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Posts Tagged ‘literary agent’

So you want to be a writer? How badly?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, Media, work on September 18, 2012 at 1:31 pm
Writer's Stop

Writer’s Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

Many people say they want to be professional writers.

Having taught journalism and writing to adults and to college students and writing professionally since 1978, I wonder, though, how many really do.

Here are some of the things you need if you truly want to make a living as a writer of fiction, non-fiction or journalism.

Self-confidence

If you’re too scared to attach your name to your work, or to publish it, or to show it to blog readers/editors/agents, how will you ever be(c0me) a published or read writer? Every writer is scared shitless on some level, often on so many levels we resemble a multi-storey office tower. But the whole point of writing is sharing your voice and your ideas with others. You have to be certain you have something to say.

Workshops and classes and graduate school can be amazingly helpful. Or they can sap your self-confidence as you place more value on others’ opinions (and grades.)

Humility

Being a writer means you’ll face a lot of rejection. You have to listen to feedback — whether about your ideas, your execution of them, your crappy attitude, your procrastination.  Every single person whose work has been selected, edited and chosen by others as worthy of publication faced the same challenges. Get over it!

If you’re not ready for rejection, you’re not ready to be a published writer.

Talent

Without which, you’re toast. But talent is subjective, so every rejection can mean you’re lousy — or you just haven’t found your audience yet. You’ll know pretty quickly, because you will sell and keep selling, if you have the goods.

My favorite success is the humor essay about my divorce I sent in to an American women’s magazine, who sent me a smarmy rejection letter. I sent it to a Canadian women’s magazine — who published it and submitted it for a National Magazine Award for humor.

It won.

Persistence

The single most essential element of writing success.

I know people now writing their third or fourth (unpublished) novel. My two non-fiction books, “Blown Away” and “Malled” were each rejected by 25 (!) publishers before a major New York house bought each one. The process was deeply unpleasant and shook my confidence to the core. But my agents (different agent for each) kept plugging away, because they believed in it.

I recently applied for a highly competitive fellowship, again. Too many people just give up and walk away, wounded and whining.

There’s a different and just as important sort of persistence — the commitment to your story and whatever it (legally/ethically) takes to get it first and exclusively. It took me six months of negotiation to win my exclusive story about Google that ran in The New York Times in June. It took me six months, starting from “Over my dead body!” from the PR official at one group to the interview with four of her clients, all young women convicted of gun-related felonies which I included in my book “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”.

Veteran magazine writer Jeanne Marie Laskas’ new book about America’s invisible workers, “Hidden America”, required a year negotiating with the FAA to finally watch air traffic controllers do their job. You can’t give up if you hope to get good stuff! It is never handed to you in a press release.

A thick skin

This is not a business of delicate phrases and warm hugs. People yell. Some people swear. Some do both. Readers will loathe you and say so in plain language on blogs and amazon where you cannot respond to them. Some critics will pan you.
A sensitive heart

And how, you ask, can you possibly have both of these? You must. The very best writers keep their hearts open — and readers can feel it.

Drive

What are you willing to give up or postpone to achieve success as a writer? Work at a horrible day job? Rarely see your husband/wife/sweetie/kids?  The world is filled with amusing distractions, but staying focused is the only way to reach your goals.

Emotional intelligence

Especially in journalism and publishing, EQ often beats IQ.

Can you mask your bitterness and frustration (see: drive, persistence, humility) with a big smile and a soft, gentle voice? Can you quickly find a way to relate to someone powerful who’s 30 years younger or older than you? Can you happily continue to network with people whose rudeness, arrogance and/or dismissal of you and your work may have left deep scars?

Members of this tribe are:

passionate about ideas; often deeply insecure about their talent; desperate for recognition and financial reward; ferociously jealous of those above them on the ladder. At every stage of this game, you’ll need every scrap of calm, mature self-management you can muster.

This is also a small industry based on long-term relationships. People in it move from city to city, publisher to publisher. They talk! They meet up every year at the London and Frankfurt Book Fairs and at BEA. We attend and teach at the same conferences.

Keep your nose clean.

Forgiveness

You’ll need to forgive yourself when your work fails to find a market. You have to forgive your agent and editor if your book doesn’t hit it big, because they probably gave you their best anyway. Your friends and loved ones will have to forgive you the endless, insane absences that a book or serious project demands — travel and/or solitude.

A stiff spine

No one will stiffen it for you on the latest Monday facing a pile of deadlines — or a dwindling bank account. That’s always going to be your job.

Voracious curiosity

If you’re not intensely curious about the world, what do you have to tell us?

If you’re not intensely curious about how writers think/write/teach/succeed/fail, why do you even want to be one?

If you’re not intensely curious about how to get better at your craft, even after decades, how will you do so?

Generosity

I’ve given away hours, probably months, of my time and skill and advice over the decades. These days I’m likely to insist on being paid for it, but this business depends on reciprocal help. This week, a friend asked me to read her essay — and wrote me a letter of reference for a fellowship. Last week I spent some time advising one of my assistants, a fresh Columbia J-school grad — and asked her if she’d make an introduction for me at the glossy monthly she’s starting to pitch.

Consistency

I recently started playing golf. I actually haven’t played a game yet. I just keep going to the driving range, buying a bucket of balls, and hitting for an hour or so. It’s a totally new set of skills. My husband says he won’t play a game with me until I can hit consistently.

Same for would-be writers. Anyone can bang out an awesome piece, once. But it’s showing up for years, doing every single one of them well, that creates a reputation for excellence.

Anyone in journalism, especially, has to crank out good stuff every day — sometimes every hour. That’s what they hired you for!

Here’s a powerful blog post about the determination and stamina it takes to stay in the writing game for the long haul.

Kristen Lamb’s blog about publishing offers a lot of excellent advice.

I really like this blog, Freelance Folder, which offers practical tips.

Want to hear the secrets of book reviewing? Come tonight to Park Slope, Brooklyn to this event at Barnes & Noble.

Do you dream of being a paid writer?

Are you one now?

How’s it going?

Finding, and Keeping, A Literary Agent

In behavior, business, culture, design, Media, Money, work on October 6, 2010 at 7:55 pm
Books Books

Image via Wikipedia

Some of you have asked advice on how to find an agent for your writing. Having been through seven of them over the years, I have some experience with this.

So, here are some of my thoughts, albeit most suited to writers of non-fiction, as I do not write fiction. Most agents represent a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, children’s and young adult material. Read their list carefully and don’t submit any genres they don’t handle.

How do I know when it’s time to get an agent?

Do you have a manuscript ready? Or a full-fledged book proposal? (If you don’t know how to write one, read this book.) If all you have is an idea, or several, you’ll need very strong writing credentials, a platform (i.e. thousands of people who know your name and will possibly be eager to buy your book), media savvy, and the willingness to undertake the writing of a book proposal.

Why do I have to write a book proposal?

How else will the agent know what you hope to accomplish? In a few cases, an agent you are introduced to through a trusted contact may sit down with you to hear about your project — and if they’re intrigued they’ll ask you to produce a proposal. If they want the project, they’ll work with you on it. They are not paid for this time, nor are you. It’s a lot of work! Do it cheerfully and diligently. Even if that book does not sell (and that happens), you’re learning how to write this crucial document and will do it better next time.

How much work will an agent do on a book proposal?

As much as s/he thinks is worth it. They may love you and your idea, but they only earn a living when they sell a book and close the deal. They can only invest so much time on each project and writer. Don’t take it personally. Find someone to help you polish and edit the proposal if necessary. It is not unusual for a proposal to take months as you send it back and forth to your agent until they are totally satisfied with it. It’s their name and reputation that intrigues and attracts editors, not yours.

What do agents do?

They help you prepare a proposal and decide which editors at which publishers are most likely to find it of interest. They submit it and hope. If someone shows serious interest, they will come with you to the meeting with the publisher — which is common now so they can check you out in person. If an offer is made (or several) they will negotiate with the publisher and editor to get the best offer they can.

Do I have to pay them to read my work?

No. If an agent wants to work with you they will take 15 percent of your earnings after the book is sold. They will also take a percentage of all ancillary sales, such as television, film and possibly speaking engagements.

How should I treat an agent?

With respect! They are not your BFF or your Mom or your writing coach or English professor. They know what a tough game it is to be a writer, but they’re not especially eager to hold your hand. They expect professional behavior even if this is your first book and it’s all totally new to you. They will help you understand this new world, but don’t abuse their time and goodwill. I tend to check in every few months to say “hi” and hear what they’re up to on other projects once I’m mid-book. But once your book is sold, you’re essentially on your own.

How do I find the right agent for my project?

Consult the Association of Author Representatives. A reputable, experienced agent is likely to be a member. This site also offers a fantastic wealth of information; and this list of FAQs.

The way many writers find an agent is through their friends and colleagues who will recommend someone to their agent. The way for a new writer with few or no such contacts is to read a number of books similar to the one you hope to write and read the acknowledgments; authors always thank their agents. Write to a few agents whose authors’ work you admire and tell them why you and your work are a potential fit with their list. Read their websites and see what sort of people they tend to take on — Academics? Politicians? Celebrities?

One of the best ways to find an agent who might be a fit is to attend writers’ conferences like this one, where they often speak. You can quickly get a feel for their personality and can probably slip them your card.

What if my agent is new to the business?

This can be an advantage. New agents are hungry for new clients while (much) more established ones have their pick.

What if turns out to be a poor fit?

It happens.  Initial enthusiasm, on both sides, can pale. They can take too long to reply to calls and emails or sending out your work. They need to communicate with you clearly. There are others out there. Don’t stick with someone if it’s really not working well for you.

What should I be looking for in an agent?

Someone whose personality will work well with yours. They may be skilled and experienced and have a Really Big Name, but if they’re too brusque or intimidating or hurried or busy, move on. Someone who really gets who you are and what you do best and are excited by your project. I want someone who’s been around the block a few times, who won’t waste my time encouraging things that won’t sell. I think you want to like them enough to work with them, but they’re not your pal. They’re a business partner. Feeling cosy with them, however personally comforting, is less important than feeling certain they have your best interests at heart.

What sort of books most excite them? Sell well for them? Ask to see their list of authors and recent projects.

If you read it with a thoughtful eye, you’ll notice patterns. I saw that one agent’s list was heavy on academics — he likes smart and informed think-y books/authors (who doesn’t?) — but I saw in that a warning. Professors have salaries and crave acclaim from a wider audience, and can afford a tiny advance. I have different goals and need an advance I can survive on. Another had a list studded with celebrities and one-book-wonders. I want an agent who wants to run with me for years.

Here’s how I found the agents I’ve met and either worked with or considered:

1) Can’t remember. A NYC agent. Deal fell through after I flew all the way to Australia to do the reporting. Ouch. Costly error, fun vacation.

2) An adult student in one of my NYU writing classes knew an agent who gave me three names. One became my first agent.

3) A friend in Toronto, a former newspaper colleague, sent me to someone highly regarded there. She demanded 15,000 words and then blew me off after reading them with one sentence. Dick.

4) I play softball with a bunch of fellow suburbanites. One, the pitcher, is an agent. He read over a few of my non-selling proposals and diagnosed why they were going nowhere.

5) A friend whom I have yet to meet face to face (we met through an on-line writers’ group) sent me to his agent. She’s terrific and we discussed one proposal but I back-burnered it. This book is too similar to one of hers (a NYT best seller) so she had to decline it.

6) A friend admired an essay of mine and sent me to her agent. Not a good fit. One email was enough to show me this.

7) I spoke on a panel in NYC about writing and a passionate young woman in the audience asked a few questions. She was then the assistant to my current agent and suggested I write a memoir. Now I have!

My current agent is Kathleen Anderson. She’s my age, bloody brilliant and even harder-headed than I, which I didn’t think possible. We’ve had shouting fights with one another and equally fierce hugs. She’s got a NYT best-selling author right now short-listed for the Booker Prize, Emma Donoghue, author of “Room.” Cool!

Like dating, finding an agent can be a little challenging. It  can be a fantastic fit or a disaster. Or neither. I’ve learned not to be in awe of them. They’re people. They work hard. They love writers and ideas. They advocate for talent. If you find a good one, treat them well!

Want To Find An Agent? Don't Send Letters Like These!

In business, Media on June 17, 2010 at 10:17 pm
Old book bindings at the Merton College library.

Books. Yes, some day you, too will sell yours, with the right letter...Image via Wikipedia

This list of decidedly losing letters to one annoyed literary agent (and their unsent replies) is delicious, from mediabistro.com’s GalleyCat, the blog that follows the publishing industry:

“Greetings agent. I have written the most important book on earth.”

Will someone, for the love of God, please kill me.

If you really want to find an agent, find a writer who thinks your work is excellent and ask, very nicely, if they’ll share the name of their agent. That’s usually how it’s done. I found mine when I spoke at an event and her assistant suggested I write a memoir. I did.

My Weekly Ritual — Softball Lite — In Today's New York Times

In sports on June 11, 2010 at 7:50 pm
BEIJING - AUGUST 12:  Lovieanne Jung #3 of the...

Image by Bongarts/Getty Images via @daylife

The joy of a new editor and a new section….here’s my story in today’s Times about my beloved co-ed weekly softball game. It’s been nine years and we’re still going strong, even as I now need someone to run the bases for me (my hip) and I’m still, on a good day, lead-off hitter:

It’s lite because, with an age range of 14 to over 70, we’re looking for fun, not more pressure to perform. People don’t yell or look at their BlackBerrys or answer their cellphones while on base. We’re skilled and competitive, but chill enough that we don’t obsess over the score.

Since a number of players are in their 50s and beyond, some of us have been known to limp to the diamond. My team has seen me through shoulder surgery and a foot stress fracture, so when I hobbled up recently and warned the gang that I’d need someone to run for me — I had a newly arthritic hip — everyone shrugged. “I showed up on crutches,” said Joan, a medical editor.

I can still hit to the outfield, so even unable to run, I was lead-off hitter, and Alan, a lean, swift lawyer running for me, scored a double. In Westchester County, N.Y., not known for its diversity, we’ve got a pretty good mix, with players driving or coming by train from Queens, Long Island and Harlem: five lawyers, a literary agent, a pastry chef, schoolteachers, a retired ironworker and his three adult sons, a psychiatrist, a scientist. Perhaps most fortunate, an orthopedic surgeon, one of our more competitive players.

One unspoken rule of Softball Lite is that men don’t help the women — who usually make up roughly a third of about 20 players each time — or tell them what to do. We know what to do, and after a few games, our teammates know and trust our skills as well. If we goof up, well, it’s not fatal and we’re quite aware that we goofed. I usually play second base, and I didn’t appreciate one new male player who marked a spot in the dust and told me where to stand.

Even the photo than ran with the Times piece was taken by a good friend, fellow freelancer Alan Zale.

As a Canadian, I didn’t grow up playing softball, so my skills came much later in life, which is half the joy of them. I so treasure this little island of camaraderie in a sea of competitiveness.

Do you have a beloved sports team you still hang out with?

Kaboom! Pow! Crunch! (aka Trying To Sell Your Book)

In business, Media on September 1, 2009 at 8:59 am
Books behind the bed

Image by zimpenfish via Flickr

The magic formula for selling a non-fiction book proposal might go something like this:

Talent+Timing+Idea+Voice+Competition+Agent’s Reputation+The Proposal Itself+Big Name Books Just Like It That Sold Like Mad, but Not Too Much Like It+Room Left In The Marketplace For A Book Like The Best-Sellers On A Similar Subject, But Different+Editors’ Balls+Sales Team’s Enthusiasm+Zeitgeist+Writer’s Credentials/Platform+Big Names Who Will Blurb It+Big Names Who Will Review It, Preferably Favorably+Prior Platform+ Future Appetite For Topic (by this writer in his/her voice)+Writer’s Prior Reputation+Writer’s Previous Book Sales+Writer’s Ability to Be Fabulous In Every Possible Medium for Publicity Purposes+Writer’s Pre-Existing Blog with Millions of Eager Readers+Writer’s Website Already Set Up And Paid For+Oprah Producer Ready to Take Your Call+Writer’s Ability and Willingness To Line Up Dozens of Interviews, Articles And Events to Make People Demand This Book+Writer’s Ability To Be Witty And Charming on Live Radio And/Or Television, Looking Lovely And Remembering  You Must Never Swear+Mental, Physical and Emotional Stamina To Complete Book On Deadline+No Seriously Competing Books Showing Up In The Meantime+Author’s Grateful Ability To Live On Very Small Advance (30% upfront, 15% to agent, 15%, or more, to taxes.)

If there’s a more spine-testing endeavor than trying to sell a book proposal (maybe a play or a film or a work of art), I don’t even want to find out what it is. Having worked this summer with a veteran agent who is not, thank God, the sort of wide-eye naif telling me How Great I Am or How Big This Will Be, our 67 double-spaced pages are now on the desks of a bunch of editors. The trick is this. We have to really believe in its potential value, or why bother? But if we care too much — OK, if I care too much — the old ego can take one hell of a beating as it makes the rounds and, inevitably, takes a bunch of hard hits. Read the rest of this entry »

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