Agent Monday: On Writing and Fear

Yvette from her facebook profileHappy Agent Monday, everyone! Today, I’m excited to feature a guest post by my client, extraordinary author Yvette Ward-Horner. It’s all about writing and fear. Yvette has plenty of experience facing fear both on and off the page. Her stunning debut novel LOOK WELL tackles the realities of climbing; the glory, the fear, the bonds that emerge from suffering. It also examines the choice that some of us make to abandon the mainstream blueprint for success and instead pursue a different type of life. Yvette writes with true authority. In real life, she happens to be a climber herself (that’s a picture of her on that icy mountainside). So, take it away, Yvette!

ON WRITING AND FEAR
guest post by Yvette Ward-Horner

“Doubt and uncertainty, fear and intimidation are at the heart of the novel-writing process.” – John Dufresne

Fear.

It’s there with you when you write those first words; it’s still there later when you type The End and blow your nose and think Is it really over? And all the way through your story or novel, as you coax and smooth the words out (or are charged and trampled by them), fear will twist your thoughts and crumple your hopes.

This sucks.

I’m a hack.

No one will like this story.

And then there’s the flip-side, of course; you know that too. If you write, you’ve surely spent hours or days or weeks with the words rushing out, high on your talent and the sheer raw joy of writing.

This book will be huge.

How could it not sell?

It’s a page-turner.

But it never lasts. Maybe you get a new rejection, maybe your spouse is thoughtless, or maybe you just eat too much hard salami. You re-read your work and it’s suddenly not quite so clever. Your metaphors flop, your plot twist rattles, and why would anyone care about your protagonist?

No one will like this story.

This book is awful.

And there you are again.

As a writer and climber, I know fear well, in all its forms and stages of intensity. It may seem that the fears of the writer and the fears of the climber have very little in common, but under the fraying nerves, there’s a common message. Stop what you’re doing. You won’t make it. Give up now.

And so much of the danger is simply imagined.

I might fall.

I might fail.

That whisper in the back of the mind.

But what can be done? How can you make yourself brave? You’re hoping right now that I’ll teach you some magic; a Zen trick, a swift path to courage. You want to cling tight to that muse-fed bliss when it comes, joyfully streaming your visions onto the page, secure in the knowledge that your talent is strong, your prospects rosy, your novel a thing of beauty.

But there—you feel it already. That rustle of doubt. Sit still for a moment and let it rustle, feel it twisting: yes, it’s deep and ugly. Now turn away and get on with what you were doing.

That’s all you can do.

The stark fact is that fear is just part of writing, like seductive adverbs and wayward commas and plot threads that lead you miles in the wrong direction. And it can’t be escaped. It makes you doubt everything sooner or later – your characters, your scenes, yourself. It sits in your chest and whispers give up and it can make you abandon a book before it’s finished. If you let it.

And that’s the key to this whole thing: If you let it.

Because fear will never kick you free, no matter how much you scold it or wring your hands, no matter the quality of your positive self-talk and the inspirational quotes you post on Pinterest. Getting published won’t get rid of it – if anything, it makes it slightly worse. All you can do, then, is learn to abide with it; let it be part of your writing and your life. On the days that your book is singing to you, write. On the days that fear is darkly muttering, write. Finish that beautiful novel you’re writing; surge on your flows of hope and ebb with dignity. Let fear ride with you, but don’t let it dictate your actions.

And never let it decide the course of your life.

 

Yvette headshot from websiteYvette Ward-Horner is author of the debut novel LOOK WELL. Her short stories have been published in print and online literary journals and several have been reprinted in anthologies. Her short story THE NOMADS won first place in the Literary/Mainstream category of the Writer’s Digest Magazine’s 78th Annual Writing Competition. An avid mountain climber, Yvette lives in the Rocky Mountains, where she climbs as much as possible and is a member of the local Search and Rescue team. You can connect with her on her website here and friend her on Facebook here.

 

Agent Monday: Query Letter Crit Time

Holding Blank Score CardsHi everyone!  Those dreaded query letters. Writers need ‘em to approach agents, but sometimes they feel harder to write than an entire novel. They are so SHORT. They are so IMPORTANT. Ugh, right? So today I thought I’d give you a peek at my own writer’s group’s challenges as we spent a meeting going over our own query letters about our own works. Yes, it’s officially query letter crit time!  Woot!

First some background: I’m both a literary agent and a novelist. My novelist writing group, The Rebel Writers, has been meeting for over a decade. The group includes published writers in a variety of genres including YA, memoir, horror, literary, short story, historical. It’s an awesome group. So awesome and unique in structure that they inspired me to do a Writer’s Digest article on ‘em called Plotting a Novel Group.

But just because we’ve been doing this for a while, doesn’t mean that queries come easy. Here are some issues that popped up in last week’s meeting…issues that I often see in queries sent to my agent inbox. (Keep in mind that these points refer to works of fiction – non-fiction proposals are a whole other ball of wax.) See if you recognize any of these query quagmires in your own query letters…

1. Missing the hook
What’s the selling point of this novel plot-wise? It should be within your one-line description of your book, and that should be at the top of your query.  Hook us, then give us the details.

2. Burying the book’s vital details
Like the hook/one-liner, the book’s vital details should be given asap – not buried in the last paragraph of your query. I want to know the title, its genre, that it’s complete, and the total word count (not page count). You could blend this with your one liner and really set things up. Something like this: TITLE (75,000 words) is a ITS GENRE about CLEVER ONE-LINER THAT CONTAINS HOOK.

3. Lack of focus or wrong focus
There is so much that goes on in a novel. But by trying to cover it all, the main plot and hook get buried and there is just too much to take in.  A query letter isn’t a synopsis – it’s more like a pitch.

4. Including background about why you’ve written the novel
In most cases, this isn’t needed. Sure, if there is a lack in the marketplace, or you have special knowledge that you bring to the table, it can support your book’s appeal. But stuff about why you’ve always wanted to write this is just dragging your own backstory into the picture in a distracting way.

5. Technical details about how the book is executed
You may have a clever use of point of view characters, and shift tenses in an artful way, and set up chapters in a method that harkens back to novels in the 18th century, but a query letter is not the place to share this. Hook the agent with your plot, convey your tone, and they’ll ask to see the book – then they’ll see all these details themselves.

6. Saying it’s been workshopped by your writer’s group and thoroughly edited
Of course it has. That should go without say. Cut this.

7. Comparing it to other books out there without saying why
Example: saying “This compares to the works of Carl Hiaasen.” Instead, say something like, “With the twisted humor of a Carl Hiaasen novel…”  And make sure that if you make that comparison, that your work really measures up to it.

8. Bios that veer too far off of what an agent needs to know
Tell us writing-related stuff, or stuff that points to experiences you’ve had that’d make you uniquely suited to write on this subject. Like if you are writing a crime novel, I’d want to know you were a detective for a number of years.  I wouldn’t care that you were a golfer or an addict of the Home Shopping Network.  And when it comes to writing credentials, go easy on the details. It’s enough to say you’ve been published in a certain magazine. I don’t need to know that you didn’t get paid for that gig, or that the magazine went out of business, etc.

9. Not asking for what you want in the end
…or asking for the wrong thing, like “I can send you a chapter if you want,” or “I can email you my synopsis.”  Or just saying: Thank you, Sincerely… Say what you really mean: “I’m happy to send you the complete manuscript on request.”

Queries aren’t that long, so they must be focused and to the point. So take the time to get it right – your novel is relying on you.

 

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

Agent Monday: It’s an Investment

Happy Agent Monday, everyone!  Okay, it is so cold in the Northeast that folks coming to the ALA Midwinter Conference in Philly had to contend with cancelled trains. Why? Because the train doors were frozen shut. That’s what I heard. Not kidding!  Fortunately, my trains had working doors and I braved the cold on Friday and Saturday to attend the conference. Was it worth it?  Definitely. I got to meet with a ton of editors, talk to publishers from all over the country and from Canada, and see a number of writers that I know as well. But what really warmed my soul was seeing the products of my first two book deals being launched! Publishing takes time, and agenting takes patience and persistence and lots of work, just like writing does. It’s an investment.

All that time I put into finding the right authors to represent, working with that author to get the manuscript ready for submission, making up the perfect pitch, learning about who the right editors may be for a work, contacting editors, following up, taking deal offers, negotiating contracts… Phew.  I love what I do, but it does take time.  And that time is all worth it when I see this:

ALA Midwinter 2014 - 1

Here are two of my very first deals, published and on display side-by-side at The Holiday House publisher’s booth at the convention. And they are both on sale now. Eliza Bing is (Not) a Big Fat Quitter by Carmella Van Vleet is a fabulous middle grade novel about a girl with ADHD who must prove to others (and herself) that she can stick with something to the very end.  This is Carmella’s debut novel, and it has already been honored as a Junior Library Guild Selection.  I’m not surprised.  Eliza’s an unforgettable character!  Mending Horses, a YA historical by award-winning author M.P. Barker, is one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever encountered. Michele (the M. in M.P.) writes with such confidence and skill that you are completely absorbed in this tale about Daniel, a young indentured servant in 1800s New England, who is suddenly set free and must find his way alone. He finds a family of sorts in an old peddler, a young runaway and a traveling circus, but all is not well. The performing horses are mistreated, and a dangerous secret puts everyone at risk. Daniel fights to protect the horses, but can he save them all?

To view the cool trailer for this book, click here and then click on trailer video.

It was a great moment for me as an agent to hold these two books in my hands. To have a part in bringing these wonderful books to readers. But it took time. And not just for me, of course. The authors spent so much time perfecting their writing, creating their novels, revising them, finding an agent, then revising again, then working on revisions with the publisher. It’s an investment.

But it pays off – over time.

I look at my career as an agent thus far as a start-up business. I put in my own time to learn the ropes, to scout out clients, to build my list, and now, two years into it, things are chugging along. My authors are working on second and third manuscripts for me. I have a number of projects out on submission. New books are slotted for publication in 2015. It’s a process.

I guess that’s what I hope writers will take away from this post. It’s a process. An investment. It takes time. It’s worth it.

I always tell my authors to take a loooong view of their careers. That means don’t just write one book and wait for it to sell. Work on something new while the other is on submission.

Writers, don’t let past discouragements in your career stop you from writing and moving ahead. Learn from it and keep going. I’m a writer, too, and there are many times that I could have stopped and said, enough! But I didn’t, and I’m so glad I gave myself that time. When things derail your writing career, it can be hard to have that sort of perspective. But keep working and you will look back after 20 years of writing and producing work and see that stumbling block as something small in perspective. If writing is your passion, keep going. It’s an investment.

And expect an agent that will invest in you. A good agent will be viewing you over the long career you have ahead of you. Not dropping you if a project doesn’t immediately sell. You will continue to write, to grow and to get better and better. Writers with talent are worth investing in.

Now back to work, everyone!  Put in that time.

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

Agent Monday: Taking Care of Business

Man Relaxing Under the SunHappy Agent Monday, all!  What?  It’s Tuesday?  Okay, so I am a bit late on this one, but, hey, I was taking care of business yesterday.  Doing things like reading a full manuscript, and corresponding with interns and clients, and dealing with some contract-related stuff, plus putting together a full-day “Spend the Day with an Agent” presentation for this Friday, which I’ll be doing as part of the Push to Publish Conference sponsored by Philadelphia Stories.  So, yeah, Agent Monday slipped away cuz I was busy, well, taking care of business.  And that is the topic of my post today.  Why? Because when the writer seeks an agent, he must put down his creative hat and put on his business hat.  When creative meets business, you’ll need to make some adjustments for true success.

Writers are creative people. They work on their own. They get lost in their words. They are independent. If I could turn on a webcam and find you banging out your novel, chances are pretty good you’d be wearing sweats, your hair just might be sticking up and you’d have a cold coffee at your side.  If I were to interrupt you in your moment of epiphany, you wouldn’t be too pleasant.   You are in your own world, which is just where you should be.

Now lets pretend, for a sec, that instead of working on your novel or being your writerly self, you decided to get a cushy corporate job somewhere (hey, it’s PRETEND).  You’re a smart person, so you know to get a professional resume together, and to research the firms you’d like to approach.  You’d apply for jobs, and when you’d get called in for an interview?  You’d put your best professional foot forward. Day of interview, you’d show up in your best business attire, well-groomed.  You’d be ready to demonstrate your best assets, and show that you can work well with others, plus you would be sure to have an understanding of the business.  You would be, in a word: READY.

Alrighty then. Here’s my point.  When you, the creative writer, approach me, the agent, you are stepping out of your creative zone and into the business zone of publishing. The same is true if you are approaching an editor directly.  That means that you research who you are approaching, discover why you are right for them and they are right for you. The query letter? That’s a business letter. It should be professional and clean. Like a job application, the query should highlight what you are offering (what’s your book about), should show you have done your work to understand the business side of things (your book’s genre should be accurate, its length should fit the genre, say what audience the book appeals to…in short, where it belongs in the marketplace…), and also demonstrate that you are someone I’d work well with (bio that shows you are a serious writer, tone that is professional and cooperative, evidence/willingness to engage in social media and to market).

Your manuscript, if requested, it’s kinda like a job interview. It’s you showing up and demonstrating all you have to offer and proving that you are right for the job. The manuscript should also have a proper professional polish. Formatted correctly. Edited to perfection. It should make me shout: YOU’RE HIRED!  Or rather, you’re REPRESENTED!

MP900341549And if you ever meet an agent or editor at a conference? View that a bit like a job interview, too, though more like a first round of interviews vs. a final one. Dress neatly. Act like a pro. Do your research about the person ahead of time so you can have a meaningful discussion and ask pertinent questions.  You want to leave a positive impression.

That creative self is still there within you, but don’t let it get in the way of the business of getting your manuscript sold. Change your creative hat for your business hat (and while you’re at it, change out of those jammies and comb your hair too! ;) ). Always represent yourself and your product professionally, and that will give your manuscript the best chance possible.

 

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

 

 

 

Agent Monday: Looking for Memorable Memoirs

Businesswoman standing on a ladder looking through binocularsHappy Agent Monday!  I know. I’ve been “away” for a while. That’s what the holidays plus a family round of the flu (wash your hands, people!), in addition to a heavy work load can do. Anyways…today I thought I’d chat about memoirs. And about why, though I’m interested in representing memoirs, I haven’t yet found one I want to champion.  The reason? I’m looking for memorable memoirs. And it seems they are a bit hard to find.

There are definitely different types of memoirs. There’s the famous person memoir, and plenty of war-hero memoirs. I group that as one sort. The interest in the market is high for this sort of project, for obvious reasons. Still, they need some meat to them. Something revealing or scandalous or whatever…

Then there’s the “gone through something extreme” memoir. Drug abuse, debilitating illness, horrific accidents, true tragedy. It’s heartbreaking some of the things I read about, and sometimes it’s plain old heartbreaking to tell that writer “no thanks.” But this isn’t the same thing as saying that the writer isn’t an amazing human being for overcoming terrible stuff. What the “no thanks” does mean is that the writing skills aren’t strong, or that the memoir isn’t laid out in an interesting way, or that the voice doesn’t draw the reader in. It means that, basically, I don’t feel it is at the level where I can sell it to a publisher. As tough as it sounds, an agent must view the memoir as a product to be sold.

Lastly, there’s the slice of life sort of memoir. This is the type that I get all the time. Too often I see people trying to sell me their memoirs about common things such as having a baby, or studying abroad, or going through a divorce, or parenting a surly child. These may have been monumental for the writer, but not exceptional for the average reader, and if nothing unusual is brought out in the book, the memoir isn’t of interest to the public. It needs something to distinguish itself from common experiences.

So what can make this slice of life sort of memoir soar? Incredible voice, amazing humor, sharp writing, gripping page turning pacing, unusual settings if possible, things like that…  How ’bout a memoir about a boy and his dog? Yawn, right?  Oh yeah? Perhaps you haven’t read Marley & Me. Here’s a slice of life memoir that could have been a serious yawn, but the writing and voice and pacing and emotions are spot on – something to keep in mind as you progress with your own memoir.

It’s important when plotting it out (yes, I said plotting :) ) to give the memoir a tight structure and to keep away from the trap that telling a real story presents – that of plodding along chronologically without regard to what’s most interesting. Keep a strong narrative thread throughout, even if it’s with interlocking essays. And in the process, if I learn something – bonus! Make the reader wonder “will she ever be able to finally xyz?” Like in the memoir Season to Taste, where an aspiring chef gets in an accident and loses her ability to smell and taste…will she ever get it back? Will she ever be able to realize her dream of being a chef? This question keeps you turning the pages.

So what am I looking for, exactly?  Something compelling. Something GREAT.  An example of a great memoir?: Angela’s Ashes. It has incredible voice, gripping hardship, unusual setting, heartbreak – the whole enchilada. Send me something on that level, and I’ll be VERY interested.

My inbox awaits…

 

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.