Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part VI)

STATUS: Happy Halloween! I try not to frighten people by going out in costume so maybe I’ll be an Evil Editor for Halloween…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THRILL ME by Simply Red

In honor of Halloween, of course we have to look at the horror genre today and I’ve got two tasty morsels for you from Horror Writers of America Grand Master Ray Garton and then another Halloween treat from Brian Keene.

To most people it’s just a large house, old and a bit run-down. To the Kellar family it’s a new start, a chance to wipe out the painful past and begin again. But soon it will become a living nightmare. The terrors begin before the Kellars have even finished unpacking. They hear things, see things, shadowy glimpses into the impossible, things that are there—and then gone.

Who are the mysterious children playing on the rusty, vine-covered swing set in the backyard? Who is the figure sitting in the dark corner of the bedroom at night? Who --or what-- waits in the basement? They are the dead and they cannot rest. Horror stalks the halls of the Kellar house. And the secrets of the past are reaching from beyond the grave to destroy the living.

Now let’s analyze:
1. The back cover copy is 11 sentences and unlike any of the author works we’ve analyzed so far, this copy is mostly comprised of short, punchy sentences. Interesting.

2. The first two sentences fill in the back story for the reader and allow us to know that the Kellar family are looking for peace but are going to get anything but. (I mean, this is horror after all).

3. So the rest of the cover copy pretty much sums up what will be strange about the new house. The end sentence hints that it’s not just a ghost story but that something darker is at stake.

4. For me, the cover copy misses a bit (and perhaps feels too generic)—especially when I see the Publishers Weekly review that reads: “In this ironically titled shocker from horror maestro Garton, the dead, who are pretty ugly, make life a hell for the living. Jenna and David Kellar, after a series of personal tragedies, the worst of which is the inexplicable death of their four-year-old son, Josh, hope to make a new start at the old family homestead they've inherited just outside Eureka, Calif., with their surviving son, Miles. Instead, they discover a nightmare. Ghostly children cavort mysteriously on the backyard swings and vanish at will. Tantalizingly, cruelly, one resembles Josh.”

Wow. That last sentence of the review tantalizes. One of the ghost children looks like their dead son? Now I’m interested. I’m not sure why the cover copy that’s actually on the back cover of the book doesn’t capitalize on that juicy tidbit.

What I’m pointing out is that cover copy isn’t always perfect and cover copy editors get paid to write enticing blurbs to draw readers in! Writing good pitch copy is hard.

TERMINAL by Brian Keene
From award-winning author Brian Keene comes a darkly suspenseful tale of crime and the common man-with a surprising jolt of the supernatural. . . Tommy O'Brien once hoped to leave his run-down industrial hometown. But marriage and fatherhood have kept him running in place, working a job that doesn't even pay the bills. And now he seems fated to stay for the rest of his life. Tommy's just learned he's going to die young-and soon. But he refuses to leave his family with less than nothing-especially now that he has nothing to lose.Over a couple of beers with his best friends, John and Sherm, Tommy launches a bold scheme to provide for his family's future. And though his plan will spin shockingly out of control, it will throw him together with a child whose touch can heal-and whose ultimate lesson is that there are far worse things than dying.

Now let’s analyze:
1. This back cover copy is 8 sentences. I see some similarities to the Garton copy with the shorter, punchier sentences. I think this copy does a better job of introducing more information in a short amount of space.

2. The opening line is from the publisher. Writers can’t use that but you could start your query pitch with “my novel is a darkly suspenseful tale of crime and the common man-with a surprising jolt of the supernatural.” Or wrap the pitch with that line.

3. The second paragraph gives us a character sketch of Tommy’s life because this is essential to understanding his motivation for the plot twist that will be revealed at the end of the second paragraph and into the third. The first couple of sentences set up his desperation so when he learns he’s going to die, we know that might lead to choices that will cause trouble. (This is horror after all and we need to have a sense of the horror element before we close this back cover copy).

4. This comes in paragraph three. I wouldn’t have minded an escalation of the tension by allowing the reader a little hint of the plan that will spin out of control (so that’s my suggestion for this copy). The last line throws in a whole new element that’s pretty intriguing but once again, I wouldn’t mind a little more hint as to what might be “far worse things than dying.”
In just these two examples, I’d have to say that horror back cover copy might be the toughest to write. You can’t give away the surprise so what’s enough? Too much? Or not enough? All good questions that if you write in this genre, you need to be asking yourself.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part V)

STATUS: I signed a new author today and that’s always fun.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LIFE IN A NORTHERN TOWN by The Dream Academy

I think you blog readers should know by now that asking to define literary fiction is just a disaster waiting to happen. Everyone has a different definition.

A literary agent friend of mine defines it as any manuscript he happens to pitch as literary fiction. I’m going with that…

But back to talking about pitching whatever it is that we call literary fiction. The next book is actually a novel chosen by the City of Denver for their One Book One Denver program (and I’m actually not sure if the author Nick Arvin knows this or not but I’m actually the person who recommended this title as a possibility to Denver’s Cultural Affairs liaison who headed up the search committee—and no, he’s not one of my authors so no self-interest was involved). I did lobby hard for NO PLACE SAFE for next year but alas, the program only chooses fiction.


From the cover flap:
George Tilson is an eighteen-year-old Iowan farm boy who is drafted into the army during World War II and sent to Normandy shortly after D-Day. Nicknamed "Heck" because of his reluctance to curse, he is a typical soldier, willing to do his duty without fuss or much musing about grand goals. The night before he is trucked into the combat zone, Heck meets a young French refugee and her family, an encounter that unsettles him greatly.

During his first, horrific exposure to combat, Heck discovers a dark truth about himself: he is a coward. Shamed by his fears and tortured by the never-ending physical dangers around him, he struggles to survive, to live up to the ideal of the American fighting man, and to make sense of his feelings for the young French woman. As the stark reality of combat--the knowledge that he could cease to exist at any moment--presses in on him, Heck makes a series of choices that would be rational in every human situation except war.

With remorseless, hypnotic clarity, Arvin draws readers into the unimaginable fear, violence, and chaos of the war zone. Arvin layers profound meaning within a brilliantly executed minimalist style. His portrayal of the emotional and physical terrors Heck can neither understand nor escape is one of the most disturbing and unforgettable accounts of the life of a soldier ever written.

Now let’s analyze:
1. This cover copy is 9 sentences long.

2. The first three sentences of the first paragraph give us the background regarding the main character and then the opening setting of the novel. This will lead into the main crux of the story which will be revealed in the first sentence of the next paragraph. Now take a moment to think about why we need to know about the main protagonist and the setting before the conflict is revealed. If you did so, you should realize that understanding Heck’s “before” nature is crucial to how this story will unfold—hence the spotlight on it.

3. The second paragraph goes right to the heart of the story. Heck is going to make some choices and we imagine, as readers, that it’s going to be revealed to us what those choices are. I don’t know about you but I’m feeling the tension already. Every word in this second paragraph is carefully chosen. Notice word choices such as “horrific exposure,” “dark truth,” “shamed,” “stark reality,” and I could go on. I point this out because if you write literary fiction, your word choices in your query pitch need to reflect the literary nature of the work. For this novel, every word conveys a sense of darkness—maybe even despair.

4. The last paragraph is the publisher’s viewpoint. Once again, this is what the publisher hopes the reader will take from reading this novel. I think if a writer wanted to include some of the thematic elements, he/she could by simply rewrite the last couple of sentences so it would make more sense in a query letter. For example, the first sentence of the last paragraph could read like this: “With remorseless and hypnotic clarity, my novel exposes the reader to the unimaginable fear, violence, and chaos of the war zone.”

The last sentence you can’t use without sounding like a dork. Goes without saying but you be amazed at how many unpublished writers insert grandiose projections about their unproven writing ability in their query letters.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part IV)

STATUS: Groan. It was not a good Colorado Rockies weekend. Still, it was thrilling for them to to be in the World Series at all. Was it too much to ask that they win just one game?

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HELLO EARTH by Kate Bush

Since I’m in a serious mode after Story Of A Girl, let’s move on to the hardest type of novel to pitch well in a query letter— literary fiction.

Now why do I say this is the hardest to pitch? Because literary fiction, typically, isn’t driven largely by plot elements, unlike most genre fiction. More often than not, the focus is on character development. Now that doesn’t mean that literary works can’t have a high concept to drive it but often that is secondary to what is to be explored.

However, I highly recommend that if you write literary fiction, you find that catalyst or event that launches the story because every work of literary fiction does have it.

For example, what is the event that happens in TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD that forms the direction of Scout’s narrative?

What is the event in CATCHER IN THE RYE that sparks Holden’s narrative?

See what I mean? It’s there and it’s up to the writer to spotlight it.

Since we aren’t writing in the 1950s, let’s take a closer look at a more contemporary literary novel such as EVERYTHNG IS ILLUMINATED by Jonathan Safran Foer.

From the Front cover flap:
With only a yellowing photograph in hand, a young man - also named Jonathan Safran Foer - sets out to find the woman who might or might not have saved his grandfather from the Nazis. Accompanied by an old man haunted by memories of the war, an amorous dog named Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, and the unforgettable Alex, a young Ukrainian translator who speaks in a sublimely butchered English, Jonathan is led on a quixotic journey over a devastated landscape and into an unexpected past.

As their adventure unfolds, Jonathan imagines the history of his grandfather's village, conjuring a magical fable of startling symmetries that unite generations across time. Lit by passion, fear, guilt, memory, and hope, the characters in Everything Is Illuminated mine the black holes of history. As the search moves back in time, the fantastical history moves forward, until reality collides with fiction in a heart-stopping scene of extraordinary power.

An arresting blend of high comedy and great tragedy, this is a story about searching for people and places that no longer exist, for the hidden truths that haunt every family, and for the delicate but necessary tales that link past and future. Exuberant and wise, hysterically funny and deeply moving, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED is an astonishing debut.

Now let’s analyze it:

1. It is 7 sentences.
(I want to emphasize a point here. When I give query pitch workshops, I invariably get a participant who says that their book is “too complicated” to sum up in such a short space as one paragraph. Needless to say, I always give an eyebrow raise as a retort. A lot of novels are “complicated” and yet we still manage to create short but enticing blurbs to draw readers in. There is no such thing as “too complicated” if you focus on what launches the story).

2. The first sentence tells us why the story is happening. We have a young man searching for his past.

3. The next sentence is hilarious but it actually achieves a couple of things: 1) it tells us who will accompany Jonathan on this journey, 2) it sets the tone of this literary novel, 3) then it touches on some themes with “quixotic” and “unexpected past.” This sentence is working hard and getting the job done.

4. The next paragraph tackles the unusualness of the unfolding narrative structure. (Not sure what else I can add here because this is a tough one. You can’t hide it if you have a unique narrative frame but you need to describe it in such a way that it won’t be off-putting. I’ll leave you to decide whether it works here or not. I do have to say that when I receive a query that states the novel is in “stream of consciousness” form, it’s an auto NO for me—but I like my literary novels to at least slant toward commercial and “stream of consciousness” screams otherwise. Not every agent feels that way though.)

5. The second to last sentence highlights the themes the author is going to explore (and we can relate to such as the “hidden truths that haunt every family”). For me, the last sentence is what the publisher hopes readers will see in the work. If you were pitching in a query letter, I would leave that out. It’s okay for a publisher to say the novel is “exuberant and wise” but I’m not sure a writer could say that about his or her own work without sounding like a dork.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part III)

STATUS: TGIF! Now if only The Rockies could nail a win on their home turf. If they don’t, I’ll never hear the end of it from my clients Hank Ryan and Becky Motew who are Boston Red Sox fans.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? HOTEL CALIFORNIA by The Eagles

I lied. I’m not moving on to adult titles this afternoon. Let’s try one more Young Adult novel and then move forward next week. I’m hoping to hit all kinds of genres, and I won’t forget literary fiction either.

Okay, you guys want an example from a novel with a serious tone. Let’s take a look at a National Book Award nominee STORY OF A GIRL by Sara Zarr.

I didn’t have this book handy when I wrote this blog so I’m not certain of the exact wording of the cover flap copy but here’s what the Publisher posts about the novel:

When she is caught in the backseat of a car with her older brother's best friend - Deanna Lambert's teenage life is changed forever. Struggling to overcome the lasting repercussions and the stifling role of "school slut," she longs to escape a life defined by her past.

With subtle grace, complicated wisdom and striking emotion, Story of a Girl reminds us of our human capacity for resilience, epiphany and redemption.

And here is a longer blurb from Library School Journal that could have acted as the cover flap copy so I’ll talk about both because they could each make a damn fine pitch blurb in a query letter.

From Library School Journal:
When Deanna's father catches her having sex in a car when she is 13, her life is drastically changed. Two years later, he still can't look her in the eye, and though Tommy is the only boy she's been with, she is branded the school slut. Her entire family watches her as though she is likely to sleep with anyone she sees, and Tommy still smirks at and torments her when she sees him. Her two best friends have recently begun dating, and Deanna feels like an intruder. She tries to maintain a close relationship with her older brother, but Darren and his girlfriend are struggling as teenage parents. Deanna learns to protect herself by becoming outwardly tough, but feels her isolation acutely. Her only outlet is her journal in which she writes the story of an anonymous girl who has the same experiences and feelings that she does.

Through this, readers see the potential that Deanna cannot identify in herself. This is a heartbreaking look at how a teenager can be defined by one mistake, and how it shapes her sense of self-worth.

Now let’s analyze.

1. Publisher copy is 3 sentences. Library Journal copy is 9 sentences (and a little longer than some of the other examples we’ve analyzed but still quite within the realm of a pitch paragraph in a query letter).

2. What’s interesting to me about both these cover copies is that they both focus on an event that happens before this novel even begins. We know it’s going to be a story about the repercussions of this action--of not being trusted by her family and also of being branded the “school slut.” We have been immediately introduced to the tension that will shade this whole novel. In the last two examples, we’ve been talking about spotlighting the catalyst that happens in the first 20 or 30 pages of your novel and in this example, it’s an event that happens prior to the story being told in the novel. Probably hadn’t thought about that as a vehicle for a pitch blurb but it can work—as long as the novel is about the fallout from that prior event.

2. The publisher copy then highlights the serious nature of the novel by focusing on several themes that will be explored which are resilience, awareness, and then redemption (and we could perhaps add forgiveness).

3. The Library Journal copy gives us more details about what Deanna will face from her family and from her school fellows. It also gives us more sense of this character’s intense isolation (which ratchets up the tension because we don’t know what Deanna might do—to herself or to others). I’m hooked.

4. The Library Journal copy then sums up for us the power of the story—“This is a heartbreaking look at how a teenager can be defined by one mistake.”

I don’t know about you folks but this Library Journal copy is a powerful pitch and makes this novel a must-read—for me anyway.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part II)

STATUS: Problem solved with Comcast. Makes me happy. Ally Carter is on the New York Times Bestseller Top 10 List for the third week in a row for CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO SPY. That makes me very, very, very happy.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SWEET CAROLINE by Neil Diamond

Now you guys are getting into the swing of things. In fact, I encourage you all to give examples with your analysis in the comments section like Rebecca did for yesterday’s post.

And since Ally is my NYT star, let’s tackle her young adult novel I’D TELL YOU I LOVE YOU BUT THEN I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU next.

The premise of this work is pretty high concept and easy to sum up: a teen girl who attends the Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women (but really a school for spies) jeopardizes her make or break sophomore year by falling in love with a teen boy from the neighboring town who can’t know who or what she is.

So now we have to work that concept into an attention-getting pitch paragraph. Since we are playing with making our pitches sound like good cover flap copy, here’s what the flap reads for this book:

“The Gallagher Academy for Exceptional Young Women is a fairly typical all-girls school—that is, it would be if every school taught advanced martial arts in PE, and the latest in chemical warfare in science, and students received extra credit for breaking CIA codes in computer class. So while the Gallagher Academy might claim to be a school for geniuses, it’s really a school for spies.

Cammie Morgan is a second-generation Gallagher girl, and by her sophomore year, she’s already fluent in fourteen languages and capable of killing a man in seven different ways (one of which involves a piece of uncooked spaghetti). But the one thing the Gallagher Academy hasn’t prepared her for is what to do when she falls for a boy who thinks she’s an ordinary girl.

Sure, she can tap his phone, hack into his computer, and track him through town without his ever being the wiser—but can she have a relationship with a regular boy who can never know the truth about her?

Cammie may be an elite spy-in-training, but in her sophomore year, she’s beginning her most dangerous mission—falling in love.” (Hyperion 2006)

Now let’s analyze.

1. 6 sentences total (and notice how much information is packed into these six sentences)
2. The first two sentences are a summary of the setting with some fun elements to set the tone. We have to know that the Academy is a school for spies or the rest of the cover copy won’t make sense.

3. The next paragraph dives right in and here’s a fun comparison. The Harry Potter cover flap copy started with what Harry has not done (Quidditch, ride a broom, dragon hatching). In a similar vein (but reversed), the LYKY cover copy tells us what Cammie is capable of (an impressive and fun list that captures our attention) but then launches into what she hasn’t done—and that’s fall in love with a boy.

4. The next sentence I love because it highlights what a teen girl spy would do to find out about her new crush and also highlights the main conflict of the story—which is that she can’t tell the truth about herself. We pretty much get an idea of what is going to drive the plot elements of this novel.

5. The last sentence is really just for fun—and mainly because it’s cute to think of “falling in love” as the most dangerous mission of all.

The whole description captures the tone and feel of the novel as well—and that’s what you want to achieve in your query pitches (even if you aren’t writing YA). Also note that it really doesn’t do much plot summarizing about the novel as a whole. It really just spotlights the main conflict (keeping her spy background a secret from the boy she likes).

Tomorrow we’ll tackle some non-YA examples.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Blog Pitch Workshop (Part I)

STATUS: I’m getting a little peeved with Comcast broadband. This is the second day in a row that my internet service has gone down at the office. There is construction going on behind my building. Makes me wonder if a backhoe has dug too deep. Let’s hope not.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TRAIN IN VAIN by The Clash

Tonight is about testing my pitch paragraph hypothesis. I do believe that you can write a very enticing query pitch simply based on the first 20 or 30 pages of your novel. All you need to do is spotlight the main event that triggers the rest of the story.

Now on to an example the most everyone has read (and probably owns the book so they can pick it up and give it a look.) And don’t worry, we’ll be tackling a variety of genres and novels over the next few days.

Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone (or for the UK version, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone).

What is the main event that happens within the first 20 or 30 pages of the novel that then launches the reader into everything else that will unfold? Easy. Harry, who has been living in a closet as the unwanted foster son of the Dursleys, gets a letter inviting him to attend Hogwarts where he then discovers he’s the most famous wizard known to the wizarding world because he survived an attack from the dreaded Voldemort.

Pick up the novel and give it a quick skim. All of the above unfolds in those first chapters. Now check out the cover flap (and no, I don’t have access to Rowling’s original query letter so I have no idea how she pitched it). You don’t need that. Writing good cover copy works just as effectively for the pitch.

So a quick flip to the cover flap reveals the following copy:
“Harry Potter has never been star of a Quidditch game, scoring points while riding a broom far above the ground. He knows no spells, has never helped to hatch a dragon, and has never worn a cloak of invisibility. All he knows is a miserable life with the Dursleys, his horrible aunt and uncle, and their abominable son Dudley—a great big swollen spoiled bully. Harry’s room is a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs, and he hasn’t had a birthday party in eleven years. But all that is about to change when a mysterious letter arrives announcing that Harry has been chosen to attend Hogwarts, an elite school for the training of wizards and witches…” (front flap, Arthur A. Levine Books)

Now let’s analyze it:

1. It’s five sentences only.

2. The first sentence sets the tone and the mood by highlighting what Harry Potter has not done in this world the author is creating (which is a nice introduction to Rowling’s world building by the way). Same with the second sentence.

3. The third and fourth sentence highlights what he has known—which isn’t that bright a picture (which makes him instantly sympathetic).

4. The last sentence highlights the event (the catalyst if you will) that will launch the story.

We don’t need much else. We are already intrigued. Now maybe you could have added a sentence that hinted at the evil of Voldemort and how Harry is famous for being the only wizard to survive an attack (and that could ratchet up the initial story tension if you want to hint at the danger that is about to unfold). It’s not absolutely necessary though.

The ending is certainly not mentioned.

Remember, a pitch is a teaser paragraph with the sole purpose of getting an editor or an agent to ask for more sample pages because they just have to read on.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Pitching And All That Jazz

STATUS: Today I’m flying back to Denver from Vancouver. I have to say I was quite delighted when the rain eased and the sun popped out this morning. It’s going to be beautiful here (of course on the day I’m leaving) but there you have it.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHAT A FOOL BELIEVES by The Doobie Brothers

When I was teaching my eQuery workshop this weekend, I suddenly achieved some clarity about writing pitch paragraphs and how to teach it.

Often writers freeze when attempting the pitch because they are laboring under the wrong assumption that they need to sum up their entire novel in one longish paragraph or two short ones and that's not the way to do it.

It was a real learning moment for me. Since I’m having this insight now and I'm not physically there to teach the workshop, I thought I would do a workshop-like couple of posts here on my blog.

So that’s what I’m doing this week.

When writing your pitch paragraph, all you need to do is examine the first 20 or 50 pages of your manuscript. Then zero in on the main catalyst that starts the story forward—the main conflict from which all else in the novel evolves. It’s the catalyst kernel of your story that forms your pitch.

Don’t worry, I’ll show you some examples over the next couple of days but what you need to remember is that your pitch paragraph needs to read like the back cover copy of a novel. Notice that when you read the back cover of a book, it just gives a hint or a teaser of the story and that it also usually focuses on a crucial early event in the novel. That gets the ball rolling.

And the back cover copy of a book never reveals the ending—and neither should your pitch paragraph. After all, if I want to read the entire novel, I don’t want to know the ending beforehand.

So what I suggest is that you go to your local library or bookstore and browse the section that holds the novels comparable to yours (i.e. if you are writing a thriller, look at thriller novels. If you are writing a paranormal romance, read the back covers of other paranormal romances. If you write literary fiction, read the back cover copy of literary works and so on).

You want your pitch paragraph to mirror that same sort of rhythm and content of those back cover examples. After all, that copy was written by experts and analyzing how the experts create enticing copy can only help you to write yours.

I’ll go into more detail starting tomorrow.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Speaking of NYT Bestseller List

STATUS: Frustrated!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? AFRICA by Toto

I have to admit that I was a little too distracted this morning to actually work because I was online attempting to buy Colorado Rockies World Series tickets instead. The tickets were only available for sale via the web.

And now they’ve just posted a press release stating that because there were 8.5 million hits to the website, it went down in about 15 minutes and only 500 lucky buyers were actually able to purchase tickets.

I should apologize to all my clients right now that I did indeed waste 2 futile hours trying to buy tickets…


As for the Surrey Writers Conference genre lunch, it was a hoot and an absolute blast. Everyone at my table said “of course chick lit is dead.” Old news (those Surrey Writers are so savvy!) and we ended up chatting about all sorts of great topics. Truly a delight.

And since we’ve just been talking about New York Times Bestseller lists, I saw this article today about that very same subject. Not sure it sheds too much more light on the subject but it is interesting.

From tidbits from the article by Clark Hoyt:
“THE New York Times best-seller list is a powerful and mysterious institution that both reports and drives the sales of books around the nation…”

“One of the first things I learned is that much of what the publishing world thinks it knows about the list is wrong or out of date…”

“Another misconception is that booksellers are surveyed only on a list of titles determined by publishers’ shipments, keeping “sleeper” books — distributed in smaller numbers — off the list…”

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Genre Lunch!

STATUS: Soon to be off to do the conference lunch and pitch appointments for this afternoon. Wish me luck! So far I haven’t even needed my Advil because all the conference attendees have been great and well prepared. I love the Surrey International Conference.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MONEY BURNS A HOLE IN MY POCKET by Dean Martin

Talk about a busy last two days! I’ve been getting back to my hotel room too late to blog, and I’m even breaking my weekend blogging embargo because I feel so guilty.

So I have about 20 minutes before the Surrey Genre lunch and I just have to laugh (I’ll share why in a moment).

First off I want to mention how much I enjoy this conference. It’s huge—something like 800 attendees this year. This means there are lots of writers, writing lots of genres, and the likelihood of hearing a good pitch is high.

After all, that’s the reason why I attend conferences. I’m totally looking to expand my list—especially in literary or commercial mainstream (and folks that doesn’t mean thrillers because that’s a genre onto itself and I don’t rep mysteries and thrillers). I also want more SF and Fantasy writers and hey, it doesn’t have to be female-reader oriented. I’m open to ANYTHING. And, since I’m having so much success with Ally Carter and Sarah Rees Brennan, bring on the young adult!

But here’s why I’m laughing about the genre lunch. They have me sitting at a table labeled Chick Lit.

You remember my rant about being considered just a Chick Lit agent? It always cracks me up because out of my 22 clients, only 4 (yep, you read that correctly) clients write in the world of Women’s fiction and only 2 of them might be aptly described as chick lit.

The four clients are:
Jennifer O’Connell (who in my mind doesn’t really write Chick lit but women’s fiction)
Ally Carter (and her adult novels such as Cheating At Solitaire leaned more toward romantic comedy then chick lit per se.)
Becky Motew (she’s so wonderfully quirky (and her heroines older) that she really is more women’s fiction than Chick Lit)
Shanna Swendson (whose Enchanted, Inc. series should probably be labeled fun contemporary urban fantasy than Chick Lit or Women’s fiction)

And yet, I’m sitting at the Chick Lit table and let me just highlight here that when I sit down to lunch, I’ll have to deliver the bad news. Chick Lit is, for all practically purposes, dead at the moment. As agents, we are really careful not to say that word when shopping current women’s fiction manuscripts. And a novel needs to have solid substance (such as LOVE WALKED IN), or it’s just not getting play.

Now I still love women’s fiction but here’s the other funny thing about this lunch, I haven’t taken on a new women’s fiction author lately (in fact it has probably been more than year—maybe close to two since I have).

But what the heck, that’s where I’ll be at the genre lunch and I’m sure we will all have a blast.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Conference Prep

STATUS: Yep, it’s late.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THING CALLED LOVE by Bonnie Raitt

Tomorrow I’m off to the Surrey International Writers' Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. Yes, that would be Canada folks.

Now, I can’t just up and get on a plane and head north. I need to prepare. So what does an agent do to get ready for a conference (besides stocking up on the post all-day-pitch appointments Advil?) Just Kidding! Well, sort of.

Here’s my list from the day:

1. Clear off the decks (or desk for that matter) by handling everything that is urgent and can’t wait until I’m back in the office next Tuesday. (You can probably tell that this was most of my day.)

2. Locate Conference info folder. Even though everything is entered into my palm treo, I like to be anal and have the paper version handy as well.

3. Gather client books for the requested door prizes and give-aways.

4. Locate my conference business cards so people will actually know how to contact me.

5. Check my Powerpoint presentation to ensure it’s up-to-date and on my laptop (which reminds me, I really need to update that presentation background layout because the color scheme isn’t working).

6. Print out the submission instruction stickers so when I do request sample pages, I can paste the sticker directions on the back of my business card and the conference attendee will have an easy-to-use reference.

7. Email to the conference organizer the most recent, just updated handout that goes with the workshop I’m giving.

8. Get home and remember everything that I forgot at my office. Go back to the office and get it.

9. Remember to change my voicemail message to announce that I’ll be out of the office until next Tuesday (and I just remembered that I have forgotten to do this).

10. Pack. And what I have is what I have. What I’ve forgotten, well, I’ll wing it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Prickly Protagonists Part II

STATUS: Today felt like a Monday. I had one task that I absolutely needed to accomplish and it hasn’t happened yet.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? TENDERNESS by General Public

It should have occurred to me yesterday that I hadn’t mentioned the genres for the two projects I shopped with prickly protagonists.

One was literary fiction not unlike The Confederacy Of Dunces but with a female protagonist.

And I’m not kidding when I say that the author and I talked about the fact that if she had been a male writer with a male protag, we probably could have sold it. Yeah. Don’t get me started on that.

The other project was commercial mainstream (with a leaning towards women’s fiction) because the story was told by three female narrators of wildly varying ages (so untraditional in that sense).

And trust me, I’m not confusing an unlikeable character with an unlikeable action. In a lot of sample pages I see, they are one and the same.

I personally adore complicated characters so what I am saying is that I’ve got to love the novel a lot to take the risk since it has been such a hard sell. I think a good question to ask is this: if this character was alive and a real person, would I want to spend time in his or her company?

If the answer is yes, then I’ll take a chance and damn the torpedoes (so to speak). If the answer is no, well then, there you have it.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Prickly Protagonists

STATUS: I worked hard on a contract today. That always requires my undivided attention.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DIAMONDS ON THE SOULS OF HER SHOES by Paul Simon

I have to admit that as a reader, I’m often drawn to stories that have a hard-to-love main protagonist. I find the growth of that character’s story arc fascinating and so worth discovering.

Unfortunately, editors aren’t agreeing with me. I’ve shopped two manuscripts this year that had, shall we say, not so huggable main narrators and haven’t found a home for either project.

Main feedback from the editors? Main character was unsympathetic or too hard to like.

And then you wonder how something like Emily Giffin’s Something Borrowed becomes big. For me, the writer accomplished the near impossible—a character who has done something despicable yet still maintains the reader’s sympathy. Not an easy thing to accomplish and shows the strength of the writer.

So now I’m pretty reluctant as of late to take a chance on a novel with a tough main protagonist. Just today I passed on sample pages that were beautifully written but alas, had this fault in the main character.

And yes it probably does mean I’m lacking in courage but when you get shot down too many times, you gotta take a break from it.

So don’t rule me out completely but know that I’m hesitating on those prickly protagonists.

Friday, October 12, 2007

The NYT List

STATUS: It’s kind of hard to top yesterday but still, it is Friday and that’s worth celebrating too!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? MY GIRL by The Temptations

How books make the NYT list is actually closely guarded proprietary information that the New York Times does not share.

However, what little is known about it is this: titles are selected based on a percentage of sales done in a certain period of time.

I’d tell you more but then, you know, I’d have to kill you.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

NYT List Baby!

STATUS: We are over the moon!!!!

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SHE WORKS HARD FOR THE MONEY by Donna Summer

Sara and I can barely sit still because we’ve just heard the news.

Ally Carter’s CROSS MY HEART AND HOPE TO SPY has just hit the New York Times Bestseller List (Oct. 21) coming in at #8.

Congrats Ally!!!! You are now a New York Times Bestselling author.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Unleashing My Inner Snark?

STATUS: I have to say that the world of agenting is good right now. We’ve been having auctions and pre-empts at Frankfurt for Sarah Rees Brennan’s THE DEMON’S LEXICON. It is always fun when a title has international appeal.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? THAT VOICE AGAIN by Peter Gabriel

This is interview week for me. I’m finally catching up on all the requests I’ve received. I have to say that most interviewers pretty much ask the same questions, but I got a really interesting question today.

The interviewer asked me why I decided to go with the “nice approach” when blogging and do I ever long to release my inner snark and just let it go in a rant a lá Miss Snark.

Well, I decided on the “nice” approach because that is basically who I am. I’m nice. That doesn’t mean I’m not tough (and I’ve heard through the grapevine that editors often call me that damn demanding agent in Denver). I’m just polite. So when Miss Snark was around, I never felt the need to unleash my inner snark because Miss Snark was around to attack the topic. I never had to.

Boy do I miss her because there are times when I want to pull out my hair and let it go but I don’t. It’s not my style. I’m not certain I could pull it off with her panache.

For me, Miss Snark had the perfect way of sharing the brutal truth with her razor wit while still keeping an eye on the goal of helping writers.

I know lots of people won’t agree and Miss Snark would probably shake her gin tumbler at me in defiance but that’s what I miss the most. I could be nice because there was Miss Snark to be snarky.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Number One Interview Question

STATUS: Gorgeous day here in Denver. Sara and I just had to have lunch out on a sidewalk café. You got to do it while the weather is nice.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? CLOSER TO FINE by Indigo Girls

With every interview I do, I invariably get asked whether it matters whether an agent is located in New York or not.

This question always makes me chuckle. Since I’m in Denver, I’m probably the last person to say so if it were true. But in my experience, it really hasn’t been a factor.

Editors care less about where I’m located and more about whether they are on my submission list when I’ve got a hot project to sell. Now that matters to them.

Those of us working outside the Big Apple travel there often enough. We do lots of lunches. We do the face time.

And here’s the big secret. When an issue arises, guess what New York Agents do? They pick up the phone to talk to the editor just like I do in Denver. They aren’t hopping on the subway to Random House on Broadway or wherever.

If something is crucial and important that I handle in person, well I’m going to hop on a plane. That’s still cheaper than office rent in Manhattan. (And yes, I’ve done that for several important meetings.)

I think where an agent is located matters more to writers and their perception of how the publishing business works. And that’s fine. If that’s a high on your criteria list of what you need your agent to have, then it is. For me, I think it’s more important to look at what the agent is doing in terms of a sales etc.

So does it matter where the agent is located? Don’t ask me because you know what my answer will be!

Monday, October 08, 2007


STATUS: I was a reading demon this weekend. I also found out that Kim’s interview on NPR about NO PLACE SAFE happens tomorrow, Oct. 9th. I had originally said Oct. 10th.
You can click here to listen—even if you don’t get a chance to catch her live.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DREAMS by The Cranberries

Some of you out the in the blog world might not know that the Frankfurt Book Fair is just about to unfold in Germany. It starts on Wednesday.

Frankfurt is considered THE international book fair and the world’s largest marketplace for trading in publishing rights and licenses.

In other words, it’s the biggest fair to sell translation rights for projects sold in the U.S. and vice-versa.

Lots of big foreign rights deals get done at Frankfurt.

And some happen right before. I’ve been fielding many an offer for a number of NLA projects currently on submission in foreign territories. Some nice auctions going down as well. Can’t really reveal details as of yet but will when I can.

I’m not there this year but my foreign rights co-agent is currently in Frankfurt on my behalf. I do, however, plan to attend one of these years so as to meet all the wonderful foreign publishers who have made my clients a success abroad.

Frankfurt does tend to make New York a little quiet this week.

Friday, October 05, 2007

4 Is The Number And The Number Shall Be 4

STATUS: It’s going to be working weekend as I catch up on some client reading.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? LIGHTNING CRASHES by Live

This is more of an observation than a rant per se because there really isn’t anything wrong with doing or having this. It’s just sometimes when a query element is repeated often enough, it can become a cliché, and I don’t think there is any way for a writer to know this to be true unless I mention it on the blog.

Or maybe I should state it this way. If you are an African American writer tackling women’s fiction, you don’t have to write a novel about four girlfriends with intertwined lives.

Seriously, you really don’t have to. I know that WAITING TO EXHALE was an enormous and powerful book that really broke open this market (and for those of you who have been living under a rock and don’t know, this novel is about “four 30ish black women bound together by warm, supportive friendship and by their dwindling hopes of finding Mr. Right” (Publishers Weekly).

I have to say that for the last several months, Sara and I have not seen a query for African American women’s fiction that wasn’t about four girlfriends. Nary a one.

And we’d really like to. This is a market with plenty of room to grow. We’d love to see more African American women’s fiction but we don’t want to see a reinvention of EXHALE (which unfortunately the emphasis on 4 tends to create).

So, just an observation. It’s not like we are going to say NO to a query just because it’s about 4 girlfriends but it might make us pause and hesitate to say “yes”—and that’s never what you want an agent to be doing.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Great Covers, Film Deals, Good PR, That’s What This Job Is About!

STATUS: It’s one of those days where everything has come together. It makes being an agent perfect.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? SONO ANDATI from La Bohème

First off I get the news that my author Kim Reid is going to have a live interview about her memoir NO PLACE SAFE on NPR this Oct. 10th.

She will be on the program News & Notes (which is the flagship African-American talk radio program on National Public Radio and is hosted by Farai Chideya).

I love NPR and it’s always a special thrill to have an author spotlighted on their radio program.

Then I finally get to share my most recent exciting film news. Universal’s Strike Entertainment has optioned Shanna Swendson’s Enchanted, Inc. Look for the Deal Lunch announcement to appear soon. This is especially thrilling because this deal has been three years in the making—not to mention this project was optioned by a whole other company about a year ago and that deal fell through. It’s the little film option that could!

And then, cherry on top, I receive the most gorgeous cover for a recently sold young adult project. It’s always amazing when a publisher gets it exactly right. Brooke and I are so in love with this cover, so if you hate it, I don’t want to hear about it.

Just kidding. Well…maybe not.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

You’ll Die If We Don’t Sell Your Book Works Every Time--Not

STATUS: Good so far… that can always change in a heartbeat. No movie-making today that I can tell.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? BACK ON THE ROAD AGAIN by REO Speedwagon

Oh boy. I have to say that it has been a REALLY long time since we received a query like this. Sara and I are totally shaking our heads in bemusement.

First off, this query was in Bookman Old Style 36 point font. I’m not kidding. Seriously, I appreciate the writer worrying about my potential eye strain but 36 is a bit much. All caps to boot.

Now I know the query process is hard and frustrating. I get that but writing queries like this isn’t going to open any doors.

This writer asked me if I were a real agent. Hum…Then the writer mentioned that a real agent could get a book deal for anyone and for any book. I didn’t realize that only “real” agents sold 100% of what they take on. By that definition I guess I’m not real (although I just pinched myself and I feel solid enough.)

But the hardest part about these types of queries is when the writers resort to threats. For this query, that writer informed us that he/she is about to be homeless and will be again if we don’t get a great book deal for him/her right now and if the writer dies, we’ll be at fault.

We respectfully declined to look at material. We did receive a response to our rejection email that announced that we handle only trash and idiots (which I’m sure is news to our clients).

That didn’t, however, change our minds about reviewing sample pages.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Rumors Confirmed

STATUS: With the mail, I’m reminded that it’s October royalty statement time.

What’s playing on the iPod right now? WHEN DOVES CRY by Prince

The rumor is now official. Harlequin is closing its NEXT and Everlasting lines. Not a huge surprise but now things need to be re-evaluated if an agent has an author writing for either one of those lines.

And I have to laugh. Publishers need to be able to move as fast as the word does and they rarely do. The poor editors. They all had to say they didn’t know anything about it until Harlequin made the official announcement (which happened today). Talk about being in an awkward position.

Once information hits the streets (and I do mean the virtual streets), word spreads rapidly.

Speaking of streets, virtual or otherwise, I had an interesting time getting to work this morning. Chutney and I were doing the usual walk down 17th street before taking a right on Wazee. Usually the streets in Lodo are a little quiet since most businesses are more uptown. Then I noticed there seemed to be an inordinate amount of attractive and well dressed people on the street and literally, standing in front of my office.

But hey, it’s a free country and fashion plates can stand where they like.

I walked into my lobby only to run into several of my fellow office building mates. They asked if I were “in it?”

Confused, I said, “in what?”

“The movie. They are shooting a movie.”

Ah. Well, that explains the people with the walkie talkies. I’m thinking not since nobody stopped me as I walked down the street. I probably ruined a scene and didn’t even know it.

Ends up they are filming an Eddie Murphy movie literally right outside my office door so when his next film comes out, look for the SH Supply Company brick building and you’ll know that is where the Nelson Literary Agency resides.

I have to say that car alarms were featured heavily in the scene they shot this morning because we would hear the command, the alarm would go off, and when “cut” was yelled, it stopped.

And no, I didn’t get a glimpse of Eddie.

Monday, October 01, 2007

The Client Book Mention

STATUS: I’m hearing some interesting rumors through the romance grapevine. Nothing I can share quite yet but when I hear a confirm, I’ll fill you guys in. What are Mondays for except to set up a crisis for later in the week…

What’s playing on the iPod right now? DO-RE-ME by Julie Andrews

Because I really needed to, I stayed up late last night reading about 100 queries (yes, I was a little behind). Newsflash I know. But I had an interesting thought while I was reading those queries and since that doesn’t happen often…

Okay, that was a lame joke but it is a Monday after all. I do think this is important if you are in the middle of the query process. Many times in query letters, writers will mention that they read one of my clients books and that was partly why they decided to query me.

I have to say I like that. It tells me you didn’t just do a quick research on the internet and then shoot me a query. It means that you took the time to read (or skim) a client book so as to target your query. How could an agent not be flattered?

But then I noticed something. The book mentions didn’t really hold any weight for me except when writers deliberately had cited a specific scene or something that had happened to a main character in the query letter itself. Because then I knew that they had, indeed, actually read the novel. (And even if you didn’t read the whole thing and only read let’s say the first 50 pages, well heck, I won’t call you on it. You at least made more than an effort then the general querier.) I can’t say I then ask for sample pages 100% of the time but it’s probably close.

Here’s the other thought that struck me. The read-the-client mention also only worked for me when the connection was obvious to the query project being proposed. In other words, if writers had read a client novel that didn’t really have much to do with their type of work, I have to say it confused me more than helped. I couldn’t help but think that gee, it’s interesting that the author had read Marianne Mancusi’s STAKE THAT! (for example) but I’m not sure how that YA title has anything to do with this adult horror novel (or whatever) the writer is presenting in the query.

Do you see what I mean?

Now I do give extra points to writers who creatively make the connection or just outright say that STAKE THAT! doesn’t really mesh with their proposed project but since they had read it and liked it, they thought I would be open to XYZ. That works—just as long as there is a clear enough reference to an actual scene or character in the book that demonstrates that it was read.

And speaking of… GIRLS THAT GROWL hits shelves this week as well.

Third in Mancusi's hip, sassy vampire series, featuring the heroine of Stake That!

She's a vampire. She's also a vampire slayer. (It's a long story, don't ask.) And now Rayne McDonald, Goth girl, has to carry out her most deviant mission yet: trying out for the cheerleading squad.

Rayne already has enough on her plate: her twin keeps whining about whether or not to go all the way; her mom's boyfriend is moving in; and her man, Jareth, who's now allowed out in the sun, has turned from a dark, brooding hottie vamp into a surfer dude.

But this vampire slayer is still on the clock, and she has a new assignment. A member of the football team has disappeared-and her bosses at Slayer Inc. think the cheerleaders had something to do with it. Now they want her to infiltrate the squad and get the dirt. But first, she'll need an extreme prep makeover. If only they'd let her wear fishnets under that revolting uniform...