Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Because It Carries More Weight When George R.R. Martin Says It

STATUS: I was at work for a full day yesterday. Today I’m working from home. Guess I pushed that envelope too far.

What’s playing on the XM or iPod right now? SUPERSTAR by The Carpenters

Agents are fans too! On Sunday, some friends and I headed down to the Tattered Cover in Lodo to get our copies of A DANCE WITH DRAGONS signed by the grand master himself.

Given the huge crowd of fans, no one was allowed to pose and take a picture with Mr. Martin. (Smart move on his part!) My friend happened to snap an incredibly dorky shot of me after he signed my book and I was walking away. Shows how comfortable with myself I am to share this lovely photo with the world.


But before the signing, Mr. Martin shared a tidbit of wisdom that all writers could benefit from. He mentioned that aspiring writers would often come up to him and declare that they were working on a 7-book series–just like him.

To paraphrase Martin, he said that being a beginner, unpublished writer declaring that he is writing a 7-book series is kind of like being a guy who has just started rock climbing and announcing to the world that the first climb he’s going to do is a little hill called Mount Everest.

That’s absolutely not what you want to do. It’s too hard. Too big in scoop. If you are a beginning rock climber, you want to start with the climbing wall at your local REI or a small hill that won’t kill you first.

As an agent, I’ve given this advice any number of times but in the end, writers don’t believe me. Okay don’t believe me. Believe George instead! Forty years in this biz, he knows what he’s talking about.

Martin’s recommendation? Start with short stories where you are forced to have a beginning, middle, and end. You are also forced to nail plot and character in a short amount of space. Then graduate to something bigger–like a novella or one stand-alone novel. Master that. Then tackle the big series.

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33 Responses

  1. Beth said:

    I’m sure you and Mr. Martin both know more about publishing than me, but as a new writer I wrote a book with a very specific open ending in mind–the ending is why I wrote. I knew it would need at least one sequel. I heard that you shouldn’t write the sequel to an unpublished ms, so I didn’t. I went to a conference and someone asked me to send my book and a synop for the sequel. I had lots of really cool ideas for it when I wrote the book, but I’ve written another ms since then and while I could remember the basic plot I think a lot of the good stuff got lost. My advice would be maybe don’t announce it to the world, but if you want to write a series go for it. But this is just my opinion.

  2. Kristin Laughtin said:

    It’s sage advice. I think a lot of people are unaware of Martin’s non-ASOIAF work, and don’t realize how long he’s been in the game. He didn’t just start with A GAME OF THRONES!

    @Beth: I think it depends on why you’re writing. If you’re writing just to satisfy yourself, go ahead and write a two-book series or a seven-book series! If you’re seeking publication, though, it’s a bit unwise to invest that much time in something that might not matter if you can’t sell your first book. I do think it’s really smart to have a synopsis or outline of potential sequels ready to go, though, just in case you get that kind of deal.

  3. Kris said:

    Great advice, I agree. I like what @Kristin Laughtin added too. I’m working on a ms. that’s part of a trilogy, but I’ll wait to write the sequel if I sell the first. I can’t imagine ever writing a 7-book series! Then again, when I first started writing, I never imagined I would write a novel (I only thought in short stories back then). I wish I would’ve known about this event. I follow the Tattered Cover on Facebook, but I must’ve missed this announcement. Would’ve been fun to attend!

  4. Christine Rains said:

    Awesome picture! Martin is a smart guy. I’ve met him at a convention once. I got nervous and lost my voice as he was signing my books. I agree with him completely. Finish one stand-alone book and then see where your career takes you.

  5. Precie said:

    So here’s a tangential question, based on the point about mastering the shorter story before aiming for the kind of epic series Martin writes…

    I’ve noticed, Kristin, that some of your clients are publishing novella lately. Do you rep novellas from unpubbed writers or just from established clients? I know NLA doesn’t accept short story collections, but novellas seem like a separate beast, especially with the rise of Amazon Shorts and the like.

    Thanks! And cool pic!

  6. Nicole Mc said:

    Nice! You look great in the photo. By the way, don’t know if you get a chance to read these comments or not, but a local magazine here has a small article about Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. You can find it by going to this link and clicking on the large photo of the magazine. It’s about a third of the way in. 🙂 http://www.herlifemagazine.com/kansascity/

  7. Alicia said:

    That’s a great pic, and great advice too. Some times I think we feel we need to jump the gate into the biggest projects. I’ve found my smaller projects to be great teachers and confidence builders.

  8. The Cardboard Crafter said:

    I’m reading his book right now 🙂 He is awesome. And he’s right: writing, like anything else, takes practice to make perfect. Even Lance Armstrong used training wheels once.

  9. Christine Ashworth said:

    I so went the other direction. I started with category. Kept getting rejected, and finally a sweet pubbed writer told me maybe I needed to go bigger. And I did. Now that I’m comfy writing bigger, I’m scaling back to write novellas.

    I guess it just proves every writer is different, yes? And I think you look sweet in the pic, fangirl!

  10. Jeff Seymour said:

    Martin is one of my literary heroes, but I have to disagree with the metaphor. Saying, “I’m working on a 7-book series” is closer to saying, “One day I want to climb Everest,” and as with Everest the devil is in how you approach it. The time a writer spends writing is never wasted, and as stories are as different as mountains there is no one right way to prepare for one. In both mountain climbing and writing there are a number of technical skills you ought to learn before attempting “The Big One,” but where you learn those skills is a personal choice. Some climbers hate the gym. Some writers hate short stories. You can learn to climb or write without either. It might take longer, but if the alternative is getting disgusted and walking away, then again it might not.

    That said, I wouldn’t want to pay a novice climber $65,000 for an Everest permit, and I wouldn’t want to pay a novice writer $65,000 for a promise they’ll write six more books and finish their story either. 😉

  11. Ted Cross said:

    This is why I want you for my agent; you have such great taste!

    And though I am writing a six or seven book series, each book also stands alone. None of them need any of the others in order to make sense.

  12. Anon. said:

    Hey Kristen,

    I was right by you in line and I kept thinking, “Gosh, that woman looks familiar. Maybe someone I played Ultimate Frisbee with?” After the Tattered Cover was so specific about how Mr. Martin would not be presenting, it was a delightful surprise that he spoke for half hour and gave great advice!

  13. Russ said:

    Attractive agent. Can’t say the same about the author. But good-looking and talented only counts if you’re a female music star.
    Good words of advice. I’ll put my 7-book series on hold…

  14. Angela Brown said:

    Great pic! Also some great advice.

    I wish I could say I was so bold to run the 7 novel series route. I thought I was extra bold just working on the beginning of my paranormal romance as a stand alone…and I’ve got a lot of learning to do and growing to do so the advice definitley has credence.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  15. Sarah said:

    I’ve been choking on a bunch of “what ifs” lately. This is one of them: what if I’ve already written a series?

    Yes, I am one of those series people. I have the first three books written, and the first book is in it’s final polishing stages. My synopsis is drafted, my query is sparkling. But, I’m still shaking in my cowboy boots.

    The problem is, I’m a new writer. I’m not published. But I write Fantasy. Epic.

    I realize that’s not a license to indulge in long-winded narrative, or even to create a series. But, alas, my first book IS part of a series.

    And it’s things like these what if’s–what if I have a series, what if I’m a new writer, what if, what if, what if–that make me feel like I’m losing before I even begin. Like I’ve inadvertently stacked the deck against myself.

    I understand and respect this sage advice. I hope since I am choosing not to follow it, because I’ve already written what I’ve written, it won’t come back to haunt me in the end.

    But, then again, it might. And I’ll be the wiser for it.

    Thank you for sharing.

  16. Deb said:

    In my experience as a long time SF/F fan, no fantasy writer alive can write a single book. They all write multiples. I think it’s somewhere written on the heavens that they must. Q.E.D.

    Also, in some genres there is very little market for short stories. Mr. Martin was/is lucky that in SF/F there is still a (diminishing) market for them. I cannot count the number of greats, such as Heinlein and writers of his stature who got their start writing shorts for the SF magazines, most of which are now sadly gone.

  17. Anonymous said:

    Sound advice and probably one I should heed. My problem is the story that has been hounding me for the last ten years – it simply cannot be squashed into a single book – unless that book is 1,500 pages long! I tend to agree with Deb above who pointed out that Fantasy writers don’t do ‘short’.

    I enjoy reading your rants and am looking forward to meeting you in Australia soon.

  18. Emily said:

    There was once a novice writer who set out to write a series of seven books… a British lady, as I recall, writing stories about wizarding folk. Not sure if her series got much notice, though…

  19. Joseph Finley said:

    I sympathize with the fantasy writers in the group. It seems like almost everything published today, aside from quirky alternative history, is a series. I’ve also read that if you’re at all inclined to self publish, a series is a valuable asset. My first novel (which is basically finished) is naturally the first in a trilogy. I feel like I owe it to myself to finish the trilogy, or at least the second book. I guess I view it this way: if I go the traditional route and someone likes book 1, then book 2 is on the way. If I have to go the indie route and publish book 1 myself, why wouldn’t I publish book 2 as close behind the first one that I can? I have several novels in my brain that have nothing to do with my first work, but I’m concerned that if I start one of those, I’ll be way behind if I have to go indie on my trilogy.

    This stuff ain’t easy!

  20. Jennifer Campbell-Hicks said:

    I too was at the signing (although I didn’t get a nice photo). I was quite happy with Martin’s advice because I’ve already been following it for three years. On the downside, after writing so many short stories, the idea of a 100,000-word novel is daunting.

  21. Anonymous said:

    Great advice, and certainly if I’d known what I was biting off when I began my first novel years ago, I would have given serious consideration to it.

    But it’s too late now. That novel morphed into three volumes and counting.

    Fortunately, my agent loves them. 🙂

  22. Lindsay said:

    I wish more of my trilogy clients would follow this advice! Also YOU WERE THAT CLOSE TO GEORGE R.R. MARTIN. The jealousy…I just can’t.

  23. Beth said:

    @Sarah said:

    what if I have a series, what if I’m a new writer, what if, what if, what if–that make me feel like I’m losing before I even begin. Like I’ve inadvertently stacked the deck against myself.

    Not if what you’ve written is good.

    There will always be interest in good writing and good stories. So have faith inyour work, polish it till it shines, and dare to be the exception. 🙂

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