Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On Agents

Now, I'm not going to try to piss off any prospective agents who might otherwise want to represent me. LOL.

Anyway, as I'm gearing up for the dreaded query process, I realize something. Well, I've always known it, but the reality is more prevalent now that I'm starting to query. What is it? There's a serious disconnect between agents and writers sometimes.

I know this first-hand because when I'm not querying, I can CLEARLY see it from the agent's point of view. Agents are only humans. They have lives. They work. They want to represent the writers and works that excite them and, most important, make them money. As an actor, I have two talent agencies representing me, and I know how they work. They're not really my friends. They're my business partners, and they have other clients -- many probably make them more money than I ever will, but I'm still an asset for them. And they mine. They get me jobs, then I make money, and they make their commissions. It's that kind of machine that keeps the industry moving. Everyone plays their part, and hopefully plays it well.

Literary agents are no different. The problem is, anyone who can string two sentences together think they can write, and thus agents tend to get hundreds, if not thousands, queries every year asking for representation, and every one of these writers think they're the next JK Rowling or Stephen King. The sad reality is, it's a matter of math. If there are 10 agents, and each can only represent 10 writers, and there are 100 queries... you see how that works.

That's the part that writers don't usually understand. Once we writers get into the submission mode, we somehow forget that agents are busy. We suddenly think the agents are sitting at their desks doing nothing, and they're ready to accept our masterpieces. Or worse, they're mean, sadistic people who take pleasure in sending form rejections. They're out to get us, to crush us, to make us feel small and untalented and pathetic.

I admit whenever I got a rejection, my immediate response was usually resentment and self-pity. It's human nature. Nobody likes to be rejected, to be told "it's not for me." It's our survival instinct -- when we feel hurt, we either withdraw or want to fight back.

I've been in this "business" long enough to know it doesn't need to be this way. My emotions can still bite me in the ass once in a while, but I know better, and usually within a day I'd bounce back and ready to go again, because I know it's not personal. I simply need to find the right agent for my work.

I mean, if I were an agent, I would reject every epic fantasy, paranormal romance, and horror, because that's not the kind of stories I'm interested in. Nothing person. And it doesn't mean if you write fantasy, paranormal romance or horror, you're a bad writer. It doesn't mean your work isn't great. It's just "NOT FOR ME." Agents are just like me. They can only effect represent an author and the work if they are passionate about the story and the genre.

The frustrating part for a writer is not only the rejections, but also the "not knowing" -- not knowing if they're good enough; not knowing if they have the right hook; not knowing if there's something wrong (chances are, there's nothing wrong with their manuscripts); not knowing if the agents are even remotely interested in their work. Or if the agent represents something similar, are they looking for more of the same? That's why research is important, but it's also something difficult for many writers. WRITERS are artists, not business people. It's a daunting task, to find the right agent and to come up with the right pitch.  Often we have only a few minutes of the agent's time to pitch, and only a little more time to close the deal. Most of us are inapt in that department.

It doesn't mean agents are bad people. They're not out to crush us. They're not there to stand in our way. Most want to help writers, too, because writers make money for them. But agents are people, and people tend to be self-absorbed. Agents are in the business to make money, so their #1 priority is "Will this make money for me?"  Their first question is: "This sounds like a good book, but what's in it for me?"  If you can answer that question for the agent, then you're already ahead.

Reading vs. Writing

I admit, beginnings are the weakest links in my writing. I often can't decide, or simply don't know how to begin my story. I've had so many false starts in the past, it's not even funny. Even now, I am not 100% sure the beginning of my WIP is good. Thanks to my betas, I'll know soon.

Now that I'm thinking about "beginnings," I realize my writing seems to mirror my reading habit. I tend to have a hard time starting on a book. Often it would take me a few tries, or months to get into a new book. I remember it took me four tries to read A Painted House by John Grisham and I just couldn't. It wasn't until I decided to "keep going" that I finally got into it, and the rest of the book was really good (granted, it was a REALLY slow beginning -- nothing much happened in the first 60+ pages).

Currently, I'm reading The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle, and I'm having the same problem. I read through the prologue just fine, but I simply couldn't finish the first chapter (in a way, the first chapter is rather against all "writing advice" -- it's mostly tell, and it's all backstories). I'm still slogging through and hopefully I'll hit my stride some day.

That seems to be a common problem for me, and partially why I haven't finished reading many books. My to-be-read pile is tall. I'm a slow reader to begin with, and with this problem I have with beginnings, I'm often stuck. And that seems to echo my issue with the beginnings of my own works.

Just an interesting self-assessment and observation...

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Practice Your Pitch

I don't know if you've read JJ Cooper's interview. If not, do it now.

I absolutely love his advice on researching the market and finding your "dream agents," especially the part on how to perfect our pitch with "practice agents."

Now, that may sound unfair to the agents. After all, why waste their time? On the other hand, this is business, and we must do what we need to get what we want. Besides, it's not like we are hurting the agents - our queries are only a few among the hundreds they receive. They will reject the query and they won't think twice about doing that. And they won't think, "Aw, I'm wasting this writer's time."

It sounds brutal, but it's an honest observation. It's a business. An agent will reject anything he or she isn't interested in. And I think it's perfectly legit for a writer to practice the pitch and get ready for the agents he or she really wants. After all, often you only have one shot in hooking an agent.

I particularly like Cooper's anecdote on how many writers would go directly to their dream agents at pitch sessions, only to totally let their nerves get the best of them.

I remember when I started to shop The Pacific Between around. I followed other people's advice and targeted the top agents on my list first, but that effort crashed and burned because my query sucked. And the rejections came fast and furious. I was really bummed. But you know what? As I continued to perfect my query and send it out, I got better and my anxiety eventually disappeared. By rejection #30, I was like, "Whatever. Next."  And by then I was sending out draft 12 of my query -- it was near perfect. My hit rate went up, too. I was getting a partial or full request every 5 submissions. But most important, my nerves were gone by then, and I was having a much better attitude dealing with rejections and the business of getting the queries out.

So, I really do appreciate Cooper's advice.  Why use my desired agents as "target practice" to soothe my nerves and perfect my pitch? It makes sense.

Of course, getting partial and full requests is only part of the process. It's still about the writing, and even the world's greatest query and partial can't save a subpar novel. So, I'm determined to spend the next few months a) perfecting my pitch, and b) perfecting my manuscript. A) will only get me read, but B) is the key to seal the deal.

I have a plan. Now is the time set the plan in motion.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Interview: JJ Cooper

RW: JJ Cooper, author of military thrillers THE INTERROGATOR and DEADLY TRUST, is here. I always start with this question: How long have you been writing and have you been always writing in your current genre?

JJ: I've been writing for maybe three and a half years now. I'm currently working on my third manuscript - the first was published in 2009 and the second in August this year.

I write in the thriller/crime fiction genre, or some call it military thriller genre and others identify the books as commercial fiction. It's what I like to read and seemed naturally what I should write (whatever it is called). As long as I entertain the reader, I'm happy for it to be called any of the above. I'd like to give another genre a go one day, perhaps young adult to give something for my kids to read. Those who have read my books will testify that there is very little chance of me of producing something in the romance genre!


RW: That's funny about "romance" (but never say never, dude). Wow, given the short time of your career (and two books out within that period), would you say you've had really good luck? Or perhaps you just write great, commercial thrillers that sell like hotcakes? What's your secret?

JJ: Perhaps 'timing' would be more apt than 'luck' in my case. The editor I ended up with told me she'd been looking for my book for a few years (ok - maybe they mention that to all they sign). Andy McNab and Chris Ryan had the market sewn up for military thrillers written by ex-special force soldiers (*cough* ghost written *cough*); publishers were looking for an ex-military-type who wrote fiction for that certain level of authenticity. In my market we have a very sucessful writer producing commencial miltary fiction (fantasy in my opinion) with no first hand experience of the service life - and that's ok because he is a great storyteller ((*waves at Matt (although you refuse to answer my emails)).

For me, fiction is just experience and imagination! Experience doesn't mean you have to be an ex-interrogator to write about one - but it helps. I don't have a real need for research because I draw on my experiences to turn the real into a work of fiction. I want the reader to wonder if what I've written has actually happened despite the shelf they picked it up from.

I admit in publishing terms my journey has been freakishly quick. But, I was well prepared before I pitched. I had a very polished manuscript and had done a stack of research on agents and publishers before I sent my 'baby' out there. Just like an athlete before the big game, I'd trained and tested and refined before pitching the right agent - and it worked. So, I created my own luck in a sense!


RW: Yeah, I've heard writers who spent years working on their manuscripts., and they just wanted to get the query process over with, hoping to lend an agent immediately. It's refreshing, actually, to hear your story, how you worked so hard (behind the scene) until you had everything right.

Tell us more about your background and how/why you decided to become a fiction writer.


JJ: After spending seventeen adrenalin-filled years in the military I moved into a nine-to-five office job. So, you could imagine going from being an Interrogator to spending three hours on a crammed train every day and then eight hours behind a computer producing policy documents - didn't take long to do my head in! I need a creative outlet and figured I'd give writing a go. I've always enjoyed reading and the escapism it provides so I set out to write a novel. I'd never had any plans on being an author - just fell in that way.


RW: "Just fell in that way" eh? Tell us more about your books. What they are about? How did you come up with the idea, etc.? We know you used a lot of your own experiences as an interrogator... is it semi-autobiographical in any way?

JJ: Think I may get into some trouble should I refer the books in any way as 'any-autobiographical"! I use my experiences as a catalyst for the storyline. The Interrogator has the protagonist, Jay Ryan, caught up in an espionage 'sting' based on information he has obtained during an interrogation years before in Iraq. This reflects my time in the Middle East. Fortunately, I was never caught up in an espionage ring - that's the imagination kicking in.

The cataylst for the second book, Deadly Trust, is the anthrax injection I'd received before deploying. The question I ask is 'what was actually in those injections?'. 'What if I wa injected with something different?' An athrax attack nearby and a couple of attemptes on the protagonist's lifeset the wheels in motion for the rollercoaster ride!

So, life experiences are used as the 'set-up' for my series. Cretaintly makes it easier of the research front!

RW: Speaking of research, even given your background, do you find yourself doing a lot of research, and where are your sources? Do you strive to make your details as authentic as possible, either for readers' experience or to fight off would-be criticism?

JJ: Very little research for the first two books. I'm fortunate to be able to draw on my experiences and the places I've been for my witing. When I move out of that comfort zone, then there will be more research required. I heard Harlen Coben mention his thoughts on this recently - basically, the more time spent researching means less time writing. Book three will require some research on the setting though as I'm sending the protagonist overseas to places I've never been. In fact, I'm doing that research now.

RW: Cool. Let's talk about the other kind of research. You said you did your work and research (on agents, etc.) before you even submitted. I think that's one of the things most writers are not familiar with, or good at doing. How did you go about that? Did you know certain writers with agents who represent similar works, or did you use the regular route (such as agent guides), or did you target agents of authors/works you know?

JJ: Definitely the most important research to do prior to submitting anywhere. There is so much information on the internet regarding agents, good and bad. It's about 'sifting' through the information out there and narrowing down the search.

Firstly, I started with my genre and who was representing it in the USA. Although I would later target my eventual agent in Australia, I thought a good training ground for my pitches would be the USA. This way I could learn and refine as necessary. I knew my work would be more suited to an Australian audience to commence with, but, you never know. I did get a couple of requests for partials and fulls, but ultimately continued to refine my pitch for an Australian agent.

I knew of the Australian agent I wanted to represent me through feedback I had received from other authors through writer's centres and online forums. After I had 'trialled' my pitches on overseas agents, I studied the submission guidelines and followed them to the letter - then sat back and waited.

My tip here is to be patient! Publishing is a long, slow path at every step of the business. There is no need to rush! Know as much as possible about the agent you are going to pitch and practise the pitches on agents you don't neceesarily want to represent you.

At ThrillerFest in New York in July this year, I watched writers from around the globe pitching US agents at AgentFest. Great concept with rooms stacked with nervous energy. The thing is they had about three hours to pitch as many as possible and most went straight to their preferred agent as soon as the bell rung - then the moans of 'nerves got the better of me' commenced not long after. It's like hitting the 'send' button on email or pushing the envelope through a post box - the more you rehearse the more 'ready' you will be for the agent you want!

RW: Wow, I've never heard of the "practice on agents you don't necessarily want to represent you." Interesting. Now what if they DO want to represent you? Do you just say "no thanks" and wait for the big gun you DO want? Yes, that's a serious question. But I appreciate your experience and advice on the virtue of "patience" and "practice until it's perfect." Again, a lot of writers would spend 3 years perfecting their manuscript but then rush out to pitch without knowing what they're doing.

Speaking of conferences, do you recommend them? And do you recommend going to the "big" ones or the smaller ones (if money is an issue)?

JJ: I know agents are not going to like me recommending that approach, but writers seeking representation will usually narrow their list down to 20 odd agents who could do the job! Start at the bottom of the list and work up. Those who know how hard it is to break into the business will find it a pleasant surprise to be picked up on the 'practice' agent - and no doubt would accept the offer. You never know, they may turn out to be your dream agent after all. If they don't place your work within say a year, start again.

I think it is good to go to selected conferences early on in your writing career. The buzz and being inspired by the stories of authors and their journey is a good feeling. Because of the expense involved, I think you should target the conferences specific to your genre and attend sessions that will advance your knowledge of breaking into the publishing business or on the art of writing. Remeber though that most of the information you will receive will already be readily available somewhere on the internet.

Cost will always be a factor for the type of conference you attend. I'd prioritise by the most cost-effective conference offering agent pitching sessions. If you are going to attend these though make sure your MS is polished and ready to send to an agent in case you do get a 'yes'. No point pitching an idea (fiction).

RW: That's great advice. Now, back to your books. You have two books out now, and you're working on your third. Are they all part of the Jay Ryan series? How far are you going to take this or are you planning on doing something else (you spoke of YA novel, too)?

JJ: I'll continue the Jay Ryan thriller series for as long as I can (ie they continue to sell). I'm moving in a slightly different direction setting-wise as the protagonist continues to grow and explores new horizons. While writing the third book, I'm also working on a couple of short stories for anthologies and I'm at the conceptual stage of a short-to-novella size story that I'd like to release online free. I'm hoping this would coincide with the release of book 3.

I have plenty of writing years left in me and recognise there is plenty of time to explore different projects whether the sell or not. Writing is like reading for me - escapism. So, while being published was, and still is, a pleasant surprise; I'm happy with what I have achieved to date and can tick 'that' box in life.

I'd love to continue the journey, but although publishing is a very tough business to break into, it is even tougher to stay published!

RW: That's good to know. Yeah, staying published could be tougher, but right now, people just want to break in. I wish you much success. Have you done much promotion? And when you do, do you travel for it and how do you find the time to do everything (job, write, travel, promotion, family, etc.)?

JJ: Keeping the balance is hard! Most of the promotions around the books are generally just before, or at, launch time. It can get a little hectic with interviews etc. When I do get some spare time I like to keep the information flowing about the books through my website, facebook etc. I have participated in a few conferences, one in New York and a couple in my home state.

Time is valuable and I take the view that attending conferences and all promotion activities must be able to 'value add' somehow to my writing. This may involve including get-togethers with editors, agents and/or other authors at conferences and limiting time on Facebook and forums.

RW: Sounds like fun. How did you get in touch with Lee Child and his endorsement? I know there's an interesting story behind this...

JJ: After I signed a two-book deal with Random House Australia, I blogged about it. At the end of the blog I wrote 'The next challenge is getting Lee Child to read Interrogated (The Interrogator) and to write a blurb that we can stick on the cover. Anyone have Lee's number?'

The next morning I checked the blog and there was a message from Lee with his congrats and inviting me to email him. My heart skipped a beat at first and then, of course, I assumed it was a message from a friend pretending to be Lee Child. So, I emailed Lee and asked if he had left the comment - and he had. A few emails later I asked if he would be interested in reading my debut thriller and commenting on it - which he did.

I guess Lee is a lot like the rest of us and has Google Alerts set up. This chance exchange then led to me becomming a member of International Thriller Writers Debut Authors for the year and I eventually ended up in New York at ThrillerFest with my first book.

RW: That's funny... I guess he did have a Google Alert set up. But that's an awesome story (one of these days I'm going to blog about my writing hero and see if he/she will reply).

I know you read thrillers and you're planning on writing a YA novel. What other genres do you read, and do you think you may write those genres as well?

JJ: Most authors I know have Google alerts set up for themselves and thier books :)

There is so much variety to thrillers / crime fiction that it keeps me firmly 'implanted' within this genre. I suppose the biggest leap for me would be what may be descbribed as 'literary thrillers' by the wonderful Lisa Unger. Her narrative reads very poetic while still managing to be page-turners. I am a huge fan.

There has been a little 'push' of late for me to write some non-fiction stories regarding my time in the military, but it's just not for me at this stage. I have a stack of unread non-fiction military books piled high!

Thanks to some great local second-hand bookstores, I've recently managed to pick up 'A Christmas Carol' and 'The Wind in the Willows' for my oldest Son to read. He is straight into the Dickens classic so I guess I'll wait my turn for that one! I'm not sure how to classify these types of books - I think we'd all love to have written those two though.


RW: Those would be mainstream classics, literature, as opposed to "literary" which is really a different genre. To wrap up our interview, I'd like to ask you a few random questions:

a. How would you describe your writing style?
b. What is the coolest place you've never been to?
c. What word comes to your mind right NOW?
d. WarZone or Farmville?
e. What's in your wallet?
f. If you could do it all over again, what would be the one thing you'd change?
g. How do you get to New Orleans?
h. What makes JJ Cooper tick?
i. What ticks off JJ Cooper?
j. What is your favorite stuff toy? [I have to ask this one!]

JJ:
A. Concise.
B. Italy.
C. Beer!
D. Are they Facebook apps? If so, neither - not enough time in the day!
E. Like Jay Ryan, I don't carry a wallet (as per my books - credit card in the boot :))
F. Travel the world young - would provide more options for book settings.
G. I'd say a day and a half in flights from my current location!
H. The love of my kids.
I. People who are dishonest to me - come on, I used to be an Interrogator - I know!
J. Winnie The Pooh!

Thank you Ray - much appreciated mate!

RW: No, thank you, JJ. What a great interview.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Dos and Don'ts

I came across this: List of reasons why an agent wouldn't read past page 1.

I have to say, some of these make sense, because they hinders a reader from being interested in reading more. E.g. "the opening scene is boring" (which is subjective, of course) or "not enough happening on page 1."

On the other hand, writing is also not a "paint by number" type of endeavor. A lot of these "dos and don'ts" read like some agent's gripe list because of things amateur writers do way too often, such as the "and I wake up from a dream" or "I look into the mirror" even when they make sense. Still, a lot of this is more scare tactic than anything real. I'm sure an agent is not going to stop reading just because someone begins the novel with "My name is _____" especially if the rest of the chapter/novel is great.

Also, I sense that there's a genre bias there, too. There seems to be a general sense of "you must start with plenty of conflicts and interesting things happening." Well, while it's a good advice, it's also not always true, especially for literary fiction. Certainly you don't want to spend the first 50 pages talking about the setting or having your characters running around doing nothing (on the other hand, successful writers have been known to do that. Take John Grisham's A Painted House, for example. Then again, he's a well-known author so he can do anything he wants). But advice such as "don't open your novel with dialogue" seems overreacting and paranoid.

I particularly like this one: "An adult book that has a teenage protagonist in the opening scene is often assumed to be YA."   Are you serious?  If the book opens with teenage protagonist, it is ASSUMED to be YA?  Are the agents stupid or just have a general lack of imagination? So, if the protags in the first scene is a kid, it must be a children's book?  A Kite Runner and The Secret Life of Bees are children's and YA respectively then.  What about To Kill a Mockingbird?

My point is, while these lists serve a purpose to warn us, to prevent us from making these "newbie" mistakes, they also must be taken with a grain of salt. There are also contradictions, for example:  "Takes too long to show us what happened" and "the details are not enough."  Hard to please, aren't they?  And my point is, this whole thing is subjective. For one person who believes Stephanie Meyer can't write (and she probably won't make it according to this list), there are many people who would read a phone book if she wrote it.

Also, remember, what doesn't work for one agent may work for another. No two agents have exactly the same taste or the same hangups. One may send your sample chapters to the trash upon reading "My name is Amy Henson," and another may continue to read until page 15 when she says, "OMG, I've got to have this."

The point is, do your best work and try to tell a damn good story the best way you can. You can't please everyone and you shouldn't even try. But if you're telling an AWESOME story in an awesome way, so what if it starts with "My name is...."?

Call me Ismail.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The FEAR

Fear is a funny thing. The fear of failure weighs on us all the time. But the fear of success is real, too. The fear of doing something often stops us from doing it altogether. What if... what if it sucks? What if it doesn't?

My betas are reading my manuscript now and so far I've got some encouragement comments. One of my betas is about halfway through and he believes it's a strong book, much better than The Pacific Between. I'm working on the query now and cut my synopsis down to 2 pages (it's a science!) And I have done my research, and put a few agents on the top of my list.

And now I'm like, wait a minute, do you mean I have to send them out?

What if these top agents say buzz off? What if they all reject me, laugh at me?  Chances are, they will. So I'll have to do some more research, and find more agents -- maybe not as "top" -- and keep going. Sure, I have done that before. I can do it again. But the task seems so taunting, once again. And I feel like maybe I'm not cut out for this. It's easier to tell people rejection is just the bane of a writer's existence and we only need one acceptance. It's another when I'm the one going through that process. It's like a jilted bride getting back to the altar again: dating has been fun, but do I really want to do this again?

It all comes down to how much I want this, how much I believe in this story, and how much I believe in myself. It's a constant struggle, and I'm not sure how people half as sane as I am go through this. One minute I think the agents are going to love this, and the next I'm calling McDonalds to see if they're hiring.

It's going to be a long winter.