Have you ever seen the way a bird makes a nest? It grabs little bits and bobs of things, bringing them back to the spot it’s chosen, and fashions a home out of other things. Sometimes, the bird gathers bits of branches, and other times, it hauls back a selection of string. Whatever is gathered is woven together with the utmost care. There are, undoubtedly, some rough edges. The nest isn’t always perfectly round. It’s all found items and creativity, founded on instinct, hard work, and wiggling things to suit a particular space. Each piece serves a purpose. The goal is simple: creation.
To me, that is how a poem is made. You start by gathering. Sometimes, it’s just an idea you want to convey. Sometimes, it’s a feeling. Sometimes, you overhear something that leaves its fingerprints on the moment – or your heart – and you need to explore it. It’s emotional theft, sometimes. You steal feelings/inspiration from everywhere you can, like a Magpie. Moments. Glances. Situations. The underside of someone else’s heartbeat. And you fashion that inspiration into a trail of words, creating something new.
Writing poetry is all about feeling something (see Keating’s speech in Dead Poets Society). It’s also about examining some aspect of life in all its crazy incarnations, twists, and sideways moments. If you read a poem and it resonates – that’s a good poem. It’s like life: a moment that makes you feel something down to the roots of your teeth is a moment that matters. It doesn’t have to be a perfect emotion. Your heart might feel like it’s playing the bongos on your ribs. Your pulse could feel like it’s trying to murder you. But there’s a reaction. You know, without a doubt, that something is happening to you.
Poems, of course, don’t spring up out of thin air. No piece of writing does. There’s a person behind the pen. This will come as a shock, but: every writer writes different. There’s no one size fits all. There’s no correct answer. Writing isn’t math. And thank god, because math is evil. But I digress. With poetry, a lot of times, there are a thousand different ways to create something. Some poets are confessional (Plath – and I’d argue Ted Hughes, in his later work). Others bare themselves in a less personal fashion, which is why it’s important to never confuse a poet with a poem’s voice. That happens a lot in poetry. But if you read Robert Browning’s Porphyria’s Lover, you’d be ill-advised to assume that Browning is into autoerotic asphyxiation, which is a method of interpretation the piece – positing that the speaker accidentally murdered his lover in flagrante. Point being: you cannot always read a poem as a mirror.
At its core, I believe that poetry is passion, distilled in a heap of words. It’s a heartbeat captured in a bottle, shown off to the world. A poem that makes someone remember something, that conjures an old ghost, that turns an idea of its head, or that simply makes someone think – that’s effective. Joan Didion famously wrote, “In many ways writing is the act of saying I, of imposing oneself upon other people, of saying listen to me, see it my way, change your mind.” And I couldn’t agree more. It’s important to examine life from every angle, otherwise, we’re not really paying attention, are we?
So, this is all a rather lengthy ramble, leading up to this: I wrote a book of poetry. It’s called I Don’t Love You Pretty. The poems are an examination of love in its less pristine incarnations, where it’s not all shiny or pristine – it’s a mess, but it’s a wonderful mess. The Greek myth of Theseus centers around a labyrinth. Eventually, Theseus finds his way out of maze by following a ball of string. To me, that’s a perfect metaphor for love. Sometimes, it’s the maze in which we find ourselves trapped. Other times, it’s the ball of string – the thing that leads us to safety. Love doesn’t have to be easy or safe – it just has to be worth the mess. So, if you’ve ever been in love – and seen beauty in its mess – check out my book. Who knows – it just might make you feel something.
What makes a good story?
The answer is a thousand things. It is also a single thing. It can be anything from the way a character cries to the beautiful way moonlight shines on broken glass.
A good story makes you feel something. Anything. Anger. Outrage. Hope. Confusion. Love. Regret. Excitement.
I say ‘good’ story, but what I mean is ‘effective.’ Because ‘good’ is too vague a term, and it makes me think of banana bread and my grandma. A short story is not banana bread. Or, to my knowledge, my grandma.
The next question is usually, How do you write a story like that?
The answer is easy. It is situated right between Hard Work and Talent. It’s the same answer give by anyone who has ever invented, fixed, or created something (from a poem to an airplane): you just do it. You try. You fail. You try again. You fail again. You don’t give up. You don’t give in.
The secret, I think, is to allow those Moments of Despair. You know the feeling you get when you feel like everything you’re writing is wrong – and you’re one step away from blow torching the whole mess? Shriek. Yell at the sky. Threaten to throw your laptop, cell phone, or Kindle out the window. Rage. Eat chocolate. Find some alcohol.
Watch television. Read a book. And then…get back to work. Because the truth is that half of life is simply this: don’t give up.
As a kid, I thought I could get through anything – a hurtful friend, a bad day at school, being passed over for a chorus solo – if I just put one foot in front of the other. One step, then another. And there it is: progress. Writing is the same. You put one word in front of another. Sometimes, it’s like magic and being drunk – and having a really good laugh. Other times, it’s like visiting the dentist, without Novocain, while your boyfriend breaks up with you via text message. Oh, and he’s been dating your sister.
Easy vs. difficult. Not impossible, mind you. Difficult.
The last question is usually this: Why did you write that?
I could lie to you. I could make up a story. I could tell you that I get my ideas from a tiny unicorn that lives in my My Little Pony lunchbox. But that would totally ruin my Rock Star image. The real answer is: I don’t know. For me, most of the time, I start with an image or a line. Maybe it was something somebody said to me. Maybe it was a memory that a certain smell pried loose. Maybe it was the magic unicorn in my lunchbox. I honestly don’t think it matters, as long as the words go on the page. As long as things are written.
This morning, I sat down and I wrote a draft for a story. It’s unlike everything I’ve ever written before, and I’m surprisingly okay with that. If I start writing the same type of thing over and over again, that’s when all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. We all know how that story went.
The best advice I’ve ever gotten is this: don’t give up. The second best is probably: read everything. The third might be: write whatever story wants to be written.
Each short story, each poem, each novel – each piece of writing (complete and incomplete) is a lesson that only you can teach. It’s also a lesson that only you can learn. Not even story is going to be perfect or even vaguely publishable. Some will be complete shit. Some will toil as Really Bad Drafts forever. Some will see character changes and a mountain of post-it notes.
But I’ll say it again: each one is a lesson. It’s a stepping stone, a learning experience. Good stories (effective stories) get rejected. It has to resonate with your audience. Sometimes, that audience is you. Yourself.
Rejection isn’t exactly failure. It’s not a nice day at the beach either, because everybody wants to hear the word yes. But it is what you make of it. It is also what you take from it.
You get what you give. Write the best story you can. Then, write another.
Yesterday, I found an interesting conversation going on at Janet Reid’s blog. The entry was about memoir writing (beautiful quotes there), and I stopped to read some of the comments. I was intrigued, and I put in my two cents.
A commenter was arguing that all fiction is part memoir. Or, put another way, that everything a writer writes is partially autobiographical. The implication is that every work of fiction bears the author’s real life in it.
I can’t agree to that. For one thing, it means that a writer can only write about himself/herself. So, Harry Potter is really J.K. Rowling in disguise. What would that mean, exactly, for Nabokov and Lolita? Or Robert Browning’s erotically charged (and possibly lethal) Porphyria’s Lover?
While I do agree that writing is informed by an individual’s life experiences, I do not think it’s the only foundational element. For one thing, imagination plays a large role in writing. If I imagine a talking unicorn in a book (The Last Unicorn, anyone?), does that mean I see myself as a rare, endangered creature? Or am I simply trying to tell a story – and I happen to think unicorns are cool? That fictitious unicorn is just that: fictitious. It’s a tool. It’s a way to tell a story. It is a means to an end.
I don’t believe we’re limited to only the things that occur/happen to us (as writers). I know I’m speaking like some sort of collective. I promise, I’m not a member of the Borg. (Resistance is futile! Hand over the coffee!) That, in my opinion, is where research comes in. It’s where historical texts come in. It’s how a writer can fill a plot hole or flesh out a character. (That imagery always creeps me out. Flesh OUT? As opposed to what? Flesh IN? Ick.) It is a large part of historical fiction, where the gaps are filled in with truth via research. For instance, Deanna Raybourn’s and Michelle Moran’s novels.
The beauty of fiction (and I hope this isn’t a trade secret) is that it isn’t true – but (good fiction, effective fiction) rings true. It’s why internal struggles resonate with an audience. It’s why people still root for the underdog and for Good to triumph over Evil. I think that if all we wanted from fiction was truth, we’d read non-fiction.
What do YOU think?
“Please give me some good advice in your next letter. I promise not to follow it.” ~Edna St. Vincent Millay
“A few weeks after the worst day, I started writing lots of letters. I don’t know why, but it was one of the only things that made my boots lighter.”
— Jonathan Safran Foer
My friend Andrea and I have started writing letters back and forth. I think the last time I had a pen pal was when I was seven. And, being seven, that didn’t last long.
I have Amy Brown stationary that I love, but never used. I’m using it. I even had to order more. Because some things should be said on pretty fairy paper in purple ink. Even if it’s reminiscing about passing notes in high school — or complaining about the story I have been working on.
I’ve written out cards before – brief notes. But letters? Not in a long time. This is fun, exciting, and really rather refreshing. Because it’s not instant. In this world of fast food, instant coffee (gross, but will do in a pinch), and minute rice – it’s NICE to have to wait for something.
It reminds me of something important: anticipation. How often do we lose that in today’s world, emailing instead of calling? Texting instead of talking? I wonder, honestly, how badly our communication skills will suffer. In fact, the other day I read about schools that will no longer teach cursive.
What…? *blinks* That’s crazy. As a person, you still need to WRITE things. You need to sign your name. Surely, cursive isn’t a lost art. In school, I hated learning cursive. I was TERRIBLE at it. I have the world’s worst handwriting short of an epileptic doctor. (Sorry, Andrea.) I couldn’t understand how to make my writing neat and flowery. I looked at my friends’ handwriting, and I felt like I was writing things out with a pen in my teeth. But I was always glad that I learned it. It was a rite of passage. I was a grown up (ha!). I could write in cursive!
Now, I know the truth. Well, truths. 1. I will never really be an adult. (Says the person who is frantically searching for My Little Ponies on tv.) and 2. I don’t want to be. (Growing up, completely, is for suckers! Cake for breakfast! Cake for all! Thank you for flying Church of England – Cake or Death?) and 3. I have grown too dependent on things like spellcheck and typing.
Halfway through my last letter to Andrea, my arm began to cramp up. There was pain, like an overused muscle. I realized, as I was trying to write the last paragraph, that I wasn’t used to writing that much at once. The letter was not extraordinarily long: a page, front and back. I should not be in pain from that.
I was appalled. It was a lot like being a marathon runner, only to come to find that running around the corner caused me to be winded. I was ashamed of myself, as someone who used to write entirely by hand. (Now, I only write poetry by hand. I can write that on the computer, but I like the feel of writing it out. In pencil. Only ever in pencil.)
I don’t want to lose the art of letter writing. Yes, I can write a damned good email. I will make you laugh. I will tell you that you’re being a twit. I will reassure you. But it’s SO much more fun to do that on fairy stationary, damn it, in purple ink. With PURPLE stamps. I also have fairy address labels, and I love them.
So, if I have your address – and you want a letter – let me know. It might take me a while (and I may have to ice my hand), but I will send you one. I will also apologize in advance for my ridiculous bad handwriting. (And Andrea, your letter goes in the mail today. It was ready yesterday, but I left it on the table when I went out. Drat it!)
What is a skill that you find less prevalent? What art forms do you miss?
It’s been a crazy week. Between Mother’s Day, my mom’s birthday, making my very first strawberry shortcake (!), and various other happenings, I’m beat. But that’s life.
I’ve been working on my poetry book, which has proven to be a huge learning experience. For one thing, I’m completely paranoid that I’m going to commit some sort of grevious grammatical error — and thus feel ashamed for the rest of my natural born life. I also had to tackle several formatting challenges, which required multiple fixes, and more patience than I thought I possessed. I *think* that the inside is 100% finished and polished. Right now, I’m working on the product description — and then on to the cover.
CreateSpace has this CoverCreator tool. I’m going to attempt to use that. Send wine. And chocolate. I have a feeling I’ll be pulling out my hair shortly.
So, enough about that. It’s really boring and self-indulgent. I promise you a real post tomorrow. One that’s much wittier than this. Or, failing that, mildly amusing.
I’m not done rewriting. I’m halfway done. For me, this is the part of the process that is like pulling teeth. In the dark. With a pair of tweezers. But as Chuck Wendig said: Writing is when the words are made. Editing is when the words are made not shitty.
I’m getting it done, but YE GODS (yes, I’ve watched entirely too much Mildred Pierce. Kate Winslet is lovely. Guy Pearce was rather lovely looking in the film – except for his Rocketeer hair. I kept waiting for him to strap on a jetpack and fight off Timothy Dalton.) – it is tough.
Yesterday, I didn’t reach the goal I’d set for myself, but I had to stop. I completely lost focus, and the words were making me angry.
That’s bad – when the words make me rage-y. So, I put the manuscript away. I’m going to take it back out, today. I promise not to burn it, even if I feel like doing so. For one thing, it’s raining. You can’t have a good bonfire in the rain. For another, I don’t know where I put the matches.
ANYWAY. In the novel, there are three main characters: Michael, Daniel, and Lilly. Without giving away too much of the plot (which has been the hitch for me, in sharing this) – Michael is the Devil, Daniel is God, and Lilly is something of an unsuspecting human caught between the two.
So, here are some of the bits I’ve removed so far and a brief explanation as to why.
1) Lilly eyed him, curiously. It was a look last seen on the face of Cleopatra when she spied Marc Antony. I loved this bit, because I love anything that references Cleopatra. However, this didn’t fit the scene I had it in, but most importantly, it wasn’t true to the character.
2) She LIKES coffee, so I brought her coffee. And she rebuffs me? Scoffs at it? Mocks ME? I can’t remember the last time anyone DARED to mock me…well, that’s not entirely true. I can. And it didn’t end well for him, but really…
Michael stopped, and shook his head. He was having an entire conversation with himself. That was new. And repugnant. I decided to remove all instances of internal monologue. It worked, for an early draft. But it also felt…too silly in context. So, I found other ways of conveying the same information.
3) A rueful laugh escaped his lips, as he bent to pick up the shoe. It was like he’d landed in the middle of some bastardized version of Cinderella. I loved these lines. I did. But I had the character lose the shoe earlier, which added a bit of necessary comic relief.
4) Behold! Lilly though. The mighty power of caffeine! Guzzle before me, and tremble! This was me, geeking out in Thought Mode. I turned Ozymandias, the famous poem, into a mockery of caffeine. It was glorious. It was also, like the titular poem, not meant to last. *shakes fist*
5) She’d also ingested enough coffee to power the whole of New York City. If cities ran on such things, that is. Again, a reference to coffee. All of my characters are coffee-guzzling fools. I think that’s a bit where life has bled into my fiction, but it works. This bit, however, didn’t work. Because I rewrote the scene preceding this, and instead, two characters had an argument. This did not fit in the middle of an argument. Unless you’re me, and you drink coffee as long as you’re conscious. *twitches*
6) Terribly mature, Lilly. What’s next? Throwing sand? Pulling hair? Or eating paste? she chided herself. *sigh* I love a good paste-eating reference, but as I said, I’m removing all internal monologues. I found a way to show Lilly’s immaturity. So, it all worked out.
7) Damn it all to hell, he thought. Patience is a virtue, my fine white ass. I can’t even tell you how much I wanted to leave that in. The ‘he’ there is the Devil, and (to me) there was something hysterical about him thinking that. Maybe I just amuse myself too much. I don’t know. Still, it truly hurt for that to be removed.
8) (Lilly is referencing Michael’s artistic talent) But you, you could be Annie Lebowitz.”
Michael wanted to laugh. She had sold her soul to him years ago. Too bad she’d found that loophole in her contract, though. That was a loss he’d have to eat. There was something funny about a famed photographer having sold her soul to the Devil, only to find a loophole. But it didn’t really add anything to the story. It was just a reference for the sake of a reference. So, chopping block!
9) But there was some feline about her smile and in the way she speared the helpless lettuce. It was the look that Judith must’ve had, before severed Holofernes’s head. Forget that the first sentence is clumsy and awkward. The second one, the awesome reference-y bit? It takes the reader out of the story. I pictured people going, “Who? What? HOW do you pronounce that?” That just won’t do. It clogs up the gears.
Well, that’s it for now. More as I go, if you like.
I have a background in marketing. I also have my MA in English Literature. And I’m a writer. As such, let me explain. No, too much. Let me sum up.
I’ve been mostly dead all day. Er, no. Sorry. I merely need more coffee. Let’s try this again. Ready?
I know words. Not all of them. Never all of them. But I know that placing them in a certain order achieves certain things. If you’re selling a product, you want to grab your audience in an intriguing, non-annoying way. (I feel like that’s an important bit, mostly directed at the makers of Head-on – apply directly to the forehead. Head-on, apply directly to the forehead.)
Time and again, I see people employing marketing tactics that don’t work. Not only that, they ANNOY. Why would you want to annoy anyone who a) is your friend or acquaintance and b) who could possibly help you? It bothers me, because it’s rude – and it doesn’t make any sense.
These are three things you just shouldn’t do in regard to your writing. EVER.
1) Send a passing acquaintance anything that resembles the following message, which is a slightly fictionalized account of something I actually received:
Dear Everyone I’ve Ever Met:
I promise that I will not annoy you by sending out these emails. (Too late. I’m already annoyed. Moving on. Let’s see what wares you are attempting to hawk.) My new website is listed below, along with three billion other links about ME. (New website for what? You’ve already lost me.) I would like you all to subscribe to my newsletter and tell everyone you’ve ever met about ME. Thank you. (Wait, why are you thanking me? Just because you ask, doesn’t me I’m going to do it. And what am I supposed to tell everyone, exactly? That you once wrote me a mass email?) This email is the beginning of my writing “platform.” (Why is platform in quotations? Is it really something else? Are you doing your Nixon impersonation? What’s going on here?!?) You see, in order to succeed in this business, I need minions followers. When I finish my book, in approximately 14 months, I will need readers. That is why I hope to make friends with everyone on the Internet. (You know, Pinky and the Brain had similar plans to take over the world; look how that worked out. Also, your book isn’t DONE yet. You cannot promote something that isn’t completed. Promote your blog, promote your half-baked poetry. Promote YOURSELF. Not a project that doesn’t have The End written on it.) In the Publishing World, no one helps you do anything anymore. Basically, everything is up to the Author, and promotion is really difficult. That’s why I’m starting this “platform.” Writers who are “in the know” are beginning to promote their own books, so I’m going to do it too. (How lovely for you. Clearly, you have excellent people skills. This should go well.)
If you are a writer, and you have already published a book, I will most certainly be happy to help you promote it, as long as you aren’t a tool or a jackass. You know, someday, I’ll help you do that. (Well, thank you–I think–for not not considering me to be a tool or a jackass – and for the offer of helping ME someday. Presumably, you’d like me to help YOU now, I suppose? Wimpy, is that you? Would you like a hamburger today, and you can pay me on some mythical Tuesday?)
That tactic will fail every time. First of all, you’ve annoyed and insulted me. You are presumptuous. And you’ve just thrown vinegar where there should be honey. Also, as most agents will lament, you’ve told me NOTHING about your book or your writing. You did some strange things with your grammar, too – like adding quotations where there really shouldn’t be any. You “feel” me, man?
2) The second example of poor behavior/marketing comes from a blog entry written by the wonderful Deanna Raybourn. In one of her entries, she talks about some bad self-promoting moves, including one super-creepy tactic: tracking down her home address when she isn’t listed. Please don’t stalk the writers. It’s disturbing. Another offense is self-promoting your work on an author’s facebook page. That’s just bad form. You don’t walk into a Hollywood actor’s home bellowing, “I am an actress! Want to hear my monologue?” And if you do, you get arrested. So, it’s a bad idea all around. The address-snatching thing, though – that goes beyond all decent behavior and it’s very squicky. People remain unlisted for a reason. In the words of Aretha, R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Mmmkay?
3) Lastly, there is the Ninja Promoter. The slightly sneaky, let me act like I’m talking about your issue, but I’m really lulling you into a false sense of security. (I am aware that should be populated with hyphens, but my coffee fuel is waning.) A Ninja Promoter will visit your blog or your Facebook page. He/she will read your entry or status, carefully. Then, the Comment appears. It starts off totally banal and innocuous. “I completely get this. It’s really an awesome thing that you’re doing.” Then, NINJA – “By the way, would you review my book? I think if anyone can help me, it’s YOU.” *blinks* What now? First, you don’t ambush publically. That’s just silly. Second, unless you have enough of a relationship with that person (ie you correspond somehow), you NEVER ask that kind of question. In fact, personally speaking, I’m pretty sure I’d feel dirty asking like that. Third, that compliment in there? That’s low. That’s appealing to the ego that every writer has, or at least occasionally has. It also won’t get you anywhere short of ignored. I saw a comment much like that one on a friend’s blog yesterday, which made me Tweet something slightly out-of-context. Whoops. I just found it very inappropriate to read that type of comment on a blog entry of importance.
So, there you have it – my (unsolicited) marketing and manners advice. Until next time, chickadees, remember that Adam West IS Batman, that you shouldn’t eat the yellow snow, and that there is no reasonable explanation for why the RUM is GONE. (Except it is a vile drink.)
In the past week, I’ve written four short stories. Each one is a little more bizarre than the last. Writing them, even just the act of getting them down on paper, helped me to evolve as a writer.
How? I stopped censoring myself. I wrote a few things that turned my stomach and made me feel squicky. (Yes, squicky is a technical term. I SWEAR. Don’t question me. Pay no attention to the woman behind the coffeepot. Also, stay away from my coffee.)
I didn’t start out to write something that made me uncomfortable. For instance, I started with an idea – retelling a fairytale. (I blame Neil Gaiman’s Snow, Glass, Apples for that.) I also found use for a bit of imagery I’d jotted down in my notebook.
I started writing, and the characters went off the path. Waaaaay off. And I found myself writing a really disturbing scene. But I wrote it.
There was a time where I would’ve thought, “Oh my GOD – my dad might read this!” Or, “People are going to assume I’m twisted.” (I mean, I am. But not like that.)
This time, it was about the story, and about telling it in the manner it needed to be told. Instead of shying away from the difficult bits.
So this particular story made me feel something. The characters were extremely clear. And I think it might be the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s not the easier thing I’ve ever done. But I think that I got it right – that the words on the page work. That makes me very, very happy.
Each of the four stories have gone through my own edits. They’re off to several beta readers for shredding. This is progress. This is a good lesson.
Like Poe did, write what scares you. Write what disturbs you. Write the story as it’s begging to be written, not some user-friendly, whitewashed version of it. Step to the ledge and jump. Let the story write you.
(Note: This is a repost, and this was originally written about a year ago — but it was never posted on WordPress. This advice is not set in stone. It’s just my personal thoughts, through trial and error.)
Agents are like fairy godmothers: they help you get where you want to go. They’re supportive and nurturing of your dreams, and they want you to land that ultimate dream: a weekend alone with Johnny Depp. Er, no. That’s the wrong dream. (A good one, though.) No, the ultimate dream is a book deal. *cue a rousing chorus of Angels*
Now, agents just don’t fall out of the sky. At least, I hope not. If it’s really raining men, something is greatly amiss. Sometimes, someone gets lucky enough to have a few connections, and you can secure an agent that way. Honestly, connections aren’t everything. Knowing someone gets your foot in the door (someone will read your novel, or part of it), but that doesn’t guarantee admittance. Ideally, you’d like to have all your limbs inside. It’s not an easy process. But what worthwhile thing is easy? That’s right: nothing.
The first step is easy: figure out what kind of book you’ve written. Is it a mystery novel? A non-fiction book? Fantasy? (It’s NEVER a fiction novel. EVER.) Once you’ve determined that, the work begins.
You have to find agents who handle your specific type of book. This is kind of a daunting task, and your first worry is going to be where to look. (Again, this stuff doesn’t fall out of the sky.) The Yellowpages just won’t cut it. So, here three things that are helpful:
• Agentquery.com This is an excellent database with a fairly large list of agents. One caveat: after you do a search, the system will time you out after a relatively short length of time. Then it’s do not pass go, do not collect $200, go directly back to the search query page. Pay attention to the page number that you’re on, so that you can just click back to it. Also, sometimes, their information is a bit out of date. Bear that in mind.
• Publishersmarketplace.com This is also a good, and reliable, database. Click ‘search members’ if you are looking for information on a specific agent. Click ‘browse members’ to look through a list of agents.
• Agent’s blogs. These are very, very helpful. And often amusing. You can find some on the menu bar to the right.
Next up, it’s list time! Yes, it’s not just for groceries, anymore. You’re going to need to start a spreadsheet. Not only will this help you keep all your information safe (trust me, if you write it in a notebook, you will lose it or destroy it; it will just skip off into the Land of the Doldrums, never to be seen again), organized, and in one place. But best of all? It will be searchable, which is definitely helpful when it’s three in the morning and you can’t remember who you queried at what agency…and you’re starting to forget your own name. Not that I know anything about that…*whistles innocently* Include a column for the agent’s name and contact info (I also include their submission requirements in that column), the date sent, the type of response expected (email, snail mail), the waiting period given (if any; I loathe that option, but it happens), and a column for the resulting response. Here’s an example:
After you compile a list (usually, I do these ten at a time), you’re going to want to visit the website of the agency each agent works for. Why? Double-checking. In real estate, their mantra is usually location, location, location. Yours has now become preparation, preparation, preparation. Savvy?
When checking your info, make sure that the mailing information you have is accurate. Otherwise, the Universe will eat your query letter faster than Chunk will scarf down a Baby Ruth. Next up is to confirm their submission requirements. Some agencies have standard submissions guidelines, but there are many instances where each agent has different preferences. Make sure you’ve got your facts straight, and if there’s a discrepancy between the agent’s website and what you found at agentquery.com, go with the agent’s website. However, there’s an exception to this rule. (Isn’t there always?) Let’s say that an agency only gives standard guidelines for the entire organization (“To query one of our agents, please…” or “All queries should be…”). You might be able to find a specific agent’s preferences on Publishers Marketplace. If that happens, follow the instructions give there. (Are you dizzy yet? Because I learned this the hard way, people.)
If you can, jot down a blurb about the specific agent. Some agents say something like, “I’m looking for a novel that can make me laugh until milk comes out of my nose!” (Ew. I know.) When it comes time to write, or tinker with, your query letter, that will be helpful. You could then say something like, “Given your affinity for novels that make you laugh until milk comes out of your nose, I think you’d be a perfect fit for [insert title here].” This says several things to the agent: 1) you’ve done your homework (Good for you! Gold star!), 2) you aren’t sending out the same carbon copy of your query, and 3) you are willing to go that extra mile. [Note: I’ve read a few things, recently, that state some agents don’t like stuff like that. So, when in doubt – TALK ABOUT YOUR BOOK. Skip the fancy stuff.]
Never query, or sign with, an agent who wants money up front. Otherwise, he or she will eventually try to sell you Manhattan. That’s just not reputable, and whoever they are, they’re out to scam you.
Barring personal connections or recommendations, there’s another great way to find an agent: Google. Do you know the name of your favorite author’s agent? Google it. See what kind of books they handle. Check the introduction, forward, or author blurb in a book. There’s a good chance that a writer will thank his/her agent. Bingo! Score. You’ve got a name. Hopefully by now you know what to do with it. And if you said ‘shove it up your ass,’ you’re wrong. But snarky. I like snarky.
For the most part, the days of a writer working directly with a publisher are gone. And, really, it’s often to an author’s benefit. Agents know things that you do not know. They want you to succeed, so that they can succeed. They love what they do, and they love books just as much as you do. You want an agent who is just as excited about your book as you are. You want an agent who can spell your name right. You want an agent who will go to bat for you and because of you. And, yes, you want someone who can make things happen.
That agent—whoever he or she may be—is your fairy godmother/godfather. If you stick with it, you’ll find one who will make you an offer you can’t refuse. (Hopefully, one that doesn’t involve a severed horse head.)
As always, stay away from Mooby’s (I here Loki’s on kind of a rampage), remember that screws fall out all over the world, that is how they measure pants (in PRISON), and Empire Records is open until midnight.