Blog

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.

 

 

 

Make Defeat Your Fuel

More than halfway through my latest novel, I’ve been thinking a lot about why I keep going. Writing is a business full of few favors, lucky breaks, or sudden hits.

One thing I’ve figured out after many years in this game is that defeat is my fuel.

Wins? They’re my booster rockets.

Whatever you’re striving for now, how have you transformed defeat?

Let me know how you get past quit. Share below!

It’s a Marathon? Yes and No

We’re all charmed by the debut novelist’s story, that bestseller so swift and effortless in its rise. It’s the Very American Dream of Young Thing Makes It Big. We’re most thrilled by the young and pretty ones who finish first, and we’re much less curious about the marathoners right behind them—sweaty ones who’ve been in this game a while.

I have a writer friend who “hate reads” work by celebrity authors under 30. She’s not yet 35. I laugh and tease her about it and yet I completely understand. The nature of this game inspires envy and competition. Hard work and all the countless hours logged while your skin wrinkles and your hair grays—that’s not a sexy story that our culture tends to celebrate. And if that’s where you’re living, in Hard Work World, it’s easy to believe no one really cares about what you’re up to.

The publishing race is a very narrow path, the tightest of pipelines, and so where the marathon metaphor breaks down is the assumption that the first to finish is always the best.

Actually, all those bringing up the rear might be bearing gems—it’s just they can’t get attention. Publishers tend to look backwards when gambling on a book—what’s hot now? What’s the trend? Let’s go with what worked before.

Most of us who make it go hard and get defeated for years. Not just two or three. Decades, friends. Decades of hearing no or not now.

Like one editor said about my novel, @NervesofSteel, that’s been on submission:

Both hazing and sexual abuse in its many insidious forms are issues that are important to me to talk about, and feel especially important with the public conversations happening right now. But I want to approach the topic with care, as much as I also want to support transparency…I don’t think I’m the right one to champion it—and I fully believe a project like this deserves to have a champion.

Now I could take this feedback and tell myself to shy away from tough topics like hazing and sexual abuse. They’re a hard sell, right?

But instead I say to myself: This is not defeat. This is a chance to find a way to write about these issues so that editors want to sell it. How do I do that?

Or maybe it’s my strong genes of Italian rage that makes me throw these gesticulating hands in the air and holler

Minerva, AKA @NervesofSteel, she deserves a home!

Trust she’ll get one, one day. Getting mad revs me up and sends me back into the fray.

Believe Your Art is Meant to Be

The trick is in believing your art is meant to be. Refuse to believe you’re cursed, that you’re destined for last, or that your work has no place in the world.

There are signs to quit, and there are signs to keep going.

Maybe I should have seen the 100-some rejections back in 2009-2010 from various agents as a sign that a) I’d never get an agent and b) just go ahead and accept defeat.

Instead I paid close attention to the personalized rejections, the request for partial reads, and the requests for full reads. I took notes, asked questions, and kept querying.

In 2010, I signed with my first agent.

But maybe I should have really seen the signs back in 2011 when she missed several emails and I had to re-send them. When she tended to speak in generalities when reading my work, saying, “Where’s the story?” instead of “Try this/fix this.” I started to question my novel. Maybe my writing wasn’t worth attention if she didn’t answer my emails or couldn’t tell me exactly what to edit. Maybe I needed to take the hint and stop? (The same book we were ripping up, it was a runner-up in the 2011 James Jones First Novel Fellowship contest.) Maybe I should have packed it all in right then.

Instead I did three rounds of revision with her and when there was no sign the book was going to get subbed out, I chose to part ways, amicably. I knew in my gut the latest revision was worth something, and that it was time to tie a bow on it and go indie.

So I applied for a Elizabeth George Foundation grant and received a large one.

I used those funds to build a professional website, to fund the publishing of three books—developmental editors, copy editors, cover designers, and book formatters—and to fund a book trailer.

How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought from Lyn Fairchild Hawks on Vimeo.

And that’s just the novelist part of my journey.

Keep Submitting

Parallel to all this, I was writing literary short stories, study short stories in my own private, personalized MFA program, and querying various literary magazines. Maybe I should’ve seen the signs screaming STOP when I struck out on several magazines—sometimes waiting six months to a year to hear—or hearing nothing.

Instead I listened to the times I became a finalist in contests—like “The Flat and Weightless Tang-Filled Future” winning first prize with AROHO and funding my first Macbook Air, which felt light as a feather and sticks with me to this day. That same story just made it last month to the quarter-finals of the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story contest.

 

I didn’t make it to the semifinals, but guess what? I’ve entered a few more contests. My short stories have won and placed before. Don’t stop believing.

Or there was a time I got a call from Stanford Magazine. That short story that didn’t win our creative writing contest, might there be a potential memoir piece buried there, one you’d be willing to try? the editor asked.

I’m in, I said. The editor saw the autobiography within. That led to “Gramma’s Day.”

 

Make Fail Your Fuel

Maybe all the stresses of the day job and step parenting—countless frustrations and fails on those landscapes—should have told me to ease up, relax, and chill on my weekends instead of scraping and scrapping after this writer’s dream.

Instead I held book signings and entered contests and applied for grants.

Maybe my indie publishing experience, which has taught me that no matter how great you think your books might be, you must have the time and resources to market and promote—maybe that realization should have shown me the door to this business. Hey, you! Woman with the day job, you don’t have time to write and hawk your wares. Try something else.

But instead of writing all my indie work off, I used it as part of my bio to query agents again with the latest novel. And after many a query, I landed my amazing agent, Amy Tipton of Signature Literary Agency.

Now I get not only timely critiques that made @NervesofSteel and my current project, No Small Thing, tons better, but I also get an answer to my email in under 48 hours—usually 24. Stunning. I watched her sub out a book we both believed in all last year—always its champion.

No Small Thing right now might be the next big thing. Gambling on it.

I’m still at this? Are you?

Let me know how you get past quit. Share below!

 

Or watch some athletes tell you how to make defeat your fuel. Michael Jordan and Serena Williams and Peyton Manning all get you to your feet in this video about how losing can be the biggest motivator.

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.

Minerva Mae Would Like to Be Heard

Good morning, blog followers! I’m joining a contest, The Writer’s Voice, sponsored by Love YA and Monica Bustamante Wagner, which offers a chance for authors to share their manuscripts with agents. Part of the process is to post your query and first 250 words on your blog.

Enjoy!

 

Dear Agents of This Cool Contest,

I seek your representation for my YA novel, How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight. It’s a crossover story at 100,000 words for a range of ages, YA meets women’s commercial fiction.

9th grade hasn’t started too well for Minerva Mae Christopoulos, a gifted, weird, wise girl who’s survived some serious bullying thanks to her nebulous sexuality. All Minerva wants is to become the next Christine Amanpour and hang with her best friend, Diana. And though the first goal is looking likely—the school just approved Minerva to be the first freshman reporter—there’s no time to celebrate, because the girls who called Minerva “lez” all through middle school are after Di. They’re not just claiming her; they’re setting her up with a dangerous senior guy. Now Diana’s on the fast track to cleavage-baring camis and the “Hot or Not” tournament.paper-pen2

This can’t be. Minerva will have to muster every bit of journalistic genius to keep Di from becoming #thatslut—and figure out how not to lose a girl who feels like more than a friend.

I’m an indie author of How Wendy Redbird Dancing Survived the Dark Ages of Nought, which was the 2011 first runner-up for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship and has been reviewed in Publishers Weekly. I have a loyal following of readers; a strong website, Twitter, and Facebook presence; and experience with bookstore signings, a blog tour, and a book trailer. I’m also the winner of an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant and in my other life as an educator, have published three books (National Council of Teachers of English and Chicago Review Press).

I’ve included the first 250 words of the manuscript, and I would be happy to send you the complete novel. I appreciate your time and consideration.

Best,

Lyn Fairchild Hawks

 

How Minerva Mae Set the Record Straight

It being the demise of August in Jamesborough, North Carolina, the afternoon heat spreads its suffocating evil upon all creatures such that no sane person should venture outdoors. If I glance out my diamond-pane window above my desk, I have to rub the fog from the glass to see our little neighbor girls across the street, sweating it out under a hoop in the humid air and hellish sun. The house rattles as the air conditioning kicks in, and my hot little attic room, what I call my third-floor garret, the place I nurture deep thoughts as once did great women like Austen and Brontë, finally fills with gusts of air.

I go stand near the vent, flapping my t-shirt. I’m still slick with sweat after my mission into the world—a visit to my future stomping grounds, Jamesborough High. ’Twas all for a noble cause—the sake of journalistic justice.

I can’t wait to tell Di.

A few miles away, Diana Lucy Woods, my best friend since seventh grade, finishes up practice after swimming like the mermaid she is. She keeps insane hours with an elite crew of club swimmers competing for Division I schools. In a few minutes she’ll be here for Ancient Movie Night because it is Friday—the best day of my week. Thanks to my film fanatic father and his massive DVD collection, we hook ourselves up with old-school celluloid so we can hang with gals like Lana, Tippi, and Ava till Di’s curfew.

 

When Other People Get Good News

The other day, I rejoiced for several hours at someone else’s good news. It was fantastic and well deserved. A friend who has labored long and hard got his brass ring: a publishing deal. His humor, wit, and intelligence have finally been recognized by gatekeepers who know what can sell. I had some flashbacks to our shared misery over the last five years while we both strived after agents, publishing contracts, and our work to be known. Recently he told me he wasn’t sure he could survive another slew of rejections. Now with an advance in hand and a two-book deal, he can finally say he’s arrived.

As the joy has faded, I’ve felt twinges of wistfulness for the road I hopped off and what it might have offered me if in 2012 I’d said, “I’ll stay the course.” I wonder what it would be like to work with distributors that could get my book easily to brick-and-mortar stores. I’d love to give a publisher’s name to ensure a book signing. I’d love to have a marketing team set up interviews, conferences, and events.

I chose a different route. I decided after 14 months with an agent to blast myself into the self-pub universe. I’ve had nothing but fun and autonomy doing this, with a lot of blessings from good friends, family, and strangers who took the chance to invest in my work. I assemble a support team for all projects and make all the decisions. I’ve got a great website, good reviews, and a monthly newsletter. I have a beautiful book trailer. I’m blessed with the remainder of my “advance”—a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation—that allows me to plan to self-publish my next book.

My sales remain small and occasional because I rarely promote. With a fulltime job and a family, I only have time to write my next book. I have a 10-year plan, one that involves writing several more books, playing with prices to give my readers good deals, and hiringa publicist in order to increase my reach. All in good time, I keep telling myself when vaulting ambition threatens to flagellate me and when others’ good news makes me wonder if I’ve chosen the wrong road.

Over a decade ago, I went to a dear friend’s baby shower that happened the same week as another dear friend’s wedding. In a weak moment, I confessed to one of them, I feel you all have moved on. It felt very childish to admit at the time, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometimes, a lot of change hits all at once, where you think everyone else is grown up while your own future stays blank and unscripted. There are moments where you not only can’t predict the future, you sometimes think there might not be one to get excited about. My friends’ news didn’t leave me wanting something different for them, just for me to join them in the same headlines.

The self-pub lifestyle is a lot like being single: in order to survive it, you gotta build your own tribe. Just as I left these celebrations and got back on Match.com and made plans with friends, today I have to hire editors, graphic designers, filmmakers, book formatters, and web designers so I can publish a book. In the same way I couldn’t magically expect a social life to appear, I can’t expect a book to be born on its own. I can’t feel sorry for myself if sales don’t happen; I need to regroup, strategize, and keep working.

I never would have predicted that three years after the wedding and the baby shower, I’d be married at 37 in a boots-and-jeans wedding12wedding with a pig-pickin’ to follow. I couldn’t imagine that my beloved friends would suffer sorrows I’ve never had to bear. During that week of celebration, I could have told you they had a better deal than me, with a case of grass-is-greener kind of sadness. I can tell you now, I was foolish to focus on what I didn’t have and believe others had their happiness set.

My friend’s good news meets me wiser today than I was in 2002, when I believed there was a timing and momentum in life that I must follow or else I was somehow less than. My friend’s great news assures me there is justice and reward for some who keep trying at the traditional route, and that good stuff does indeed make it into print.  My friend’s amazing news gives me hope that legacy publishing might be a route for me to someday try again, that perhaps could get me the agent who is that awesome advocate, brilliant negotiator, and savvy adviser. This event in someone else’s life reminds me to stay my current course with persistence and integrity, check my gut when necessary, and never say never to self-pub or traditional success.

I trust in the rightness of what is right now. The joy I have for my friend mirrors the joy I feel when I open the file to my manuscript in process. Isn’t this fun, my whole body says. For in this moment, I get to write.

 

 

 

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?


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?

What I Know Right Now

…that if you read enough books and blogs on querying, platforms, and publishing, you do get wiser.

…that certain types of advice on querying, platforms, and publishing can sound like truth but ultimately be subjective. At this interview you might hear you shouldn’t tout your experience teaching high school students because just like parenting, teaching doesn’t make for YA expertise. Then elsewhere on a reputable blog, you’ll read that you ought to promote your teaching background, as it does show you’ve met at least 1,000 teens and might know something about their literary tastes.

…that whatever you read as an absolute “no-no” or “don’t do” in queries, heed it. If it’s a “hem-haw, I don’t know, I probably wouldn’t try this,” trust yourself that if you do try it, you’ll find a clever and professional way to do so. Example: comparing your manuscript to best-sellers or beginning your query with the cliched “What if?”

…that you should listen to your Late-Night Heart. For some it might be the Early Morning Muse. Whenever it strikes, obey. The notion may reek of craziness or desperation, but just do it. Listening to both has led me to a complete manuscript and positive query responses.

…that you should never go anywhere without a way to write it down.

…that if you tend to be particularly inspired while driving, get yourself a digital recorder, learn to talk to it like the griots of old, and save your fellow commuters a heart attack.

…that I don’t do this for the money alone, but I do deserve to get paid.

…that there are many, many fabulous writers out there, and not all may get their chance.

…that you should write angry and revise kind. Write for revenge and justice. Then in a cooler moment, write out of compassion and hope for your fellow man.

That’s what I know, right this minute.

Sweet or Sour? Opinions Vary Widely

“Writing is a profession for talented, imaginative, sensitive Gila monsters (I say this because good writers don’t give up, and legend claims that when a Gila monster clamps its jaws on something it won’t let go.)”

— Mary Beth Parker, founder of the Dana Awards

So is that why my jaws are aching? I’ve clamped down pretty hard lately.

I have an email inbox full of rejections for various manuscripts. Because I’m a fanatical optimist, I’m determined to find the sweet in the sour (actually, sweet and sour is a GREAT combination, if you’ve ever been obsessed with sour gummy worms).

The sweet: in between ten rejections here, thirty there, I’ve had at least one publishing success every year for a while now.

The sour: the rejections still seem to pour in like lava.

In the sour moments, kind agents will speak with regret: “I regret to say that I don’t feel that I’m the most appropriate agent for your work. However, opinions vary considerably in this business…”

Ah! The sweet! Let me cling to “opinions vary considerably.” So, is Agent X saying she could be wrong?

The sour side of my brain says, “Ha, keep deluding yourself.”

More sour comes with Agent A’s fear: “We’re afraid your project does not seem right for our list.” I’m afraid, too: that my project ain’t right for anyone’s.

More regret: “…I regret I wouldn’t be the best match in this instance.” Oooh, flashbacks to online dating and Match.com. Ugh: fade to black. But wait, sweet: I met my fabulous husband online.

More on the fact that the agents could be wrong, which I’m not sure if is sweet or sour: “I regret to say that I don’t feel I am the most appropriate agent for your work. Considering the subjective nature of the business, I hope that you will find someone who feels differently, and I wish you the best of luck in your search for representation.”

Form, form, form letters: I’ve given them out many times too as I turn away applicants for employment. How’s it feel now, Hawks, huh? Sour, sour, sour.

You’ve got to appreciate when agents get terse to the point of not even punctuating the final sentence:

“Not for us, thanks. Better luck elsewhere”

I could bemoan the fact I’m not worth an additional period, or, I could look at the sweet fact that a) I got an answer (many agents don’t answer at all) and b) The note is concisely kind.

After a certain amount of rejections, one starts seeing things. “This certainly sounds like an original and compelling premise for a novel, but I’m sorry to say it’s just not quite the right match for my list at this time.” Wow! He said “original”! He said “compelling”! Wow!

Hahahhahahaha. Lyn, everyone says that. You have, too–you’ve seen brilliant ideas in many a student manuscript while knowing the piece was many moons from completion.

“Please do not take this rejection as a comment on your writing ability.” This is said while also saying, “Given the large amount of submissions I receive, I can only properly represent material that greatly excites or interests me.”

No great excitement or interest, then. I do understand.

I can’t help but end on sweet. It’s my nature, to cling to the candy moments.

“You write very well, and I’m intrigued by the concept, but–is the entire work told through journal entries? I confess that’s not a format I connect with; that said, it sounds like you have a lot of good material, and I do think you should continue writing and sending
this out.”

This one I will attach to my monitor.

Mary Beth Parker, Dana Awards founder, says in “How We Started”:

I’ve learned a heartening but frightening thing in managing the Dana Awards: that there are thousands of excellent writers out there…Which is heartening for the sake of literature, but frightening because of the sheer numbers of good writers looking for recognition–so much competition for each one of us, and so many people who deserve notice but aren’t getting it.

Now that’s a truth both sweet and sour. That’s my story for now, and I’m sticking to it.

What I Did on My Summer Vacation…Or Not

If I mention this often enough will you stop doing it?

DO NOT PUT YOUR ADDRESS AT THE TOP OF AN EMAIL QUERY.

If I see this in a letter addressed to the Query Shark, your chances of getting on the blog drop to zero. If I see it, you haven’t read the archives. Or you read the archives and didn’t pay attention. I’ve mentioned this enough times that I’m starting long past boring myself.

Learn it. Know it. Follow the damn directions.

— Query Shark, Query #168

I doubt English teachers assign that back-to-school essay anymore, or, if they do, let’s hope they’ve found more inventive titles. “What I Did…” does carry a whiff of nostalgia for me, bringing back my teen years, when all I had to do was watch those newfangled MTV videos or follow my romantic heroes on The Guiding Light; maybe meet my friends at the pool with SPF 8 rather than 30+ slathered on my skin; dream about boys for hours; or read, read, read. All that free time…In a manuscript I’m reviewing, the teen narrator gets up one Saturday morning, eats a waffle her dad makes, and goes back to bed–to read. Anyone miss that?

What I’ve done on my summer vacation is write queries, edit queries, learn about agents, and query agents–and doing this whenever I’m not revising my novel, getting feedback from kind readers and writing colleagues, or giving feedback. Somewhere in this frenzy, I make time to read. While the learning process is no vacation, there’s something invigorating in the journey. A steep learning curve will keep you wide awake.

First, good news: there are many agents out there. For those who think a few rejections signal the demise of their writing career, hold on. Agents exist who want unsolicited submissions; start your search on QueryTracker. It’s free and it’s inspiring the number of names returned to you.

I’m amazed at how easy the Internet makes it to find agents, learn their submission guidelines, and send a query. Today, there’s no excuse for misspelling a name when you can copy and paste or sending too many or too little pages when they specify exactly what they want, such as “NO ATTACHMENTS, EVER.” Basic courtesy aside, the spam blockers, viruses, and different operating systems of the world demand such rules. Do you want your email to arrive or not? Perhaps it’s the English teacher in me who always had a bulleted list of guidelines for her students, but I get this system, 100%, and I follow the rules. I don’t mind the time it takes; it’s a sign of respect as you knock on the door, pretty much like dressing up for an interview.

While I might have the formatting and etiquette down, I’m still mastering the art of the query. That’s a journey in itself, learning how to capture not only the substance but the spirit of your novel and then to sell it with style.

I’m also impressed with how many agents take the time to educate writers. At our Googling fingertips is a university course in “how to write a query”: everywhere, tips from agents who blog weekly, daily, with concrete examples of what to do and not to do. If you don’t already follow Rachelle Gardner or Nathan Bransford, do. Then there’s Janet Reid’s Query Shark: she puts your query through boot camp. I’m working up the courage to enlist, and just that thought has me trying draft #10? #15? of my mine. I note that despite her drill instructor MO, she is patient with the very, very weak queries that keep streaming her way like minnows eager to be eaten.

I’m also discovering my own particular process. I skim the QueryTracker profile of an agent, then the one at the agency site; I search for interviews with the agent, such as Chuck Sambuchino’s blog, Guide to Literary Agents. I want reasons to submit, and I need to get a feeling this person could be a good fit. That research fuels the final paragraph of each query, a two-sentence summary of why I’m submitting to this particular agent.

One of my writing colleagues, who has a fabulous blog of his Argentinian Fulbright adventures and a superb YA novel he’s querying, gave me this response when I asked how many agents to query and how many rejections should freak me out:

“This is the typical story I hear: 100 queries sent, 5 partials requested, 2 fulls, major revisions requested, then an offer of rep. It’s a long process and if we’re lucky an agent will offer some advice which makes the book better.”

I won’t say how many I’ve sent, but a report on the specifics of agent responses is coming soon. I will say my colleague’s concluding line sums up the attitude one must have to make it through: expect the process to take a good while, and appreciate the feedback you do get.

Some way to spend a summer vacation! I won’t lie: I did go off the grid for about 8 days–no writing, no querying, no work–and it was glorious. But when that true vacation ended, I returned gladly back to the grind. Sometimes it’s the sweaty, complicated work that makes you feel life force at its strongest. It’s fraught with as much hope as disappointment, either of which will get me up o’ mornings either mad as hell or driven as can be.

Writing Prompts: Please note that writing prompts should always be pursued in emotionally-safe environments with the supervision of someone who interested in encouraging good writing, self-awareness, and reflection. A wonderful resource is Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and With Others.

© Lyn Hawks. Writing prompts for one-time classroom use only and not for publication in any form elsewhere without permission of this author.

Note these are mixed-age prompts this week.

1. Complete one of these sentences:
–This has been the summer of my content/my discontent…
–In hot weather, I…
–Summer makes me…
2. What is your favorite season of the year? Why?
3. What was your worst vacation, ever?
4. Describe summer using one sound, one color, one smell, one shape, and one taste.
5. What is the sum of summer?
6. Are you a better person in summer or winter? Why?
7. What’s the hardest work you’ve ever done in a summer?