How To Survive Long Waits

Once you wade deep enough into the publishing world, you start to realize that a huge chunk of the industry involves waiting. Whether you’re waiting on feedback from critique partners, waiting on replies from literary agents about your book, waiting the 1.5 to 2+ year stretch from when you sell your book to when it’s actually published, you’re going to be doing a lot of sitting on your hands. And, naturally, with lots of waiting comes lots of stressing. And lots of chocolate eating. And, sometimes, lots crying. Waiting is so integral to writing that it has even inspired this popular vignette:

“Wait and wait and wait and wait

Until all you feel for your book is hate

And on your nerves it begins to grate

And then, some more, you wait and wait”

Okay, that’s not actually a thing. I just made that up. But it is pretty accurate, at least in my experience. Waiting constantly grates on my confidence, reducing me to a heap of nerves, stress, and constant email refreshing. Waiting, it also seems, is pretty much endless.

Over the last few years, I’ve queried literary agents on four separate occasions. I’ve also sent a number of my manuscripts to beta readers and critique partners for feedback. Both of these add up to a great deal of waiting, which means I totally get the stress. And it’s hard, guys. I’m sure you already know this, but it bears repeating: it isn’t just you. Waiting is hard. It’s even worse when you have to wait on a book you love, a book you want the whole world to love, too. And arguably the worst part of waiting isn’t the fact that a response is taking so long, but that your mind buries itself in the absolute worst case scenario–that your critique partners hate the book, for example, or that an agent read it and thought it was so terrible that they outright blocked your email address, or that you’re a failure and no one is going to like this book and oh god oh god, why even try?

Waiting brings out the cynic in all of us. It also lets your imagination run rampant, such that you end up examining every little thing–analyzing the reading update your critique partner sent you in hopes of figuring out how exactly they feel about your book. The same goes for emails from literary agents, or checking agents’ Twitter feeds, or a whole slew of things. These bits of obsessing usually lead to more anxiety, but most of us do it anyway, because it’s so tough to stop.

The trick to waiting–and this is much easier said than done–is to take a deep breath and focus on something else.

In the spirit of this month’s theme (“What Works and What Doesn’t” )I want to talk about more specific strategies that, in my experience, have been successful, as well as those that, well, haven’t.

So:

Doesn’t Work: Endlessly refreshing your email. Unfortunately, there seems to be an unwritten law of nature that, if you’re checking your inbox, no new email will appear. Even if you only keep the tab open, there will be total silence. But, more importantly, constantly checking your inbox will keep re-stressing you. What you want is to distract yourself with something else. So the next time you start to type “gmail.com” into the browser for the third instance in the last few minutes, stop. Take a breath. Get yourself out of the habit.

Works: Talking out your stress. Find a helpful friend or fellow writer, and put all of your anxieties and fears into words. It may not make you feel better right away, but it does help a ton in the long run. The more you hold in your nerves, in my experience, the more stressed you are.

Works: Staring at pictures of cute animals.

Bunny pancake

from: http://stuffonmyrabbit.net/

(This is also true of videos of cute animals.) (And dreaming of how much more glamorous your life would become if you could be a professional baby otter feeder.)

Works: Going outside. As terrifying as The Outdoors (cue up the dramatic music) sometimes are, just going outside and walking/jogging/sitting, even when it’s well below freezing like it is here, really helps to clear your head.

Works: Reading! I’ve recently read The Winner’s Curse, a light YA fantasy, as well as Grasshopper Jungle, a weird YA contemporary, both of which I absolutely loved. Reading great books can help remind you why you are doing this whole writing thing–not to be universally loved, but because you have to. Because you can’t not write. Because one day you want to create something as extraordinary as your own favorite stories.

Doesn’t Work: Talking about querying with writerly peers who are having much more success than you are. No matter how happy you are for them, you will inevitably fall into another pit of I-can’t-take-this-why-is-this-not-going-well, etc etc etc.

Doesn’t Work: Spending a good portion of your time online, especially on social media. Assuming that you are at least a teeny bit entrenched in the writing world online, you might find pretty quickly that throwing your stress into social media can hurt more than it helps. The same is true for pretty much any place online. Since so many sources of your stress are, I’m guessing, online–probably your beta readers are, very likely that the agents you queried are, and even more likely that your means of getting feedback (e.g. emails) is–cutting down on internet time on the whole can do wonders. Plus, if you’re on social media or if you blog, you’ll probably find that both are naturally stressful. Little things can easily add up on social media, and as a result, your mood will plummet.

Also, this could just be me, but in general I find that spending time in front of a screen when I’m stressed just makes me more anxious. It is so hard to break away, I know, but when you do (by reading a print book! By going outside! By doing both!), you’ll likely feel so much better.

Toss-up: Writing. Ah, yes. From the writers I’ve talked to and the huge diversity of responses I’ve received re: writing while waiting: I think it’s safe to categorize this one as a toss-up. Because, depending on how you write, how into your book you are, and a whole lot of luck, writing while waiting can either multiply your stress (as it does for me) or it can be a total relief. For example, if you’re working on a manuscript that’s going really well, writing is the PERFECT way to distract yourself from waiting. You can get lost in your world and your characters, and you’ll have this whole new book to query or send to beta readers if, for whatever reason, the one you’re currently waiting on doesn’t receive the kind of feedback you wanted. But on the flip side, if each one of your projects seems to be going poorly, working on them while you’re waiting can really exacerbate your stress levels. “I’m never going to write something as good as the last book!”, “I’m never going to finish another book!”, “Seriously, why is this book so much worse than the one before?” are, along with “I quit,” common thoughts I’ve had in this situation. If this is you, my advice is: take your time. Don’t rush into writing. Don’t force it, especially not when you’re stressed. Write slow, and write for you. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to finish; it just matters that you do. (And, I promise, YOU WILL FINISH.)

Works: MUSIC. Listening to music, but especially songs that are longtime favorites of yours, helps endlessly to relax and distract you.

Works: Take a breath. Seriously. Just do it. Whenever you’re feeling stressed over waiting, take a breath. Close your computer, turn off your phone. Get away from it all. Because you are awesome. You really are. And as hard as waiting might seem, and as stressful as it might be, you will eventually get your good news. It could happen with this book or it could happen with the next one, but I strongly believe that it will happen.

Keep at it. You’re a writer, right? Storytelling is in your blood. Whatever feedback you get won’t change that. <3

Beginning Querying: A Horror Story

Hi, readers! I’m so thrilled to be joining the Teens Can Write, Too blog with my archnemesis John and the lovely people of Ch1Con, and I’m super pumped to write our first post! I’m Mark O’Brien, and I’m going to tell you a horror story: my first querying experiences.

I was fourteen when I began querying, but it was a small, naive fourteen, and I was no prodigy. Not that I knew that. My first novel (which, I kid you not, was a “literary YA” that was about as literary as a sack of potatoes and was entitled Cream and Sugar at the time of querying—it’s now affectionately referred to as the more accurate Words That Burn) was perfect and gorgeous and I didn’t even need to edit, I just needed an agent to read my query, recognize the genius, and offer me representation because it was so freaking great. I didn’t look up how to write a query because I didn’t need to, what with a story as good as mine.

So I queried maybe three to five of my top choices, which seemed like the best strategy ever. My query letters were full of compliments about how many sales the agents had made and how I was certain I could be their next. I did not summarize the book; instead, I talked about its themes. The email I used was not my full name with “books” at the end; I used my personal one, an address that referenced dying balloons. And had numbers. (I’m not kidding.) (I wish I were.)

Thankfully, I got no responses, positive or negative or anything else.

This book sucked. My next book sucked, but I didn’t know that, so I queried it anyway—and even got a full request! For this one, a dystopian I wrote in 2011 (again, I wish I were kidding), I actually went to the trouble of writing, you know, a real query letter, getting it critiqued, and developing something of an online presence.

The third book was eh, but it got a much better reception. Around the fourth book, I figured out how to write coherently (thanks, critique partners), and soon I didn’t have one request out at a time, usually more like five or six.

What I’m saying here is that I was not ready to query before my fourth book. I just wasn’t. My writing wasn’t there; my attitude was far too high-and-mighty. I’m now working on Book 6, and you bet your bottom dollar I’m going to put my manuscript through quite a few rounds of revisions before I query.

But how do you know when you’re ready to query? Good question, hypothetical person! This varies from writer to writer and book to book, but a good rule of thumb I like to use is: you’ve edited your manuscript so much you don’t know what to edit anymore. You’ve read all the way through it, start to finish, probably half a dozen times (or more!), looking for everything and anything you could make better, and you’ve made those things better. You’ve had critique partners and/or beta readers rip it to shreds, and you’ve pieced those shreds back together into something good. Something you’re proud of, even through the self-doubt.

If you’re not proud of your book—like, not at all—ask yourself why. Do you not love the story? Is your writing not where you’d hoped it would be? If your gut tells you something’s wrong, there’s no shame in taking a while—two weeks, three months, a year—to determine why. No one is forcing you to query right now, except maybe yourself.

Take your time. Breathe. It’ll be worth it in the end.

Writing In Your Own Style

Here’s the thing: I don’t write lyrically.

I’ve tried to, of course. Countless times I’ve attempted–and failed–to be poetic in my writing, because I hoped that if I just worked hard enough, my writing style would magically fall into that category of “lyrical” that so many of my favorite books are a part of.

But, here’s the other thing: it hasn’t worked.

My style, simply put, refuses to change. No matter how much I try, I can’t get the whole lyricism thing down. At best, my final product comes out as an overworked, purple-prose-filled mess. At worst, it’s completely indecipherable. (Who knew a person could fit so many rain-as-a-metaphor-for-tears lines into one paragraph?)

This is a reality I’ve struggled a lot with over the past year or so. As someone with critique partners who write incredibly beautifully, I have sometimes felt inadequate as a writer. I’ve even, on multiple occasions, desperately tried to “adjust my style” midway through a first draft so I could write “better.” In fact, whenever I come across a particularly amazing snippet of a friend’s manuscript, I seemingly have to go back and rewrite my whole book in a style like theirs, thinking that will improve my writing. Basically: I read other people’s lyrical prose in awe, and then I look back at my own WIP (Work in Progress) and I feel utterly lacking. I wonder why I can’t be so evocative, why I can’t just freaking write the way my favorite authors do.

But then, when I am not obsessing over my style and comparing it to that of others, I’m happy. I really am. When I don’t try to write lyrically, my writing is natural. And fun. And is, most importantly, better. Sure, the awkwardly-teenager style I currently use may not fit the traditional conception of “good.” Hell, to a strict critic, it probably wouldn’t even be considered “good,” period. But I learned something the other day, when I reread my first few chapters and realized they weren’t half bad, and that is this: it doesn’t matter. You don’t write to win awards for how deep your metaphors are. You don’t write to master a technique just because it’s traditionally considered the best. You write to be creative. You write to be different. You write to be you, and to master your style–whatever that may be.

The great thing about writing is that everyone’s work is unique. Every writer, no matter who they are or where they are from or what their aim is, is different, and as a result so is their writing. I know it’s a cliche; I know, at this point, it’s probably meaningless. But I mean it. And no matter how much better you think Dan from across the hall is at writing than you, trying to mimic his style–even mimicking it vaguely, like I used to do–just isn’t worth it. It doesn’t help you, because Dan’s style has already been done before. Yours hasn’t. And I promise you that yours, too, with enough hard work, will be absolutely amazing.

That’s not to say it’s impossible to change writing styles, or that there is anything wrong with writing lyrically. I am forever in awe of people who write like that. But great writing comes in many forms, and “deep and poetic” does not hold a monopoly on it. So, I say, work on improving your own style first, before you try to switch to another. Then maybe you’ll see how talented you truly are.

It boils down to this: awesome is a spectrum. Just because most people like blue and you paint in fulvous* doesn’t mean your work is any worse; it just means it’s more you. It’s equally awesome, in a different way.

 ***

*THIS IS A REAL COLOR, BTW.

Also, note for anyone interested: the November blog chain announcement post will be posted on October 24th. I’m endlessly sorry about not getting up a chain for this month. And, on that note, there’s also some exciting blog-related news coming toward the end of the month. :D

Why There Is No Such Thing as a Teen Writer

So let’s get right to the point: there’s no such thing as a teen writer.

Now, I know this sounds really weird coming from me–I run a teen writing blog, after all*–but it’s true. There is no such thing as a teen writer. We are the unicorns of publishing; we are more myth than we are reality. (Sorry, unicorn lovers.) Because really, we aren’t teen writers. We’re WRITERS. Period. End of story. Blog post over.

When you think about it, what makes teen writers so different from everyone else? Well, we just happen to be a different age than most (which in itself is sort of untrue since writers span all ages). So why is there this major divide between teen and adult writers? Why are we viewed so differently than other writers are? The internet is filled with “advice” geared toward teen novelists, but you don’t see similar blog posts for writers who are in their twenties, or writers in their thirties, or writers who are exactly forty-two and two months old. Why? Because when you’re a writer, your age doesn’t matter. 

So why, despite this, are teen writers often looked down upon compared to adult writers? I think, obviously, it’s because we’re young, and many people think that automatically equals Not Good. In fairness, yes, it’s 99% likely that you won’t be an excellent storyteller when you first start out as a teen. (That’s not to say this non-excellence will carry through for all of your teen years, of course. All I’m saying is that during your first few months or so of writing novels you may not produce the best books ever.) But you’re equally not-excellent when you start out at age 22 or 35 or 43 or 82. The whole point is that writing is something you can’t improve on without actually going out and writing. And yes, it’s true that some people won’t ever be ready to publish as teens, because we all need time to develop our craft. But by that same logic, some beginning thirty-year-olds won’t be ready to publish until they’re thirty-nine and some beginning seventy year olds won’t be ready to publish until they’re seventy-five, while some beginning forty year olds may be ready to publish at forty-one and some beginning sixteen year olds may be ready to publish at seventeen. It all depends on you, the individual, and how much time you put in, how much you get critiqued by trusted sources, how much you read and study books by your favorite authors to see what they’re doing right. It’s not about your age. It’s not about how many years of life experience you have. It’s about your drive, the effort you put in, and in a lot of cases, just pure luck.

And then there is the argument for the teen/adult writer separation that basically says teen writers aren’t mature enough to tell a real story with real life themes that asks all-important questions, which is just so untrue. Because I don’t know about you, but I’ve found my teen years to be the ones in which I have the most questions about this crazy life thing, in which I care about politics and people and love and religion, in which I feel myself gaining an opinion and a voice and ideas I want to share with the world. I’m not just a clueless kid any longer, and that’s the amazing thing about being a teenager. Because suddenly, we gain a voice. Because suddenly, we know all of the questions we’re supposed to be asking, plus some of our own. Being a teen is about exploring, just like a book is about exploring–whether it’s a story or a character or a theme or a question or all of the above–so why is it so odd that they can mesh together in an innovative and thought-provoking way? 

The answer is, it isn’t, just like it isn’t odd for an adult to do the same thing.

Thus, teen writers don’t exist. We’re just writers, and like every other one out there, all it takes is the right amount of effort, natural ability, and luck for us to create great books. It might be two years or ten years or thirty years from when you start to when you’re “ready” to publish (which is incredibly subjective as is), but one day, you will get there. The “when” of it just varies from person to person, not from age to age.

My point being: when you write, you’re a writer. There’s nothing more to it. You’re not an aspiring writer, you’re not a teen writer–you’re a writer. You have your own style and your own voice and your own ideas and processes and stories to tell, and one day, in some form, you’ll get a chance to share them.

Publishing is that awesome industry in which your age just does not play a part (aside from a possible marketing perspective). Because, think of it this way: when you query an agent or self-publish on Amazon or post a short story on Wattpad, the agents or the readers aren’t paying attention to your age.** They’re paying attention to your story. They’re paying attention to the characters you create and the themes you get across and whether or not your writing can suck them away from the rest of the world.

Because–like I said–whether you’re thirteen or twenty-five or forty-four or eighty-two, you’re a writer. And telling stories is just what writers do.

 

*The main reason I label this blog as a teen writing blog even though I don’t believe there is a such thing as a teen writer is because I really want to provide a genuine resource for writers-who-happen-to-be-teens that doesn’t treat us as lesser than every other writer out there, and to do that I have to add the teen writer label. (There are some really discouraging blog posts on the internet that supposedly give “advice” to teen writers, and the advice is basically that we suck and should quit now and wait until we’re forty. Which… yeah… not true.)

**Unless you make them pay attention to it by touting yourself as a young author, which is not something I recommend when you query an agent.**

It’s Not You, It’s Me

But can we at least still be friends? 

Okay. Sorry. I had to do that. I’m not actually breaking up with you, though; I’m just stating a publishing fact. “It’s not you, it’s me” is something you probably have heard and will hear in various forms all throughout your writing life. After all, writing is art, and by definition art is all about interpretation. Therefore, many different people can interpret your book in many different ways, which means almost everyone’s experience reading your book will be different.

Basically: some people will get your book. They’ll get what you’re trying to say, what themes you want to convey, what concepts you’re attempting to explore. They’ll get your characters, your plot, your writing style, your voice. They’ll just get it.

But then some people won’t.

By definition, like with all art, some people won’t like your book. Does that make them stupid? Not at all. Does that make it your fault? Definitely not. The crazy thing is, someone not liking your book means next to nothing about the quality of your work. It’s just that, for whatever reason, your characters or your writing or some part of your book didn’t click with one reader. That’s all there is to it. Because that not “getting” it reflects more on the reader’s personal tastes than it is does on the quality of your writing.

This kind of thing happens in less black-and-white ways, too. Maybe someone will ABSOLUTELYLOVELOVE the themes in your book, but will despire your main character, or think your plot is way too predictable, or some combination of things. Maybe they’ll fall in love with your main character, but think the love interest is a terrible match for him or her. Who knows! The point is, for every group who loves your book there will be a person who hates it, and for every group who hates it there will be a person who loves it–and it has almost nothing to do with the book itself.

This concept sends the perfectionists of the world reeling (*raises hand*), but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. And yeah, I’m sure we’ve all heard this before. “Subjectivity” and all that crap. We know on the surface that not everyone will like our books, just as not everyone will like us, but still… deep down, a part of all of us hopes we’ll be the exception to that rule. That we’ll be beloved by all. But the truth is, there are not exceptions. Not in the real world, not in the book world. For example, on Goodreads, The Fault In Our Stars by my pizza-loving idol, John Green, is the highest rated book-that-has-over-100,000-Goodreads-ratings, and yet even it has thousands of one-star reviews, has people who think it’s one of the worst books ever written.

But that’s just how art works.

That’s just how life works.

So:

If you’re querying, you will get rejections. If you send your book to all of friends, some will not love it. If you publish your book, you will get bad reviews. It’s just a fact. It happens, and sometimes, you just need to cry over it, and that’s okay. But then you need to learn to relinquish control, and accept that rejections are inevitable. Because the beautiful thing about art is that the reverse is also true:

If you’re querying, you will get full requests. If you’re sending your book to friends, you’ll get people who love every bit of it. If you publish your book, you’ll get glowing reviews from.

It’s that. obnoxiously. freaking. simple.

***

Or if that doesn’t help, and you’re in the midst of Rejection Suck, PUPPY GIFS ARE ALWAYS THE ANSWER. LIKE SO:

Being a Teen Is Not the End

Update: 3/30/14

So, quite obviously, this is a teen writing blog. And by definition, that means I’m all, “Rah! Rah! Teen writers rock!” “Teen writers can get published!” “Teens can write, too!” (See what I did there?) I talk a lot about how teen writers, just like all other writers out there, are completely capable of securing a book deal, and often, as is the case with our teen author bookshelf, I highlight all of those who do.

But, here’s one thing I don’t often talk about: what if you don’t get published as a teen?

What if you work your heart out, write a great book, fully deserve to secure that book deal… and it just doesn’t fall through? Or what if you realize that you just need more time to improve your craft before you can get published? Or… what if it just doesn’t happen while you’re a teenager?

And I know this may sound silly to any non-teens reading this, but I think a lot of us teen writers, myself included, fear this. In fact, we fear it not just a little bit, but a lot. There’s something in the back of our minds that says, “Okay, you need to get published before you turn twenty-one.” Or, “Okay, you need to get an agent before you turn twenty-one.” Or, “Okay, you need to write a full novel before you turn twenty-one.” There’s something telling you that you need to do X writing-related thing while you’re still young, because you know that you are talented, and you want to show it to the world. But more than that, there’s a certain level of personal pride in it, because you want to be able to look back on yourself in ten years and say, “Yeah, I did [insert thing here] when I was only eighteen.”

Whatever the case, this is something we all deal with on some level, and it’s 100%, totally normal. Everyone, knowingly or not, sets goals for themselves. Everyone. And it just so happens that many of us teen writers set goals revolving around our age, so the possibility of not doing X writing-related thing before we turn twenty instills fear in a lot of us. (In a weird way, it’s sort of like the “I need to get kissed/need to lose my virginity before I turn Y age” mentality that a lot of us, myself included, feel.)

I get this. I really do. Even now, I still feel a little tingle of fear whenever I remember that, chances are, I won’t get published before I turn twenty. But today, when this possibility popped up again, I found myself thinking, “Well, who cares?”

To help give you all some perspective, I’ve spent the last thirty minutes researching all of the things that happen if you don’t get published as a teen, and I’ve culminated my findings into this one picture. So what happens if you don’t get published as a teen? Well:

There is a legit picture here. You just can’t see it. #SneakyJohnIsSneaky

The answer is nothing.

Nothing happens. Absolutely nothing. The world does not implode. Dinosaurs don’t come back to life and take you hostage in your own basement. Your fingers do not, out of protest, refuse to ever form words again.

It just… passes.

Because here’s the thing: you’re a writer, and you know what writers do? We keep writing. We keep writing better and better books, until we finally write The One. Whether that’s the one that we first complete, or the one that gets us an agent, or the one that secures us a book deal, it doesn’t matter. But if you keep trying, it will happen, and the glory will be just as sweet as it would have been if you did it as a teenager.

You’ll get there.

Remember that, okay?

You. will. get there.

You’ll get there, and it doesn’t matter one bit when you do, because the beautiful thing about publishing is that age is a nonfactor. Writing is not like, say, gymnastics where you have to “make it” at a young age or else you’ll never make it at all. In writing, it’s all about your book–and if your book is good, that’s all people will see. So think of it this way: wouldn’t you rather wait to publish an incredible book that will garner you fans from all across the globe, than to rush to publish one you know isn’t so great, just because you want to secure a book deal while you’re still a teen?

Don’t get me wrong: I think positive peer (self?) pressure can be a good thing. But you have to remember that at the end of the day, even if you don’t hit your goal of accomplishing X thing before you turn twenty, or twenty-one, or whatever the age may be, nothing will change. The voice in your head is wrong, because you are not a failure. You started following your dreams at an age before most people even realize what their dreams are, and for that, you deserve nothing but applause.

Because, really? I’m confident that if you keep working at it, one day, each and every one of you will have your books on the shelves. Some of you will get published as teens; some of you won’t. It’s that simple. But you all, no matter how or when you get published, have something amazing to say through your stories, and you will get a chance to say it. Sometimes it just takes a little bit of time.

Finding Literary Agents To Query: A Writer’s Guide To Agent Stalking

How to stalk an agent

Romancing The Agent: one moment you query him, and the next the two of you are picking out a house together! #BadumChhh (I’ll stop.) 

Anyway. With my pathetic attempt at humor aside, let’s do this. (Cue dramatic knuckle cracking.) I don’t mean to brag, but I do know a thing or two about stalking agents from my querying days, and because I was so exceptionally skilled at it, I did discover one particular theme I feel is worth mentioning: that you should query agents not just because they represent your genre, but because you have researched them well and you have discovered that a) they have solid prior experience in the publishing industry and b) that you think you’ll mesh well personality-wise.

Let’s break that down for a moment, because I really do believe it is important. 

a) Unfortunately, there are agents out there who, while they might mean well, are just so inexperienced in the industry that they’re likely to do you more harm than good. These agents are often referred to as “schmagents,” and they are luckily only a minuscule percentage of the agents out there, but it’s still worth being aware of. So, how do you make sure you aren’t querying a so-called schmagent? Check their bios, their Literary Rambles profiles (Just Google “[agent’s name] + Literary Rambles]” and it’ll be the top hit if they have done a profile on that agent), their Publisher’s Marketplace sales, their Absolute Write Background Check pages. Ask yourself: have they worked at, or at least interned for, agencies or publishers in the past? Do they list any publish experience beyond just an English degree and/or a “passion for books”? Do they work at any agency that seems to have sold to Big Five publishers? If you answered no to any or all of these questions, I suggest maybe skipping the agent, or at least asking someone who knows a lot about traditional publishing what their thoughts are on that agent’s legitimacy. Because these agents can be incredibly kind and generous and well-meaning, but if they don’t have any experience or editor contacts, then what’s the point? If they don’t even know editors at major houses to pitch your book to, it’s worse for you than not having an agent at all.

b) An agent-author relationship is still a relationship above all else, and relationships only works effectively if you are a good fit for one another. So when you find an agent you’re interested in querying, take the extra step and check their twitter feed and blog (if they have those) as well as search for any online interviews they did, or even checking their favorite books to see if you have similar tastes. See if their personality seems to compliment yours, because while you don’t necessarily need to be good friends with your agent, it’s a lot easier if you have some sort of personal connection.

So with all that said, how exactly do you find agents to query? There are tons of strategies out there for this (and you can even come up with your own!), but here is what I personally found to be most effective to give you a place to start:

Find agents who represent books similar to yours. So let’s say you’ve written a gritty Young Adult sci-fi. And one day, you walk into a bookstore, and you see a really hauntingly awesome cover. So you turn it over and you realize the book is… a gritty sci-fi! Although an agent can’t represent you if your manuscript is too similar to one of her client’s books, agents do tend to love books with similar atmospheres (i.e. a “gritty sci-fi”) so if you see that sort of loose connection between your book and a published one, look up the agent! There are multiple ways to do this: one is to go to Publisher’s Marketplace if you’re a subscriber and search the author’s name (if you’re not a subscriber, you can always email me – jhansenauthor(at)gmail(dot)com – and I’ll happily look it up for you.) Another is to check the author’s website (usually in the “contact me” section) and see if an agent is listed. Or if none of the above work, QueryTracker has a great list of authors and their agents here, and it’s likely that the author will be listed for you.

Then, once you find the agent, send a query and mention how you found him or her!

AgentQuery. AgentQuery is without a doubt my favorite agent-finding resource. The site contains a nearly-complete online database of literary agents, complete with brief information on that agent, including some of the agent’s past sales, the genres she represents, and so on. You can search agents by genre, location, keyword, and a host of other things here. It’s an excellent starting point for those who are new to querying. 

QueryTracker. QueryTracker, while not as easy as AgentQuery in my opinion, is great when you want to check out the response times of the agents you are querying, as writers comment on each agent’s profile with query results, the length of time it took until they heard back from the agent, and so on.

Literary Rambles. Literary Rambles is the place to go, in my opinion, once you find an agent who you’re interested in querying but would like to know more about first. Essentially, the site is a cheat sheet. They do profiles on a large majority of the kidlit agents in the industry, wherein they provide snippets from the agent’s past interviews, that particular agent’s “Dos and Don’ts,” pet peeves, client lists, and so much more relevant info. If you go to their site, their whole left sidebar is a list of past agent profiles.

Publisher’s Marketplace. Not all agents have Publisher’s Marketplace profiles available to non-subscribers, but many do. Publisher’s Marketplace is useful because it chronicles some of the agent’s past sales, giving you a sense of the kinds of publishers they frequently sell to and the kinds of books they frequently sell. For example, this PM profile for Jodi Reamer basically proves that she is a ninja, representing huge authors like Stephanie Meyer, John Green, Ally Condie, and so many more. (It’s worth noting that public PM pages aren’t usually updated.) (And once again, if you’d like me to look up some of the past sales by a certain agent on Publisher’s Marketplace, email me!)

Twitter. Remember how I said it’s important to make sure you mesh with an agent before querying him or her? Twitter is a great way to figure that out. As an active Twitter user, I remember that I found a large number of the agents I eventually queried through following their tweets; in fact, most of agents who requested my manuscript I found through Twitter. Like Literary Rambles, Twitter is another agent cheat sheet, as many agents tweet query tips, types of manuscripts they’re currently looking to represent, and so on. (If you need a place to start, you can find a list of agents on Twitter here.) 

Small Presses: An Editor’s Point of View

 

From the start, my goal with this blog has always been both to support and inform all writers, but specifically those of us of the teen variety, and when it comes to the latter, the one topic that has always eluded me is publishing with small presses. Being that I don’t have first-hand experience in that process, I’ve always been reluctant to talk about it, and that’s why I’m so thrilled to introduce Danielle Ellison, someone who, as both an author and an editor at a small press, definitely knows a thing or two about the process. Danielle is here to share some honest thoughts about what it’s like to work with small presses, for all of us who are either curious about this route or having been considering trying it for themselves. (For more on small presses, I also recently posted on the topic here [LINK].)

Danielle is Senior Editor at Spencer Hill Press and Spencer Hill Contemporary. She is also a YA author and her debut novel SALT released January 7th 2014 with Entangled Digi-Teen.

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A few years ago, I was an (occasional) YA book blogger. I was a bookseller who was writing, and working my butt off to make something of my stories, and dreaming that maybe I could work in PR or something in publishing because that ‘involves books’ and ‘wouldn’t it be fun?’ I was a girl who sent an email, then got an internship, then became an editor. I wanted an opportunity, and I got one. I didn’t plan to work at a small press; it just happened.

That’s the beauty of small presses: people who want an opportunity, get them.

When John asked me to write this post, I was thinking about all the things I could say about Spencer Hill to convince you that the small press route is the best decision any writer can make. All of February on my own blog, I’m doing this feature about small presses that will present an unbiased look at five different publishers. Because, ultimately, writers need to be informed of their options, and as someone actively involved in various roles in the small press world, it means a lot to me that the info is out there.

But I can’t say that I think the small press route is the best route for every writer. It’s not.

If you want to buy your own private jet, for example, then maybe you should look at something different. (Perhaps even a whole different field. Publishing doesn’t provide a lot of private jets.)

However, if you are a writer who has a story that you want to share, a story that’s such a part of your heart and soul that you want other people to read it—then keep reading this post because that’s what small presses do.  (Or should do.)

I’m a senior editor at Spencer Hill Press, and like I alluded at the beginning of this post, it just sort of happened. I never set out to be an editor.

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When I emailed Kate about an internship position with their marketing department, and she emailed me back with a “welcome aboard,” I never dreamed I’d become an editor. I was a writer, and a girl who read books. I told stories and created worlds and got the fictional people who took over my brain into their own space. Small presses weren’t even really on my radar (it was a different time!) and editing wasn’t something I’d ever considered. But then I emailed Kate on a whim, and everything changed.

I never worked as a marketing intern; Kate had other plans for me. She took the facts that I was a writer and a reader and put them to use. She had me do a pass of a book. Then another, and another. Each one got more difficult, more in depth, and I soon started to love this editing thing. Kate never planned to put me in the marketing department, because she saw something in me that I didn’t even know existed.

This is what small presses do. They see someone seeking out an opportunity, pull that person in, equip them and let them fly. It sounds silly, but it’s true. Small presses, at least the good ones, operate on passion. Not on numbers. It’s passion that’s contagious – to readers and writers – not the rest of it. I can’t speak for every small press, but I can speak on behalf of Spencer Hill Press: you’ll never get that with us. (And I really do venture to say most well-known small presses.) Since we operate on a smaller scale, we only take on things that we love.

Spencer Hill has a policy. It’s based on a lesson that some editors have had to learn the hard way, and it’s something I continuously ram down the throats of our interns and editorial assistants. I’m mentioning it because SHP (and its imprints—the Contemporary line and SpenceCity) is a place of passion.  To directly quote an email I once sent to staff: “Don’t take on a project unless you can’t live without it. Readers love many books; editors take on the ones that become a part of them that they want to share with others…Love isn’t strong enough in this case. It’s got to be the loss of a project that propels you into action, vs. the love of it.”

I won’t say that every small press you encounter will pursue this model, but at Spencer Hill, we do. Each small press is different and they offer various roles in the publishing industry. If you’re a writer considering a small press, it’s really important to be open, to know your facts, to know the questions to ask, to ask them, and then make sure that you are where you want to be and what you want to accomplish aligns with your small press. If anything isn’t what you want it to be, then maybe it’s not a good fit. Especially the latter point.

As an editor, it’s really important that I only put out the best books I can. The more I work in this field, the more I meet aspiring writers who have the drive and the talent to succeed; they only need someone else to see it. Someone who supports them and gives them the step up they need. Someone who embraces potential. At the end of the day, I believe that this passion is unique to small presses. That passion, when paired with opportunity, is a powerful tool.

I’m lucky enough to wear two hats in the publishing world—editor is one of them—but even as Kate knew in that first email, I’m a writer. And now, thanks to a book deal from Spencer Hill and then another from Entangled, I’m an author.

It was hard to get there. I want everyone to know that. It had nothing to do with me working at SHP. I worked years and years before I got that first book deal. I queried and had the “almost-agent” and the “I love it but…” many times. More times than I can even count. I was always behind the market, despite a book that everyone loved, and it was discouraging. I won’t lie about that either.

Then one day a new opportunity arrived to publish with Spencer Hill, and Kate wanted revisions, which I made, before she bought the series. I get a lot of flack because people think it was just handed to me, but it wasn’t. Despite what other people may think, I know every day that it was a great choice. When Entangled came along wanting SALT, I knew they would be the perfect place for that book because my editors had a great vision for the book and everyone believed in it. At the end of the day, that’s what you want.

Everything starts with an opportunity; they come in various shapes and sizes, and usually, when you don’t expect them. I know it did for me.

I didn’t expect to be an editor at a small press, but I love it so much. Editing has taught me how to be a better writer. Working with amazing authors to help them mold their stories gives me so much joy. I’m constantly surprised by the support of the writing community and the wonderful writers (and readers) that make it up.

I know there are teen writers reading this and you’re all wondering what happens next. The truth? I don’t know. You have to take the initiative to get where you want to be. Very rarely are things ever handed to you. My advice: find something you want, be passionate about your pursuit of it, and when opportunity knocks, don’t close the door because it’s not the door you expected.

The greatest moments tend to come from places you don’t expect.

Writing A Pitch

Updated: 4/2/14

So today, because I’ve recently been doing a few blog-wide contests that require pitches, I want to talk a little bit about how to go about writing one. If you’re here because you’re interested in querying literary agents, know that very few agents or editors will require you to include a pitch with your query; pitches, in general, are used in online writing contests that agents/editors participate in (and use to request manuscripts). (If you’re interested, Brenda Drake hosts a number of great ones, nearly every few weeks.) A pitch’s typical length is about 35-words, or three sentences, but an increasing number of contests also require writers to compose a one-sentence pitch.

Before I go on, like with all of my advice posts, I want to quickly disclaim two things: first, I’m by no means an expert when it comes to writing pitches, but I’ve had enough experience with them both as an agent intern and as a writer that I feel as though I can speak on the topic with some degree of confidence. But of course, one can easily disagree with any of my points, and that’s totally okay. This is all subjective, which brings me to my second point: there are always exceptions to these “rules,” and you should treat them more as loose guidelines than absolute rules.

So with that aside, let’s get down to pitch writing. This post will focus on one-sentence pitches, but what I’m saying applies to pitches of all types, including those that are three sentences or above; the only difference is that in the latter types, you should flesh out the plot and possibly characters more than in the former. (Here is a great post by Nathan Bransford that elaborates further.) And–yes–we should probably get out the fact that pitch writing sucks. It will almost certainly make you feel this:

But if you’re interested in entering writing contests, which many people are, you need to know how to write a pitch (and it’s a pretty good skill for a writer to have in general, anyway).

There are three main things you want to tackle in your pitch:

1) Hook: Before you do anything else, identify: what’s unique about your story? What sets it apart from the other books in your genre? What makes someone want to read it? The answer you come up with is your hook. Be sure to make this hook the focal point of your pitch.

2) Goal: What does the main character want, or need, to do? Although this doesn’t need to be stated directly in your pitch, it should at least be implied; for example, if your main character discovers a webpage for her future self wherein the status reads, “DECEASED,” it’s implied that her goal will be to keep herself from having the same fate.

3) Stakes: In your pitch, you need to establish what happens if the main character fails to complete her goal both to give the story a sense of urgency and also to give the reader a reason to want more. Like with the goal, this can be often be implied from the pitch; for example, if your main character finds a webpage for her future self that reads “DECEASED,” pretty clearly she’s going to die if she can’t complete her goal of stopping it.

Other things:

“Dark secrets”: No, your main character having “dark secrets” does not count as a hook. I’d recommend avoiding this phrase, as it is so widely used (especially in pitches) that it won’t provoke any curiosity from a reader; if anything, it’ll cause to glaze over the pitch, and you don’t want that. (However, if dark secrets unraveling is the major focus of your plot, you may want to reveal one of the most intriguing ones to grab the reader. Like, think of it this way: if the entire pitch for Twilight was about a girl falling for “a boy with dark secrets,” with no mention of him being a vampire or [insert unique thing here], no one would want to read it, because “dark secrets” doesn’t tell the reader anything about the story.)

Make your pitch succinct and punchy. I know it’s tempting to go into lots of detail about your book and all of its various subplots, but don’t. Stick to the very crux of your plot (which is most likely your hook), and use that to grab the reader with that. The shorter the pitch, the better. Seriously.

– Comp titles. Comp titles, while definitely not necessary when it comes to writing a pitch, can be useful if you have room left in your pitch and can think of an excellent pair of them. Comp titles are generally those “X meets Y” pitches, wherein a writer compares books/TV shows/movies/etc. that together encapsulate the heart of your own books. The books etc. you choose in your comp titles should be well-known, but should not be a modern blockbuster that has probably been far overused (The Hunger Games meets Twilight, for example, is only going to make a reader roll his eyes) and should compliment the rest of your pitch. Comp titles work especially well if the two titles you’re comparing are generally very different. So for example, an intriguing comp title might be calling your book “Hamlet meets The Matrix.” (And if anyone has a book that fits that description, I BOW DOWN TO YOUR AWESOMENESS.)

Not a deal breaker. Remember this: a bad pitch is not a deal breaker. Pitches are important, but in contests, for example, a great 250-word sample of your book will always trump a pitch. (Many contests ask you to include the first 250 words of your manuscript in addition to your pitch. If you’d like to know more about how to write a good first 250 words, I posted on that here.)

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So to bring this all together, I’m going to write an example pitch using the plot I mentioned above:

For sixteen-year-old Alex Tanner, finding a webpage about himself two weeks into the future is totally awesome and all until he logs on one morning and his status reads: DECEASED.

Although I’m sure this pitch is far from perfect, it’s one that works (I got multiple full requests based off of it), and that’s all you can really want. It covers all of the three major elements I mentioned above (it has a hook, the future webpage, as well as an implied goal and stakes, the status reading “DECEASED” (which makes it clear that the book will be focusing on Alex needing to stop his own death)); it’s short, to-the-point, and has no cliches; and its all based around the hook of Alex basically learning he’s going to die in two weeks but he has no idea why. Really, that’s all you need–something that hooks the reader.

And if you can do that, then you are good to go.

 

Twitter Q&A with Literary Agent Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg Recap

Update: 3/30/14

So at the time of originally posting this, TCWT was having its first birthday, and as a part of that I set up a number of events to help celebrate: an agent pitch contest (post is now deleted because people kept trying to enter even years after it ended), a teen writer Chatzy chat, and, back when I ran a weekly #TeenWriters Twitter chat, we did a Q&A with agent Pam van Hylckama Vlieg, who I’d then just started interning for. Although that chat has long since ended, I’m keeping this post up because some of the questions and her responses, albeit short because of the 140 characters limit, are still really relevant.

For more about Pam, see her bio here. She currently works at Foreword Literary.

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But before Pam arrived, Kat Zhang, who was then celebrating the release of her YA debut, What’s Left of Me, stopped by to share some wisdom. Here are a couple of her tweets:

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And, of course, Pam arrived shortly thereafter. Here are a few highlights:

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When asked what the most important aspect of a synopsis is, Pam responded:

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(Note: Being a teen writer is still awesome, obviously, but you want to present yourself as a writer, rather than a teen writer. If an agent offers representation, then you should tell them about your age.)

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And just because I think this is the perfect way to end the roundup:

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How To Publish Your Book: Traditional Publishing: Literary Agents, Query Letters, And What The Big Deal Is

How to publish your book

*This post is currently being updated. Apologies if it’s a bit scattered; it should be all fixed up shortly.*

Update: 3/23/14

Hey guys! So upon reading over and updating this post, I realized two things: 1) I said “Part 1″ in the title and yet never made a part two. (WTF, John?) And 2) there is absolutely no way I can cover the basics of how to publish your book in one post, so what I’m going to do instead is break up each of the three major types of publication–traditional publishing, small-press publishing, and self-publishing–into their own separate articles. This post will focus on traditional publishing with mid-sized to Big Five publishers, but you can read the small press post here [LINK] and the self-publishing post here.

So you guys know I love answering your questions, especially because it distracts me from my pastimes of eating Goldfish and stalking attractive YouTubers on Twitter while I’m supposed to be writing (*awkward pause*), and the question I tend to get asked most is:  “I wrote a novel. How do I get it published?” I’ve always had trouble answering this one as there are not only a number of great ways to get published, but there are so many steps in each process that it’s really difficult to cover in one email, which is why I’m writing this series now. I hope it will help you make a little bit more sense of this whole, crazy publishing thing. 

Before you read on, please keep in mind I’m by no means an expert (however, I have spent years on both sides of the query process, both as a querying writer and as an agent intern who has read and responded to thousands of queries, so I do feel I have a strong handle on how traditional publishing works for writers) and so, to give you some other sources, I’m linking to a few sites I recommend also checking out:

AgentQuery – If you only visit one site, make it this one. AgentQuery is by far my favorite resource for new writers trying to understand how to get published traditionally, as they not only give the basics of traditional publishing (see here for some info on literary agents, here for how to submit to agents, here for how to write a query, and here for a literary agent database to help you find agents to query.)

QueryTracker – I can’t say I’m as big of a QueryTracker fan as most other writers are, but I still find it to be an incredibly valuable resource that is worth checking out if only to look up the average response time of a particular agent. (You know, for anyone as anxious and impatient as I am.) But my favorite part of the site, and the main reason I’m linking to it here, is this list of published authors and the agents who represent them. It’s perfect for finding agents who like books similar to yours.

Literary Rambles – Ah, I love this site! If you check their left sidebar, you’ll see a whole long list of agent features, wherein the bloggers highlight different agents, the agents’ interests, snippets from the agents’ previous interviews around the web, the agents’ average response times, and so on.

The Daily Dahlia – Dahlia is an incredibly smart author, editor, and supporter of the writing community, and I especially recommend checking out her Perpetual WIPs series, specifically her one on literary agents, wherein she asks real agents common questions writers have. (Her querying writers Perpetual WIPs post is also extraordinarily helpful.)

Nathan Bransford’s Blog – Although now that Nathan is no longer an agent his recent posts aren’t very relevant to the query process, if you go back into the archives of his blog, you’ll find that he has a ton of information on what to do and what to not do when querying, how to write a great query letter, and so on.

And without further ado, the post:

What is “traditional publishing?” 

Basically, traditional publishing–also often referred to as “commercial publishing” or “trade publishing”–is using a professional publisher to get your book out in the world. (How many times can you say some form of “publish” in a sentence, John?! Apparently a lot.) There are three different kinds of traditional publishers–small presses, mid-sized presses, and the Big Five publishers, the latter of which you probably read most of your books from–and the larger the press, the more likely it is they don’t take unsolicited submissions, which means you’re going to need a literary agent to send your manuscript to them. For example, to submit your work to any of the Big Five publishers (which are HarperCollins, Hachette, Penguin Random House, Macmillan, and Simon & Schuster, the big names that publish) and many of the top mid-sized presses (Scholastic, etc.), you need a literary agent to pitch them on your behalf. For the purpose of this post, I’m narrowing the definition of traditional publishing so I can focus exclusively on those larger publishers who don’t take solicited submissions, but if you want to know more about submitting to the smaller ones, see here. [LINK]

Okay, you mentioned literary agents a few times. What are they? What’s the point of them?

What an astute question, self! (*cue eye roll of anyone who is reading this*) Literary agents, pretty simply, represent literary works. They’re basically the middlemen (/middlewomen?) between you and a larger publisher. Since many of the above-mentioned powerhouse publishers who tend to create the big hits in the Young Adult/Middle Grade world don’t take unsolicited submissions, agents are your “in” to them. (Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Divergent, Mortal Instruments, to name a few, were all published by these larger publishers.) And while you don’t need an agent to get published since you always have the option of self-publishing or working with small presses who take unsolicited submissions, getting an agent is a pretty widespread goal among writers, even if the writer only wants to self-publish (because agents can sell your book’s translation rights, audio rights, movie rights, etc. which you wouldn’t be able to do on your own) or only wants to work with small presses (because agents can negotiate your contract for you, among other things).

 So what do agents actually do? If one falls in love with your book enough to want to represent you and you accept, they’ll most likely suggest edits on your manuscript until they feel it’s the best it can be, and then they’ll pitch it to their editor contacts at various large publishers. (But only if you want them to. If you only want them to try to sell, say, audio rights, and you tell them that and they agree, then there you go. An agent and an author have a mutually beneficial RELATIONSHIP–meaning, the agent can’t just do whatever she wants with your book without your consent, and vice versa. So, talk! You can make your partnership work however you both want it to work.) And after your agent pitches your book to their editor contacts, if an editor reads, loves it, and the different departments in their office agree that they want to publish it, then success! You’ve got yourself a book deal!

(Please keep in mind, however, that even if you land an agent, there’s no guarantee your book will get published. Plenty of agented writer don’t sell the first or second book their agent pitches to editors; it takes time, but getting an agent–which is no small feat–is a major step toward a publishing contract with a big publisher.)

Okay, so now that you have your shiny new book deal, the agent will become useless, right? Wrong. This is where agents really shine: they proof your contract for you (there are lots of evil clauses some publishers will slip in that, without an agent, can end with you accidentally signing away rights you don’t want to sign away), negotiate to get you the best advance and royalty rate you can, help you build your online presence, communicate between you and your publisher, and basically become your ally in this whole crazy publishing thing. For more, Joanna Volpe sheds great insight into what exactly agents do here

However, agents don’t do all of this out of the kindness of their hearts, even if they are generally nice people. They need to make a living too, so they ask for a standard 15% commission on all money you earn on a book they sold.

Wait, agents are asking for 15% commission? Those greedy swine! How dare they!

A REAL LIFE photo of an agent. #TheyAreGreedy

Unfortunately, agents hear stuff like this a lot, which, when you think about it, is a little bit ridiculous. Let’s break it down:

– First of all–and this is important–agents do NOT ask for money upfront; they only make money when you do, which means until they’re able to sell a book of yours, you don’t pay them anything. Also, remember that they only make money on a book they actually sold. So if you self-published a book before landing your agent, they have no claim to that money, because they were not the ones who sold it; all 100% of it is yours. But on the contrary, if you split ties with an agent after they sold a book of yours to a publisher, they still get your 15% commission, because they made the sale.

– Second of all, 15% is a really small percentage when you think about all agents do (see the above link). Also, when you consider that 85% (your cut) of zero is still zero. So if without your agent–and I’m assuming you want to be traditionally published if you send them your book–you would be making nothing, 15% is a pretty sweet deal.

– Third, agents work day and night talking to clients and editors, pitching books and combing through the query slush pile, and for agents to put in hundreds of hours on making their authors’ work great, keeping their authors happy, and then selling their authors’ books, negotiating the contracts, helping with the web presences, and remaining constantly in touch throughout the whole process, only to make 15%? It seems like the agent’s cut is incredibly well earned to me.

I still think they’re greedy, but okay. So you’re talking about agents and big publishers… but how do I know if traditional publishing is even right for me?

(Just because I’m going to be refer to it throughout this post, I’ll quickly define “self-publishing.” Unsurprisingly, it means exactly as it sounds: self-publishing is the act of publishing your book in a professional capacity without the assistance of a publisher. Often authors self-publish eBooks on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iTunes, and so on. But to be clear, when I say “self-publishing,” I don’t mean posting stories to fan-fiction sites or to Wattpad or Figment or something; I’m only referring to the more professional self-publishing of uploading your books to Amazon, etc., often for profit.)

So to answer the question, I’m going to be perfectly honest here: unless you already have a vast knowledge of the publishing landscape, writing, the Amazon Kindle store, how to market a book, and all that jazz, I don’t believe you should do anything but query agents and select small publishers with your first novel. I know that’s going to upset some people, but hear me out. If you’re reading this post, chances are you’re pretty new at this (and that’s 100% okay, because everyone has been there) and chances are you want your book to get published. Like, you REALLY want it to get published. And that’s a good thing, and we all feel that way, but I don’t believe you should rush into publishing something until you absolutely know you’re prepared. And yes, querying has its flaws, but it is generally a good indicator of this, of whether your book is ready to publish or not.

Now, I hate making blanket statements like that because there is SO much subjectivity that goes into traditional publishing (a book can be the Next Big Thing but an agent will pass just because they don’t relate to a character, something that reflects more on the agent than the quality of the novel), but if you query, say, 75 agents and don’t get a single request? Chances are your book isn’t quite there yet, and rather than throwing it out there in another medium to spite the agents, you may instead want to get some more feedback on it from other writers, revise it, or even begin a new project. (By the way, that rejection thing? It happened to me. With my first book, I queried 90 agents. I didn’t get a single request until I was well into writing my second novel. So yeah, I know it stings sometimes.) But more than that, I suggest that people only try at traditional publishing for their first couple of books because the traditional publishing process helps you learn a ton about the publishing landscape. It teaches you to take a critical look at your book and realize you still have a ways to go, teaches you to be patient and to accept rejection, teaches you to writer query letters and synopses, but above all, it teaches you to write better. Yeah, agents are sometimes “wrong” about a certain book, but the learning curve you get from querying is invaluable to beginners, and that’s why I suggest, until you feel comfortable with the industry and how it all works, to stick with trying for traditional publishing. Because, honestly, it’s much harder to improve your writing once you start publishing, as there is no way to know if your book needs work or not (aside from reviews, which only come in small numbers) without the feedback from other writers and agents–which means, you can’t improve. Plus, trying for traditional publication and failing can’t hurt you from a publishing perspective, but self-publishing can.

(To add to that last point, basically, publishers value your status as a debut author–it’s easier to sell readers on a new author than one who has published multiple times before without much success–which means agents also value your debut status, which means that if you self-publish a book that garners low sales, it can hurt your standing with agents if you plan to try for traditional publication again in the future. It won’t hurt much, don’t worry, but a “clean resume” always looks better than one consisting of a sloppily-published book. (However, if you gets lots of sales and have professional cover design/editing/websites/etc., this becomes a non-issue–which is why I suggest you wait until you’re comfortable with writing a novel and with the book world, because you’re much less likely to sell a lot when you know nothing about publishing.))

For more info on why I think you should wait until you’re experienced before you consider self-publishing, see here [link]. (It’s worth noting that, when you are well-exposed to the writing world–which querying does for you!–I personally believe self-publishing is on equal footing with traditional publishing as far as your chance of success is concerned; all I’m saying is, I don’t think you should self-publish the first book you ever write.)

So you mentioned “flaws” with big publishers? What are those? 

This is sort of a difficult question for me to answer, because I’ve only self-published (under a pen name). I’ve never worked with a traditional publisher so I don’t have firsthand experience. However, what I hear from friends is essentially this (and take the following with a grain of salt, please, because I don’t know the extent at which any of the below happens; it could only occur in a few isolated incidents for all I know. I really just want to make you aware that it does happen, if only very rarely):

Cons:

Very little control. Publishers get the final say in your book title, book cover, and even the editing of your book. This is usually for the best–big publishers typically know what they are doing–but sometimes the author can end up incredibly displeased with the presentation of his or her book, and while they can talk to their editor about it and often the editor will try to work to make both sides happy, the author does not get the ultimate say in the matter.

Easy to be left out. The thing about these major publishers is that they have really wide-reaching marketing, and they can, if they put enough effort in, all but guarantee that a book becomes a bestseller. However, the problem with this is it inherently guarantees that for every person whose book gets marketed to a very large degree, there is someone whose book hardly gets marketed at all.

Earning out. Big publishers offer you advances against royalties in your contract, and sometimes these advances get to be pretty sizable. While advances can be a great thing, they can also easily backfire on an author. For example, if an author either consistently doesn’t earn enough to offset the advance and thus loses the publisher money, it’s a very slippery slope to them dropping the author and other publishers turning their backs on him or her as well. Unfortunately, this is especially true for authors with the really big advances. If publishers pay lots of money for your book and it flops, it will get incredibly difficult for you to publish with them, or any other large publisher again, as they aren’t as willing to invest in an author who already lost them so much money.

On the flip side, the pros of major publishers are pretty obvious: you tend to get better marketing of your book, better cover design, better editing, more widespread bookstore placement, more sizable advances, and so on. Ultimately, many people still try to go with big publishers because they does tend to be the safest choice–and they give you the best chance at reaching the largest audience.

Okay, okay, John. I’ll try querying agents. But how do I get one? Where can I find one?

Although things would be much easier if they did, agents don’t automatically represent you. (Dammit!) In fact, getting an agent to offer you representation is a long and cumbersome task, but if you put in enough time and effort in, it will happen for you, I’m sure of it.

Luckily, finding agents to query is incredibly easy (it’s finding one who will love your book that is the issue). I did a whole post on how to find agents here, which, if you skim through, gives you the gist of where to start. 

So aside from those “schmagents” you mentioned in the above-linked post [just read paragraph a) to know what I mean, in case you don’t want to read the whole thing], are there any kinds of agents I should avoid? 

Yes! Unfortunately, while schmagents are often well-meaning agents who simply aren’t experienced enough to do you any good, there are a number of of not-so-well-meaning scammer agents out there. Luckily, they’re incredibly easy to spot. ANY agent–I repeat, ANY agent–who charges reading fees, asks for a commission higher than the industry-standard 15%, or asks you to pay any sort of fee before your book sells is NOT LEGIT and you should run far away from them. DO NOT WALK, RUN. 

*clears throat*

(Sorry, I just don’t want anyone to be ripped off. I’m protective of my people. *group hug* And the above also goes for a “publisher” that makes you pay any sort of fee upfront–they are bad news and you should run the hell away from them.)

EDITED TO ADD: The same is also true for publishers. You should pay your publisher nothing up-front. (Or ever, aside from their percentage of royalties.)

Teh Scammerz?

Yes, John. Teh Scammerz. Very eloquently put.

Beware the scammer!!

I know, John. I know. Now, what is this querying thing you referenced a few times? How do I write a query?

Since agents are incredibly busy people, they don’t have time to read the completed manuscript of every writer who submits to them. Instead, they ask people to write what is known as a “query letter,” which is basically a 250-word(ish) pitch of your book, and if they like the query, they’ll request some of the manuscript itself. Most agents nowadays ask for email queries, so you should be able to find their email addresses on their agency website. If not, check their AgentQuery or their QueryTracker profiles.

Unfortunately, query letters, while short, are far from easy to write. (Though, as corny as it sounds, they make for a seriously great learning experience for you as a writer.) You have to put more than just a few minutes of work into writing them, and you should also get critiques from other writers once you finish. Writing a query takes a lot of trial-and-error, and it’s usually best to get outside opinions on yours–especially from someone who knows the querying game–before you send it out.

So how do you write a query? In my original post, I attempted to cover this in depth, but now that I’m updating I realize that there are a number of sites that explain how to write a query much better than I can. And while I’ll still give you some of the very basics, I’m going to post several helpful links below.

But basically, query letters are like back-cover book blurbs, except queries are meant to lay out the groundwork for the plot, stakes, and major characters as much as they are meant to entice (and queries should be around 250 words in length!). A great query letter should contain the following:

– Hook. A hook doesn’t really need to be more than one line, but it should be the first line in your query. For example, this query starts with, simply, “Andromeda Jaunsten isn’t a very good alien.” What the hook does is set the tone for the rest of the query and, while hooks aren’t entirely necessary per se, they’re a great way to pull in an agent. Because agents read LOTS of query letters, and the best tool you have to get their attention is to start off with a bang. So, ask yourself: what’s special about your book? Then put that, in your main character’s voice, into a one-line opening. So if in your book the main character is, say, a ghost, your hook could be, “Seventeen-year-old Georgia is dead and loving it.” That kind of opening is short and simple, but it’s so unique and playful that agents will immediately want to know more.

Voice. A query should be written in the voice of your protagonist, so whatever your main character’s voice is in your novel, you need to translate that into your query. So if your main character is snarky and sarcastic, make your query snarky and sarcastic. Don’t be afraid to give your query its own, unique flare (i.e. rather than saying “Detective Mulder is great at his job” say instead, “Detective Mulder eats murderers for breakfast.”) A great example of a query with a strong voice (which is, in this case, snarky) is now-published author Kody Keplinger’s query for THE DUFF.

Character/Motivation. Remember, you only have about 250 words to pitch your novel, so don’t bog it down with introducing characters. Aside from your protagonist, pick maybe one or two characters who you feel you absolutely need to introduce in your query, and then slip those characters in with very short introductions. However, for every character you introduce, you need to explain or at least imply their motivation. This is especially true for your main character. Hint to the reader what she wants. What is her endgame? Why is she going to all this trouble to achieve it? Because if we don’t know what a character wants, we don’t know the character, and thus the query makes a lot less sense.

Stakes. So in your query, you answer in some way what the main character wants. Good! Now, you need to identify stakes. What’s holding her back from her goal? Where is the central conflict coming from? What happens if she fails? I know most books have a number of subplots, so for the purpose of your stakes, stick with the main, overriding issue in the story, and make clear what the stakes are for the main character if she fails. Stakes give a sense of urgency and tension to your query, and they’re what gives the agent a reason to read on. Because if nothing happens if the main character fails whatever her goal is, what is the point of the book at all?

Other things: 

– Show, don’t tell. I know we all know this, but it’s still worth reiterating, as this rule is especially important when it comes to query writing. Don’t say that your main character is a nice person. Say she walked the neighbor’s dog instead. It brings the same conclusion, but in a much more real, concrete, specific way.

– Don’t spoil the ending. Do that in synopses, not queries!

At the end of your query, you should include: 

The book’s wordcount.

– Genre.

– Title.

Possibly a personalized reason for querying the particular agent. i.e. “I hope this book will appeal to you because of your enthusiasm for gritty, character-driven books with historical settings.” (Or whatever.)

Possibly a pitch. i.e. “Pitched as The Fault in Our Stars meets SharknadoThe Fault in Our Sharks is a YA fantasy…” or “Pitched as The Great Gatsby in space, How To Lose The Alien of Your Life is a YA sci-fi…” Pitches are great because they gave an agent a really clear sense of where your book will fit in the market, but if you can’t think of a strong, apt pitch for your book, they aren’t important enough that you should use one.

Possibly a short bio. But only IF you have either experience relevant to your book or previous publishing credits, in which case make the bio no more than three sentences. If you don’t have either of the above, don’t include a bio. I promise it won’t work against you; not many authors have experience before getting an agent. Also, since I’m assuming most of you reading this are teenagers, I want to quickly note: being a teenager does not help you this early in the process. Your age can be a good marketing tool for publishers later on, but being that the stigma against teens writing still exists, it’s best to leave that kind of thing out until the agent offers. 

Okay, so now for the query links. Writing a query, once again, is not something to be taken lightly, so I recommend checking out at least a few of these websites and reading other successful queries before attempting your own query. Some places to get you started:

More AgentQuery: I linked to this above, but it’s worth noting again: this whole page on query letter writing on Agent Query is fantastic.

Nathan Bransford: I mentioned him above, but here is a direct link to one of his posts about writing a query. It’s definitely worth reading through.

– QueryShark. QueryShark is my favorite. The site is run by agent Janet Reid, and she goes through and publicly critiques queries by writers, stating what works and what doesn’t. (Go to the bottom of the left sidebar where it says “Queries that got to YES” and click some of the links for examples of Janet-approved queries. They’re great ones. And if you find that helpful, here are more successful queries according to agents.

YA Highway: YA Highway does this whole fantastic query series, wherein they post the successful queries of now-published authors and ask their agents to explain what worked and what didn’t. It’s worth scrolling through all of the queries (there are only, like, thirteen-ish?), but two of my personal favorites are here and here.

Writer’s Digest:  More good info on how to write a query letter.

Also visit Miss Snark and Miss Snark’s First Victim–if you go through their archives, both sites have some really great information.

Hope this helps!

So what else?

– Make sure you follow exactly the submission guidelines each agent sets (info on that is usually on the agency website). Think of them like your first test, and remember that almost every agent asks for something different. For example, some agents want  sample pages from your book to be included with your query, while others don’t; some ask for the first fifty sample pages, while others ask for the first ten; some agents ask for synopses with your query, while some prefer none at all. So be sure to read the submission guidelines carefully. (This does matter, because if you can’t follow simple guidelines, it reflects poorly on you.)

Don’t procrastinate so much that you forget to follow the submission guidelines!

– Be sure to format your query and sample pages to each agent’s requirements (Times New Roman, 12 pt font, 1 inch spacing is pretty universal if they don’t specify). Both, unless the agent requests otherwise, should go in the body of the email–no attachments!

– You are welcome to query agents outside of your country, but be mindful that most agents prefer authors who are not all the way across the world (because it’s easier for a publisher to work with an author living near their country). However, with a stellar book, I’m sure location won’t be as much of a factor. :-)

– That myth that agents only read query letters if they know the author? Not true. (Also, take it from me, agents really do read queries from unknown writers, and they read them closely.) 

– Also, remember that agents are slooooow in their responses. You can check QueryTracker Literary Rambles or AbsoluteWrite to see how long a particular agent usually takes, but know that agents are famous for their slow response speed. Many can take around eight weeks to reply to a query, and many don’t reply at all (due to the hateful things they often receive in response to rejections), which is why, if they don’t respond at all to a query, I honestly would not recommend following up. Chances are, it just wasn’t for them.

And… that’s it! Now you’re ready to query.

I did it, John! I queried! But… I got rejected. :( 

Congratulations! You have joined the club of authors like J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and every author you can think of. Every single one of those literary geniuses was rejected by an agent or publisher or theater group or something to that effect at some point in their lives.

Okay, but I sent fifty queries. Every single one of them was rejected.

 

I have three things to say to you:

1) First of all, the world is lying to you. The best medicine is not laughter, but puppy GIFs. Like this one. Or this one. Or this one. Go on, click them, and let them warm your soul.

2) Feel a little bit better? Okay, good. Now, remember what I said above. I got something like 90 rejections in a row on my first novel before I ever got a request. But I’m by no means anyone to look up to/to compare yourself to in any capacity (I still struggle to get out of bed in the morning tbh), so take it from now-NYT bestselling author Meg Cabot who spent “two years [getting] rejection letters from agents almost daily” and who “kept all [her] rejection letters in a US postal mail bag under [her] bed,” which, judging by the size of a postal mail bag, is a lot of rejections. And look where Cabot is now. My point being, rejection is TOTALLY normal. It happens. And without it, we have no way of improving. I know it doesn’t feel like it at the time, but they do help you. They propel you both to improve your writing and they also help you develop thicker skin for the future (which you’ll need to deal with negative reviews when you get published. Yes, I said “when”). And if you keep getting rejections? Ask a friend to read over your book for you and give their opinion on it so you can improve it. And in the meantime, write something new and even more awesome than before!

3) This whole post. (Tl;dr: everything about the industry is subjective, and rejections tend to reflect more on the person sending the rejections than on the quality of your book. For example, agents could dislike a character that someone else absolutely loves. I mean, for some reason, there are people who genuinely hate Augustus Waters, and he’s… well, he’s Augustus effing Waters, the un-hate-able boy. (Point being, we all have our tastes.))

John, what are you– Oh wait! Oh my god! I just got an email from an agent. She says she wants to read my full!

YAY!

First, celebrate. You earned this! Full requests, or really requests of any kind, are hard to come by, so make sure you give yourself the break (and reward) you deserve. Then, send them the full manuscript! Unless they state otherwise on their website or in their email to you, attach your manuscript as a .doc. Be polite and brief in your response. Just thank them for your interest, maybe tell them you’re excited that they are interested, and send your manuscript; unless they ask for something else, that’s all you need to do. But make sure your manuscript has your phone number at the top so the agents can contact you when they inevitably love your book. 

Also, bear in mind that agents are not generally fast when replying to requested material. Some state how long you should wait before following up on requested material, but if they don’t specify, it’s usually safe to wait eight weeks before checking in. However, please don’t follow-up on requested material before that. I say this because, having read through the slush, it really does not reflect well on you.

(BTW: If an agent requests a “partial” and doesn’t specify on his or her website or in his or her email to you how many pages/chapters that partial is to them, it’s safe to assume they mean the first fifty pages.)

Whoa, John, the agent responded! She really liked it, but she had some suggestions and asked me to resubmit to her once I made them! …What exactly does that mean?

That is what writers call a Revise & Resubmit (shorthand: R&R), and it is amazing. Once again, celebrate! Do the Dumbledore dance, because an agent liked your freaking book! And once that is out of the way, look at the suggestions the agent made and decide whether or not you agree with them. If you do, thank the agent for his interest and tell him you’ll get back to him once you complete the revisions. Then, revise! If you don’t agree, it’s probably best to politely decline.

(Note: if you do the revisions, don’t rush it. Agents like it when you take your time to really improve your work based on their notes, so if you send the revised manuscript after only a week, it looks to them like you didn’t put enough effort in.)

Fine, but @#$#$!!!!^&$(*)$# I sent the revision and got rejected. :( :( :( 

Keep querying! The fact that an agent even liked your book enough to R&R is a VERY GOOD SIGN. Don’t give up because of the one, subjective rejection. You’ll sort of know when it’s time to stop querying a certain book, and you haven’t hit that point yet. So keep at it, and in the meantime, write something new! The most effective to deal with rejection is to write a newer, better book while you’re querying the old one.

But while you try to cheer up, I’ll just redirect you to this VERY IMPORTANT GIF:

The cuteness never gets old

(If you have questions, let me know in the comments!)

Interview With Mandy Hubbard, Author and Literary Agent

Meet Mandy Hubbard, Author and Literary Agent

Mandy Hubbard is a literary agent at D4EO literary, specializing in YA and MG fiction. She’s also the author of 10 teen novels, written under her own name and the pen name Amanda Grace. Her titles include Prada & Prejudice, You Wish, Fool Me Twice, and But I Love Him, among others. She’s currently living happily ever after in her hometown of Enumclaw, Washington, where she watches too much MTV and stays up too late.

1. What is the wackiest query you have ever received?

I actually don’t talk about my queries, for the most part, except in very vague terms on twitter if I’m trying to give a #Pubtip. At the end of the day, there is a person on the other end of that query. They may be clueless, but there’s a good chance they’ll figure it out along the way. Everyone is a newbie at some point.

Although I should say, my own client once sent me a query about a “citrus fruit who falls peel over heels in love with Russ, a potato from the wrong side of the produce aisle,” and I blogged the whole thing (with her permission) here: http://mandyhubbard.livejournal.com/225747.html?thread=2062035

2. You were a published author before you were an agent. Why did you decide to become an agent? Why did you choose D4EO?

As an author, I often reached out to other writers who were struggling and offered assistance. This industry is so damn hard to break into, I wanted to help others who were weathering rejection like I had. I would often help them rewrite queries, revise their novel, or just give general guidance. Some friends went on to land agents with my queries and eventually sell their novels. At the same time, my writing career was taking off, and my agent was allowing me to have input on submissions. BUT I LOVE HIM was submitted to just three editors of my choosing, and it sold in a matter of days. My own agent was joking that  Ishould be an agent, so when I found an internship, I jumped right in and fell in love.

I connected with Bob at D4EO Literary via another agent, and I’m so grateful I did. Bob is amazing to work with. Really supportive, and knowledgable, and just a generally good guy.

3. What’s the most important thing that authors forget to ask during “The Call”? [“The Call” is when an agent calls to offer representation, for those who don’t know.] 

These days I feel like authors are  really well informed! They’re always asking such intelligent questions. Many times they forget to ask about how foreign/film/subsidiary rights are handled, and I think that is important. I would also ask about general submission strategies—if they do one big round, two smaller rounds, etc, and whether they keep you updated as news comes in, or whether they send out news in batches, etc, etc.

4. How do you go about reading a query? What do you look for, both for positive aspects and not? Characters? Plot? Spelling mistakes?

I like to see something really intriguing and enticing about the character, coupled with either a big hook or if it’s a literary novel, something that showcases a strong voice. If it’s literary, and the query is dry and sounds like a thousand other books, I have to pass on it. Small spelling errors don’t bother me, but if I see a repeated mistake (like a lack of understanding on the correct use of a comma), I assume the book is a mess and I pass on it.

5. Can you give us an insight on a day in the life of a literary agent like yourself? How do you personally prioritize your time between family, writing and agenting?

It’s  tough, for sure, to balance my writing an agenting. I have deadlines with my own writing that I don’t want to miss, but I also hate the idea of clients feeling like my writing is a priority over their’s. This means I often get up early (5AM) and work on my book for an hour or three before my real work day starts. Sundays are a good day for writing, too. My husband often goes “on adventures” with our daughter and I work all afternoon.

The slush pile is usually relegated to 30-60 minutes of reading while I eat lunch. If  a project is so good I’m willing to give it more than a lunch break, that’s a good sign. Unfortunately I often power through a couple chapters on a handful of projects, rather than hitting on something really good.

My general duties fill in the remainder of the day. It’s just a lot of emailing and editing, actually. I try to empty my inbox every night, because I don’t like clients waiting more than 24 hours for a response.

6. Nearly every agent has passed on a book that eventually made it big. What was your book, if you feel comfortable sharing the title? Why did you pass on it? How far did it get with you (partial, full, etc.)? 

I have two projects that I think of from time to time, one that I offered on and lost, and one that I passed on that sold big. I was one of the fortunate agents to read Genn Albin’s CREWEL, and it’s simply spectacular. Really ground breaking, amazing writing, exciting twists and turns. I had just started reading it when she emailed to say she had an offer. I think she ended up with about six offers, and she signed with an agent who flew to Kansas City to meet with her. (Yeah, it’s THAT good.). It sold in a major deal to FSG. I would have loved to be a part of that, but I’m also just happy to have been one of the first to read it, and I’m excited to see her career begin. I got to have dinner with her recently and she’s as sweet as can be, and she deserves the success.

The second project, which shall remain nameless, I really enjoyed, but didn’t fall head over heels for. It was actually a writer friend. She signed an agent about a month later, and the book sold in a major deal as well, to Harper. I think every agent has that “D’oh!” gut reaction, but then we realize that we just weren’t the right agent for that writer. They found someone passionate about their book who clearly had a vision we didn’t share.

7. Imagine 5 make-believe query letters. Think of one that you would accept and four that you would reject. Don’t tell us what the query letters say, but briefly explain why you would accept or reject them.

I’m dying for a really innovative, high concept Sci-Fi. I already have something with spaceships, so maybe something a little more grounded. As for the other four, I’m passing on all things vampire, werewolf, and angel, so there are three for you. The fourth? A query in which the author calls the characters “youngsters.” That just smacks of being out of touch with your demographic, to me.

8. We know a lot about the author/agent side of publishing. How does the agent/editor part work?

It’s actually really fun to be on the other side. Writers work REALLY  hard at every level, including revisions. I rather like seeing an editor’s revision letter and then NOT having to do the work! J It’s nice to be part of the business side. Sometimes I just get to fangirl with an editor about my client’s work, and that’s pretty amazing too.

It’s a lot of cultivating relationships and keeping spreadsheets. Not as glamorous as one might think.

9. What do you think about representing a novel that was previously self-published? How important are “first publishing rights” if the author has completely removed the novel from the market and/or internet prior to querying an agent?

First publishing rights are really not an issue. That’s kind of a dinosaur term. The issue is whether the book sold well. If it didn’t, it can hurt you. And if it sold SPECTACULARLY well, a publisher may be afraid you’ve tapped the market already. I do represent previously self-published titles, and one recently went on submission. It’s not necessary to remove it from the internet prior to querying, no. Assuming the book is doing well.

10.  Any new books (of yours) in the works?

My next release is IN TOO DEEP, under the pen-name Amanda Grace. It comes out in February, followed by DANGEROUS BOY in August.

 

Thank you so much for your time, Mandy!