Saturday, November 24, 2007

Don't Let Anything Stop You

I'm behind on my posts, because of heavy deadlines, but I recalled something last night and thought I'd post it as a motivation here.

Don't Let Anything Stop You

Last night I attended a concert of one of my favorite guitarists. The man onstage was older than me, and started this part of his career (touring and recording CDs) in his late 40s.

I'm betting he ran up against a lot of attitude obsticals when he tried to do it: "You're too old; no one wants that kind of music any more; you won't be able to sell to a major label; no one knows your name."

But now he's quite popular, has a mess of CDs (on major labels that are played on top radios stations nationwide), does two-three tours a year, and seems to be enjoying himself. Why? Because he knew what he wanted to do and did it anyway.

I don't know if this actually happened the way I describe, but I see it all the time with writers.

As a writer you will run up against all kinds of people, often very well-meaning people, who will try to stop you achieving your goals.

These people usually aren't cruel or jealous; often they are acting from the purest motives--they don't want to see you get hurt.

Well, guess what, you're going to hurt. Writing is painful and getting published is painful. There can be a lot of joy in it, too, but it's also going to hurt. No pain, no gain? (And who says working a "real" job won't have its own share of pain?)

On the other hand, some people will be jealous or mean-spirited, and they'll have varied motivations for trying to stop you.

But whatever the reason or emotion behind it, at some point you have to block out the outside voices and say "I'm going to do this anyway."

People doing their best to stop you can include: your mother, your best friend, your husband, your critique partner(s), your readers. Even after you're published, people who try to stop you will include: your agent, your editor, reviewers, readers, booksellers, and other authors.

Most of these people are not trying to stop you on purpose--far from it. But negative signals will be:

That doesn't sell

You can't put that in a: (choose one) romance / mystery / thriller / fantasy / literary novel

It's not realistic to make a living as a writer

The market for that is dead

So and so author is doing fantastic writing X; why aren't you writing it?

Editors don't want that any more

I'm tired of seeing that

When are you going to write a real book?

The above statements could be right, or they could be DEAD WRONG!

(For example, the things people told me "didn't sell" or editors "didn't want" when I started seriously pursuing publication (circa 1999-2000) sell like hotcakes now. What "doesn't sell" is relative.)

And then of course, there are the voices in your own head:

You're not good enough

That author is so much better than you

No one will want to read that

You'll never get published

You'll never make NY Times or USA Today

OK, you made it once, but you'll never make NY Times or USA Today again.

This book is pure crap

We are bombarded with this negativity all the time; it doesn't stop, no matter how high you rise in the business. (I've talked to mega-bestselling authors who feel enormous pressure to keep their sales at a certain level.)

What we have to do is find that place of strength deep inside ourselves (we all have it--some of us bury it deeper than others :-))

We have to hold onto that strength, even in times of stress, exhaustion, rejections, career problems, anger, heartache, despair.

We have to again find the reason that novel or story spoke to us, why those characters cried out for us to write that particular book.


The fiery spark that starts the novel is far more powerful than our own negative self talk or the well-meaning negativity from family, friends and writing professionals.

And who the hell knows whether it will sell or not? What editors are tired of seeing and reviewers are tearing apart might be the very thing that readers will get excited about and glom.

You just never know.

So if you find yourself saying to a newbie writer when they excitedly tell you about their idea, "Oh, editors aren't buying that any more." STOP!

It isn't being kind; it isn't helping an author not get hurt or rejected. It's planting seeds of self-doubt and drying up creativity.

Let the writer enjoy the fantastic experience of writing that book. If it truly doesn't catch an editor's attention today, it might tomorrow. Or the writer will learn how to strengthen his writing so he can sell the next one.

And if someone tells you: "That won't sell; you're not very good; that market is dead; no one likes those kinds of books; editors don't want that..."


Monday, November 5, 2007

Why You Need an Agent

While I continue to muse on what I learned in the last five years, I'm going to post something else new writers often ask me--"Do I need an agent?"

My loud, clear answer is YES.

Then I usually step back and say "It depends."

If you are small press published or e-published and want to happily stay where you are, then no.

If you want to publish at a NY house and move beyond the bottom rung at said house, then I say again, YES.

I also state clearly why:

The least part of an agent's job is selling your manuscript to a NY house. You actually can sell it yourself (e.g., through a conference contact with an editor, through a contest, through a direct query, through the few houses that still buy from the slush pile).

Why you so very definitely need an agent after that:

1. To keep from getting ripped off. Publishers do not like to give you any more money than they can possibly help. They will try to keep all the rights, give you tiny advances, and tiny royalty percentages. Your contract is a mine field of little tiny print. There are no exceptions out there--all publisher boilerplate contracts are set up to benefit the publisher, not the author (which makes sense--the publisher needs to keep the company afloat). An agent will make sure your contract is fair to you.

2. To get you the best deal, not just a deal. Publishers make standard offers to new authors, usually the lowest amount they can get away with. An agent can talk up that amount to make it more palatable to you while still keeping the publisher happy. He can also negotiate better royalties, bonuses, and other perks that most authors don't even know about.

3. To get you a deal at auction. If you've got an eager offer, your agent can let other editors who are looking at your ms. know, and possibly land you a very nice contract.

4. He talks you up to everyone he sees. Agents are constantly selling you, even when you're contracted and not shopping a specific ms. She waxes enthusiastic on your behalf to other editors, paving the way for when you have something new to sell.

5. She is the "bad cop" between you and the publisher. You want your relationship with your editor to be friendly and happy. The two of you should bubble over with creative energy and enthusiasm about your story and your writing. Getting into a contract or money dispute will ruin that very quickly. I love having an agent who will talk to the accounting and contract departments for me while I talk story with my editor. And when there's a very bad problem, I don't have to talk to the publisher at all. Saves me a fortune in Pepto Bismal.

6. She helps you keep your career on track and avoid mistakes. If your agent doesn't want you to take an offer, listen to him. You might not agree, but there will be a very good reason your agent suggests turning down money (because remember they don't get paid until you do). Don't be too proud to take advice! (Or too gullible to believe everything you're told--strike a balance.)

Now that I've said all that, I want to add a couple of cautions.

1. Don't expect your agent to run your career for you. I have my own ideas about how I want my career to go. I do a ton of market research on my own--I know what houses are publishing what kind of books, and I keep my ear open to what kind of deals the authors are getting. That way when I want to try something new or build on something I've already done, I have an idea where to suggest we go with it. Don't bury your head in the sand just because you have a good agent who takes care of you. Building your career should be something you do together.

2. NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER sign with an agent who charges an up-front fee. They'll say, "It costs a lot to run an agency and photocopy and mail mansucripts. I need $500 from you right away." Tough! An agent makes money from selling you. If they take your $500 right away, why should they bother trying to sell you? They'll just take another $500 from another sucker, and another, and another... IT SHOULD NOT COST YOU MONEY TO SELL YOUR BOOK. The only expenses you should incur as an unpubbed author are your office supplies, postage, writer's groups dues/contests and whatever conferences you decide to attend.

3. Don't be afraid to break up with an agent. If they don't communicate with you for months and months, if they can only get you very poor offers and don't fine-tune the contracts, if they convey that they no longer like your writing and have very little interest in helping you move up--break it off. You will have to approach a new agent with a new project (read your agent contract thoroughly to see how to end it and what rights they/you retain). But if your career is not moving forward, you have to move it forward yourself. It's hard, but it has to be done. Staying with an agent who does nothing for you (or even worse, a fraudulent agent), will stagnate your career. (I will do an entire post on this subject.)

4. And I should add: Read your agent contract thoroughly and make sure you understand it before signing! (She shouldn't have you pay for her weekly hot-oil massage with Raoul to mitigate the stress of working with publishers.)

It is hard to get an agent. It's probably the hardest part (well, except writing a good book--that's pretty hard too). But in the long run, it's worth it.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Workshop Sat. Nov. 3

I will be doing a workshop at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ Sat. Nov. 3, discussing the romance, mystery, rom. sus. and suspense markets with bookseller Barbara Peters. From 9:30 to noon.

Address and directions are on their website. It's a wonderful store.