Friday, February 05, 2010

Newbie Question #14

14. How & why did you become a writer

“Why” is a lot easier to answer: I became a writer because I write, which is to say that there’s a pretty high percentage that I’d be writing stories right now even if I had never sold that first professional piece (or, god forbid, never sold another one again.)

Hopefully, that’s the reason you’re a writer too. Because if you’re in it for the fame, the glory, or the wads of cash you imagine you’ll be getting, you’re going to be wildly disappointed. I mean WILDLY.

Writing is a job. It’s a really hard job to get, and it’s an even harder job to keep. If you love doing it for its own sake, well, at least no one can take that from you, you know? Just the other day, I was hanging out with some writer friends at a coffee shop where we’d all gathered to work together, and we were all engrossed in our writing. Every once and a while one of us would pop up and excitedly share some clever or funny line she’d written, and I thought, “damn, but this is the life.” I’m a writer because I love writing. The act of writing can make me really happy. I amuse the piss out of myself. In the book I’m working on now, I’ve written so many scenes where I think, “Wow, that is _so_ just for me.” That might not seem the best attitude when you’re trying to sell commercially, but I think, actually, it’s quite healthy. Because at the end of the day, you’re writing for yourself. If you can’t take pleasure in your own words, what the hell is it for, anyway?

“How” I became a writer has two parts. I started writing in middle school when I was also, not surprisingly, devouring books by the shelf-full. I got particularly into one series by and author (Katherine Kurtz's DERYNI boosk) who was publishing at the usual timetable of a book a year. I just couldn’t wait. I started making up what I was going to happen to my favorite character in-between books. This is what’s called “fanfic,” but I grew up before the age of the Internet so no one ever saw what I wrote but me and the zillions of notebooks I filled.

I did this also with Anne McCaffery's DRAGONRIDER series. So I did a lot of what you could call practice writing. I used someone else's well developed characters and world, and practiced dialogue and scene setting and plotting (although at first most of my stories were very soap opera-like). This writing was pretty dreadful. BUT it was a good start at learning the craft of writing.

I did this sort of practice on-and-off throughout my life until sometime after college, when it occurred to me that a person could take a class in writing science fiction and fantasy. (By this point, I should note, I'd mostly begun trying out original characters/stories.) I've chronicled what happened after that on the FAQ page of my alter ego's website.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Newbie Question #13

13. Will an agent expect me to sign a contract? Should I sign one?

You know, honestly, I don't really know. I know that I requested and signed a contract with my first agent, and I didn't with my second.

This is also one of those questions that may be different depending on the genre you write in. There seem to be to be a lot more "handshake contracts" in science fiction/fantasy, though I'm not saying this is necessarily a better thing.

A contract with your agent is, however, very likely a GOOD THING. It's wise to have certain things spelled out in black and white, particularly if you've never entered into this kind of relationship before. It's good to know, for instance, under what conditions you can terminate your relationship with your agent (and visa versa.)

I think just as critical is to have a conversation in which you discuss beforehand what sorts of things your agent will and won't do for you. Will they share rejections? Will they give editorial advice? How often can you expect to hear from them?

Those things won't be spelled out in a contract, but they're good to know for your own sanity.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Newbie Questions #11 & #12

11. How do I know which agent is best for me?

12. How much should I expect to pay an agent to represent my book?

Last one first: NOTHING.

Remember the rule that money always flows to the author. A literary agent works the same way a real estate agent does, which is to say that you should pay nothing until the book sells. Then, you can expect to pay a percentage of that sale. When I was agent hunting in the late Cretaceous that percentage was 15%, now-a-days it could be slightly more, but not significantly so. (The exception is foreign sales -- since your agent has to pay sub-agents – but that’s nothing to worry about until a foreign sale happens.)

If your perspective agent charges a reading fee, I say that agent isn’t for you. There may be legitimate reasons why an otherwise reputable agent might charge reading fees, but to me it’s a big red flag that says “run away, run away fast.”

Keep repeating the mantra: money always flows to the author.

As for finding a good agent that fits you, that will be a more personal decision. In the end, you should consider the fact that your agent is your face in the professional arena. After that, it becomes a matter of taste.

For myself, I don’t like agents that edit. Even though my first agent was also a consulting editor, he never asked me to do editorial changes before submitting my work to publishing houses. I like that. It’s my personal feeling that if someone wants me to significantly rewrite a novel, I want to be paid to do so (remember the mantra!)

I also don’t need my agent to be my friend. In fact, I prefer a shark. Someone who I know will go for the best deal possible, even if it means not being terribly nice.

On that note, I do want an agent who is excited about my work. When I was in the process of finding a second agent (the first changed career to be a full-time editor,) I talked to a lot of agents. I had one offer to represent me. It became clear, however, that this agent hadn’t really read my work. Even though it meant being agentless for longer than I would have liked, I told him I wasn’t comfortable having an agent who wasn’t 100% into me. Your agent has to be your go-to guy/gal, your advocate, your nag… someone who e-mails you to say, “what have you got!?” If you’re not on their radar, then it’s easy to be forgotten… and this is your career on the line. You need someone who is going to be with you through good times and bad… because there’s always some bad in this business, I’m sorry to say.

Speaking of being “on the radar,” I think a case can be made for having an agent in New York. I also think that a case can be made that it doesn’t matter one wit. Perhaps the bigger issue is the size of the agency. We all want to have the Big Name Agent (you know the one who wrote the book on writing a bestseller) represent us because just throwing around his name is impressive as hell. However, I’ve had friends get lost among the various cogs in that particular machine. My experience has been that it’s much better to be part of a smallish stable. Ideally, you can end up where I am, which is to have a big name agent in New York who has a relatively smallish, but impressive client list… or at least never makes me feel less than an A-lister (even if I’m really a C- or D-list writer. And, no, that’s not false modesty. I have no delusions that I’m anything other than a solidly mid-list author.)

You should also find an agent with a track record. It might be great to be someone’s start up client (and I actually know people who have had that work out great for them,) but it’s a safer bet to go with someone established in the business. Because this is a business where it helps to know people who know people… and a completely new agent is less likely to have those connections.

But this is really a matter of taste. There’s nothing wrong with trying to land the biggest name agent (in fact, I always tell students to start at the top and work your way down.) There’s also nothing wrong with having an agent who edits all your work, holds your hand every step of the way, and has an office in Peoria. As long as you are comfortable with the relationship you have and your agent is finding you work, I say do what you will.

My last note is this: don’t hesitate to say no and be picky. It’s tempting to go with the first offer, but you’ve got to believe in yourself. Believe that what you’re doing is worth being paid for, and that this is an important job that not anyone can do. Don’t sell yourself short.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Newbie Question #10

10. How do I go about getting an agent? Where do I look for one?

The first piece of advice I want to give is this: finish your book first!

Now, assuming you've followed the above, finding an agent is an arduous process, but the single most important thing you're going to do as a writer (besides write the best book possible.) There are a few things you can be doing while you're writing your book, and they are --

1) read books you like and keep notes of any names listed in the acknowledgements; 2) subscribe to professional magazines <(for science fiction writers, Locus Magazine/ for romance folks, Romantic Times) and check listings to see who is selling what/who. In Locus, you can easily see which agents are selling a lot and a lot of new authors -- make special note of those names; and 3) attend conventions.

In science ficiton, there are plenty of panels where you can go and listen at the feet of actual agents and ask questions about the sorts of books they're selling, etc. In SF/F, however, DO NOT harass any agents or attempt to give "elevator pitches" unless specifically asked. Romance writers have it a little easier. At the romance conventions, you can actually sign up to pitch prospective agents and there are workshops you can attend to teach you how to do so effectively. (Note: you can find a list of conventions in the professional magazines listed above. SF/F writers could attend a convention every weekend, if they had the money and the time. Romance writers, you get a couple of big ones a year -- RT Convention and RWA's convention. Probably there are others, but I have to admit knowing much less about the romance process for finding an agent.)

Once you've got your list of prospective people, I recommend checking out their web pages, if they have them, and see what Predators & Editors has to say about them. If they have a web site, be sure to take note of what kind of package they want sent, whether or not you can simultaneously submit, etc, and FOLLOW THE RULES.

I should say that I found my first agent the old fashioned way... I got a recommendation from a professional writer friend. These are hard to come by because you have to be the sort of person who can effectively schmooze (without oozing) professional authors and get them to lend their name to your cover letter.

The cover letter is probably worth a post of its own, though you can find lots of advice out there. A quick search produced this: writing tips: the cover letter/query. I'm sure there are dozens more out there.

The other piece of advice: come up with strategies to deal with rejection. It's a fact of writing life. Persistence is more important than talent.