[On friends asking to read one's work]: My heart skips a beat, I stutter, and then I usually say something like "Oh, yeah. Sure--let me just email that to you." And then I never do.

Yes. Me too. Recently I catsat for a friend's two kitties, and had a sudden idea for a story while watching the cats watch the Roomba. Since I wrote it at his place, naturally, my friend wanted to read it. (Never should have said anything.) It's been about four months, and I pull the darn thing--probably all of ten pages--out of the drawer (well, off my computer desktop) every few weeks to tinker. (Apologies to a writing professor who once said, "We wrestle with our art, the great angel of inspiration. We DO NOT TINKER.") But after thinking about it for four months, there's no way I'm giving this baby to just anyone.

I'm still not quite happy with it. As you can imagine, my day job gives my internal editor quite the workout. I hate coming home to my own work and seeing that it shares problems with manuscripts I've rejected that day.

I think I did literally say, "Oh yes. Sure. I'll e-mail it on over! Yay." He asked about the missing story the next time I saw him. "Oh! Yeah. Sorry. Forgot. Oops!"

But then there's the other side of it. You can't exactly Google your missing pieces. However, it's slightly awkward to say, "I need an idea for an amusing invention that would be especially useful to a woman who also inspired the Roomba. And oh, um, she's dead, and watching over her husband, and wants to make sure he's okay. Any thoughts?"--followed immediately by, "And NO! You CAN'T read it!"

On bravery, eels, ego and editing

We were out to Malaysian--a tucked-away place in Brooklyn on a street that literally sells eels swimming in buckets--I'd just returned from a weekend chasing around two kids under five, and suddenly, over Tsing Taos and fried cubes of spicy rice, by the light of a tank of fish whose fate, I knew, couldn't be good--I was hit with a very sudden realization about the sensitivity, the ego, and the great risk involved in letting another human read your work.

We're starting a little foodie zine, an e-digest of short fiction and memoir with recipes--so that one can, as my friend pointed out, actually eat a part of the story. We're all going to edit--the writers will be, mostly, our friends; we're also charged with writing--sharing little moments of our lives, the food that fed us as children and our feelings that go along with it--nurture, sustenance, indulgence, deprivation.

But it was when we discussed how we'd get these pieces into shape--we'd each be in charge of editing, and publishing, the work of someone else at the table--that I started to feel a great sense of unease.

"There is, you realize, a huge potential for drama?" I asked the table, six of some of the smartest people I know, people with skills ranging from advanced mathematics to gourmet cuisine to graphic design to fine art to Japanese language and culture. Only two of us considered ourselves writers; the rest can write but, often, don't.

"They'll just have to get over it," a friend of mine said. "If they get upset with people fixing their work, they shouldn't be writing anyway."

She isn't a writer, but this shocked me: Hmm, maybe I shouldn't be writing, anyway. I had considered some upset inevitable. Heck, I take it personally when someone comments on my clients' work.

Another piped up with, "That's life. They'll get over it. What are we going to do, print something bad?"

They shared smirks. Of course they wouldn't print something bad. This would be top-quality email. If there were awards for such things, we would get one. Surely.

Then the arguments over format: You do realize that [a suggestion of a layout] is unprofessional and just CAN'T be done, right? said one. We CAN'T allow this to become newsy. [General chatter about how pieces with lowly journalistic elements--restaurant reviews, etc.--would drag down artistic vision of the project.] I want to hand-bind this. What do you mean, just email, just an e-version? We're doing something special here.

I looked over at the fish, naively swimming in their tank with its too-powerful aeration jets. Every once in awhile a tail or fin would get caught in the stream, and there'd be a flash of fluorescent-lit, upended scales. I sank lower in my chair. I'd lost my appetite.

"Don't worry," a friend said, "I can help you learn how to tell writers that their work isn't good enough."

I didn't correct her, remind her I do this often--but never terms of not good enough. "But they're friends," I said.

"This is supposed to be fun," a fellow diner reminded us. Yes. Fun. Of course. Incredibly productive fun that just happens, with minimal effort, planning, and feelings hurt, to be genius. Uh-huh.

If I knew every person whose work populated my inbox, I'm not sure I'd ever be able to get anything done. There is a certain distance required--when one has to break hearts and deliver disappointments en masse, detachment is necessary. I'm too much of a control freak to outsource rejections to my interns--some agents do, and I understand--that way, you are always the person saying Yes, never the person saying No, except when it's a No of the, Try X, Y and Z and You Have a Good Chance variety.

I worry sometimes that my writer karma is irreparably ruined--having rejected thousands of works, surely some of that will come back to haunt me. Perhaps now. In the form of a essay about, and a feeling that matches, deflated soufflé.

What my friends didn't realize was that I wasn't worried about saying no to others--that I've done so often, and have learned to, I hope, sensitively. It's not like I was without illusion--I had visions of sending prettified final versions back to the authors that would make them think, Oh yes, now don't I write well? or, Yes, that's exactly what I meant--thank you.

I was worried about sending pieces to my friends. Perhaps they're the harshest, most subjective critics. Or perhaps they'd never notice my misuse of every bit of punctuation ever, my tendency toward too-long sentences--and I could start inserting bigger and bigger mistakes just to see what they'd let me get away with. I'd write fan fiction about Martha making cigarette cakes in jail and Paula Deen deep-frying not just an ottoman, but a library.

I suppose what I'm saying is that the feeling hasn't gone away. Do I worry more than the average NYC bear? Yes, yes I do. But.

But I can't decide if it's more or less scary to send work to your friends (I used to bribe mine with lattes; then again, I knew who would tell me I was a genius no matter what I wrote--and who would think me insane) or to agents--to know your readers, or to know nearly nothing more than an ad in the Jeff Herman Guide, all the while knowing that this stranger's opinion could change your life forever.

Actually: I vote for the latter. I really vote for the latter. No hanging chads here. You're not writing little pieces about Mom's cookies or Grandma's lasagna. You're writing--sometimes for years--on, I assume, that which means most to you. All on faith.

I suppose what I am saying is: kudos. (Or 70 percent cocoa, locally grown, hand-pressed, hand-dipped, agave-sweetened, organic kudos.) You, my fine, writing friends, are doing something very, very brave. It's moments like these that remind me, and remind me to remind you. You are exposing your written underbelly to a system of professional strangers who undergo a mysterious process that spits back sometimes-inscrutable replies.

You. Are. Brave. Do know that we know it--and very much respect it--and that many of us would be afraid, and are, to do the same ourselves.

"Oh, that's just a line..."

Announcing: the winner of the pie chart contest! (Never mind that it will be a line, not a pie chart--and never mind that part of my excitement has to do with dusting off old math skills, plotting dots on graph paper, and sharpening a no. 2 pencil. Is it just me, or do those wall-mounted metal pencil sharpeners, the old-school ones with their big hand cranks--well, how can you sharpen a pencil and not grin? Even the smell of their curly, blossom-like shavings is pleasing.)

I had to think seriously about this, because this is data that could, potentially, make an agent (me) look bad. Very bad. Very very very bad. Worthy of hatemail and scorn and bad karma and tossed tomatoes. Do I know how hard it is to write 200 pages? Well, sort of. (I've considered cranking out 200 pages just so I know.)

But our incredibly busy schedules limit the time we have to spend with each manuscript. (And though I'd LOVE to simply drink tea and read all day, unfortunately, there are other things to do as well.) We know we have to get to the good ones ASAP, or someone else will snap them up. So where to our time constraints, and your readability/publishability/writing ability, intersect?

For the greater writer good, I am risking wrath and giving you an inside look into what actually happens when we receive your manuscripts--and I will make a line graph of the number of pages it usually takes me to reach a decision about whether a manuscript works or not.

You see the potential for unpopularity: no one wants to write 300 pages, only to be rejected after the reading of one. Alternately, no one wants to assume that we get to page 299 loving it--and then there's a twist that changes everything--so close, so close and yet so far! (Truth be told, if we get to 299 and love it except for page 300, the vast majority of us would tell you how to fix it. So don't worry too much about that. Also, unless you insult me personally in the first page, I will read more.)

I'd like to get a good sample--the other charts were based on more than 100 queries, so for purposes of statistical analysis, it'll be awhile before I feel like I have a good number.

That said, there are currently 144 of the best crop of manuscripts I've ever seen in my inbox.

So, not to worry--plenty of material to work with.

The Espresso Book Machine



I don't know about you, but I find this a little terrifying. The Espresso Book Machine (shouldn't it be able to crank out lattes? Or tea? I mean, really--is that so much harder?) prints on-demand books in under four minutes that are, it claims, "indistinguishable from the factory original." First of all--"factory"? Yes, I suppose so, but that makes it sound like there's an assembly line of writers sitting there with typewriters, Kindles, laptops and a conveyor belt of zip drives. I do like the humor of the thing--if you look carefully at the screen when they show it, there's a button that says, "Cancel! STOP!" as if someone is running, shrieking across the room: "Nooooooo! Not that booooooooook! Noooooooo!"--which, I suppose, could happen.

But the scariest part is that they say that making books now "requires minimal human intervention"--as if that's a good thing!
Do agents keep track of how many times they have rejected you, as in, for example 'two years ago I pitched my last book and I was less experienced at query writing' etc? How much of an effect do old queries have on new projects?

It depends on the agent, their method of storing submission information, and chance. When I get the sense that something looks familiar, I search through our e-query account, may find something identical--and then think something along the lines of, Hmm, I rejected this before--why? If there isn't an immediately obvious reason, and the project seems to have vastly improved (and/or the query suddenly sparkles with potential), then yes, I'll ask to take a look.

If you resubmit often enough that we recognize you're just shooting us query after query, yes, you're going to make yourself something of a pest. But two years is probably long enough that you're no longer in an agent's records/email/memory. Unless you have a very unusual project/writing style/personality/name, it's likely you won't be remembered--keep in mind that we receive so much mail. Especially since we're talking queries, not more memorable partials, fulls, or proposals--don't worry too much. We get a lot of similar projects.

And even if you're "caught," while it's not the best thing in the world, it certainly won't throw you out of the running. It's not like you lied--you simply resubmitted. As I mentioned before--if you're really worried, you could change your name around (initials versus written out), change your email, re-title your work--it's a little sneaky, yes, but certainly not evil.

In terms of second chances--if you'll forgive yet another such comparison--it's like having a surprise introduction to a love interest while in your ratty bathrobe with your hair mussed because (how silly!) you thought no one would see you when you went out to get the paper. The second query is then running into him again after having dressed up. You're still the same you. He may remember your bunny slippers--but your favorite little black dress, and all of your preparation, will help him forget. He may, however, have preferred the bunnies. Or he may be wrong for you, no matter what you wear (or write). You just never know.
"Have you ever repped a book you didn't particularly like JUST because it fit perfect into the current trends and fads you were seeing in the market? "

Goodness, no. I'm sure agents do. I'm sure I've said no to books that will go on and sell brilliantly. But: I'm in it for the love of books, not the love of money.

Fit? What do you mean, FIT?!

In a world where we know our sizes for everything--down to our shoes, socks, mittens--it seems strange when we can't predict what will fit and what won't.

Especially when it comes to manuscripts.

Of course there are some guidelines. And I've certainly received emails like, "You say you represent my genre. How, then are you not a good fit? You lied. You all lie. Agents--you're just a bunch of...[insert unflattering descriptions here]!"

And a comment on the pies brought this to my attention again: I think it's interesting that very few of the queries are rejected because they aren't a good fit. Especially when the majority of form rejections usually say something to that effect.

This is a very good point. "Fit" can be both very broad (things that are not a good fit) and very narrow (things that are). It's difficult to classify. It has to do with timing, usually has to do with genre--it has to do with skill and preparation and sometimes platform and often research, editing, and planning. It also has to do with chemistry. You can predict a person's taste in manuscripts (and books) about as well as you can predict their taste in significant others--but for both, you have to know them well--and, even then, you can't be sure.

The truth of the matter is--EVERYTHING in the pie charts below can fall under the umbrella of "fit." Writing, concept, voice, appropriateness, uniqueness, timing, saleability--it's a combination of all of these things. What "fit" really means is "right for me" or "not right for me."

So, in my pie charts, this was a slice of pie that simply meant, "I can't articulate it. It just isn't right for me--I just don't love it."

At laaaast...my piiiiiiiiiiiie has come along...

Hi everyone! Two apologies: one for the delay (Blogger freaked out and stopped formatting the posts--so this is all hand-done--who knew HTML circa 1998 could be so useful?) and one for the cheesiness of the title, but I just couldn't resist. I'm having one of those days where I'm tempted to listen to music all day and thoroughly annoy my officemates. Solution? Singing. In my head. Occasionally mouthing lyrics. And trying, trying, trying to not get caught by my interns. "What are you doing?" Oh, me, nothing...great manuscript!

Really, um, evocative.


So, with that in mind--the unveiling of the pies.

I've hidden all of the submissions, and I still haven't told the winner--though I've picked a response--because, um, her replies will be in a future post. She sent a great idea, but one not suitable for a pie chart--better as a line graph, and I really like the big, colorful nature of pie charts for conferences. (And markers. I bought new ones for the occasion, in lots of bright colors.)

This new idea requires a bit more data-gathering, so it will be a few weeks. I will alert the author this week and then announce the topic here.

I did a little data-collection on why I say Yes and No to Young Adult queries. Why YA? Because it's expanding faster than any genre. And why just queries? Because you're going to write what you're going to write--you have to. But in terms of queries, which (as I've mentioned before) are a separate skill from book-writing, there is a lot of information out there that can help you get your work to the next stage.

A note on the data-gathering: I went through queries and applied all applicable labels. So, yes, some got a favorable/unfavorable response from me for more than one reason. In such cases, I put a tally in each pie wedge's list.

Here is the Yes pie chart:

37 percent: writing. This makes a lot of sense--the writing for a manuscript, especially fiction, must be excellent. These queries had writing that thoroughly impressed me and, for that reason, I asked to see more.

22 percent: concept. Sometimes I read about the idea for a work and it rocks my little socks. YA has so much opportunity for creativity in this regard--take advantage, and I'll want to read your work.

18 percent: I just want to read it. When you get down to the subjective nitty-gritty, your query exists in order to make people want to read your work. Sometimes I look at a query and, though I can't pinpoint why, I'm just intrigued. Hence this piece.

18 percent: voice. Voice is so incredibly important in works for YA readers--if you can create a vivid and likable and/or super interesting narrator, you're well on your way to a successful novel.

5 percent: author credentials. If we know the author personally, or they can list impressive accomplishments, we'll likely say yes to seeing more if the work has even a small chance of being right for us.

Now for the NOs.


35 percent: writing. As previously mentioned, writing, especially for fiction, must be excellent.

18 percent: voice. Young adults are brilliant at detecting inauthenticity--and making fun of it. Voice, for these queries, felt off. And if I, several years out of the YA reading audience, feel this way--surely teenagers will, too.
The rest of the pie chart, actually, has to do exclusively with plot/concept. Keep in mind that this is something very much within your control.

8 percent: inappropriate plot/concept. Keep in mind the age of your readers. If you're writing something that would have every parent in America wanting to set your book on fire, we're going to think twice about taking on your work. Yes, yes, it would get kids reading. And we can all agree that reading is a good value. But if suddenly all of the teenagers in the country start doing something dangerous that you described as incredibly fun? Well...that's not ideal.

11 percent: audience. Similar to above, but with a twist: sometimes we get queries for works that really should be novels for adults. I know it's tempting to smush what you've been writing into a genre that you know is selling really really well, especially if your work has paranormal elements, which are more difficult in the adult market. But--I can't say it enough--write what you are meant to write. Don't write what you think will sell.

9 percent: derivative plot. You'd be amazed by how many works we get that are about young women new to their schools who happen to fall in love with vampires in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, Twilight did well. That does not mean that if you do everything Twilight did, so too will your work. Be careful. Does this mean vampires are too saturated and any vampire work will automatically be turned away? No. Just be aware of what's out there and ensure your work is different.

9 percent: concept that reads like a Public Service Announcement. We all want to teach kids good things--do your homework, eat your vegetables, stay off drugs, stay in school. But young readers, if they feel this is the motivation for your story, will be completely turned off. Think about it--would you have spent your allowance on books that sound just like your parents' nagging? Didn't think so.

6 percent: depressing concept. If nothing good happens in your story--if it's a series of unfortunate events--you're going to have a hard time keeping readers.

4 percent: fit. Sometimes it just isn't a good match for us.

So. There you have it. New chart announcement coming soon!

Post-conference, Pre-Autumn

Well, I'm feeling very thankful. It's a gorgeous nearly-fall day, I have a beautiful latte in front of me (foam with well-crafted little bubbles and cinnamon); I have a very smart intern, a lot of fabulous work in the office to read, and I met some wonderful authors and agents at the conference this weekend. (One agent was wearing jeans and red Converse sneakers--I knew immediately that I'd like her.)

Every author was well-intentioned and, for the most part, well-behaved. There was just one teachable moment (ie, not advisable at your next conference): I was standing with a writer friend, and just after my panel, a man came up to me and, smirking, said, "Did you see your picture?" His face, bewhiskered and bemused, said everything: this was not going to be good. I flashed immediately to a moment in middle school, when the yearbooks were released with an awful candid picture of me and a girl kept yelling, HEY EVERYBODY! Turn to page 43!!!

Idon'twanttoseeit!
I blurted. Nope! Not interested! So, how bout this conference? You like coffee? Good coffee, right? I love coffee. How bout them Yankees? Ooh, look at that, a book. A whole TABLE of books! Let's--

"It's both the worst and the most interesting picture," he continued. "See? See? It's off-center, all weird-like." He waved the program inches from my scrunched nose, close enough that I worried about paper cuts on my eye. "But it's like you know something, too," he said, and chuckled. Mona Lisa smile, er, that's me.

"Uh...thanks," I said.

Lesson for the day: do not make fun of an agent's picture. I think he was probably trying to be funny, to gently joke and set himself apart. Well...he did. But ideally your work will do that for you. Incidentally, I hate any and all pictures of myself--I'm one of those people who's always moving; I don't think stills are accurate--and have been known to dive behind couches, hide behind newspapers, and to threaten cameras with beverages/violence/sporting equipment. (None have actually been harmed, of course.) That in mind, I didn't think this picture was so bad.

He left and I flashed a, What! What was that?! look at my friend, who mirrored it with big eyes and amazed gestures. We then heartily agreed that we should blow that popsicle stand (er, 40-story hotel Mariott Marquis, complete with awesome elevators and chanting kabbalists sharing the floor) and trade conference food for grilled cheese. (Carbs + cheese = lurve).

But I am very happy for having had the overall experience. I love meeting editors and agents, with whom I often have a great deal in common. The fact that it's part of my job to hang out with people I like and tell them about my work, which I very much enjoy--it's amazing.

The new pie charts will be posted in the next few days, with explanations. New charts to come, too, requiring new-old (remembered) math skills. May even dust off the old (really old) graphing calculator. Some will be line, bar, scattered dot charts with intriguing X and Y axes.

The winner of the Pie contest will, also, be notified this week.

Hope everyone is enjoying the beautiful weather, and that all is well with you and yours.

Pie in the Contest Sky Continues!

The "choose a subject for my pie chart" contest is still going! You have until tomorrow evening (I need a *little* time with poster board, markers and math, after all) to come up with the most helpful quantifiable data you'd like.

Make sure you provide some method of contacting you in your reply (ie, if you sign in with your Blogger account, make sure there's an email attached).

Winner and pie chart will be unveiled next week--the conferencegoers get first look, of course, but you get the data for more than a few seconds of panel.

A Note on the Making of Fun, Part Deux

You've heard a lot of this before: agents talking about finding the right manuscript in terms of falling in love.

So where, in this metaphor, does all of your preparation come in?

Think of it this way: you wouldn't go on a first date (your query letter) without brushing your hair, picking out a nice outfit, and making sure that everything is just-so. Same too with your author-agent correspondence and manuscript editing.

It's entirely possible you will find your true love with broccoli in your teeth and electric-shock hair. They may see past your nervousness and find it adorable. They may love that you're wearing one pink My Little Pony sock and one that's lime argyle, and the smell of your garlic breath may remind them of a candlelit dinner on the Italian seaside.

But would you, in perfect hindsight, choose eau de garlic (or pony stationary, or nervous mistakes)? No.

It's a matter of improving your odds. Do everything within your writerly power--research, customize, edit, and edit again. Style your sentences. Groom your e-mails.

And then wait and see what happens.

On corresponding with agents

If an agent I admire gives me personal feedback on a full can I send them a handmade card thanking them for my rejection? Or does that make me a weirdy?

Not weird--we get these occasionally. But email is a bit more the norm. Stick to 3-5 lines about how much you appreciated their time. Don't tell them you'll resubmit ASAP or that you disagree with them. Also (I know you wouldn't, but some authors do) sound sad, defeated, or angry. Wait until you feel better.

If an agent asks for a full, and I submit--but then decide to take my first three chapters and throw them in the garbage, can I resubmit?

Errr. Well...it's better if you don't. Sometimes authors resubmit four or five times, and then I get mildly miffed--especially if I read one version already and now I have to read the thing again. You might, instead, send a cordial note saying, "Hi. I've had a friend/outside editor [if it's true] look at my work, and we agree that the first three chapters can go. Just in case you haven't read this yet, it might be wise to start at the beginning of chapter four, which is page ___. I'm sorry for the inconvenience--I know you're busy."

If I made a fool out of myself and queried my novel with the lamest-est (that's right... so lame it deserved an extra -est) query ever then when I get my act together, should I send it to Agent McDream again?

Wait on that. This is why we suggest being absolutely, totally, 100 percent sure you're ready before sending your query. Often, authors feel a strange urgency--as if they must get their work to the agent that very moment or else...it's too late! (I'm not sure where this feeling comes from, but many authors get it.) Many people will say that the official answer is, "Too late, too bad, you get one shot."

Unofficially (she says in a stage whisper) you don't only get one chance. Wait for this round of rejections (if that's what happens--you may be surprised!) and if everyone says no, then wait six months, re-title your work, get yourself a new e-mail address, change your name around (use the initials of your first and middle name + your last name, say), make up a perfect query, and send it again. But other agents may tell you this is evil advice. You certainly won't get in trouble--the agent likely won't notice--but my colleagues would not be thrilled at my advising you to make more work for them.

When an agent addresses me by my first name in an email, do I start my response email with "Dear First Name" or am I supposed to remain on last name terms... and if I DO remain on last name terms, do I look like a kid trying to wear her daddy's suit?

I can't give you a definite answer there. I think it's kind of amusing when people call me by my last name preceded by a Ms., but I'm on a first-name basis with all of my authors. The best way to know is to look and see how they sign their correspondence. If it's their first and last name, stick with Mr./Ms. If it's their first name only, and they've been uber-casual, you can go ahead and use that. But you won't look like a kid in Daddy's suit--you'll look like a professional.

How far back to you send letters to agents that have your partials and fulls letting them know you HAVE representation? How do you get through that end sticky part where you are getting offers, etc. and have to pick an agent so that you don't burn bridges?

Well--that's a good question. Another reason, also, to try to send all of your queries out in one big round--that way, you get all of your answers, and do all of this notifying, at once. I'd say anyone who got your partial or full in the last 4-5 months and hasn't replied should get a quick note. If they don't know who you are, or don't want your work, they won't respond. No harm done.

More soon on how to pick an agent...!

On professionalism, networking, friendliness--and avoiding Elevator Pitch Face

A lot of people are talking about it lately--probably because it's the end of "summer business casual" and the beginning of more formal attire--the end of outdoor picnic concerts and the beginning of the opera season--and, most of all, we have a new season of conferences waiting.

How does one appear at once human and professional, jovial and competent? As you know, many business transactions--hirings, firings, team building--are based on much more than your qualifications on paper--they're based on your likability. In publishing, it's even more so--as so much of the industry is subjective, if we like you, you have a much greater chance at a lot of benefits:

  1. Personalized feedback
  2. Faster turnaround (depends--sometimes it takes us longer because we want to give you a more thoughtful response)
  3. Willingness to forgive mistakes (rather than thinking, "Oh, that author's not paying attention," we'll think, "Oh, ha ha, they mentioned their quad-shot mochas--mmm, that sounds good right about now--well, I guess they must have had a few too many of them. Next page! Onward!")
  4. Better advice at conferences--if you have a one-on-one, and if the work doesn't fit, we'll try harder to think of suggestions.
That's not to say that we're judging your outfit and making decisions based on whether we think your blacks match and your heels are high enough and your belt is so last season. Not at all! (Many of us are, truth be told, kind of...geeks. NYC geeks, granted, but geeks. We look fancier at conferences than we do in the office, trust me.)

It's not about your appearance. We'll forgive a lot in that department, as long as you look more like you're at something for work than on vacation. Just think business casual--not jeans, t-shirts, sandals. (And you may wish to leave the neon mumus at home--same with open-toed shoes. Once I had a woman approach me in head-to-toe purple, with a braid sprouting from the top of her head and sticking straight up for the duration of our speed date. Her work wasn't for me, but I did listen attentively.)

We're very good at sensing literary sensibility. If you're obviously smart and literate, we'll forgive poor word choices and grammatical mistakes.

We'll even forgive you if you drop your conference snacks on us.

Chuck Sambuchino, editor of the GLA blog, had a wonderful post on how to behave at conferences. He notes that the most important thing--rather chatting only about your project--is to treat agents like humans.

That's right--humans. And humans who, unlike our robotic brethren, need a little downtime--time to think about things other than work.

In other words: you can always pitch to us. You can always send us queries, send us your work--even if you're in Fiji without electricity and a waning Blackberry battery and we're on August break, probably swimming with fishies somewhere far, far away from New York.

But meeting us in person is a rare opportunity. I've seen a lot of authors make the following mistakes:

  1. Being afraid to talk about anything but their work, for fear of seeming unprofessional
  2. Thinking that if they run over their allotted author-agent speed-date time (ie, if they just talk to us long enough) we'll decide that we like them and will take on their work
  3. Coming to a conference with a big box of thirty copies of your proposal. You may recall that we like personal notes with our work--we hardly feel special when we see you reach into a giant box and pull out an identical copy that's addressed to Dear Sir/Madam.
  4. Taking every "I'm afraid that's not a good fit for me" as a personal rejection, and thus having to pick themselves up again before visiting with another agent.
What's the best thing to do? Find something to say to an agent that you'd also say to a new acquaintance at a dinner party. Chat about anything but your work--good topics include the conference site, where the agent is originally from (if you know they're from your part of the world, even better), recent travels, how this conference compares to others, good lines from the other speakers, the quality of the food--goodness, even the weather! If we see someone approaching us with Elevator Pitch Face, we automatically clam up. If you smile and comment on the cute bread basket, we'll be more open and friendly.

Something to note: you can always look up agents before you go, and then prepare a line for your five favorites, if you do meet them. (Though don't try to say hello to everyone--you'll wear yourself out. Sometimes these conferences are like Disneyland as a kid--you *might* meet Mickey, and Minnie, and Donald Duck--but don't count on it.)

Elevator Pitch Face is easily remedied by chatting first with your other conferencegoers--warm up, feel friendly, feel chatty. Keep in mind that most agents and editors are very nice people. (I call a lot of them; I would know.)

And what are they, at this conference, really judging you on? If you're nice.

Yes, I said it--if you're nice. It helps if you're also not pushy (but not timid), respectful but not stiff. I hate it when people say it, but it's true: be confident about your work. Give yourself a pep talk about how great your work is, if you like. Smile and it will (the pop psychiatrists say) make you feel better. Space out your sugar/caffeine consumption so that you don't crash at crucial moments--and take care not to drink more than two alcoholic beverages.

A few things to remember:

  1. Just like when you're meeting new people, ask a lot of questions, and try to politely figure out if you like them. This takes the pressure off of you and, like most people, agents and editors like talking about themselves. Even, "Gosh, so do you read, like, 100 manuscripts a day?" is better than, "So, I have this book about cats--oh, and I'm Jeff, here's my card, here's my manuscript, so can I hear from you next week?"
  2. Do have an elevator pitch prepared--but only give it if the agent asks. That said, you must have this, so when someone asks, "What are you working on?" you'll have a good answer.
  3. Don't keep your elevator pitch the same down to each word. And don't take a huge breath before, as if you're going to say something recited. Think about each word as you say it; pause briefly to picture your characters and scenes. Act natural, not rehearsed.
  4. Have a number of back-up plans in place. ie, "What if they ask about ____?! OH NO! That'll be TERRIBLE!"--then, well, have an answer prepared.
  5. Smile.
  6. Say "please" and "thank you"--as you would, I hope, normally.
  7. Make sure your hands aren't sweaty before you approach an agent to shake them. The awkward hand-on-pants wipe? Not so suave.
  8. Be warm, kind, happy--not nervous, clammy, scared.
  9. If you are nervous, clammy, or scared, be sure to make a friend at the conference and hang with them before approaching anyone scary. All of the other writers are in the same boat, and most are available for nervous laughter.
  10. Some say not to ask for an agent's card--but to let them offer it to you. I think this was the rule back in Emily Post's day--but it's not terribly practical now. We'd end up with a huge stack of cards and no clue how to match them with the hundreds of faces and handshakes. That said, if it would be awkward, just make a note of their name and find their e-mail online later. Most agents are very easy to Google. If all else fails, try [their first name]@[their agency domain].com.
  11. When you get the card of anyone interesting, take a moment to write a line or two about who they are and something they said. This way you don't end up with a huge stack of cards and no clue who anyone is.
  12. Within 72 hours of meeting someone, send them a quick email that references something they said or you talked about together--ie, something from the notes on the back of your cards. Then, even if they don't reply immediately, they have a record of who you are.
You'd be amazed at the behavior of some conferencegoers. Knowing what you know here, you'll be far ahead of everyone else.

Good luck!

A Note on the Making of Fun

Several of you wrote in mentioning that you were relieved that I didn't list your queries in the section (several posts below) where I noted author mistakes.

What I should have said is this: the mistakes that register on our radar are so very different than yours--if you're here, you not only do research, but care about the feelings of agents enough to read their blogs.

If you make genuine, well-intentioned, well-meaning mistakes, 95 times out of 100, we will forgive you. We've taken on works that had barely average query letters. (Not that you should aim for mediocrity, mind you.) We've ignored so many spelling and grammatical errors (even my least favorite, the wrong "it's/its"), you have no idea. (Again, not advisable, just letting you know.) We've taken on work by authors who insisted on calling us down to the lobby to drop off work in person. (Grr.) We've even taken on work by those who dared send us sweets. While all of us are on our respective diets. (Triple Grrr, she says after a fistful of Godiva.)

In other words: if you are (again) a nice person, we'll let a lot go by. Especially if you are a nice person who has work we love. Then, well, you could theoretically make all the mistakes in the book, as long as you're still nice, responsible, honest, trustworthy and hardworking. I haven't tested this hypothesis--our writers are well-behaved--but, well, you know.

It's the authors of ambiguous (or not so ambiguous) intention we're worried about. In the years I've been in this business, I've seen all kinds of strange behavior--authors writing in second-person about horrific torture-murder scenes (you try to like someone after they've just written, "And then I tie you to a chair--and then I pull your hairs out, one by one"--and worse!); one manuscript arrived with a bloody fingerprint (we were pretty sure it was real blood), and several authors have seemed to know a little too much about the crimes committed by their protagonists.

I share the work of the ill-intentioned and under-researched to reassure you. You are doing research. And you are, if I interpret your comments correctly, really rather nice. Research + nice equals you ahead of a good section of the rejection pie chart.

In other words: worry not. Write on.

Author Mistakes You Won't Make

Dear Authors,
We expect some mistakes, and are as forgiving as we can be. However, the writers below have exhibited behavior that is not ideal. Please learn from their mistakes.

Amusing opening query lines:

Basically, I'm a young, good looking, highly marketable, STD-free author that you can send on Letterman and I'll get laughs or on Oprah and I will not only jump on the couch, but also any coffee table, chair or ottoman present on the set. I get attention.

Lesson: Perhaps you are attractive, and this does show the author's ability to get attention--and some degree of voice. However, your personal medical records have no place in a query (unless you are writing a medical memoir or something otherwise related--this author was not) or professional correspondence. Also, I know publishing is made up of many, many women--but it's insulting to imply that we're going to give you a favorable response just because you say you're attractive.

Pasted below this letter is a sample of Death by Cucumber, which might interest you. This novel, if it must have a label, is “soft-core” literary.

Lesson: Puns are tricky. I giggled to myself when I read this, which put me in a good mood for the rest of the query. However, this is very risky. I ended up passing.

Here's a response to our rejecting a memoir of a man's quest to bed as many women in as many places around the globe as possible:

Well I can't say that I'm NOT surprised the book is being passed up on and must say this is a HUGE mistake because when the book is published its going to be ADORED by MILLIONS of readers, women especially, and easily for sure will be more popular then any other book you might take on and sell to a publisher...

Lesson: It is never, never productive to write to an agent when 1) angry, or 2) in the first five minutes after receiving a rejection. Always wait a day--sleep on it--and limit your comments to "Thank you for your time" or some variant thereof. You must be careful about not burning bridges. Again, the world of publishing is very, very, very small.

Correspondence with a manuscript (this is attached to draft number three of the same work):

Hi,

Here is a sexier and more complete proposal.

How long do you think it will take before I hear how much you love it?

Thanks.


Lessons: First of all, don't send us three drafts of your manuscript. Don't even send two. If you need more time before your partial is ready, ask for it, or say something like, "I'm so pleased to receive your request--I will send this to you within two weeks." Try not to send one version and then, a week or two later, write something like, "WAIT! DON'T READ THE LAST ONE! READ THIS ONE!" First of all, whatever edits you have made are very unlikely to change our mind with regard to whether or not you're a good fit for us. We aren't looking for perfection--we're looking for that which inspires us. (If you do decide to make an overhaul that will change everything, send a quick note to summarize proposed changes.) And certainly don't send three versions. Two is forgivable; we know you're human and that send button is just so temping--three is...inadvisable. I know email seems much less formal, but please, please don't do this. It drives us crazy. And assuming that we'll happily read your work three times (if we read the earlier two versions) is just, well, rude. And unrealistic. Also, please try not to use "sexy" to describe your work, especially if you are a man writing to a female agent. If you are a female writing to a female agent, especially if it's with regard to a romance or women's fiction, go for it. Otherwise, can feel unprofessional and rude. And last but certainly not least--don't be arrogant. Unless this work is really fantastic, it's going to be an uphill battle for this writer, as it already seems he thinks himself worthy of diva treatment.

From recent calls:

Him: Hi, I'm calling from London. I want to send you my work.

Me: Okay, please send us a query. To ___@____.com.

Him: Oh, you want me to mail it? Okay, I'll try to get stamps--

Me: No, please email. To ___@____.com.

Him: But the [LMP] says you want paper submissions.

Me: We used to. Now please send an e-mail.

Him: Are you sure?

Me: Yes.

Him: Really? Okay, so it says here your email is [not our email].

Me: No. It's ___@___.com.

Him: ____s@___.com?

Me: [Still in a sweet, patient voice] No, ____@___.com.

Him: Can I send you my manuscript?

Me: Please send a query letter first. By email.

Him: [Sounding truly defeated] Okay... [Hangs up]

Lessons: First of all, don't call--do your research. If you must call, please listen. The people who pick up the phone--whether an intern, assistant or agent--are likely well-versed on the submissions guidelines for their company. Don't treat them like they're dumb. This does not make you endearing. On the other hand, don't get intimidated. We don't make up rules to insult your work--they're there to make the process as efficient as possible for everyone involved.
I have a genre specific question. For women's fiction (specifically light women's fiction) are agents open to books with a female protagonist in her 20s these days? It feels like the genre is now saturated to the mommies/housewives in their 30s audience. Are 20 somethings no longer a desirable demographic?

(I'm registered for the conference. I look forward to the glass elevator!)

First of all, come say hello! That's what I'm here for. I'll be on the Ask the Agents panel on Saturday morning and will jump in at least one elevator.

And I can see what you mean about there being so many mommies, housewives (desperate and not), nannies, toddlers, preschool interviews, sandboxes, juice boxes and suburban settings. They've taken over everything from books to television to stationary. About the time of Desperate Housewives' debut, fashion too took a 1950s turn. (Some say this has to do with our involvement in Iraq and an edge toward a more conservative culture. Not sure what I think about that.) Actually, my guess is that, because this 30-something housewife theme is close (I'd venture 2-5 years) to saturated, it will (like anything once very popular) soon be decidedly unpopular--and it will be another ten years or so before we rediscover them. So, if you're writing in this thirty-something suburban housewife category--and have been dragging your feet with regard to finishing and sending out your novel--git r done! (I'm from a small town; I'm allowed to say that.) And, like with milk, I mean the 2-5 years as a sell-by--sell to the publisher--date. This of course is just a prediction, and if you happen to have the next Little Children in five years--even if decidedly unpopular at that point--you should NOT give up all hope.

Back to the twenty-somethings.

Keep in mind one element of the subjectivity angle: people love reading about characters like themselves, and many people in publishing (like yours truly) are in their twenties.

That said, you have a similar challenge to that of a YA writer: to write about someone of a particular age, when designed for readers of that age, your (written) voice, details, and sense of place must be spot-on.

But if you have all that--well, of course twenty-somethings are a desirable audience! They also read Young Adult, and (though perhaps less so recently) have a fair amount of disposable income relative to their expenses. They also, on the whole, have enough free time to read and care to do so. And many older women love to read about this age group as well. I imagine many of The Devil Wears Prada's readers and espeically viewers were far older than the protagonist.

And this is without mentioning all of the advantages of having as a protagonist (and being) a twenty-something: at this age, one has so much freedom and fewer responsibilities. In other words, this is probably one of the most flexible choices, as there are few "Oh, but someone that age can't do that!" constraints. (Tell that to your writing workshop.) Plus, twenty-somethings are just (if I say so myself, from my rather subjective view, and I do), fun.

To sum up: keep writing. And find me at the panel. Just don't tell the organizers it was my idea if we get caught bogarting the elevators.
As someone who has sumbissions out there in agent land, I've thought about this a lot. I like to think several people in agencies everywhere have read my stuff--it saddens me a little to imagine them never making it past the intern stage. But, now I have something else to daydream about: the agent so excited about my book that they begged someone else to read it!

Well, I wouldn't say "begged"--but strongly encouraged, nagged, repeatedly reminded...yes. :)

And I, for one, never let my interns reject anything I haven't read. They're very bright, but again, the business is so subjective--though it doesn't happen often, it's possible they may dislike something for reasons that are irrelevant to the work's quality. I don't think there are a lot of writer fates decided by interns. They do read things first--and function as a second opinion--but it's never their opinion alone that decides such things.

What Constitutes Strong Writing?

You're leaving brilliant questions in the comments--so, though some of them are harder to quantify (like this one), they are all completely worthy of thought and answer.

The most accurate but least helpful answer is that "strong writing" is completely subjective. There have been numerous occasions when I've loved something and had others think I'm crazy. Did anyone read The Secret Life of Bees? (Umm, duh, you're thinking, thousands of people read that.) I loved it. I loved the imagery. I thought it was the most gorgeous thing ever. I told a writer friend, whose opinion I respect greatly--in fact, she'd probably be better at my job than I am--to go out and get a copy posthaste. She did. She hated it. She didn't understand why I liked it, or why I told her to drop everything and get it. End result: I felt foolish.

As we've mentioned before, even with published works, even with bestsellers, everyone has personal tastes. Unfortunately, this often means that one agent or editor will love something, take it to ed board (weekly meeting in which all works under consideration are discussed) and get totally shot down. I've seen it happen--when I was interning, there would be an editor with an idea he or she was totally excited about--proposals had been circulated--and they were met with the professional, polite equivalent of, "Not sure what you were thinking but, um, no." Around a conference table. With an entire company glaring. Not a situation I'd wish on anybody.

It's happened to me, too. Everyone in my office is very kind, and there are (unlike in other offices) no worries of, say, yelling, rubber band flinging, teasing, or unkind feelings. (Or, for that matter, staplers in jell-o.)

But it's still not a great feeling to have a work you're passionate about shot down. (Not to get too sappy, but sometimes--if you really connect with the work--it feels like a personal disappointment as well.) It's happened to be before--I literally got shivers when I read a work, told the author all of the wonderful things about the project (of course trying to maintain the balance of not getting their hopes up while expressing my enthusiasm so that I'm at the top of their list if they're choosing among agents), made the others in the office read it, and--especially if I plunked them down with the manuscript and tea and had them throw aside everything else to take a look--it's extraordinarily awkward when I'm the only one who likes something. It's even happened that I've thought the writing in a piece beautiful, and because of this, loved a work--and the others didn't like it--because of the writing. The same has happened with characters (I thought them wonderfully three-dimensional--the others, uh, didn't) and interest (I was captivated; they were bored).

Long story short, this happens to everyone, in all offices. The fact that we agree probably 85 to 95 percent of the time is, in some ways, miraculous. But even if within not only the industry but the same office there are differing opinions on these hard-to-nail-down concepts--well, you can see why my original answer, it's just subjective, really is--for all its frustrating implications--the most accurate, least helpful, most true-to-life answer.

Pie in the (40th floor) Sky: a contest

Dear Writers,

I'll be presenting at a conference next week--the Writer's Digest conference in Times Square. (Has anyone else been to the hotel? When I was a freshman in college, new to New York, I got great delight out of sneaking in and riding the glass elevators all the way to the top of the 40-something story building. And then taking small leaps on the way down which, of course, gave way to that scary-but-fun "The floor is moving out from under me!" feeling. Officially: not recommended. Unofficially: do it. It's fun.)

I have all of the information necessary to gather more data and make a shiny new pie chart. But what, do you suppose, would be most useful to the most authors? What would you want to know, in quantifiable terms?

These are just examples--surely you can come up with something better:
  • By percentage, what are the main reasons we reject YA queries/partials?
  • What are the reasons we reject (any other genre--which?)?
  • What percentage of queries get requests for partials?
  • How many partials are passed on to others throughout the office?
  • Average weight of incoming mail?
  • Average query acceptance rate, by genre?
Think hard, writers, because there's a prize attached: if you come up with an idea that I end up using, I'll take home your query and give you personalized feedback.

Happy recession tip! And how to respond to your first offer of representation.

As you may have heard--likely from a piece promising gloom, doom, a shower of pink slips, the end of reading as we know it and a return to sabertooths and/or cuneiform--or, alternately, mass book burnings, plethoric Kindles and the end of reading that doesn't require an AC adapter--many editors were laid off this year. This is, obviously, not cause for celebration.

However. Many of these former editors have become agents--and so, with more agents in circulation, and more collective time to read and evaluate and edit and sell manuscripts--assuming they've been sent to the right places--the very best works will likely receive more offers of representation this year than in years past.

Every writer, therefore, should know how to respond intelligently to agent offers--knowing, of course, that there could be more. If you get one, does that mean you should take it right away? Do you even have a choice? What if an agent has an exclusive? How do you avoid burning bridges with agents who also have your work but haven't responded yet? What's considered polite--and what is embarrassingly unprofessional?

Let's say that you don't have an exclusive with anyone, and within twenty-four hours of e-mailing your manuscript, Caffeinated Agent (CA) gets back to you with an offer of representation. There are others reading your work, who you liked more, but hey, what if they don't say yes? You should just take it, and the sooner you get an agent, the sooner you'll be on the front tables in Barnes & Noble, featured in the New York Times, and flying around on a private jet to make your readings to packed, cheering audiences--right?

Well...no. And not just because you probably won't get a private jet.

You are missing out on using one of the most powerful tools at your disposal: if you have one offer, you are more likely to get more. Why? Because we know this is a subjective business, and also know that the majority of our colleagues are very, very bright.

That said, do not fake one. If you lie and say you have an offer and don't, we will find out. Publishing is an unbelievably small world. We will not be happy. You've just asked a very busy agent to move you to to the front of the line--and proven that we can't believe what you tell us. Very much ungood. Avoid that.

So. Here's what you do:
  1. Upon receiving offer from Caffeinated Agent, do your happy dance--silently, if you're on the phone, which you likely are.
  2. Say something like, "That's great, and I'm really interested in working with you. However, there are still some agents I'm waiting to hear back from." (Tangent: technically, it is all right to end a sentence with a preposition.)
  3. Work together to come up with a date by which you will have an answer. One to two weeks is reasonable. If it's a really, really amazing manuscript, and super timely (tied to something in the news and will soon be outdated), and oh goodness the agent just wants to sell this right this second--then I suppose four or five days is enough time for agents to load you onto their Kindles and read and get an idea. But this is not ideal. You may annoy the other agents--not enough to get you out of the running, mind you, but it's a very short window of time, especially since there are probably others who have asked the same of them in this time frame.
  4. If Caffeinated Agent tries to pressure you--ie, "This is an offer now, not five minutes from now, take it or leave it"--well, this isn't a good sign. Reiterate that it wouldn't be fair to take the offer without asking the others since other agents are presently using their (valuable) time to read your work.
  5. Cordially thank Caffeinated Agent for his or her interest, and say you will be in touch soon.
Then, the fun part. Send an email to all of the other agents--everyone who has not rejected you. Say something like,
Dear [Agent named spelled correctly],

I just wanted to check in and say that I've received an offer of representation from another agent. [Do not say the name of the agent--this is simply not done. Say "an agent."] I was wondering if you'd like to see the full manuscript/proposal and sample chapters [if they have anything less than everything you've completed so far]. I promised I'd be back in touch with a decision by [date you agreed upon with Caffeinated Agent]. If at all possible, please let me know your decision before then. I look forward to hearing from you."
Then, the really fun part--what to do when you have multiple offers. Stay tuned!