November 18th, 2015 | Questions from Beginners, Self-Publishing, The Business of Writing | 31 Comments
A friend wrote to say, “I’ve been told we should have a launch party when my book comes out. Is that a good idea? And what what makes a good launch party?”
I think a book launch party is a great idea — it allows an author to involve friends and acquaintances in the release of the book, is an easy way to garner some local media, and can help you kick off book sales. (Besides, it can be great for an author’s ego, if done right.) Let me offer a couple of suggestions to help make it a success…
I’ve been trying to catch up on all the questions people have sent in, so let me share a handful of queries: “When speaking with an editor at a conference, what is the best way to approach the allotted 15 minutes? Do I focus on the editor and the titles she’s worked on? Do I focus on my novel? Do I bring a one sheet?”
The best way to approach your time at an editorial appointment is to do some research and practice. Check to make sure the editor you’re meeting actually acquires books in your genre. Find out what you can about the editor’s likes and dislikes. Then practice what you’re going to say — sharing your name, your book idea, the conflict, theme, genre,and hook. Be clear and succinct, and rehearse your talk out loud, so you know what it feels like to say the words. Be ready to engage in dialogue with the editor. Dress professionally, and bring some words to show them (many like a one-sheet; I prefer the first five pages). In my view, the focus of a successful editorial appointment is your book, so think through how to talk about your book in an engaging way without sounding like just another pitch.
Another person wrote to ask, “Should I pay more attention to a literary agent’s list of authors they represent, or to their agency’s list of authors? In other words, if a Big Deal Agency has bestselling authors, how much does that mean if the agent I’m talking to doesn’t represent any of those writers?”
That’s an interesting question, since every agency tries to promote their bestselling authors. I was at Alive Communications when we represented the Left Behind series that sold 70 million copies worldwide — and while I didn’t have much of anything to do with that series, I certainly mentioned that we represented it when I was a young agent introducing myself. How much does that mean? A bit, since it means the agent you’re talking to is hanging out with successful agents who clearly know what they’re doing, even if the one you’re pitching your book to is new. That agent also gets to take your book back and talk with the more experienced people in the home office about it, so there’s certainly a benefit to working with a successful agency. But sure, you’d really like to make sure the agent you’re talking to is competent, organized, and consistent. A new agent may lack the Big Name Author you’re looking for… but he or she also may have more time to work with you in preparing your work for publication.
One writer sent this: “What would you say are the ingredients to a great novel?”
Bestselling novelist Susan May Warren and I once taught a class together on this at a conference. We said that the four hallmarks of a great novel are heroism (the protagonist does something that is considered heroic, and does it even though that type of behavior may not come naturally to them), sacrifice (the character gives up something dear to them in order to better the life of someone else), redemption (the characters go through circumstances that change them, and reveals they have become better people, having overcome past failures), and justice (good triumphs over evil). Of course, in great fiction I find that characters I care about face the big questions of life (who am I? why am I here? who is God? what is the meaning of life? who do I love and am loved by?) and make decisions that affect their lives — decisions I may or may not agree with, but which cause me to reflect on my own life. It’s that sort of reflection that allows fiction to become life-changing.
Someone asked me, “You talk quite a bit about mentors in writing and publishing. Who would you say was a mentor in your life?”
I love this question because yesterday was All Saints Day, and in the Anglican church we still talk about the saints and the people in our lives who helped shape us. So I’ll pick one: Brennan Manning. He was much more gentle than I am, and I love how he always tried to move everyone around him toward being better people. He saw faith as something real to be lived out, rather than a set of written behavioral guidelines to follow. He was aware of his own issues, but understood that his problems didn’t exclude him from the Kingdom. And he recognized that he was put here on earth – that we are ALL put here on earth – to be agents of grace, even amidst our sin and struggles. I used to be Brennan’s agent, and when I was turning 40, he shared a profound thought with me– that most people stop growing spiritually before their 40th birthday. Most guys are who they are by the time they reach middle age. So he challenged me to be a better human being by the time I was 50, and to not be satisfied with “just being okay” in my spiritual walk. Loved the man. And he was a mystic, which pleases me no end, since I think a lot of American Evangelicalism is rule-based Phariseeism, all dressed up in a white shirt and hair gel, with little concern for those who are suffering, solely focused on being “right;” and afraid of the spiritual side of faith. Brennan continually tweaked those people, but always seemed to answer them with loving, gentle grace. He left us just a couple years ago, and the two of us had lost touch, but I think the world lost one of its most powerful thinkers when he passed.
Finally, someone asked, “If you were to write a book, what would it be about?”
Well, I’ve written a number of books, but I long ago decided to set most of my own writing aside in order to work on the writing of the authors I have the privilege of representing. I do write on this blog most days, just to keep my hand in it, and I released a couple of books for working writers earlier this year (How Can I Find a Literary Agent and 101 Other Questions Writers Ask and Step by Step Pitches and Proposals). And I’ve got a plan to create a career development guide for novelists, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, plus I’ve also been stewing on some short stories about growing up in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and I have long planned to work on a book about the Great Schism of 1378 – a passion of mine for years, and one of the single most important events in the history of the church, but long forgotten by historians who prefer to focus on “war” rather than “ideas.” That’s my writing life… but it takes a back seat to my agenting life.
Got a question about writing or publishing? Send it along and we’ll try to think up an answer.
I’m nearing the end of my series on how to write great endings, and am talking briefly today about one of the most frustrating types of endings to read, for an agent, editor, or any other reader, the “bait and switch” ending, particularly in terms of the tone of a story.
I’ve talked several times throughout this series about the importance of being fair to your reader in your endings– that you satisfy their sense of justice, that you’ve laid some groundwork for any surprises, etc.– yet I’m constantly surprised by the number of manuscripts I read that end in a way that is completely dissimilar to the tone/story universe/set of expectations the author has spent the entire preceding manuscript establishing. If you’ve spent 200 pages developing a nice, sweet, wholesome romance, don’t try to get all depressing and cynical at the end. If your comedic cozy mystery stayed on mostly “safe” ground for the first 3/4ths of the book, don’t turn it into a chilling, violent crime novel at the end. If you spent the majority of a book developing deeper themes and a more literary voice, don’t just slap a conventional romance ending onto it and call it a day.
I want a book to end with the same “flavor” that compelled me to follow the story through to completion. It’s as if someone ordered a mint-chocolate-chip ice cream cone but the soda jerk decided to put a dollop of lemon sorbet at the bottom– even if the lemon sorbet is good, it’s not what the customer was expecting, and it’s not going to compare favorably to the mint-chocolate-chip, coming as it does when they’re not expecting it and have their mouth all set for something completely different.
There are a number of reasons this happens, even to experienced authors. First, writing is largely a solitary profession. Even if you have a critique partner/group to bounce ideas off of or solicit feedback from on certain scenes, the majority of your writing is done in a vacuum, with no eyes but your own seeing your work until it’s done, and no voices but yours chiming in to offer perspective. This solitude can lead to a bit of tunnel-vision where your story is concerned– after living up close and personal with your story and characters for so long, it’s no wonder that you can lose track of the big-picture arc of your story, especially if you’re the type of writer who prefers to let the story develop organically (i.e., “see where the characters take you,”) as you write rather than plot it out in detail at the beginning of the process. As I’ve said before, there is nothing wrong with this process, but you do have to stay true in the ending to the rules you made/tone you set throughout the rest of the book, otherwise your reader is going to feel cheated when the ending is dramatically different from what they had every reason to expect based on the first 9/10ths of the book. (And no, this doesn’t mean that you can’t have surprises at the end, or that your ending has to be predictable, but readers who pick up a thriller don’t want to read 100,000 words to get to a cozy mystery ending.)
Another reason authors can sometimes struggle with a tone change at the very end of a book is that they’re trying to make their book fit into a segment of the market it doesn’t really fit into, usually in the interest of making the book more commercial or more “timely.” Hey, someone dies at the end of The Fault in Our Stars and that book was a huge success; if I slap a sad ending on my otherwise lighthearted YA, it might sell! This sounds silly, but I’ve definitely seen this phenomenon in my inbox as different trends or themes spend time in the market spotlight and authors attempt to tweak their manuscripts to follow a trend, especially by messing with the endings. It’s a pretty well-established rule that you shouldn’t try to tailor your writing to fit the current trends– trends come and go, and publishers acquire so far out that a trend that’s hot right now might be dead and buried in a year when your book would be coming out, so you’re always better off staying true to your voice and your story and trusting that editors (and, eventually, readers) will appreciate your work for what it is rather than for the mold it fits into.
In the end (pun intended), you want to be true to the story you have to tell, but you also want to be sure that you’ve presented it in such a way that the tone of the ending matches the tone you’ve been writing and rules you’ve been playing by for the majority of the book.
Have you ever read a book in which it felt like the author pulled a “bait and switch” at the end? Are there any other types of disappointing/bad endings I should address before I wrap up the series? Let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!
I’ve got a new book coming out very soon — How can I find an agent? (and 101 other questions asked by writers). In celebration of that, I thought we’d take the month of March and just answer the agent questions you’ve got. So if there’s something you’ve always wanted to run by a literary agent, this is your chance. Drop a note in the “comments” section, or send me an email at Chip (at) MacGregor Literary (dot) com. I’ll try to get to as many questions as I can. So let’s get started with some of the questions people have already sent in…
A friend wrote to say, “I’ve noticed that agents at conferences will list several genres they’re interested in, but rarely see any specifications about the exact type of books that interest them. I write YA – can I pitch them ANY YA novel?”
The conference often asks agents to briefly list what we’re looking for. They usually don’t give us room to offer a lot of detail. So, for example, I represent romance novels, but there are some areas of romance I don’t really work with (paranormal, for example). There’s no method for offering much beyond a quick description, so I’m always happy to talk with any romance writer who stops by, and will try to help or steer him or her in the right direction, if I can. From my perspective, if an agent says he or she represents YA, then set up an appointment to go talk through your project and ask questions.
This came in on my Facebook page: “How do I get what’s in my head onto paper in a way that will grab the reader’s attention?”
Great voice… and that’s easier said than done. I’ve never been sure if we can teach an author how to have great voice. We can help writers improve, help them use better technique, better structure, a more active voice. We can help them come up with a stronger story, more interesting characters, and a better setting. But what sets a book apart in my view is usually the voice of the writer, and I’m just not sure we can make an author sound different (though I do think that, with practice, we can sometimes help an author discover his or her voice). To get a better handle on this, think about American Idol, which, as I write this, has just started to shrink their list of singers. All of the singers in the current 24 can sing. But some have a more interesting, more powerful, or more unique voices. God just made them that way. They all can train to improve their sound, or use better breathing technique or something, but the basic quality of their voice is God-given. I’ve often wondered if writers are the same way.
This also came in on Facebook: “What makes a ‘killer’ One Sheet?”
You may not like my answer: I’m not sure there is such a thing as a “killer” one-sheet. That is, they don’t land you a deal, they just help you take the next step. For those who don’t know, a one-sheet is a one page overview of your novel. It offers a brief description of your story, gives some detail on genre, word count, and audience, and tells something about the author. Often it’ll have some sort of graphic element to make it visually interesting. They tend to be used as a means of introducing a novel to an editor or agent at a conference. But they’re just an introduction – if they’re good, they will encourage the editor to look at the formal proposal. So I guess the best one-sheets are the ones that make the story sound interesting enough they get me to take the next step.
And this question was asked on my Facebook page: “Every agent I talk to says they can’t sell what I write. How do I overcome that?”
Um… write something else? I’m not trying to sound snotty, but if you keep hearing people say they can’t sell it, you’re either going to have to self-publish it, wait and hope to meet someone else, or write something they CAN sell.
Someone sent me this: “As an avid reader–about two thrillers a week–I am curious what your thoughts are about something. How does a poorly written book make it to the NY Times bestseller list, and riveting page-turners languish in obscurity? I just read a so called ‘thriller’ that has garnered close to 400 good reviews on Amazon and is on the NYT bestseller list. Besides the fact that the book reads like a rough first draft, as an ex-NYC cop I can attest to the fact that the author knows absolutely nothing about his subject matter, and even less about how police officers interact with the public and each other. On the other hand, I recently read two great thrillers by a new author who has garnered about 50 reviews on Amazon but no one seems to have heard of him. This sort of thing puzzles me. Thoughts?”
Life ain’t fair. Every agent can tell you of great authors he or she has represented that languished, and of weak writers who surprised us all by hitting a bestseller list. EL James sold millions of copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, a book I felt could have been written by a world-wise fifth grader, while Abha Dawesar’s fabulous Family Values is far more interesting and entertaining, written with polish and grace, and, while recognized by reviewers as a wonderfully written piece, has never hit a bestseller list. Like I said, life ain’t fair. Or, as the wonderful essayist HL Mencken once said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.”
Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
When I first met Chip, we were working at a college (me in admissions and he as a visiting professor). I had a BA in writing and a love for books, so naturally, I pitched him some ideas. I mean, why not?!
I’ll never forget his reaction to the only nonfiction book I ever ran by him…
Now mind you, I had this GREAT book idea. I was in the midst of planning my wedding, and I was super inspired by this strong desire I had to make my wedding feel like me. What did that mean? It meant embracing the traditions that fit, while ignoring the ones that didn’t–and replacing them with things that were more Amanda & Tad and less standard wedding.
This whole concept exploded in my mind. I mean, what if you have two sports-lovers getting married?! They could plan their wedding around a particular sports event and have a reception in which they serve wings and beer while watching the game! Or what if the couple is really into theatre? They could do a murder mystery reception that is super interactive and even includes clues from the invitations and programs!
I went crazy. I started jotting things down and obsessing and then one day I casually pitched my wedding planning book idea to Chip. (And when I say casually I mean totally on the fly…you may as well envision us walking through campus and me dropping this bomb on him. Poor guy.)
And you know what he said?
He said no.
He said it in a very nice way…in a way that probably had me thanking him for turning me down as conversation shifted. And he also said this: “You don’t have a wedding-planning platform, Amanda. So who would buy this? It should be an article instead.”
BUT! BUT! BUT! MY IDEA WAS GREAT! AND PEOPLE NEEDED MY WEDDING HELP! AND THERE WAS A HUGE VOID IN THE MARKET FOR A BOOK LIKE THIS!!!! AND ARTICLES ARE LAME!!!!!!!
All those buts meant squat. Because the biggest but was the “but you don’t have a platform” one.
I tell you this painful and funny story because there are so many people out there who are just like I was. You have a great idea. Or you have a great personal story. Or you have this or that. BUT that doesn’t mean you can also have a book.
Nonfiction needs a platform. Think about it! If you need some advice on finances, are you going to buy a book from Joe Schmoe CPA or from Dave Ramsey or Suze Orman?!
Because nonfiction promises to solve a problem or provide answers or information we care about, it MUST come from an author that the readers view as an expert on the topic.
This is why books about cancer only succeed when they are celebrity stories or tied to well-known bloggers. And this is why my wedding book would have failed failed failed. I was and am a nobody on the topic of wedding-planning. And I had and have ZERO plans to become a somebody.
In nonfiction it’s very rare that a book comes before platform. So rare, that it’s not even worth considering as a “what-if” scenario.
So what do you do with this information? If you have a nonfiction book idea and no platform, consider whether you’re willing to spend the time, energy, and resources needed to develop a platform for that book topic. Because that is what it’ll take to give your book idea a shot at publication. It’ll take time and dedication. It’ll take effort on your part to become an expert. You don’t need to be as big of an expert as Dave or Suze! But you DO need to be an expert to some people. And the more people who view you as an expert, the more likely you’ll get that deal…and the bigger that deal will be.
Amanda Luedeke is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary. Every Thursday, she posts about growing your author platform. You can follow her on Twitter @amandaluedeke or join her Facebook group to stay current with her wheelings and dealings as an agent. Her author marketing book, The Extroverted Writer, is available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
In the journey of publishing, what is the typical order of events? Does an author come out with a book first? Or do they develop a platform first?
I think many of us in the industry see this as an easy question to answer.
For fiction, the book comes first.
For nonfiction, the platform.
But it never fails that I’ll inevitably run into authors who either don’t understand this, don’t agree, or flat out don’t fit the mold. So here is some insight into the fiction side of this topic:
If you’ve ever tried to build a platform for your fiction career without actually having a novel, you’ll find it’s near-impossible. I mean, what do you blog about? What do you Tweet? You don’t have characters anyone knows, you don’t have product to push, and you certainly don’t have much reason to share when your next draft is done or when you’ve had a 10k writing marathon.
Marketing your fiction career without a product is HARD. So that’s why the general rule is that the book comes first, then the platform.
BUT! there are always exceptions to the rule. For fiction, a huge exception would be an author who has found an audience not for their fiction writing, but for some other hobby or focus. Let’s say Trina writes fiction. But she also bakes. She has a recipe blog with a decent following. So in a sense, Trina has a platform and this platform will actually help her get a book deal, provided her book is well-written and publishable. BUT her platform will only help when her book’s readership is similar to the readership of her blog.
For example, if she were to write military thrillers, I highly doubt a single one of her recipe blog followers would give her book a second thought. But if she wrote romantic comedies with a foodie theme, then she’d definitely tap into her platform.
So what does this mean for you? If you have a following or a platform already going, then consider how your fiction could appeal to them specifically. It may mean you have to switch genres. It may mean you have to think a bit more intentionally about characters and setting and themes, but it will be worth it if you can pull it off.
And if you don’t have a following and would like to start one, I highly recommend trying to get noticed for something other than your writing or the genre in which you write (In other words, if you write fantasy, don’t start a fantasy book review blog). Instead, create a blog or a Tumblr or Instagram or whatnot that hits your genre’s target audience for reasons other than your writing hobby. This could look like a “Nerd News” Twitter feed where you share Geek-related URLs or, if you’re into cosplay and creating costumes, a blog where you share tips and tricks and even a few sewing patterns. If you do these things well and market them well and start to see traction, it will pay off when it’s time to get that book deal.
If you write fiction, do you plan on having a book first or developing a platform first?
Someone wrote to ask, “Can you tell me what a good author/agent relationship should look like?”
I can try. Keep in mind that there’s no “perfect agent style” that suits everyone. One writer needs an agent who is a strong editor-and-story-idea person, another writer needs an agent who is a contracts-and-negotiation person, and a third writer needs an agent who is counselor-and-chief-supporter. It’s why I always encourage authors to think carefully about what they need in a literary agent. I consider myself a good agent, having done this job for a long time, contracted a lot of books, and developed a good track record of success. But I’ll be the first to say I’m not the agent for everybody. My style doesn’t fit every author, nor can I provide everything each author needs. So sometimes I’ll meet a writer whose work I like, but we’ll both feel the vibe is wrong. We have to get along personally as well as professionally. Other times the author has expectations I know I can’t meet (such as wanting me to edit their entire manuscript). So finding a good agent is like finding a good friend — what works for you might not work for your neighbor.
A good author/agent relationship is usually one in which expectations are clear, and the agent helps the author succeed in those areas they’ve decided to focus on. It might be story development, or editing and fine-tuning a manuscript, or support and encouragement, or career management, or contract advice, or… the list is as varied as authors want to make it. If you don’t really know what you need, you’ll find yourself just going with someone you like, or someone your friends like.
Keep in mind that most working literary agents come from one of four backgrounds. They are either (1) a former editor, so they have strong words skills, or (2) a former writer, so they understand what it’s like to make a living with words, or (3) a lawyer or someone attached to a lawyer’s office, so they have good experience with contracts, or (4) a former agent assistant, who came up through the ranks of the agency and has never worked outside of the agency (this last category is relatively new, but over the last 15 or 20 years we’ve seen bright college grads hired as Junior Associates and work their way up to become a full-fledged literary agents). I suppose the most common type is “former editor” and the least common is “former writer.” I was a Senior Editor a couple places and an Associate Publisher with Time-Warner, but my real training for this job was as a freelance writer. Amanda Luedeke got her start in corporate marketing, which is a bit different, but at the same time, her marketing career was due to her way with words. You could say she made her living as a writer before becoming an agent. Erin Buterbaugh interned with an agency and then spent some years doing freelance writing for curriculum companies. So she would be a mix of numbers two and four.
So perhaps one of the uniquenesses of our agency is that we all made our living at writing, and we understand what it’s like to cobble together a living by writing. (I’m sorry if that sounds like a commercial — it’s not meant that way.) My point is that you’ll be better off if you’ve done some research and figured out what sort of skills you may be looking for in an agent, as well as what sort of relationship you expect to have.
Of course, each writer has strengths and weaknesses, and each agent has strengths and weaknesses, and you try to match things up so that you’re a fit. My style may be a bit too blunt for one author, and too laid-back for another. But that’s part of what picking friends is all about — finding someone who fits. This is a business relationship, in many ways almost a partnership, and you don’t want to partner with just anybody.
Guest writer Holly Lorincz is a literary agent with MacGregor Literary, but she is also a professional editor and owner of Lorincz Literary Services. New York Times Bestselling author Vincent Zandri says of her, “A great editor not only points out the gaffs in a manuscript, but also helps you, as a writer, realize the enormous possibilities that exist within the text. That is Holly Lorincz.”
Are you getting ready to send a query?
Attending a conference?
Has a literary agent or acquisition editor asked to see your book?
Here’s a list of tips on how to whip your manuscript into the right shape.
Agents and acquisition editors often have specific format settings they require on manuscript submissions. Sometimes these paradigms are listed, but, more often, the editors expect you to have ESP, assuming you will magically know what they want (just like you should already know what is expected in query letters and proposals). There are a ton of websites and books devoted to formatting advice, including how to make those changes, so I’m just going to give you a quick and dirty list of things I know, from experience, will be helpful. Please note, these are not the same settings you use when formatting an ebook—just one more example of the war between publishing houses and Amazon.
IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS WORD, AND IT HAD SETTINGS. AND IT WAS GOOD.
And, boy, have these settings evolved. This is not the double-spaced, stretched justification from your (technological) youth. Of course, it’s best to set up your document before you begin . . . but who really does that? You usually hammer out least forty-five pages before you realize you forgot to set chapter headings or change the font from Cambria. So, let’s say you’re a good chunk of the way into your masterpiece, or you’re done. Just “select-all” and make the following changes to your Microsoft Word doc., which you will be sending as an email attachment. One attachment. Meaning, do NOT send the chapters as individual attachments, nor mess around with anything other than Word. Automatic death sentence. And, for the love of our dwindling carbon-sucking trees, do not send a paper version.
This is not a list set on a stone tablet. Always be sure to check for quirky requests on submission forms. For instance, there are probably still two people out there, somewhere, who prefer pdf’s over doc’s, and you know there’s some old guy hunched over a press, demanding 14 point Garmond font. So do what your teachers told you to do, read the instructions. And here’s mine:
• BE CONSISTENT.
• Use 1″ margins. Word comes preset with 1.25″ margins, a programmer’s revenge against Ms. Habernathy and her weekly five page English essays.
• Double-space your text, including the Chapter Headings.
• Single Space and indent block material like letters or speeches, or, in non-fiction only, direct quotes longer than five lines.
• Indent with paragraph returns only; absolutely no tabbing and (grrrr) space-barring to create paragrah indents.
• No extra spaces between paragraphs. Sometimes Word’s default automatically adds the extra line, so you’ll need to re-set that feature.
• Change multiple fonts to one: Times New Roman, 12 point, black. Some editors don’t care about mixed fonts or sizes, but most do. And all editors hate colored, curlicued, specialty fonts for chapter headings, title pages, or, especially, the text. Seriously. All of them. That’s because the hodge-podge of fonts, sizes, colors and random text boxes remind them of their middle school newspaper . . . and editors were book nerds even then, thus they do not have fond memories of the lonely, bruised middle school years.
• At the end of each chapter, insert a page break. Do not tab or space down until the cursor is forced to the next page. This screams, “Hi, I’ve never written a book before.” Unless you’re John Grisham, then it screams, “Hi, that’s what my editor is for.” Are you John Grisham?
• Only one space between sentences. This is a tough one for those of us who grew up with the typing teacher crying out, “The cat ran through the door (period) (space) (space),” as your clumsy fingers clacked away on the typewriter. But, now, the computer automatically adjusts stuff (my technical term for it), so editors only want one space.
• Chapter titles should be bold, and best if they are in caps and centered. You can increase the size from 12 to 14 point, but totally not necessary. You can create a setting that will automatically do this with your headings after a page break.
• Header: Times New Roman, 12 point, centered: your last name / title
• Footer: page number, bottom center, don’t show on the first page
• Use italics, never underline, not for emphasis or titles.
Some publishing houses have even more specific requests. Knowing houses want these settings, it doesn’t hurt to go ahead and apply them anyway. Frankly, they are only asking that we straighten up, get our act together, and adhere to The Chicago Manual of Style.
• The first line of every chapter (or after an internal transition) must be flush left, with no indent. I’m not a big fan of this requirement, but there ya’ go.
• Transitioning within a chapter (i.e. to show a shift in point of view or time) should not have a bunch of forced spaces, instead there should be a centered string of bold asterisks (******), with no extra line spacing.
• All numbers used within dialogue must be spelled out, and numbers under one hundred used elsewhere should also be spelled out.
• Sticklers will want only the em-dash, with no spaces on either side: ebook—just
• Sticklers will also want you to use the Chicago ellipse: he looked up . . . smoke. Notice it is: (space) period (space) period (space) period(space)
• Quoting/dialogue: I’m not going to get into the various dialogue punctuation rules (see the online Chicago Manual), but your basic dialogue, and dialogue within dialogue, should look like this (pay attention to the spacing): Bob turned to me, continuing his story. “And then I yelled, ‘You are one ignorant fool!’ ” Jennifer interrupted him, saying, “He said you called him a genius at least fourteen times, that you even claimed, ‘I wish I was half as smart as you.’ So, which one of you is the liar?”
• Consider paying for a professional proofreader. If some editors or agents catch one whiff of extra lines, tabs instead of paragraph returns, mixed fonts … well, they may send your manuscript back and ask for it to be formatted properly, but most likely they will set it aside and pick up the next ms from the huge pile in front of them.
• MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: you are not designing a book. You are submitting the equivalent of a very long essay or paper. The content is the focus, which is why the formatting has become standardized. Designing fancy art for the first letter in each chapter of a suspense novel is a waste of time on a manuscript.
Finally, yes, you can hire a service, like my own Lorincz Literary Services, to create a professionally formatted document . . . but it’s probably not necessary for most writers who’ve used Word for awhile. Most of the above suggestions can be figured out, fairly intuitively, by dinking around in your menus. And don’t forget to use the online Chicago Manual to answer style questions; the search option on their site is a thing of beauty.
You can ignore me, or you can assume you’ve made all the correct setting modifications, or you can get on board the reality train, and recognize that demons live in your computer and will mess with at least one paragraph, somewhere—it’s probably in the first fifty pages, and it will look just fine on your screen.
Holly Lorincz, Editor
Lorincz Literary Services
In a few days I’m going to be off to the ACFW conference in St Louis, where I’ll be spending two days listening to authors pitch their ideas. ACFW is a wonderful conference, with workshops aimed at both newbies and experienced types. All sorts of people will sign up to talk with me (I don’t have any say over who they schedule me to meet), and they’ll have a variety of questions: “Will you look at my proposal?” “Is this salable?” “What advice do you have for me in my current situation?” “Which houses might be interested in my story?” “How could I improve this proposal?” “Would you be interested in representing my book?” I never know what I’m going to see or who I’m going to talk with, so I was interested when someone sent me this question:
I’m getting ready for a writing conference, and while I think I have some great ideas for books, I find I always panic right before a pitch. I lose my train of thought (and my confidence), and have embarrassed myself more than once with rambling replies to agent & editor questions. What advice would you have for those of us who nerve out at key moments?
Happy to do this. Here are my ten keys to pitching an agent at a writing conference…
1. Review your book. I’m assuming you’ve already written your novel, since nobody is really taking on new fiction projects unless they are complete (or, if it’s a nonfiction book you’re working on, you’ve at least written a good chunk of it). So go back and look it over. Remind yourself what it is you want to say about your book. Be ready to give me a quick overview at the start of our conversation (“This is an inside look at the biggest crime spree in Nevada history, told by the detective who cracked the case” or “I’ve got an edgy suspense novel — Fifty Shades of Grey meets James Bond” or “Imagine if there was a way you could reduce your chance of getting cancer by 50%, and all it took was a simple change in your breakfast habits?”). In other words, be able to give me something interesting about your book in a sentence or two.
2. Create your script. Write out what you’re going to say about your book, word for word, so that you’re sure you cover all the essential elements in as few words as possible. Some conferences only give you three minutes to do this, though many give you ten minutes — which means you want to get through the book’s description in order to engage the agent or editor in conversation. So give me a quick fly-over of your story. Hit the major plot themes, say something about your lead characters, and reveal why it’s unique. Use specific images in your wording to make it stand out. And have an ending, so it’s clearly time to engage in conversation.
3. Practice your pitch. That is, you’re going to want to sit down with your script, and say it, out loud, as though I was already sitting across the table from you. Don’t skip this part — it’s what will make your pitch better and give you confidence. It’s what will best help you prepare, so you don’t get tongue-tied once we’re actually face to face. (Sure, when you go into the bathroom to practice out loud, your family will think you’ve lost your mind. Don’t worry! When you told them you wanted to be a writer, they already determined you had lost your mind.) I think knowing what you’re going to say and having already practiced it out loud is the single best thing you can do to develop confidence. You don’t really want to sit and read it to me. You want to sit and say it to me, which means you’ll want to go over this enough times that it just feels natural. You may bring your entire script with you to the meeting, or you may just bring an outline with your bullet points. But practice saying it before you sit down and start talking with me.
4. Find the highlights. Think through how you’re going to make your book stand out to an agent who is going to hear 50 pitches at the conference. Maybe you have a great opening line. Perhaps your story is related to today’s news. Maybe you have unique qualifications for writing this book, or a huge platform to support it, or an endorsement from someone fabulous. Include that in your pitch. Don’t oversell the book (I don’t want to hear that this is the best fantasy since The Lord of the Rings), but let me hear something that will make me remember it. As my mentor once said to me, “Don’t tell me your novel is funny — read me a line that makes me laugh.”
5. Research the agents and editors. I don’t represent children’s books or poetry or gift books. Yet I know somebody is bound to make an appointment with me and start by saying, “I’ve got this wonderful gift book of poems for children that I want to tell you about.” (Then, when I explain that this might be a fabulous project, but it’s not going to be a fit for me, they’ll looked hurt and panicked, and they’ll turn in a critical comment about me to the conference director. Sigh…) Look, what I represent is on my website. The books I’ve represented are listed on Publishers Marketplace and Publishers Weekly. I have a blog where I talk about authors and projects. Anyone who can’t figure out what I do and don’t represent simply isn’t trying very hard. So spend some time researching, to make sure you approach the right people.
6. Know what you want. I will often say to writers, “What’s your expectation for this meeting?” Do they want career advice? Do they want to talk about the salability of their story? Do they want to ask questions about creating a better proposal? Knowing what you want from the person you’re meeting is critical. And if it’s simply, “I want to find an agent to represent my work,” then have realistic expectations. You’re not going to get signed by an agent at a conference. (And if you get offered representation by somebody who hasn’t so much as read your work, be aware that you’re about to sign with a bozo.) A more realistic expectation would be, “This agent agreed my story sounds interesting, and he/she is going to go back, read my proposal, and engage me in a conversation of some kind.” This is a business, and you don’t race to say YES to the first guy who expresses random interest in your work. You do your due diligence.
7. Have something with you. I differ from a lot of agents in that I think you’re always best to have a short overview and some sample pages with you at the meeting. You may not get to them, but what if you tell me something and I say, “Holy cow — that sounds amazing! Can you show me some writing?” Publishers aren’t buying ideas, they’re buying writing. So having some with you is a good idea. I realize some conferences will dissuade authors from bringing any writing, since the fact is most of us won’t take pages with us — too bulky for a carry-on, the pages will just get bent, and we really just want to read it on a laptop anyway. Still, I like talking with an author, then having him or her show me the first couple pages of the book. That tends to reveal if this person is actually a writer, or just someone with a cool idea.
8. Look good. You’re meeting with a professional. Dress like one.
9. Be polite. Everybody likes meeting nice, interesting writers who can talk naturally about their books. Nobody likes meeting an arrogant know-it-all. (On more than one occasion I’ve had authors ask me to sign a non-compete before talking. Good grief… I decline, and start looking at my watch.) So have a conversation. Don’t stalk me. Show me you’re a real person. If you’re nervous, take a deep breath and tell me you’re nervous (I’ll say to you, “then forget the speech, and just tell me about the book you wrote”). Editors and agents are simply people working in the industry, the way you work in your field. Most are pretty good at what they do. You really don’t have to fear them, or act like you’re meeting the Royal Family. They are there to talk with you about your writing.
10. Listen to the response you receive. Don’t be surprised if an editor doesn’t like your idea, or if an agent suggests changes. They could be all wet, but they’re trying to do their job by offering you some experienced perspective. So listen, take the criticism, and reflect later on whether or not you’ll implement their idea. But don’t use your small bit of time to argue. I think my least favorite part of one-on-one meetings is having an author argue with me — not because I’m always right, but because they paid money to come hear what I have to say, and now they want to haggle with me over it. (But, if you’re taking notes, I am always right.)
Let me know if you found this helpful, or if you have other questions about pitching agents and editors at conferences. Hope to run into you at a conference soon!