everything that had been between us fell away. Through those ten months of feeding him spoonfuls, holding his hand, listening, we became real to each other and, though it may sound strange, that’s when I finally loved my father. And he loved me.

Then he was gone.
And I couldn’t get him back.

My character had lost a special thing too, and it turned out no kind of magic was going to bring it back (at least not this time).

So what would she do? How would she cope with loss? What would be her story?

Now the book is about a girl who loses something, grieves it, holds it in her heart, and then, lets her heart grow to be able to love something else. Not the same thing, not a replacement thing, but another, different, also wonderful thing.

It will never be the same, but she opens herself to what is. Now.

While not an autobiographical story, it did take time and personal experience to find the heart of the book. The one I wanted to write, that was authentic to me.

But it doesn’t have to take a number of years or the passing of a loved one to write less than 500 words. Let’s hope not, right?!

When you resist the universal urge to be done, like yesterday already, the early closure monster can stop screaming in impatience, doubt, and despair. (Or you can ignore it.)
You can ask questions like:
What is this story really about?
What’s the heart of it?
Why am I writing this book?
How is it something only I can tell?
You can watch [insert TV show of choice].

The magic, the payoff, is in process.

When you’re there, you’re there.

It’s really about getting to the story in the story. Not the end, but the essence.

Friday, October 12, 2012

In Answer To Your Questions--a post by Jenny

I recently received an email from Chris Branam, a graduate student at Antioch University Midwest.   As part of his course work for their creative writing program, he is required to interview a literary agent and he sent me the following questions:


1.       When did you realize you wanted to become a literary agent?
2.       How was the process of becoming a literary agent?
3.       Where should someone wanting to become an agent begin?
4.       Is New York an essential pilgrimage for anyone wanting to become an agent/writer?
5.       There are clearly trends in the publishing world that spread like wildfire (vampires, YA dystopian novels, etc.) Are there many agents still willing to look at authors who are not genre based and work in literary fiction/non-fiction?
6.       Is it prudent to get some work out there in literary magazines or otherwise before looking for an agent?
7.       Has the publishing world changed since you began your career and in what way?
8.       Is it advisable for an author to keep a blog?
9.       What makes you choose one writer over another?
10.   Is there any further advice for new authors that comes to mind?


I asked Chris if I could answer his questions on my blog, since it struck me that this might be good information to share with aspiring agents and writers alike and he graciously agreed.   

Here are the answers to Chris's questions.

1.  When I was a kid, my mom got me this great book called something like, "careers for people who love to read."   I have no idea if it's still available but it pretty much changed my whole life because it was then that I realized I wanted to be in publishing.  Then, in college, I took a terrific class called "Magazine Editing and Publishing" and Joyce Johnson, author of IN THE NIGHT CAFE, came and spoke to us.  I'll never forget it because she told us, in so many words, "When you're an editor, you can't buy what you want to because you have to answer to a bunch of different people in house who will tell you what you can and can't do.  Be an agent--you have a lot more freedom."   And so that pretty much decided it for me.  I knew I was pretty independent and entrepreneurial and that I'd probably be a lot happier if I could make my own decisions about what books I wanted to work with.

2. It was hard, really hard!  I started out as an assistant to an agent.  I sort of had it in my head that I would be an assistant for a while and then one day I would magically get a promotion and someone would say, "congratulations, you're an agent!" and I would start selling books right away and be paid a salary for it.   But it really didn't work that way--my boss, understandably, wanted an assistant, not a junior agent.  So after a few years I left that job and went to work for an agency that paid me on commission alone.   I had a mortgage and no salary, so I had to really hustle to make a living--looking back, I think it was a great way to start, because if I didn't sell books I would have been in a lot of trouble.   I also thought it was going to be really easy to sell books and it turned out it was hard.   I had  to create a name and a reputation and I had to get a sense of what editors were looking for--and I also had to build a client list from scratch.

3. I think with an internship or at a publishing course or really both.   And then start as an assistant either for a publisher or for an agent.  I always wished that I had some experience at a publishing house so I had more first-hand knowledge of how the acquisitions process went.   I did work at a book store for a while though, and that has been invaluable experience just in terms of understanding how people make decisions about what books to buy.

4.  Not necessarily.   Kristin Nelson, for one, has been a very successful agent without ever living in NYC.

5.  A great many agents focus still on literary fiction.   Look at people like Eric Simonoff, Bill Clegg, Marly Rusoff, Leigh Feldman, and Zoe Pagnamenta, just to name a few, who are very successfully focusing on selling literary works.

6. There are a lot of ways to attract the attention of an agent these days.  You can publish in literary magazines, you can create a successful blog or vlog, you can build a twitter or Facebook audience, you can self-publish successfully, or you can just be a great writer with a great concept.   I tend to advise people to focus on what they do best--if you are a good short story writer, for instance, focus on magazines.   If you are good at social media, focus on that.

7. I blogged on this recently and so I'll be lazy and just link to it here.

8. Well, see my answer to 6. above.  I think if you are good at it and you enjoy it and you know how to drive traffic to it, yes, you should blog.   Otherwise, not.   If you don't like it, you probably won't be consistent, which is important when you're blogging, and if you don't know how to drive traffic to it, it's not going to do much in terms of building your audience.

9. Quality of writing, quality of ideas, in a nutshell.   There are other factors but those are the biggest.

10. Tenacity is more important than anything else.  It even trumps talent, I would say.   Believe in yourself and never give up, no matter what.  


Thanks very much to Chris Branam for contacting me with such good questions and for letting me share them with you.   Chris can be found blogging here if you'd like to reach him.

Have a great weekend everybody!

Jenny

Friday, October 5, 2012

Beginnings, Endings, and the stuff in between--a post from Jenny on editing your ms

Lately I've been reading some really otherwise great manuscripts that seem to share the same three problems.  Since I'm seeing these missteps so much, I'm figuring that maybe I should write about them in the hopes that my advice will apply to the books of some of the readers of this blog as well.  The good news is that these problems are all very fixable--so read on and see if you think your book might be suffering from these same three writerly mistakes.

1. You don't need the first 50 pages.   Let me clarify.  You needed to *write* the first 50 pages.   You needed them to understand your characters better by giving them a back story.   But now that the book is done, your characters are alive and interesting and informed by the knowledge that these pages gave you.   So while you needed to write these pages, the reader doesn't need to read them.   Trust your characters to reveal themselves in the rest of the book and cut out the back story that is now slowing your book down.  

2. Your characters need to *feel* more.   I think "show don't tell" has been drummed into our heads so long and so often that we forget that we do need to let the reader into our characters' heads.   While we don't want you to do a big info dump of character development and we do want your characters to reveal themselves through action, you still also need to tell us sometimes what they are thinking and feeling along with that.  Let's call your main character Bob.  If you put Bob in a crazy situation, remember to tell us what his reaction is to that situation--or poor Bob will feel flat and lifeless to the reader.

3.  Your ending is rushed.  Readers love a satisfying ending.   Think of all the times you raced through a book only to feel let down by the ending.  Try to go in the opposite direction with your book.   I find a lot of writers want to have ambiguity or loose ends in an ending and I think that often that's the wrong impulse.   The beauty of a book, as opposed to life, is that we can have an ending that ties things up, or at least ties a lot of things up.   An ending should also provide a thorough, complex explanation of any motivations or happenings that seemed mysterious throughout the book.   I'm noticing that many of the endings I am reading in unpubbed manuscripts these days would be improved by adding at least an entire chapter of material.  

Do you feel your manuscript might share some of these issues?  Let me know in the comments.   And happy revising!

Jenny

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Agent Gemma Cooper Joins TBA!



Hi All, 

I'm thrilled to announce that I have joined the wonderful team at The Bent Agency! And I couldn't be more excited about this! I've already built up a strong working relationship with Molly Hawn here in London, and it seemed inevitable that we would end up as colleagues at some point. I'm looking forward to diving into the slush pile and adding to my current client list. I've written a wish list to help with what I'm looking for. I am only representing authors who write for children and teens.

      ·   I'm lucky to represent Mo O'Hara, author of MY BIG FAT ZOMBIE GOLDFISH (Macmillan UK/Feiwel and Friends 2013) and I'd love to find other fantastic chapter books (7+ fiction) with an obvious hook and a laugh on every page.

·   One of my all time favourite books is WHEN YOU REACH Me by Rebecca Stead. I love that it blend genres, has an amazing voice and literary feel to the writing. Anything similar would make me sit up and take notice.

·    I love boy voice YA – it’s my favourite thing in YA and so hard to strike the right balance. Think John Green or Erin Jade Lange's BUTTER.

·    In YA, I’m seeing a lot of urban fantasy and am not really looking for this or paranormal romance. However, I’d love a nice juicy contemporary or issues driven YA. Think Jenny Valentine or Sara Zarr.

·    A YA or MG crime novel or some sort of heist would be great. My favourite detectives are Poriot and Sherlock Holmes, and I've love to read something with the same feel written for younger audiences - red herrings, opulent settings and gathering everyone in a room for the reveal!

·    Please send me historical fiction with a realistic narrator that almost has a diary feel to it. Think the ONCE, THEN, AFTER series by Morris Gleitzman

·    I would like to see some of the paranormal elements that work so well in YA filtered down into MG or chapter books - ideally with humour.

·    I'm obsessed with HITCHHIKERS GUIDE TO THE GALAXY and the TV series RED DWARF, so I’d love to see funny sci-fi stories for a younger audience. The more off the wall the better.

And one final bit of help - books I've read recently that I've LOVED:

·       WONDER by RJ Palacio
·       DOG DISASTER by Katie Davies
·       LIAR & SPY by Rebecca Stead
·       BARRY LOSER by Jim Smith
·       A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness
·       MAGGOT MOON by Sally Gardner

Although I'm in London now, I lived in NYC for three years and regularly visit, so I'm going to be representing authors from the UK and the US. I look forward to reading your work and really appreciate you sharing it with me. Please query me at cooperqueries@thebentagency.com.

Happy writing!
Gemma Cooper

Monday, September 17, 2012

Autumn is contest season for Molly Ker Hawn

I've been remiss in mentioning my participation in a number of contests this autumn. Pitch Madness has been and gone, and was terrific fun -- especially the Twitter afterparty, which inspired some very clever 140-character pitches. Boiling your pitch down to its shortest, pithiest self is such a good exercise, whether or not you're taking part in a contest. I'm working my way through all the fulls and partials I requested during Pitch Madness now. (If anyone knows how I can squeeze an extra few hours out of my week, I'm all ears.)

Over on Deana Barnhart's blog, Gearing Up to Get an Agent (GUTGAA) is underway, and next week I'll be one of the agents judging the top fifty queries. 

On 13 October, the entry window opens for Hook, Line and Sinker, co-hosted by my unsettlingly gifted client Kat Ellis, who knows a thing or two about pitching herself. I'll be judging the YA entries, but there are middlegrade and adult fiction categories as well. I should note that an earlier event on Cupid's Literary Connection was instrumental in bringing Kat and me together -- these competitions really are a fantastic opportunity to get your work in front of agents. They're a lot of work for us, but the prospect of finding a brilliant new client makes them well worth the time and effort. And there's no better way to spend a chilly autumn evening than curled up on the sofa with a mug of tea and a good manuscript.

--Molly

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Internships available

Internship openings!

We are looking for two new interns. These are unpaid, remote internships (i.e. you don't have to live in NYC). No publishing experience is necessary, we are looking for people who love to read and have a very strong knowledge of contemporary fiction. For the generalist job, you should enjoy books by authors like:

Tana French
Eleanor Brown
Jacqueline Sheehan
Jodi Picoult
Gillian Flynn
Lori Roy
Laurie Notaro
Celia Rivenbark
Elin Hilderbrand
Kristin Hannah
Jeannette Walls
Kate Atkinson

This is an eclectic list, so obviously you don't need to like everyone on it! But basically, you should like at least two of the following genres: humor, memoir, women's fiction (what we call "book club" fiction in the industry) and literary suspense.

If you'd like to apply, please e-mail us at intern@thebentagency.com. Please put "generalist intern" in the subject line. Tell us why you want the internship, attach a resume if you have one although it's not essential, and list the last ten books you read and your ten favorite books.

Please do not apply if you are primarily a young adult/middle grade reader. It's fine if you do some of that, but we already have our young adult/middle grade specialists in place.

If you have applied in the past you are more than welcome to apply again.

We ask for at least a 10 hour a week time commitment. Watch this space and twitter for more announcements.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Conference Goers, from Susan Hawk



This morning I opened my email to find a message from one of the fabulous organizers of the Kansas SCBWI meeting, where I’ll be in October, followed by a reminder about a dinner this week with a group of NJ SCBWI members here in New York.  Got me thinking about conferences, and other opportunities to meet editors and agents, and how writers can make the most out of these events….and tada!  Some ideas to keep in mind as you prepare for your own meetings and conferences:

One.  No need for nerves! 
I understand that just considering the idea of talking about your work can make your knees knock, I do.  Writing, coaxing your ideas into life on paper, is a delicate thing.  Sharing those ideas with people you don’t know can feel like inviting in the wind.  Will it blow soft?  Or, will it stir everything up beyond recognition? 

Here’s what I try to remember: we’re all in this together.  All of us are here because we love stories.  We want to fall in love with a character and we want to know what’s going to happen to them next.  So, you have something in common with most anyone that you’re going to meet.  And all of us have dealt with rejection – as writers, as agent and as editors.  Something else we all have in common!  See this commonality between yourself and others and it may help with the nerves.

Two.  Be ready to talk about your project
Sometimes at a conference, I’m chatting with a writer, having a great time comparing notes about recent movies or a trip, all while getting the feeling that she wants to tell me her project, but doesn’t want to be pushy.  When, and how, should you tell an agent or editor about your book?

If we’re chatting, that’s the right time.  If I’m heading off to a presentation, or we’re in the line for the bathroom it’s not – but in essence, if we’re having a good conversation, you should let me know about your project.  That’s the when.  As for the how: keep it simple and ask, Can I tell you about my project? 

That’ll probably do the trick.  I think it’s a good idea to practice what you’ll say next – not to memorize necessarily, because that can feel stiff (though if you know that you need to do that, go ahead) – but to have a couple lines or phrases ready, so you don’t have to dig for them.  The key here is to keep it short, a couple sentences only.  All you want to is to capture my interest, because with everything going on at the conference, I’m not going to remember lengthy descriptions.  So those lines should get right to the heart of your story, and leave me wanting more.

Three.  Be ready to talk about something other than your project
As much as you want to be ready to share your book, don’t let that readiness keep you from other conversations with an agent or editor.  Yes, you’re hoping to inspire interest, but it’s also your chance to get a sense of the person you’re meeting – is this agent or editor easy to talk to?  Does your taste in reading resonate with each other?  The right agent for you is someone who loves your writing and wants to represent you, of course, but is also someone you have a rapport with.  This is your opportunity to get a feel for that.

Four.  Don’t worry if I don’t want to take samples of your work on the spot
Basically, this boils down to one thing: how heavy my bags will be and how little I want to drag them through an airport.  And in the rest of my work I do everything via email, so your material will actually get more attention if it comes to me that way.

Five.  Don’t take criticism as a negative
This is a tough one, because of course criticism can be hard to hear.  Yes, it would be so good to have an agent faint with delight or an editor hand you a contract on the spot.  Who amongst us hasn’t polished up a little mental reel of a gracious acceptance speech of awards and accolades before an adoring crowd of our peers?  The truth is that everyone, everyone has gotten feedback that they weren’t expecting to hear.  Everyone has had to re-think something that felt just right. 

More often than not, I think part of what makes criticism hard to hear is that it’s so unexpected – after all, if you had noticed that passage had some clunky dialogue, you would’ve fixed it yourself.  Feel free to ask a question if something is surprising; dig into what your reader is telling you and really get to the bottom of their concern.  If you understand it, it may not feel so uncomfortable.

And finally, when you give your work to lots of different people, you’re likely to get lots of different feedback.  Responding to every bit of that may send you off in all kinds of directions, some of them opposing.  So, plan to filter the feedback you get – see what the thru-line is, what you hear more than once.  Remembering that you have a plan for using criticism may help you hear it when you’re meeting with editors or agents.

Six. Remember to listen, as well as to talk
As much as a conference is an occasion to discuss your work, and hopefully create some interest in it, there’s usually so much other opportunity available – to learn something about your craft, to understand someone else’s process, to find out what editors are excited about, to learn about various author’s paths to publication.  All of that is enriching to you and your writing; take advantage of it!

Seven.  Plan to make connections with other writers
This is the most important piece of advice I have.  Some of your writing may be meant for you alone, but if you’re going to a conference, you have writing to share.  You’re hoping that your words will have meaning for others and you want to connect through that.  Paradoxically, writing is a singular task and it can be lonely.  Plus, without the person on the other end to respond to your writing, how do you know how it’s going?   If you don’t already have a writing partner or group, that’s probably the most important thing you can find at a conference.  So, keep your eye out for a like minded writer and see what they’re up to!

Finally, this feels like it goes without saying: have fun!  What tips do you have?

Happy Summer everyone--Susan

Saturday, July 7, 2012

It's not WHO you know, it's WHAT you write in your query


This is #2 in my series of posts which are meant to demonstrate that you don't need connections to be successful in publishing--just a really good query and manuscript.   To do this, I'm featuring unsolicited query letters that captured my attention and got multiple offers of representation from different agents.  Last week I wrote about Yangsze Choo's letter for THE GHOST BRIDE and today I'm highlighting a letter from author Lori Nelson Spielman for a book we retitled THE LIFE LIST and sold to Random House.  We've also sold rights in 13 other territories (including France, Germany, Italy, Brazil and Spain) and optioned the book for film to Fox 2000.   Again, Lori didn't have a connection to me or to the other agents who offered representation--she just wrote a great query letter.   I'll parse it below.


Dear Ms. Bent,

What’s the downside of a successful thirty-something with the world at her feet who’s set to inherit millions of dollars? She can only get the money if she fulfills the na├»ve dreams of her teenage self, and that’s an order from her dead mother!

I love your blog Bent on Books, and would be thrilled if you’d consider my contemporary women’s novel, ANOTHER SKY (104K words).

Following her beloved mother’s death, Brett Bohlinger naturally assumes she’ll take over the family business. But she is stunned when her savvy sister-in-law inherits the lucrative company, and Brett is handed a yellowed, dog-eared life list. Brett had no idea her mother’s sense of humor was this twisted: her inheritance hinges upon completing the ten remaining goals on her life list—the very list her mother fished from Brett’s Beverly Hills 90210 wastebasket twenty years ago.

And that girl’s life wishes are insane! Have a baby? Not happening. Become a teacher? Surely she’s not expected to swap her lucrative salary and stock options for snotty noses and spelling bees. Buy a horse? The condo board doesn’t even allow fish. And a relationship with her father is out of the question. The coldhearted stranger died seven years ago!

But Brett’s biggest challenge is Andrew. When her driven, big-city boyfriend comes home toting a bottle of Perrier-Jouet to celebrate, she doesn’t have the heart—or the guts—to tell him she is not, and never will be, President of Bohlinger Cosmetics. And she’s sure as hell not telling him about that asinine life list. He’d be history if he found out about the humble, conventional life she’d once craved.

Entangled in a web of deceit, Brett is forced to examine the life she chose and the life she dreamed of as a teen. With a multi-million dollar inheritance at stake and nothing but her mother’s letters to guide her, she wades from her comfy Gold Coast neighborhood into the streets of Southside Chicago in search of a young girl’s dreams. There she faces challenges and victories, and loves and losses, that her youthful heart never could have imagined.

I’m a member of RWA-Pro and a local writer’s group. Like Brett, I work as a homebound teacher in an inner-city school district, though writing is my true passion. Along with my teaching degree, I have Master’s degrees in Speech Pathology and Guidance Counseling.

Pasted below you’ll find the first ten pages, per your guidelines. Thanks so much for your time and consideration.

Warm regards,

Lori Nelson Spielman

If you break this letter down, it is many ways similar to the letter for THE GHOST BRIDE and you can see the same elements that go into a successful letter:  it has a great log line, a reason for querying me, a snappy synopsis, and a bio that highlights the relevance of her personal experience to the book she has written.

First, her log line.  Two sentences, which is absolutely fine, and it sums up the plot while giving a sense of the emotional hook, which is essential.  Then she tells me she reads my blog, which does mean something to me (I appreciate writers who do their homework).   Her synopsis is actually fun to read and it showcases her voice, which is such a great thing to do in a query letter.   And she doesn't have showy writing credentials but her life experience mirrors that of her heroine, and publishers love that--it's a great hook when pitching the novel to media.  

You may have noticed that Lori doesn't include comp titles, which is okay because of her log line.  The reason for including comp titles or a log line is because they serve as a kind of shorthand for the agent--they give me a sense right away of the kind of book I will be reading.  If your log line is effective, therefore, you don't need the comp titles (although including them wouldn't have hurt the letter either).

Best of all, her letter has heart and you can tell from reading it that her novel does too.  It's packed full of words that convey emotion--something to think about when you are working on your own query.  If you can make me feel something just by reading your letter, you know you will capture my attention and get me to request your manuscript.

So, once again, I present you with evidence that you don't need to schmooze to get an agent or a book deal.  You need to do your homework about what makes a great query, research agents to make sure you're approaching the right ones, and of course, write a great book.   Then, all you have to do is press send.  I'm rooting for you!

Oh, and if you're intrigued by the letter for the book that became THE LIFE LIST (which pubs in about a year), please do go over and join Lori's author page on Facebook.  I promise she's just as warm and lovely as the premise of her book.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

It's Really NOT About Who You Know...

I think there's an idea floating around out there that you have to "know someone" to get an agent, or meet one at a conference, or somehow be connected. But the truth is that about 50% of my clients have come to me completely cold--via an unsolicited query letter. And I am often competing with really top agents for projects that have come in unsolicited, so I know that they are getting clients this way as well. 

To inspire you, I wanted to show you guys a few great query letters that not only hooked me but garnered multiple offers of representation and then sold in the US and also abroad. The one I'm featuring today is for a book that we ended up calling THE GHOST BRIDE. It sold at auction in the US to Morrow and in the UK to Hot Key Books, a new division of Bonnier. The author was choosing among a number of really good agents, all of whom requested her manuscript based on this unsolicited query: 

 Dear Ms. Bent, 

 Li Lan, a young Chinese woman in lush, 1890s colonial Malaya, hopes for a favorable marriage. But the proposal she receives from the wealthy Lim family is for their dead son, who begins to shadow her dreams. 

By day Li Lan visits the opulent Lim mansion under the aegis of the matriarch, Madam Lim, and is hopelessly drawn to the charismatic new heir. By night, however, she haunts the vast halls of the other Lim ancestral home, a ghostly reflection constructed of burned paper funeral offerings, where she must endure the courtship of the dead man. But when her attempts to break free prove almost fatal, Li Lan herself becomes a wandering spirit in the streets of Malacca. Doomed to wither away, Li Lan must uncover her dead suitor’s secrets in the elaborate world of the Chinese afterlife, with its parallel ghost cities, paper servants, and monstrous bureaucracy, before she is permanently severed from her body. 

TALES OF A MALAYAN GHOST BRIDE, a literary ghost story, is based on a peculiar historic custom amongst the Chinese in Malaysia called a spirit marriage. I've followed your blog and interviews with interest, and hope this novel will appeal to you, given your enthusiasm for literary and historical fiction. Book club fans of Lisa See’s “Peony in Love”, or Susan Waters' "The Little Stranger" may also be intrigued by this richly colorful world of Southeast Asian superstition. 

 I am a Malaysian who came to America to study at Harvard. TALES OF A MALAYAN GHOST BRIDE is my debut novel, complete at 120,000 words. Per your submission guidelines, I’m pasting the first ten pages below. 

Thank you for your time and consideration, 

Yours, Yangsze Choo 

Now, why is this letter so good? It has all the elements I encourage people to include in their queries: a great logline, a terrific summary, a fabulous hook, comp titles of other books that I love, a compelling reason for querying me in particular, and intriguing biographical information that is relevant to the book she has written. 

She starts with her terrific logline, which delivers the plot but also the emotional core of the story. You want always to include the emotional hook as part of your logline. It's two sentences, not one, which is fine. 

Then she has a one paragraph summary. When an author can boil the plot of their book down into one concise paragraph like this, and make it lively and interesting, I know this an author who has a real handle on her plot. She gets what's essential about her story and she knows how to present it. 

Then she has the great hook that the book is based on a real custom. She explains why she's querying me in particular, which I love to see in a query. Her comp titles are terrific and books I like. And finally, her biographical info ties into the plot of her novel in a really intriguing way. You'll see that she doesn't have traditional literary credentials like an MFA or publication credits, and that's okay. She did the exact right thing to do in that scenario and by telling me that she is Malaysian, explains how her personal story influences the story she has written. For agents and publishers, this is as valuable, if not more valuable, than an MFA, because it's an interesting tidbit to use when pitching the media about the book. 

So there you have it. Yangsze didn't have connections, all she had was a great query and an email account. She did her homework and pitched agents who represent this kind of book (and of course she wrote a great book, but that's the subject of a different blog). Hope everyone out there querying will take notice, and take heart, that sometimes talent really is all that you need to get ahead.

UPDATE:  Please check out Yangsze's new blog here and her Facebook page, with awesome pics of Malaysia:  https://www.facebook.com/yschooauthor

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Please help high risk and special needs students

If you follow me on twitter, you may know that I support a charity called DONORS CHOOSE, which supports teachers in underfunded public schools. The teachers post wish lists of things they vitally need in their classrooms and if their projects get funded, they get their supplies. Some of these students can't afford to bring even the most basic items like paper or pencils to school, so helping them makes a huge difference in their lives.

For the next week, Donors Choose has given me a code which will automatically double your donation to this great cause. Simply type in JENNYB at check-out, and your donation is doubled.

I've created a community page here, targeting special needs, high risk classrooms in Brooklyn. These special needs kids really need our help--they are working with so many strikes against them already, and even a very small donation can make a big impact in their lives. And for the next week, until the projects are funded, the first five donations of $200 or more will receive a query critique and 30 minute phone consult from me. Smaller donations will earn my eternal gratitude--remember, there is no donation too small. Even a dollar will help and will be automatically doubled.

Here is the link. Email me at info@thebentagency.com with the link to your donation to collect your critique.

http://www.donorschoose.org/jennyb

Don't forget to use code: JENNYB and double the donation!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Internship openings!

We are looking for two new interns. One is a generalist position, the other is a romance/commercial women's fiction position. These are unpaid, remote internships (i.e. you don't have to live in NYC). No publishing experience is necessary, we are looking for people who love to read and have a very strong knowledge of contemporary fiction. For the generalist job, you should enjoy books by authors like:

Tana French
Eleanor Brown
Jacqueline Sheehan
Jodi Picoult
Gillian Flynn
Lori Roy
Laurie Notaro
Celia Rivenbark
Elin Hilderbrand
Kristin Hannah
Jeannette Walls
Kate Atkinson

This is an eclectic list, so obviously you don't need to like everyone on it! But basically, you should like at least two of the following genres: humor, memoir, women's fiction (what we call "book club" fiction in the industry) and literary suspense.

For the romance position, we are looking for a real expert, someone who reads all different kinds of romance, from historical to romantic suspense.

If you'd like to apply, please e-mail us at intern@thebentagency.com. Please put "generalist intern" or "romance intern" in the subject line. Tell us why you want the internship, attach a resume if you have one although it's not essential, and list the last ten books you read and your ten favorite books.

Please do not apply if you are primarily a young adult/middle grade reader. It's fine if you do some of that, but we already have our young adult/middle grade specialists in place.

If you have applied in the past you are more than welcome to apply again.

We ask for at least a 10 hour a week time commitment. Watch this space and twitter for more announcements.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Start Your Story: a post from TBA Intern Y

A while back we had a guest post from Intern X, on why your querying chances are better than you think, which you can find here:

Since I think the interns at TBA learn so much about what makes a great query, I asked another great TBA intern (who we will call Intern Y for the sake of clarity) for her thoughts on the topic. Here's what she has to tell us:


The slush pile is a mysterious and often magical place. It’s a rowdy room full of new characters, each holding their breath inside the written pages as they wait for their stories to be uncovered. Sometimes the stories aren’t ready, or they’re rushed, or not quite polished enough to be set free. But it’s a process, this creating new worlds business, and there’s little doubt that with perseverance and revision each story can find its voice ready to be heard.

A harsh reality in querying is that you have but a few pages to grip the agent with your opening. Sometimes you have less, only a few paragraphs to captivate your audience. This may seem severe, but if you go to buy a book, and the first few pages leave you yawning or confused as to what the story is about, are you really going to purchase it?

I have a suggestion for you, after pouring over queries and hunting story. One that may help if you find yourself not getting any bites or nibbles from agents. It’s something that Georgia McBride, founder of YALITCHAT.org, shares with writers in her self-editing and revision webinar. A directive that breaks down the opening of story, and where it should begin.

“Start your story in the moment and place where your characters life will never be the same.”

Open your novel at the moment when this person’s life changes – when their story begins. If you read your introduction and it doesn’t start here, consider this: have you revised the opening since you first wrote the book? If you haven’t, chances are that you started out not knowing how the story would unfold, and let the character lead the way.

So, consider your story. In your opening, where is your protagonist? Are they doing something mundane like flossing? Are they dreaming, or rambling through a monologue, giving the reader too much information before we even know what they’re about? Are you writing the moment that will change their life and set them on the first stages of this unstoppable journey they’re about to take? Or are you starting at point A when there’s not really a point B?

I want to feel connected to your protagonist, to fall in love a little with him or her in the first few pages. But if the protag is telling me their history from fourth grade up, or if they spend five paragraphs walking down a road for no apparent reason, then they're not really telling me anything, and I’m not going to invest my emotions and want to follow them along.

Be aware of your first scene. This is where the curtain lifts and unveils your character’s world. You’ve already written their universe, having spent months (or years) crafting the novel and revising it. You know who this person is, what they are about to undertake, and how their world is going to evolve. (And evolve it should, or else your reader is going to lose interest quickly.) You’ve seen how it all comes to pass. So give your opening chapter the cause and affect that will carry the reader into their written world and allow them to fall in love.

Trust me, your novel is worth it.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

My, How Things Have Changed: Jenny weighs in on industry changes good and bad

I have been in this business for what might be considered an embarrassingly long amount of time: since 1992, to be exact, when I started as an assistant to a brilliant agent named Raphael Sagalyn down in DC.

So I realize when looking back that a lot has changed, of course, since then and I was thinking about what has changed for the worse and what has changed for the better. I thought I'd make a laundry list--these are just a few off the top of my head, I'm sure there are many more that I'm not thinking of. And then I did another list of a few nice things about the industry that haven't changed at all.

For the Better:

1. More transparency. It's hard to remember now, when publishers like Simon and Schuster make all sales information available to their authors online, that publishers actually used to be reluctant to give their authors sales information. Now, I call an editor and get first week sales breakdowns by account, including e-books. Before the book ships I get an accounting of orders, again broken down by account. But in the old days, there would be hemming and hawing, and even outright refusal to give numbers outside of the royalty statement that was provided twice a year.

2. Self-publishing via e-books. Hooray self-publishing! I've always been a fan, since way before e-book days, but now self-publishing is a possibility for so many more folks. A great way, as I've said so many times, to prove that there is indeed an audience for your book.

3. Less territorialism. Is that a word? In my experience, anyway, publishers seem to be more accepting of the fact that an author will write for several different houses. As advances go down, and payments get more and more spread-out (see below), it becomes a financial necessity for some authors, and I think publishers get that now.

4. Authors are so much better informed. I used to have to basically reinvent the wheel with each new author, breaking the bad news to them one thing at a time. Yes, it will take a year for your book to be published. Yes, you will only get a royalty statement twice a year and it will be for the period ending three months prior. Now, authors know so much more about the process. Via social media they're able to connect with published author friends and really learn the ropes before getting tossed in. It's one of my favorite things about the way technology has changed the business.

5. A corollary to #4: Authors who query now have access to so much more information. The only resources about agents really used to be Jeff Herman's guide and the LMP (who remembers the LMP?). Now, there are almost infinite sources of information about agents. Beyond just access to sales (which I think is so important) authors can get a real sense of the agent's personality via twitter, blogs and facebook. It's a wonderful way of figuring out who might be a great agent match.

For the Worse:

1. Payouts. Don't get me started. An author's advance payment almost always used to be half and half--half on signing, half on delivery and acceptance. Now it's thirds or even fourths--1/4 on signing, 1/4 on d &a, 1/4 on hardcover pub and 1/4 on paperback pub. Sigh. Authors have to write a lot faster these days to make money on the same kind of schedule that they used to.

2.Hard/soft deals. You used to be able to sell hardcover rights to one house and then turn around and sell paperback rights to another. Two separate income streams. Now publishers buy all rights to a book. One income stream.

3. Audio. Again, don't get me started. You used to always be able to retain audio rights and sell those separately. Another income stream for the author. No more. Publishers are increasingly (I can think of two right off the bat) insisting that audio be part of their overall grant of rights.

Things that are the same:

1. Editors do edit. I know everyone says they don't, but they do. Trust me.

2. Innovation. I see it everywhere, in publishers and authors, and I'm always so impressed by the creativity around me.

3. Nice people. Publishing is full of smart, nice, funny people, united by their passion for reading and books. That hasn't changed. I'm always surprised when I mingle with people out in the "real" world by how less cool they are than publishing people.

4. I still think I have the best job in the world. That hasn't changed a bit.

That's all for me, folks. Would love to hear from other industry long-timers about their better/worse impressions as well.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

But is it Love? A conversation with Mike Wells.

A few weeks ago, Talking Writing published a version of a post I had written about reader taste versus publishing taste. After it appeared, I got a very nice email from a writer named Mike Wells, an American bestselling thriller and suspense author who teaches in the Creative Writing program at the University of Oxford. His note began a back and forth discussion about whether or not agents really needed to "fall in love" with a novel before offering representation. Mike said no. I said yes--sort of.

We both thought that readers would be interested in this discussion, so we decided to post it on our respective blogs (Mike's is www.thegreenwater.com) Your comments are welcome!
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Hi Jenny,

I just read your article about the difference between publisher/agent vs. reader tastes. Boy am I glad someone had the guts from inside the industry to write about this! I've been screaming about it for years but nobody listens because they assume it's a sour grapes thing on my part. But what you said is so true. I'm one of those rejected writers who has gone out and successfully sold his books (I have 15,000 Twitter followers, developing a very good fan base)...and that's after having four great agencies unable to sell them (Andrea Brown, Jean Naggar, Marly Rusoff, etc.) Funny, a few months ago I ran into one of your colleagues in NYC and we nearly got into a fist fight over this issue, with him claiming that he has some special gift or "nose for a classic" or some such nonsense!

I didn't know you were on Twitter and just followed you.

Anyway, a big thank you for that article, I really enjoyed it (especially the bit about the glasses!)

Mike

P.S. By the way you might like this post:

What Literary Agents Could Learn from the Girl Scouts

I think this is what set your colleague off! (hope it doesn't make you mad)
--------
Hi Mike,

No, it doesn't make me mad—I think it's pretty funny. More people need to have a sense of humor about this industry.

I think the thing about having to love a book before you can sell it makes a little more sense than you say it does, however. I'm not selling a refrigerator, after all. If I'm selling refrigerators, I don't have to love them: they're pretty impersonal—I can judge them on objective criteria. And pretty much everyone needs to buy a refrigerator at some point. Everyone likes them. And with girl scout cookies, you don't have to like them to know there's a huge market. But the only way I can even guess if other people will like a novel is if I like it too. It's completely subjective. Unless, of course, there has been market research in the shape of self-publishing. Which is one of the reasons I like self-publishing so much and have repped so many self-published authors—it takes the guesswork out of it.

Anyway, good post—and thanks for sending it.

Mike's response:

I see your point, but the first person to sell a new product faces exactly the same problem you face, whether that product is a refrigerator or cookies or or an iPad--the market for it must be created. And the people who create markets for totally new products can do it whether they "love" those products or not, believe me.

Jenny's response:

Still disagree. :) Maybe "love" is the wrong word, however. Maybe it's "get" or "understand." If you "get" why an ipad would be appealing, you can sell it. But if you don't like a book, where again it is a matter of TASTE, not potential demand, how do you know whether or not it will work in the marketplace? Your argument would work better if I just had to figure out whether or not books in general would have a place in the market. Well, yes, people like reading, therefore books will work. But an individual novel? How in the world can I predict an audience for that unless I myself am responding to it in some way?

Mike's response:

I'm so glad we're having this discussion, Jenny, now we're getting somewhere. You stated it perfectly in your last message: "...unless I respond to it in some way." Of course you're right. A good sales and marketing person must be able to understand the needs that any product satisfies in the customer who buys it. But that's a far cry from "falling in love." Example: I'm not a huge fan of Harlequin Romance novels, not because of any highbrow snobbery about them, but simply because I'm a man, and after a couple of hours all that gushy romantic stuff makes me feel a little ill. :-) Yet, I can empathize with women who love that genre, completely understand the appeal of it, and can certainly recognize a Harlequin Romance that is well-structured and well-written. Could I sell such a book? You bet I could! And so could you, if you wanted to (whether you "love" them or not)

Jenny's response:

Well, except that I challenge you to go out and sell a romance novel to a publisher. ;) You might make a great agent, don't get me wrong, and you might understand that romance as a genre works, that women will love it, but without an affinity for this type of book, how will you be able to distinguish between a good or a bad one? Answer: you can't. And that's not even necessarily because you don't read the genre—it's because there's no such thing as a "good" or a "bad" romance novel, it's completely subjective. And so in the face of that subjectivity, what are you left with as an agent? Your own taste. That's all you have to go on. That's what agents mean by "I have to love it."

Once again we come back to the idea that we all know in general that people like books, and then you can categorize it even further by saying that in general people like romance, or thrillers, or literary fiction. But on a book by book basis there is no way to predict what a reader will like. Even if people like the Beatles a lot, for example, that doesn't necessarily predict that they will like a book about the Beatles. As an agent, you only have taste to go on.

Everything changes of course, if a book is self-published first, and you know a lot of people have already responded. Self-publishing is the new market research.

Mike's response:

I totally agree re self-publishing. If I were an agent I think that's the main way I would find new authors if I needed them, by trolling the self-publishing domain and looking for successes there. At the end of the day, the only way to know if a product has a market is if people will actually fork over their hard-earned money for it. This is even more than "market research"—it's downright proof that the product is viable. The only question is how large the market will be if a big publisher takes over. I think in the vast majority of cases the market will be 10x larger because we self-pubbed authors can barely scratch the surface with our limited resources. If I can sell 10,000 of one of my books a year, I'm quite sure a big publisher could sell 100,000 of that same book given that they don't screw up the product or marketing approach.

Any comments, readers?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Molly's Playing Honorary Cupid

I'm super excited to be one of the agents taking part in the Blind Speed Dating contest over on Cupid's Literary Connection. If you're interested in getting your query in front of a fabulous group of literary agents, I hope you'll enter! I'm already warming up so I'll be ready to go to the mat for the manuscripts I want to see...

Thursday, January 19, 2012

And now a word from...Molly Ker Hawn

Well, some very exciting news, folks: industry pro Molly Ker Hawn has joined the Bent Agency to open a London office and I am thrilled to bits. She'll be repping exclusively children's books. Her bio and submission guidelines can be found at http://www.thebentagency.com/submissions.html:

"My time in the children's publishing industry has included editorial roles at Chronicle Books and Dial Books for Young Readers, early social media development for a major teen magazine, and serving as National Programs Director at the Children's Book Council, the trade association of American children's book publishers. I've also been a bookseller, and I'm a past board member of the United States Board on Books for Young People.


I live in London and I work with authors and publishers both in the U.K. and the U.S. I've bounced back and forth from America to England since I was a teenager: I grew up in Northern California, lived for a time in the West Country, read English at Cambridge University, spent many years in New York City, and now live a stone's throw from the River Thames."

You can query Molly at hawnqueries@thebentagency.com. I asked her to say a few words, and so, now, OVER TO MOLLY:

Hi everyone --


The agency website's been updated and PW's been alerted, so now it's officially official and I can tell the world: I've joined the Bent Agency! And I'm so excited I almost can't stand it. I'm thrilled to be joining such a terrific team and I can't wait to see what the slush pile brings. I've already found a manuscript that's absolutely gorgeous, and  if it's any sign of what's to come, then 2012 is going to be a corker of a year. On my wish list:


    • Contemporary romance
    • Historical fiction
    • Thrillers (a fabulous historical thriller would really make my day)
    • Something fun about time travel
    • Science fiction, particularly for the middlegrade audience -- I love a good spaceship
    • Anything at all with a great sibling relationship
    • Nothing with zombies, werewolves, vampires, fairies, or monsters made of spare parts


In the meantime, I'm in the middle of Jason Wallace's extraordinary OUT OF SHADOWS, trying not to watch the HUNGER GAMES trailer more than three times a day, and waiting to hear my local council's announcement about cuts to our public library services. The nights are getting colder here in London, perfect for holing up with a book -- what will you be reading?
Molly