Saturday, June 30, 2007

Finding Time to Blog: A Guest Editorial

Humorist Robert Benchley had been dead for decades before I began reading him, and most of the essays he wrote were from the 1920s and 1930s, long before his death. Unlike his best friend Dorothy Parker--who was hilarious but full of venom--Benchley was generous and self-deprecating, and was the first essayist to goof around, Lewis-Carroll-style, with language for its own sake.

For example:

It's amazing we've come as far as we have...or have we?

Or, his old, oft-quoted, seldom-attributed:

There's two kinds of people in the world: people who divide people into two classes, and people who don't.

Benchley had a powerful effect on my preadolescent mind, which has remained, possibly for that reason, rather preadolescent. Despite his silliness, his essays often contained deep truths. Or, at any rate, so it seems to my admittedly damaged brain.

But why am I telling you this? For a very simple reason. Several people have asked me how I find the time to blog. The first answer is that although I write fiction very slowly indeed, I write most of these blogs at a pretty good pace, because I consider them to be not essays, but letters to friends. The second, and more important answer is found in the opening of a magazine essay by Benchley, and I'm going to step aside and let old Bob answer for me. Ladies and Gentlemen, from his article How To Get Things Done...Robert Benchley:


A great many people have come up to me and asked me how I manage to get so much work done and still keep looking so dissipated. My answer is, “Don’t you wish you knew?” and a pretty good answer it is when you consider that nine times out of ten I didn’t hear the original question.

But the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of people throughout the country are wondering how I have time to do all my painting, engineering, and philanthropic work when, according to the rotogravure sections and society notes I spend all my time riding to hounds, going to fancy-dress balls dressed as Louis XIV or spelling out GREETINGS TO CALIFORNIA in formation with three thousand Los Angeles school children. “All work and all play,” they say.

The secret of my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one. I have based it very deliberately on a well-known psychological principle and I have refined it so that it is now almost too refined. I shall have to begin coarsening it up again pretty soon.

The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided that it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.


The article goes on, describing this system in practice, but what he's said there pretty much covers my entire working philosophy. Blog when you ought to be writing your novel or doing your day job or spending time with your family or mopping the floor or getting some exercise, and it will come with incredible efficiency. Similarly, if you are stealing time to write your novel, your imagination will kick into high gear.

Chekhov, who was a physician, once said that medicine was his wife but writing was his mistress. I believe this is why, when so many writers get their wish, and their job becomes writing, they dry up. As Benchley says, when it's what you're supposed to be doing, it loses some of its allure.

The trick is getting your priorities straight--but not in the way most people think. Tell yourself that writing, blogging, etc. are low-priority tasks in your life that are undermining your career, family, and health, and I guarantee they will develop an irresistable draw.

That's how I blog. Right now there's a dozen other things I really need to do.

There's always time to squeeze in something that's bad for you.

Friday, June 29, 2007

MNW Group Blog Coming Soon

Never one to dither, Matt Curran has announced that he will be winding down his blog around the end of the summer, and will also be launching a group blogging platform at around the same time--Macmillan New Writers. While there are a few details to be worked out, Matt certainly has the needed facility with Blogger templates to get things up and running in a great format.

Hats off to Mr Curran for tackling the problem head-on. Interested parties should watch his blog, where he will no doubt be blogging about setting up the new blog.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

See the World With Faye Booth

For those of you who haven't visited Faye's blog lately, she's been sending postcards of Cover the Mirrors round the planet, and people have been sending back in situ photos of the postcard's travels. The journey began on June 14 and the little card has already been spotted in England, several rather unlikely US states, Australia, New Zealand, and even exotic locales such as Aberystwyth. (To be honest, I don't know where Aberystwyth is--but I think I'm safe in guessing Wales.)

It has also--ahem--been confirmed in my little town of Huntington Beach--on the beach and even on the Surfing Walk of Fame. Pics are up at Faye's site.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Wherefore Art Thou, Homie?

Most writers these days have a web presence, and MNW writers are among the more visible. True, there have always been a few MNWers who published their books but never, insofar as I can detect, established blogs or websites. I've never been able to find web homes for Hugh Paxton (Homunculus), Peter Bourne (The Deserter), or Jason Webb (The Ghost of Che Guevara). Suroopa Mukherjee (Across the Mystic Shore) has no web home, either--but she does drop e-mails and comments to us sometimes to let us know she is still out there. [Indeed, as I was finishing this post, Suroopa dropped a comment on my previous post. Spooky.]

I'm unable to find web homes for some of the new crop, however. LC Tyler, whose The Herring Seller's Apprentice is slated for October (right after my Shock and Awe, and just before Faye Booth's Cover the Mirrors), has a website, and I've dropped it onto the sidebar without asking. (I'd ask if I could, but Mr Tyler's website doesn't seem to provide an option of contacting him. The Herring Seller's Apprentice looks like a great read, by the way.)

The other newbies seem to be in hiding. Peter Anthony, Geoffrey Bird, Annabel Dore', Alis Hawkins--where are you folks? C.mon. say hi. Be sociable. We don't bite. (Well, at least as long as you move slowly and deliberately and keep your hands where we can see them.)

The Lifespan of Blogs

Recent months have been rough times in the blogosphere. First Girl On Demand announced her retirement. Then Grumpy Old Bookman decided he'd cut back to only occasional posts. And finally, Miss Snark decided she'd answered every agenting question to the best of her ability and closed up shop. (And I note that Lucy McCarraher has been maintaining radio silence since early May--though perhaps she's just on vacation.)

Then, on top of all that, when I was chatting with Roger Morris he mentioned that his blog (or rather 'plog') was becoming less active, and that he could see a day when it might wind down, and this led into a brief speculation on whether blogs by their nature have a natural lifespan.

(Of course, Roger, in the style of someone out of Beowulf, took a rash vow when he started out, stating he would restrict himself to plugging his books rather than just writing about whatever came to mind. Even though he's had two books out in less than two years, and a ton of reviews, this presents a problem in finding subject matter for frequent posting.)

Arriving back home, I discovered that Matt Curran had been blogging about how his blog would probably be winding down in the foreseaable future.

Now, I'm not the sharpest tack on the bulletin board, but even I can recognize a breaking wave (usually about ten seconds before it knocks me over). Even a chatterbox like me can imagine a day when he might have nothing to add (though it's likely that someone will pay me to shut up first, which has been my secret goal all along).

One of the problems with blogs is that unless the content keeps arriving, the readers stop coming by. If you update your blog, say, once a month, most folks will stop checking in.

So Matt and I have been wondering about the idea, in the longer term, of setting up a group blog of sorts, where, as we abandon our individual blogs, the members of the MNW crew could drop an occasional post. Collectively, this might be enough traffic to keep a lively blog, without requiring anyone to post too frequently. In the comment trail on another post here, Matt wrote:

I've replied to your idea of a central MNW blog for writers to post entries, news etc. and I reckon it's a good idea. I'll probably look to set it up after I wind down my blog. But I suppose it all depends on whether Roger, Cate, Jonathan, Sam, Lucy, Brian, Michael, Faye, Aliya etc. will use it to whether I expend much time getting it up and running. But it would be fun. Like you said, it would also negate having to think of something to blog every week or so, and wouldn’t it be a fantastic marketing tool (question for Roger and Jonathan)?

Check the Comments trail on Matt's post for more of his thoughts on this (including posting the entire pantheon of books, past and upcoming, on the sidebar.)

Another advantage I could see is that MNWers who've (probably wisely) never wanted to establish a blog might want to drop in an occasional post.

Any thoughts?

Monday, June 25, 2007

A Vulgar But Public-Spirited Post

I’m not going to delve into the mysteries of British pronunciation (which, I grant, varies wildly in any case). I accept that “Cockfosters” will be pronounced “Cock Fosters,” as any rational person might expect, while “Cockburns” (as in the port wine) will be pronounced “Cobburns”. Fine. I admit it would be difficult, by analogy, to say “Coffisters” for “Cockfosters,” and that doing so would deny many schoolchildren a good giggle.

Hey, it’s your language. We just have it on permanent loan. If y’all wanna pronounce “Newgate” not as "New Gate" but rather as “nougat”—suggesting that a late medieval prison was some sort of sugary nut-and-fruit confection—who am I to complain? The language is called "English", after all. And I freely grant that in matters of vocabulary, we Yanks are toddlers, pointing at any four-legged animal that happens by, be it horse or hippo*, and exclaiming, “Doggy!” I’m not going to get snippy (or stroppy or tetchy or even mardy--thanks to Cate for that one) about minor matters.

*(Yeah, yeah, I know that “hippo” is Greek for “horse.” Don’t get all Oxford-Honors-in-Classics on me or I’ll have to lean over and whup ya’ one.)

My goals are modest. I'm not out to reform the entire language. But I would like to take a moment to discuss our ass. Or, rather, your arse. (I exclude from the following the use of "ass" to mean the four-legged beast of burden, since we seem to be in agreement on that usage.)

Until copyediting on Shock and Awe, I was unaware how often my book used the word “ass”. (Generally it’s in dialogue or internal monologue, so not really my fault. Blame my characters. My personal speech patterns are as unprofane as those of a goddamned nun.) Will Atkins has endorsed the use of “ass” in my manuscript, recognizing that this is simply how Americans say it, while “arse” would lack authenticity.

But on the topic of the great transatlantic ass/arse divide, I’d like to suggest a compromise. “Ass” is a lovely word—as in, “Wow, nice ass!” An astonished, open-mouthed “A” trailing off into a smooth, sibilant “S”…doesn’t it make you want to trail your hand down its curves? “Ass” is, as the They Might Be Giants song has it, S-E-X-X-Y.

However, we don’t always use “ass” in that admiring sense. “Get your ass over here!” is less curvaceous by far, and, “I think he’s a total ass!” is downright hostile. “Get your arse over here!” and, “I think he’s a total arse!” are more to the point. There’s something about the mild friction of the “r” in “arse” that’s irritating, and captures the intent far better, than “ass” in these contexts. This may be why, when we Yanks want to malign someone’s character, we generally call them a “horse’s ass” rather than an “ass”. “Ass” sounds a bit promising. We need that “r” sound in there somewhere for the annoyance factor.

Run your hand down someone’s ass. Nice, huh? Now run it down their arse. Little more sandpapery, isn’t it? Not really something you want to cuddle up against. From certain callipygian people, “Kiss my ass” sounds like an opportunity you don’t want to miss, while, “Kiss my arse” sounds like an insult even emanating from the most inviting source.

Digressive Disclaimer: Yes, I’m well aware that some people manage to say “arse” without sounding the “r”, hence arse = ahhhse. Well, if you aren’t going to pronounce the “r”, then get it the hell out of the word and put it where it is needed (Arstraliar, for example).

But now is not the time to debate pronunciation nuance. Before they leave office—very soon in the case of one, and far too late in the case of the other—I urge Tony Blair and George W. Bush to think of posterity, or at least posteriors, and at last do something useful with their rather disturbing relationship.

I suggest our two overlords use their last days as a team to form a transatlantic consensus on this critical issue. The language clearly needs both words. From now on, if you mean “ass,” say “ass.” If you mean “arse,” say “arse.” And if you say “ahhhse,” figure out what the hell you mean—or just say “booty,” you gangsta mofo, you.

Henceforth, it will be “ass” when used in an approving, sexual, lip-smacking, or otherwise luscious context; and “arse” when used in an insulting, demanding, or otherwise in-your-face context.

It will be “booty” if the bass on your car stereo is turned up and your treble is turned off--or, in the special case where you discover you are Long John Silver. (Don't you hate it when you have one of those piratical days?)

Saturday, June 23, 2007

What I Did With My Summer Vacation by David I

The visit to London was marvelous. The consulting business side of things went well (though I doubt any readers will want to hear about it), and everything connected with MNW was great fun. It was also exhilarating to see copies of MNW books on the shelves at bookstores, just as though they were, well, any other novels.

On Tuesday after my meetings, I got together with Jonathan Drapes and his ultracool partner Catherine/Katherine at a pub and we sat out under an umbrella and watched a full-up Bengali-style monsoonal downpour slap South Kensington silly. Jonathan, as most of your know, is the author of the hilarious Never Admit to Beige. (I don’t generally admit to beige, but I do admit to owning two copies of the book so I can loan the paperback out. It’s the kind of book that makes people snort whatever they’re drinking out their nostrils, and that’s bad for the pages.) Most people with a real talent for comedy have a mean streak in them, but Jonathan doesn't; he's one of the most affable folks I’ve met (as is C/Katherine, for that matter).

Wednesday I had lunch with Will and Sophie. It was wonderful to put faces to the names. I knew a little about Sophie from Mike Barnard’s book, but Will I knew only through his excellent editing. Both of them were, as I’d been warned, disarmingly smart and and pleasant. The status update is that nothing has really changed--between title changes and the problem of UK/US orthography, and various proofing matters, Shock and Awe is running a bit behind where we’d expected it to be at this point—but the release date is still the same, Sept 7, which is all that matters. We kicked around publicity plans, but I can’t say I contributed anything useful, apart from Jonathan and Catherine’s suggestion that having a fatwa issued against me, ala Salman Rushdie, might get me some free press. (Or maybe knighted. I always wanted to be a knight. Did Rushdie get any kind of armor or anything?)

Will also took me through the display at the new British Library. Handwritten originals from Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, Lewis Carroll, not to mention scrawled song lyrics from Lennon and McCartney, the score to Beethoven’s Ninth, plus the effing Magna effing Carta, if you can believe that; and then we adjourned for a chat about MNW, books, and writing in general.

That evening I attended a reading and book signing at the Muswell Hill Bookstore, east of East Finchley. (Would that be East East Finchley? Far East Finchley? I’m not sure.) Roger Morris of Taking Comfort and A Gentle Axe fame was signing Axe, and, serendipitously, Andrew Martin (whose crime novels I’d been advised to read by a good friend) was reading and signing his two most recent books. So I bought a UK copy of Axe for fun (though I neglected to have Roger sign it) as well as Andrew’s pair, and also had Emma Darwin, who just happened to be in the audience, inscribe a copy of her Mathematics of Love. A pretty good haul--plus I added in a copy of Satan Wants Me, by Robert Irwin (author of the extraordinarly peculiar lit-fic novel The Limits of Vision) . Then it was around the corner to a pub with Roger, his smart and lovely wife Rachel, and a few of his fascinating work pals. Great people.

The next day, on the advice of Jonathan, Will, Sophie, Roger, and random strangers on the street, I dropped through Goldsboro Books to say hello to David Headley, who seems to know everyone in the book world and who dropped everything to chat with me about books, and politics, and more books. He also forced two marvelous books upon me and wouldn’t let me pay for them. Wonderful shop. Wonderful guy. I then had another talk with Roger at a Soho pub during lunch time.

I also managed to do some business, see some friends, and drop through the Natural History Museum and the Tate Modern (though not the Tate British. So, plenty of Max Ernst—my favorite painter—and Francis Bacon, but no Burne-Jones or Rosetti this time round).

The only peculiar thing is that everybody I met was so damned nice and hospitable. In movies and novels, this is a clue that something is seriously wrong, and that a major conspiracy or mad scientific experiment is about to be revealed. (The fact that all the women were attractive also shouts Hollywood.)

It worries me. But at least until the time all of you I visited pull off your masks and are revealed as aliens bent on galactic domination, I’d like to say how much I enjoyed meeting you.

And, to those of you I've not yet met, don't think you're off the hook.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

"Borderlands" Shortlisted

Heads up, folks. Brian McGilloway's debut novel Borderlands is one of six books shortlisted for the Crime Writer's Association "New Blood" Dagger Award--their prize for the best novel by a previously unpublished author. (For readers stateside, the CWA is roughly the UK equivalent of the Mystery Writers of America.)

The winner will be announced in the first week of July, but even being shortlisted for a Dagger is a considerable honor--not just for Brian, but for the Macmillan New Writing imprint.

So, Bravo, Mr McGilloway. Go forth and conquer!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Getting an Agent, V (and final): The Differences Between Your Agent and Your Mother

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Yes, there are differences, even beyond the twenty-five pounds and the fuzzy bunny slippers…

According to prevailing thought, publishers, left to their own devices, would pay authors miserable royalties (or perhaps none), keep all proceeds from subsidiary rights, grudgingly spend money printing your books, and then dump those same books onto the street without any effort to sell so much as a single copy. It seems all that stands between you and this terrible fate are the brave, lonely efforts of the literary agents. And the great thing is that your agent’s interests are perfectly aligned with your own, right? After all, if you don’t get paid, she doesn’t get paid, and the more you make, the more she makes... right?

In the case of money, your interests and your agent’s interests generally coincide, though not always perfectly (more on this in a moment). But some people confuse what is a business relationship with a personal relationship, and assume their agent always wants what’s best for their client. Well, they might--but that doesn't mean that what's best for you is a priority.

The Big Advance

Big advances are good for both the author and the agent--if the book goes on to sell well. If the book doesn’t come close to earning out, though, your career may be in trouble—especially if the book in question was your debut novel.

Bad news for you, but for your agent it may be considerably less troubling. There’s no doubt that your agent would prefer your career to skyrocket. But if it stalls…well, there’s plenty of writers out there trying to find an agent, and thank heavens she was able to get her 15% upfront rather than having to take 15% of the pitiful royalties your overpriced, poorly selling book actually earned.

And, yes, you got the other 85% of the money the publisher paid, so both you and your agent benefited. The difference is that she still has a career. You might not.

(It's odd that agents are renowned for their big-advance deals, yet the industry doesn’t seem to hold it against the agent if the book loses money. Big-money agents are celebrities, and editors establish themselves as real players in the industry by making deals with these uberagents. It doesn’t make sense, but neither do the lyrics to most Top 10 songs.)


A novelist I know (who’s been publishing fiction for about 30 years) says, “There’s a new breed of agent out there--people who are only willing to bat if they can hit home runs.”

The “throw it high, throw it hard, and see if it sticks” philosophy of agenting is spreading. Yes, there are still agents who will help you build your career, and will suffer through rounds of rejections until at last you place your book with a publisher somewhere. But there are also some young agents who say, “I’m not really interested in any novel I can’t take to auction,” and there are many more who will give up on your book after ten rejections or less.

Publication versus money

In general, an agent’s goal is to make money from your books. This, of course, is in your interest, too.

But legitimate publication can have an influence on a writer’s life that has nothing to do with advances or royalties. Publication seldom makes a writer rich or famous, but it does improve the writer’s status in many ways. A published novelist can teach writing classes, or run workshops, or speak at conferences, or sell articles to, say, Writer’s Digest. A published novelist can join professional societies which offer many benefits (some offer low-cost health insurance), but are closed to the unpublished. A published novelist will have an easier time getting his or her foot in many doors.

True, many novelists find their first publication anticlimactic. Many people find that getting a college degree feels about the same, especially if they discover that a degree doesn’t guarantee a good job, or any job at all. Both are often cases of reality not living up to unrealistic expectations. This doesn’t mean the college degree is worthless, and being published even to small acclaim isn’t worthless either.

But you shouldn’t count on your agent pushing your book through to publication as a matter of principle. Submissions cost her money, both directly in terms of copying and delivery costs, and indirectly in terms of time and goodwill expended. Don’t be surprised if publication doesn’t matter as much to her as it does to you (why should it?). Don’t be surprised if she decides to give up long before your book goes to the Naval Academy Press (Tom Clancy’s Hunt for Red October) or Louisiana State University Press (James Lee Burke’s Lost Get-Back Boogie). Those were long shots, and a lot of agents today wouldn’t bother.

Don’t Beware, But Be Realistic

The cautions above certainly don’t apply to all agents. Some are genuinely interested in building an author’s career, and hope to be in partnership with the author for the long haul. Some may love your book nearly as much as you do. Some will fight to place a manuscript long after it is in their economic or career interest. But even the best agent is unlikely to share all your priorities.

Your agent isn’t your mom. Even if your agent wears fuzzy bunny slippers.

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Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Getting an Agent IV: Commandments (Part 4 of 4)

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and, the last 'Do's":

6. Do say thank you if you receive a personal reply. Any personal note from an agent—even one scribbled on the margin of your query letter—deserves a thank-you letter in response. Reading time is at a premium for agents, and writing time is an indulgence that most of them expend only with reluctance. Thank them for it—after all, you may be coming back to them some day. Thank them for it despite the fact that their comments seem off-target, wrong-headed, or even on the nasty side; in fact, you should thank them especially if their comments are on the nasty side. This puts you in a position of moral superiority. Novelist Carolyn See calls this response “emotional jiu-jitsu,” and she’s right; it gets that oppressive feeling off your chest and, with a little luck, dumps it back on its source with interest.

7. Do get involved with the literary life, such as it is. Don’t let classes, workshops, or conferences become substitutes for writing, but don’t avoid them, either. Even if you live in Elk Snout, Montana, population 9, you owe it to yourself to saddle up ol’ Bess and ride off to at least a few conferences where you can talk to people—agents, editors, and fellow writers. Meeting agents face-to-face improves the chance that they’ll bother to read your query letters; and editors sometimes invite you to submit directly to them, bypassing the entire agent system. (You may still want an agent—but it’s easier to get one if you’ve already got a publisher.) Fellow writers are an underestimated resource; they can give you leads on agents, and they can also warn you which folks to avoid. Get embedded in the writing community.

8. Do build up your fiction resume. Win awards, contests, prizes, or fellowships, if you can. Publish short stories, or, if you can’t manage that, publish magazine articles. Attend retreats, or, if you can, get into a writer’s colony. These things may or may not help your writing, but they do add to your credibility. As John Gardner observed, what people in publishing really want is to be able to claim they discovered someone, while simultaneously betting on a sure thing.

9. Do stay optimistic. This is far, far easier said than done. Rejection is to be expected—relentless, ego-crushing, soul-draining rejection. Unless you’re psychotic, it’s hard to avoid despair. Give in to it if you must, but don’t send out queries when you’re at the bottom of the pit. Few people in publishing respond to a cry for help, and everyone in the business can smell despair the way dogs smell fear, and that scent makes them back away lest they contract your disease. Wait for your brief psychotic breaks, those moments where you are nutty enough to believe there’s hope, and send your queries out then.

10. Do move on with your writing. This is what distinguishes a writer from someone who has written. There are a surprising number of people out there who finish their first novel and then spend years trying to market it, assuming they shouldn’t move ahead with their writing until they’ve successfully marketed their first book. The truth is, most ‘debut novels’ aren’t first novels, though they are often presented as such; there are usually two or three earlier works stashed away in drawers. Hemingway said the way to learn to write was to “Write a million words.” (That’s ten to twenty novels-worth.) Even Stephen King, who seemingly can sell anything up to and including his grocery list, completed four novels before he managed to get one published. “Courage,” Rollo May says, “is not the absence of despair; it is the courage to move ahead in spite of despair.” If you want to be a writer, write.

Somewhere out there, I’m sure, is someone who, in recent years, wrote a good novel and then found an agent and publisher on the basis of nothing more than a solid query letter; someone did this without awards, or a publications list, or recommendations, or contacts, or even good research on agents.

Somewhere out there, too, is the winner of the State Lottery. For most of us, it’s more complicated than that. The rules presented above will at least keep you from getting in your own way. The rest is up to your writing…and a whole lotta luck.

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Getting an Agent IV: Commandments (Part 3 of 4)

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Ah, at last--the Do's. And, hey, guess what?--there's ten again! This post will cover the first five...

1. Do have a reason for writing to each agent…and tell them. “I’m a writer and you’re an agent” is an insufficient motivation, like trying to get a date by observing that the two of you have compatible body parts. Mention any point of contact (“We met at the Hog Wallow Writer’s Conference…”) or recommendation (“John Grisham and Susan Sontag both insisted you are the ideal agent for this novel…”). Referring to the agent’s client list helps, but you should go deeper if you can: mention deals the agent has done, interviews they’ve given, articles or books they’ve written (but keep it down to a sentence or two; how's that for an impossible task?). An agent is more likely to take you seriously if you show you’ve done your research and have solid reasons for contacting them; and even agents are not immune to a little intelligent flattery.

2. Do try to figure out what the agent wants in the query package. In a reasonable business, this would be easy. In publishing, this is hard. Some agents do indeed itemize (on their websites, or in interviews, or in guides to agents) what they would like to see in a query package, ranging from query letter only to query plus synopsis plus sample chapters plus notes on the suggested audience. Some even tell you what your query letter should and shouldn’t contain. But the majority of them are silent on the subject; apparently they like their clients to be endowed with telepathic powers. (Don’t assume that what you hear about ideal query packages from speakers, or articles, or workshops, will suit everyone. These are good starting places, but try to find out what your target agent prefers.)

3. Do keep professional and organized. I treasure two form rejections from major New York agents where the form has been photocopied off-center, and is so light that the print can hardly be read. The fact that some agents are unprofessional and/or incompetent doesn’t give you the license to behave likewise; unfair as it may be, they’re the ones with the power. Unpublished writers need to make everything as perfect as possible in their submissions. Track your submissions—keep a spreadsheet of what was submitted, to whom, and when; tabulate the responses; keep your rejections for a while, especially if they are personal notes. If nothing else, all the mailing and e-mail addresses will be useful to your writing friends.

4. Do learn to pitch—even if it’s abhorrent to you. Most authors hate pitching. If they’d wanted to be carnival barkers and sidewalk shills, they would have taken that as the easier career path. Yet be prepared: I have heard too many agents say, “If you can’t grab me and hold my attention for five minutes of speech, or for the length of a query letter, then why should I assume that you can write a good novel?” Now, that makes no sense at all, like judging Van Gogh by asking him to paint a street sign. It’s an intrusion of Hollywood tactics into the world of literature, and tends to bring with it the same high level of intelligence and quality that we’ve come to expect from the movies. It’s a spillover from the age of the sound-bite in politics, and we’ve seen what that has done for statesmanship and political discourse over the last few decades. Pitches, high-concept log-lines (“It’s Bridges of Madison County meets Jaws!”), and sales handles (“It’s Thackeray with a Gen-X spin”) are at best stupid and annoying, and at worst are probably corrosive, eating at the foundations of the novel. Tough. You’d better learn to do it anyway. Oh, I know: Thomas Pynchon managed to be one of our most influential and widely read literary novelists while remaining a total recluse. But I also believe that there’s no way that Tom Pynchon would find an agent or publisher if he were starting out today. Not a chance in hell.

5. Do avail yourself of advice or help offered by agents. As mentioned in the Don’ts, you shouldn’t immediately start revising based on observations made by an agent (especially if they haven’t asked you to revise and resubmit); but if they’ve taken the trouble to offer advice or observations, you should certainly try them on for size. In addition, if they say admiring things about your work—especially if they’ve read an entire manuscript—but say that it’s outside the list of what they think they can sell, feel free to write back and ask whose list it might be right for. (I did this with one agent, and she actually told me to write to three other agents and mention she was recommending me. One was in the process of retiring, another had closed her doors to new clients indefinitely, and the other sent one of those cherished off-center photocopied rejections—perhaps she had her four-year-old do it, which is sort of touching—but the recommendation was a lovely gesture nonetheless, and might have turned the trick.)

Numbers 6-10 coming soon.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

Getting an Agent IV: Commandments (Part 2 of 4)

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Continued from the previous post: Yet more presumptive, pompous, proscriptions:

6. Don’t respond with hostility. At least not overtly. At least not to the agent. No matter how whacko their response may be, do not respond with anger. It may be true that the agent couldn’t piss their initials into the snow (an unfair demand of nimbleness in the case of women anyhow) and wouldn’t recognize quality if it jumped into the shower with them. So what? Kick the wall, rant to your friends, and then write a nice note thanking the agent…and move on with the intent of making them regret unto their dying day that they rejected you. Do your best to make them feel like the Decca Records executive who rejected the Beatles in 1962. (“We just don’t like their sound. Guitar groups are on their way out.”) But keep it to yourself.

7. Don’t make yourself crazy with the synopsis. Some agents don’t want them at all. If great works of literature had to be sold on the basis of their synopses, then no great works of literature would ever have been published. True plot synopses are pathetic things to behold. Fortunately, few agents really want them. What they want to see is something very much like the back-cover blurb of a paperback—something catchy that tells them why they should read the manuscript; something that offers them a sales handle for offering the book. Don’t give them three or four pages of detailed who-did-what-when unless specifically asked. Don't deliberately withhold details, but focus on giving them two or three clean paragraphs that sketch the throughline and make the book sound interesting.

8. Don’t be desperate, and don’t settle for something that feels wrong. If someone says they might like to represent your book, but you feel a lack of enthusiasm or commitment from them, stop and think. Get back to them later (or don’t). Refuse to let the if-I-don’t-marry-Bob-no-one-else-will-ever-ask-and-I’ll-die-a-bitter-spinster syndrome rule your life. Your book is your baby. Don’t hand it over to someone you suspect is a child abuser.

9. Don’t take what one agent says as representing the viewpoints of all agents. One agent will say, “Your query letter needs to reach out and grab me by the throat!” Another will say, “Don’t engage in hype and hyperbole. Give me the facts and can the hysteria.” One says, “Your query letter should tell me something about yourself, your life, your history,” while another has stated, “Anytime I start getting biographical info not related to publication history, I stop reading.” An agent I’ve talked to even says, perhaps not unreasonably, “I throw away as a matter of principle any letter that says, ‘My new novel is the next Da Vinci Code.’” What one agent will hold up as an example of a perfect query letter, another will hurl to the floor.

10. Don’t blindly accept what established authors say about the process of getting an agent. Doesn’t matter if it’s Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates, Lawrence Block or Martin Amis: the business landscape in publishing was dramatically different when they were getting started. The whole process looks a lot like getting married, and there aren’t any experts on the subject: how often does someone get married, and do they know more about it, or less, because they’ve been married ten times? Some of these folks started back in the days when agents still represented the sales of short stories to magazines…you know, back when they did dental work without novocaine. Back when you could drink the tap water. Back when there was a demand for fiction.

Coming soon to this space--the Ten Do's

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Saturday, June 9, 2007

Getting an Agent IV: Commandments (Part 1 of 4)

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These might seem a bit, well, prescriptive, being commandments and all. So? If you don't like these, make your own list. Heck, I'll even post it here!

There's ten of these Don'ts, just like the Sephiroth on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, but I'm putting only the first five in this post (as it gets a bit too long)...

1. Don’t spam the universe with e-mail queries, or query too many agents at once. To be truthful, I’ve seen the mass e-mail approach work for authors in terms of getting several requests for manuscripts; some writers I know have even acquired agents with this approach. But only rarely does a writer acquire an agent they keep through a mass e-mail query. In terms of how many agents you should query at once, I’d recommend no more than a half-dozen to a dozen. This is self-protection—it allows you to adjust your query tactics based on the responses you receive.

2. Don’t ask your friend/teacher/mother-in-law to recommend you to their agent. Ask them for advice on getting an agent, but don’t push to be put in touch with their agent. Because writer-agent relationships are often complex, asking to be recommended to someone’s agent can be one of those awkward questions, on the order of, “Do you mind if I start dating your ex?” Leave it alone. If your acquaintance thinks it’s a good idea, they’ll bring it up.

3. Don’t assume that a bad agent is better than no agent. A bad agent can put your manuscript in limbo for months or years. A bad agent can annoy editors so that they never want to see a word of writing from you again. A bad agent can give you stupid, career-wrecking, block-inducing advice. A bad agent can get your manuscript turned down at every possible house, so that no good agent will take it on (what’s the point in marketing a manuscript that has already been shopped all over town?).

4. Don’t believe everything agents say about themselves or about what they represent. Like corporations, many agents like to present themselves as something slightly different from what they really are. You know: MegaChemical Corporation—Working for the Environment. This isn’t evil (at least in the case of agents). If hypocrisy is the Astroglide® of social intercourse, then self-deception is what allows us to sleep at night curled up beside our own conscience. The most common of these little deceptions by agents is claiming to represent, say, “Time-travel Romances, Romantic Suspense, Cookbooks, and Literary Fiction.” (Or, “Serial Killer Novels, Soldier-of-Fortune Novels, True Crime, and Literary Fiction.”) Perhaps they’re afraid that their former Sophomore Lit professor will read their webpage and be disappointed if they don’t include ‘literary fiction,’ or don’t claim to be searching for ‘original, distinctive, edgy voices.’ But check their client list, not what they say about themselves. (And don’t look so smug, especially if you’re telling everybody you’re writing ‘a literary novel about a plot to kill the President.’)

5. Don’t read too much into rejection letters. If an agent takes the time to correspond with you, be grateful—much of the time it will be form letters, badly photocopied—but don’t automatically assume that what they say has much more insight than what you might get from Aunt Sally. Remember: these people are inundated with paper. They’re exhausted and snowblind. If you hear the same thing from several agents, then give it some credence; but don’t start rewriting because one agent, on one day, possibly having just separated from their spouse or entered the early stages of food-poisoning, suggests that your plot is overused, or outre, or puzzling, or should be set in another century.

Don'ts 6-10 to follow soon...

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Thursday, June 7, 2007

Getting an Agent, III: Internet

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Internet Resources

Everyone Who's Anyone

Gerard Jones is a bit of a nutjob, in my opinion, but an admirable nutjob nonetheless. Adnirable enough that I even sent money to support his massive, incredible website.

To give the site its full name, Everyone Who's Anyone In Adult Trade Publishing, Newspapers, Magazines, Broadcasting, and Tinseltown, Too is an astonishing effort that covers the US, Canada, and the UK. It lists the contact information for--well, almost everyone. In many cases, it also prints out Gerard's correspondence with the agents/publishers/editors/whatevers while he tries to get his novels published. (Since he doesn't own the agents' side of the exchanges, over the years he has been forced to expunge much of the material, thereby eliminating much of the fun.) If you need Binky Urban's e-mail address, look here.

The site isn't organized the way you'd like it. Tough. Jones is an uncompromising sort of guy, and you can take it or leave it. I'd take it. It's useful and it's free. But I wouldn't recommend Mr. Jones' approach to dealing with agents.


For folks in the US, I'd say that overall this site has become the first place on the web to look for agents who are accepting clients. AgentQuery has a clean format, a nice, searchable database, and a number of little extras in the forms of articles. It gives concise details on both agencies and the agents inside them, and gives good background on who is looking for what. In the US, it has expanded rapidly until it has pretty much overtaken Everyone Who's Anyone in coverage. It isn't complete, or one hundred percent reliable, but neither is anything else when it comes to agents.

Preditors and Editors

Dave Kuzminski's long-running site is dedicated to sorting out the real folks from the hoaxers. The entries are short, but cover an amazing number of agents, publishers, etc. The details note only the contact info and whether or not the person/business is legitimate. Those who engage in shady practices receive a *NOT RECOMMENDED* rating (sometimes with an explanation). In the case of agents, there is also a "$" mark denoting whether or not the agency has made verified sales.

The coverage is intended to be global, but is slanted toward the US. But, then, we have the greatest number of scammers. P&E is a great site.

Agent Research & Evaluation

AR&E is a unique service. It tracks the details of sales made by agents (and by agencies as a whole), and then sells them as profile information. But it costs you--as little as $25 for the goods on an agent with a limited history, and more for the big sellers.

How do they get this information? The same way anyone else would--by scanning the press (especially Publisher's Weekly), and asking around. So why should you pay for what is essentially public information? Well, you don't have to. But most of us haven't been tracking all the reported sales in the industry for years and years. If you are ever in the position of choosing between offers of representation from two agents, you might find it worthwhile to shell out the cash.

AR&E also has one service that is free--their "Agent Verification" service . If you log in there, you can type in the name of an agent, and they will tell you to the best of their knowledge if the agent is legitimate. In other words, if the agent has made sales AR&E has recorded, and has no known history of disreputable conduct, they will tell you the agent is legitimate. However, they have much better data on sales history than on disreputable conduct, so they will sometimes give you a 'legitimate' reading on someone who has made sales but is also a known scammer.

Absolute Write is an amazingly active forum/bulletin board. A number of established writers post there on an ongoing basis, and even act as moderators. (The composition of authors seems more than a bit biased toward the Science Fiction and Fantasy crowd, but there's nothing inherently wrong with that.) There are lively (sometimes overaggressive) discussions on every aspect of writing. And, unlike many websites, AbsoluteWrite is useful to folks on both sides of the Atlantic (and elsewhere).

The most useful aspect of the fora from our perspective here is the Bewares and Background Checks Forum. The massive Index steers the user toward threads on every agent, agency, publisher, or editing service that has ever been examined by this hypervigilant community.

A problem I have with AbsoluteWrite, however, is that many of their most active members have 'scam' on the brain. Anything that deviates from standard large-house New-York practice will be jumped on, condemned, and dismissed. There are even a few published writers who loudly and pompously insist on the tautology that everything publishable gets published, and that the existing publishing system works with Panglossian efficiency.

With that lengthy caveat in mind, AbsoluteWrite can be an invaluable resource. Their backlog of info on agents is massive (though some of the threads say very little of substance), and many of the questions tossed around in the various discussion groups are entertaining. In addition, if you join, you can ask questions about agents, and someone is bound to reply--even if only to let you know that no one knows more than you do already.


Plenty of agents (and even some editors) have started their own blogs, anonymously or otherwise. These tend to come and go; most agents are busy folks, are drowning in words already, and lack the stamina to stay in the blogosphere for long.

There is one who breaks all the rules, one who is always there, and the only one who is a must read--the inimitable Miss Snark. She is funny, smart, to-the-point, and, over time, damned helpful. (She is also far more of a pussycat than her monicker would suggest.)

Miss Snark is the one whose mantra is "Good writing trumps all." She's a writer's dream. All she really asks is that you write well and tell a great story...and not act like a complete ass in the meantime. All the heterosexual male writers I know are in love with her, and several of the heterosexual female writers I know have considered switching their orientation, but unfortunately La Snarkalita's heart belongs to George Clooney. (Even though From Dusk Until Dawn is the classic case of aliens arriving at the farm in Chapter 14. If you had read her blog regularly, you'd understand what I mean by that.)

Most agents aren't anywhere near as sensible as Miss Snark, and she seems rather sweetly unaware of this fact, despite her snarky posturing. It must be an act. She seldom knocks other agents; she won't assert that an agent is a moron (and an active opponent of the nature of literature) for reading query letters only, without any sample pages. This has to be a strategic position; she knows damn well those agents are idiots.

If all editors were Maxwell Perkins, and all agents were Miss Snark, the life of a halfway decent writer would be a beautiful thing.

(Breaking news: As Eliza suggests in the Comments trail below, then confirmed by the comment from the Howes, Miss Snark just retired from the business. A sad day indeed. The good news, however, is that the blog, and it's massive archives, will stay in place for the forseeable future. So, you can't ask questions any more, but almost any reasonable question has been asked before--so I'm still recommending her site as a major resource.)

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Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Getting an Agent, II: Books

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Okay. This may seem irremediably remedial to some of you, but if you happen to be starting out down this path, these are some resources you need to know about. I apologize that almost everything I have to say is focused on the North American market—I invite my UK colleagues (and “imprintmates,” as Faye Booth calls us) to contribute.

To find an agent who is a good fit, you will have to do a great deal of research. This is harder than it ought to be.

Books of Listings

There are a few standard guides you need to consult. They are not reliable, consistent, regularly updated, or properly vetted, but there you have it. Be aware that some of the best agencies have no more than a paragraph in these books. Some of those best agencies frankly don’t want to hear from anyone who hasn’t been properly introduced, and that most likely includes you, you smelly little pest.

Guide to Literary Agents (Writer's Digest): This is the standard annual reference, with much the same material showing up in several incarnations (Writer's Market, etc.) It tries to cover everything, but sham agents constantly show up in its pages. Still, it's a basic resource.

Jeff Herman's Guide To Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents: Less than annual, but updated with some frequency. Herman goes into more detail than other guides-- when possible--but this makes the whole book quite uneven. If the agent you're interested in happens to be one of those who really went into detail when Herman interviewed them, you've hit the jackpot. But some of the agents are ditzy, and it shows. I don't blame Jeff.

Agents Directory by Rachel Vater: This one is unique in that it tries to list only those agents who are currently seeking clients, as opposed to the exhaustive, but-not-answering-the-doorbell-yet-still-listed approaches of the others. Rachel Vater is an agent herself (formerly with Donald Maass, now at Lowenstein-Yost). [She is also the agent of record for Elaine Isaak, who is no relation to yours truly. Rachel blogs, too, and her stuff can be great fun.]

Writer's Handbook and Writers' & Artists Yearbook: These are roughly the UK equivalent of the Writer's Digest Guide (or Writers' Market), though they tend to have higher-profile editors than their US equivalent. Short, informative entries, but little of the rambling detail one might like. I'm sure there are other publications in the UK, but I've never seen them--anybody in the Isles care to comment?

Literary Marketplace: Usually--even on its own cover--abbreviated to LMP, the LMP is a sort of annual Yellow Pages of the publishing industry. It's designed for people in the business, not for writers, and it's $300 price tag reflects that (though I understand you can pick up used copies of last year's edition for under $20). Sometimes when you have found the name of an agent but can't find them on the web, the LMP is where you must go (or, in my case, the LMP in the library is where I must go). There is bound to be a UK equivalent, but I am ignorant on the topic.

Books By Agents

Every so often, an agent will write a book where at least some of the chapters focus on how to go about winning the attention of themselves and their brethren. (Or, usually, given the gender makeup of the vocation, their sistren.) Back in 1999, Lori Perkins' wrote a very successful book called the Insiders Guide to Getting an Agent, and was promptly buried under a tidal wave of queries. Noah Lukeman's The First Five Pages acheived the same result, with Mr. Lukeman closing his doors to queries for a while. More recently Ann Rittenberg (agent for the estimable Dennis Lehane) co-wrote Your First Novel (with one of her clients), and I suspect poor Ann is now somewhere beneath six feet of SASEs.

These sorts of books can be instructive and entertaining, but there are now enough agents blogging on the web that it isn't really necessary to buy books to get an insider track on how agents think. There is one exception to this rule, and that is Donald Maass' The Career Novelist. This book (now ten years old), which I cordially dislike, talks about your career as a writer as though it were a business proposition. It talks about name-branding and positioning. It talks about genre, bestsellerdom, and career rehabilitation after disappointing sales. It talks about all of the things that are fundamentally opposed to the spirit of writing fiction, but are so much a part of the process of publishing fiction. It's a philistine piece of work. It's a total downer. I recommend it.

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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Getting an Agent, I: Everything I Think I Know

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I'm being published by Macmillan New Writing, an imprint that accepts unagented manuscripts. And, in my discussion of giant advances and their effect on the publishing industry, I may have given the impression (or hope I did) that I think the advent of the uberagent was a disaster for writers everywhere. So who am I, you ask, to hold forth on the topic of agents?

As it turns out, I'm someone who has dealt with about 70 agents, been represented by one, and had offers of representation from others. I have friends who have been through an even-more-lengthy hazing period, and I know a writer who has been through at least three agents over as many decades. So, even though I'm not agented at present, I know more about agents than a sane person ought. I can even imagine working with an agent some day in the future.

The question I am most often asked is, "Do you work here?" and the answer is always, "No." The second-most asked question is, "Where did you get that cool fedora?" and if I'm in a charitable mood I might tell you.

But the question I'm most often asked by other writers is, "How do you find an agent?" The answer, of course, is "Go to New York City and roll a quarter down the sidewalk." (The ones chasing it who are also wearing nice shoes are probably agents.) The reason this gets a silly answer is because it's a silly question.

The question these writers ought to be asking is, "How do I find a good agent who is likely to want to represent me?" and the truthful answer is, "God knows."

Over the next few days, I'll be laying out everything I think I know about the getting of agents. (Those of you who are happily agented, or don't give a damn, may want to tune out). The reasons I am undertaking this task are:
  1. I'm going to be at a writing workshop all week and need something easy to post about, and

  2. Some of the things I say will probably annoy some people and thereby steer more traffic to this site, and

  3. In the future when I am asked The Question I can refer people to this blog, and

  4. I don't want to tell the "Roll a quarter" joke ever again.

I know that many of the regular visitors to this blog have as much or more experience in this area as I. Some of you will probably feel your eyes glaze over; but feel free to jump in with corrections, addenda, or anything else that comes to mind.

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Saturday, June 2, 2007

My Favorite Time of the Year

Christmas? Thanksgiving? My birthday? Nope. The first week of June. That's when the annual Palm Springs Writing Workshop takes place. The workshop is run by novelist and screenwriter Raymond Obstfeld, and is now about 25 years old. The workshop, that is, not Raymond. He's a few years older than that.

Note that this isn't a Writer's Workshop, but a Writing Workshop. And much writing get done. No lectures, no speakers; just writing and critiques. A dozen or so writers. You write every day. You critique every day. And you hand in your stuff to be critiqued every other day. Near-instant feedback. I wouldn't want it every day of my life, but it is wonderful for a week or so.

The genres of the manuscripts and the levels of experience and ages of the attendees run the gamut. No one is needlessly cruel (usually), but the critiques are frank and very specific. Of course, in the span of a week, only a small amount of material can be worked on--typically a chapter or two--but those pages get a real workout.

Palm Springs in June? Isn't it a bit, umm, warm? Yep. Hellish, in fact. Hence the low hotel rates on luxury accomodations. It keeps you in the hotel room and minimizes distractions (except for the time spent at the pool. Most of the folks do their written critiques at the pool. The sight of people wandering around in the pool reading manuscripts and making notes raises a few eyebrows among the other guests; and, inevitably, a few of the manuscripts end up getting handed back to their authors in a puffed-up state, like a paperback that has fallen into the bathtub.)

Writing, reading, near-instant feedback, and not a few bottles of wine. Heaven must be like that. Except perhaps not quite as hot.

Friday, June 1, 2007

News From Ms. Booth

Faye Booth has announced all manner of news over the last few days. Cover the Mirrors now has jacket art; the book has a promotional banner (suitable for flying over your ancestral estate); and the audiobook and large-print rights have just sold.

On top of all that, it is now available for preorder at Amazon UK (the release date being November 2nd). So I preordered it. Which means that I ought to have it in my hands, oh, sometime in 2008. (I'm still waiting for Borderlands, fer chrissakes.)

So, congratulations, Faye. (And the cover is perfect.)