Agent Monday: On Sticking to Things

Soccer Goalie Blocking BallHappy Agent Monday, everyone! I’ve spent a lot of time over the last two weeks with a variety of writer friends. Some already published, some working hard to get there. And we started chatting inevitably about careers. An unpublished writer said she was worried about what to write next because it has to get an agent. She has to get an agent or what’s the point? So today I thought I’d chat a bit about setting goals – the good and the bad, and on the goodness of sticking to things with that long view of your career.

Remember, I’m not only a literary agent, I’m an author, too. So I understand how it’s hard to justify in a practical way taking time away from your family, and from a “sensible” income to write as much as you can. Why? Do you have a book deal? Do you have an agent? Do you have a decent income? Many writers do not. And many writers can have an agent but no book deal for a length of time. Or a book deal, or several, and still need another source of income. You should definitely work hard toward goals. You deserve to give your creativity your best efforts. But if you are a writer, you are one no matter what. And you don’t know what is around the next corner. Ups and downs alike.

That’s why I cringe a little when I hear aspiring writers saying things like, I have to get an agent this year. This book has to sell. I’m going to write in this genre because it’s hot now and it’s going to sell.

Hey, it’s smart to know the market. It’s smart to work hard and strive. But I think it’s cruel to your muse to set up goals in a way that will send you the signal to stop. That if you don’t achieve this goal at this time, it’s never going to happen and you should quit.

How well I remember sitting in an accountant’s office with my husband as the accountant frowned over my income and looked over our books. He sat back in his big leather chair, pressed his fingertips together and said, “Okay, let’s do this. Let’s give your little writing thing, oh, another year. And if nothing comes of it, then you can get a real job.”

My husband’s eyes met mine. I knew he was on my side and believed in me. Even though, despite national magazine article gigs and yes, even a book contract, I still made less than a McDonald’s worker. Far less. I found myself spluttering to the accountant that I wasn’t some hack. That I was a writer. Period. And I could see in his eyes he didn’t get it. And I didn’t care.

Thank goodness I didn’t care. I cared about my craft and my voice and I kept writing. And my income wouldn’t impress an accountant. Maybe my writing income never would. But I love what I do. And that matters.

So don’t quit. You don’t know when the next great thing will come from your efforts. The only thing you know for sure is that if you give up, your dreams will never come true.

I wonder if that practical accountant tossed his dreams aside along the way. Hm…and now he tries to quash the dreams of every creative that comes into his office. A possible plot!

Boy Playing SoccerI just want to say hang in there, writers. Dream big. Plot your own career with a long and positive trajectory. And enjoy the ride. That is a gift in itself.

*Marie is an Associate Agent at The Jennifer De Chiara Literary Agency in New York City. To keep up with all her Agent Monday posts, subscribe to her site by clicking on the Follow link located on her page on the upper left margin.

Agent Monday: Know Your Genre

As both a writer and an Associate Literary Agent, I completely get it.  As a writer you have an idea, you fall in love with that idea, and you obsess over that idea as you write and write and write until that idea is a book, and as perfect as it can be. Then you approach an agent at a pitch session. Suddenly they are asking you how long is it (in word count, not pages)? What genre is it? What is it similar to? Who is the readership for this novel? Um, huh?  You know your characters and your plot, but what agents are trying to find out is: Do you know your genre? And where does your book belong in the marketplace?

At many pitch sessions I’ve attended as an agent at various conferences, I’ve found myself trying to pin an author down on her book’s genre. And I’ve gotten blank stares, blinking eyes, sometimes downright terror in response. Folks, I’m not trying to put you on the spot when I ask you stuff about your genre. Instead, I’m trying to position this book and see if it fits with a certain readership.

If you’ve done your writerly job beyond the writing part, then you’ll know what other books in your genre look like, what your competition and audience is, and you’ll already know you’ve created something just right for those readers.  I’m actually pretty amazed at how few writers take this extra step. Ideally, you as the writer should have this market info in your brain right as you begin to develop your novel.

I’ve seen novels that are far too short or far too long for their genre. I’ve seen subject matter that was inappropriate for a middle grade reader, characters that are too young for a YA novel, books that are copying what is already on the shelf.  All these really hurt your chances of getting your novel to print. Sure, you can argue that artists break rules and that there are exceptions all over the place, but if you don’t even know what the rules are and don’t have a solid reason for breaking them, then you are surely shooting yourself in the literary foot. Just sayin’.

So you’ve got to read in your genre, not only as a fan, but as a writer doing market research. Figure out where your book would really sit on a bookstore shelf and see how it compares to the other books beside it on that shelf.  If you can tell me what it has in common with those popular titles, plus what it brings to the marketplace that is new, then you are going to raise my interest level. And don’t use books from 50 years ago, use new stuff please. Sure, you can say “in the gothic style of Poe,” but also show some savvy about today’s market by referencing today’s books too.

Sometimes I get writers who say “there has been nothing like this ever before! It’s a brand new genre!” As my buddy, author Jonathan Maberry likes to point out in his informative talks to writers, last we looked, there is no “Brand New Genre” shelf at the local bookstore. That’s not a selling point.  But if you were to say something like, “This book will appeal to readers of Anne Tyler who are also looking for a dash of fantasy…” Well, then maybe I’ve got the beginnings of a pitch to an editor.

When I pitch projects to editors, they too are trying to figure out where a book will fit on their list as well as on bookstore shelves. It is the business end of writing, after all.

So I encourage writers to do a bit of homework while they are shaping their novels. And again when they begin their querying process, so they can refine their book description and pinpoint their genre and pitch. Because after all that hard work, you do want to sell.

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

Agent Monday: Yes, We Google You

Happy Monday, all.  Recently I’ve been at a few conferences where I’ve spoken with writers about author marketing, or rather, marketing for writers BEFORE you are even published. From my point of view as an Associate Literary Agent, yes, it’s important that all writers  have a positive presence online even before querying agents. Why? Because, yes, we agents do Google you.

The question you should be asking yourself is this: What will the agents find? So do a little experiment right now. Go to Google, type in your name between quotes (“firstname lastname”), and press that search button. What comes up?

Is it nothing at all? Hm. That makes me wonder where ya been and what ya been doing. And, it also makes me wonder if you’ll be able to handle promotion of your own work if you do get a book deal. In case you haven’t noticed (and since you haven’t been online much, maybe you have missed it!), writers are now expected to help out quite a lot with promotion. That means reaching readers. Being found by folks trying to learn more. And so forth.

Does your Google search yield too much? Have you been all over the Internet badmouthing other writers, other books (and by extension their editors), other agents? Do you wax poetic about your dream agent, even though it isn’t me?… Just sayin!  In short, do you have an online image that will actually hurt your image as an author in my eyes? Be honest with yourself and see if your presence is professional and in keeping with what you want agents to know about you. And remember, the Internet is forever. Conduct yourself accordingly.

These days Google searches have also been revealing that a manuscript sent to me is already self-published and on sale, yet the writer was not upfront with me and failed to reveal this.  Not cool.

Sometimes, though, I do find the writer online in a way that adds to their image in my eyes. I’ll see that they have their own website in their author name (always easy to find by future readers…bonus points!), and that the website is clean, easy to navigate and personable. The site will have a nice author photo, a feel for what this writer does, perhaps some blogging about their field or reviews of books that they enjoy, and the tone of the page is in keeping with the author’s overall image I’d hope to find in relation to the work he or she is subbing to me. Having a website needn’t be a costly and intimidating thing. You buy your domain in your name, and then you can easily set things up. You don’t have to spend big bucks to set up a zippy-do site, instead you can use a free site to create and maintain your web page yourself, and have your domain redirect people to that location. That’s what I do. The page you are reading now is a free WordPress page and it does everything I need it to, plus I can update it easily at any time. Works for me!

More bonus points for the writer who has a twitter account with a decent picture (not that boiled egg thing) and a brief bio plus link back to their website.  Cool, too, if the author is following the people in her sphere. Like people who review her sort of book, associations who have links to her subjects, etc. And a facebook page that isn’t too too personal (posts like what my toes look like should be set to private so not everyone searching can see it) but that isn’t all spammy and look at me! I write stuff! I’m amazing!

In short, a demonstration that you have a clue when it comes to presenting yourself well and in dealing with the public in a positive way will be a positive for you.

And if you’re not sure how to do that, Google some people you admire and see what they are up to online. Look at other folks on Twitter and Facebook. Who do you enjoy reading stuff from and who do you roll your eyes at?

Now I encourage you to again Google your name and look over what pops up, keeping all of this stuff in mind. It’s your image — your online business card — so make sure it’s what you want to hand over to me and other agents when we virtually meet.

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

Agent Monday: Close Encounters of the Conference Kind

Happy Monday! This week I’m getting ready for Saturday’s Push to Publish Conference, where I’ll be on a few panels, plus doing “Speed Dates” with writers. So this seems like the right moment to share a little bit of my own experiences on both sides of a pitch table, as both a writer and an agent. Close encounters of the conference kind can really instill fear. But they don’t have to, and if you keep a few things in mind, they can be so helpful to a writer’s career. And, dare we say it, enjoyable?

Nerves! We all get them.  As a writer, I well remember the sweaty heart-pounding panic that filled me when I realized that right there next to me was THE dream agent or THE dream editor.  Palms became damp just before I’d shake hands. I’d speed talk and ramble a bit.  I did manage to pull myself together enough to talk coherently, but after a close encounter, I felt like I’d aged a few years.  Zowie.

Some of us writer-folk are shy. I’m not exactly the shy type though, so what was going on? First of all, this was all so new to me. Fish out of water, and all that. I didn’t really have a good idea of what was expected of me, or how to act, or what, even, I really wanted from an editor or agent. No wonder I felt awkward.

But this newness was also exciting and challenging. It propelled me to go to the next conference, and then the next to get smarter, more comfortable, less mouth-flappy. I read up ahead of time about the editors and agents who were there. What were they really interested in? What was interesting about them? And what questions did I have for them based on this info? I also spent time at conferences listening more, learning, and talking a ton with other writers there. Fellow writers, I soon learned, were eager to swap thoughts and of course they make great friends, too.

I also think my nerves stemmed from me telling myself that this is it! The big moment! My huge chance! I can’t blow it!!! In this scenario, OF COURSE a writer will be nervous. You see the editor or the agent as your savior. The one person who will make your dreams come true. They are iconic. And you have this one and only chance…

Blah. Why do we do this to ourselves? I think after you are in “the business” for a number of years most of us “get it.” There isn’t one chance, but many continuous ones that build like a chain from one experience and encounter to the next. There isn’t one book, but many books and ideas that will flow from you, each a stepping stone to better and better things, even when some stones seem to be leading you backwards. You are learning and growing. You are meeting people and making contacts. And hopefully you are having some fun, too.

I remember standing in a pitch slam line waiting to talk to an agent. The writers waiting there shuffled their feet and exchanged nervous smiles. And one lovely writer turned and said to me something like, “I just try to remember that they are people. That we all love books. And we are just having a nice little chat. An exchange of ideas.”

Genius. They are people… That, more than anything else I read or heard, helped me so much.

Now that I’m an Associate Agent at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency, I see the wisdom of this statement even more. When writers approach me as a person, and share their idea in a friendly way, we connect and enjoy it.

And when writers approach me all nervous and sweaty, I smile and tell them I understand, and that it’s okay. Take a deep breath. You’re gonna do just fine. Then we enjoy our own little chat. And it IS just fine.

In next week’s Agent Monday post I’ll share what it’s been like for me to now be on the other side of the pitch table as an agent, and some things I’ve learned along the way. Stay tuned!

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

Agent Monday: Building Great Expectations

As queries with initial chapters spill into my agent inbox, I look closely for something to grab me and take hold of my imagination, and it needs to happen in those first few pages or chances are good I’m not going to ask to see more. As an agent I’m looking for true story telling technique. It’s all about building great expectations.

Great Expectations. Talk of Charles Dickens is swirling in the air, with the celebration of his 200th birthday… I can almost imagine Dickens writing of such a thing.  Of a man celebrating his 200th, like a Miss Havisham lost in cobwebs, but with a birthday cake instead of a wedding cake… But I digress. Digression.  A very Victorian thing to do.

The classic writers would never make it in today’s query/submission market, right? Today agents, editors, readers have such short attention spans that everything must be much faster, much more high concept, true?

Well, why don’t we put this to the test with a two-page pitch slam with some of our past greats.  First person who walks up to me to pitch? Dickens himself.  He sets his first two pages of Great Expectations in front of me, and we begin to read…

Now we must be fair to Mr. Dickens. Remember this novel was written between 1860-1861, a time long before television, and Internet, and sound bytes. A time when people surely had leisure time to dive into a novel and stay there, allowing the writer to spin a tale for at least 50 pages before we fully get to the heart of the story.

So does he open with pages and pages of back story and then slowly zoom into the main character and action?  Actually, he sets you right beside a boy as he sits in the grave yard where the stones of his family and five brothers stand. The boy imagines what his family must have looked like based on the shape of “the little stone lozenges.” And Dickens sets a gloomy forlorn scene where we find that, “the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.”

So far, we’ve got a little boy alone in the world, a touching glimpse at a childlike mind. Atmosphere. Sorrow.  My friends, that is page one!  What’s next?  The moment we see Pip cry, we get this: “Hold your noise!” cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. “Keep still, you little devil, or I’ll cut your throat!”

Okay, I’m hooked.  I’ve just given Mr. Dickens my card and requested the full manuscript. I can’t wait to find out what happens to poor Pip. This reads more like a modern day thriller than some oldy moldy tale from long ago.  Dickens transcends time because he knows great writing is about creating a character that we will care intensely about, and putting that dear person in terrible peril so that we the reader simply must see the story through to the end. Plus Dickens exhibits amazing voice.  Graves are lozenges. A threatening man minces no words. And the writer promises a tale filled with heart and danger.

But of course, I tell myself, Dickens wrote his novel in serial form, giving the reader tantalizing bits in each issue, so perhaps he was more conscious than most about hooking readers than most writers “back in the day”?  Maybe the next writer won’t be as impressive.

Next up? The lovely Jane Austen. She sets the first two pages of Pride and Prejudice on the pitch table and begins to read: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Then in the next paragraph: “…this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered as the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.”

Austen writes with a wink and a tart tongue, and I know I’m in for a great ride. She launches immediately into dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet about this new wealthy man, and the dialogue is filled with sarcasm and exasperation and a keen ear for witty language.  It’s hilarious and a perfect set up.

“Please send me the full immediately!” I say.

Too often I see writers throwing in a flashy high-concept “hook,” but that’s not the answer. Really I’m not impressed by an explosion on page one if I don’t care about the character, or a prologue showing a life-threatening scene if I’m not otherwise drawn in by the voice and feel pulled into this world.

There’s much to learn from the story telling masters of the past.  It’s worth flipping open the classics to discover what makes them so compelling that we have vivid memories of these stories and characters even hundreds of years later.

Heart. Characters we must know more about. A fascinating point of view. Peril that we feel invested in. Strong story telling.  Build those great expectations, and agents along with editors and readers, will burn to read more.

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

Agent Monday: What’s Love Got to do with It?

From time to time, I’ve heard discussions among writers who have received rejections from other agents that basically said, “Sorry, but I didn’t fall in love with this.” One reaction writers then say is, “I don’t care if you love it or not. Just represent it and sell it!”  This often leads into writers saying that this whole need to “fall in love” with a project is a ridiculous notion. It’s just a form letter. It’s because they don’t know what else to say. So in today’s Agent Monday post I’d like to share my view of  “What’s love got to do with it?”

Now I’m speaking about FICTION here, since at the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency I don’t personally represent non-fiction. So bear that in mind…  But with a fiction manuscript, yeah, I’ve got to fall in love with it.  Why? Because if I don’t finish that manuscript and feel my heart completely ripped out, or my world rocked in some way, I don’t want to invest myself in that book.  I need something I truly believe in.

I want to be able to convey my passion to an editor.  And I want that editor to feel, at the end of her read, that her heart is completely ripped out or her world is rocked in some way.  That’s kinda the point.

But what about the “meh” book that I know will sell because it hits all the marketing points? It’s steampunk, which is supposedly hot. Or talks about bullying, which is a book people will “gobble up?”  Well, if I’m not in love with it, I don’t personally believe an editor be in love either…and an editor must turn around and “sell” the book to the marketing committee and they must sell it to the world, and reviewers must feel the love, too.

What I’m looking for is a book that will sell because it’s exceptional. If it hits all those marketing points, groovy.  If it doesn’t, but it’s exceptional, it’ll find its audience and that’s groovy too.

From my agenting point of view, I have to live with this manuscript and this author.  If I’m not in love with their book, but I sniff dollar signs in the air for some reason, am I respecting that author? Am I excited enough to read through the manuscript over and over again and edit it? To create a passion-filled pitch and offer it up to top editors?  And if I think of it as “meh” but an easy sale for some reason, what if it doesn’t sell easily? Will I have the drive to continue to market it with passion? Will I feel like just giving up and cutting you loose? You see where I’m going with this?

I invest a ton of time in my clients, and I choose them carefully. I go with my gut, and believe that their talent will take them far over the course of their careers. They are more than one book, one quick sale to me.  I’ve passed over books that may have sold, but that I just didn’t care about. Why would I take that writer on, when I can invest my heart and soul and countless hours in someone whose writing I do care about?  I’ll also definitely take on books that may not be the easy sell, but that feel important and strong and that I believe HAVE TO BE READ. And I’ll work my tail off making sure that happens.

It’s important that I believe in your work and in you.  You deserve that and should demand it.  If I don’t “fall in love” with your novel, then I’m not the agent for you, and you should find an agent who will.  Because that is the person who will best represent your work. Who will champion you and all your efforts with energy and drive. Who will believe in you even when the world doesn’t seem to, and continue to submit your work with conviction until the world finally sees the light.

And who will eagerly await your next book, and your next.

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.

Agent Monday: Starting your Pitch

If you are on the hunt for a literary agent, then you are making your pitch, whether face to face at a conference, or in a query letter.  Sure, the “live pitch” and the pitch within a query are different in some ways, but they both have the same intentions: to pique the interest of an agent. One thing you don’t want to do is to confuse the agent, or leave her with fundamental questions that will distract her from hearing your story’s plot.

In a live pitch, one of the most disorienting things for me as an agent is when the writer does not tell me the genre of the book right away. While the writer launches into his story and characters, I find myself trying to figure out what, exactly, I’m listening to.  Picture a thought bubble over my head filled with the following: “Wait, is this a memoir? No, it must be fiction. But she mentioned a school-aged character. So is it for children? Can’t be, the material is too mature.  Wait, the writer just said, ‘the ghost of his memory haunts her.’ Is this a paranormal???”

You see what I’m talking about here?  That’s why, when you do a verbal pitch, it’s so helpful if you start out with something like this: “I’d like to tell you about DAY’S END, my completed middle grade fantasy. When 12-year-old Sonia discovers…” Etc.

See what’s going on with this? You’ve already conjured a book title in my mind (makes this feel like a real book, right?).  You’ve told me it’s completed, so I know you are serious about submitting it (at conferences, sometimes manuscripts aren’t completed yet…if so, then just omit this). You’ve pointed me in the direction of the genre you are targeting, so that everything you say after that will fit into that slot in my brain.  And by giving the character’s age, you’ve shown me that you are on the right track for this age group (something that is critical for the children’s market).  Boom!  Now I’m ready to listen and my thought bubble will read something like this: “Cool! What’s it about?”

Written queries are a bit different in that you can start off with a little teaser if you want, and I can skim down to see what the genre is, etc.  But make no mistake, I will skim down to find this info.  So why not forego the dramatic question, or leading off with the descriptive paragraph, and get right to the point?

Say: I’d like to interest you in my completed YA urban fantasy THE CRUSHING POINT (76,000 words).

Then you can add in your teaser line if you want…but it’s not needed, of course.  By a teaser line, I mean something like: What would you do if your mentally ill brother held the answer to a deadly disease, but you were the only one who believed him? (Then you can launch into your plot description.) For 17-year-old Kayle Sparks, it’s a race to the death as… (Or something like that.)

Some writers put this genre, etc. info at the very bottom of their query. Yup, that weakens my read of it because I’m forced to go back to the top of the query and reconsider. You may have lost my interest if I’ve already decided, “Oh, this is a unique approach to women’s fiction,” only for me to discover it’s a YA and the main character is only 15. Hm.

Using a simple genre-positioning line as close to the top of your query letter as you can, points me to consider everything else that follows it within the proper context.  No reconsidering required.

Notice how I added in the word count in that initial line? Sure, you can do that in a verbal pitch, but you MUST do it in a written query.  The agent needs to know that you are within the range of reasonable length for your genre, and where your idea slots within the market. Hey, I’ve got to sell this manuscript, so I have to get this info, right?  I also know your book is complete (never query for a work of fiction unless it is done…but it’s reassuring for me to hear that it is), I know the title is intriguing, and I know that this novel is in a genre that demands a certain edge and gritty paranormal elements.  The main protagonist is also within the correct YA age range.  Okay, cool. Now I’m ready to read the rest of your query.

Setting up your pitch in a simple and direct manner, will help the agent focus on your story idea.  Now you can share your plot and hopefully the agent’s thought bubble will look like this: “Wow! I’ve got to read this one!!!”

Happy pitching!

*Agent Monday is a weekly post. To catch all of these, subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “Subscribe to Marie’s Site Here” in the upper left column.