Reblog: 10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes

Hey! I totally forgot to warn everyone last week, but it’s another month of Camp NaNoWriMo! *cheers* And that means that I get to basically ignore the blog for the month!*cheers*

But fear not, O darling readers.  While I’m busy turning Irene Adler into a shape-shifting single mom, we’ll still be having a fun month here of reblogs, silly comics, and who knows what else. To kick things off, have some Writer’s Digest wisdom from Jessica Stawser!

A few short months ago, I wrote about my path to getting an agent and a publisher, and promised to share my experiences leading up to the publication of my debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, due out in 2017 from St. Martin’s Press.

You might think that as the editor of Writer’s Digest magazine—and given my earlier years spent editing nonfiction books—I would know more or less what to expect from the process. But I discovered that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes on the author’s side—emotions to navigate, new steps to take—that I haven’t seen discussed much elsewhere (perhaps even more so with a “Big 5” publisher).

So let’s take a look at what I’ve learned in my early months as a debut novelist-in-progress—and how it might help you know what to expect and how to position yourself for success. I’ve outlined 10 lessons overall, and will be delivering them in two installments—5 today, and 5 more on Monday. Let’s start at the beginning.

1. Once you’re offered a book contract, it takes awhile to get the, well, contract.

It was right around eight weeks for me, which my agent indicated was typical. I wasn’t really bothered by this, but my husband, who works in finance and insurance where nobody touches anything until signatures are in place, was a bit white-knuckled. He could not believe that my editor, agent and I were all already working on various things for and with each other with nothing signed.

What if it falls through in the negotiating stages? Think of having an offer accepted on a house. You do inspections, loan approvals, packing, storing and more in good faith that the closing will go through. All the while, your real estate agent (there’s that word again!) is doing even more work behind the scenes on your behalf, and you have to trust him or her. Are there a few horror stories out there about things falling apart? Sure. But most of the time you walk away with the keys.

So, if you’re cut from the same cloth as my husband (and what a handsome cloth it is), know that this is more or less the norm. As long as you have a reputable agent and publisher, try to trust that things will work out.

Ready to read the rest?  Head on over to Writer’s Digest to read the full article: 10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes of a Book Deal.

Don’t Give Up

Winston-Churchill

Never never never

So I’ve been in an awful writing slump lately. Really, it’s kind of a creativity slump in general. Writing and sketching, which I’m usually so desperate to make more time for, have both ticked a few notches down on the totem pole. (On the plus side, my house has been a lot cleaner than usual and I’ve rearranged most of the furniture. So yay?)

I can get into the details later (or maybe not), but the short of it is that my confidence as a writer is perhaps not quite shattered, but pretty darned cracked. And it’s hard to write like that. So I’ve found it more difficult than usual lately to affix butt to chair and get some work done. Luckily, the world keeps spinning even when I’m mired in the vast wastes of the Pity Bogs (sad trombone).

My local chapter of the Alaska Writer’s Guild, being awesome like it is, had rounded up another local author to present at one of our monthly chapter meetings. I opened the email, chin in hand, and there was a picture of the author, Paul Greci (you can find his MG survival adventure here). And I knew the guy. I saw him just about every day when I picked my kid up from school.Greci

I like supporting local authors, and I like supporting teachers, and I already planned to buy the book for my son, so I basically had to go. UGHHHHH. Hubby was happy to kick me out the door (because this is another aspect of my creativity slump- the doldrums often go hand-in-hand with a deep and abiding resentment of anything that forces me to leave the house, no matter how soul-crushingly bored I am), and off I went for a little me time, titled “Paul’s Twisted Path to Publication”.

You know how you go without someone for a really long time and it’s fine, but then you see them again and have this sudden upswelling of throat-clenching emotion? How you don’t realize how much you’ve missed them until you don’t have to anymore? I got this same emotion listening to Mr. Greci’s presentation. It was exactly what I needed to hear, without my realizing what I needed to hear. I just needed someone to tell me, “Rejections suck. But keep going.”

And tell me he did. Paul Greci has been meandering his way through the sticky underbelly of the writing world for a decade. He went through five books, 200 rejections, and two agents before finally publishing his first novel. His clarion call was persistence.

I get moody after every rejection, no matter how pie-in-the-sky the query was. 200 rejections and still plugging along is just staggering. I listened with budding awe as he spoke of disappointments, dead ends, and door after door closed in his face. When asked about how he kept going, he told us about asking himself the very same question I was then asking myself: “Why not me?”

Why not me? What kept me from pushing forward through not even a quarter of the rejections this guy went through? What barred me from writing more, improving my craft, and just letting go of the books that simply weren’t working? What held me back?

Me. I was the only thing holding me back. I crave approval. I want to be liked. I want to charm and delight. A rejection feels like disapproval, dislike, disdain. In my fear of those things, am I willing to surrender my dream?

As I listened, the answer became more and more clear. No. No, I wasn’t ready to give up.

Pierce Brown wrote seven books and was rejected nearly 200 times before successfully publishing Red Rising. Jack London’s pile of rejections eventually reached four feet in height. Stephen King stacked up so many on his wall that the nail wouldn’t support their weight any longer; he drove a spike in the wall and kept going.  I think they would all tell me the same thing that Mr. Greci did.  “Don’t give up.”  He delivered it with a modest shrug, the last line of his presentation, but it struck me like a cricket bat to the ribs.  “Don’t give up.”

So. Pep rallies are grand and all, but what’s the take-away? What’s a girl to do when she comes home pumped and ready to spring into action? If that girl is me, she makes a deadline calendar! Because nothing says action like a calendar! In my experience, the best way to stamp out self-pity is a hearty dose of hard work. So I scrounged up some hard work. All the little artsy tasks I’d been putting off went on the calendar, no flex. The AWG bimonthly contest went on too, and a writing grant application deadline, and some self-imposed deadlines for other projects, both written and drawn. By the time I was done, I had a chore or two for nearly every day for the next five weeks.

It’s an ambitious calendar and I don’t fully expect myself to complete everything. But I do expect myself to keep working to the best of my abilities; the calendar should help with that. And written in bold letters along the top is Mr. Greci’s parting advice:

“Don’t give up.”

What is Your Author Brand?

Tolkien

Megajealous of this super cool logo…

I love check lists. I use them about every day of my life to get through all my little to-do’s. Most mornings, I wake up, get the boy to school, and start building my list for the day. But I also have a longer-term list hanging like an accusation above my desk. The stuff I’ll get around to eventually list. The chores I know I ought to do but they aren’t super important right now list. Also known as the Later List.

Every now and then I’ll suffer a bout of productivity and mark one off. (Clean out dusty heap under the bed. Move water bottles to high shelf and move baking dishes down.) But some have been on there for years. (Build better compost bin. Donate yarn you haven’t touched since the birth of your first child.) The Later List has become like one of those old classmates from high school that you see in Walmart but you don’t want to talk to, so you hide in a rack of little girls’ t-shirts until they pass by. I sit at my desk and am very careful not to make eye contact with the Later List, but I can still feel it staring down at me.

Working out an author brand is one of those things lurking somewhere on the Later List. After all, I haven’t published much and nobody knows who the heck I am- why bother? So maybe I’ll trim back the roses and fix the hen house window first. But, hey, it’s winter, so I can’t. Short on excuses and flush with the excitement of a new year, it was at least worth reading about.

It turns out that agents and editors care more and more about an author’s brand (and platform and all that jazz) even before they’re published. And authors that are already well positioned in terms of branding and audience are more empowered- both in traditional and indie publishing- than those who are not. (Joanna Penn mentioned this phenomenon, as well as many other 2016 publishing trends, in her interview with Jane Friedman, which can be found here.) So if they care- agents, editors, publishers, etc- maybe I should too. (Plus, I told the internet I would, so accountability.) After all, it’s one of those mysterious buzz words floating around the industry (like ‘high concept’ and ‘metadata and SEO’- uhhh…?), so it’s gotta be important.

But branding is well outside my write-in-my-PJs comfort zone and it took considerable research to even figure out what it really is. (Previously, branding always made me think of cattle having a very very bad day.) And here, my lucky readers, are the cliff notes of what I found. (Since I’m so fond of you all, I’ll even post a detailed worksheet packet on Wednesday. If enough interest crops up, I also plan to host an informal online workshop- more details with Wednesday’s bonus update.)

For simplicity’s sake, I broke branding down into three categories, with a loose fourth category to lasso them all together. Give each of these categories a week or a day or a month, however much time you need to really nail them down.

THE BOOK (This and the next category can swap in order. Pick one and go.)  You’ve probably already worked out a title, a book blurb or a pitch, a logline, but you’ll need to dig just a little deeper. Consider your target audience, your book’s themes, your keywords, the look and feel of your book.  All these aspects go into the branding of your book, and should at least roughly match the expectations and conventions of your readers and genre. (The appearance and physical structure of your book is especially important for the DIY crowd- traditionally published authors usually have little say in the cover design or paper weight, for example, but an indie author is often solely responsible for cover design, interior formatting, materials selections, etc. If you plan to publish the book yourself, you have a lot more to consider, but that’s another post.)

THE AUTHOR You! A lot of this stuff is going to be relatively easy because you likely already know it. What name will you be writing under? What genre/theme/etc crops up across most or all your writing? What have you already published? But some of it will take a little more brainstorming. What is your author logline? (What? That’s a thing?) Your branding keywords? (Huh?) Your headshot, your business card, your bio, your logo? (Oy.) For me, this part is (and is yet to be) the most painful.  But once it’s over, you’ll have not only an author brand, but the decent beginnings of a press packet. Not too shabby! (More info on press kits here.)

THE WEBSITE Do you really need a website? The answer is (groan) yes. This is something I fought for years, but once I got into the groove of it, it’s really not bad. In fact, I got to the point where I was kind of proud of my dorky little wordpress blog, even going so far as to show it to an agent I found myself chatting with. She nodded politely and then kindly, cheerfully, told me everything I was doing wrong. (This was one of the events that convinced me I need to figure this stuff out.) My blog had good information and I updated it regularly, but there’s nothing on the home page that a person would glance at and immediately think, ‘This is a fantasy author,’ which is really the takeaway that I should be cultivating. So when working on your website, make sure that its design incorporates your author and book keywords (from the previous sections) as much as possible, in posts, articles, loglines, images- any way you can work it in.

INTEGRATION This is where you make sure the previous categories all match, reusing the same images, colors, themes, keywords, phrases, etc, as much as possible. Hopefully, you don’t have spend any extra time on this section because you’ve been working forward one category at a time, in a conscious and concerted effort, and it probably didn’t take much to simply make sure everything worked together nicely as you moved along. But if your branding happened in piecemeal fashion over the years as you hacked blindly forward through the literary jungles *coughs*… you might have a bit of work ahead of you.

The end of all this, the point of it all, is to make yourself easily and instantly recognizable. With a little elbow grease and some spit shine, you can look totally pro, and that makes you memorable. So whether you’re shopping yourself around to agents or editors, or directly to the customers themselves, put in the effort to look as polished and professional as possible- people will pay attention!

Remember to check back Wednesday for the worksheet packet accompanying this post, as well as information on our probable workshop. Or you can sign up to follow the blog and get it right in your inbox the minute it posts!  Happy writing!

The Other Side.

Hi. Jill’s husband here.  Jill asked that I do a post for her on her birthday!  So I’ve sent her to bed and am writing this in her stead. I think this will be useful but first you have to step into my world for just a second.

I love games. In particular, I voraciously play a certain card game that involves two players, each with a deck of cards. Many people become attached to their deck, and see it as an extension of their persona. It has been carefully crafted.  It is their tool for defeating opponents. It contains rare cards that they own. In short, people want to play with their deck. So it came as a surprise to my opponent at a tournament yesterday when I asked if we could switch decks (during a non tournament game).

The reason I do this is to lean how my deck operates from the opponent’s perspective. Some cards may not seem powerful, but when played against you are quite brutal and visa versa. This made me realize that I was a good person to talk about living with a writer and focus on the other side.

Time

actually i just needed an embaressing picture

Being stranded on a park bench in a flooded lake may hinder writing time…

Living with a writer is an interesting study in the use of time. There is never enough to go around. I take way more time in our relationship, and with more immediate specter of income, we both agree that my career time constraints have priority over Jill’s. I thought that her time writing could be truly flexible, but it has come to my attention that she is more productive at certain times of the day or has a routine that she prefers to work within. I don’t always realize when I’ve disrupted that routine.

Alpha/Beta Reading

Usually I have the role of reading material as it is generated. Or at the very least ideas are reviewed off me. In many instances I am just awed at what Jill can produce. I am not a writer nor do I enjoy the process, but I have read quite a bit. To quote that one guy: “I may not know much about [writing], but I know what I like.” My comments are often like that. I may have a minor complain about a character or how the story is laid out, or I may just express my love of how similar situations were treated in my favorite books. Jill is the one who has to mold that whimsical desire into her storyline in a literarily appropriate manner. In a similar vein, some of my proudest moments come from giving ideas to her stories that actually come to fruition.

Moral Support

yep, they're cute alright!

Moral support is about all they can do to help…

The biggest influence I think I have on Jill as a writer is as moral support. Full disclosure here: sometimes I think that all this writing stuff is useless unless its getting a paycheck. But then I realize that my schooling and unpaid internships are generating just as much money. And I truly believe in the skills my wife possesses and the material she produces. I think it is amazing and people should pay to read her work. Besides, even if her current novel fails to every publish it is still not a “failure”. It’s a piece of good writing, of value for her, and to all who do read it.  Is a painting useless is if no one buys it? No. Writing is clearly an art, and there is something beautiful and inspiring about the creating of art. There is not a way to really put a price on that.

Other Other Side

I just want to end my note here by reiterating my example of the card game. In the game, there is always a single clear opponent. From what I gather of the writing business there are a number of people who have an important opinion of what a writer does. The spouse is at the bottom of that list in many ways. I think this blog has many examples of how to gain the perspective of the agents, readers, publishers, editors, and reviewers.

I hope we can all get a little more understanding of each other by “switching decks” as often as possible.

Thank you Jill for being so wonderful, and happy birthday!
Hubby

Nuts and Bolts

Last week, I posted information gleaned from a Q&A with Elisabeth B. Dabney, literary agent extraordinaire, but only one little sliver of the total information discussed. As promised, here are the bits and pieces I failed to mention last week in an effort at concision and cohesion. Each paragraph represents its own topic, so enjoy a unity-free reading experience.

Agents pitch manuscripts to publishers, handle contract negotiations (with which they have experience and will be able to pick out problems or room for improvements), and act as sounding boards on author platform, marketing ideas, the saleability of future projects, etc. They pretty much handle the business end of things, freeing up their authors to focus on the creative side. But there is no stone tablet carved without hand that says authors need agents. Outside of the Big Five in New York, authors can usually pitch their own works to publishers, or even self publish, and generally take care of business themselves. Agents just smooth the trail. (And if you choose to go it alone, it is still highly recommended, by pretty much everyone reputable ever, that manuscripts be professionally edited before publication. If you’re not working with someone who provides editing as part of the contract, shell out for it yourself.)

Finding an agent is easier and easier these days. For those of us who don’t live in big cities, finding agents through word of mouth isn’t a likely option. For those of us who live in abject poverty (or who have due dates that fall right on conference weekend- sob sob sob), writing conferences, wonderful and recommended as they are, aren’t always an option either. But the internet! The internet can help you hunt out agents while streaming live radio and timing your boiling farfalle. (Unless it’s my internet. Then you’re lucky if you can check your email.) You can use specific services, such as Publisher’s Marketplace, trawl around social media that tend to attract those of the writing ilk, such as Twitter, or just run a million increasingly specific Google searches.

There is no special training required to become an agent. As such, there are many different paths to agentdom. Many agents seem to bud off from publishing houses, often starting out as editors or marketers. Others begin as interns in literary agencies and work their way through the ranks there. There is also an increasing popularity of college certification processes, achieved much like any degree. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping people from simply declaring themselves an agent and getting down to business. (This is part of what makes it so important to do your homework before querying and especially before signing with an agent. It’s always good to have some idea of an agent’s background and, more importantly, his or her track record in sales.)

15% of net royalties is the standard commission awarded to agents. (About 7.5-15% of gross earnings on a book can be expected in royalties.) Be very wary of signing anything that takes more than 15% in the agent’s commission. Also be very wary of any agent that requests reading fees, editing fees, etc. up front or anything, really, that comes out of your pocket. (On a side note, some agencies also have a separate editing arm independent of the representative arm. Editing services can justly be paid up front regardless of promises or lack of promises of representation.) The publishing contract will spell out royalties, from which agents take their cuts and the rest are sent on to the authors. Never pay the agent up front.

Children’s book authors do not have to come to the table with illustrations (or illustrator) in hand. Illustrators are often contracted separately by the publisher.

If you’re already self-published and looking to contract an agent in the hopes of snagging a traditional publisher, you’ll need some pretty impressive numbers. If you’re already under contract with a publishing house, though, agents can’t help you, at least not with that project.

Copyrighting in advance of querying is not necessary. The work is your intellectual property from the moment it spills out of your brains. Copyright registration usually happens when the book is being published. (So self-publishers do have to worry about this step, but not until publishing.) If working with a publishing house, whether the author or the publisher maintains the copyright is negotiated in the contract.

It’s fine to query multiple agents at the same time. In fact, it’s pretty standard, considering the wait times that are often involved. In queries, it makes agents happy, and shows you did your homework, if you mention some of the authors on their list whose work you’ve enjoyed. But never attach your manuscript, or any part of it, unless the agent asks for it.

If two agents are fighting over you (woo-hoo!), the two main things to consider are: which agency can do the most for you (connections, sales records, benefits in contract); and which agent you get along with the best. Agents and authors will have a relationship over the lifetime of that work, and possibly over their entire careers. It’s important to work well together.

Some things to ask an agent before signing an agency agreement:

How much author publicity will the agency provide?
What are the kinds of publishing connections the agent has? (NYC? University presses? Boutiques?)
Does the agent have experience negotiating movie rights, or would these be handled by the publishing house?
Does the agent come from an editing background or from a business background (or some other process)?
Is the agency agreement exclusive to the manuscript or to the author? (Most will agents will want to sign with the author, but some provide representation on a work-by-work basis.)
What is the agent’s communication style? (Daily phone calls? Monthly emails? Twitter bombardment? No news unless something’s gone horribly wrong?)

Also, don’t feel like you have to sign anything right away. Show it around to others who might have a better feel for contracts. Don’t sign until you know what you’re getting into. And sleep comfortably at night knowing that agency agreements have clauses for breaking contract which are way easier than getting out of a publishing agreement. Sweet dreams!

Collaborates Well with Others

GhostwriterI learned things this week! Yay! A friend and I are collaborating on a novel idea (which will have its glory day in the hot sun next month during Camp NaNoWriMo!). We got waaaay ahead of ourselves and started talking about how rights would be spelled out in any contracts we encountered, running on the assumption that this puppy ever gets published.

So in the spirit of knowledge and adventure, we looked into the different ways this collaboration thing could shake out in a publishing contract. The main terms that we dredged up were collaboration agreements, dual authorship, and ghostwriting. Here’s the quickie version of what they are and how they work.

Collaboration Agreement This is simply a catch-all phrase for, you guessed it, an agreement between two or more people to collaborate on a single project. In order to be legally binding, it should be written down. (Publishers usually require that it be so in order to work with the authors on publication, but it’s still a good idea even if you plan on self-publishing.) The agreement should include things like the ownership each contributor has regarding copyright, writing credits, and his or her portion of any royalties accrued. (Unless stated otherwise, it’s typically an equal division between collaborators.)

Dual Authors (Dueling authors? Pistols at dawn!) Also known as coauthors or as joint authors when there are more than two involved, these are the people who will receive writing credit for the project. You see this most often in nonfiction research articles, where the list of the authors and their credentials is nearly as long as the abstract, but with the internet easing the way for collaboration, it’s cropping up more and more in the rest of the writing world. (Note: not all of the listed authors will necessary do fingers-to-pencil-or-keyboard writing. More expert or ‘senior’ collaborators can often get a pass, especially where large amounts of research are involved.)

Ghostwriter (I cannot be the only person who recalls this cheesy TV show…) The gun-for-hire of the writing world, ghostwriters write projects that are actually credited to another person. This usually comes up when a famous but non-writerly person wants to put out an autobiography, or a famous author wants to put out more books a year than is humanly possible. The ghostwriter does the actual writing, ‘in the style’ of the credited author, and usually takes a fee meted out in chunks as pieces of the project are finished. (A ghostwriter can also negotiate to take a smaller fee in exchange for a portion of royalties.) But the ghostwriter will get no credit when it’s all said and done.

So there you have it! The barest-of-bones breakdown of collaboration. You’ll of course need more information if you’re considering entering into such an agreement. You can scroll around the internet for further details on collaboration and copyright, but I found the following articles particularly helpful:

Check out this much-more-detailed article from publishing and entertainment lawyer Lloyd Jassin

Or this one from KB Law: Copyright

Or you could, you know, bite the bullet and actually talk to a literary agent or a publishing lawyer. Whatever you decide to do, if you’re entering into a collaborative relationship, be sure to take steps to protect yourself and your rights. Negotiate out the details, write them down, and get all involved parties to sign. Then get to the real fun: the project itself! Whee!

PS- Don’t forget! Two weeks until the second session of Camp NaNoWriMo! I hope you’re readying yourself in whatever way you like for the literary craziness! (My way involves outlines, blog posts, and an insane amount of Oreos. Insane.)

Selling Short Stories

Venture Magazine, July 1957 issue

Lady looks MAD. One too many rejection letters, perhaps?


Like so many of the things I write about on this blog, I am certainly no expert with this week’s topic. In fact, in even bringing it up for discussion, I feel like I have a big sticker on my chest that reads: “Hi! My name is: NEWB”. So bear with me, gentle readers, as we plunge into the dark world of selling short stories. (Cue scary music)

“Short story” is a catch-all phrase for anything less than a novella (between 17.5k and 40k words), or a novelette (between 7.5 and 17.5 words), although some argue that novelettes are just long short stories. [These are the number definitions used by the Science Fiction Writers of America and are pretty standard.] Short stories, less than 7.5k words, are rarely published in single author collections- apparently, you have to be megapopular for publishers to even consider it. Rather, most short stories are published from multiple authors and in the context of serial publications- magazines, ezines, periodicals, anthologies, etc.

And these publications themselves can vary wildly in their audience size, their prestige, and the payment you can expect from them. Some pay on the word, with five or more cents per word generally accepted as the pro rate, and one to almost-five cents being semipro. Some publications pay a token amount that can be just a few dollars or quite a few dollars; this can be calculated on a less-than-one cent per word model, or just a flat rate regardless of length. And some only pay in the enjoyment, exposure, and credentials that you get from publishing something.

Whatever you submit to and whatever pay they offer, these publications need your work. They need you. They cannot survive without writers. But you’re kidding yourself (or you’re Stephen King) if you think they’re coming to you. You have to go to them, present your story at its very prettiest, and rub your lucky Buddha belly. So here are a few things you can do to improve your chances of successful publication (besides the prettying and the rubbing).

Make sure the magazine you’re submitting to actually publishes the things you’re submitting. You are totally wasting everyone’s time if you submit your über-gory retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears to a ezine that does, yeah, fairy tales, but for ten to twelve year olds. You want to check on genre, audience, preferred length, anything that might make them exclude your story. Better yet, if you have the chance, read through a few back issues to get a feel for the serial.

Similar to the above, follow submission guidelines exactly. Seriously. Don’t assume that everyone uses the same guidelines, because they probably don’t. Some want a cover letter, some want .pdf docs only, some want everything just pasted into the body of an email, some use an external submission engine. Make sure you know what they want so you can give it to them. Just like you wouldn’t send out an identical query packet to ten literary agents without checking their guidelines (I hope), don’t do it to periodical editors, either. They’re professionals. If you want to work with them, you should be, too.

And don’t get hung up waiting around for a response for one story. Send off the next one. And the next one. And start writing up another. Places you submit to will tell you if they allow multiple submissions (submitting more than one story to the same publisher) and simultaneous submissions (submitting the same story to multiple publishers), and you should respect those wishes. But the point is, don’t stand still waiting for a response. In this game, that is a seriously slow way to built your writing credentials. Write and submit, and write and submit, and write and submit. With short stories, you’re unlikely to get bored at it.

But surely there are less newb writers out there willing to share wisdom. Tell us what I missed in the comments below. And happy writing!