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, 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 Your comments are welcome!
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!)


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...