Monday, June 18, 2012

How Does Your Garden (of words) Grow?

I have to preface this post by saying, I know nothing at all about gardening. I grew up in a city, with a little concrete patio that had some potted plants on it, which I dutifully forgot to water and killed every time my mom went out of town. Which was often. Then I lived in college dorms and apartments with no gardens or plants at all. So when I moved to the Hudson Valley, it was my first ever house with a backyard and a garden. The owners at the time paid a nice set of ladies to come and weed and take care of things out front. But now... now I own the house. And it is my garden to take care of. And gardening ladies are expensive.

So I - a total nature newbie - am now confronted for the first time ever with this PROFUSION of greenery that is mine to deal with. Most of the shady plants are doing fine on their own, but the sunny plants on one side of the house are at this point all taller than me, taller than the windows, quickly trying to consume the driveway and the house. It's chaos.

As I was outside today finally pruning it reminded me of what you writers go through in writing and especially revising your work.

First step: I put on my special pink gloves. I went outside with shears. And I looked at all the green madness. I really looked. It was pretty - VERY pretty - but also, to be honest, a hot mess. And how to fix it? I was overwhelmed at first.

The giant plants-that-I-don't-know-what-they-are were starting to encroach on the driveway. They are beautiful ... but my car needs to go there. So, though I wasn't sure what was OK to cut and what wasn't... I just had to go for it.  Cut. Cut. Cut. Oh wow - it's still beautiful - but now my car fits! And it all looks better actually!

That mass of green that is the prickly ancient giant miniature rose bush (giant bush, miniature roses) -- well, many of the roses are dead and can just be trimmed off. And in fact, it isn't just a rose bush. It has other plants winding around INSIDE of it, some of which are dragging poor Rosy's branches down. Some branches are clearly dead and are just weighing down the whole bush.

So I trimmed a few dead blooms off here and there. Fluffed some leaves. But no real progress until I TOOK A RISK. I had to decide, on purpose, to plunge my arms in. YES it scratched, but it was the only way to access the ivy and whatnot and cut it out of the bush, and really, though it stung to dive in like that, it was a thousand times faster and more effective than if I'd been dawdling around the outside parts for an hour. Then I had to take another risk and cut off pieces of the bush itself. I was nervous, because I didn't want to RUIN the bush - but they had to go. Not only dead branches, but branches that were alive, and even nice, but just too heavy.

And guess what? It is STILL a prickly ancient giant miniature rose bush. It is STILL sweet smelling and beautiful. But now it is actually much nicer looking, and much more likely to survive, because all the crazy stuff that was weighing it down is gone.

SO here are a few revision tips, culled from my first hour or so of gardening:

The only way to do it is to DO IT. This is how you prune the plants. You get suited up, put on the gloves, go outside with some shears, and start cutting. Peering at the plants from the porch, thinking about the plants, researching them online? None of those will actually prune the plants for you.

You will not succeed unless you take a risk. You WILL get scratched up. It WILL be a pain in the ass. Yes, it is hot and there are probably bugs out there. Oh well. If you don't work hard, you're probably doing it wrong. But it is immensely satisfying once it is done.

But how do I know what is a weed and what is a plant? My mom told me, "A weed is anything that is growing where you don't want it." Hm. But WHICH ONES?? Some of them are pretty! How do I know? "Just use your common sense and look. A weed is something that is choking out other plants."

Bonus tip for SECRET GARDEN fans:

Check for Wick. If a plant (or an idea!) seems dead, it might not be dead. Check and see if it is "wick." If there is any color there, clear the weeds around it. Give it some room to grow, and pat some fresh dirt around it, and give it some water, and some sunlight. See what happens.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Taking the Mystery out of Querying


I am going to be in Austin TX next week for the awesome Writer's League of Texas Agent Conference and I have been tasked with doing a breakout session called "Taking the Mystery out of Querying." 

Y'all know how I feel about Texas (I don't mess with it, I don't tread on it, I know its eyes are upon me, I run around looking for awesome pink boots every time I am there, and I LOVE IT)... but you also probably might know how I dislike doing talks about queries (because hello boring!)

So I'm aiming to take the boring out of this topic, and it starts with YOU.

What do YOU need to know about about queries -- and also, what pearls of inspiration do you have to share with me about them?

Things that you've never seen addressed, or things that are important that I not miss, or just general words of wisdom, all are appreciated. Share what has worked for you, what you STILL don't understand, or anything else you'd like.

Go play in the comments! I will shake all of this around in the gem tumbler of my brain and see what happens. Yay! Thanks in advance!

xo JL

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Pre-Conference Query... Huh?

Q: Would you like to receive a query from a prospective writer prior to meeting them at a conference?
I got this question on Twitter last night, and in thinking about it I realized, sure enough, before every conference I attend I get a handful of queries from people that say they are "about to meet me at XYZ conference next week" (for example). Actually, I've been getting more lately than ever. It makes me feel like somebody must have written an article advising people to do this or something. Hm.

I must start by saying, I don't think you need to go to conferences to meet agents or to learn craft. It is cool if you can, or want to -- they can be very helpful -- but they are far from necessary. Most of my clients do not attend conferences, and I've never signed anyone at a conference.

So my initial response on Twitter was something like I don't give a good god-damn when you send your query. Which is true. However... I do sort of wonder about the reasoning.

* How do you know you'll like me? Obviously you never REALLY know if you'll like working with somebody until you're actually working with them. You can query agents all day, but just because you like their books, or think they are funny on Twitter, doesn't mean you'll enjoy working with them. But you are in a sort of rare position in that you are about to meet me! Since you only have one opportunity at my agency, perhaps hearing about my interests in real life will cement your decision to go with me, or sway you toward another one of our excellent agents. But if you've already queried me, that chance is gone, sooo...

* I try to clear my inbox before I go out of town. Purely from a housekeeping perspective, I try to get at least the bulk of my queries done before I go away for a conference. Which means that if you pre-query me, often I have already rejected you by the time we meet. That's awkward, no?

* If you pitch me in real life, you'll get to see my response. If we have the chance to talk at the conference, you can ASK me if your picture book about Weevil-Ghosts or whatever is a good fit for me, or if you should send to somebody else at the agency. (Actually I'll stop you right there: Don't send me the Weevil-ghost picture book. Try Caryn, she'll love it.) (KIDDING PLEASE DON'T KILL ME CARYN.)

* People I've met tend to stick out in a good way. Again, remember, I've never signed anyone at a conference, and I hadn't met the vast majority of my clients when I signed them. But. If we DID get the chance to talk, and you mention it in your query, it's natural that I'm more likely to pay attention. Obviously I am not going to remember "pass the salt" - but if we had some connection over a shared love of a book, or we had a funny convo about the Weevil-ghosts, or whatever, I'm likely to remember it. Just human nature. I'm not going to offer you representation based on meeting you, or even just hearing a pitch, of course, but if I go in with good expectations, I am more likely to give your work the extra chance and want to read more, or even take just that extra minute to try and personalize my response to you, even if it is a rejection.

* MOST IMPORTANTLY, isn't the point of going to the conference so you'll learn things? Not to be a jerk or anything, but seriously? I've read what people turn in to conferences. That stuff is NOT ready for prime time. That is, I assume, why the authors are AT the conference - not just because they love nametags, or get a thrill from hanging out in hotel ballrooms drinking cheap white wine. I hope they are going to take all the wonderful stuff they've learned at the conference and APPLY IT TO THEIR WORK to make it stronger. I'm extremely dubious whenever I get a query a day or a week after a conference, because it feels like the attendee didn't even listen or let anything sink in... so it follows that I'd be even more dubious about a PRE-conference query.

So I guess it turns out I have more feelings about this than I thought I did.

What do YOU think the reasoning is behind pre-conference querying? Is there some obvious reason to do this I'm totally missing?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

About the Agent-Author relationship... aka, Who's the Boss?

Often on Writerly Internet Message Boards, if you are around them in the "agent" section for more than two nanoseconds, you'll come across this phrase, meant to bolster a shy query-writer's confidence when dealing with those Big Bad Agents:

"Remember, YOU'RE HIRING THE AGENT, not vice-versa!"

Ugh. The thing is, that's not true. Yes, I work for my authors. But they also work for me. It's a partnership. We both have to communicate, or it doesn't work. We both have to be happy, or it doesn't work. We both have to WORK... or it doesn't work.

To imply that an author is "hiring" an agent the same way one might hire a repairman is misleading. You don't get to pick whatever agent you want out of a phone book, call them up and ask for an estimate. You don't order them around, or pick and choose from a list of priced services, and then throw them a check. That just isn't how it works. First of all, because your book is not a washing machine or an automobile or a widget, it is YOUR BOOK. Presumably it has bits of your heart and soul wrapped up in it - you want somebody who reps it to have a sense of passion for it, too. And because there are no "estimates" or "list of services" - every single project is its own peculiar beast that will demand its own unique approach.

And it's also not an "employer-employee" relationship where you sit in an office and call the shots while your agent is out digging ditches. An agent is navigating the world that they know quite well, and that you are unlikely to know well at all. You have expertise about writing your story - but your agent (hopefully!) has expertise about selling it and all the business associated with that. You need to listen to them, not "boss" them... and they need to listen to, and not boss, you. (Well, OK, I am a bit bossy, but WITH LOVE.)

An agent might work with you for a lifetime. Even if you part ways, they are always the agent on the books you sold together. You have to trust them, they are your fiduciary, they handle your money and tax info and know secrets. If you work with them long enough, they'll likely know more about you than anyone outside your family.

So here's another thing that people say:

"Finding the right agent is like GETTING MARRIED."

Nope, I totally disagree with that too. Sorry, guys, you know I love you, but... I don't LOVE-love you. While I work closely with my authors, we don't actually go home together at night.

While marriage is closer to the truth than the "repairman" model above, I still think it is off-base. Most people don't find a spouse by sending applications to a dozen potential ones and then letting them pick, first of all. And, it implies that the relationship is all about FEEEEEEELINGS and that the loss of it is or should be DEVASTATING.

Look, it's not an employer-employee relationship. It's not a marriage. It's a business partnership, OK? When they work out great, there can be magic. But not everyone is a great fit for everyone else. Sometimes the magic doesn't happen. You often really can't know what it will be like to work with somebody until you work with them - and you can't know how you'll react to being published and all the mishegas that goes with it till it happens.

And sometimes business partnerships don't work out for whatever reason. If you aren't getting along with your agent, or you disagree with them about the direction you should be going in, or whatever, and you've had the conversation with them but nothing has changed, you are holding yourself back by remaining tied to them. It's OK to part ways. It happens all the time, and, provided you've given it a fair shot and been honest, there should be no hard feelings. IT'S NOT A DIVORCE.

What do YOU think?

Friday, June 08, 2012

Query Guidelines - A refresher course

I know, I know, I'm probably preaching to the choir here, and I'm sure nobody who NEEDS this info will actually read it. But it needs to be said once again. Note that these are MY query guidelines - other agents at other agencies may have different guidelines. Check agency websites for details.

I noticed recently that about half the queries I get don't follow the guidelines at all. And so they are deleted. Just... deleted. I don't have time for it. See, agency submission guidelines are not arbitrary. Nor are they some sort of test, or game, or trial that I am putting you through. They are simple, they are useful, and they exist for one big reason:


Let me explain. I just got home from a few days away and had 3,000 emails in my inbox upon my return. I generally get 300-500 emails per day that are NOT queries. Believe me when I tell you: YOU DO NOT WANT TO BE IN MY REGULAR INBOX. My regular inbox is a slash-and-burn affair where I am trying to delete or flag as fast as the stuff comes in.

What gets flagged for closer inspection are emails from clients and friends and work colleagues (editors, other agents, bookstore people and the like). Anything else gets deleted pretty much without a glance. The ramblings of strangers are not going to get flagged, let's put it that way.

Queries that follow the directions and have the word "query" in the go into a special marked QUERIES! folder. I read them when I am not doing anything else. I read them whenever I have time, and I take my time to read them. All the agents at ABLA, including me, have found gems in the slush, and it is extremely important to us that we keep going through these submissions. I may gripe about the people who don't follow directions, but for the rest of you, I really want to read your stuff, no joke. I WANT to find the next big thing. New talent is our life-blood.

So please help me help you.

The guidelines are easy. Pick one agent at the agency, and query them following these simple rules. If you don't follow them, you'll be deleted unread.




NOTE: I only rep MG and YA. Everything else will be deleted unread.

Friday, June 01, 2012

On Contests, and being a Sneaky Agent

Last week I participated in the Backspace conference. During a panel, somebody asked me about WRITING CONTESTS. How do I feel about them, are they worth entering, do they make me sit up and take notice if you mention them in the query, etc. And so I told them a story.

See, also last week there was this contest you might have heard of on various blogs or all over twitter called "The Writer's Voice." A takeoff on the TV signing competition, this one got four "teams" of authors, each under a coach, pitted against one another to grab the attention of agents - who would see only a pitch and first page, no bio or anything else, and would vote to see material based on that.

Now, I wasn't one of the agents participating. But everyone in my twitter stream was talking about the contest... so I clicked. And I read. And I made a note of a few of the entries that I thought sounded appealing.

While the entries were posted anonymously, all the writers were talking on twitter. I typed something like, "there are a few entries that I really liked - too bad I'm not a judge!" And one of the writers said, "Oh... well... one of those entries might be in your query inbox right now!" So I searched for her name in my inbox... and I found STITCHING SNOW. Which was, indeed, one of the entries I had my eyes on.

So I requested the full and read it before the contest was even over, so I'd get the jump on the other agents. And I was able to offer representation to R.C. Lewis before they'd even read it. SNEEEEAKY ME! But whatever, it was IN MY MAILBOX, obviously it was meant to be.

What's the point I'm making?

OH RIGHT, CONTESTS. Yes. Contests can be a great way to get practice pitching, to sharpen your first pages, to boost your confidence, to start thickening your skin, to possibly get feedback on your work.

If you go in thinking "I'm gonna BE DISCOVERED! An agent will see this and I'll BE A STAR!" ... you'll probably be disappointed. If you go in thinking "This will be fun, and a new experience!" you'll probably be pleased. While R.C.'s is a contest success story, I suspect these are pretty rare. And as she'll tell you - she herself has entered similar contests in the past and gotten nary a nibble of interest. So yeah. Temper your expectations, is what I'm saying.

Also... be sure it is a contest you want to win, and get the details. Some big contests require you to not shop the manuscript for a certain period of time while the contest is being held, sometimes for months or even a year. Other contests give a "prize" that may actually be more limiting than helpful. The Am*zon Breakthrough Novel contest, for example, seems pretty cool. It could be great exposure. The grand prize is a publishing contract with Penguin. So look, it MIGHT be the perfect contest for you. But it might not. If you read the fine print... that contract is completely non-negotiable. If you win, that probably means you have an extremely tight, highly commercial manuscript that is publisher-ready. If that is the case, you might well be better off getting an agent and selling it for better terms, keeping more subrights and getting higher royalties. If I love the book, and a person tells me in their query they're in this contest (as many people do, including my client Ilsa J. Bick once upon a time), I'm just thinking PLEASE DON'T LET THEM WIN!

As to whether to mention contests and the like in your query? I don't really think so unless it is a MAJOR contest (ie, held by a national organization with professional judges) which you WON or were one of very few finalists. Or, if you had contact with the agent through the contest and they requested material, then obviously mention it. Other than that, it doesn't impress me personally.