Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Fly on the Wall: interview w/Lilly

A couple of months back I talked with Cindy Hudson of Writers On The Rise. Just in case you wanted to eavesdrop on our conversation and hear a bit about what agents really think, you can find the article here:


I'd also like to sing the praises of a book right now. You've surely seen it in bookstores, airports, and even Costco (where, I confess, I got my copy) -- EAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert. If you have ever thought of writing a memoir, stop now and pick this up. I would never have thought I'd be interested to read about someone ELSE traveling the world. That's like reading about someone else getting a massage or winning the lotto. But Gilbert makes her personal journey (both literal and figurative) un-put-downable. Mix loveable (but clearly flawed) narrator, exotic locations, ambitious self-improvement goals, and a good dash of self-deprecation, and you're in for a treat. I recommend it to those of you setting pen to paper in the memoir genre because, well, that the goal of a good memoir? To entertain or captivate your reader to the point that we don't mind thinking about someone else for 350 pages, but, in fact, enjoy it?

A wonderful summer read, a great gift for a traveler or a friend you love. Seeing the cover of this book makes me smile.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Rejection letters stink. And other facts of submission.

There's are some good questions about submitting to agencies that hover over the tables at writers' conferences, in chat rooms, and at writers' groups. Being an agent and all (Lilly here), I'm here to answer. The conversation would go something like this.

Author: Why do agencies use form letters? That's so, like, rude!

Me: Well, depends on how you're looking at it. The goal of the process is to get authors to the right agents and then publishing houses for them. A pass letter is a fast way of making sure this happens. The alternative is certainly to ignore queries or submissions that an agency isn't interested in signing (which I hear many agencies do). For the rest of us, this is the best we can do to offer you a quick response and get you on your way to the right person for you.

Mmmkay. I get that they might want to pass on the Next Great American Novel (aka my book). But then why don't they write us detailed responses? I mean, I want feedback!

There are a few different reasons for this.

*Indescribable: Some work is not suited to what an agency represents (ie. if you send me your sci fi novel)
*Indescribable: Not suited to the taste of that agent. Taste is subjective. How do you describe that?
*Indescribable: Well written but just not interesting enough for that particular agent. No criticism per se, just no spark.

Of course there are the describable factors too. Depending on what's going on in an agent's office that day, perhaps you will get a line or two of feedback if they have some to give. But in general, if it's an issue of quality, that isn't our job to tell you -- that is better left to the many wonderful writers groups, conferences, and freelance editors/book developers out there.

Our primary job is to represent the authors we have under contract. Trust me, one day when you're represented (and you wil be!) you will NOT want your agency spending its time writing flowery letters to authors who sent unsolicited (or even solicited) submissions. We have to delicately balance working hard for our signed authors while keeping an open mind about bringing new people into the fold at our agencies.

With that said, we agents are in general a VERY eager bunch, looking to find good authors to represent -- authors whose work excites us. But once we've made the decision that something isn't for us, we can't spend too much more time discussing the hows and whys of our decisions.

If you are a fiction writer, I'd bet ya that the answer to why an agent passed is tucked in (Da Vinci Code style) the Renni Browne and Dave King book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers . And if you write nonfiction, you probably didn't convince us enough using the formula we suggest on the proposal cheat sheet on our website or the Michael Larsen book.

But where's the justice? That is SO UNFAIR that you only take the first 15 pages or proposal to make a decision on a book I've spent forever writing!

Ok, this one isn't a question but a complaint. One I hear all the time and one I can sympathize with. It confused me when I first got into publishing as well. But then I had a lightbulb -- you know when you walk into a bookstore and you're trying to figure out what novel to read next? What do you do? You pick up a book, you flip at the back and read the description (pitch/synopsis) then you start reading a few pages. It grabs you or it doesn't.

This is what we do in our office all day long.

As far as proposals go, we are looking for a concept that grabs us. We are looking for an author who is undeniably the BEST person on the PLANET to write this book. If your writing is great but the platform isn't there then the proposal was incomplete in that way! Or if your platform is strong but the writing is unrefined, that's another imbalance that might cause us to pass.

This system stinks. Ahem, I mean, don't you think this system stinks?

I think everyone agrees that it's a tough system but it's one that works. The ultimate goal is for you to find an agent who is grabbed by your idea. Someone who gets as excited about it as you are. Your agency relationship is going to be a long one- you don't want a complacent agent because, trust me, it's going to show up in how they work for you (or don't). You want the agent who snaps the project up and is excited about it and you don't need to worry about those people who passed. I have passed on projects that went on to get published. Everyone in publishing has a story of the project they passed up on that went on to be made, and usually (if it's a good story) to be big. Instead of focusing on the pass letter, focus back on yourself and all you can do. If that agent was wrong to pass, they'll certainly learn in time!

Fine, I get it, but you will never understand rejection the way we authors do.

Um, wrong again. Every day we are sending out projects that we've invested our hearts and souls (and no doubt tons of time) in. We send those projects out and, guess what? As much as we'd love every single editor to get excited about what we sent, that very rarely happens. Agents deal with disappointment every day. We get rejection letters from publishing houses all the time! It stinks as much for us to get a dry pass letter on a project we thought was flawless. So actually we do understand it quite well!

So what can I do to get more feedback? How do I approach this query thing?

Well, here are a few tips. For starters --

* send generic/mass queries. Scientific studies show that these annoy agents. Seriously. If you want us to take you and your career seriously, approach us as a serious potential business partner. Spell our name correctly (ok, not mine, b/c it's tough), double-check what they're accepting and *whether* they are currently taking on new clients, and just generally be sure that you're approaching the right person and doing so professionally.

* email the agent incessantly once you have submitted work and they are reviewing. They will let you know if they have and you're better off with a slow yes than a quick no. It is not unheard of for an agent to pass on a project just because the author came across as someone who would be difficult to work with

* Write back after receiving a pass letter and request more feedback. If an agent has feedback for you it will be included in the pass letter. We agents are generally open about whether we're interested in a resubmission of the same work. Likewise, don't write back and say "ok, if it's not for you who can I send it to?". Again, if the agent you have submitted to has suggestions for a referral they will no doubt include that when they pass on the work.

* Slam agents for passing on your manuscript. (see also: getting the last word in) There are many online chat groups and agents know about them! It's great that authors share advice with each other and especially tip each other off about predators who charge fees, etc. But in general it's probably smart to note now that the publishing world is small. If you went ballistic on your last agent (or the last agent you submitted to) the new agent has no reason to think you won't do so again! Be political and be respectful and don't burn bridges if you can avoid it.

* make sure your submission was received if you haven't heard back. Do this ONLY after the 6wk (minimum, 2 mo is better) period has passed. It's not unheard of for a submission to be lost in cyberspace or the mail.

* work on your craft continuously. join writers groups (especially ones with writers you don't know and who won't feel personally tied to you-- they will be more likely to give you honest, critical feedback. And you can take their compliments to heart too!)

* keep submitting to contests, magazines, etc. as your submissions are floating in agencyland. If you have a story place in Harpers or a story in the Tribune while an agent is reading, it could make the difference. Keep agents who are reviewing updated with IMPORTANT information that might increase your national visibility, etc. Show agents that you'd be a good partner to work with and that you're on the up and up!

Best of luck and happy submitting!

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