Viewing entries in
Pitching to Agent

6 Comments

Talking About Books With Agents

A few weeks ago, I wrote about turning in pages of my new novel to my agent. I heard back from her and the news is neither victorious (“these are the best pages I have ever read and I already talked to five publishers and we’re holding an auction next week”) nor fatal (“you can’t write and I don't want to represent you and you should give up and find another occupation.”)

The news was, in fact, somewhere in the middle of those extremes – imagine that! Here is what she said:

  • There are some things working well with my story – a good premise, some good moments, a strong sense of timeliness, a strong sense of the “stage” ofthe story – why it happens where it happens, how it unfolds.
  • There are some things that are not working well with my story – the structure (the way the character actually tells the story – why she tells us what she tells when she tells it) may not be serving the story in the way it needs to; the character is not yet wholly on the page yet and therefore someone the reader wholly cares about; there are some holes in the story logic that need to be repaired.

 
In other words, if I want to write a book that a big publisher believes is worth investing in, I have a lot of work to do. There is no "good enough" in this game.

For about four hours after hearing this news, I was depressed and deflated. It was not what I wanted to hear. 

I thought about just not doing it. After all, who cares if I ever write another book? I’ve written eight. That is a lot. That is good run. And the world will not stop spinning if I stop writing. I have another job I love – two of them, actually. It’s not like I need to fill the hours of the day.

But I only entertained that thought for about an hour.

I don’t want to stop.
I love a challenge.
I love my story.
I love the work of writing.

For about three seconds I thought about ditching my agent and finding someone else who thinks that everything I write comes out of my computer ready for prime time. I’d show her!

A writer friend of mine who shall not be named got similar news last week from her agent. But she did not believe her agent was right. She was ready to fight, to argue, to defend her fledgling project.

But I had none of that fire, none of that urge. 

Because my agent was right. What she was saying resonated with me – which is the key thing every writer has to ask about every piece of feedback she gets.  

I’m ashamed to admit that the thought about leaving her lasted even three seconds long. I love my agent. I trust her opinion. She is smart and savvy and she has my best interests in mind. She has stood by me for almost nine years. I would be an idiot to leave her.

I shook off my nasty alter-ego and then recalled that in the midst of telling me what was wrong with my book, my agent said some very flattering things about me and my writing and our relationship and this story that will become my next novel.

I realize what a gift it is to have such a person on my side – and it is one of the reasons I still believe so strongly in traditional publishing. There are lots of very compelling reasons to self publish, and I will no doubt do it again, and I will no doubt support many of my clients who decide that it is the right path for their books, but being chosen by smart people who are in the business of curating the books that get promoted to the most readers is a powerful thing indeed.

The time I spent with my agent in New York this week was, in the end, totally galvanizing. We had oatmeal and coffee in a wonderful little coffee shop, and talked about books and writers and writing and the state of publishing and the state of my writing career.

I don’t want to let my agent down.  She is part of the reason I want to succeed. I would love nothing more than to make her a ton of money. She has supported me for so long with so little return. 

So onward I go.

What I will be doing next:
 

  • Doing an assessment of my schedule/calendar in order to make room to do the work I need to do. I need a schedule that supports my effort. I have been trying too hard to cram in the writing. Something is going to have to give.
  • Doing an assessment on when and how and from whom to solicit feedback. There are times in the writing process when having consistent feedback is critical and times when it’s best to just listen to yourself. I need to figure out where in the process I am.
  • Doing an assessment on the pages themselves – what is worth keeping? Any of it? And if so, WHY is it worth keeping? I’m sharpening the knives for sure. I am very tempted to start with a blank page just to see what happens if I let the 93 pages go and start over again.
  • Going back to the fundamentals of the story in order to work on the logic. Answering some hard questions about secondary characters and the protagonists’ origin story. Who is she, really?
  • Going back to the fundamentals of the story in order to assess the structure I designed. Measuring what is there to see that how it is serving the story and where it is not.

I share all this with you just to make sure you know without a doubt that even I – the book coach who just came back from a gala awards ceremony with a client, the editor whose clients have big books coming out over the next few months, the well-published writer with the wonderfully supportive agent and the editor at the big house waiting to see what I write next – doesn’t get a free pass.

And neither do you.

So if there's something you have not faced about your work, something that is holding you back, something you need to dig down deep to figure out, just do it. And know that I will be doing it, too.

6 Comments

8 Comments

How to Send Your Work Out Into The World

One of the myths unpublished writers tend to believe is that things get easier after you get an agent or after you get published or after you’ve made some good money from your writing. They tend to think of the “before” as frightening and frustrating and painful and the “after” as some kind of writerly heaven. But I don’t know a single well-published writer who would agree with this myth. The fact of the matter is that creating things and sending them out into the world, where they will be judged and measured and bought and sold, is never easy.

I am telling you this because yesterday I sent 93 pages of my novel-in-progress to my agent. She has not yet seen these pages, she has not yet agreed that this is a book that will be worthy of selling but we had decided together that I would send her the work when I had 100 pages.  My goal was to get her those pages by April 1. I didn’t quite make that deadline, but yesterday, after doing a round of revisions that felt very resonant, I decided that it was time.  Sure, I could have kept working on those pages and polishing them up until the end of time, but I decided I was ready for them to be judged.

It was hard to put them out there. In order to make myself do it, I had to close my eyes, hold my breath, say, “WTF,” and press the “Send” button as fast as I could before I changed my mind.

I immediately felt elated, imagining the phone call I would get when she couldn’t contain her excitement. I imagined the auction we would hold, the juicy deal we would nail down, the announcement we would get to make, the interviews I would do. I pictured, in other words, making the buzzer-beater shot to win the national championships – a moment of glory we got to witness earlier this week when Villanova beat North Carolina.

That moment of elation was followed very quickly by a moment of gut-wrenching terror, because I have had that dream before. I have gotten close to that moment of glory before – the ball in my hands, the dream within reach – and it didn’t happen, and it was horrible.

I understand that there are no guarantees.

Did you see any of the photos of those young men who lost that championship basketball game this week? In case you missed them, I put one at the top of the post – a shot of North Carolina’s Theo Pinson in the locker room after the game. I mean, it makes you want to cry. We can all stand back and say, “But that was just a college basketball game, it didn’t really mean anything.” But those players worked for that moment for most of their lives, just like us. They dreamed of that glory for a very long time, just like us. Not getting it, in basketball or in writing, hurts a lot.

When we send our work out into the world, we risk that pain. It is much easier to keep the pages safe on our desktop. It is much easier to share them with a small group of friends who will tell us what a good job we did.

But I am proud to be a writer who meets my deadlines. I am proud to be a writer who gets back up after a tough fall. I am proud that I keep working to get better, and that I am not afraid to have my work judged, even if it’s judged harshly.

I would rather be all those things than a writer who is too scared to share my work with the world.

I have no idea what my agent will say about the 93 pages.  She could say, “Love them, keep going, let’s DO this!” Or she could say, “I think you might want to shelve this for awhile.” Or she could say, “There are parts of this that are very good” (which means that there are part of it that need a lot of work.)

Since my last book died a quiet death, there is even a very real chance that she could say, “I don’t think I can represent your work anymore.”

That’s the dirty secret that published writers never tell you: that they live in fear of not being able to do it again. They live in fear that they have already hit their peak. They live in fear that whatever success they had before was a fluke and now everyone knows they are a fraud.

I think every one of those desperate thoughts.

And you know how I know I am not a fraud? How I counteract the doubt? Today, I will start work on Page 94 and I will figure out where that next scene fits into the whole, and what needs to happen to make it sing.

*****

I have an exercise that my memoir-writing class is doing this week called The Universal Constants of Creativity. It is a way to evaluate the places in your creative process where you get stuck.  If “letting go” and “sending your work out into the world” is a tough one for you, you might want to DOWNLOAD IT HERE and do the exercise yourself.

8 Comments

5 Comments

Agents are Human, Too

I recently watched the movie, The End of the Tour, which is a movie about a Rolling Stone writer who spent some days on book tour with David Foster Wallace right when Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest was blowing up the literary world and people were declaring Wallace the kind of writer who comes along only once in a generation. It stars Jesse Eisenberg (as the reporter) and Jason Segel (as Wallace.) I deeply wanted to love this movie because David Foster Wallace is such a fascinating figure, and I have enjoyed both Segel and Eisenberg in all kinds of other movies and shows, and I was very taken with the conceit of the story – an exploration of what fame is and what it does to us.

Turns out the movie was sort of odd. The acting was fabulous but I felt like there was not enough of a sense of the writer’s motivation (his desires/fears, his misbelief about fame or Wallace or writing…) to hold the audience’s interest. It was slow and lacked the emotional punch I thought it could have had.

What it did, however, was drive me back to Wallace’s graduation speech at Kenyon College in 2005 – a speech which has become legendary as one of the best ever given. I have listened to this speech and read it at least a dozen times and it never fails to move me or teach me something.

So I went back to it after the (sadly dull) movie and was riveted once again – this time by two things:

1.) What Wallace describes – this state of only being able to see our own point of view, of only being able to feel ourselves as the center of the universe – is a perfect description of the concept that a lot of students in my current Story Genius workshop are struggling with. I had never looked at Wallace’s speech as a place to learn about writing – but it’s wholly there.

We read to get into someone else’s head. To get out of our own narrow worldview and into someone else’s. That’s the whole point. The whole power of it. That’s why you can’t – in fiction – start with plot or end with plot or depend on plot. You have to start with who the person is and what they believe and you have to trace it all the way through to the moment when, against all odds, they learn to believe something slightly different. Same thing in memoir.

It’s a genius description if you read Wallace's speeech like that – as a treatise on what writing is and how it works.

2.) The point Wallace makes about how critical it is to try to get out of your own point of view – how important this exercise is to being a good human being. Wallace writes about what it feels like to make that shift. He is describing being frustrated and furious in a traffic jam full of gas guzzling SUVs.

 

The thing is that, of course, there are totally different ways to think about these kinds of situations. In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it's not impossible that some of these people in SUV's have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he's trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he's in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.

 

I have long loved this point from this speech – and what’s funny is that in my head it’s always a story about going to the post office, but there’s nothing about the post office in it at all. It’s a grocery story. It’s always been a grocery store, but I have somehow managed to turn it into a post office in my mind.

Anyway, I have loved it and have used it to talk myself off the ledge many times. But when I looked at it this time, it reminded me about a reality related to literary agents.

Quite the leap, I know, but bear with me….

There is this thing that happens when writers start to pitch agents: They take the agent’s responses very, very personally. They are so wholly in their own heads that they can’t for three seconds picture the agent’s reality – that, for instance, the agent has 50 manuscripts she is trying to read ahead of yours. That her start client may be going on The Today Show that day. That their kid may have broken their leg skiing that afternoon. All the writer can think about is that the non-response, or the negative response, is 100% a referendum on their own failures and frailties as a human being.

It’s not. Agents are running businesses. They are not out there doing what they do to try to make friends or enemies. They are looking for books they can sell on a national stage, serving the clients they work with who are making them the money they use to live, trying to do their work with as much care and compassion as they can – but aware that it is, in fact, work.

I often tell clients the David Foster Wallace graduation speech story (about the post office!) to remind them of this truth, but alas, it doesn’t often get through.

I am working with a client whom I shall call Mathilda. She has been pitching her extremely well crafted, timely and moving memoir and getting a whole lot of negative letters and a whole lot of non-response. There was one agent, a tippy top agent, who had expressed interested in her query months ago – I mean way before Christmas – and who had requested some pages. My client sent the pages and had heard nothing. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

She didn’t want to send a follow up because she didn’t want to hear any bad news, and because if she didn’t follow up, she could preserve the illusion that the news was going to be good. So she went back and forth between these two extremes -- “He hates it and doesn’t want to tell me” and “He loves it and is just waiting for the right moment to tell me.”

I assured her that neither of these realities was likely true. The truth was probably along the lines of, “My kid broke his leg.” Or, more realistically, that the agent has totally lost track of the submission in his inbox and hadn’t read it at all.

Mathilda finally screwed up the courage to ping the agent back. Here is his reply:

 

“Thank you for the prod. My apologies for the delayed response, but no, I have not read the material. In fact, I don’t even know where it is. It was a while ago now. Can you resend it to me?”

 

It’s helpful to remember that agents are just people like you and me. Their inboxes are full. Their days are full. They want nothing better than to discover a great book and help a writer break into the big time – and their rejection or their silence is not necessarily a referendum on your worth, either as a writer or a human being.

It can feel like that. But it’s very often not true. And I think it helps a lot to remember that.

5 Comments

7 Comments

Writing by Committee

I worked with a client recently whom I shall call Phil. He had a complete manuscript of a memoir and had been sending out pitches to agents for several months to no avail. He has some bites off his query, but each time he sent requested chapters, he received a rejection. He came to me to learn why.

I reviewed the query, the rejections, and the table of contents for the book, as well as the samples chapters, and the problem was glaringly obvious: the book was very well nicely in the query, beautifully presented in the TOC, and yet the sample chapters were a wreck – disjoined, uneven, with no narrative drive.

I reported my findings to Phil and said that it was rare to see such a disconnect in a proposal. I wondered what had happened that his sample chapters were so weak compared to the description of the book.

“They were written by a committee,” he said, and then proceeded to describe all the people who had weighed in on the manuscript, including professional editors, workshop leaders, fellow writing students, writing group friends, family members, and even a neighbor or two. He had taken advice from so many people at so many different times that he had completely lost sight of his story.

I had to laugh, because last week, I posted a blog that included some lines from my own work in progress. I received emails from some readers who loved what I did, and emails from others who suggested I had, in fact, made the passage worse. If I tried to please both camps, I would probably end up with something that pleased no one – least of all me.

Many of us are so desperate for validation (Is my idea any good? Do you get it? Do you like it? Should I keep doing this? Am I crazy?) that we tend to lose our heads a bit when it comes to asking people to read our work.  We’re grateful when anyone shows interest or is willing to read pages, and so we spread it around to whoever agrees to pay attention. The knee-jerk reaction is to believe whatever it is they say, to automatically incorporate their ideas into your work, and to give up your power to the committee.

I thought I’d take a moment to say, “Don’t.”

Don’t pass your work around without intention.

Don’t take any advice that comes your way.

Good advice is not about what someone likes or doesn’t like, or what they think you should do or not do to improve the work. Ed Catmull explains good advice in his book Creativity Inc.:

 

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

 

Most important of all, don’t lose sight of your own heart. When you get advice, weigh it against what you think. Does it ring true to you? Does it strike a nerve? Can you see how incorporating it will make your work more clear, more logical, and more whole? If yes, then by all means, take the advice.

But if the answer is no, ignore it. You have no obligation to change your work according to the whims of your readers.

Your obligation should always be first and foremost to the book you are writing. Do what’s right for the work.

One of the reasons I am proud of my Author Accelerator program is that it gives writers what is so often lacking in their arsenal of tools: a trained editor who is paying attention to their work on a regular basis. I think this is one of the best ways not only to improve your work, but to strengthen your editorial muscle, which is to say your understanding of how narrative works, and WHY.

Someone who has built up that kind of muscle is going to know that writing by committee never produced excellent work.

 

7 Comments

Comment

The Beauty That Follows the Fail

I wrote a couple weeks back about holding a webinar where no one came. Last week, I held another webinar and had 210 registrants. I was so excited to speak to so many writers – and then another problem occurred. My software didn’t work correctly and no one could get in the classroom. Everyone was shut out, and they flooded my inbox with emails asking what was going on. I was frantic and mortified and trying desperately to make it work.  I assumed, of course, that I had done something wrong. I had messed up. It’s what we always assume…

So for the second time in a few months, I went ahead and did the webinar with no one watching. It was for very different reasons, but still, it felt the same: like I couldn’t get this right.

I recorded the webinar then got on the phone to the tech people and learned that what went wrong wasn’t my fault. It was a software glitch. Something that rarely happens, but it happened nonetheless.

When I went through the emails from participants who had been shut out, I realized a very curious thing: Almost every single person who wrote to me assumed that it was their fault. They were at Starbucks and the wifi didn’t seem to be working. They had never done a webinar and must have signed on incorrectly. They must have had the time wrong.

We so often assume it is out fault.

I realized that I see this all the time when writers pitch to agents, especially when submitting full manuscripts at the agent’s request. The writers assume that they don’t hear back right away because their work is not worthy of feedback. But many times, it’s that the agent’s kid was sick. Or their mother died. Or someone hit their car in the grocery store parking lot. Or they never got the email….

We are so hard on ourselves.

We should give ourselves a break.

And we should try to look at these things that go wrong in a totally different way. Because two things happened with my upsetting webinar tech failure, which turned out to be quite wonderful:

1.)  When I explained to everyone what had happened and apologized and sent them the recording of the webinar, people were so terribly nice about it, and forgiving, and comforting. About twenty strangers took the time to tell me not to worry, not to beat myself up, and to thank me for trying. It was very moving and it lifted my spirits. To those of you who did that, thank you for your kindness.

2.)  That same day, I had an assignment from Lisa Cron, author of Wired for Story and the forthcoming Story Genius. I agreed to develop a novel in the pages of Lisa’s new book so we could show people how the process really works.

Lisa was pushing me on what she calls the “aha moment” scene – the scene when a character in a novel realizes whatever it is they have to realize about themselves and the world, the moment when they GET whatever it is they haven’t been getting. Lisa wanted more specifics than I had on the page. She wanted me to go deeper – “How does your character feel at that moment? What exactly changes her?” she kept asking, and I kept resisting.

 I didn’t know how my character felt except for sad. So I put something simple down – “Ruby feels sad.” Lisa very nicely said, “I need more than that.”

So I put something else down – “And she also feels regret.” Lisa very nicely said, “That’s not deep enough.”

And meanwhile the clock was ticking because Lisa’s editor at Ten Speed/Random House was waiting.

I thought about giving up – I mean, why not? Does anyone really care about this character who doesn’t exist except in my head? The answer is no. They do not.

And then I had my own “aha moment.” I realized I could give my character the experience I had just had in feeling the love of strangers.

Ruby is the writer of a hit TV show. She has 72 hours to rewrite a script and she has to do it without Henry, her writing partner who is also the love of her life and who happens to be on his deathbed. She has been unable to complete this task, and the Internet is on fire with speculation about her mental health and fans offering alternative endings to her show. Writing the script forces Ruby to confront everything about love and loss she has been unwilling to confront.

Here is what I finally wrote about what she feels:

How will Ruby feel when she finishes her rewrite? Ripped to pieces. But once it airs there will be an outpouring of love and concern and care for her from all the fans and strangers she had come to disdain, and this love will transform her; it will make her realize that she does in fact have the capacity to withstand the pain of losing Henry because of what she had with Henry all along.

 

Lisa said, “Yes!” which means that I finally went deep enough. The only reason I got there in my work is because I am a person who is alive, who is experiencing success and failure every day, and who had the presence of mind to recognize the parallel between my character and myself.

 It was a powerful moment of turning life into art.

And the tech failure? I’m already over it.

 

Sign up to join me and Lisa Cron for a free conversation about story.
January 7, 2016

 

 

Comment