Archive for the ‘Questions from Beginners’ Category

How to Ruin a Book at the Last Minute: Part 5, The Bait and Switch Ending

April 29th, 2015 | Questions from Beginners, Resources for Writing, The Writing Craft, Uncategorized | 3 Comments

brick green no smile b:wI’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!

It’s “Ask an Agent” time!

March 2nd, 2015 | Agents, Career, Deep Thoughts, Questions from Beginners, The Writing Craft | 8 Comments

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?”cartoon


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.”




Thursdays with Amanda: Is Your Nonfiction Book Idea Viable?

February 26th, 2015 | Career, Marketing and Platforms, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 9 Comments

Amanda LuedekeAmanda 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.”


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.

Thursday with Amanda: Which Comes First? A Book Deal or Platform? (FICTION)

February 19th, 2015 | Career, Marketing and Platforms, Publishing, Questions from Beginners | 3 Comments

Amanda LuedekeAmanda 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?

What does a Good Agent/Author Relationship Look Like?

November 10th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Questions from Beginners | 5 Comments

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.

Quick and Dirty Tips: Formatting Your Manuscript

September 24th, 2014 | Proposals, Questions from Beginners, Quick Tips | 2 Comments

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.

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:


• 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

Ask the Agent: How do I prepare to meet an agent at a conference?

September 22nd, 2014 | Agents, Conferences, Questions from Beginners | 16 Comments

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!


Ask the agent: “What if i don’t want to talk about money?”

August 25th, 2014 | Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 1 Comment

A writer sent this: “I hate talking money when it comes to my writing. I wanted to do this for the art, not for money! How can I get over my reluctance to talk dollars?”

I realize some authors are reluctant to talk about money issues, but it’s necessary if you’re going to get to know the business. When I was a free-lance writer, I noticed that publishers (both magazine and book publishers) tended to put me on the bottom of the pay ladder because I was a small free-lancer. I once called a publisher to complain that I hadn’t been paid, and the response was, “Oh. Yeah. Sorry. Guess we’ll get you next quarter.” To them, it was a measley $1500 they owed me. But to me, it was MY HOUSE PAYMENT that month. So, yeah, I eventually got over my reluctance to talk money with publishers.

That means you have to know what you’re worth (in terms of money-per-page or money-per-hour), and you have to be able to share that with others. The good news is that it gets easier to talk about when you have a pretty good feeling of your value. I mean, if you know you should be making $3000 per month, and the publisher asks you to work on a freelance project that will take two months, it’s much easier to say, “I’ll need to make about $6000 for that project” than to take a wild stab at a number. 

So let me suggest something… Figure out what you’d like to make from your writing in a year. (You need to be reasonable. Don’t say, “A million dollars” unless your name is James Patterson, Suzanne Collins, or George R.R. Martin.) Let’s say you think it’s reasonable for you to make $18,000 this year from writing part time. That means you need to make, on average, $1500 per month, or about $375 per week. If you start looking for ways to generate some income with your writing, that may not be so far-fetched. And if you land one book contract that pays an advance of  twelve thousand, the goal becomes much easier. But start by figuring out what “financial success” is to you, as a writer.  

Often writers act like they can’t talk about the money they make (“I signed a confidentiality agreement!”) — which may be true, but only in terms of sharing the wording or the deal you received. It’s usually not  a violation to talk honestly with friends about how much money you’re making with your work. That’s one of the reasons I encourage writers to make friends in the industry, attend conferences, and learn from other writers. It’s so much better to have some friends who understand how tough this industry can be, and talk with you openly about what they’re doing to earn income. (And by the way, when I was a freelance writer, I found one excellent way to feel better about my income, if I was sitting around with a bunch of people who intimidated me: Exaggerate. I found I just  felt better when I could look at someone at a conference and say, “Oh, yeah, I made $50,000 via my writing last year.” Okay, it wasn’t true, but for a moment I felt better… :o) 

Let’s face facts: If you’re uncomfortable talking about money, or you can’t be bothered nagging that publisher who keeps forgetting to pay you (and there are a some publishers who struggle with this), then you need to find an agent you’re comfortable with, who is competent with both numbers and negotiation, and talk to him or her about handling this for you. You’ll find it’s worth it to you.

But back to your question: If you’re uncomfortable talking about money, you probably either need to give that concern over to someone who isn’t,  OR you need to find a way to get comfortable with the topic by introducing it to other writers and starting to share your stories. 

Ask the Agent: How long should it take to hear from an agent?

July 28th, 2014 | Agents, Current Affairs, Proposals, Questions from Beginners | 0 Comments

Someone wrote to ask, “When is it appropriate to inquire on the status of a submission to an editor or agent? I sent something in to an agent four months ago, but have yet to hear. How long should it take?”

Every agent has his or her own system. I try to get to submissions once every other week, but sometimes I go four or five weeks between looking. And that’s just for a quick look — if I like something, I have to read it through, and that means I could have it for a month or two before I can give the author a firm response. In my experience, most agents would like to have two or three months to consider a proposal before they render a “yes” or “no.” During busy times (like Christmas, summer vacation, and stints in rehab), it may take longer. So if you sent a project to an agent four months ago, and she hasn’t responded to you, it might be appropriate just to drop a friendly note — something like, “Hello, I’m just checking back with you on that proposal I sent you a few months back. I was wondering if you’ve had a chance to look it over yet, and if there’s anything more you need. I know you’re busy, so thanks very much for giving it your consideration.” No need to whine, beg, or wheedle. Just check in, and be polite.

On a related note, one writer sent me a note to complain that an agent hadn’t responded to his proposal in a year… but when I checked with that author, he noted that he’d never actually met the agent, nor had he queried via email or letter. In other words, he had just sent in a proposal cold. And that leads me to ask,“Where is it written that an agent must respond to you just because you wrote to him or her?” Answer: It isn’t. An agent isn’t obligated to respond to everyone who writes him or her. I’ve got a job to do, and time is money, so I really can’t take the time to read every project somebody sends in cold. I don’t feel that’s a deriliction of my duty, either — I simply don’t believe that I owe every writer a favor.  I state very clearly on my company website that I’m not looking for unsolicited proposals. Still, people send them. I also state on my site that I don’t have time to read every project coming in over the transom, and that I don’t return unsolicited proposals, even if they come with a postage-paid envelope. It’s just not my job to take responsibility for someone else’s idea. Still, I have people I’ve never heard of write to complain that I didn’t respond, or that I didn’t return their materials — as though their decision to mail me something puts a burden on me, merely because I work as a literary agent.

Wrong. I generally represent people I know — maybe we met at a conference, or often they were a referral from a current author. But it’s a very rare thing for an agent to yank something out of a slushpile and offer an agency agreement. So make sure you have realistic expectations.

Another person wrote and said, “I’ve noticed more authors using the term bestseller or bestselling author in their materials. Is there a rule about this? Must an author make an established bestseller list in order to use that term?”

Absolutely. An author needs to have a book that hits a recognized bestseller list in order to claim he or she is a “bestselling” author. That would mean your book needs to land on a legitimate bestseller list like the New York Times list, the LA Times, the Denver Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Barnes & Noble’s list, or the Amazon Top 100. (It’s also fine to note that you had a book land in your regional paper — say the Portland Oregonian or the Cincinnati Enquirer, though those lists don’t quite have the same cachet as the major lists.) Several outlets (Publishers Weekly, CBA, etc) release their own bestseller list every month, and a few track the various genres as well as offering an overall “top 50 titles” in terms of sales. So if an author claims to be a “bestseller” in her proposal, she needs to be able to back that up with evidence of hitting a list.

By the way, BookScan is the reporting vehicle for most bookstores. Many religious bookstores use a different tracking system, called Stats. These are supposed to track book sales by ISBN number, and create a reporting data base for publishers. But one of the reasons this can confuse authors is because some books can sell incredibly well and never have their sales reported. Books sold in Sam’s Club and Costco, for example, are not reported to any bestseller tracking system — so you could sell 100,000 copies and never appear on a bestseller list. And, of course, books you sell at personal appearances or through your own website aren’t reported via any channels. The success of The Shack is a good example — the book moved a couple hundred thousand copies through alternative sales channels before any reporting store picked it up and began noting sales, so it had sold a bazillion copies and never appeared on a bestseller list. Once it was trackable, it hit #1 in the religion category. It’s reasonable to ask the question, “Would it have been fair for the author of The Shack to declare himself a bestselling author prior to making the list?” Maybe… but that’s not the way the system works.

And someone wrote and noted, “You have advised authors to spend some serious cash in order to create a dynamite website. Can you tell me how many zeroes serious cash has? And are there templates or places a prospective author could view in order to begin making plans?”

I think a good website can be a great marketing tool. We used to think of sites as akin to a highway billboard — something you drove by, read, and moved on. But now sites are incredibly useful tools — a way to stay on top of the industry, communicate with readers, and let people know about books and speaking events. They have also proven to be content-centered — so if you have a plumbing company, you don’t just say “great rates and quality service” like you might in a yellow pages ad. With a website, you’ll have suggestions for fixing common plumbing problems, a place to ask questions, introductions to the company personnel, a way to schedule an appointment, maybe even a “history of plumbing.” In other words, the site has become the repository for information. It’s why we’ve quickly become a nation of readers again. And it’s always changing. We recently updated our corporate site, have begun doing more on Twitter and Facebook, and updated the software for this blog to the latest WordPress version. Now I’m having people tell me we don’t use Tumblr and Pinterest enough, and we could make better use of video. Like I said, it’s always changing.

If you’re an author who speaks, wants to stay in touch with readers, and can devote time to it, your marketing people will probably encourage you to create a good website. And it will mean you can expect to spend somewhere in the $3000 to $5000 range. You can go cheaper, of course (some places offer a do-it-yourself site for $99), but you get what you pay for. And you can spend a heck of a lot more, too. (I know an author who just invested $10,000 in a fabulous site.) There are thousands of experts you can talk to about establishing a strong site — there’s no reason to have a crummy website any more. If you want to check out author sites, visit some author pages and start clicking. You’ll find all sorts of authors with a variety of styles and choices to their sites.

Got a question about books or writing or publishing? Send it in, and we’ll answer it in a future “Ask an Agent” post.


Ask the Agent: “If I already have an offer, do I need an agent?”

July 14th, 2014 | Agents, Career, Questions from Beginners, The Business of Writing | 7 Comments

Someone wrote me to say, “I was just offered a contract on my novel. Since I don’t have an agent, should I seek one at this point? Would it be better to have the agent simply review the contract for a fee?”

There’s quite a debate about this issue. I know several agents who would say, “If you already have an offer — call me!” I mean, they’d be happy to get 15% for a deal they’ve done no work on. But I have some doubts about the value in that type of situation. Let’s say you got a contract offer featuring a $10,000 advance. If the agent steps in, he or she takes $1500. Is the value of their work worth that? You can ask a contract service to review your contract for around $500. (But be careful… there are good and bad authors, good and bad agents, and good and bad contract review services. Make sure to ask questions, so you get someone who knows what they’re doing and has done it before.) A contract service won’t negotiate for you or improve the deal — they simply evaluate and report back to you. So if you have a bunch to negotiate this may not be your best choice.

You can also talk with an intellectual property rights attorney, but be cautious — they’re generally paid by the increment, usually by the six-minute increment for every phone call, email, conversation, or reading you ask them to do. It can add up fast. A good attorney can certainly help, and should be able to strengthen the contract. But in my experience you want to be careful who you’re working with — I’ve had too many situations where the goal of the attorney seemed to be nothing more than to keep the clock moving (though expect some attorney to come onto the comments to claim that never happens). The longer it takes them, the more they are paid. I know of several authors who ended up paying more to have a top-flight entertainment lawyer review the contract than they were paid in advance dollars. Yikes. Generally speaking, your family lawyer won’t have enough experience to really help you with a publishing contract — the guy doing grandma’s estate or your last real estate closing probably doesn’t know much about current publishing contracts.

As for getting an agent, I would say that you want to make sure the agent actually does something to earn the commission. He didn’t help craft the idea, didn’t help you polish the proposal, didn’t shop it to editors, so ask what exactly he’s going to do in order to bring value. Review the contract? Negotiate better wording and royalties? Assist with marketing? Shop your dramatic and foreign rights? Handle potentially sticky situations? Help with long-term career advice? Assist with other services, such as helping you self-publish your backlist? I’ve often had authors come to me with offers in hand, and I’ve frequently told them to pay for a contract evaluation, since it’s less money. I have sometimes agreed to take on an author, but usually for a reduced commission. And I would encourage you to think long term — Is there someone you want to work with? Is there an agent you like and trust, who can help you with your career, and not just this book deal? A good agent may be willing to take less in order to work with you. My advice: I don’t think it’s fair for me to take the full commission on a book I didn’t sell, but not every agent out there agrees with me, so talk with others and solicit some opinions. Congratulations on getting the book deal, by the way.

By the way, on a related note, someone asked, “Should I worry about a literary agent who turned me down, but suggested I work with his editorial service?

Absolutely you should worry. Here’s how this commonly works — you send a manuscript to an agent, who says, “I really like this, but it’s not ready. However, we have an editorial service here who can help you. For just $500, they’ll get this proposal ready for us to represent…” The agent sends you to his editor co-worker, then pockets half of that “editorial fee,” so he or she is making money off the author. That’s a total violation of ethics for literary agents (and I’d argue the reason we’re seeing some agents do this is because we’ve had a group of people jump into agenting who don’t really know what they’re doing). The Association of Author Representatives has a clear canon of ethics printed on their opening web page which precludes an agent from doing this very thing. It’s ripe with potential for abuse, since it’s too easy for a slimy agent to say to every author, “Hey, this has potential — let our editor work on this for a fee!” It turns authors into marks. Look, I have a bunch of freelance editor friends, and I will frequently say to writers, “This needs considerable editing. I can send you the names of some editors I trust, but what you work out with them is between you and the editor.” I don’t get a fee for recommending anyone, so I’ll send them three to six names of editors who are probably a fit for their type of manuscript. But we’re not an editorial service, and we don’t charge for that type of work. My advice: If an agent tries to cross-sell you some other literary service that charges you a fee, stand up and walk away. You can find a better agent.

And, since I”m on a roll, one other question: “I signed with an agent, but wasn’t happy. I fired that agent, and moved on to another. But now my first agent is claiming that anything I ever talked with her about is her responsibility! She claims that if I ever get a publishing deal for the projects she represented, she is to be paid the agent’s commission. Is that legal?”

This is another one I can’t fathom. I understand getting paid if I’ve done the legwork. Let’s say that I’ve worked with an author to develop a project, showed it to publishers, and started to get some interest. If the author hears about the interest, fires me, then approaches the same publishers to try and get the deal and save themselves the 15% commission, I should still get paid. I state in my agency agreement that if I’m working with a publisher on your behalf, I’ll still get paid even if you fire me and do a deal with one of those publishers I was just selling your work to. But I’ve seen the situation you’re describing a few times lately — an agent claiming that if you EVER sell the book they represented, they’ll still get paid. I’m not a lawyer, so I cannot give legal advice, but I would think this would be awfully tough to have stand up in court. My advice: read any agreement carefully before you sign it. If the agent has a clause that’s incredibly restrictive like this, ask to have it altered.