Thursday, October 29, 2009

Guide to Literary Agents Guest Post

If you haven't already found this article via twitter, scoot on over to the Guide to Literary Agents blog where I have a guest post about what gets an agent's attention. It's my review of an agent panel at the SCWW conference.

I think the GLA blog, run by Editor Chuck Sambuchino, is one of the best sources for agent info and query examples that doesn't get as much attention as sites like Query Shark and Nathan. I mean, Nathan only needs a single name to be identified. He's just like Madonna.

But the GLA blog has a great series on queries that work, where agents post a query letter for a book they sold and provide commentary on what in particular got their attention in the query.

They also highlight new agents, who are often more willing to take a chance on a debut author to build their list. I've queried many agents (who rep what I write) the day I see a review of them on GLA, and frequently get an immediate response. My request rate for partials is higher with these new agents too.

Plus, Chuck talks about his cover band. How can you not dig a dude who understands the beauty of Pour Some Sugar on Me?

It's a helpful and fun blog. Go check it out now!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Simple Statement About Loglines

I took a class in Freelance Magazine Writing and in our final session last night, we talked about writing query letters. Pitching an idea for a magazine article really isn’t that different from pitching a novel. You need that hook, the logline, that super brief description of your story.

Our lovely instructor Kate Ancell put it this way: “If you can’t get your story down to a sentence or two, you don’t really know what you’re writing about yet.”

That just says it all, now doesn't it?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Finding Consistency in Query Letter Advice

On Friday I took two classes at the SCWW conference with agents who have a very clear point of view on what they’re looking for when it comes to query letters. One was by FinePrint Literary agent Janet Reid (see also Shark, Query) and the other by Greyhaus Literary agent Scott Eagan. (I missed the session by Knight Agency's Elaine Spencer, but Chuck Sambuchino blogged about it here.)

What surprised me was when an agent would dispense a piece of advice (you know, from their oodles of business experience where they slog through hundreds of queries each week) and a few people would get downright fussy. They’d shoot their arm in the air and say, “but hey, so-and-so agent just said that they don’t like to have information about where I found them,” or point out some other such minor differing opinion.

The agent would often say something about this being an example of personal preference or style. They’d nicely remind the attendees that every agent has his or her submission guidelines on their website, and they probably blog a lot, or are on Twitter, and with a little surfing you can learn their style.

However, the questioner might sigh or huff about how hard it is to figure out what agents want when they all want different things. So I thought I’d collect a list of similar things that agents do say about queries.

Perhaps if we focus on the consistencies, we can learn 80% of the tricks, and stop feeling so lousy about the other 20% seeming like a big mystery.

Here are things both Janet and Scott said in their sessions:
  • A query letter is a business letter. It’s not the time to be creative. It’s the time to be professional. Your manuscript is where you get creative. Janet even said, “Formality is never out of place.”
  • A query letter must tell the agent what the book is about. This is the story’s premise, i.e., “A great white shark haunts a sleepy New England beach town.” Be specific.
  • Query letters should never ever be longer than a page. Janet said about 250 words.
  • When writing a query via email, you don’t need to include everyone's mailing address up top. But darn it, don’t forget to put your contact information at the bottom! And have a professional email that identifies you by name, not snookypants49@yahoo or awesomewriter@gmail.
  • Include the word count and title.
  • The query must sell them instantly. Scott gives about twenty seconds.
  • Best quote from Janet: “You can query too soon. You can never query too late.”
  • Best quote from Scott: “Your resume is your manuscript.”

Writing a query takes a lot of work. It might feel like it takes just as much effort as writing the manuscript. But there are tons of great resources on honing your query letter. If you haven’t yet, check out Query Shark, The Public Query Slushpile, the QueryTracker forum, and from Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford, this post and this series. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Preparing for a Writers Conference

The past few days I’ve been preparing for the South Carolina Writers Workshop Conference this weekend. What goes into preparing for a conference? In my world, it’s this stuff:

Business Cards. I finally created business cards where my job title is “Writer.” I love seeing that. And to promote the Fiction City brand, the top of the business card uses the same image that’s at the top of this blog. Details on my business card include email, phone, blog website and twitter page.

Business Attire. Since I consider this a business event, I’m going business casual all the way. And because the weather is lovely, that means skirts and dressy sandals. While I’m excited to wear warm-weather clothes again, my look will still be professional and conservative. Check out this post on the SCWW blog and read the comments to see agent Scott Eagan’s confirmation that yes, agents to pay attention to how you use your wardrobe to present yourself.

Knowing the Faculty. Thanks to blogs, I already know a lot of stuff about much of the faculty. The great roster of agents, editors and authors is what attracted me to this conference. I signed up for agent pitches and manuscript critiques and could select my top three choices for each, but I won’t know who I’m matched with until I arrive. Still, I’ve been researching the reading interests, recent sales, and background of each agent so I’m prepared to talk business or fun no matter who I’m paired with.

Practicing my Pitch. I am ready to tell anyone and everyone what my book is about in one to three short sentences. I worked on my logline, and have it memorized and ready to discuss at a moment’s notice. I also think I’m able to rattle it off without sounding rehearsed. I’ve identified a few key verbs I know I need to hit, but I can mix it up depending on the situation I’m in – pitch session, elevator ride, or buffet line.

Sessions Selected. I’ve reviewed the schedule and already know which sessions I want to take. In some timeslots, it’s a clear choice. At others, there are three sessions I want to go to. I’m arriving Thursday night and Friday is an extra day of intensive sessions. During this extra time I hope to ask around and get to know more about each presenter to narrow down which session will be most helpful to me. But, just like I did when I went to conferences back in my business days (for free--sigh!), I have backup sessions ready to dart off to if the first session I chose just isn’t doing the trick.

I’m so excited to spend a few days surrounded by writers and other people who dig books as much as I do. My goal is to listen, learn and make new friends. And if I can squeeze in a quick walk on the beach, that’s even better.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

A Novel in Pieces

I’ve been hanging out in revision mode and making slow yet steady progress. I’ve focused on the first 100 pages and have tightened up the plot. The beginning needed the most work, plot wise. The middle and end are okay, but I know there are a few specific spots where I need to weave in my higher-stakes plot just right to make the story sing all the way to the end.

But looking at 85,000 words, how could I find those problem spots? And find them efficiently. I use a spreadsheet to keep track of all my scenes. So the other day I assigned each scene a status regarding plot: fine, needs a few tweaks, or in deep trouble. The only other detail I will tell you about this spreadsheet (and therefore about me) is that it is color-coded on three different variables.

So now there were colors and labels and I knew there were spots that needed more work than others. Yet looking at my colorful contraption, I got overwhelmed. I’ve been going over and over the book so much I’ve started to feel like I’m not making as much progress. I needed to stir things up.

I learned long ago that when a task feels unmanageable, breaking it up into smaller pieces and focusing on one at a time really works for me. The task of “clean house top to bottom before entire family comes over for a party” sounds daunting. But what about “vacuum the living room?” Heck, I can handle that. “Clean the second bathroom?” Easy as pie.

Well the same thing works with novels, because a novel is just a bunch of little chapters. I seemed to forget this part. When I started revising and moved scenes around drastically, I kicked chapter numbers to the curb. I didn’t know what was going to end up where and labeled (alphanumerically) my scenes. Yes, each and every individual scene -- right now, there are 94 of them.

Now that everything is in the right place – story starts where the trouble starts, a nice reversal about halfway through – I felt like I could chunk the scenes back into chapters. And you know what? Seeing those chapter numbers (each set of scenes with their own individual border in the spreadsheet, of course) really made it manageable.

And of all those scenes, I identified eight chapters where I need to tinker with the plot. In some spots, it's just one scene that needs a fix. In others the whole chapter needs a good talking to. Before, I thought I was up against a whole novel. But now it's just eight chapters. I can handle eight chapters.

So take that, big bad scary novel. You’re just a bunch of little ole chapters after all.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Pitch

I'll be pitching my novel to agents at the South Carolina Writers Workshop Conference in two (count them, two!) weeks and I've been working on my logline. There are lots of great descriptions of what a logline is, like the ones here and here and here. But basically, it's that one sentence description that explains what your story is about. The word logline is more of a screenwriting term, but it clicks with me, so I use it. It's your story's hook.

And it's no time to talk about the character's "journey" or "self-discovery" or "search for self-identity." In the logline, you need facts. Get specific. What's the conflict? What's the obstacle? What happens? Oh yeah, and explain it in about 100 words or less.

Here are some posts that are helping me through the process. There are two great articles (part one and part two) from Edittorrent about how to write a logline. Also helpful is Nathan's Query Letter Mad Lib. That helps you get the gist of the story down to a few lines too.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Everyone Has to Start Somewhere

Everyone has to start somewhere. Cranking out short stories in small circulation literary magazines. Writing the novel that never gets published but teaches you so much about the craft. Or a guest spot on Gilmore Girls.

Herewith, a younger, skinnier, not-yet-smoldering Jon Hamm (now know as Don Draper of Mad Men fame) on Gilmore Girls in 2002:

Seth MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy and man of many voices) had a two-episode spot on Gilmore Girls. The only link I can (quickly) find is from the WB and it has a commercial in it! So I won't embed the video here, but here's the link if you want to hop on over to the WB website and check it out.

BTW, this episode aired in 2002, while Family Guy was cancelled. For the second time. For three years. And what did Seth do in the face of this rejection? He kept on working.

These little "before they made it big time" sightings are always reassuring to me. I know we'd all love to have that novel on the shelf at Borders right this very second. But perfecting your craft, whether at acting, writing or something else, takes time. Lots of time. At least these guys proved to us that plugging away on the small stuff can result to making it in the big leagues.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Getting Unstuck

September was not the best writing month I’ve ever had. I spent more time being stuck than being productive. I'd been working on weaving a stronger, meatier plot into my novel. It was a big undertaking, but I knew I had to get it right. But I got stuck, and for a lot longer than ever before.

Good news is that I’m finally back on the horse of productive writing and revising at a respectable pace. So I thought I'd share a few things that helped me stay on track.

I took a little break.
I knew I was facing a big change and I knew I didn’t know how to solve it. The words were spinning in front of me and I couldn’t see any story. So instead of writing, I went to movies in the afternoon. I watched a lot of Gilmore Girls. I took a few mid-day naps. Of course, at the time I was distraught by all these non-writing activities. But I see now that my brain needed a break from the book and I let it have it.

I didn’t give up.
After a couple weeks of pure nothing, I felt like I indulged enough. But I kept opening the document, and looking at it, and thinking about it. For one brief second, I questioned if I should just abandon the book. Then I questioned it some more. It was a good, important question. Was my approach of writing by the seat of my pants failing me? Did I discover the right plot too late and used up all the creativity I had on this story? But I knew if I gave up on the book I’d feel so disappointed in myself. Believe me, I’m a fan of walking away from things that just aren’t working for me. I don’t believe in banging my head against a wall. But I believed in this book, in this story. I knew if I gave up I’d feel like a failure. So even if the book never gets published, at least I know I finished what I started and gave the story a chance.

I talked about it.
No hiding in shame here. When people would ask how my book was going, I would gleefully shout, “Just awful! It’s a big mess and I don’t know how to fix it!” And these kind friends, writers or not, would listen and I would talk about what I was struggling with. By the seventh, or eight, or eighteenth explanation of what was wrong with my story, my mind started to jump alive with ideas on how to make it right.

I wrote new words.
At first, I kept trying to move the existing scenes around. If that approached worked by putting my inciting event in the right place, wouldn’t it work for the rest of my chapters? Couldn’t I just add a little paragraph here and a couple sentences there to support my new plot point? Unfortunately, no. The best thing that helped me see the story was to write brand new scenes. Entire, full scenes. I learned more about my characters and what they wanted. And I felt like I was making progress.

I kept sending pages out for critique.
Even though I knew I had a problem in a specific spot, I sent other chapters that were in decent shape out for critique. My critique partners were kind and patient enough to review what I had. And learning about what worked and what didn’t work in those other chapters helped me see the whole story and determine what I needed to add.

I stayed focused.
Mid-afternoon movies and naps aside, when I was working through this problem in the beginning of the book, I stayed focused on the beginning of the book. I focused on the first fifty pages, and when I got them in order, I focused on the next fifty pages. That’s where I had the biggest issue. But I knew that every word I would write past page 100 had to be supported by what happened in pages 1-100. And because I knew I was struggling with a plot issue, working on another section of the novel wouldn’t serve me well. I refused to move forward in the story until I got that section sorted out.

I didn’t give up.

This is worth saying twice. Sure, you can argue that no one is going to publish a really awful book (definition of awful is subjective, just leave Dan Brown alone, he’s getting people to read, he’s found an audience that loves his work). But what I really believe to be true is that no one is going to publish a book that isn’t finished. And if you don’t believe me, listen to agent Jessica Faust over at BookEnds when she says: Never Give Up. It's a tough business, and like any business, problems will pop up. But whether it’s during the first draft, final revisions, or agent search, you must just keep going. And keep writing.