Tuesday, October 23, 2012

When to Fold 'Em

This weekend I went to the Surrey International Writer's Conference and met some very talented writers. I made more requests at this conference than I've had at most others I've been to this year, and the reasons why became obvious during our pitch sessions. For one, these writers studied craft. Not only were they just good writers, but they knew their genres and where their book would be placed in a bookstore. It was clear they read within their genres too; not once did I hear someone compare their novels to a massive bestseller or radically mislabel them.

The second reason is because the majority of the writers at this conference had a clear vision for their writing career. They did their research in which agent was the best to pitch and no one was rude or abrasive if their novels weren't requested. They understood that it's not personal; it's business, and rejection is just a stepping stone to finding a better agent for their work.

There were of course some pitches that simply weren't for me, which is always bound to happen, but I noticed another small trend in what I was rejecting. Or rather, not what, but who I was rejecting: The Used Car Saleswriter.

It goes something like this:

Writer: "My book is about [X]"
Agent: "Thanks but I don't think that's for me."
Writer: "WAIT! WAIT! I ALSO HAVE THIS ONE!"
Agent: "Um, OK fine. Let's hear it."
Writer: "It's about [Y]"
Agent: "Sorry, this one isn't for me either. Someone else might - "
Writer: "But surely I have something you'll like! Perhaps something in red! With a moon roof! I'll throw in a juicer!"
Agent: ::slowly backs away:: ::joins Witness Protection::

OK, so this is an extreme case, but variations of this conversation do happen in pitch sessions. I see it more often in my query inbox. Sometimes I'll get 3 or 4 queries from the same person all sent on the same day. Other times I'll send a form rejection and their next-day response will be a new query for a different project, as if the first project they queried meant nothing. Sometimes these responses are even within the hour. The strangest repeat queriers are the ones who just keep sending new material with no mention of ever having contacted me before, as if they've become one with the query process and stopped paying attention to the actual humans on the other end of it.

I encourage writers to re-query even if they receive a form rejection, but it's important to know when to stop. (Hint: Usually after two or three queries, unless an agent specifies that you can send more work in the future or asks you what else you're working on.)

Sending too many queries to an agent who's already rejected you says, to me, the following:
  • You don't care who represents you, just as long as someone does. 
  • You're not ready to query because you aren't thinking seriously about your career. If you give up that easily on your own projects, why should anyone else invest time into them? 
  • You have no intention of listening to feedback or taking constructive criticism. If you're ignoring form rejections and only using them as an invitation to send something else, then you're not stopping to consider the fact that either your query or the project itself is the problem. 

With requested material, I'm more forgiving. Sometimes I will ask to see future work, but if I read two or more of the same writer's manuscripts and they're still not clicking with me, I won't want to read another one. I could like their third or fourth manuscript just fine, but I'll probably still pass on it because I already know it's the only manuscript of the writer's that I like. [Note: By "like" I mean both in personal taste and in regard to my ability to sell the project in question.]

I've also had writers ask me what would happen if they significantly revise. Can they re-submit then? This depends. With queries, an agent rejects or accepts based on the premise of the book. So, if we pass on it, we likely won't be interested even if the writing improves. If an agent requested material and the main reason for rejection was the overall execution of the plot, then it can't hurt to try again if the revisions are significant.

You don't only get one shot in this business. Most of the time, you get several. If one person passes, send to someone else. If everybody passes, send out a new project. No one will yell at you. But keep track of who responds and what they say. Some rejections are nicer than others, and some provide more explanation than others, but a rejection is a rejection. Don't settle for an agent who begrudgingly accepts the one project they think they can sell. You want an agent who will leap at the chance to represent your work and be equally excited about your other ideas, that way you'll both have a long, satisfying career.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Wish You Were Here

Hey everyone. Today I get to bring you some non-fiction from Cassandre DiBonaventura, who once wrote romance and horror under the pseudonym Cass Andre before working in the medical field. She is currently querying agents with a new novel and is sharing a personal essay she wrote for her mother called Wish You Were Here. Enjoy.

Wish You Were Here
By Cassandre DiBonaventura

On the outside, you never would have guessed that misery marinated within her. It wasn’t that she didn’t look her age. She certainly did. It wasn’t that she had skin as smooth as beach sands. On the contrary, profound wrinkles of a hard history pleated her face. But she didn’t focus on that. It just wasn’t her style. In the midst of those deep ridges, shining green eyes and a bright, yet somehow goofy smile, stole the show.

She poured her red hair from a box of Clairol or whatever brand might be on sale. Her curls came from that same aisle in the grocery store. She didn’t care if the home perm had too much frizz or was flat in the back because she was still fabulous and would tell you so.

Her clothes were throw-aways but earned rave reviews. She didn’t shop at second hand stores for the prices, but because they catered to her tastes. Second hand, but to her: Brand new. She’d add a set of plastic dangle earrings and a clunky brass broach that might be the shape of love. Back then she was the only straight women to sport Birkenstocks. And why wouldn’t she? They were the perfect accessory for her flowing tie-died skirts.

People flocked to her. People believed in her. Mostly women. Because even if she didn’t have the most progressive advice, they liked the way she said it. Mothers, daughters, newly-weds. In her world, whoever spoke the loudest had the best advice. That made her Confucius.

She made the rules in her game and everyone thanked her for letting them play. They didn’t know she let everyone play. There were no outsiders. The rich and snobby considered her a hoot. White trash deemed her a queen. To her, people were people and that’s how she made the world feel.

She was the first eccentric woman I ever met.

She was my mother.

When I was a child, I cringed when she erected a faded pink toilet in the front yard and planted her favorite flowers within the bowl. When the school bus dropped me off, I prayed, “Please, don’t let them see the toilet.” But they always did. Their thinking that it was the funniest thing ever didn’t damper my humiliation. When she took me to school and did laps in the dirt parking lot before getting out of the truck to do a little dance in her robe and those god-awful shoes (yes, the Birkenstocks), I died. Like a cat, I lived many lives that year.

My friends thought she was just “too cool.” Mine was the first mother to wear toe rings, pierce our ears at home and get tattooed. Their mothers would never do anything so fun. Oh, those poor, poor deprived children. In the grocery store aisle, only my mother liked to loudly ask what kind of feminine products I preferred. Only my mother told my embarrassing childhood stories to my friends. Only my mother insisted on giving birth to her children at home...and sometimes with an audience.

Only my mother. Back then, I screamed this thought with absolute mortification. I say it still, but now you’ll sense appreciation in my tone. Only my mother...

I understand now what made her who she was. It wasn’t that my mother was proud to be poor, but that she made the best of things. She laughed loud and often with her friends because that was the side they needed to see. She didn’t share her problems because she realized they had problems of their own. She was their escape.

But that was then...

Somehow, through time, the woman I once knew has been replaced by another. On the outside, not much has changed. She’s still got more piercings in her ears than most people have holes in their bodies. As each of us seven kids have moved out, we left a little extra spending money in her pocket. So, she’s upgraded her dress a bit. She deserted the home perms in the eighties where they belong and darkened her red hair to a rich burgundy. And now, oh, yes, now...she has “tails.” Long waves hang down her back that resemble the mullet of the 90s. And, yes, she’ll still tell you she’s fabulous. But that’s the cover of the book. Within, where it matters, the pages have changed.

She doesn’t laugh as much anymore. Those deep lines embedded in her cheeks, the ones that once accented her bright eyes, are now a map of anger. Notched with loathing, her voice calls to criticize, to accuse. The flock that once followed has now eased cautiously away to avoid the front line and her fire. She is alone.

Suddenly, she sees the world as it is and has kept score against anyone who’s ever done her wrong. Beyond that, she keeps a tally against herself. Because she was never the perfect parent, she must now spend an eternity repenting and paying for her sins. It’s a fight for her, a battle between her pride and a world she thinks pines to see her tears. In just a few years, her cup drained from half full to half empty.

For those of us in her troops, we long for the mother of yesterday. Yes, she was hard, but I never doubted her intentions. What went wrong could never be my focus. In the nature of how she raised me, it just isn’t my style. If anything, I’d like to send her a postcard: Wish you were here.

If she knew the appreciation we have now that we could never show then, she might come back. I wonder what she would have thought of the woman I’ve become. I wonder if she’d appreciate my own collection of flowing ankle-length skirts. I wonder if we both talked loudest, who would win. And if in the grocery store she loudly asked what type of feminine products I prefer, now I’d actually smile when I’d say, “Only my mother...”

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Fire Face

The last time Chris Court shared his work with us, he gave us an Inception-inspired story called The Thought Thieves. Today, he's sharing an excerpt from his Middle Grade novel, Fire Face, in which a boy named Drake finds out he's transforming into a dragon and fears becoming a red dragon (the bad kind) is in his future.

Fire Face
By Chris Court

He just stood there watching the car burn. He didn’t call for help, run or even look for a nearby garden hose. Just watched the yellow flames engulf the automobile from the roof on down until the parked Silver Camaro was a smoldering inferno on the side of the road. Off in the distance he heard the wailing sirens. As the pillar of black smoke sprinkled bits of singed metallic chips onto his shoulder, Drake Emerson struggled to come to grips with what he just saw.

I imagined it, he thought. That couldn’t have been me. These new anxiety pills I’m on must be messing with my head. There’s no way fire just shot out of my mouth and incinerated this car.

Drake snapped out of his stare and glanced down at the end of his right coat sleeve. It was blackened with specs of glowing orange cinders. He patted them out just as small groups of people began leaving their homes and converging on the scene all around him. The sirens were getting closer; probably only a few blocks away now. He was the only person on the sidewalk next to a blazing automobile and his clothes were partly burned.

This does not look good.

OK, backtrack, he thought. Maybe there’s a rationale explanation for this. You were walking down the street. It felt like something was caught in your throat. You stopped and coughed hard. Really hard. For at least five seconds. Then the car ignited.

Well that clears things up.

Engines No. 5 and 7 from Firehouse 33 arrived on the scene and the uniformed men quickly jumped out and began pulling hoses off the trucks. Two police cars pulled up and four officers got out and moved the gathering spectators back. Drake recognized two of the younger men from Engine 5 and the driver of Engine 7. Mr. Cabot - or Stacy’s dad as Drake called him - gave him a surprised look then turned his attention back to the fire. It took only one hose and less than ten minutes to stop the blaze. When it was over, the Camaro carcass had been picked clean by the hungry flames. All the owner could do was hope the insurance payments were up to date.

The owner - as it turns out - was the last person on earth Drake would want to upset. Doug Collins loved that car. He worked three jobs just to save up the money for the down payment. He would’ve only had to work two if he didn’t insist on getting the leather seats the 1.8 liter V-6 engine packag. When he wasn’t cruising around town in his silver baby carriage, he was buffing it with a fine shammy or hand changing the oil. He even used bottled water when he filled the radiator - the expensive kind too. His scream could be heard all the way down the block.

Doug Collins stormed full speed down the street and bulldozed his way through the crowd until he was face-to-face with charred remains. For a while he stood motionless with a stunned expression on his face. Finally his eyes flickered and he ran over to Mr. Cabot and grabbed his arm with a fierce grip as he talked on his walkie-talkie.

“What happened to my car!” he shouted in his face.

Mr.Cabot did not take kindly to this kid grabbing him or the hostile way in which he spoke to him. He yanked his arm out of his grasp in a manner that left no doubt how much stronger he was than the young man.

“Calm down son. Are you the owner of this vehicle?”

“What are you stupid? I just asked you what happened to my car didn’t I?”

Cabot snapped an angry look at Doug, who instantly withdrew, then lowered his tone.

“Yes, it is— was my car. Can you please let me know what happened to it?”

“It burned,” Cabot answered in a neutral voice then walked away.

Drake couldn’t stop the laughter from slipping out of his mouth. When Doug looked over at him, he tried to cover it up with a fake cough.

Doug’s face was bright red with frustration as he faced the crowd of onlookers. “Does anyone know what happened to my car?” Did anyone see anything?”

“It was already on fire when I came out of my house,” answered a middle-aged man from the back. “But that kid right there might know something. He was standing right next it.”

Drake had his back to the man but was certain he was pointing at him. For a second, he thought about running. Then he realized how guilty that would make him look. Also, he’s one of the slowest kids in school and Doug plays quarterback for the high school football team. It wasn’t a moment later when he felt the strong fingers dig into his shoulder then twist his body around. After he caught his balance, he found himself inches away from Doug's face. His torso was leaning back almost forty-five degree.

“Who did this?” he snarled. Drake could feel his breathe on him. It smelled like sour apples. Doug’s right fist gripped tight around his collar. The other - cocked and ready to smash the side of his face is the answer he gave did not satisfy him.

“I don’t know,” he squealed.

Somehow Doug managed to get his face even closer. “If I find out it was you, you’re dead.”

“Hey,” shouted one of the policemen. “Let go of him!”

“He knows who did this,” said Doug, not releasing his grip.

“Does he?” replied the cop, who then walked over. In his most authoritative manner, he removed Drake from Doug’s grasp and escorted him up the street a few yards. Doug didn’t need to be told that he wasn’t allowed to join them.

The cop stopped walking and leaned into Drake. “Son, did you see who started this fire?”

Drake stared back at the authority figure with a blank expression.

“Well did you?”

“No. I was walking down the street looking up at some birds and I saw the smoke. I was the first person here, but I didn’t see how it started.”

The cop nodded. His unconvinced eyes examined Drake. “Birds huh. Well then, do you want to tell me how your jacket sleeve got burnt.”

Drake thought hard for five seconds, then began to breathe again. “I tried to put the fire out. By patting it with my sleeve.”

“You tried to put the fire out?”

“Yeah, but it didn’t work.”

“Obviously.”

The cop stood up straight and looked over his shoulder. The crowd has dispersed for the most part and the fire trucks were all reloaded and ready to head back.

“OK. Well Captain Cabot says he knows you and your parents. So I can get your information from him if I need it. I might be by in the next couple of days for some follow-up questions. In the meantime, leave the firefighting to the professionals.”

“Yes sir.”

Drake took that as his cue to leave. He tried his best to walk away without it looking like he was getting away. After sauntering six of the eights blocks to his house, he was just about to relax when Doug Collins came sprinting past him. He stopped and formed a human blockade between Drake and his home. Drake did a quick scan of the area for any state or government official that might come to his aid. He spotted no one.

“You know who did this,” Doug pointed his finger at him. “You’ve got until the end of the week to tell me who it was. If you don’t come up with a name, I’m gonna know it was you. And then you’re dead.”

Drake was speechless and white. He didn’t know if he should confess right there or try to smooth-talk Doug or what. The words and actions that he needed, he could not find.

“And this is so you don’t forget.”

Drake had never been in a fight before. But even if he had, he wouldn’t have been able to block Doug’s punch to his gut. His hand was fast and his aim was deadly. The blow landed hard and knocked him to the ground. The air in his lungs was gone and shockwaves of pain raced all the way down to his toes. When he caught his breathe, a pained groan came out of his mouth. Then he started to cough again. Hard.

Monday, October 01, 2012

In Dreams Begin Responsibilities

I've stumbled across a few blog posts and tweets recently that have been both flattering and troubling. The posts come from writers who are either querying agents or preparing to query agents, and have very nicely named me as their "dream agent." When I say "a few" posts I mean just that. I'm not implying I have legions of fans or anything. But a few posts - and really even if it was just one post - are too many. Here's why.

Resting all of your hopes and dreams on one person is dangerous. This is true for life in general, but let's stick with talking about publishing. If you're a writer and you're querying agents, you should have a healthy list of agents (say 10-20) whom you deem the best fit for your work. If they all say no, find 20 more. And if they all say no, OK well maybe you need to revise. The point is, there is never just one agent to query. The number of websites devoted to curating lists of literary agents is staggering, so no one with Internet access has an excuse for not doing research.

Here's the thing: most manuscripts get rejected. On an average month, I receive roughly 400 queries. Of those 400, I request maybe 5-10 manuscripts. I won't tell you how many of those requests turn into offers of representation because I don't want to depress you too much. Let's just say the odds aren't exactly in your favor if for no other reason than I can't read 400 manuscripts a month. That's the beautiful thing about there being other qualified literary agents! What I don't request, someone else might, and your chances of getting an agent increase. Building up one person out of many to pick your needle out of their haystack is absurd. What happens when your dream agent says "no thanks, this isn't for me?" Do you give up because the dream is dead? Of course not. Saying "OK, on to the next one" - and not taking personal offense - should be your only logical course of action. 

What's more troubling about the "dream agent" is that when I see writers use this phrase, whether about me or someone else, I worry it may be for more personal reasons than professional. The Internet has eliminated the great divide between Writer and Gatekeeper. Agents aren't just mysterious figures in their New York City Ivory Towers who crush the dreams of writers at will. Now writers can see that we're just regular people who love books and happen to have the right connections to get their books published by major publishers. This has been great for publishing for several reasons: Stronger relationships, built-in marketing networks, and being able to directly tell writers what I like and am looking for has made my slush pile a much more pleasant place to spend time. But, sometimes I worry the personal connections writers feel to certain agents can overshadow the real task at hand - selling books. Liking me on a personal level is great, but please research me on a professional level.

The agent-author relationship is first and foremost a business partnership. If you're querying agents, writing is probably more than just a hobby for you. This is your career. It's not something to take lightly or "pass off to a friend." You should want a professional who will know exactly how to sell your work. Being liked is a nice feeling, and it lets me know the advice I give to the writing community on Twitter hasn't gone unnoticed. But if you're a writer seeking an agent, I hope you're not just querying me because we both watch Doctor Who or because one time I made a joke you found funny. I have a good personal relationship with all of my clients, which I think enhances any business relationship, but that part of our relationship is a fun added bonus. I didn't only love their books or think they were cool people - even though I did, and they are - I also knew I could help them get their work published.

Before querying, ask yourself the following questions:
- Is this agent taking on new clients?
- Does this agent represent my genre?
- Has this agent ever stated whether they specifically are or aren't considering certain sub-genres?
- What type of success has this agent had with my genre specifically?
- What type of sales does this agent have overall? Will they have good connections even if my genre is new to them?
- What agency does this agent work for? Are they legit? What's their reputation like in the industry?
- Does this agent share the same vision for my work that I have? If they don't, why not?
- Will I get along with this agent on a personal level? Will this be an enjoyable relationship, as well as a successful business partnership?

You won't know who your dream agent is until you receive that offer of representation and realize that someone saw something brilliant in your manuscript. If your pre-determined dream agent turns you down, then they weren't the best fit to begin with. The person you need to work with is the person who needs to work with you. Don't pretend this person exists before you even query them. Writing is hard enough, let alone querying. Take one solace where you can and know that your dream agent is out there, but it's not up to you to decide who that is until he or she reads your work. They will come to you.