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Don’t Despair When Your Agent Leaves the Business

When your agent leaves the business, what do you do?

In June I wrote my friend and YA author Gordon Jack when I was in the bluest, most Anne Shirley depths of despair. “My agent is leaving the business,” I said, feeling as if I were delivering the worst and most shameful of news. Maybe it was because Gordon and I had slogged together in the querying mines many moons ago, and after many rejections, he now not only has an agent but also a two-book deal from HarperCollins. (Check out The Boomerang Effect in its awesomeness and satirical humor about high school homecomings and pre-order Your Own Worst Enemy if you need a good laugh about high school elections. Trust me: you’ll want it before midterms.)

Me, I’d worked in the last ten years with a first agent, and then worked with a second agent who was amazing, and together we had two different books on sub to editors. Two books I poured my heart and four years into, books that she edited like a goddess.

Now, the day of my writing Gordon, I had none of these things.

I expected support and empathy from him, which I definitely got, and then he said:

“You know I’m on my third agent, right?”

I’d totally forgotten this—how his first agent left the business, how another parted ways with him amicably after not being able to sell his first novel, and how today, he’s represented by a great agent. In my self-pity, fear, and worry, I’d forgotten just how tough his road was to publication. I got starry eyed when I heard “book deal” and forgot how fraught and undependable the rest of the process was and is.

I also forgot all the books I’ve published as an indie author and what readers tell me about them. Somehow, I shoved any good thing that’s ever happened, that I’ve ever done, aside to dwell on what couldn’t seem to happen now.

Best-selling authors V.E. Schwab and Stephanie Garber recently shared their powerful stories about transitions with agents and publishers on the podcast 88 Cups of Tea. Then the other day, another friend with 10+ books published told me after I shared my tale that her agent, a person she loved, just retired.

In other words, it happens. A lot.

This was one of many messages I and other authors recently shared at the North Carolina Writers’ Network publishing panel, Patience, Passion, Strategy: Choosing Your Publishing Path and Finding an Agent. Nancy Peacock related how she had to part ways with her first agent and how her current agent helps her now. Russell Johnson shared how 150 queries and querying different novels found him his current agent. Stephanie Moore, a successful screenwriter, talked about how she once had two agents—one film, one fiction–and just parted ways with her fiction agent. She and I both just applied to Pitch Wars. Tara Lynne Groth is just embarking on her query journey and has a strategy you should check out. If one clear message came through from all of us, it’s that this business is full of variables and constant change. It demands great patience and great adaptability.

I got the courage to tell my story at this same panel—courage, because so much social media, my own included, is full of self-praise and celebration, as if nothing ever goes wrong. I mentioned the journey of the last decade. I also shared this quote:

“If I stop one person from quitting by being transparent,

then I’m doing a good thing.”

– V.E. Schwab

I shared the formula I’ve found—it takes talent and perseverance and luck, AKA timing and/or connections and/or resources. When I mentioned that formula to the friend whose agent just retired, offering this formula as if required all equal-part ingredients, she laughed and said, “Oh, it’s more than 50% luck.”

So if that is indeed the case, then luck shows up for those who show up all the time, right?

I won’t stop showing up.

“Success is a thing so largely out of our control.

Overnight Success is almost always a myth.

Half of this industry is luck, and half is the refusal to quit.”

– V.E. Schwab

 

In a future post I’ll talk in more detail about my Swing Away campaign (and much thanks to Liz Gilbert for helping me come up with the right tagline). How I’m back in the querying saddle again, using Publisher’s Marketplace, Manuscript Wish List & #MSWL website, and QueryTracker. I’ve got my agent lists, my query polished to a high shine, my synopsis, and a more-than-ready manuscript for my latest book. My first book is getting another look as well, and it actually may get a lot better thanks to that second look. When we began subbing it out in 2016, #MeToo and Trump had not yet happened, and when you write a book about journalism and sexual assault, it needs to be timely and eternal. I have some ideas for some upgrades.

It’s all good, as they say around here in North Carolina (draw out “good” to a three-syllable word, if you please). I mean like my husband’s song, “It’ll Be Alright.” I’ve got ideas for what to do should none of this work out, and 50 pages of a brand-new novel I’m very excited about. A lot is happening in my life right now, and it’s all happening for very good reason.

If you’re in the middle of a deep valley of Writer’s Limbo…and if that valley is storm-cloud full of the shadows of death, here’s what Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear that helped me. Why must you do this writing thing? Can you ever NOT write? Try to stop. I can’t.

Look what I wrote when I already had an agent and was beginning the book that I had to discard and start over and that just got subbed out—and am now querying again. I had to find a way then to keep going with a brand-new project, even as my baby I’d spent three years on was being subbed out. The writing challenges never end.

Embrace and adore the bumps as much as the tiny bits of glory that come your way. You must find, as Gilbert says, just which “flavor of shit sandwich” you prefer.

Because trust: that person who tells you it’s all one big glory ride? Who has nothing but great news to share? They’re either extremely lucky, or they are lying.

 

Did you know there’s even a hangout spot on Twitter for those rejected? #ShareYourRejections

 

“This is an opaque industry. It’s designed to make you feel like an island. So that when something goes wrong, you feel like the only one going through it. The pressure on authors is to put forth only good news.

You must come in with the mental and psychological preparation.”

– V.E. Schwab

“Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins.

Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”

– James Baldwin in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review

 

All you storytellers out there? Hang tight. Stick with it. It’s all going to be okay.

 

 

 

Time to Sub

Amy Tipton, my agent, is subbing No Small Thing out to publishing houses.

Submitting to publishers means your agent, who’s formed relationships with various editors at different imprints and houses, shops out your completed manuscript in the hopes of making a deal. Your author query (that page that once got you through the portal to your agent) might be part of the pitch your agent uses.

As I wrote the query, she helped with the “formula” part of the hook, which some people know as “X meets Y” (movie meets book, book meets book) to give editors a sense of what the story is about, in a nutshell. Here’s my logline and my formula:

When a teen basketball super-fan and podcaster discovers her beloved team is rife with corruption, she becomes an investigative journalist to expose the scandal. NO SMALL THING, a contemporary YA novel, is a sports-themed ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN about those who seek and speak the truth even when the tribe demands allegiance and silence.

After a year of writing and rewriting this book, I was ready to say what it was really about.

Subbing is close kin to querying in terms of the wait and the nerves. Subbing can be short or long, depending on so many things that are truly out of your hands: time of year, the depth of the agent/editor relationship, the editor’s list and queue. For example:

  • Timing: Time of year and editors’ time. August and most of December, for example, are considered dead zones: sub not, query not. What if you finish your novel on November 30 and your agent says, “Great! Let’s begin in January!” That means you’ll need to wait. Or what if an editor is launching a big book and very occupied when your manuscript hits her desk?
  • Depth of relationship: Your agent may be pitching a book to an editor for a first time, or maybe yours is one of several successes the agent’s had with a particular editor, all of which influence the readiness with which an editor takes up your manuscript.
  • List and queue:Your work could end up in a huge pile or a small pile. Know that editors and agents are reading round the clock, outside their day jobs. Take a number.

If an editor gives a personalized rejection, you learn about all the different tastes, priorities, and plans out there in the publishing world, just as you do with agents. You must submit on a different level: to the fact that you are not in control. Sometimes the no comes from reasons like these, What Ifs you have no say over.

  • What if the editor already has something similar on her list?
  • What if the editor thought she wanted a book like yours, but yours isn’t the manifestation she dreamed of? (Aspiring, querying, and subbing authors can find out what their editor wants here at MSWL (Manuscript Wish List.) Check out #mswl on Twitter, too.
  • What if the editor’s just gotten a call that her dog died? That her partner is divorcing her? Or come back from a pub lunch where a bunch of editors declared paranormal/romance/contemporary fiction (whatever your specialty is) dead? Or picks your story up at midnight on a Friday, knowing she’s only got a few hours of sleep ahead? That could sour the read that’s about to happen…
  • What if you’re not of the moment? That you chose to write about something that should reach readers, but the market is enthralled with something else this moment?

And you can’t control any of that. Kind of like fishing, where the lay of that pond, that lake, that river belongs to far greater powers than you: the goddesses of Luck, Timing, and Market. You need to sit there, patiently waiting, with a childlike trust a fish might poke its head up, and soon.

But what you can control is the quality of your book and the quality of your pitch. You can control your writing product, your writing schedule, and your writing attitude. You can control your skill level and keep seeking greater depth of talent by working it hard as you can.

What if you write about tough stuff? What if you can create another world but it’s not the escapism of video games, of fantasy, of other realms? What if you tell it like it is and that telling isn’t what some world-weary people feel like hearing right now? What if you can’t write anything else? People might argue I can control that but to that advice I say, Forget it. I know what I am designed to do.

You can control persistence. This is a small and seemingly unrelated example, but let’s say you’re married to a wonderful musician who decided to write a protest song at this very moment. He thought it would resonate with the political pulse he’s feeling so deeply, and the anger and fear he and his like-minded family and friends are feeling. He makes an amazing song, one that captures so eloquently and honestly the problems of a certain person and political party (check out the lyrics). He and his friends make him an amazing video. They put it out there, and a few people celebrate it. After three weeks, the video has close to 500 views, but that’s it. Then his wife decides one day, to try again sharing it on Twitter (after several weeks of doing so) and the number of views doubles in two days.

 

All because she a) stumbled on a thread where two things had to be in play–lots of followers, and lots of people willing to click on a YouTube link and because she b) persisted.

When I get discouraged, I remember Tenacity is my middle name.

Trust that I’ve had to relinquish a lot of best-laid plans and expectations on this journey, and just believe. That my efforts and luck, timing, and market will all intersect one day.

In the meantime, one can write a whole other book, if not more, while one waits patiently for their moment. In fact, Amy and I are also talking about revisiting @NervesofSteel. While there wasn’t a consensus of editors’ feedback during the subbing process, one critique that did surface with a few editors was Minerva’s age. She’s a precocious 13 year-old starting high school, and that’s a hard age for publishers to sell. Since teens read up, Minerva needs to be older. I’ve stopped resisting this one (But she’s gifted! She should be 13 and 13 only!). Hard to give up something you’ve seen so clearly about a character, but now I’m at peace with it. I’m aging Minerva up to 15 while not losing her giftedness or the fact she skipped a grade. She’s still younger than her average peers who are juniors in high school.

The revision is going beautifully–truly gratifying after the journey I’ve been on with dear ol’ Minerva Mae.

I’m off to write and submit to the page. Because there’s plenty to wrangle there.

 

 

 

What Makes a Great Agent

Literary agents get a lot done that a writer just can’t. If you’re debating whether to work with one, hearing how I couldn’t do this without Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency might help you decide.

Agent Amy Tipton

Agents can be editors, advocates, negotiators, deal makers, and prognosticators. They can be career builders. Here’s what Amy has done for me.

Does Your Agent Listen?

Every time I produce a manuscript idea or a premise, she’s willing to listen. She’ll bat an idea back and forth, and she’ll offer a plot twist or turn that can make the story take a leap forward. The last scene for No Small Thing resulted from an email exchange.

Does Your Agent Educate?

She helps me think about novel premises in terms of the market of young adult fiction and helps me better understand what editors want. While my art will always come from my muse, it has to also match the moment. By that, I don’t mean “sell out to fads or trends.” Writing isn’t just for self, it’s for audience, and so you have to make a happy hybrid of your wants and the world’s.

Does Your Agent Believe?

Not everyone wants to read about the social justice issues I write about: sexual assault, academic corruption and athletics, racism, and bullying. That’s another key: meeting of the minds. Amy’s feminist values and her commitment to social justice align with my world view. I love seeing on Facebook what outrages her, because it’s often exactly what pisses me off, too.

She understands the issues I care about, and she believes in my characters. She lives in my same fictional world where I think Audrey, T, Kendyll, Minerva, Gabe, and Diana are totally real. She stands behind my work.

Is Your Agent Editorial?

Whether I’ve produced a partial or a whole manuscript, she’ll read it super close and deliver–often, in under a week!!!–the unvarnished truth about my prose. She praises what works and rips what doesn’t. That is key. There is no room for tender feelings in this process, even though they’ll crop up anytime anyone tells you what’s bad. I’d rather have my advocate tell me straight up than an editor who doesn’t want the book.

When my first draft of No Small Thing was so very far from what it could be, Amy delivered the news. I tease her that “Uh, no!” is her signature marginal comment, telling you to cease and desist, immediately, with that nonsense you just wrote. Wordsmiths sometimes get caught up in their dreams and prose and generate unsaleable prose.

Does Your Agent Hustle?

She subs out patiently to editors. She’s built relationships over these years, she’s cultivated them, she gets how editors think. How in the world with a day job and every spare moment devoted to writing I could ever develop that…? The answer is, I couldn’t and I can’t.

She responds quickly to emails. (In fact, I’m spoiled: I often get same-day service.) Don’t underestimate this last one–it’s certainly not the least for me. If your agent can’t make time to respond or manage her inbox, then you may have on your hands a weekly struggle with wondering what the hell your agent thinks of your work and whether she values your time. Trust me, I’ve been there, and I’ve seen other authors worry about this. In my day job, I require that staff respond regularly to emails. Otherwise, in virtual employment, how do I still know you’re working for us? You can’t go off the grid. I know how hard it is to manage multiple priorities and a cluttered inbox full of missives from a variety of stakeholders. And yet, I do it. Your agent can do it. You shouldn’t have to chase someone.

These are just some of the things that make a difference to me in the work Amy does, and it makes the long journey of writing and subbing so much easier. I’ve got a companion for the journey, rooting me on, and guiding me right.

Thank you, Amy.

 

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What’s Behind Your Query Letter?

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”

Remember that famous line from Professor Marvel while he scrambles in his hidden cubby to yank levers and work a mic that make the big and scary Wizard of Oz bellow?

 

In the world of Authors Ready to Query, Professor Marvel = author and his little cubby, the real deal of the novel. Bear with me here. You might not see it just yet.

The Scarecrow calls him a humbug. Dorothy informs him he’s a very bad man. Professor Marvel’s built a huge fantasy that’s terrorized and controlled a city for ages, never mind our four adventurers, and they’re more than mad.

But man, what a show it was, right? Dude, that took some doing! I who’s watched this film probably over 50 times has a different take: all the machinery Professor Marvel had to set up to fool so many was actually quite impressive. He took an idea and an opportunity and built a whole narrative. And all of Emerald City bought the story.

Find Your Man

When we shop out a novel to agents, we better have a man behind the curtain. I’m talking tons of levers and smoke machines and mics and amplifiers. The bones of the thing must be strong and all the buttons need to fire at just the right times.

When an agent starts reading beyond page 10, things better be more than spell checked. When someone yanks aside that curtain, there’d better be something there.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!

 

It’s tempting to start querying before you’re done-done. By that I mean, on a third or fourth draft. Beta read and tested and reworked after that. Unless you’ve been cranking out books for years, you need to pace yourself and make sure all the wiring works and the nuts and bolts are tight. Developmental editors and beta readers are key to this endeavor, and they do cost. Either in cash or time—editors, professional ones, will need to be paid, and if you don’t offer your beta readers a token gift, you should definitely swap with your own beta reading time.

Before I signed with Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency, I worked with editor Angelle Pilkington. She saved my story from the muck and mire where it was frankly wallowing. I couldn’t see how to take it to the next level. Angelle helped me remove the first third and make the action urgent. By the time I queried Amy, I had a fourth draft of my novel truly ready for agent eyes. Now Amy gets all the fun of helping me wade and fortunately she’s got thigh-high boots for the gig.

What’s Behind the Curtain

Here are elements of substance expected in the YA world. Your genre may have different features, but good writing cuts across forms. And let me assume that when you decide to query an agent you are looking to build a career with some commercial success—i.e., some revenue for all this effort—and therefore you care what the market will bear and what the purveyors of literature think.

  • A hook: an opening scene that presents a problem for your protagonist
  • A driving need for your protagonist
  • A back story that may be hidden but erupts at just the right times to explain certain moments—without sounding like you’re explaining. Author and coach Kristen Lamb talks about The Wound and she will help you see why is matters so much. Round out your character till you know what’s hurt them!
  • A heady, healthy pace rooted in A Problem to Solve. If you’re writing a novel that’s one suited to of the commercial genres, think of your story this way.
  • A plot with a satisfying arc—catalyst and rising action, crisis, falling action, and resolution (see above)
  • Characters who intrigue—worthy companions for the reader’s journey
  • Voice—the unique tone and lilt and volume and features of the storyteller’s angle on the world
  • Just-right descriptions—not too wordy, not present to impress but present to seal an image in the brain

In It to Win It?

A career is built on substantive work. In this age of people cranking out a book a month, know the truth: unless you’ve got elves, you need time and grit and devotion to build a book. From cornerstone to roof, the thing’s gotten stand for the ages. So if it’s daunting to consider all this work, ask yourself: am I in this for the long haul? Do I want to build books forever?

No one ever gives Toto any credit, but if he hadn’t yanked aside that green silk curtain, we’d never know, would we? Know that the agent is even more dogged than a cute Cairn terrier. She will find out whether the stuff behind the show you put on in your query is for real. And if you’ve done the work, the right work, trust you will be hearing from someone real soon.

How do you know when your novel is ready to query? Share below!

 

Query Right

Are you ready to take a novel to the next level, or ready to query now? On March 24 in Chapel Hill, NC, join me and Tara Lynne Groth, experienced freelancer and journalist, for our workshop that will help get your novel and your querying process in game shape.

Query Right Workshop with Lyn Fairchild Hawks and Tara Lynne Groth

If you’re wondering how to approach literary agents and magazines with words that get a positive response, we’ll help. Learn the dos and don’ts of querying—from the pitch to the synopsis to the bio. Review queries that worked and get started outlining your own query. You’ll get useful tips to use today and a current perspective on the business of pitching your work. Includes an individualized critique of your query letter.

Saturday March 24th, 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM

Chapel Hill Library, Meeting Room C, Chapel Hill NC

$59; advance registration required.

Finding My True North

It’s hard to believe that a year ago, I was struggling to edit yet another draft of my novel and hoping it might be the version my agent would be willing to shop to publishers.

I would have never imagined a year later I’d have already published a collection of short stories and be on my way to  launching my debut novel. That after almost a decade of work on the former and three years on the latter, I’d be enjoying an adventurous, never-a-dull-day year of publishing on my own terms.

I might say I’ve found my true north.

The idiom captures the difficulty of knowing one’s right direction in a world of magnetic forces that would have us wander this way or that. I spent two years of my life querying agents, working with one for over a year, and revising the manuscript constantly according to potential market specs. There were some dark moments of staring at a screen in a panic (my words have failed me!); arguing on a phone (you think the point of my novel is to get 16 year-old girls of bland suburban tastes to read it? Who ARE said girls–I don’t know them!); or questioning my own instincts about Wendy’s character (are you clinging unreasonably to her beliefs and obsessions?).  I wondered if I’d deluded myself that I ever had a chance in this business.

I had to regroup and let my faith rally, and I had to remind myself that I am a writer, first, last, always. Not a second of that wandering and wondering was a waste. Every moment taught me skills and strengthened muscle for the moments I live now, full of trust my words are beginning to have a reach I’ve dreamed about.

No, my numbers haven’t knocked the Kindle best-sellers out of the park. But slowly, surely, great news trickles in daily, after two months of only a Kindle edition. A friend 3,000 miles away wants a signed copy of the collection, now that my paperback came out last week. A group of high school students will be discussing “Midrift.” Eight wonderful reviews are up on Amazon. Kind, unsolicited emails arrive from readers. An interview will happen next week on a nationally-syndicated radio show.

I’m having a lot of fun, too. I’m sharing my cover design with friends, family, and a support team, seeking people’s gut reactions and design eye. I’m talking sales and marketing with my dad, and getting requests for images and URLs from my web designer. I’m arranging head shots with a former student, Teresa Porter, who is pursuing her dream of photography–now a busy professional winning awards and penning a blog that’s gone viral, because she’s speaking her true north-truth.

“Can you believe we’re here?” she said to me the other day. “You getting published, and me with a photography business?”

My first reaction was to laugh with delight. Those who know the intense type-A worrier that I am can attest this is not my typical first reaction to things. Which tells me I’m true-northing it right now, truly.

I am also very excited about a co-operative venture I and two other devoted students of Doris Betts have recently undertaken: True North Writers and Publishers. Bob Mustin and Dave Frauenfelder, my partners in this venture, are passionate, gifted writers with whom I’m honored to be associated. We encourage one another’s work, promote it, and plan some exciting events for signing and sharing this summer.

Our first precept is Scribere quam videre scribere. To write rather than to seem to write. (If you know the North Carolina state motto–Esse quam videri, To be rather than to seem (to be)–and if you try to write regularly, you know what we mean!) We’re NC writers sharing authentic writing for the New South, and we will keep each other honest in this endeavor.

My ship sees its way clear right now, the waters glassy with calm, the lighthouse straight ahead. My compass doesn’t waver. I know that when the clouds gather, the sky roars, and the swells rise, I’ll have to grab a little bit tighter to that instrument and trust, trust, trust. But for now, I’m loving the peace and the joy of following my true path. So grateful I’m able to be here!

Check out the Kindle edition of The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future or the paperback edition.

 

Handling the Fear Factor

To self-publish or not to self-publish: that is a question that haunts many nervous authors nowadays who are steeped in queries with no response. While we wonder if agents have read our sincere and severely-crafted missives, we also wonder whether we should persist in writing more of them or hunker down with a plan to go it alone.

Image found here

A funny thing happened on my way to self-publishing: just as I began to refine a serious plan, I get a request for my full manuscript from an agent. I want to get excited, I do, but then the fears come creeping in.

It’s easy to let them rule you. You’ve been around this block. Why try again? Are your instincts worth anything?

Questions about my self-publishing ideas pound me, too: will readers think self-pub is for hacks–and all my friends who’ve been following my journey think I’ve given up? Can I learn to market my wares? When will I find the time? 

But you do try–both the queries and the self-pub plan–because that’s what real writers do; they don’t stop. They also get information. Like Hope Clark’s primer of wisdom about the facts, just the facts, ma’am, on self-publishing versus traditional. The self-pub plan I’m building is full of strategies to tackle the fearful unknown. These strategies are gleaned from a wealth of great information on the Internet. We live in a world-wide library, folks–there ain’t nothing we can’t learn! Check out this helpful list of tips from Meghan Ward, too. I’ll elaborate on this plan in another post.

Expect that as you conduct your research, the fearful questions will pile up, and that’s a natural part of the process of change. Write the questions down, and approach each like a research paper in high school. Make notes. If you go the agent querying route again, as I am, you’ll start thinking:

How many is too many simultaneous queries? How much research should I do on each agent–should I put ten hours into an agent search, write a query, only to never hear? (And not write in the meantime–there’s the rub!) Did the fact I started with a synopsis of the novel instead of “why I want you as an agent” deter the agent reading this–is that why I never heard? Should I have gone into more detail about why I want this agent or does it sound like flattery? Do I sound too formal, stilted, not at all like my novel’s voice–when many model queries out there are playful and “cool”? 

When you’ve written as many queries as I have, these questions have the whiff of the rhetorical, unanswerable. From what I’ve researched, there are different opinions about how many queries to put out simultaneously; some say five to ten, then hunker down and wait. But if only 10% respond to you, why not double or triple that amount?

Research can tell you some things but talking to a person tells you much more; so I choose to limit my research per agent to an hour. I have a personal rubric that vets an agent based on preferred genres, client list, and statements made in interviews. An agent who has a web presence whether interviews or a personal or agency blog is someone I can get to know fairly quickly. The last criterion is that the agent accepts e-queries. It’s also a psychological strategy to limit my research: why get too invested? If the agent meets my criteria, then it’s worth sending out an email. He or she doesn’t have to be my perfect match on paper, whatever that is, and again, I can’t tell that from online research. I will be able to tell from a phone call where I ask good questions (see below).

Then there is the fact that agents who receive 50+ queries a day have an inbox beyond full, and that may be the one good reason no one cares if your synopsis comes first or last in your query; the point is, the agent may just not have time to read yours. And if you’ve done your research well, the agent will tell you exactly how he or she wants the query on the agency page.

In other words, there aren’t great answers; what you have above are “Lyn’s Answers.” There isn’t a sure path or an Obi Wan to mentor us through this. You have to pose the questions–to query or not to query, to self-publish or not to self-publish–to the universe and then let the answers rise as they simmer in your brain. When you know, you know, as a friend used to say.

I know that I would love to hear from a particular agent, but that’s not in my hands. What is in my hands is the best query I can write, the best research I can do in the short time I have, and the best self-pub launch plan I can craft. And this time, I’m really not scared.

If you pay attention to the blogosphere, it appears many other writers are feeling what I’m feeling, and even agents: go forth, bold writer, and try thy way in the wilderness. Agent Jenny Bent has an interesting perspective regarding books that fall between genres (Wendy Redbird Dancing, anyone?). Ones like mine, that are YA + women’s fiction, are often ones publishers don’t understand because they aren’t sure how to market them. So if you are an intrepid soul with energy to get your work out to the masses, have at it: you might find the market is there for you.

I also have a great list of questions should an agent call. Based on my last experience, I will now tackle fears head on by asking the questions below.

When in doubt, and when fears rise like fog around me, I start to write. Write down potential ideas, write down potential plans. I may discard 99% of them or never get the opportunity to make them happen, but at least I’ve talked myself off the ledge.

  • What do you like about my manuscript? What would you change?
  • Does it have potential as a hybrid work–women’s and YA? Is this more women’s fiction or YA?
  • How close is the manuscript to submission? What revisions would you suggest?
  • Do you see film potential?
  • Do you see foreign rights potential?
  • How many publishers would you submit to, and which ones?
  • Will you share the submission list and responses from editors?
  • What YA or women’s fiction have you represented that you are particularly fond of, and what do you think is the secret to their success?
  • Who would the primary contact be–you or your assistant?
  • What is your response time to emails and phone calls?
  • How often would we be in touch?
  • What’s your expectation for a next book?
  • What advice do you typically give authors as they build their careers?

The possibility of talking with a successful agent once again is a nerve-wracking premise. But armed with some questions, I know I’ll be okay.

In the meantime, the self-pub ideas simmer, and I’ll be sharing those soon. Vote at the next post on my brand ideas; I’ll need this whether I self or traditionally publish.

Will you self-publish? Have you already? Or are you waiting to hear from an agent? How do you handle your fears in the process?


Start Over

Was it possible that I had found my calling only to discover that I really sucked at it? Could the world be that cruel? I was certain it could. But somehow, whether from sheer stubbornness or a refusal to accept what I believed to be the truth, I stuck with it. It was not until years later that I would understand that doubt is oftentimes a good signifier of talent, that it actually is talent.


Eugene Cross, “A Powerful Sort of Doubt”

Image found here

How many times when I’ve graded student essays or edited friends’ stories do I cover their pages with my ink, tracking heavy with my changes? All those notes, edits, deletions, additions–they are my well-intentioned help. Right?

Many times, without saying it directly, I’ve basically shouted to apprentice writers, Start over. This sucks. 

Now it’s my turn, and I mean, really my turn.

My agent has asked me to start over.

I’ve wrestled with every kind of reaction, ranging from

  • Oh he-e-e-e-ell no. I’ve done three major revisions this past year–and several before that!
  • Start over? Sure. I’ll leave traditional publishing and start over with self-publishing!
  • But so-and-so on such-and-such bestseller list commits worse literary sins than I! 
  • But-but-but I won that award for the first 100 pages!
  • Maybe 16 year-olds I know won’t read this.
  • Maybe I really do need to rip this thing up.
This is a crossroads moment where I’ve had to consult spirit and soul (they’re very helpful if I would shut up once in a while) and where I’ve leaned on every patient family member and friend. My husband gets the medal alongside my parents, sister, and several pals who’ve heard the exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement of my literary crisis.
Crisis! That’s what HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT is lacking. It’s a post-po-mo sort of meandering trek through a lot of cool scenes with sharp dialogue. And these scenes lead nowhere for the modern YA reader–the 16 year-old girl who might willingly gobble up my book, writ right. 
I’ve come to the conclusion that however interesting my current draft might be to me, I have the opportunity to attempt what Sarah, my agent, asks and do what I’ve coached other writers of all ages: Come on, give it the old college try.
So what if you started this story in 2009. So what if it’s 2012. So what if people’s interest in Michael Jackson, Tim Tebow, Millennials, and various cultural phenomena might be waning–elements your book echoes–because remember–REMEMBER!–your book was not written to showcase these folks or hop aboard a pop culture train. Will this book sustain interest? Will it sell? These are the questions my agent is asking, and she’s asking me to forget the prior drafts, forget the sweat and enslavement, to see the work anew and ask myself, What’s the story? What is the story.


Serious writers walk hand in hand with doubt. Author Eugene Cross reminds us in “A Powerful Sort of Doubt” to stay doubtful. Serious writers know when to listen to a range of voices and when to cover their ears and yell la-la-la-la-la. Serious writers can be coached and still not compromise.

That’s right, coached. The image of the author in the garret struggling to write alone is no more for me. In fact, I abandoned that pose back in 2003 when I applied for an intensive week-long workshop with author Doris Betts. There I met lifelong writer pals Nancy, Bob, Susan, and David–all with fascinating writing projects and blogs. The moment you give your baby up to the group for commentary, and they dig in with knives, cheers, and questions, you’ve sent the world a message that you care what it thinks.

To brainstorm through your outline with someone else–to trust that someone else might know audience and story development better–to gamble away scenes, characters, and assumptions–that’s a tall order for me. But these last two weeks, I’ve been doing it. I’ve sent off a two new synopses with the faith that around this blind curve is a new story line, like a freshly-paved road.

What do I want to be doing 20 years from now? What will get me published without losing my artistic integrity? Those two questions juggle career, audience, publishing, muse, and soul for me. I will try to keep Wendy who she is while taking her on a new journey in her present. Starting over could mean scrap Wendy’s past history of abuse and make her live it in real time–a tall order for sure. How I will keep her unique faith in Michael Jackson’s sainthood is another challenge. All of this overhaul is in the quest to get Wendy to actively pursue something very focused in the present, react to real conflict and change with simplified action, and to then resolve the crisis that forced her out of her cave.

I may also try this and find none of it works. I have to live today in that not knowing of the restart.

In all the one-on-one tutorials and thousands of coaching words I provided students, I never directly said, Start over, but perhaps I said, Good start, but you’ve got a lot of work to do. Or maybe I said, Let’s go back to your outline. I know teachers who write alongside their students, crafting the same academic papers, and if time permits (which it does not), it certainly is an ideal exercise. For all those years I didn’t start over with my kids, well, rest assured I am doing it now.

What goes around, comes around, kiddos. In the end, we all have to sweat after our grades and our dreams. And what I’m asking today is how I will get an A in this market and whether it will be worth the sacrifice. I must live in the gray, that hybrid space of not knowing my next steps, and see if my head, heart, and soul can hang with the twists and turns.

Writing Prompts:

  • There’s a hand out called “20 Ways to Say ‘You’re Wrong,'” meant for teachers to use while steering kids toward better answers in discussion. What are some ways you tell people No, start over, but nicely? How has one of those situations led to a difficult but meaningful encounter? Is there a story there?
  • Is your writing market-driven or muse-driven or both? How do you know? Write a love letter to your manuscript and tell it what it needs to hear about its integrity and purpose.
  • Write a poem called “To Market, To Market.”
  • How badly do you want to be published? What are you willing to do–and not do–to see your name in official print from a traditional publisher?
  • How does your coaching of other writers (whether young students or professional colleagues) reflect honesty and kindness? How can we be better critics of one another’s work? 
  • Go find a piece that’s not working and start over. 

Juicy Revision

Image found here

When my husband and I tried our new juicer this past weekend, we had some adventures. Pulp started spraying everywhere–on us, the counter, the floor. Turns out the pulp container wasn’t secured properly. It is truly a pulp catcher, therefore be advised not to leave even the smallest of gaps between it and the machine or the vegetables will turn violent. Once that got fixed, our juice emerged without further incident.

Juicing is all the rage now because it gives us quick access to micronutrients. I’m turning to it because I recently saw the documentary FAT, SICK, AND NEARLY DEAD and felt compelled to improve my diet. My excuse for eating too much processed food is that I have a busy job, almost 90 minutes of commuting per day, and a writer’s life stuffed into every nook and cranny. I’ve eaten more turkey sandwiches than I can count.
I’ve only so far tried one of the Mean Green recipes that Joe Cross recommends from his documentary, but I love it. I love the fresh sting of ginger, the sweetness of apple, and the bite of lemon. I love knowing I’m getting kale and carrot straight into my system. Last night we tried lime, lemon, celery, kale,  parsley, and green apple. Excellent.

Writers are forever cursed with seeing symbol, and pathetic fallacy or not, we get ideas from life and its objects constantly. That ol’ living-to-write curse: our dramas and struggles grip the juicer, too, and get mirrored in the fruits and veggies. So of course you know where this is headed: how juicing = writing and pulp catcher = revision in that classic metaphor equation.

The pulp is that frothy, fuzzy, even fluffy mix of rind and pith and whatever the juicer sees fit to reject (who am I to question the wisdom of the Breville). It’s no doubt healthy and even edible. But it must go. To get a consumable juice for our best drinking pleasure and dietary benefit, you need to let go of the pulp. My husband tried some last night, because it is kind of pretty, and he said, “You know what? It’s bitter.”

Obvious connection, right? Discard pulp just like you rid your draft of excess weight? But when that pulp started spraying and we feared for seconds we had a bum juicer, I was reminded how revision scares and singes like the devil. I was also reminded that we writers can step up with a clinical, mechanical eye and crush what’s needed to squeeze out the essence. And that what glitters ain’t always worth keeping in the manuscript.

Take my most recent revision of my novel. When I opened the manuscript sent back to me by my agent, Sarah Heller, with line edits, it looked like half of it was gone. Red lines through close to 80 pages told me that no matter how delicious or pretty, what I deemed sophisticated turns of phrase, incandescent imagery, and character-rich spates of dialogue did not advance the story.  “Nothing has happened by page 150,” Sarah told me. “Young adults don’t give a s*** about this scene, that bit, this part..”

I’m an abuser of the editorial comment. I must be contained, if not squeezed into silence. What was it I was preaching in 2008 about my art of editorializing?

So I opened a new Word doc titled “Excess” (I have one for every manuscript of a short story and as many of these as there are drafts of a novel) and dumped about 75 pages of pulp there.

Pulp includes those “telling” words and phrases–lines I deemed witty that only emphasized a point already made. Sarah showed me how I’d already shown things, that the reader gets it, and momentum slows when the supposed darlings stay. My eyes began to see where whole pages were fluff in the way of people getting the story.

Because this was round three for me with agent edits and draft 20-something since I began the novel in December 2009, I felt confident–more like machine than weak, defensive, and emotional writer. In this equation I have become the juicer and though I’m not as sleek or efficient as a Breville, I could juice out a draft worthy of a next read.

Some passages I couldn’t part with and my head found a way to make them advance the story (we hope). If Sarah needs to cross through them a second time, then so be it. What is nutritious is in the eye of the agent and the market. YA wants under 75,000 words; YA wants page-turner; YA wants youth focus, not adult focus. My agent pared away the rind and leaves and stalks that I think make fruit oh so pretty.  Because of teen taste. Because we want to sell this thing.

I also find it interesting that the pulp container sometimes catches whole pieces of apple. Maybe because we didn’t buy the Cadillac version out there; maybe because the juicer saw a bad part of apple. Who knows. The point is, I’m not going to be digesting that bit; the wilderness that is our yard will. And that’s okay. My stomach is only so big; my eyes might want it all, but reality says, all things in moderation.

After each juicing, the pulp container is FULL. The juice emerges bright green, bright orange. Beautiful.  I drink it, and my evening cravings have disappeared. I’m eating less, yet, eating more.

Writing Prompts

  • Are you a writing machine or hopelessly human? Do you cling to your words or do you know how to toss them? Why do you think you cling so hard?
  • Find a juicy piece of writing. (Do not go to a first draft.) Recall how you juiced it. What was your secret?
  • Research your favorite writer and find out his or her secret for juicing.
  • If you struggle desperately with revision, try one or more of these exercises with a draft already in existence. 1) Write a paragraph of 100 words and then insist on it being 50. 2) Leave a draft for three days and return to it with a new name and hat on (for example, if you are a romance writer, you are now Romance Reader Rita who has ‘tude and little time; you are Mystery Mike, or Young Adult Yancey, and you have no patience for excess. Read with an evil eye aiming to laser away excess and pitch the story at the first distraction. 3) Meet with an English teacher or a writer you respect, buy them a latte, and ask them to bring a red pen. Suck it up when they cross through more than half your draft.
  • Ask yourself these questions to see if you have the support (machine) you need to juice a revision out of your writing: Do you have a log line, a 25-word sentence to sum up your story, one that will highlight which parts of the story are excess? Do you have trustworthy readers who will draw lines through your work? Do you make time to read your work aloud? Do you have files labeled Excess or Beloved Darlings I’ll Be With You Again Someday so you can relinquish lines? Do you set word limits that are market standard? Do you try to enter works in contests with word limits? 

Sunday Truce

In my favorite TV show that we’re following on DVD, The Wire, gangsters from both sides of Baltimore agree that whatever you do, you don’t shoot someone up on a Sunday.

Then Barksdale’s crew violates this rule. Omar, a gangster with his grandma on his arm, is in the sights of two incompetent henchmen. They call for permission to fire, and a distracted gang leader, in the middle of a mob meeting, gives the go-ahead. It’s slipped his mind that it’s Sunday.
Image found here.

They shoot Grandma’s Sunday hat–her “crown”–right off her head. Omar’s last-second dive, shoving her into a taxi, saves her. Except for some cuts and bruises, Grandma survives.

But the one rule the gangs held sacred–that one point of trust–is now broken among the gangs. All agree: what the Barksdale crew did was beyond the pale.

You don’t do that kind of business on Sunday.

I’ve failed the Sunday truce. Writers need a Sabbath, and lately, I struggle to find it. I’m talking about the ability to stop, rest, and cease and desist from picking at your manuscript.

Before I took a vacation, I sent my agent a draft of the novel, showing my efforts to address some issues. I knew this draft wasn’t perfect, but I had to submit it. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking I would just head off into vacation and just, well, you know, relax.

That would be wasting time. That would be less than diligent, focused, goal-oriented. Right? The rest of the world is busy pursuing passions. What are you, some kind of dilettante?

Agents need more than a few days to read a manuscript; you aren’t the only client, nor is reading manuscripts the only thing they do. I knew that, and understood when I returned from my brief vacation she would need a little more time. The problem was, I suddenly could spot a bunch of problems in my story–problems I would have seen if I had been patient and let the manuscript sit while I did the impermissible, relax.

But what if someone else publishes my idea before me? What if by the time I finish, My Moment has passed? What if, if, if, if?

Here’s what Seth Godin says about wasting time. And here’s what former agent and children’s author Nathan Bransford says about distractions.

In short: waste time and be distracted. Good authors do this and the writing soars because of it.

I took this manuscript back and asked for more time. My agent was willing to read it right then, but I said, No, I must make it better. With my typical zeal and impatience I dove back in.

A number of problems are fixed now–I’ll give myself that. But this tendency to dodge the quiet spaces in my writing life…this is something I must look at. There’s a bearing down, a gritting of teeth, a self-flagellation that isn’t any part of the joy of writing.

What’s that I’ve said before? Huh?

If a tree falls…?Go super-slo-mo until it’s time…?

Breathe. Wander away from words and say, “It is what it is now–and it will be something different someday.”

The dark side of passion is perfectionism. Zeal can lead to beautiful phrases and pages as well as neurosis, obsession, and single-mindedness.

Next Sunday, I’m going to church. I’m going to a movie. I’m going to slow down, back off, and let the mind wander away from the work that will always be there.


Writing Prompts:

— Where in your life are you most impatient? Where do you bear down, stress out, demand things be immediate, chop, chop?
— Write about a time where impatience or patience served you well. Write about a time where it did not.
— If you were raising a five year-old, an eight year-old, a 13 year-old, and a 17 year-old, what advice about patience would you give each? When should one be patient, and why?
— Is impatience ever a virtue?
— What is your Sabbath? Where does rest enter your life each week? How do you protect it?
— Do you rest too little or too much?
— In your writing, are you a Mozartian or a Beethovian?
— In your favorite story or novel, which character is fueled by endless energy, impatience, or excessive devotion to work? What type of journey does this character take, and what kind of end results? Is there a moral to this story about patience, work, and rest?

Just the Facts, Ma’am: How I Got My Agent

I have an agent. For once, I’m a bit speechless. So let’s just focus on the facts.

My query journey began in May, 2010. I studied model queries, and I followed helpful agent blogs such as Nathan Bransford’s, Rachelle Gardner’s, and Janet Reid’s Query Shark, so I could appropriately approach agents about my novel, ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US.

Queries must commit your novel to a market, so I struggled with defining the novel’s genre. I imagined potential readers, studied books I loved with similar themes, and pictured shelves in the bookstore. First I called ST. MICHAEL “commercial” or “mainstream” and eventually “upmarket women’s fiction.” Then I decided in December of 2010 I’d written a YA novel. That was my original belief while I was writing it, but I’d changed my mind as I began querying. I wondered if some material was too adult. By December I came back to the original conclusion, figuring the material, while adult, could still be possible for upper YA readers.

I found agents everywhere I looked: in Writer’s Digest, in Poets & Writers, in blogs I followed, in Hope Clark’s weekly emails, and from friends. One friend and fellow writer recommended I try QueryTracker, which turned out to be incredibly helpful. Not only can you access contact information there, but you can also see agents’ client lists (books on Amazon) and hear from other writers about their querying experiences with a particular agent.

I Googled agents I was interested in and found Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog and Casey McCormick’s Literary Rambles incredibly helpful. I wanted to find points of connection between my work and the agent. I also looked at some of the authors they represented to see if the genres of their works were similar to what I thought mine was. Google Books helped me search acknowledgments with agent names to see how authors spoke of their agents.

I wrote and rewrote that query countless times. I worked off of at least three different templates. Each query became its own, depending on the agent. I studied the agency web site to make sure the query format matched preferences and most importantly, to ensure I expressed what I already knew about the agent and why I hoped this agent might represent me. I shared my query with fellow writers following the same journey and made revisions.

I decided to start with electronic queries only. I found so many agents accepting electronic submissions that I opted not to exhaust another printer ribbon or ream of paper.

I queried in batches of three to five emails at a time. Conventional wisdom says wait and see what you hear from the first group and don’t exhaust your pool of agents with a query that may need work. I will admit in more frantic, worried periods of my life, I exceeded five queries in a week. I quickly learned that the wait time could be more than three months for some agents, so waiting three months on five agencies didn’t seem wise after a while.

While I waited for responses, I sought more feedback on my work from many trusted readers. I’d had readers before querying, and several more graciously stepped up to read the beast. I submitted pages to my writing groups. I completed new drafts and currently am on Draft #17. HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT became the title.

During the year of querying, I received 99 official rejections. These responses involved some variation on a form letter.

I received 48 unofficial rejections, meaning, not even crickets. Some agent web sites explained that after three months, six weeks, or whatever time period the agency chose, one could assume a no. Some web sites didn’t specify, so I made the assumption for them.

Of the official rejections, eight were personalized. Agents told me my writing was strong and skilled, that the premise of the novel was original and compelling, but the journal format or the length was not quite right. I also heard in these same responses that the market wasn’t optimal to push this type of a project or the agent didn’t feel he or she could appropriately advocate for it despite the fact he or she liked my work.

I received five requests for partial reads and four requests for fulls.

How did I know how to keep going? If I hadn’t heard in October of 2010 someone was interested, would I have kept going? I’d like to think so. These are the decisions that are gut level, inspired by stats, but not driven by stats. I’ll tell those stories later; I’m just not ready yet. This is a facts post and I’m sticking to it.

The final fact is Sarah Heller of the Helen Heller Agency is my agent. I’m very excited to be working with her and look forward to the next steps. More posts will come on the topic of the revision process and what I’m learning about prepping a manuscript for queries to publishers.

These stats represent Phase 1 of my journey. (And I thought writing the novel was Phase 1!) But if we authors dream of publication, that’s its own separate mountain and we need to pace ourselves accordingly. Pedometer, pack, map–check. Miles trekked, pounds carried, points covered–check. Break it down like a journey and the road’s not such a monster anymore.

Writing Prompts:

— What do you love doing? Whether cooking, rugby, writing, or dance, ask yourself, how have I pursued it? How have I studied it? Can you convert that study to statistics–the numeric facts of your hours of study, type of tasks, and results of your labors?
— Do stats matter in art? Are stats too scientific, too clinical, too concerned with achievement?
— Have you ever spent a year pursuing something that had no guarantee of success? What kept you going?
— How badly do you want to be published? How do you know that the desire is something beyond you?
— How many agents have you queried? What are the stats of your querying labors? What about your stats impresses or discourages you?
— What have you learned from the querying process? What do you want to try differently with the next round of queries?
— How do you pick yourself up when just the facts leave you discouraged? Are you doing all you can to overcome the facts? Are you doing all you can to create new stats?
— Have the responses from your queries given you any feedback of how your query and your manuscript need to change? If not, where can you find that feedback? What revisions have you made to both?