Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Truth About Patience

Hey everyone. I don't usually blog about my specific clients or deals I've made because, as is stated on the side panel of this blog, Glass Cases is a personal blog I run for writers and is not affiliated with my agency. That said, THE TRUTH ABOUT ALICE by my client Jennifer Mathieu, was recently published and I wanted to share this particular publication journey.

The Truth About Alice, on paper, seemed like a quick, easy sale. I submitted it at the worst possible time, in retrospect: May 30 - a week before BEA and only 5 weeks before a holiday weekend. But despite the usually hectic publishing schedule, Alice was on submission just 7 weeks before it received its first offer.

If only all publishing stories were that simple. Unfortunately, this one isn't either. The Truth About Alice's road to publication actually started back in 2009.

A timeline, if you will:
  • 2009: Curtis Brown agent Nathan Bransford signs a client named Jennifer Mathieu and sends out her smart, funny coming-of-age YA novel. And gets many "nice" rejections. Editors loved the voice, loved the story, and hated to say no, but... the rejections started piling up. Realistic YA was still considered "impossible" to sell in the post-Twilight paranormal craze that led into the post-Hunger Games dystopian craze. 
  • 2010: With Jennifer's novel on yet another round of submissions, Nathan breaks the hearts of every aspiring author - and his fellow agents at Curtis Brown - and announces he's leaving publishing.
  • Mid-2010: I start building a client list of my own. With three clients to my name, Nathan tells me he has a client whose voice I will love. I read Jennifer's book and the voice blows me away. Like, laugh-out-loud, miss-two-subway-stops kind of love. I speak with Jennifer and we click immediately and I take on a brand new client. Everything is happy until Nathan sends me a very long list of editors who already rejected Jennifer book and a very short list of editors who "probably" will look at another revision. As a new agent with hardly any contacts of my own, I silently curse Nathan's name.
  • 2010-2011: I work with Jennifer on a revision of that first novel and put it on submission to a small group of editors. Identical rejections from 2009. Jennifer works on a standalone companion novel, which I also put on submission. More "nice" rejections that think the novel is "too quiet."
  • Mid-2011: Jennifer tells me about an idea she's outlining that involves multi-POV versions of rumors about a teenage girl. I tell her to explore that idea and we shelve her other project after receiving a particularly painful rejection. (Not because it was mean, but because it was so overwhelming positive and full of regret. Yes, editors get rejected too.) 
  • 2012: Jennifer finishes her new novel, now called The Truth About Alice Franklin. After some tinkering, I put it on submission right before June. 
  • July 2012: We receive four offers on The Truth About Alice Franklin from major publishers, with a few more bringing it to acquisitions. I hold my first ever auction as an agent (and try not to have a heart attack in the process). After a very close auction, we accept a two-book offer from Roaring Brook Press, where it becomes The Truth About Alice.
  • September 2012: After two agents and almost four years of being on submission, Jennifer holds her book contract in her hands. 
  • May 2013: I decide Jennifer hasn't had enough drama and leave Curtis Brown for a new agency. I'm overjoyed that Jennifer moves with me to Bradford Literary Agency!
  • September 2013: Jennifer's editor, Nancy Mercado, also decides the drama factor wasn't quite high enough and leaves Roaring Brook Press to join Scholastic. We panic until Jennifer is paired with new-to-us editor Katherine Jacobs, who we immediately love and who is an enthusiastic champion for Jennifer's career.
  • April 2014: With The Truth About Alice not yet published and the "Book 2" of that two-book deal still being revised, Roaring Brook Press buys what will be Jennifer's third standalone contemporary YA novel.
  • June 3, 2014: The Truth About Alice is published and Jennifer officially begins her career as an author. Not only that, but the book has become an Indie Next Pick for Summer 2014, an Amazon Best Book of the Month in Teen/YA, and has been featured in Entertainment Weekly, Bustle, and The Daily Beast, to name a few.
Yeah, so I threw those last links in there to brag a little because who wouldn't brag after spending almost five years waiting for everything you know an author deserves.

There were so many times Jennifer and I both could have thrown in the towel. I could have taken one look at that list Nathan sent me back in 2010 and decided Jennifer wasn't worth taking on. Jennifer could have gotten frustrated by a string of rejections, losing her agent, and getting stuck with some assistant who had barely made a sale. (Thankfully, she didn't see me that way!) In other words, The Truth About Alice may never have been written, let alone sold, well-received, and the first of three standalone novels. 

I hope the moral of this story is clear. DON'T GIVE UP.

This should go without saying, but sometimes it's easy to forget. Especially when it can feel like your publishing road is paved with Murphy's Law. Especially when each new rejection stings harder and harder. Especially when it seems like it shouldn't be this hard.

Jennifer didn't want to go the self-publishing route, but I get that writers have more legit options now than she would have in 2009. Even still, those who want an agent and a "traditional" publisher shouldn't give up on their career choice just because there's a shiny back-up option.

Patience is the first thing you learn in publishing. From querying to getting feedback to finding the right agent to revising to going on submission to sometimes going back on submission to getting an offer to finally waiting for publication.... publishing moves slowly.

If you're a writer who's on submission, something to keep in mind is that - like Jennifer - the first book you write may not be your debut novel. Your second book might not be either. In fact, that's fairly common. An agent has to fall in love with your writing and your story, but sometimes the industry has other plans for you both.

Have patience and keep writing. Then write something new. Keep getting better with every book and don't worry about where they may end up. Expectations, when had, are rarely met, but sometimes when you least expect it, they are exceeded. 

Friday, May 02, 2014

We Need Diverse Books

This week an important Twitter campaign launched called #WeNeedDiverseBooks. It went viral, according to Salon, which I think is technology-code for "popular." I participated in the hashtag along with many other writers, agents, editors, publishers, librarians, and PEOPLE who demand more representation in their books.

Then something called #DiversityWL (Diversity Wish List) started. Agents and editors have been posting what, specifically, they hope to find in their slush piles. I'm happy this exists, but I'm not sure what to add to it. My "Diversity Wish List" is simply: well-written books in genres I represent. That's my wish list no matter what. I want my "diverse" characters to just be people in those stories.

So I started thinking about this more and realized it's easier for me to say what I don't want. "Diverse," to me, isn't calling out "Other-ness." The "I'm Different And That's OK" books had their place, but it's 2014 and I think we can do better and I think we can offer more.

My "Diversity Wish List" or whatever that means (for adult and YA):

1) LGBT characters who are more than just "the best friend." Give me a main character who's main plot line doesn't revolve around their sexuality.
- In YA, I know coming out stories and bullying stories matter, but those books have been written. I want to see a gay teen not be constantly reminded that there's something "weird" or "unacceptable" about who they are. Your target audience becomes a whole lot easier to convince when they see themselves in stories. It's not always about making them feel bad for the main character or making gay teens who aren't bullied wonder where their stories are.

2) Main characters from different socioeconomic backgrounds, regardless of race.
- The books I often see about "poor people" tend to be about a family struggling to get by, but rarely do I see entire worlds and viewpoints being developed. I don't want to just know the characters have little money. I want to see how they save money in subtle ways. I want to see what's important to them that may not be important to families who never have to worry about money. What makes their view on the world different and why does it matter?

3) Non-white characters in non-stereotypical roles.
- This one is obvious and kind of what the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign is based on. I want diversity within my white characters, but I also want to see people who don't usually get to be the main character. What I'm not looking for: the sassy Latina best friend; black or Hispanic teens in gangs; "honor-driven" Asian-Americans who may or may not play a string instrument (Seriously, why do I always get queries with Asians who play the violin? Am I unfamiliar with this stereotype?); Muslim characters who's primary function is to be Muslim first and a person second. The list of stereotypes can go on, but these are the ones I see most often. When I think "diversity" I don't think "token," but sadly that's what I'm still getting.

Those are just the Top 3. Any other good books with unique characters who meet my criteria should also make their way to my slush pile. I want to bring new stories and new types of heroes into the world, and I want to help writers of all colors and backgrounds get published.

But, my main criteria will always be:
1) Is this well-written?
2) Do I love this story?

Because, yes, #WeNeedDiverseBooks, but people rarely get inspired to change over a mediocre book with a forgettable character. Art influences history. So put your best out there, writers. Then, of course, remember to send it to me!

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Fault in Ourselves

I haven't been blogging much lately. In fact, this is my first post of 2014 and it's almost May. I can claim it's because of that oh-so-vague word, "busy," but it's more a combination of busy/tired/out of things to say. I used to put pressure on myself to keep up the blog, write about topics that have been written about before, and be an active member of some sort of online community. But, I've decided to keep my sanity and only blog when I feel inspired.

So here's what inspired me today.

Every so often - sorry, make that very, very often - some magazine, blog, or newspaper will feature a story about YA fiction. Recently, articles such as this Vanity Fair piece about John Green's book-to-film deals and this idiotic thing about why women are to blame for boys not reading, have gotten justified backlash from authors, librarians, publishing professionals, and feminists (or all of the above). Those are just the most recent pieces that disrespect female authors. There are several others, and there will be several more. 

That is troubling in itself, and to anyone who wants to help restore the balance, I suggest reading and publicly supporting female authors, whether they write YA, adult, nonfiction, poetry, prose, whatever. But here's what else is troubling: 

Almost every article or post about YA fiction mentions John Green in some way, and usually it's because the article itself is about him. He's often hailed as the "savior" who will give YA the credibility it deserves. Of course, anyone who regularly reads YA fiction or is familiar with the book industry knows these articles are insane, but the truth is, most people don't. Most people will only associate a genre with whatever its best seller is. "Readers" and "book people" are still considered a minority no matter how much time we spend in our self-made niche communities. That's why these articles, unfortunately, matter a great deal. 

That said, what I see happening to John Green is similar to what we all did to Jonathan Franzen in 2010 after Freedom was published. The difference, of course, is that people like John Green as a person so it's not as socially acceptable to compare him to that guy everyone loves to hate. Now that TIME magazine has listed John Green as one of the Top 100 Influential People in the World, the comparison to Franzen seems even more evident. They are both White Privileged Straight Male Authors who have become the faces - and, in many ways, the standard-bearers - of their respective genres. 

In his write-up in TIME, Green is referred to as a prophet. The YA community on Twitter today took this to mean that yet another article is praising a male author instead of a female author. This is true only in the technical sense, but I doubt TIME consciously snubbed female YA authors. (Note: TIME does include non-YA female authors on the Top 100.) The hashtag created in response to Green's honor was #ladyprophets. I'm usually all for getting the names of more female authors out in a public arena, but when it's at the expense of another author, it feels cheap.

The thing is, there are not a whole lot of authors on the current YA scene who have done as much for contemporary/realistic fiction as John Green has. This should be evident just based on the fact that people outside of the YA community know his name. There are plenty of rising stars, but they aren't the same as "stars." Not yet.

(And before you scream "JK Rowling!" please remember that Harry Potter is 1) considered a Middle Grade series even though the characters age, and 2) published before the YA "craze." It doesn't follow current market standards for the simple reason that it helped create them.)

(And before you say "Stephenie Meyer!" I'll remind you that I said contemporary/realistic fiction, not paranormal romance or any other major YA trend.) 

So back to John Green. 

There are a handful of contemporary YA authors who have a major influence on the market, some male, some female, some of whom are better writers than John Green. But let's be real. None of them have come close to John Green's level of success. Was sexism part of that success? Probably, a little, sure. (He even admits, somewhat, to that in this self-reflective post.) But he's also a talented writer with some very good novels out there. You should read them. Honestly. 

John Green made his name with Looking For Alaska before YA was the Hot New Thing and he continued to write award-winning novels while contemporary YA took a backseat to paranormal & dystopian trends. All the while he gained a massive audience with his vlogs and Twitter feed, and he supports other writers - including female ones - publicly and often. So maybe let's give him a break? 

None of these articles are John Green's fault, and yet the backlash against those articles is suddenly turning into backlash against him. And that? That just makes me sad, both as a lover of reading and as a feminist. 

Feminism is about mutual respect and equality. It's not about tearing one side down to build up another. We should never stop fighting to get women the respect they deserve, and we should get angry and speak out when we see injustice. 

An all-white, all-male panel that's supposed to represent children's fiction as a whole? Yes, demand answers. People being excited about a writer who happens to be a man? That's not injustice. We're all on the same side here. We should be thrilled someone who deserves fame is actually getting it! Like I said above, "book people" are a minority. If we can't support each other, then who else will support us? 

I see similar things happen in writing communities online all the time. Writers who think of their agented friends as "leaving them behind." Agented writers who are jealous of their friends' book deals or accolades, and make them feel guilty for their success. 

Ain't no one got time for that, writers. If any of that sounds familiar to you, get new friends. 

Be proud of what you accomplish and be proud of what others accomplish and don't let anyone take away what you deserve. We're members of a community, and like any family, we'll fight and disagree, but we need to remember to support each other, no matter what level of success we find, even if that success is John Green-level.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013: A Year in Queries

Hi everyone! I hope you all enjoyed your holidays. This will be my last post of 2013, which means it's time for my annual end-of-year query stats.

I dubbed this year the year of ALL THE CHANGES, and my career was no exception. In April I closed to queries to prepare for a career change. I moved from an assistant-level position with Curtis Brown, Ltd. to a full-time agent role with Bradford Literary Agency. Back in June, I blogged about moving to Bradford and included my query stats from January to April 2013.

I re-opened to queries on June 10, so for the purposes of this blog post, the stats I'm using will be from June 10 - December 22. As a reminder, the stats are from unsolicited queries only - aka "the slush pile." Any requests made at conferences, through blog/Twitter contests, or via referrals weren't part of the tally. So, without further ado:

June 10-30:
Total: 272
Requests: 4
Genres Requested: Women’s fiction, Urban Fantasy, Magical Realism, MG fantasy

Total: 391
Requests: 4
Genres Requested: Women’s fiction, Literary Fiction, Urban Fantasy, YA Fantasy

Total: 320
Requests: 3
Genres Requested: Adult Sci-fi, MG Horror, YA Fantasy

Total: 303
Requests: 8
Genres Requested: Literary Fiction (2), Adult Paranormal Thriller, Adult Sci-fi, YA Paranormal, YA Thriller, YA Fantasy, YA Sci-fi 

Total: 297
Requests: 5
Genres Requested: YA Contemporary (2), YA Mystery, YA Fantasy (2), MG Magical Realism (2), MG Contemporary 

Total: 281
Requests: 5
Genres Requested: Adult Sci-fi (2), YA contemporary (2), Adult Magical Realism 

December (1-22):
Total: 150
Requests: 0
Note: I've received 22 new queries from 12/23-12/29. Since I haven't read them yet, they weren't counted toward December's total.

Total Queries Received Since June 10: 2,024

Total Manuscript Requests: 29

Most Requested Genres: Literary fiction, Magical Realism, and Sci-fi

Least Requested Genres: Paranormal and Women's Fiction

Month With Most Requests: September

Most Popular Query Day of the Week: Wednesday

Total Offers of Rep from Queries: 0 - Don't be alarmed by this number. More often than not, if I'm interested in a manuscript, I ask for a revision ("R&R") before offering representation. This is even more common if the manuscript comes from an unsolicited query.

Total New Clients since June: 1 - The fabulous Gina Miel Heron, a woman's fiction author I met at a conference in 2011 and kept in contact with while she finished her manuscript and then, later, the R&R I asked for in 2012. Sometimes it's a long road to representation!  

Total New Clients in 2013: 2 - Before moving to Bradford, I also signed YA author Stephanie Scott, who I met via a blog contest in 2012 and officially offered rep in February 2013.

Total Queries Received in 2013 (minus hiatus): 3,206

I received about 700 fewer queries this year than I received last year. Given my agency switch, a tighter focus on what genres I represent, a two month hiatus from queries, and attending fewer conferences, this makes sense to me. What I noticed about the queries I did receive this year is that the quality of them was much higher. I can't request everything I want to sometimes, but what I did request often resulted in revision requests or some very, very tough decisions. 

While these query stats can be a bit hard to process, I should remind you that most agents receive hundreds of queries for genres they don't represent. Someday, perhaps in 2014, I'll feel ambitious enough to split my query stats up into Genres I Represent vs. Genres I Don't Represent. I think a lot of you will feel much better about the request rate that way! 

Also, I'll repeat last year's post and remind you that I do respond to every query I receive with the exception of the following:
  • Mass queries (addressed to more than one person - and, yes, we can tell when you BCC us).
  • Pre-queries (emails asking whether they can query).
  • Queries sent as attachments or links, with nothing else in the body of the email.
  • Queries addressed to someone else (even if it's a copy and paste error, I'll assume you meant to query that other person instead).
  • Possible query for a self-pubbed book, but possibly just promoting a self-pubbed book. If I can't tell if what you're sending is, in fact, a query, I won't answer it.

Most writers do follow guidelines and research agents and respect that querying is Step One in the process to getting an agent. We love you for that, writers, and we hope you keep doing that in 2014. 

As for me, I envision 2014 to be a much more sane year than 2013 has been. I promise no more agency moves or, barring any emergencies, breaks from queries. I may even get back to blogging at a semi-regular pace! In the meantime, I thank you for reading my little blog for another year. Have a very happy new year, dear readers. See you in 2014! 

Monday, December 02, 2013

On Being a Real Writer

I've been thinking about labels lately. How one gets one and whether they deserve to have it. Specifically, I've been thinking about the label of Writer and whether it applies to me.

Most readers of this blog know that I write, though it's not something I'm pursuing professionally for now. For now. Maybe someday. It's the "maybe" that makes me hide from the label Writer.

Aren't Real Writers supposed to seek publication?

I have an MFA in creative nonfiction, and this tends to come up a lot when I'm at conferences or do interviews for blogs. I'm an agent and I have an MFA and "do you still write?" is the question I always get. My answer is usually self-deprecating, or when I'm feeling confident, I say something like, "Yeah, kind of."

My nonfiction of late has been this blog and few stray pieces I've never submitted. I've instead completed a draft of a YA novel, and have two more YA projects that aren't even half-finished. Writing is important to me. I care about the characters I create and I know I created them for a reason. Sometimes I need to write. I think about writing more than I talk about it, and I talk about it more than I do it. All of my projects remain unfinished.

Aren't Real Writers supposed to finish at least one thing even if it kills them?

There's always something to blame.

I'm an agent and my clients come first. Then requested material and queries come first. Then going to conferences and networking events and being so exhausted all the time comes first. Then reading for pleasure comes first because it's rare I get the opportunity to do so. Then Twitter comes first and "keeping up with industry news" that quickly turns into who else watched Supernatural last night. Then having a social life and maintaining friendships comes first. Then eating and sleeping and just being quiet comes first.

Writing isn't something I've made a priority. Part of that is because I know I'm not on a deadline. I'm not a Real Writer. I'm not published, nor am I really trying to be yet. My career is my focus, and writing will be second to that.

Aren't Real Writers supposed to put writing ahead of everything else?

My professional and personal life is surrounded by Real Writers. I've sat listening to them talk about their process and how torturous it all is. I've read tweet upon tweet, countless blog posts, on how hard writing is. Beautiful, poetic posts that make me believe that whoever could talk about writing in such a way must be a Real Writer. Not someone like me. Certainly never someone like me, who wouldn't be able to wax poetic about anything with a straight face, let alone the writerly mindset. If only I were a damaged soul who needed a creative outlet because my own mind simply cannot contain the multitudes of my depth.

But no. A Real Writer is someone else. Not someone like me who has never viewed writing as something set on destroying my very essence. For me, writing is just a thing I do.

I write or I don't write. When I do, it is hard and I push myself when it gets harder. Then I stop. Sometimes I don't pick up my pen again (yes, a pen) for weeks. When I reach a point of transcribing to my laptop, I usually get struck by a fresh wave of inspiration and type for hours. Then I stop.

Aren't Real Writers more prolific than that?

I've joined writer's groups, rented houses for self-imposed writing retreats, studied my craft, and found my voice. I did all the things Real Writers do. I read all the things Real Writers read. I appreciate the same words that Real Writers connect with. Yet all I feel is distance between myself and Them.

I'm a writer because I write, but I don't know if I'll ever consider myself as a Real Writer. As I think more about labels, I'm beginning to think it doesn't matter. I never took myself seriously as a writer because I thought being a Real Writer was more serious than it is. But if I'm always the one to mock my own creativity, why should I expect anyone else to take me seriously?

My goal is to embrace that writing is a part of me too, even if it's a part I buried for a while. 2013 was supposed to be the year I "got back into writing," a promise I'd been breaking since I received my MFA in 2008. The difference this year was that I did finish that novel; I did start writing again and treat it as more than just "something I used to do."

Maybe 2014 will be the year I stop caring whether I measure up to Real Writers' standards - or at least what I imagine their standards for Real Writing are. Maybe only then will I let myself believe I, too, am one of Them.

Tell me, fellow writers - was there a moment where you realized you're a Real Writer? Or do you also run from the label?