Tag Archives: DFWCon

5 Secrets About Literary Agents

One of the best things about attending a writers’ conference is it is a great way to meet literary agents…and demystify them a bit. Here are the top 5 secrets I learned about them:

1. They tend to work odd hours. The number one takeaway I got from the conference was to write a query letter as if the reader is half-asleep…because they very well may be. The agents I met were workaholics, ad several admitted to reading queries late into the night, before bed. That makes it a little trickier to grab their attention, so keep it simple!

2. There are bad times to solicit them. Of course, this doesn’t just mean when they’re in the bathroom (but don’t do that!). Certain times of year tend to be trickier to get their attention: in the summer months, they’re taking vacations (along with everyone else!) and many are also out of the office in December. Don’t send your manuscript on January 1! Wait until mid-month, when the flow of queries from authors who didn’t get this advice will have tapered off.

3. Some really like self-publishing. We sometimes imagine that self-publishing and getting a literary agent are entirely opposing ideas, but the agents at the conference really didn’t think so! While not all of them would accept a self-published author, they all admitted that there are some genres, stories, and situations where self-publishing is a better route, and many said they would take on self-published clients.

4. They work really hard. These folks…wow. They are a devoted bunch. They all really seemed to genuinely want to see more books published (and not just because it means a revenue stream for them, too). They are people who like books, at heart. (One woman I met was a member of three different book clubs!) Which is good, because they have to read a lot of books, and queries, and manuscripts to do their jobs right. Sometimes (angry) authors can push the idea that agents are evil, book-hating gatekeepers who just want to keep an author down, but that definitely didn’t seem true.

5. They are all different. Shocking, I know, but there isn’t exactly a literary agent hive mind. There are similarities, because they are all doing the same job, but what appeals to Agent A just may not resonate with agents B, C, and D, and vice versa. That can make our job as writers seeking to court them tricky, but it also means that all those rejections may not at all be personal. So keep trying.

What “secrets” have you learned about literary agents? 

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Charlaine Harris on Success

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The keynote speaker at this year’s DFW Writers’ Convention was Charlaine Harris, the New York Times bestselling author most known for her Sookie Stackhouse novels (which subsequently became the True Blood TV phenomenon).

She just absolutely adorable.
Ms. Harris seems like everything I’d like in the sweet neighbor next door: a grandma who bakes cookies on the regular but also is more than willing to slip you a bottle of booze after a hard day. She was sharp and funny and seemed so lovely; I wish I’d gotten to speak to her personally. At the very least, I’ve bought the first novel in her series as a tribute!
Ms. Harris gave a short speech about her life’s work before opening the floor to questions. She talked about how difficult it was to write as a parent (“I wanted to have kids, but I just had to write. You make it work.”), about where her ideas come from (“I don’t know. They’re just there!”), and on the tenacity it takes to be a writer.
But the part that stuck with me most were her comments on her success. She said, “I still haven’t read On Writing or any other writing book, because I’m too afraid I’ll find out I’ve been doing it wrong all this time.”
Wow.
This woman has published a passel of books, literally just laughed when asked if an agent ever said she couldn’t do something, and yet still has that crippling fear of “doing it wrong.” It’s comforting to know that insecurity doesn’t have to be a barrier; it’s just something you work with and through.
She also said there’s an award she’d like to win…but fully expects never to be able to. She’s so accomplished in many ways—she’s the writer dream achieved!—but she still has goals she feels are unattainable.
And finally, she talked about failure, about how you just have to take it and barrel on anyway. She said she’s been dropped by publishers before…but you just can’t let that stop you. Having kids while writing was hard…but you can’t let that stop you. Your book may not sell…but you can’t let that stop you.
It was very powerful to me to “meet” this unassuming, very inspiring, dogged determined, funny lady who happens to be a literary powerhouse. I hope to have her tenacity and humor.
 
Which authors inspire you? How do you get through the insecurity and the bad days?

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The Nine Elements of Worldbuilding

This awesome fictional map of "Clichea," created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

This awesome fictional map of “Clichea,” created by Sarithus. Might want to avoid this sort of thing.

I attended a really interesting lecture by prolific fantasy author Kevin J. Anderson on the fundamentals of worldbuilding. I don’t want to crib too much from his lecture—and the pending book on the same topic (keep an eye out for it; he can explain a lot better than he can!)—but I figure it’s still fair for y’all to benefit from my conference-attending.

The nine elements of creating a realistic, or at least believable, fictional world are: geography; climate; politics; economics; society; religion; intellectual/scientific; arts; and history.

When considering the setting and general plot for your totally rad fiction work, ask yourself some questions (and maybe more, as you put the pieces together):

  • Geography—could this landmass exist in the real world? Should it?
    • Make sure the actual structure of the land a) makes sense and b) fits with your plot. You’re unlikely to have a successful pirate story in a landlocked nation.
  • Climate—what’s the weather like?
    • Temperatures will inform clothing, and may affect culture. Would Jurassic Park or The Left Hand of Darkness be the same without their respective climates?
  • Politics—how does your society run?
    • A monarchy is going to look pretty different from a tribal theocracy.
  • Economics—what do people do for a living?
    • Anderson wrote a few Dune novels; of course, those books would not exist without the fictional “spice” upon which intergalactic travel relied.
  • Society—how are people treated? Are they generally happy?
    • There are a lot of components to consider here. Keep asking questions until it feels realistic.
  • Religion—what god/gods are worshiped? Are the benevolent…or scary? Incarnate…or imagined?
    • It seemed to me that religion could have a great deal of overlap with the “society” and “politics” questions.
  • Intellectual/Scientific—How do people feel about science?
    • Are they “burning the witches”?
  • Arts—What is the look and feel of your society? Do they have freedom of expression?
    • This is going to inform a lot of the descriptions! Everything from textiles up to architecture might be related to the arts.
  • History—what came before: constant upheaval? Centuries of peace?
    • A peaceful nation may react dramatically differently from a violent one.

I love those little maps in the front of books, but I’ve never endeavored to make on. Anderson’s class made me feel like I ought to try…or at least doodle some.

Bonus: Check out these cool “real” maps of fictional places!

Do you create elaborate fictional worlds? How do you put them together?

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Top 10 Things I Learned From DFWCon

DFW writers' convention

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending DFW Writers Convention, one of the bigger writers conventions, and after two days of shaking hands and smiling at other writers/editors/agents, early mornings and late nights, and many workshops, I feel obligated to try to sum up the experience. For those of you who have yet to attend a similar convention, I say get out there and find one: it’ll step up your game. In the meantime, read on:

10. Everyone is wary of Amazon. Agents practically felt they had to whisper it in case the shopping ma

gnate somehow overheard, but Amazon is currently the enemy you keep close. They all unanimously said it was essential, but are decidedly concerned about that growing monopoly. Remember: Amazon is useful, but Amazon isn’t your friend…it’s a business.

9. Those who excel at social media are people who already are very open and energetic. Though I did learn some about manipulating Facebook’s algorithm for your favor, my biggest takeaway from the social media conversation was that you have to be willing to tell the world just about everything about yourself…except nothing negative, at all. Remember, you’re selling yourself, and no one wants to hear the bad parts. It was very telling that the agents, who insist everyone must be represented on Twitter/social media, were also th

e first to say their Twitter persona is not the same as their real lives. Hmm…

8. No one has any idea what will sell. Not really. As is probably always true at these kinds of conferences, talk swirled around what was in demand. And depending on who you talked to, it was just about anything. This year sci-fi was the predominant winner, but none of the agents seemed particularly keen on it. (Two years ago it was all romance and some New Adult. This year, New Adult was practically dead.) One agent said something ridiculously specific was on her wishlist. It was all over the place.

7. Agents are not a hive mind. Along the same lines, just because one agent feels strongly about

something doesn’t mean they all will. At more than one panel the agents (politely) disagreed with each other, particularly at the all-important Query Gong Show (a game to suss out when an agent would stop reading a query). It really is about hitting the right mark.

6. It is less important to have an agent than it is to have the right agent. Following in the same train of thought, one lecture from an author who’d made the NYTimes Editor’s Choice list made this point really clear. He’d had a very well-known agent for years…who was completely unable to sell his material. But after he switched, it found a home. As painful as the agent-finding process is (and it is), sometimes having an agent may be worse than not.

5. Agents are really busy people. Keep this in mind while you’re fretting over your email inbox,

wringing your hands while you wait for a response: they have to respond to you and a helluva lot of other people. I’ve mentioned my negative agent experience—I waited nearly a year for a response on a requested manuscript!—so I know the waiting is terrible, but be realistic. One agent had had 10,000 queries the year prior, and had accepted … 6. Agents have a caseload of about 35 books they’re selling at any one time. Plus they’re going to conferences all over the country. That’s plenty for one person.

4. Keep your query letter short. Because agents are so busy, they may be reading your query at 11:30 at night, just before bed. They don’t have time for a long monologue. This was the number one reason letters were rejected at the gong show. Keep your query short—shorter than you think it should be!—and the

agent will open your manuscript if interested. Corollary: start with the genre and the word count to avoid surprises.

3. There is such a thing as “hybrid” publishing, and it may be the most successful option. I heard mixed reviews on this but I’m choosing to accept the positive: agents feel that there is definitely a place for a combination of self- and traditional publishing. Some even said that building an audience with a first, self-published book was a good way to eventually attract an agent. Authors also said that some things a

re not not suitable for the traditional route, making self-publishing some pieces a good idea. So there’s no n

eed to be “all in” one way or the other.

2. “Successful” authors seriously struggle. What seems like the end may just be the beginning of a new phase. I’m perhaps most grateful for the lecture by Dallas author Will Clarke, who had the markers of success—two traditionally published books, coverage in the New York Times and Rolling Stone, the book tour, the works. But his story was shocking: he’s never bought out his advance; the publisher dropped him; his book was optioned for Paramount studios but will never see the light of day; and the continual book tour burned him out creatively, emotionally, and physically. Success has its downsides.

1. Even the most experienced and successful authors are plagued by insecurity about their writing. Superstar author Charlaine Harris was this year’s keynote speaker, and despite being unequivocally a renowned and esteemed author, she admitted that she’s afraid to read Stephen King’s On Writing  or any other “how to write” book for fear of discovering she’s been doing it wrong for more than 30 years. If even someone as relentlessly successful has those fears, it’s ok for us newbies to admit to them, too.

Have you attended a conference? What wisdom can you share?

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Off the Fence and Into Self-Publishing

Icat on a fence‘ve written a lot about publishing versus self-publishing, and have made it pretty clear that I’ve been fence-sitting: researching both, querying agents, and monitoring the self-publishing world and the struggle between the two methods of publication.

Well, I just got pushed off the fence.

At DFW Writer’s Convention in 2013, I was able to sit down with two agents for pitch sessions. They both went really well, and I went home with two full manuscript requests for my zombie gamebook, Undead Rising. I sent them in, and began my patient waiting.

After a few months, I received a rejection from one of the agents. It was short and vague. I found out a week later that she had switched agencies, so I think she probably picked up only her favorite things and took them with her. So my feelings weren’t that hurt.

And then I waited some more. And, frankly, I had a really busy year… so I forgot about it.

I just this week got the other rejection. That’s 15 full months (a year and a quarter!) of waiting to hear back one way or another on a  requested manuscript; she’d already shown enough interest to get me to “phase 2” of querying.

Now, the agent was really kind in her rejection and apologized for the “unconscionable delay,” which she attributed to her “large backlog of requested material.” In fact, the rejection was largely positive; she mentions a quibble or two, but it (in my opinion) seems extremely minor and not a big deal. She said it was “well-executed” and that there was “a lot to like here.” Which is good to hear.

I’m not trying to call her out here–I’m not going to say who the agent was; she was very nice in person and I would have liked to have worked with her. But a 15-month delay on a requested manuscript seems ridiculous. Particularly because it is considered good manners to not consult other agents while a manuscript is with an agent (though I could have, had I notified her. Like I said, I forgot.)

This isn’t the only reason–the stars in general are feeling like they’ve aligned for me–but this is a big reason that I’ve decided to self-publish this book. The traditional publishing structure seems to be oriented toward very narrow types of books (whatever the gatekeepers think will sell well immediately) set on incredibly long-term time frames (making the process more about luck and timing than content). That combined with the lower rate of return… I just don’t feel like my oddball book will ever be a good fit in the industry. And that’s disappointing.

But it’s also exciting.

So, by Halloween of this year, I intend to have a complete zombie gamebook adventure available for sale as an ebook (and maybe a print book). I look forward to getting Undead Rising: Decide Your Destiny to an audience in time for All Hallows Read!

If you’ve self-published, can you offer any tips or tricks?

 

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Internet Famous

The inimitable Tex Thompson, who I met at DFW Con this year (she gave a killer presentation on grammar) does this brilliant thing I her blog: Grammaticats.
That’s right. She teaches good grammar through funny captioned cats, despite their storied Internet history as grammatically inventive ruffians.

And I am proud to say that one of my two is now Internet Famous. Here is my cat Sawyer, the orange striped rogue in the third image, in a new role as teaching aid in grammatical ellipses.

I can safely say this is the most brilliant he will ever be (which admittedly isn’t saying much; this is the cat who enjoys chewing through electrical cords, leading Amazon to assume I have infants in the house because I keep buying electrical covers).

So go, get your learn on!

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