Saturday, April 30, 2011

WTF is up with cursing in YA?

I answered this one in the April open thread, but it was buried and since I know a lot of people are curious about this stuff...
Q: I've come to disagreement w/ a friend over acceptable word choices for YA. The main cause of argument is the word "boner." The MCs are a 14 y/o girl and a 15 y/o boy. I can't see the word being acceptable, yet, she disagrees 100% with me. I realize boys, in fact, use the word but do I want my 13 or 14 y/o daughter reading it? No.
BONER is about the least offensive word to do with erect penises that I can think of, and if you are writing a YA set in high school that includes those body parts, it is ok to use. I wouldn't even call this a curse, really --  in some circles, it still means "to mess up" (like "pull a boner" is the same as "boneheaded maneuver") -- and not "erect penis."

Does that mean YOU have to use it? No. Does it mean YOU have to allow your daughter to read books that contain it? No. But will it be fine to publish for high school students? For sure. Provided of course that it is right for the character, that it makes sense in context and you aren't just randomly throwing words around.

Now, of course, there is such a thing as clean YA, in which you pretty much want to avoid any blush-inducing "downstairs" business.  But if you are writing scenes in which boners come into play, I am assuming that you are not writing strictly clean. (Still, you might look at a book like E. Lockhart's FLY ON THE WALL, which if I recall correctly was pretty clean, considering the fact that it takes place almost entirely in a boy's locker room... maybe there are other words you can use.)
Q: The first line of my manuscript uses the f-word twice. Line: "I can sum up my entire life in either of two words: f**k this or I quit. Maybe a grand total of four: f**k this, I quit." Would things like this turn agents away?
F**K no. ;-)

I am kidding, of course. MOST agents and editors who rep a lot of 14+ YA will think a few well-chosen curse words are no problem. And yes, that includes the asterisk-free "F-bomb."  You want to use it fairly sparingly, I think, but sometimes, for some characters, in some situations, there just might not be a better word. Again, you aren't going to sell these books to inspirational publishers, or to editors who focus on Clean Tween / "younger YA" fic, or who rely mostly on school/library sales - but those wouldn't have been appropriate publishers anyway, from the sounds of it.

Myself, it wouldn't stop me from reading more. But I might question whether that has to be the first line of the first page. First, because I wouldn't want somebody just glancing at the book to get the wrong idea of it.  And, I sorta feel like I want to get to know a character and be rooting for them in a way before I start seeing all the unsavory parts of their personality. A couple pages in, after (presumably) we understand WHY he might have an "eff this" attitude, it will come off differently than if that is the first thing we ever learn about him. Your first page sets the tone for the whole thing, and if the whole thing is going to be like this, it might be sort of tiresome 200+ pages in. (Again - I haven't read your book - maybe it works perfectly as-is. But without context, this is what crosses my mind.)

You might also consider seeing what other YA authors have done. Lots (like the previously mentioned E. Lockhart, as well as John Green and many others) use made up slang to express the feeling without relying on the actual curse. Sometimes unique word usage actually helps create a well-rounded character, because cursing CAN be a lazy writer's way of making a character seem "edgy."

Friday, April 29, 2011

Link Roundup!

Let's close some tabs, shall we?

Here's a thoughtful post from Janni Lee Simner about the not-death of traditional publishing. Yes! Publishers are still good for some stuff after all, it seems. Surprise!

RomCom author Tawna Fenske pulls together some eye-opening posts about authors & money.

A great post from Jennifer Crusie about the basics of fiction writing.

Nathan Bransford warns against the "Spaghetti Agent."

And this just in from Client Pimpage Central:

Love funny stories? Love Dogs? Love Jews? Love funny stories about Dogs and Jews? UNCLE BORIS IN THE YUKON by Daniel Pinkwater is available again at last from Simon & Schuster.

The CORSETS & CLOCKWORK anthology is out from Running Press and includes stories from my own authors Tiffany Trent and Jackie Dolamore. Book Pixie has a contest to win a copy - ends 5/3.

Monday, April 25, 2011

On Agency Agreements

Twitter-Q: What sorts of clauses should we watch for in the agent contract? Do authors ever have an attorney review before they sign?
I've been asked a variation of this question several times in recent days. I can trace the current anxiety surrounding this issue to a specific blog post from last week, this one from agent Kristen Nelson. I could have sworn that I'd written about this topic before, but I couldn't find in the blarchives, so here's my take:

I prefer to call the document in question an "Agency Agreement" rather than "contract" -- it is a contract, of course, but in my experience it is a much gentler, more genial, and much less confusing document than a publisher contract, and "agreement" more accurately fits the tone of the thing. Plus then it doesn't get confused with all the actual publishing contracts we will be negotiating on your behalf down the line. :-)

The agency agreements I've seen have been quite short and easy to understand. There should be nothing "gotcha" or secret about the terms set forth in the agreement. You should not need a team of lawyers or experts to parse the language, in fact, since the terms of the agreement are often so simple ("this is our commission" for example), they are often non-negotiable, so a lawyer would be a waste of your money. (That said, of course you may spend your money however you like... I'd just look at it before you start getting lawyered up.)

The agent you are signing with should make time to walk you through the agreement. If you feel totally freaked out by the complexity of the agreement, and are too scared to ask questions, or don't understand the answers... you might be signing with the wrong agent.

Here's are the big points an agency agreement should contain, and things to watch out for. NOTE: Some agencies have no agreements at all, it is all verbal/handshake. Some agencies will have more or less items, or have these worded in different ways, or in a different order, but these are in general items that should be covered either in your written agreement or in your conversation pre-"handshake" deal:

1. Scope of Representation: What is the agent repping? (books? short stories? magazine work? subrights? everything?) Is this a one year contract, or open-ended? I know that some agencies do a year at a time, and the contract renews (or doesn't) each year. Some do a book at a time, and the contract renews (or doesn't) when there is a new book. It is my experience, however, that many or most agents are "at-will" - in other words, we are your agent until such time as either party decides to part ways. Make sure you know what the agent is going to rep for you, and if this is a contract that has a specific term, or if it is open-ended.

2. Commission: How much the agent gets paid, and for what, and how the money will be distributed. Notes:

* Agents typically get 15% on regular book sales, and 20 or 25% on subrights that involve one or more co-agents (ie, Hollywood or foreign). I've heard of slight variations on this, but wildly different commission rates would set off major alarm bells for me.

* Money typically goes from the publisher to the agency, they take their commission out and forward your part to you. It is my understanding that legally, this has to happen within 2 weeks of the agency receiving the check. There may be exceptions to this arrangement, in which the publisher sends your portion of the monies directly -- for example, if you live in a foreign country, this might alleviate some of the bank fees. Doesn't really matter either way, but you need to know how you're going to get paid, and I would want this in the agreement.

* Expenses: If you request unusual services such as courier, overnight delivery, etc, you may have to pay for such expenses (I have never once had to charge expenses in this fashion, because my clients don't request unusual services. Regular postage, office supplies, etc, I pay for). In addition, you may have to pay for shipping of your own book overseas for foreign sales. This is normal. Any such charges should be well-explained to you, and documented/invoiced. NOT NORMAL: Requiring you to go out of pocket for special 3rd party editors or "consulting services" or similar. Major. Red. Flag.

* Agents typically get their commission for any book that they sell, for the lifetime of that publishing contract. When the book goes out of print and rights revert to you, 20 years from now or whatever, you've gotten a new agent and she sells the book to a publisher who re-prints it, the first agent should not get any % from that sale. Likewise, the new agent will not get any % from the first agent's sale. I have clients who sold their first book with another agent, or by themselves - I get no % from that. But if I sell that book to France, that is a new contract, and I get the %. Make sense?  However THIS is where the "in perpetuity" problem that K.N. talked about in her blog post comes in. Do make sure that the agency is only receiving commission for what they actually sell, not on the book in any permutation in perpetuity. UNLIKE K.N., I have never actually seen this wording in an agency agreement, but I have no doubt that it sometimes exists.

3. Termination:  This will set forth how either party can "break up". It will probably say something like, you must notify the other party in writing (or possibly by registered mail). Some agencies, you are able to move on effective immediately,  BUT any and all work subbed by the first agent will continue to be repped by that agent. So, you can get a new agent tomorrow - but if we get an offer because of work that I did and a submission that I made, I will negotiate that contract and your new agent will have nothing to do with it.

At other agencies, there may be 30, 60 or even 90 days built in here where the agent can tie up loose ends, withdraw books that are on submission, and during which you would be obliged not to get new representation. This is just an additional guarantee that the agent will be protected should you decide to go rogue after they've made a sale for you. Make sure you understand what is involved if you decide you need to part ways with your agent. You don't want to cause bad blood, or worse, get in a situation where two agents feel they have claim over your work. If the agent is asking for longer than 30 days "leeway", I'd ask to shorten it.

Annnnnd... that's pretty much it. Pretty straightforward stuff. Again, some agencies might have NO formal agreement, or more clauses in their formal agreements, but none of it should baffle you, and if it does, that is what asking questions is for. There are a lot bigger and scarier contracts in your publishing future, so you need to know that your agent will be able to translate for you if necessary. Sometimes an agent might use shorthand or throw around jargon that you don't know. And yeah, Google will help, but when it comes to something as important as your career, as my lawyer parents taught me:



Friday, April 22, 2011

Pants on Fire

Every year or two there is a story about a nonfiction writer who just made up a bunch of bullshit and called it his life story, or copied a bunch of info from other books without any attribution, or a fiction writer who lifted paragraphs or chapters from other books and called them her own.

We know that lying is wrong, and that copying other people's work is cheating. That's still covered in like, kindergarten, right? But still... writing a good book is HARD. And cheating can seem easy, and painless, by comparison. Particularly when there are thousands (or even millions) of dollars riding on your whipping up a good story on a deadline.

Publishers can't exactly compare every line of your book to every other book ever written, or make you take a lie detector test to prove you climbed the Himalayas that one time. But they do make you sign a contract. And that contract always includes a Warranties & Indemnities clause. This section is easy to gloss over because it doesn't contain any $$$ signs, but it is interesting and important to know about. Of course it will differ from publisher to publisher, and can get quite long and complex, but in general, it looks like this (LIBERALLY TRANSLATED):

a) You promise that you aren't plagiarizing this.  You haven't stolen any of it. You aren't committing libel.  This is not a violation of any obscenity laws.  This has never been published before.  You wrote this all by yourself and you have the right to publish this.  The book does not contain recipes or instructions for anything that might cause somebody harm.  ("Timmy read Magic Under Glass and learned how to bring the grandfather clock to life, and then it strangled him!")

b) You assure the publisher (and by extension anyone the publisher works with, foreign publishers, movie producers, whomever) that you really, really told the truth just now and they will not be sued for any reason because of something in your book.  If it turns out that you were lying about any of that stuff before, you have to pay the damages and attorney fees.  (Um, so don't lie.)

c) Provided that you DIDN'T lie before, you are covered under the publisher's insurance policy, so if for some reason you are sued, they will provide legal counsel and you are required to work with them to defend the case.  (Generally, if you also want to hire your own lawyer you can at your own expense, but the publisher's lawyer has to be in charge of the case.) You still might be liable for some expenses, but otherwise you are covered -- unless of course it comes out that you were lying about any of that stuff that you promised you didn't lie abut before, in which case the insurance is off, and your publisher will leave you to twist in the wind, and did you know that lawyers in New York are very expensive? They are. 

Aside from the financial burden, you will of course also ruin your reputation, and become a laughingstock and/or a pariah. Though it doesn't mean your career is necessarily over (bad pennies do keep turning up), people in publishing do loooooove to gossip, and media likes to get ahold of these stories when they are big, too, so it is safe to say that there will be repercussions far into the future.

Also, you will make your agent cry. :-(

Thursday, April 07, 2011

No, Really. Finish the Manuscript.

Twitter-Q: "[I] would love to know why a full mss is always required, it would save time and heartbreak to know five chapters in the book sucks"
I get variations on this pretty much every day, like so: "Do I have to finish my ms before querying?" Yes. "But ... do I REALLY have to finish my ms before querying?" Yes. "OK, but, let's say I query before I finish my ms..." Don't. "But it takes so long to get an agent, and I've got a good 50 pages finished..." Sigh.

See the thing is, I just can't critique your work, or tell you if you are wasting your time, or whatever. Really. I think you are great, but I can't help you with those things. It is not my job.

Sort of like, when the landscaper comes to your house, you don't show them into the attic and leave them there. (Well... I guess you might do that, but it would be super weird, and probably lead to a bad lawn and possibly a lawsuit.) It just... isn't their job to talk to you about insulation. They are outdoor folk.

I am not a critique partner. I am an agent. I take your (finished) manuscript, help you polish it, then play "matchmaker" and sell it to a publisher. So I am looking for a manuscript that I not only love, but that I think I can sell. I am not making a match between your random, unwritten notions and a publisher, much in the same way that modern matchmakers generally make the match between two consenting adults, and don't marry off unborn children. If you are sending me unfinished material, you are not even close to giving me what I am looking for, because I can't sell it.*

*This advice void if you are already well-published and/or famous.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

April Showers Open Thread

It's the top of the month which means that it is time once again for a brand-new open thread!

Have agentish questions? Need advice or encouragement? Want to talk about the new Sweet Valley High book?  Have wacky pet pix to share?  GO ON, THEN, COMMENT!

Short answers I will take care of in comments, longer ones may become blog-fodder.