Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Movie Pitch

It’s easy to be seduced by the quick and dirty movie-reference pitch to summarize your novel.

It’s a way of capturing the entire plot and feel in one quick sentence. When it works, I think it’s an impressive tool and well worth using. When it doesn’t, boy, does it flop like a dying fish.

One of my current authors pitched me this way in her original query. She wrote, “my most recently completed manuscript is a 100,000 word contemporary fantasy with a chick-lit style -- think Bridget Jones meets Harry Potter” in the first line of her second query paragraph.

I was intrigued. I had to see sample pages. And when I read them, she was exactly right. It was Bridget Jones in a Harry Potter-type world. It totally worked and we sold that novel to Ballantine (the book—Enchanted, Inc.)

The trick is that it has to be an accurate description so when the agent actually reads the novel, she sees it and it makes sense. If I read the sample pages and I’m thinking, this doesn’t feel like Ordinary People (or whatever comparison was used), the tool backfires and you’ll get a quick NO. The work is misrepresented.

The other trick is that the comparison has to make sense—literally. Some of my favs that didn’t:

This story is Anne of Green Gables meets The Hunt For Red October.


I can’t even wrap my mind around this. Anne is on a submarine and is going to face off with the Russians? The comparison shouldn't make me giggle with incomprehension.


This is a modern-day version of Les Miserables and The Exorcist combined in one compelling novel.

Wow. I’m really thinking these two masterpieces should not be mentioned in the same sentence.

So, use the tool. Use it wisely.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Exclusively Yours

Last June, I was out at Book Expo in New York City. Many publishing houses host cocktail parties at their booths on Friday and Saturday night. I was standing outside one of those booths, cocktail in hand, chatting with a fellow agent that I had met before but didn’t know well.

She was reading a full manuscript that she really liked on exclusive.

I mentioned that I never ask for exclusives. She laughed and said she never reads a full manuscript without it and obviously I had never gotten burned otherwise I would do the same.

I smiled. Didn’t argue the point. It was Friday night after all. But there she was wrong.

I certainly have vied for projects in competition with four or five other agents. Sometimes I’ve landed the client (and was thrilled) and even just recently, I didn’t win the client. I was the first runner up and it made me quite sad (especially when I read the news that the project sold a week later in a pre-empt! Then I was doubly sad.)

It doesn’t change my mind though. I still don’t ask for an exclusive read. Why? Because it’s not in a writer’s best interest.

You should have agents fighting over you and your project. That way you can interview all the agents and find the best fit. You can’t do that if you allow one agent an exclusive look.

Now, if you are 100% positive that one certain agent would be the best person for you, then fine, do it. Otherwise, I don’t see how granting one is beneficial to your career.

So, in my, mind. Here are the rules:

1. If you grant an exclusive, you need to honor it. Be sure to include a time limit. I think three weeks is sufficient. This is your career and it’s hard to get an agent. They shouldn’t trifle with you.

2. If your manuscript is already out with an agent and a request comes in from another agent but that agent wants in exclusive, don’t sweat it. Send the manuscript anyway with a note that explains why it can’t be for an exclusive look. If the agent returns it unread, his or her loss—not yours.

3. Never allow an exclusive on a query or a partial. That’s just silly. Exclusives, if ever, should only be reserved for a full manuscript.

4. And finally, if several agents have your full and they’ve been nice enough to not request the evil exclusive, do keep them in the loop about the manuscript’s status. If another agent has offered representation, let the other agents know so they can throw their hats into the arena as well. It never hurts you to have a choice. It rewards the non-exclusive-asking agents as well. At least we still have a fair shot at winning it.

I never want a client of mine to feel like they have settled for me and my agency. I’m a competitive person, albeit a very nice one. I love the challenge of “let the best agent win” and feel pretty darn triumphant when it’s me.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Getting It Right

Every once in a while, the world of publishing gets it just right and a gem of book renews my faith in the whole industry.

In fact, I think we should all quit talking about the schmuck Frey and start talking about an author who deserves all kinds of great conversations—Marilynne Robinson.

Now this is a writer worth talking about and her novel GILEAD is, in a word, exquisite.

Too bad Ms O didn’t choose her book to re-launch her book club because it truly deserves a million little copies sold.

It’s easy to lament about the state of publishing—I’ve been guilty of it myself. That it’s really hard for a new literary voice to break out, that editors are gut-less and only want the next what I call “pop literary” or in more specific publishing terms “upmarket commercial literary” like Sue Monk Kidd or Khalid Hosseini.

In fact, I have two gorgeous and well-shopped literary novels sitting on my shelves right now. Lots of compliments but no offers to buy.

It’s easy to get jaded.

And then I read a book like GILEAD and I’m instantly re-affirmed that yes, we are getting it right.

Such a treasure of buried truths regarding our internal lives. When something strikes me while reading, I tend to earmark the page. I had so many post-it notes throughout this book; I finally had to give it up.

Economical too. It is 246 pages and feels far weightier than that number would imply.

This is a work I predict that people will be reading 50 or 100 years from now as they do Hurston or Hemingway now.

Whereas Mr. Frey and so many others will be long forgotten.

Thursday, January 26, 2006


Since I’m on the topic of queries…

I’ve noticed an interesting trend lately of writers utilizing spam prevention tools.

Now that in itself isn’t bad. Goodness knows, I have two spam filters in place that save me from headache. Even with them, I still get ten or so emails a day asking me to be a partner in moving obscene amounts of money.

Really, it makes you wonder whether using the word Nigeria will automatically get your query spam-zapped.

Having a spam filter certainly isn’t my issue. I strongly recommend them.

No, what I’m having an issue with is the new spam prevention programs where the onus is on the responder to act in order for the email to be delivered.

For example, if I send the email (let’s say in response to a query), an auto reply will be emailed back to me in return. This email will state that if I want my email to be delivered (which more than likely contains my standard NO response), I must click on a link that will take me to a website where I have to decode a wonky font word into intelligible typewritten text and then hit a submit button.

Then my email response will be delivered and supposedly, I won’t have to participate in this exercise again with this particular email address.

So let me ask you this. How likely do you think it’s going to be that I, or any agent for that matter, will take the time to go through this process so my standard NO letter will reach you?

If you are thinking “unlikely,” you’d be right.

Which means a lot of folks aren’t going to be receiving a response from me. Maybe I should simply apologize up front right here on my blog.

Or I can offer a suggestion. Avoid this type of spam prevention if you are email querying. Better yet, perhaps you need an email address and inbox reserved exclusively for your querying—something that isn’t used for other business and therefore won’t get grabbed by the spam loops.

Most Internet providers allow you more than one address as part of the package and there are always the freebies such as yahoo and hotmail in a pinch.

Or you can go along your merry way assuming all agents are heartless non-responders when in reality we are simply caught in the world of Spamalot.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What’s In A Name?

When I attend writers’ conferences, I always want to drive home the message that publishing is first and foremost a business.

When you write a novel, that’s art.

Selling it and promoting it is sheer business.

So, I always tell writers that the devil really is in the details and if you position yourself as being savvy and professional (coupled with good writing), you will probably succeed.

Little things matter. Little things like let’s say your email address.

I imagine a lot of writers have not thought twice about it but does your email addy reflect a professional writing image?

I’m thinking herekittykitty@yoururl.com might be sending the wrong message.

Cute nicknames. Great for friends. Maybe not quite the image you want for your professional writing career.

Stick with the traditional basics:

Obviously there are other combos that work. You get the idea.

And one other suggestion. If you are pursuing a writing career and are using email to acquire representation, go ahead and spring for your own email address. I’ve never quite understood when I’ve received an email query that’s signed “Jane Doe” but the email address says JoeSmith@.

Your email addy and your signature should match. It shows me that you take this business seriously.

Ah, those devilish details.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

A Walk in the Woods

I’m actively looking to add to my client list for science fiction and fantasy. Subsequently, I’ve been reading a lot of sample pages in those genres.

I’m noticing something in the first 30 pages I’m reading—what turns me off mainly.

Now remember, rules are always made to be broken and any writer who can break them well is going to get attention. So, I’m a little hesitant to name my fantasy foibles on this blog but here goes.

Things I’d rather not see start a Fantasy novel.

1. A person gathering herbs in the forest.

It obviously happens more than I think because I’ve lost count of how many submissions I’ve read where this situation is the opening chapter. Herb gathering. Evidently quite popular.

I’m thinking an opening forest scene is going to be a tough go unless something really inventive or original happens.

2. A battle scene.

I always scratch my head on this one. I think it’s a writer’s way to “delve” immediately into the action so to speak. Here’s my problem with it. I don’t know the characters yet. I haven’t got any idea of who to like and who should win or even a good sense of what’s at stake. Not to mention, it’s really hard to do good character development in a battle scene. Characters can only be growing so much when ax swinging.

3. A prologue.

99.9% of the time, the prologue is vague or doesn’t really give me a sense of the writing or the story that’s going to unfold. I skip them as a general rule. As a writer submitting to me, I’d skip including it in your package. Why take up some of your valuable 30 pages only space?

4. A distant third person narrative to start (ie. The boy, the old man, the healer)

This is just a personal foible of mine I think. It’s hard for me to feel immediately connected to the character or the story. I want my emotions engaged from page one.

I’ve put it out there now so you’ll know what will happen. I’ll get an herb-gathering person in the forest during a battle scene prologue submission that’s going to change my mind.

Monday, January 23, 2006

A Valid Reason for Psych 101

Last week was certainly an interesting one where queries were concerned.

I received a query from a person who had cc’d 60 other agents on the email.

Now, that’s the first mistake here. I understand that this business feels depersonalized and the standard rejection letters certainly aren’t a joy, but email etiquette pretty much dictates that you query one agent per email. Query as many agents as you want but not in the same email.

Doing otherwise just makes agents itch to send the NO response as quickly as possible. Nothing like being one of a crowd.

Well, I’m guessing this is what happened. The query didn’t interest me so I replied with my standard letter.

The next day I, and the 59 other agents, received an angry email expressing the writer’s disbelief that not one in the pack of us (not much of a paraphrase here) wants to read THE NEXT GREAT BOOK OF OUR TIME (and yes, that was in all caps).

What a warm fuzzy. Definitely feel like I need to change my mind and request those sample pages now. Not.

Didn’t this person every take Psych 101? Has lambasting a person for not recognizing your genius ever resulted in the person changing his or her mind about your potential?

If you want the quickest way to shoot yourself in the foot, I’d say this would be it.

Friday, January 20, 2006

You Excepted—Not.

Last week a gentleman called and left a message on my voicemail.

He said, “I see that your voicemail says that you do not accept phone queries.”

Then he proceeded to query me by phone.

What part of my voicemail message did he not understand? I was sorely tempted to jot down this person’s name so in the event that he did a) figure out he wasn’t excepted and b) figure out how to query me through the proper channel, I could immediately send my “NO” response without even given him due consideration.

Then I remembered. I’m a nice person. Perhaps it was one of those strange brain farts that kidnapped his better sense at that exact moment and he was compelled to leave the message. Now he is filled with remorse. Or better yet, has learned some sense.

I just hit the delete button.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

How To Lose a Publisher in 10 Days

I’m thinking of a line from Forrest Gump, “I’m not a smart man.”

To recap:

Smoking Gun reveals that James Frey’s memoir is basically a fabrication.

Frey goes on Larry King Live to “defend” himself and implies that his publisher and editor Nan Talese knew all along that the work was more fiction than memoir.

News to her and appalled by the misrepresentation, Nan Talese contradicts Frey in a public statement. By her account, the work was presented as nonfiction and there was no discussion on how to publish it. (Note: Ms. Talese is a long time editor with a sterling reputation.) Not to mention, the publisher had been unequivocally standing behind Frey up until this point.

Boy, does this guy know how to win friends and influence people or what.

Every day I wake up with a little smile on my face. It’s going to be a good day because Frey isn’t my client.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Would You Like Truth With That?

One of my favorite writers is Allan Sloan, the financial journalist from Newsweek. If you ever want to read compelling writing, pick up a copy. Any person who can make corporate mergers and mutual fund topics fun to read is a writer to watch.

If he’s covering a stock that he owns or an organization owned by the Newsweek parent company, he begins his column with a disclosure.

That’s what I’m doing. Beginning this post with a disclosure.

I’m currently shopping a memoir and that certainly colors how I view James Frey and the whole MILLION LITTLE You-Know-What smoking gun.

Why? Because the memoir I’m shopping is beautifully written, meticulously researched, and we have all the documentation to warm even the most cynical, detailed-oriented fact-checking heart.

We didn’t lie, embellish, or otherwise make up a story that is being circulated as truth.

The trouble we are having is that editors love it, are very complimentary, but are afraid that it won’t be “big” enough for their house so hence, must pass with regret.

Translation: We didn’t lie, embellish or otherwise make up the truth in order to make the story more titillating, controversial, or “big” enough to be worth publishing.

That says a lot about publishing today unfortunately.

It is Much Ado About Something. A memoir is about truth from that one person’s perspective. It’s not about making it up so it will be an over-the-top spectacular victim story that will be “big” enough to sell a lot of copies.

Is there a redemptive quality based on the solidness of the inspirational message (which has been suggested)? If there is, I’m not seeing it. This story didn’t happen so how can triumph over events that didn’t exist be an inspiration for others who really suffer from addiction and are struggling to overcome?

If you really want to read a good, true story of recovery from addiction, I’d boycott Frey and pick up Heather King’s PARCHED.

At least she understands that a memoirist’s reputation is built on integrity. As she says, “It's every writer's sacred honor to "get it right," but perhaps the burden falls heaviest on the memoirist...”

Well said.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Relentlessly Nice

Sometimes I regret growing up in Missouri where I was relentlessly taught to be nice.

It means that when I’m sitting across the table from a would-be writer at a writers’ conference who’s pitching me the most outlandish novel (you name it)/memoir-about-being-abducted-by-aliens/nonfiction-project-I-don’t-even-remotely-represent, I haven’t the heart to say that it stinks or “are you on drugs,” or even politely, “no thank you.”

Stomp on their dream why don’t you.

The nice person in me will take the coward’s way out and do the rejection by letter/email because it’s just easier. (And trust me, I’m not the only agent who falls into this trap.)

Oh to be a brusque New Yorker or to be able to channel Miss Snark for five minutes. (As an aside, I bet she’s a real sweet gal in person; it’s a whole different ball game when you get to remain anonymous). I might actually save the writers some postage.

Which is why I started this blog. I’m finally going to talk about what’s on my mind. Nicely of course! (Some habits are hard to break.)

To indulge in some polite rants so maybe, just maybe, I’ll get up my gumption to say what needs to be said to a writer in person.

And if not, I’ll actually get to say it on my blog. Feel like I’m growing…