books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, June 27, 2010

LURK PROUDLY

Are you a lurker who reads publishing blogs but doesn’t comment or create your own blog? Do you fail to Tweet or network on Facebook?

Good for you!

You’re educating yourself about the publishing business without wasting precious writing time. Don’t let anybody pressure you into changing your ways until you’re ready. (Although if you happened to want to make an exception and comment today, I wouldn’t make you turn in your lurker badge. Promise.)

Yes, you’ve read a bunch of stuff that says every writer should be out here building “platform.” But my secret suspicion is that agents and publishers urge writers to spend all our time social networking and website-building so we’ll never finish our novels and they won't have so much slush to read.

But agent Donald Maass told it like it is last week in an interview with editor Victoria Mixon. “It's absurd to build a website before you finish your first draft.”

In fact, most agents say you need to finish a FINAL draft (preferably of several novels) before you query—and if you’re not querying, you’re at least two years from publishing. That means it’s absurd to build a website or otherwise rush into any time-wasting, cart-before-horse marketing activity.

In other words, don’t rent a store until you have product to sell.

Sierra Godfrey, Roni at Fiction Groupie, and Andrea at Bloggingmama have all blogged about various aspects of this issue recently. I think we’re all starting to realize how much the pressure to brand and market ourselves is interfering with the actual business of writing the best possible fiction.

Writing guru Hope Clark also wrote about this on June 25th, providing a helpful list of bad reasons to blog with a reminder that it’s harder to talk people into paying for your work when you’re giving it away for free.

It’s also harder to talk people into paying for your work if the sucky stuff you wrote when you were a newbie is hanging out here in cyberspace.

Becoming a professional writer is a learning curve like any other. You wouldn’t advertise your upcoming match at Wimbledon the first time you won a tennis match against your sister—but it’s funny how so many fledgling writers think they’re ready for the big time immediately upon typing “the end” on their first opus.

Q. So when do you need to start building your platform?

A. When you’re ready to query.

Q. When is that?

A. Six months to six years after you think it is.

I’m not kidding on that. If somebody had given me that advice fifteen years ago, I’d probably have a solid career by now. More on that in another post.

Don’t despair. This is something to embrace. Being at the unpublished stage of your career actually has a lot of perks. A couple of weeks ago, Agent Michael Bourret wrote a great post on the Dystel and Goderich blog about the joys of being “pre-published”.

He reminds us that once you’re published, you’re pretty much locked into a genre and a life dictated by deadlines and promotional obligations. Your pre-published days are when you can play with genres and voices—maybe turn what started as a memoir into a paranormal romance (hey, that brooding, angsty guy you had a crush on in high school MIGHT have been a vampire) or rewrite your YA novel in the smart-aleck little brother’s voice to create one of those MG boys’ books publishers crave—plus take three years polishing the manuscript until every word is luminous.

When your book is ready to send out, yes, you will indeed need a website (a web designer reminded me recently that a blog IS a website) and you might want to start gathering followers on Twitter and Facebook—although by then they will probably have gone the way of Friendster and MySpace, and some more trendy privacy-invading time-fritterers will have taken their place.

Until then, if you love blogging and social networking, go for it—but remember this is playtime. Serious writing should always come first.

And don’t forget our lurking friends, who are probably already offline as we speak, rewriting that tenth draft that will rocket from slush pile to bestseller list, while the rest of us are Twit-Facing our careers away.

I don’t want to lose any of my wonderful followers and commenters (welcome to my two new followers!) but if you have to make a choice between commenting here and rewriting your book, go rewrite. You can always drop by later for a lurk.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

How Much Can You Expect in an Advance?

If you're not reading agent Kristin Nelson's blog regularly, do check today's. She talks about the standard advances for various genres. All of which vary widely, she says. But it's nice to know what ballpark you might be playing in, isn't it?

And if you have time, browse her archives, which contain a whole course on the publishing business. Her advice can help at all stages of your career.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

WHERE THE WILD THINGS AREN'T

A friend and I watched the DVD of Where the Wild Things Are last weekend. We both adore the Sendak book and figured the Spike Jonz version could only be edgier and more fun.

But it wasn’t. We both fell asleep—in spite of the phenomenal effects, stellar cast, and faithful adherence to the spirit of the book.

Why? I think the filmmakers forgot several things that all writers need to keep in mind, whether writing for film/print or kids/adults.

Identify your audience and give them an idea of what to expect.

No matter how much you like caviar, if you think you’re biting into blackberry jam, you’re not going to be happy.

The book’s audience is four-year-olds, but the film’s audience is intellectually sophisticated adults—people who watch esoteric Swedish films and adore Woody Allen.

But that’s not the way it was marketed. We don’t see toy stores filled with action figures of Annie Hall or skateboards decorated with scenes from The Seventh Seal.

I didn’t know until I looked it up that the screenplay of Wild Things was co-written by David Eggers—the Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius David Eggers. If I’d expected a McSweeney’s story instead of a kid’s movie, I probably would have liked this a whole lot better.

Make your protagonist sympathetic.

What’s adorable and fun in Sendak’s original four-year-old Max seemed kind of creepy and unwell in a kid twice that age. A kid can be a brat, and your protagonist can be horrible, but it has to be brattiness the reader can relate to—and it has to be motivated by something we can believe might make us act horrible too. Otherwise it’s about as fun as watching somebody’s kid misbehave in the supermarket.

Don’t just talk about feelings—make the audience FEEL.

The Sendak book was originally controversial because it was “too scary.” But there was nothing scary in the movie. Not even for four-year-olds. Except maybe the threat of falling asleep and suffocating in their popcorn.

Don’t peak too early.

The most exciting thing was when Max first met the monsters at the end of the first act, but after he won them over, not much was at stake. Max became more of an observer than a participant, and he was hardly ever in danger.

Don’t have a muddle in the middle.

In the second act, the monsters had relationship scuffles, artistic differences, and anger management issues—all charming and witty—but instead of each scene escalating the tension, the story ambled from episode to episode. The incidents related metaphorically to the first act, but were not set in motion by it—or by each other.

Tension has to build in order to have a compelling story. You can’t simply throw rocks at your protagonist; you need to throw bigger and bigger rocks. You have to be increasingly afraid for his welfare.

(If you have problems with a muddled second act, Scott G. F. Bailey had a great post on sagging middles last week at Literary Lab.)


If your story confuses the audience, has an unsympathetic MC, or doesn’t subject him—and your reader—to escalating tension, you'll end up with a snoozefest, and there will be no Wild Things there.

Friday, June 18, 2010

SlushPile Hell--A New Blog

A self-described grumpy agent has started a new blog called SlushPile Hell. Every day he/she posts a quote from an epic #queryfail letter with a snappy response. We KNOW we won't ever find our own queries in there (um, don't we?) But they may remind you of something you wrote in your younger, clueless days. A little cringing, a lot of laughs.

Thanks Solvang Sherrie for the heads-up.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

What Agents Expect

One of the funniest blogs in the publishosphere is also a fountain of wisdom. If you're not following the awesome 22-year-old YA writer who blogs under the name Tahereh, you're missing out on your daily laugh. Today she posted (for her "Querypolitan" magazine) a list of "What 81% of Agents Expect on a First Page."

Monday, June 14, 2010

List of Must-Read Publishing Blogs

CKHB's blog is always fun and informative, but this time she's out-done herself. She's posted a list of links to all the most important publishing blogs for writers. If you're looking for an agent, or know somebody who is, get yourself over to Heim Binas Fiction and read "HOW DO I GET AN AGENT."

Thanks, Carrie. You did a whole lot of work so we don't have to!

Sunday, June 13, 2010

5 THINGS WE’VE GOT WRONG ABOUT AGENTS Part II

In last Thursday’s post I talked about two of the “myths” agent Jennifer Lawler debunked in her June 1 Writers Digest article, 5 Myths You Shouldn’t Believe About Agents.

I found her article refreshing and comforting. But it should probably be read with a bit of skepticism. The truth is most of these “myths” come from agents themselves. I don’t know what agency Ms. Lawler is with, since her website is an author site for her own books (she’s written 32!) But I wonder if maybe she’s a new agent. I think the older, more established agents often still work with the old rules.

In any case, as I said in the comments thread on my first post, I’d read the specific agent’s website or blog before acting on this advice. This isn’t the only area where agent rules are contradictory.

Here are all five of Ms. Lawler’s “myths.”

1. The bulk of an agent’s time is spent selling her clients’ work.

Nope. She says most of her time is spent babysitting clients and looking for new ones (yes, reading our queries.)

2. A client shouldn’t waste her agent’s time with a bunch of questions.

Ask away. What they really hate is to be left out of the loop (and it creeps them out to see their clients asking questions on other agents’ blogs.)

3. No response means no.

I mentioned this in my first post. Apparently email gets lost way more than we realize. Several agents besides Ms. Lawler have blogged about the number of requested manuscripts that never arrive. Sometimes they take time to search for us by another address or phone number, but mostly they assume we’ve found other representation.

Always remember to put an agent's email in your address book after you query, so that dreamed-of request for a read doesn't end up in the spam folder--and if you don't hear anything within two months or so, it's OK to send the query one more time.

HOWEVER: there are other agents who say “no response from one agent in this agency is a rejection from all. Do not resend or requery any of our agents.” So look for one of those “one chance only” warnings before you requery.

BTW—I made the mistake of following Query Shark’s advice that it’s OK to requery if you’ve done a complete overhaul on a query. This is NOT TRUE for all agents and I’ve got the acid burns on my email program to prove it.

4. Agents should give feedback when they reject a partial or full.

A lot of us have been discussing this recently (And Creepy Query Girl has some hilarious posts on the pain of getting a form rejection on a requested manuscript.)

But Ms. Lawler gives convincing reasons for why she doesn’t offer feedback. She says rejections usually have to do with personal taste and current contacts, and she often has to reject books that have absolutely nothing wrong with them. If she gave advice, you might end up ruining a book another agent would love.

5. Agents’ inboxes are so congested with crapola, they’ll never notice your query of heartbreaking genius.

The bad ones are easy to weed out--and mock--but apparently most of us are doing our homework. The problem, Ms. Lawler says, is too many good queries. She has a hard time choosing.

Who knew?


But in the end, it’s all about homework. Do as much research as you can on agents before you query. Some are pretty quirky and cranky. (Usually in direct relationship to how established they are.) Don’t just check Agent Query or Query Tracker. Read every page of their website and Google for interviews. (If you write YA, the wonderful Casey McCormick at Literary Rambles does this for you. Her profiles are the BEST!)

Friday, June 11, 2010

Yeah. I Kind of Hate This New Design Too.

Blogger tempted me with a handful of new templates this morning. I stupidly tried one out. And guess what? I can't go back. At least not without some secret code I can't find. So I'm stuck with this design that obliterates my profile text with my photo. Do I get rid of the photo? Scream and stamp my little foot? Give up and accept my blog is ruined?

I feel like I'm being Big Brothered. Or worse. I've just taken candy from that stranger and now he's whisked me off in his windowless van...

Anybody else fall into this trap? Have any suggestions on how to get my old design back?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

5 THINGS WE'VE GOT WRONG ABOUT AGENTS Part 1

I just read an enlightening piece by agent Jennifer Lawler in a June 1 Writers Digest post busting some wide-spread myths about agents. A real eye opener.

She says SILENCE DOES NOT MEAN NO, so it’s OK to follow up on a query or resubmit if you’ve heard nothing, because email evaporates so often.

And—most important to me at the moment—she explains why we’re getting those form rejections on partials and fulls.

She says, “If I believe a book could be improved by revision, I’ll make suggestions and ask the writer to resubmit, or I’ll offer representation conditional on certain revisions being made.”

Otherwise, she says, “I don’t think I have any business telling you where I think you’ve gone wrong.” Because “what I think is wrong with your novel may be what the next agent thinks is right with it.”

Yesterday I got a rejection on a full from an agent I had a lot of hope for. She gave a few reasons for her rejection—that the heroine and hero don’t fit traditional roles for romantic comedy. I spent the night wondering if I should revise, but after reading Ms. Lawler’s article, I’m not sure I will. At least I’ll wait to see if I get similar feedback elsewhere.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

What’s Your Best or Worst Critique Experience?

I lost a follower over last week’s post. I’m surprised; it seemed one of my blander ones. But I guess you can’t express any kind of opinion without offending somebody somewhere. Opinions are always subjective. That was pretty much my point—it’s why a critique group can be the best or worst thing that ever happened to your writing.

Most people who say they love their critique group(s) seem to have done some shopping around. That’s hard to do when the group is a class or a workshop you’ve paid for, so free groups may actually be the most useful: they’re more fluid and easier to ditch.

Most of the comments I got last week were pro-group, and a number of commenters included links to other great posts on giving/getting feedback and group mentality. Children’s book author Jan Markely has a fascinating article on what she learned from a multi-ethnic writers group, and MFA survivor Bookfraud has a wonderful piece on good boundaries for in-family critiquing. (And some must-read advice for writers considering an MFA.)

The always-helpful Hope C. Clark also posted a great, simple set of rules for critique groups on her Funds For Writers Website this week.

People also pointed out that, aside from feedback, groups provide handy deadlines to keep you on a writing schedule plus a group of friends who can share your joy when you get that nibble from an agent, and provide crying-shoulders when the rejections come. And whether or not the feedback is useful, just reading your piece aloud can help you polish your work.

Successful groups—whether single- or multi-genre, limited or multi-culti/skill level/generational—seem to have one thing in common. They keep to a prescribed set of rules and have a designated moderator.

I’m talking rules of behavior, not writing. Rigid writing rules can strait-jacket creativity, but requirements like no arguing, no personal attacks, and no all-negative comments keep bullies under control and remind people to use good manners. And manners boil down to the most important rule of all—the Golden one. If something would feel hurtful/unhelpful to you, don’t say it/do it/post it to others. Amazing how many people have trouble grasping that concept, isn’t it?

Writers Digest has a useful interview with critique group guru Becky Levine, author of the Writers and Critique Group Survival Guide. She has some inspiring writing group success stories. Her book looks very thorough, if a bit pricey for a paperback. It might be worth the investment as a joint purchase for a group.

So what have been your experiences with groups? Have you ever abandoned what later turned out to be a good project because of a bad critique? Stopped writing altogether? Considered suicide/homicide after a toxic comment?

Or has your group provided you with a free MFA, a throng of life-long friends and/or catapulted you to successful publication heights you never dreamed of?

I’d love to hear your stories. Go ahead and vent. But I hope you won’t unfollow. It feels like getting a nasty critique.