Writer v. Author: Minding Your Business with Eddie Gamarra and Kat Shepherd

Last fall’s AWG/SCBWI conference closed with a final talk featuring Eddie Gamarra and Kat Shepherd. Eddie Gamarra is a literary manager and producer with the Gotham Group, with a focus on children’s and family entertainment. Kat Shepherd is the author of the Babysitting Nightmares and Gemini Mysteries middle grade series. They are both bold, empowering, and a delight to listen to.

Working in the publishing world can be daunting. So much of it feels completely out of your control—and a lot of it is. You can’t control who’s going to buy your stories or what they’ll think of it. You can’t control the internet. You can’t control market trends. So what can you control?

In their talk, Shepherd and Gamarra took us step by step through the parts of the writing world that a person can grapple with to make the industry work for them. And as I mentioned with Laurie Halse Anderson’s talk, this information is way better straight from the Oracle. If you ever get a chance to attend a conference where Gamarra and/or Shepherd are presenting, take it. That said, let’s get to it!

The first thing to consider when stepping into the publishing world is audience. Who is your audience, and which house will get you to that audience? Shepherd and Gamarra listed four houses to consider: big house, small house, no house, and your house.

Big house These are the Big Five publishers. They’ll be publishing a thousand books at any given time, making it easy to get lost in the shuffle. But the resources at their disposal are unparalleled, meaning you can expect a larger advance and maaaaaybe (if you’re lucky) more marketing heft. (Don’t count on it, though. Usually, it’s only a couple books getting all the hype and the rest are left to their own devices.)

Small house These are all the smaller publishing houses: university presses, boutique, specialty houses, etc. Since these houses are smaller, they have fewer resources for marketing, producing, and distributing your books. However, since their lists are so much smaller, you can expect more focus on your work and more support from the house. (Although again, plan on doing most of your own marketing.)

No house Self-publishing has exploded over the last few decades. And if you’re going to have to do all the marketing legwork yourself anyway, why not? However, if you go this route, it’s all on you: editing, cover design, interior layout, advertising, courting bookshops, and all the things. This path isn’t for the faint of heart. Just because you don’t have gatekeepers telling you no doesn’t mean it’s an easy highway to success.

Your house Your house is more of an attitude than a publishing house. Your house is spinning the typical power dynamics on their head. Looking for an agent willing to take you on? No, you’re hiring an agent; they work for you. Trying to find a bookstore willing to take your books? No, you’re letting someone make money on your literary genius in exchange for distributing books for you. By flipping the script, you don’t come begging for favors. You’re the one giving them out.

In your house, you are the CEO of your company, an active boss instead of a passive peon, and you’ve got bills to pay. While we all love our art, you are not a bad person for expecting to be paid for your work. Treat your writing as your livelihood and put in the work to see it thrive.

Part of that work is positive and consistent communication. Know what you expect from your agent and your editor, and make sure that they know that too. Listen to what they need from you and honor that. Know the name of your publicist and thank them by name. Whenever possible, teleconference with your publicist, editor, and agent, and ask them what you can do to support them. Remember, you are the boss. Good bosses help their team do their job well.

Know what you’re willing to invest for your writing career, because there will be sacrifices, whether that’s time, money, energy, or more. There are a million things you could be doing to push your books, but you do not have to do them all. Consider the return on investment and only do what’s worth the investment. And if you’re not sure what the ROI is on a given tactic, ask others who have tried it out before.

Whatever route you decide to take, a big ego will do you no favors. Know what puts your books in the hands of readers and do whatever that is, whether that means working with a prestigious big press or a small press most people have never heard of. Do your research and do your networking. Ask for help when you need it. Develop a media plan—whether you have big house heft or are going it alone—and put in the hustle to build the hype.

Gamarra and Shepherd’s talk was a rallying cry (which is why you need to attend their talks in person). So often, we writers come to the negotiating table as supplicants. Shepherd and Gamarra encourage writers to stand a little taller, to accept and exercise more agency in the fate of our own stories. They encourage us to be the protagonists.

So don’t give in to the whims of fate! Authors aren’t as helpless as they often feel. When we educate ourselves on what can be done, and have the stamina to do it, we can step into an industry where so much feels beyond our grasp and take the reins with confidence.

Until next week, happy writing!

Why Am I So Bad At Goals Whyyy

So this post was originally intended to be a halfway-into-the-year check in on my writing goals. Due to some scheduling issues, we’re a bit past the midpoint, but I’m doing it anyway. Because deadlines are for mortals, which is a response that probably will give you a lot of insight into the way my goals are going so far this year.

The short answer is that I’m doing awfully. At everything.

My reading goals were progressing beautifully until summer struck and then all bets were off. I didn’t read a single book over the entire summer that wasn’t for work, and it was difficult to squeeze even that much in. *claws at own face* I can’t live like this.

Giving myself more leeway on short story writing maaaay have been a mistake because I took that leeway as an excuse to do next to nothing. I have written two short stories so far this year. Two.

Editing is likewise a giant sinkhole so far this year. I just started editing Blood and Ebony about a week ago and have made it about halfway through the first chapter. And… that is all. Yikes. Zero down and three to go.

And I guess I started my one new draft of a novel, but realized about halfway in that it’s terrible and has some plot holes you could fly an Airbus A380 through and I have no interest in finishing it before the year is out. So… back to square one on that, I suppose.

My rejections goal for the year is currently sitting at fifteen of my forty-eight rejections, which is terrible in and of itself, but made exponentially more terrible by the fact that that is all. I have nothing more currently on submission right now that counts toward this goal. So unless I get my rear into gear, that number is going to stay at fifteen. At the beginning of the year, I had intended to have all the subs out that I needed for the entire year (plus a little extra under the assumption that some will be accepted) by the end of September, giving those rejections time to trickle in over the rest of the year. Yeah. Not happening. This goal is so far sitting at flaming-airplane-wreck-two-minutes-before-takeoff level of fail.

Soooo… yeah. That’s where I’m at.

But I have excuses. Do you wanna hear my excuses? Please?

My biggest excuse is that a few of those probable rejections turned out to be acceptances—and on pretty big projects, too. On top of my having normal day jobs, I’ve been working on these projects, steadily, daily, for about three months now and it’ll be at least another month before they’re all completed. It’s taking up nearly all of my free time.

Other excuses have been of the much less fun family emergency variety. Just this summer we had a string of chicken tragedies and three unique medical emergencies. (Unless we want to count each of my son’s complications as their own thing. Ah, dog bites. The emergency that keeps on emerging.) These things take time, and they also take brain power. I can’t work very effectively if I’m worried that my husband might need surgery (still a possibility) or that my son might lose an eye (off the table—whew!).

So, yeah. I’m still going to get myself as close to those goals as possible before the end of the year. I think I can catch up on the reading goal without too much fuss. Just two more short stories would put me above what I managed for last year, so that will have to be good enough. Editing might get trimmed back to just one book; if I really turn this thing around, maybe two. I’ll get about half of a first draft in November and try to finish the rest of it in December, so that one is still in the realm of possibility. But the rejections goal will definitely have to come down; I just won’t know exactly how much until I finish up these other projects. We’ll see.

All in all, I’m trying not to beat myself up too badly. I’m doing my best and I’m not just being lazy, so that’s a definite win in this game.

How about you fine readers? How are your literary endeavors going so far this year? Any wins to report? Any fails that could use some cheerleading? Let me know in the comments! And until next week, happy writing!

Conference Lessons: Pitching Agents

lunch-chatHello, internet friends! I hope you’re having a lovely fall. Mine is so far suuuuuper busy. It’s like the closer we get to winter, the more frantic I get. I’m the white rabbit running around with a pocket watch shouting, “I’m late! I’m late!” Seriously, everywhere I look is DEADLINES ABOUNDING and I’m going a little crazy.

But I have managed to cross one big thing off my list: the annual AWG Fall Conference! *blows party horn* For those of you who haven’t heard my spiel yet, the Alaska Writers Guild puts on an annual conference (in conjunction with the Alaska chapters of SCBWI and RWA) which is small and a little quirky and all around delightful. It’s low key and friendly and I just love these folks.

For one of the breakout sessions, an agents was slated for a pitch session, but it was unclear whether the session was supposed to be about pitching or an opportunity for pitching. And since there were like ten of us in there, the agent posed it to us which one we would rather (although in the end there was really time for a bit of both).

What came out during the very casual Q&A was very comforting to me. Like many writers, I am an introvert. Socialization takes a lot of energy, even when I enjoy it. I get nervous around strangers, particularly around adults. Pitching terrifies me.

Don’t get me wrong. I do all the things I’m supposed to. I have a succinct elevator pitch for every book I’ve ever written. I come prepared to conferences with my pitches printed out and in hand. But Heaven help me, I can’t ever remember them. As soon as the big moment arrives, I can’t even remember what genres I write, let alone my cleverly honed pitches for specific books. Assuming I don’t lose my nerve completely, I either rattle off something completely unprepared or read what I had worked out earlier. I always figured cold pitching was just something I’d never be able to do, something I’d just have to learn to work around in my career as a writer.

But I’ve since learned that that might not be the end of the world I was led to believe it was.

Some agents expect you to be able to cold pitch on the spot in any given situation, at any given moment, like a first responder ready and waiting to save lives. (First responders: you are boss. Carry on.) But a lot of agents don’t. In fact, a lot of agents would rather you didn’t.

So what’s the best way to approach an agent? Like a human!

Be friendly. Don’t just run up out of the blue and drop a pitch in their lap. Strike up a conversation first. Chat about something besides your book for a minute. And if it feels right, maybe ask them about their manuscript wishlist and then pitch. But don’t forget that they’re a person before they’re an agent.

The agent we were talking to confessed that she actually hates unsolicited pitches, especially if they show up without warning. She told us about being pitched in lunch lines, in bathrooms, and outside her hotel room, and it was clear that just remembering them made her uncomfortable. This isn’t true for some agents. Some agents probably really prefer just getting down to business. But for a lot of them, pouncing tactics is a big turn off. They’d rather have a chat and then you can just ask if you can query later after the event is over.

Honestly, I like that course better, and not just because I can’t remember my own pitches worth beans. If I’m to interact with humans, I really prefer unscripted, inconsequential chitchat. It puts me at ease and it’s nice to know that it puts the agent at ease too. Plus, I feel like I’m much cleverer on the page than in person, so being able to send in a polished query instead of having smelly garbage pouring out of my mouth is just better for everyone.

And it seems to work! The two agents I chatted with both told me I should query them after I got home. So, one conference off the to-do list, and two submissions on.

Happy writing!

Resource Roundup: YouTube Edition

So I mentioned last week in Breaking Up with Candy Crush that part of my computerly goofing off occurred on YouTube. I am not, however, breaking up with YouTube. Candy Crush is great for distracting me from doldrums (and my children from squabbles), but really not much more than that. YouTube is actually great for a lot of things.

Beyond sheer entertainment, YouTube is a good resources for many of your writing needs. Here are the ways that I fold YouTube into my writing life. If you have more ideas, I’d love to hear them below!

Research You can look up tons of stuff on YouTube! Want to know about the most poisonous tree in earth? YouTube can tell you about that. Want to know how to replace the engine in your car? YouTube can tell you about that. Want to know about what brains do on adrenaline? YouTube can tell you about that. There are so many videos out there that could fall under this umbrella, depending on what your project is about, but a couple of my favorites generalists are SciShow and TED, or any of their affiliate channels.

Writing Tips Whole channels are devoted to breaking down what makes an excellent story, first chapter, character, etc. You can find writing tips on everything from initial inspiration on down to the specific nitty gritty of word choice, crafting believable side characters, and examples of well done settings. One of my favorite shows for writing tips right now is the On Writing series by Hello Future Me.

Editing Tips Not sure how to clean up that messy draft you’ve plopped out on your keyboard? Never fear! YouTube has videos for that! Whether it’s troubleshooting what’s wrong with your character arc, making sure your opening scene doesn’t fall prey to overused tropes, or plucking out all those troublesome adverbs, YouTube has you covered.

Submission Tips Submitting stuff, and all the snarl of yarn that entails, is hands down the scariest part of writing for me. I’ll gobble up any submission tips I can find. I needs ‘em! One of my favorites right now is the Book Doctors’ channel. Their book was great. So is their channel. (They also cover editing and marketing too. Like many of these channels, they cover a lot of stuff.)

Marketing and Promotion I don’t really do this one, but maybe you’re better at promoting yourself and your work than I am. Lots of literary professionals build up a following on YouTube sharing tips, trends, or even just slice of life segments. Authors post thoughts on the writing journey, book trailers, you name it. All of this builds up hype for their work, which hopefully equates more sales!

Inspiration Yes, you can be ‘working’ while browsing interesting videos! I don’t know how many times I’ve been goofing around YouTube and then an idea suddenly pops in my head for a new element in a story I’m working on, or even a new story altogether. That’s the fun thing about inspiration- you never know what will lead you to it!

If you don’t even know what you’re looking for, but find yourself trawling YouTube for stray thoughts, you can’t go wrong working your way through The Write Life’s click-bait-titled list, 15 of the Best YouTube Channels for Writers. Go give it a glance! (I’m gonna go check out Brandon Sanderson’s BYU lecture series first minute I find.)

All that said, do be cautious. Like all of the internet, YouTube is vast and interesting, and getting sucked down that rabbit hole is a lot easier than we like to admit to ourselves. It helps to have a system in place to keep YouTube from cutting in too much on your writing time. Some people use a timer. Some people only let themselves watch a certain number of videos per day. Personally, I only watch YouTube when my kids are up and about, which is time in which I wouldn’t be able to effectively do any writing anyway. Find what works for you and stick to your guns!

What else do you use YouTube for? Do you have any great resources you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below! Please and thank you!

(On an unrelated note, happy birthday, Mama! Thanks for keeping me alive and sane-ish all those years!)

Of Productivity and Patience

patience-is-a-virtueEvery Tuesday morning and Thursday evening, I put my kids to bed and get on my computer and curse my internet connection and open Scrivener. I write every day, usually at night after having put my kids down to sleep, but Tuesday morning and Thursday evening are special because those are the times when I write with friends.

Mary has been my number one writer friend for years and years and is pretty much my soulmate. My number two is Anna- who shares with me an almighty kitchen quirk and who gave me a questionable bag of flour that I can’t get rid of because it was Anna’s questionable bag of flour and I’ll be darned if I throw it out before I figure out what it is- and, even though both of them have moved away from me, we still carve this time out to write together. I love this writing time, and it feeds my soul in a different way than just writing by myself does.

In our little group dynamic, I am and always have been The Nag. I’m constantly blowing up their phones if they forget what day it is, or talking smack when their word counts are low, or coming up with new and improved ways to extort their stories out of them. My latest scheme is our Chapter Pact of Doom. (I am the only one who calls it that.)

Every other Friday, we are each supposed to post a chapter of our current WIP to a Google doc that the others have access to. This is kind of new and terrifying for me because I once-shy-of-never show first draft material to people, and here I am posting it to the internet to peruse at their leisure. *faints* But this just goes to show you how far I will go to try and shoehorn forward writing progress out of myself and everyone around me, especially when it comes to first drafts.

I write rapidly. Feverishly. I squeeze first drafts out with the hurried frenzy of Peter Rabbit popping through Mr. McGregor’s fence.

But there is another end to this spectrum. As important as it is to get stories quickly to market, there is a Zen to writing as well that cannot be rushed.

No matter how quickly you can put words down, writing requires phenomenal patience. A book that takes me two months to write can also take me two years to edit. I’ve been querying literary agents with only glacial progress for years. Even if I signed tomorrow, it would in all likelihood be years longer before a book of mine ever hit a bookstore shelf.

So here are a few things that I’ve learned to be patient about over the years.

Editing As quickly as I draft, I am at least that slow in editing. Everything about this process is super slow and thoughtful. A passage that took me minutes to jot down can take months to tweak into its polished final state. Drafting is all about just getting ideas onto the page. Editing is a hundred things more- checking for spelling and grammar; clarifying; refining the voice; making sure the scene and each part of it move the story forward; putting emotion on the page; grounding the scene in sensory detail; ALL THE THINGS. And that takes time!

Submitting Even after all these years, it still burns us. Crafting submission materials (blurbs, queries, bios, etc) is only half the battle. Then you have to research the heck out of who you’re going to send all this material to- and then tailor each submission for just that person. This does not happen overnight. (Or if it does, you’re doing it wrong.) And even after you’ve finally gotten your materials perfect and sent them to the perfect people, you still have to wait for…

Responses So, waiting for responses is actually one of the things I’ve gotten decent at being patient for. When I first started submitting stuff (to anyone, really- friends, beta readers, agents, etc), I felt like I was sitting in a boiler room on a bed of broken glass. There were even a few times where anxiety got the better of me and I thought I was going to die of a heart attack or something before the whole ordeal was over. But these days, I’ve learned how to keep myself busy while waiting for responses. I have other projects I work on. I send things out in batches timed so that there’s always a few out and a few more to send. I read exciting books. I occasionally skip the country on vacations. You know, things like that.

Fame, Riches, and Glory I’m, uh… I’m still waiting on this one. Completely. And frankly, this is probably a thing I’ll be patiently waiting for until I die.

Writing is a lot of work- the kind of work that happens quickly, and the kind that happens slowly. If I worked very slowly at all of it, I would never have the body of prose that I’ve accumulated, nor gotten through the literal millions of words of practice that I have. But if I was a slave to speed in its every aspect, sure, maybe I’d have a lot of work, but none of it would have the kind of polished refine that it requires to garner any critical notice, whether that’s from agents or publishers or readers. A writer requires both. And that is something that took me a long time to learn.

So whether you’re pouring on the heat to try and muscle through a first draft in three weeks flat, or reining in the horses to make sure you really get this one line just right, take pride in knowing that you’re giving your work just what it needs- a push of productivity, and a pinch of patience, each in due course.

Happy writing!

Submissions Pump Soundtrack

Submissions. *sighs* Submissions are hard. And while I feel like I’ve gotten way better at it over the last year, it can still take a bit to get myself worked up enough to actually hit that send button.

So after I have all my research done, I’ve got my customized query or cover letters, and I’m done with the thinking, I start playing my jams and sending out those submissions.

Believer by Imagine Dragons 

Bodak Yellow by Cardi B (Radio version, haha) 

Me Too by Meghan Trainer 

Whatever It Takes by Imagine Dragons 

Lose Yourself by Eminem (This was my first pump song and the nearest to my heart. Sometimes I just listen to this one on repeat until I have done all the things.) 

(All I Do Is Win by DJ Khaled almost made the list, but I don’t actually own a copy of it, nor do I listen to it as much as the others. We’ll call it an honorable mention.) 

You may recall my rejections goal for this year. (Link here!) So far, I’m about 3/4 of the way to hitting my goal. I know that doesn’t sound that impressive, given that we’re 11/12 of the way through the year, but it’s actually quite a bit better than I thought I’d be doing. But in addition to a swanky check list that is slowly filling up, I’ve also had a few acceptances to soften the blows! Wahoo! I don’t think I’d have as many acceptances if I hadn’t been so stubborn about submissions this year.

Submissions can be difficult, especially given their high proclivity for turning into rejections. But only a submission can result in an acceptance, and only acceptances can propel your writing career forward.

So plug in those headphones and crank those tunes. The year’s not quite over yet and I’ve got a few more rejections to rack up. I’ll let you know the final tally in another month. Until then, happy writing- and submitting!

UPDATE: Discovered after publishing this post-

Motivated by NF 

Getting Publication Ready with Jane Friedman

Jane-Friedman-1First off, this woman looks eerily like my sister-in-law. I had to get that off my chest. It’s like future Annie has come back to the past to tell me about books.

Second, Jane Friedman is a publishing beast. Co-founder of the Hot Sheet, former editor of Writer’s Digest, Ms. Friedman has a bio that makes me want to curl up under a blankie and weep at all the majesty. She managed to pack one metric tonne of information into the three hour class. There’s no way I’m going to be able to fit it all into a single blog post, so I’m only going to talk this week about just getting your book ready for publication. I will come back to address the other topics- the five categories of publishing and how to go about them- in more detail in later posts, so fear not. Start looking for those toward the beginning of next year, maaaybe a little sooner if I get an unexpected hole in my schedule.

But if that’s too long a wait, I came across this class, How to Publish Your Book, with Jane Friedman, while perusing a catalog for The Great Courses. It looks like it might cover some of the same information, and is massively on sale until 26 October. You know, if you’re the impatient type.

However! being the impatient type is not the best way to be when hoping to publish a book. Slow down, cowboy! Let’s talk about the steps you must go through to successfully get your book ready for publication, whether that’s traditional, indie, or somewhere in between.

The first step is to make sure that your book is its best possible self. This includes drafting, self-editing, beta editing, rewriting, maybe even professional editing, the works. This is a very long process, and it can be hard to tell when you’re really done here. The yardstick I’ve been using is that I am a) stupidly proud of the work, and b) feel like my eyeballs are going to fall out of my head every time I open the file again. It’s a strange balance. But after your manuscript is the absolute prettiest it can be, then you can turn your mind to preparing for publication, and that means market research.

The earliest parts of research can be done from within the comfortable confines of your very own story- you have to know what you’re selling. Know whether you’ve written fiction or nonfiction, know what your intended age group is, and know your category.  For fiction, have you written mainstream, literary, or genre? For nonfiction, is the MS narrative, prescriptive, or inspirational? Each of these groupings will point toward a different target audience and, if you’re traditionally publishing, a different submission target.

Be aware of the different age categories and try not to straddle them. (I am so bad about straddling age categories, ugggggh.) Also, never claim that your project is “hard to categorize”. Nobody likes that and it doesn’t give potential readers any information. Instead, say that it’s “multi-genre” or has “crossover appeal” and mention just two specific categories.

Once you have your book all neatly categorized, do some market research. Your goal here is to understand the commercial viability of a project, which is important whether you plan to enlist the help of traditional publishers or to go it alone. But just for general reference, I’m going to list some of the positive and negative signs a publisher will look for when deciding whether a book is marketable or not.

Positive Signs (do this stuff) Negative Signs (avoid this stuff)
  • Uses standard lengths (wordcount)
  • Written in a commercial genre
  • Author has a solid platform (for nonfiction)
  • Wordcounts that are way outside of norms (<50k, >120k, etc)
  • Tough sell categories (cookbooks, picture books, travel books, short story complication, etc)
  • Memoirs without a high concept or publicity angle

If you find that your book has some of those negative signs, maybe give it a closer squint before moving past this point. (Huge books by unknown authors are a hard sell, no matter which publication route you choose. Most cookbooks are sold by celebrity chefs. Keep these things in mind when figuring out your own market viability.)

For traditional publishing, this is where you start getting your submission packet ready, which probably includes something like a query, sample pages, and a synopsis; know ahead of time whether you want to query agents or publishing houses directly, because you’re not supposed to do both at the same time, and follow submission guidelines exactly. Novels and memoirs must be finished, edited, and polished before beginning the submission process. For nonfiction, write the book proposal first, including a business plan; since publishers don’t have the finished materials, you have to convince them that this book will sell.

If you’re going the indie route, you don’t need a proposal or query, but you still need a lot of the bits and pieces that would go into them, including a business plan, sales copy, and a finely polished project. In addition, you’ll also need to work out your book design, including formatting, cover design, blurbs, etc. If you’re not a professional [editor/book designer/artist/etc], pay for one like any other book publisher would.

When putting together back cover blurbs/pitches, business plans, and author bios, feel free to pick the brains of your friends, family, and neighbors on the bus to work. This stuff is hard to write, but having extra eyes on it can help you pick out the pieces that aren’t clear, or that sound strange, or whatever the problem may be. Just as you wouldn’t try to publish a work that hadn’t been beta read and closely edited, don’t try to do that with this stuff either. These things make up the sales pitch of your book, whether you’re addressing it to agents, editors, or readers. Give it the same care that you have given the rest of your book.

After you have all these scores of little duckies in a row, it’s time to get your rhinoceros-thick skin on. You’re ready to step into the publishing ring! Good luck!